Essay, Research Paper: Elizabethan Drama


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Beyond New Historicism: Marlowe's unnatural histories and the melancholy
properties of the stage Drew Milne The tradition of the dead generations weighs
like a nightmare on the minds of the living. [1] There is no document of culture
which is not at the same time a document of barbarism. And just as such a
document is not free from barbarism, barbarism also taints the process of
transmission ... [2] Recent critical discussions of Elizabethan drama, above all
of Shakespeare, have centred around `new historicism', a trend consolidated in
critical anthologies.[3] New historicism is characterised by an interest in the
historicity of texts and the textuality of history, and by affinities with
theoretical projects concerned with power, identity and the construction of
subject positions. Despite important political differences, new historicism has
been linked with what has become known as `cultural materialism'.[4] Many of the
political differences stem from the uneasy relation of new historicism, and of
cultural materialism, to the Marxist conception of history or historical
materialism, differences which this essay seeks to accentuate. Raymond Williams
is often claimed as a major precursor of cultural materialism, but interest in
institutions, discursive practices and subject positions suggests the different
legacy of Althusser's attack on humanism and the influence of Foucault. New
historicism, by contrast, shows scant regard for Marxism while being especially
indebted to Foucault's version of Nietzsche's will to power and perspectival
historicism, despite important critiques of Foucault's work.[5] The Althusserian
approach is more overtly committed to the possibility of political change but
tends towards a similarly theoreticist, even formalist reduction of history. The
possibility of resisting power and the power of ideology marks the decisive
conflict in these different assimilations of history to culture. New
historicism, lost in proliferating examples of contingent but seemingly
inescapable discourses of power, seems at best to expand the archive of wry
smiles at the ruses of history and power. As an academic guise in which to
rework the glories of the past without pausing too long over the enormity of the
history surveyed, the reproduction of literary history now lies in the hands of
those who can offer few reasons for continuing to produce the object of
critique. Sinfield suggests that, `New historicists, therefore, like their
colleagues, are sustaining many of the old routines while knowing, really, that
their validity has evaporated.'[6] As such, new historicists could be described
as reformists who do not believe in progress. If we are to awake from the
nightmare of history, perhaps such historicism should be left alone to dull the
air with discoursive moans, as Aeneas puts it in Marlowe's Dido, Queen of
Carthage. The persistent naturalisation of suffering in history should be
resisted if the process of transmitting historical documents is not to further
the process. Herein lies the need to offer estranging perspectives on
Elizabethan drama and the intervening historical gulf. One aspect of the
difficulty is the continuing investment in naturalising both the language and
dramaturgy of Elizabethan drama within a literary tradition dominated by
Shakespeare and the Shakespeare industry. This essay seeks to provide an
estranging perspective through a reading of new historicist accounts of Marlowe.
Focussing on Tamburlaine, I hope to suggest some different approaches with
regard to the melancholy dramatisation of history as a scene of unnatural
events, by drawing on the work of Walter Benjamin and Franco Moretti.[7] A
distinctive and estranging approach to dramatising the enormity of history is
evident in the prevalence of violence, murder and arbitrary death in Elizabethan
drama itself. This prevalence has long been seen as excessive, a mark of
something unnatural in its historical imaginary, without being understood.
