In the early modern period, history and tragedy were understood to be intimately related. The terms are often paired on the title pages of printed text and they share common roots in the de casibus tradition which traces the life and death of nobles and rulers. One of Shakespeare’s central achievements as a writer of history plays was to fuse the de casibus model with chronicle sources to create a complex dramatisation of relationships between king and country. In chronological terms, John Ford’s Perkin Warbeck can potentially be inserted between Shakespeare’s Richard III and Henry VIII, and self-consciously addresses a lacuna in Shakespeare’s account of Tudor history. However, it is notably called not after a king (as Shakespeare’s histories are) but after a man who would be king. By boldly centralising Warbeck’s challenge to the crown, the play sets up a tension between historical priorities and dramatic priorities, in which Warbeck is a compelling protagonist. In so doing, Ford prises apart the elements of historical tragedy which Shakespeare so successfully synthesises.
Yarington(?)’s Two Lamentable Tragedies
Lisa Hopkins and Gemma Leggott
Domestic tragedy, on the face of it the simplest and most unpretentious of tragic forms, is in fact potentially one of the most ambiguous. Domestic is set at home, both in the sense of taking place in England rather than being set abroad and also in that it is located in one or more private houses rather than in the public space of the court. At the same time as the genre foregrounds the private house, though, it calls into question how private it truly is: the plays constantly remind us how many aspects of Elizabethan and Jacobean culture construed the domestic situation as a mirroring in miniature of the hierarchical ordering of the state as a whole. Moreover many domestic tragedies have two plots, whose respective endings are often of very different tonalities. In Yarington’s(?) Two Lamentable Tragedies one plot is set in Italy and the other in England, but they mirror each other in so many ways that we are in effect asked not only what difference there is between the two countries, but to what extent Italy may generally serve in Renaissance drama as a transparent proxy for England.
Marlowe’s Tamburlaine the Great
The de casibus tradition derives both its name and its central concerns from a collection of didactic quasi-historical narratives by the fourteenth-century Italian poet Giovanni Boccaccio, entitled De Casibus Virorum Illustrium. Boccaccio depicts the fall of prominent figures, from Adam to King Arthur, who have previously enjoyed the benefit of great fortune, in the process demonstrating both the arbitrariness of earthly success and the fortitude which one should demonstrate in the face of inevitable misfortune. This chapter traces the assimilation of this tradition into English writing, via Chaucer, Lydgate and A Mirror for Magistrates, and considers the ways in which de casibus writings explore the tension between fickle fortune and the divine plan, asserting the arbitrariness of earthly life while also implying that people always ultimately get what they deserve. The chapter identifies the tradition’s subversive potential; as it deals in stories about prominent historical leaders and politicians, de casibus literature provides a rich opportunity for writers to pass veiled political comment on the vagaries of their age. The chapter shows how the de casibus tradition facilitates for Marlowe the imagining of a play-world in which the arbitrariness of earthly success and power obfuscates the notion of a divine order.
Fulke Greville’s Mustapha
This chapter gives an overview of the development of closet tragedy in early modern England and its place in relation to the tragic genre. Rather than dramatising incidents, closet drama emphasises the reactions of the characters and the form often features lengthy rhetorical speeches abounding in devices such as apostrophe and stichomythia, along with a chorus. Although the form has often been dismissed as a rather inept protest movement against the perceived aesthetic lapses of the popular theatre, this chapter shows that the extent of this schism between the two forms has been exaggerated and that closet drama was fertile ground for generic experiments. Fulke Greville’s Mustapha, the first in a projected trilogy of political dramas, departs from the prevailing tradition in closet drama for dramatising episodes from ancient Roman history, focusing instead upon a sequence of events from the recent history of the Ottoman Empire, involving the sultan, Suleiman the Magnificent, and thus sharing common ground with the so-called Turk plays which were enjoying considerable popularity in the commercial theatres. Greville’s play raises questions about the nature of tragic heroism and explores the opportunities and limitations of tragedy as a locus for political comment and generic experiments.
James Shirley’s The Traitor
This chapter examines James Shirley’s Caroline tragedy The Traitor and its engagement with its political, social and theatrical contexts. It discusses the ways in which the corruption and uncontrolled cupidity of the tyrannous Duke, and the desire for power of his court favourite Lorenzo, disrupt such stabilising social and political bonds as marriage, friendship, family, hospitality and allegiance, and raise uncontrolled passions and conflicts of allegiance in his subjects. This disruption and its dangers are read in the light of Caroline political arguments over prerogative power, law, liberties of the subject and Catholic allegiance. Reading the play intertextually, the chapter shows how Shirley’s revisioning of earlier revenge drama and his engagement with the tropes of Caroline tragicomedy emphasise the tragic futility of Amidea’s death, and highlight the dangers to social structures, subjects and monarchs themselves of failing to acknowledge and contain passions and take opportunities for reasoned reform.
