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SEL Studies in English Literature 1500-1900
Rice University MS-46
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Waldo F. McNeir
Abstract: Shakespeare's inventive portrayal of Richard begins with Richard's first appearance in 2 Henry VI (V.l), gradually develops, and becomes clear at the end of his soliloquy in 3 Henry VI (III.ii). Here Shakespeare introduces an actor of impressive range, a veritable "Roscius," as Henry VI calls him in 3 Henry VI (V.vi). In Richard III he acts for two audiences: his dupes and accomplices in the play which he directs, and us in the theater. We become his confidants in crime through his four soliloquies concentrated in the first three scenes, and our moral judgments are lulled as our unofficial selves admire his dazzling histrionics. His outrageous winning of Anne wins us as well as her. He assumes an audacious variety of shapes with Proteus-like rapidity until Richard the Pious reluctantly accepts the crown. Soon after he shows signs of strain. Richmond preys on his mind; he fails with Queen Elizabeth. Although his constant role-playing results in loss of coherence as an individual in his final soliloquy after his nightmare, he rallies for a farewell performance at Bosworth Field.
Richard Henze
Abstract: Much Ado About Nothing is about right deception that leads to marriage and the end of deceit and wrong deception that breeds conflict and distrust. Proper deception, that of Benedick and Beatrice by Don Pedro and his friends, succeeds because Benedick and Beatrice are self-deceptive in their pretense that each is the last person the other would marry. Wrong deception, that of Claudio by Don John and Borachio, succeeds because Claudio is deceptively suspicious and faithless. Through Claudio, Shakespeare displays the power malice acquires when it appears respectable. Danger to social harmony comes not from Benedick and Beatrice nor from Don John, so obviously dishonest that he can fool only a fool; the dangerous one is Claudio, who conceals his suspicion behind a mask of virtue and fidelity. Deception depends on deception, and the double deceptions, reinforced by doubly significant images of eating, noting, fishing, and hunting, unify the play.
Charles K. Cannon
Abstract: In Hamlet Shakespeare uses the stage presentation as a metaphor for the situation of every human being who is predestined to act in a certain way while remaining responsible for his acts: the play as such, in other words, becomes an image of its own meaning. By heightening in a number of ways the double consciousness within an audience of following the human action while remembering that what is seen is pure artifice, the play Hamlet suggests that man's freedom to act in general is just such an illusion as that enacted by the players. This state of mind is much like that described in Calvin's writings on predestination, which argue that although from one point of view every human act is determined by the providential plan, from another view each individual makes his own decisions and must bear the responsibility. There is no logical way to reconcile these views; Calvin, instead, joins them metaphorically in the idea of a theater. Man stands in the same double relationship to his world and to his Creator as a character in a play to the scene of action and to the playwright. So while a rigorous view of predestination leads Calvin to the stage play, the problems of the theater dealt with in Hamlet seem to lead Shakespeare in the opposite direction—toward the possibility of predestination.
Richard Horwich
Abstract: Few seventeenth-century plays seem as different from one another as Shakespeare's Hamlet and Chapman's, Marston's, and Jonson's Eastward Ho, yet, surprisingly, the latter contains numerous verbal and thematic echoes of the former. Eastward Ho is a demonstration of the homiletic ideals of its main character, Touchstone, who believes that thrift, industry, and sobriety—the citizen virtues—will triumph over ambition, prodigality, and radical innovation, the vices of the gentry, whom he despises. Touchstone polarizes these conflicts into the opposition of reason and passion, one which is at the conceptual center of Hamlet as well. Both plays involve the struggle between thrift and prodigality, which are seen as psychological sets as well as economic traits; both contain a bride named Gertrude, who hastily marries a corrupt but persuasive man; both hearken back to a more benign world, presided over by a champion no longer living—King Hamlet and Palmerin of England, respectively. Eastward Ho thus imitates and parodies Hamlet, and by this means, is able to borrow some of Hamlet's power and emotional resonance, at the same time establishing, by calling attention to the vast differences between the seriousness and the complexity of the two plays, a consistently ironic point of view toward Touchstone's moral and social ideals.
E. M. Thron
Abstract: Ben Jonson's Cynthia's Revels is not exciting theater because the play draws upon myth, character satire, and the masque, three distinctly static genres. Multiplicity, not unity, of action and theme strike the reader upon a first reading, but with a careful consideration of themes these multiple parts unify in the characters of Criticus and the Queen of the court, Cynthia. Even the lively Induction, a vigorous argument among the boy actors, reflects the basic concerns of the play: self-love and fame. The myths of Echo and Actaeon that open the play and the strutting of the ridiculous courtiers and ladies of the court depend upon the themes and actions of presumption and flattery. Criticus stands amid this multiplicity of genres and characters as a judge and, presumably, as a representative of Jonson himself. Though he is the central character, Criticus does not dominate the play dramatically. His virtue alone commands the stage. He alone is not affected but reflects the true virtues of his Queen, hence promoting her fame by praising her rather than reflecting himself (a sin of other courtiers) by flattering the Queen. Fame, a product of the praises of the true poet-courtier Criticus, trimphs and flattery loses its hold upon a good court.
K. W. Evans
Abstract: An insufficient understanding of contemporary political problems reduces the impact of the satire in Sejanus. Repelled by present materialism, and unaware that social changes in his day required radically new attitudes towards government, Jonson appeals as a cure for modern ills to the long-outdated principle of a hierarchically-ordered commonwealth, in which personal ambitions submit to the power of a paternalistic monarch, who rules for the common good. The result is a play in which plot, thought, imagery, and characterization are all designed to support the most superficial analysis of the involved political issues of the age. Especially Jonson revises his historical sources in order to divide his characters between perfect exemplars of traditional standards of virtue and specimens of unregenerate Jacobean worldliness. Into Sejanus himself goes all Jonson's distaste for the rising gentry class in his society, whose moral unworthiness constitutes for him a subversion of every true standard for social eminence. Similarly the psychologically complex Tiberius of history becomes simply the ideal prince of Machiavelli, who violates the time-honored concept of the monarch as unifying soul of the commonwealth and model of goodness whom his subjects should emulate.