History in Elizabethan drama is, as title-pages characteristically predict,
lamentable. The structure of effects suggested by drama as an occasion for
melancholic lamentation helps to contextualise the roles of Tamburlaine, Barabas
and Guise in Marlowe's plays, where it seems particularly in-appropriate to
reduce their dramatic ambivalence to the need to identify with a central
protagonist or autonomous `character'. As David Bevington suggests: `The
well-known type of "Lamentable Tragedy, Mixed Full of Pleasant Mirth"
... traces its origins to the view that vicious behavior is at once funny and
terrifying as a spectacle, admirable and yet grotesque, amusing but also
edifying as a perverse distortion of moral behavior.'[8] Elizabethan drama, par-ticularly
Marlowe's, dramatises the contradictions of seeing history as a record of divine
providence in which the world is the theatre of divine judgment. The prologue to
the first part of Tamburlaine invites audience and reader to `View but his
picture in this tragicke glasse, / And then applaud his fortunes if you
please.'[9] Indeed the play seems to relish the ambivalent moral possibilities
of melancholy pleasure in lamenting a world without divine providence. In this
theatre history is both unnatural and inhuman. Violent suffering without end or
grace goes against the notion of a fall from a greater nature or the prospect of
a redeemed nature to come. History is then seen as the non-identity of nature
with itself, unnatural forces struggling with natural ones. Unnatural forces,
however, must also be seen as emerging from nature, while the dramatisation of
history in terms of human agency suggests that unnatural acts are an aspect of
human nature for which no secular concept of wordly evil is adequate. In
Elizabethan drama the stage is not so much beyond good and evil as caught in an
attempt to develop a secular concept of evil. The resources for such a concept
are figurative rather than conceptual, resorting to melancholy in face of the
unthinkably arbitrary and violent prevalence of suffering. Benjamin's account is
helpful here. The contemplation of lamentable stories of death by unnatural
causes finds its aesthetic purpose in allegories of unholy dying, allegories in
which history is a fallen nature, a world of evil without the consolations of
natural justice. On such an unnaturally cruel and violent stage dominated by
seemingly arbitrary and unreliable powers, the possibility that evil might be
recognisable without theology is consoling. Indeed it is the reduction of
history to worldly evil which makes it possible to stage history as a state of
unnatural nature that can be lamented. The mirror of magistrates becomes a wheel
which needs to be reinvented because it never quite comes full circle, notably
in the lurching rhythms of the failure of poetic justice at the end of King
Lear. Hence, although a fashion for stage violence can be traced from Cambises
and Gorboduc to The Spanish Tragedy, its historical significance is complicated.
Thus it is difficult to understand why Tamburlaine was so popular, even to the
extent of imitation in The First part of the Tragical raigne of Selimus.
Tamburlaine's simple linear plot seems to offer little more than a violent
pageant of power and destruction enlivened by occasional striking tableaux. This
taste for horror in aesthetic form has remained unexplained in its more specific
historical manifestations, and in general, perhaps because it reflects but fails
to explain the nightmare of history. In rethinking this nightmare, much of the
critical verve of new historicism is derived from the historicisation, if not
critique, of humanist or idealist conceptions of subjectivity in the reception
and critical transmission of Elizabethan drama. There is a danger in
assimilating the different approaches associated with new historicism to one
paradigm, but the centrality of conceptions of subjectivity is evident.
Catherine Belsey, while developing an attack on liberal humanism, seeks `to
chart in the drama of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries the eventual
construction of an order of subjectivity which is recognizably modern.'[10] This
finds its strategic justification in the need to displace the largely romantic
and post-romantic conceptions of the subject dominant in the modern reception of
Shakespeare and so-called Renaissance drama more generally. Jonathan Dollimore
describes the task as `a critique of the way literary critics have reproduced
Renaissance drama in terms of a modern depoliticized subjectivity, and an
attempt to recover a more adequate history of subjectivity'.[11] Dollimore
argues that Elizabethan tragedy itself challenged Christian essentialism and in
the process decentred `Man'; but he also highlights the danger of anachronism:
the incorrect procedure is that which insists on reading the early seventeenth