George Peele’s David and Bethsabe
This chapter surveys the handful of extant biblical plays written or translated during the last quarter of the sixteenth century to offer an overview of this complex and generically diverse group of plays. The descriptions found on their title pages provide a snapshot of the multiplicity of their tone and identity, with some termed comedies, some tragedies, and others using the trope of the looking glass to gesture at the homiletic mode of the de casibus tradition. The chapter argues that these varied descriptions permit the modern reader a more nuanced understanding of the continuities between these biblical plays and the earlier models of liturgical drama from the pre-Reformation past, with George Peele’s David and Bethsabe (1590) as a case in point. The play draws on the tradition of King David as an exemplar of lust and treachery, but Peele offers a more complex account of David’s reign by including the rebellion of his son Absalon and the planned accession of his heir Solomon. The play scrutinises providential monarchy as a model of kingship and tackles other topical issues such as the responsibilities of the monarch to govern and receive advice.
Dafydd W. Jones
Cravan’s outmanoeuvring of the First World War saw a significant shift from his previously dominant mode of engagement through language to the physical impress of the body. The defining event of 1916, the in-between year, un entre-temps, in Barcelona, was his challenge of the former World Heavyweight Boxing Champion Jack Johnson to a spectacular (though farcical) fight. It set the body centre stage, explicitly foregrounding its contingency and impermanence in the process of creative imitation. And when this spectacle is read as the ‘deed’ behind which Nietzsche argued that there is no being, consciousness is properly understood as an effect (rather than a cause) of the body: the philosopher’s position is emphatic, that ‘body am I entirely, and nothing else; and soul is only a word for something about the body’. It is precisely this Nietzschean body that mirrors ‘Arthur Cravan’ as multiply assembled, an insubstantial phenomenon that expresses the relationships between forces, and which in its fluid state evaluates reigning values and engenders new ones; the body of the boxer in 1916 is here rendered emblematic of the contesting forces of Cravan’s ‘fatal plurality’, before he embarked again for New York and to flee warring Europe in the company of Trotsky.
Dafydd W. Jones
In this chapter, Cravan’s Paris installation from 1909 onwards is documented, a period in which the ‘fiction’ Cravan is constructed and enters a culturally combative zone. Central to the discussion is representation, the fluctuating appearances of the world that achieved precedence for twentieth-century phenomenology, now moderated by Deleuze’s radical critique and re-thinking of appearances not as the appearances of some world but rather as appearances in themselves, without foundation of the experiencing mind or subject. This is a logical structure by which to read Cravan, progressing the anti-representational orientation of Nietzsche’s majorly critical corpus on metaphor, and proposes Cravan’s first published work in 1909 as a proto-manifesto of simulation; in this first Paris phase, for instance, the poet became a French national boxing champion by not boxing (by never being the thing he became). This chapter expands the idea of Cravan becoming what metaphor is – a means to represent the world – oriented to the ‘mapping’ in his Paris Address Book of those intellectual and artistic circles which would prove to be Cravan’s object of critique.
New York 1917
Dafydd W. Jones
Into January 1917, Cravan took passage to New York, deterritorialising to the avant-garde community of ‘New York Dada’ primed for his arrival by Picabia and by the art magazine The Soil. In New York, Cravan became a scandalous performing monkey, notably at the 1917 ‘lecture’ on modern art at the inaugural exhibition of the New York Society of Independent Artists. A particular performativity of the body gains (political) currency, giving rise to the reading developed in this chapter of the lecture to the Independents as a readymade inscribed by Duchamp. Detouring philosophically, the body assumes even to signal its own absence through the slippage and supplement of representation; the performative, of course, poses difficulties in attempting any present commentary, but critically it provides opportunity to pursue those processes whereby we experience our own representation of things. Out of New York emerged Cravan’s relationship with the poet Mina Loy (as well as varied threads, some positive, some negative: Sophie Treadwell, Beatrice Wood, Juliette Roche, Arthur Burdett Frost, Jr., and the journey to the Far North), and Loy’s writings on the man she would marry now provide the rarest of psychological insights.
Dafydd W. Jones
This chapter introduces the genealogical approach, famously set out by Nietzsche in Zur Genealogie der Moral and subsequently deliberated by Deleuze in his study of Nietzsche and philosophy, and by Foucault. Documenting origins and their determination of values, the original material here charts Cravan’s base and noble lineage (through Lloyd and as far back as the twelfth-century Knights of the House of Holland), which Cravan would condense in his idea of voyoucratie); and – in distillation of Nietzsche on aristocracy, and of Nietzsche by Deleuze – the differential between base and noble is posed as the truly genealogical and critical element. Critique, it is debated, is always active rather than reactive, ‘the active expression of an active mode of existence; attack and not revenge, the natural aggression of a way of being’ (Deleuze).