Gary D. Hamilton
Abstract: Jonson's many references to Fortune in Sejanus have often been taken as evidence that he is modelling his work on the medieval tragic formula in which the arrogance of the central character and the suddenness of the fall from power is stressed. The playwright's utilization of the concept of fortune as background for Sejanus's fall is, however, basically ironic; his central interest is in showing that this concept can be used by men to avoid responsibility for actions which are based on no higher principle than that of expediency. The key element in Jonson's dramatization of this interest is his portrayal of Tiberius as subtle manipulator. By focusing attention on the relationship between Sejanus and Tiberius in a way that his sources do not, he sets up an identification between the actions of Tiberius and what men call the acts of Goddess Fortuna. In the context of this identification the attempt to justify conduct on the basis of the need to cater to the whims of fickle fortune is satirized. Those who allow themselves to be manipulated are the ultimate objects of bitter scorn, a theme which is common to Jonson's major comedies as well.
Ronald E. McFarland
Abstract: Ben Jonson's The Magnetic Lady (1632) illustrates the extent of the popular reception of William Gilbert's De Magnete (1600) some thirty-two years after its publication. At the same time, the comedy is effectively interpreted with reference to the magnetic conceit which Jonson likely drew either from Gilbert himself or from Barlow or Ridley, whose treatises on magnetism in English appeared between the publication of The Magnetic Lady and De Magnete. While there is no conclusive evidence that Jonson had read Gilbert's work, there is proof of his knowledge of such matters as attraction, the magnetic nature of the earth, and the capping of lodestones to increase their power. The technical information is used for names of characters, word plays, and, more importantly, as a governing metaphor through which the characters of the comedy are related to each other. Without at least a fundamental knowledge of magnetism, the play is hardly coherent, but when the magnetic conceit is examined, the comedy is seen to be structured as compactly as any that Jonson wrote.
A. P. Hogan
Abstract: George Chapman's Monsieur D'Olive, although less successful than The Widow's Tears, is an interesting experiment in thematically unified dramatic structure and image patterns. The returned traveler, Vandome, is a mature Neoplatonist who values earthly beauty as a reflection of eternal truth. He discovers that various friends have become foolishly absorbed in finite absolutes and substanceless forms: one refuses to bury his dead wife because he cannot dissociate her being from her flesh, and the other is a virtuous woman who forgets that her integrity is a mirror of transcendental perfection and not an absolute in itself. Vandome purges these disorders, restores social and psychological balance, and demonstrates an active victory for the philosophical man—a victory conveyed in the play's cyclic structure and image patterns of fruition and true form. Only the substanceless form of the fop, D'Olive, remains outside his control, suggesting the presence of analogous disorders in the larger world of society.
Allen Bergson
Abstract: Many of the difficulties obscuring our understanding of John Marston's ten-act drama, Antonio and Mellida (c. 1599), are resolved once we realize that the play's dramatic style is the instrument of a sustained literary parody which largely determines its tone and meaning. By reading A and M and Antonio's Revenge as a unified dramatic work, it becomes evident that the second play serves as Marston's ironic, literary response to the equally literary device of universal forgiveness which seems to conclude the first. The bloody excesses of revenge tragedy are seen to grow out of the unlikely transformation of destructive feelings which characterizes the resolution of romantic comedy. Granting this, A and M may be read as a prologue to AR in that it establishes, first, the tragic atmosphere of the later play, and second, the opposing modes of action and inaction which will constitute the central moral dilemma of the revenge protagonist. Marston accomplishes his first end largely through the insistent use of a poetic imagery which determines and links our views of the natural world, human society, and man's own nature. Marston's second purpose—the delineation of action and inaction as conflicting forms of human behavior—is achieved through the depiction of character as fragmented and self-opposing. One result of this view is that Andrugio, Antonio, and Feliche are all unable to resort to violence; this failure in the first play partially explains the gross revenges exacted in the second play by Antonio, whose belief in the purification of human feelings is integral to Marston's critique of a false idea of man's nature and its literary embodiment in the conventions of romantic comedy. In this sense, A and M generates the evil which can only be eradicated—or appear to be so—by the violence built into the conventions of revenge tragedy.
R. W. Vince
Abstract: The question of the sources for Hannibal and Scipio is intimately related to the question of the play's theme. Nabbes's reference to "a former play" has proved a barren lead, since it is impossible to determine the identity of the play to which he was referring. A comparison of the possible non-dramatic sources with the play suggests that Livy was the playwright's principal source, although North's Plutarch was probably used as well. Perhaps of most interest is the likelihood that the phrase in the prefatory matter to the play, "The singer of the Punic warr," refers not, as Bullen suggested, to Silius Italicus, but to Petrarch. For although, like Hannibal and Scipio, both the Africa and the Punica are based on Livy, Nabbes's play has more in common thematically with Petrarch's epic than with that of Silius. Both Nabbes and Petrarch maintain the Ciceronian distinction between political and contemplative virtues, and Nabbes differentiates his two heroes on the basis of this distinction. The result is that Scipio is revealed as an epic hero, Hannibal as a tragic hero, and the play as an attempt at a kind of "epic-tragedy."
French Fogle
Alvin Kernan
©William Marsh Rice University 1971