century through the grid of an essentialist humanism which in historical fact
post-dates it and in effect only really emerges with the Enlightenment; in other
words, what makes a materialist analysis of subjectivity in that period seem
inappropriate is itself a thoroughly anachronistic perspective.[12] Nevertheless
there are striking similarities between Dollimore's account of Tamburlaine and
the persistent Nietzschean romanticism which marks previous critical accounts of
Marlowe. Hazlitt says of Marlowe that: `There is a lust of power in his
writings, a hunger and thirst after unrighteousness, a glow of the imagination,
unhallowed by anything but its own energies.'[13]; while Helen Gardner argues
less effusively that: `The first part of Tamburlaine glorifies the human will:
the second displays its inevitable limits.'[14]; and Harry Levin offers the
following stirring formulation of Marlowe's Barabas: `His will to power is
gratified less by possession than by control. In this he does not resemble the
conqueror so much as he adumbrates the capitalist; and Marlowe has grasped what
is truly imaginative, what in his time was almost heroic, about business
enterprise.'[15] This Nietzschean aesthetic of the will to power and primitive
accumulation, in which naked ambition and the arbitrary amassing of power and
wealth is celebrated as the legitimate aspiration of human energy, finds
surprising echoes in Dollimore's account of Tamburlaine: With his indomitable
will to power and warrior prowess, Tamburlaine really does approximate to the
self-determining hero bent on transcendent autonomy . . . exclusion may be the
basis not just of Tamburlaine as fantasy projection but Tamburlaine as
transgressive text: it liberates from its Christian and ethical framework the
humanist conception of man as essentially free, dynamic and aspiring. [16] In
Dollimore's argument these terms are ambivalent rather than celebratory, but
seem to preclude the more Brechtian possibility that Marlowe does not in the end
intend sympathy with Tamburlaine. Perhaps, like Mother Courage, Marlowe intended
a sense that the passage of war and destruction might be understood as the
responsibility of a badly motivated human agent, such that Tamburlaine's
exploits are an occasion for reflective lamentation, rather than Nietzschean
identification with a superman. The central hermeneutic difficulty, however, is
that the attempt to historicise anachronistically imputed conceptions of
subjectivity relies on claiming that more recent conceptions of decentred
subjectivity are not similarly anachronistic, an objection which could also be
extended to Brecht's plays. Much depends on whether we applaud the fortunes seen
in the `tragicke glasse' of Tamburlaine as a stage on which the will to power is
enacted, or whether we prefer to steel ourselves against the figurative idealism
which lurks in such mirrors of nature. If we applaud the fortunes of Tamburlaine
then we identify with that difference of nature from itself which produces the
spectacle of history, thus naturalising Tamburlaine's will to power. If we do
not identify with Tamburlaine's struggle for power as something natural then we
have to lament the spectacle of unnatural history or find a perspective from
which to understand it differently. Thus the focus on subjective agency,
individual will or dramatic identity tends to abstract from history to highlight
the ideological forms which transcend the historical gulf between modern and
pre-modern fictions of society. A materialist account of subjectivity may
restore individuals to history, but the political relevance of theoretical
hindsight is mortgaged to the reception history it seeks to displace. In other
words, by making subjectivity such a central analytical tool new historicism
succeeds in decentring subjects, showing how such subjects were never centred,
but obscures the historical and cognitive significance of the different terms in
which Elizabethan drama dramatised history. As Moretti argues, taking up
Benjamin's account of allegory: `allegory is not a subjective deception to which
someone might be imagined to hold the semantic key, but the objectively
deceptive condition of the nature of history by which everyone is ultimately
betrayed.'[17] Moreover, subjectivity in Elizabethan drama is invariably a
chimera given the persistent ambivalence of theatricality. Kastan and
Stallybrass, for example, suggest that `Acting itself threatens to reveal the
artificial and arbitrary nature of social being.'[18] The nature of social
being, however, is not arbitrary save in constructions which make being the
ground of historicity. Human history cannot be understood in terms of a history
of human subjectivity without reference to the nature against which it
struggles, and that nature is itself historical.[19] The history of subjectivity
is never the same as the history of subjects as objects in human attempts to
dominate nature. The thought that the antagonistic domination of human nature
and the struggle to dominate nature itself might be superseded and shown to be
neither natural nor contingently historical, is perhaps what Marx meant by the
pre-history of human society. If there is an affinity between modern conceptions
of decentred subjectivity and pre-modern Elizabethan drama, it may be that both
Elizabethan dramatisations of history and contemporary historicism collapse
history, indeed naturalize it in terms of a drama of subjective wills. Stephen
Greenblatt's Renaissance Self-Fashioning (1980), an important text in the
emergence of new historicism, provides exemplary instances of these
difficulties. In his introduction Greenblatt concedes the risk of anachronism,
and comments on his small group of chosen texts that: `It is we who enlist them
in a kind of historical drama'.[20] Greenblatt provocatively suggests a
dramatised analogy with Nietzsche's conception of the will to power in the very
title of the chapter `Marlowe and the Will to Absolute Play'. Such anachronism
is significant insofar as the naturalization of history as power suggested by
Nietzsche, and also in Foucault's work, is a historically determinate attempt to
understand social process in terms of illusory subject positions. As Greenblatt
explains in his epilogue: Whenever I focused sharply upon a moment of apparently
autonomous self-fashioning, I found not an epiphany of identity freely chosen,
but a cultural artifact. If there remained traces of free choice, the choice was
among possibilities whose range was strictly delineated by the social and
ideological system in force. (p. 256) Hence Greenblatt describes Marlowe's plays
by explicitly evoking Marx's The Eighteenth Brumaire: `Marlowe's protagonists
rebel against orthodoxy, but they do not do so just as they please; their acts
of negation not only conjure up the order they would destroy, but seem at times
to be themselves conjured up by that very order.' (p. 210) The subtle
difference, however, is the shift to a more structuring account of `order', and,
more fundamentally, the stress on the dramatic protagonist as the interpretative
key, despite arguing that it is the social order which fashions such
protagonists. Consequently, Greenblatt's approach needs to be understood as both
a sketch of the development of human autonomy in the Renaissance, what might be
called a romanticist reading of the early modern period, and the historicisation
of such autonomy as being illusory: `Marlowe's heroes must live their lives as
projects, but they do so in the midst of intimations that the projects are
illusions.' (p. 213) Accordingly, in a move which has become characteristic of
new historicism, Greenblatt prefaces his account of self-fashioning in Marlowe's
plays with an anecdotal historical analogue for the contemporary `system' of
power. This analogue juxtaposes Marlowe's plays with the `casual, unexplained
violence' in an English merchant's tale of a voyage in 1586 to Sierre Leone,
suggesting an historical 'matrix' of the relentless power-hunger of Tudor
absolutism, and in particular the acquisitive energies of English merchants,
entre-preneurs, and adventurers.(p. 194) In some respects this echoes what might
be called the old historicist account of L.C.Knights in Drama and Society in the
Age of Jonson (1937), which examines the social and economic bases of
Elizabethan-Jacobean culture in rather more detail. But Greenblatt does not
relate nascent English capitalism and colonialism to the specific religious and
political conflicts dramatised in Tamburlaine. Rather, he deploys history as
`matrix' in a more metaphorical analogy between the dynamic political geography
of merchant capital and the theatrical representation of space. Just as merchant
capitalism seeks to reduce geographical differences to an expression of its
power, so, for Greenblatt, Marlowe uses theatrical power to represent different
spaces: In Tamburlaine Marlowe contrives to efface all such differences, as if
to insist upon the essential meaninglessness of theatrical space, the vacancy
that is the dark side of its power to imitate any place. This vacancy - quite
literally, this absence of scenery - is the equivalent in the medium of the
theater to the secularization of space ... (p. 195) On this basis Marlowe's
dramatisation of the history of Tamburlaine is seen by Greenblatt as
Tamburlaine's will to power in the occupation of theatrical space. Just as
Elizabethan dramatists breezily rewrite historical source materials, so
Greenblatt breezily rewrites Tamburlaine in terms which implicitly argue the
perspicuity of Deleuze and Guattari: `Tamburlaine is a machine, a desiring
machine that produces violence and death.' (p. 195) Hence the terms of
Tamburlaine's dynamic occupation of stage space are further abstracted from
Marlowe's theatrical allegory of history, and dramatised in Greenblatt's
anachronistic allegory: `Space is transformed into an abstraction, then fed to
the appetitive machine. This is the voice of conquest, but it is also the voice
of wants never finished and of transcendental homelessness.' (p. 196) While
Greenblatt's analogue indicates the dialectical relation between culture and
barbarity suggested by Walter Benjamin, he does not use it to examine specific
power struggles in history, but rather as an anecdotal allegory to suggest the
historicity of power. Greenblatt's conception of theatricality is nevertheless a
sophisticated one. This is salutary amid the prevalent reluctance to recognize
the centrality of theatre and theatricality for Elizabethan drama, a reluctance
which reflects the dominance of print-culture perspectives on drama and more
recent attempts to conceive history as a form of textuality. However, his
account of theatricality risks remaining immanent within the metaphors generated
by theatricality in Marlowe's plays. Comparing `the violence of Tamburlaine and
of the English merchant' (p.197) this leads Greenblatt into an alarming
aestheticisation of their respective representations and experiences of stage
space and geography: experiencing this limitlessness, this transformation of
space and time into abstractions, men do violence as a means of marking
boundaries, effecting transformation, signaling closure. To burn a town or to
kill all of its inhabitants is to make an end, and in so doing, to give life a
shape and a certainty that it would otherwise lack. (p.197) There is something
chilling in these lines, not least in the trans-formation of violence into
formal patterns and the assimilation of human suffering - `to burn a town' - to
the perspective of the violent protagonist. For Greenblatt the structure of
limits give shape but no escape: `in Marlowe's ironic world, these desperate
attempts at boundary and closure produce the opposite effect, reinforcing the
condition they are meant to efface.' (p. 198) The key anachronism is the
suggestion of ironic and implicitly inescapable reversals of power. Marlowe's
plays fails to give such intelligible shape or indeed another moral scheme by
which to understand the spectacle of violence because the dramatic presentation
is not restricted to the self-fashioning of the protagonist: we also see the
victims. In the fifth act of Tamburlaine 1, for example, Tamburlaine sacks the
town of Damascus and kills all of its inhabitants, save the father of Zenocrate,
Tamburlaine's wife-to-be. The play offers the Brechtian possibility that the
audience need not identify with Tamburlaine by offering perspectives on
Tamburlaine's victims through Bajazeth, Zabina and, most importantly, Zenocrate.
Amid the death of Damascus, so to speak, and reports of the speared and
slaughtered carcasses of the virgins unsuccessfully sent by Damascus to
intercede with Tamburlaine, the audience also sees the laments and then suicides
of Bajazeth, Emperor of the Turks, and Zabina his wife, having had enough of
being paraded as Tamburlaine's symbolic slaves. As Zabina puts it, `Then is
there left no Mahomet, no God, / No Feend, no Fortune, nor no hope of end / To
our infamous monstrous slaveries?' (Pt.1: V.i.239-241) An audience might more
easily identify with such a lament than with a man who has killed a town. The
laments of Bajazeth and Zabina are highly charged and, juxtaposed with the
slaughtered virgins, their self-fashioned deaths suggest the extremes of the
social scale to suffer at the hands of Tamburlaine.[21] Their deaths are
immediately followed by the entrance of Zenocrate who laments the sack of her
home town by her supposed lover: Zenocrate. Wretched Zenocrate, that livest to
see, Damascus walles di'd with Egyptian blood: Thy Fathers subjects and thy
countrimen. Thy streetes strowed with dissevered jointes of men, And wounded
bodies gasping yet for life.... Ah, Tamburlaine, wert thou the cause of this
That tearm'st Zenocrate thy dearest love? Whose lives were dearer to Zenocrate
Than her own life, or ought save thine owne love. (Pt. 1, V.i.319-323, 334-5)
Coming after Bajazeth and Zabina, Zenocrate reminds the audience of the
slaughter of Damascus, and highlights the depth of Tamburlaine's rejection of
the natural pity which might be associated with love. But if this isn't enough
to suggest that we might identify with the victims of Tamburlaine, Zenocrate
then turns to see the `bloody spectacle' of Bajazeth and Zabina: `Behold the
Turke and his great Emperesse./ Ah Tamburlaine, my love, sweet Tamburlaine, /
That fights for Scepters and for slippery crownes' (Pt.1, V.i.354-6). This
suggests the way in which the play might be read as the tragedy of Bajazeth and
Zabina, their history as moral exemplum in the mirror of magistrates tradition.
However, despite the efforts of Zenocrate and Anippe, her maid, to summon the
wheel of fortune scheme this serves instead to highlight the dramatic
ambivalence of Tamburlaine's unstopped rise to power. Roy Battenhouse offers the
most sustained attempt to reinscribe Tamburlaine in a moral scheme, focussing in
particular on the end of part 2, and reading the play in terms offered by
Tamburlaine's final words, as the story of a `Scourge of God' (Pt.2: V.iii.258),
but this reading has to work against the grain of Marlowe's more ambivalent
moral and theological implications. History itself, as Battenhouse concedes,
makes his case hard to sustain: The tradition of Tamburlaine's peaceful and
natural death being thus firmly established, we must recognize that Marlowe's
opportunities to make of the history an example of God's punishing of sin were
definitely limited. The histories were attributing to this Scythian scourge a
long life of unobscured glory - a career which looked like a blasphemous
challenge to the Puritan dogma of Providence. [22] The approach suggested by
Greenblatt is more convincing in this respect: `Tamburlaine repeatedly teases
its audience with the form of the cautionary tale, only to violate the
convention. All of the signals of the tragic are produced, but the play
stubbornly, radically, refuses to become a tragedy.' (p. 202) Part 1, in
particular, ends with Tamburlaine triumphant, crowning Zenocrate queen of Persia
and talking of marriage rites to come, presenting the melancholy spectacle of
inhuman, ruthless violence and tyranny unpunished. Indeed the audience are
encouraged to view this spectacle with horror and amazement. For most of act
five of part 1 Tamburlaine is identified with death, entering as the stage
direction puts it: `all in blacke, and verie melancholy' (Pt.1: V.i.inter 63-4).
In one of Marlowe's finest theatrical touches he shows the horror of
Tamburlaine's power through the rhetoric of allegorical reference to his sword
as he claims that death is his servant and dismisses the virgins sent by
Damascus to intercede with him: Tamburlaine: Virgins, in vaine ye labour to
prevent That which mine honor sweares shal be perform'd: Behold my sword, what
see you at the point. 1. Virgin: Nothing but feare and fatall steele my Lord.
Tamburlaine: Your fearfull minds are thicke and mistie then, For there sits
Death, there sits imperious Death, Keeping his circuit by the slicing edge. But
I am pleasde you shall not see him there: He now is seated on my horsmens
speares, And on their points his fleshlesse bodie feeds. Techelles, straight goe
charge a few of them To charge these Dames, and shew my servant death, Sitting
in scarlet on their armed speares. (Pt. 1: V.i.106-118) Tamburlaine's sword is
more than an object of fear and potentially fatal steel, becoming an allegory in
which the stage property is an object of melancholic perception, a figure of
death. Benjamin comments that `once human life has sunk into the merely
creaturely, even the life of apparently dead objects secures power over it.'[23]
And while the fatal power of swords as objects is evident, the importance of the
stage property here is the significance of this sword as an object of
contemplation into which history has been metonymically distilled. The
illumination of the fateful qualities of the most trivial stage property, such
as a handkerchief or a glove, reveal such props to be objects, often poisonous
ones, which signify the fateful arbitrariness of objective history. Indeed the
relation between protagonists and the fateful objects with which they identify
is a central dramaturgical part of the opening of many of Marlowe's plays: a
letter for Gaveston; Faustus and books; Barabas and heaps of gold. The
significance of this is highlighted by the insignificance of such stage props in
classical drama. As Benjamin argues: `In moral examples and in catastrophes
history served only as an aspect of the subject matter of emblematics. The
transfixed face of signifying nature is victorious, and history must, once and
for all, remain contained in the subordinate role of stage-property.'[24]
Similarly, sovereignty is given allegorical representation in the metonymical
form of sceptres and what Zenocrate calls `slippery crownes'. All through
Tamburlaine crowns are the sad allegorical tokens of earthly power, but they
become melancholic properties rather than moral exempla precisely when
providential schemes of history as morality fail. Melancholic because the
allegory of the objective world such stage props signify is one in which the
dramatisation of history as evil recoils from the realisation that there is no
evil in nature, only a subjective understanding with no correlative in reality.
A striking passage from Plotinus's third century Enneads suggests the
possibility of seeing the enormity of history as the pleasurably lamentable work
of a dramatic artist, while suggesting also the risks of failing to recognise
the possible barbarity of neo-Platonist attempts to figure life as play, and so
reduce the historical world to a phenomenon secondary to subjective
understanding: Murders, death in all its guises, the reduction and sacking of
cities, all must be to us just such a spectacle as the changing scenes of a
play; all is but the varied incident of a plot, costume on and off, acted grief
and lament. For on earth, in all the succession of life, it is not the Soul
within but the Shadow outside of the authentic man that grieves and complains
and acts out the plot on this world stage which men have dotted with stages of
their own constructing. All this is the doing of man knowing no more than to
live the lower and outer life, and never perceiving that, in his weeping and in
his graver doings alike, he is but at play; to handle matters austerely is
reserved for the thoughtful: the other kind of man is himself a futility. Those
incapable of thinking gravely read gravity into frivolities which correspond to
their own frivolous Nature.[25] Murder, death in all its guises, and the
reduction and sacking of cities are the spectacles and changing scenes of
Marlowe's unnatural histories, especially in Tamburlaine and The Massacre at
Paris. The resort to theatrical melancholy need not collapse the world of
suffering into a frivolous nature which corresponds to that melancholy, as
though the sacking of cities were frivolous. Nevertheless, the dramatisation of
such history as a pageant of power invariably threatens to be caught in a figure
which naturalises history as play. Plotinus reminds us that some of the relevant
figures are not as historically specific as they at first seem. The important
difference is that Elizabethan drama, and in particular tragedy, registers an
essential inhumanism, notably in the melancholic, metonymical significance of
crowns, swords and other often poisonous stage properties whose seemingly modest
objectivity overcomes the best efforts of human subjects. Moreover the drama
suggests an unfathomably lamentable quality in the struggle between natural and
unnatural forces, precisely because without eschatology or a modern idea of
natural history, history is reduced to an allegory of natural forces. Thus the
understanding of Elizabethan drama would be furthered by examining the relation
between nature, history and theatricality, so as to reveal its truth as a
cognitive framework which has become historically alienated from the barbarity
it sought to understand. Elizabethan drama attempts to stage history as nature;
not nature in the modern sense, but rather an unnaturally horrific and
lamentable allegory of nature as history. Decoding the history in this nature
involves recognizing the way this allegorical staging of history helps us
understand the necessity for historical distanciation, particularly from any
attempt to displace the horror in its allegory of natural history with new
allegories of the historicity of power and subjectivity. In short, the effort to
rethink Elizabethan drama might restore a sense of the unnatural histories which
divide and rule our historical differences. Rather than rethinking such history
in `our' own natural interests, such documents might be blasted out of their
continuity and given a sense of unrelenting strangeness rather than strained
relevance. The hermeneutic shibboleths of power, subjectivity and identity may
also have to give way to the rejection or at least melancholic recognition of
the essential inhumanism of a world without grace whose historical nature is a
nightmare from which we are yet to awake.Bibliography[1] Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, trans. B. Fowkes,
Surveys from Exile: Political Writings, vol. 2, ed. D. Fernbach (Harmondsworth,
1973). [2] W. Benjamin, 'Uber den Begriff der Geschichte', Illuminationen, ed.
S.Unseld (Frankfurt am Main, 1977), p. 254; translation amended from 'Theses on
the Philosophy of History', Illuminations, trans. Harry Zohn (London, 1973), p.
258. [3] See New Historicism and Renaissance Drama, eds. Richard Wilson and
Richard Dutton (London and New York, 1992); and Staging the Renaissance:
Reinterpretations of Elizabethan and Jacobean Drama (New York and London, 1991),
eds. David Scott Kastan and Peter Stallybrass. [4] See Jonathan Dollimore,
'Introduction: Shakespeare, cultural materialism and the new historicism',
Political Shakespeare: New essays in cultural materialism, eds. Jonathan
Dollimore and Alan Sinfield (Manchester, 1985); Jonathan Dollimore, Radical
Tragedy (London, 1989), especially the preface to the second edition; and Alan
Sinfield, Faultlines: Cultural Materialism and the Politics of Dissident Reading
(Oxford, 1992). [5] See Peter Dews, Logics of Disintegration: Post-structuralist
Thought and the Claims of Critical Theory (London, 1987); and Jürgen Habermas,
The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity, trans. Frederick Lawrence (Cambridge,
Mass. and Cambridge, 1987). [6] Sinfield, Faultlines, p. 287. [7] Walter
Benjamin, The Origin of German Tragic Drama, trans. John Osborne (London, 1977);
and Franco Moretti, 'The Great Eclipse: Tragic Form as the Deconsecration of
Sovereignty', Signs Taken For Wonders, trans. David Miller (London, 1983).
Benjamin's work has had surprisingly little resonance in studies of Elizabethan
and Jacobean drama. Helpful discussions of Benjamin's work on 'Trauerspiel' and
drama are provided by Charles Rosen, 'The Ruins of Walter Benjamin', On Walter
Benjamin, ed. Gary Smith (Cambridge, Mass. and London, 1988), pp. 129-5; and
Rainer Nägele, Theater, Theory, Speculation: Walter Benjamin and the Scenes of
Modernity (Baltimore and London, 1991). [8] David M. Bevington, From 'Mankind'
to Marlowe (Cambridge, Mass., 1962), p. 161. [9] Tamburlaine, Part 1, The
Complete Works of Christopher Marlowe, 2 vols., ed Fredson Bowers (Cambridge,
1973), vol. 1, p. 79. References to this edition hereafter in main text. [10]
Catherine Belsey, The Subject of Tragedy (London, 1985), p. 4. [11] Dollimore,
Radical Tragedy, preface to second edition, p. xxviii. [12] Radical Tragedy, p.
155. [13] William Hazlitt, from Lectures on the Dramatic Literature of the Age
of Elizabeth, quoted from Critics on Marlowe, ed. Judith O'Neill (London, 1969),
p.17. [14] Helen Gardner, 'The Second Part of Tamburlaine the Great', Critics on
Marlowe, p. 42. [15] Harry Levin, `The Jew of Malta: Poor Old Rich Man', Critics
on Marlowe, p. 51. [16] Radical Tragedy, p. 112. [17] Franco Moretti, Signs
Taken For Wonders, p. 78. [18] Staging the Renaissance, p. 9. [19] See
T.W.Adorno, 'The Idea of Natural History.' trans. Bob Hullot-Kentor, Telos, 60
(Summer, 1984), 111-124. [20] Stephen Greenblatt, Renaissance Self-Fashioning:
From More to Shakespeare (Chicago & London, 1980), p. 6. References
hereafter included in the main text. [21] On these laments and lament generally
see Wolfgang Clemen's neglected English Tragedy Before Shakespeare, trans.
T.S.Dorsch (London, 1961), esp. ch. 14, `The Dramatic Lament and Its Forms', pp.
211-252; and ch. 15, `The Pre-Shakespearian Dramatic Lament', pp. 253-286. [22]
Roy W. Battenhouse, Marlowe's Tamburlaine: A Study in Renaissance Moral
Philosophy (Vanderbilt, Nashville, 1941; revised edition 1964), p. 144. [23]
Benjamin, The Origin of German Tragic Drama, p. 132. [24] Benjamin, pp. 170-1.
[25] Plotinus, The Six Enneads, trans. Stephen MacKenna & B.S.Page (Chicago,
1952), III.ii.15, p. 90
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