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Jacobean Tragedies (Oxford Paperbacks) by…

Jacobean Tragedies (Oxford Paperbacks)

by Andor Harvey Gomme

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The Malcontent by John Marston is an oddity of a play especially for one included in an ostensible book of tragedies. Nobody dies, no real revenge, and no moral redemption is here. Malevole graciously treats Duke Pietro who usurped. Aurelia, after so much time in the play spent railing against women is allowed to repent and seems sincere. Bilioso, the epitome of the opportunistic, bragging noble, is dismissed with contempt as is the play's villain Mendoza who has plotted all sorts of villanies. Ferneze, who has blatantly attempted adultery -- and who, by the code of the time, could probably justifiably killed -- is spared and relatively unrebuked. Marquerelle's fate remains unsure but the blatant, vigorously unshamed, unrepetent whore seems to come to no harm. Ferenze doesn't repent of his errors that I can see, and we don't get the sort of closure by marriage you find in traditional comedies of the time. There is the sort of railing against hypocrisy as found in John Webster's The Duchess of Malfi and the emphasis of nobleness by act not birth. Marston doesn't dwell on death and decay imagery too much. Malevole is, like Bosola in Webster's Duchess of Malfi and Vindice in The Revenger's Tragedy by Thomas Middleton, given to surly, cutting remarks (which his fellow comrades in sin seem to love as playful railing) that rich with irony given his true identity. This play is profoundly Christian. Unlike Shakespeare's Hamlet, Malevole really is content with God granting vengeance. He seems to mainly hang around for opportunity. He reacts to what he reagrds as God's actions on Earth. There may be a note of political satire (apart from the obvious swipes at court life) in the reference to kings being deposed if they don't obey "heaven's enforced conditions." Perhaps this is an allusion to King James I divine right theory and a not so subtle reminder that God can depose as well as impose. The play is also Christian in its concern for redemption and forgiveness.

"The Atheist's Tragedy" from Cyril Tourneur produces some fine poetry on lust, revenge, and the atheistic, naturalistic view of the world versus the religious view. Charlemont is an amazingly passive hero. He is hardly an avenger but (to borrow a phrase from Michael Moorcock) merely a sailor on the seas of fate. His father, Montferrers, comes back from the dead as a ghost and urges his son to avenge his death yet reminds him, unlike Hamlet's father in Hamlet, that vengeance is God's. Charlemont willingly goes to jail and his execution. The only effort he puts forth is to take the gifts of fortune since he views them as signs from God as to what direction he should take. The play concludes with the blatantly stated moral that patience is the honest man's revenge. It is a moral lesson I've never encountered in any other Elizabethean or Jacobean drama. Usually heroes and villains are all too willing to take up vengeance. There are other Christian themes at work as in John Marston's The Malcontent. D'Amville wants to provide for himself and his family. A noble goal perverted into murder and incest. His proposal of incest to Castabella is couched in terms of man being the pinnacle of nature and not denying himself something they do (a subtle perversion of the concept of the Elizabethean Chain of Being) and providing an heir. Sebastian is lethally punished for his lecherous ways by Belforest. Snuffle is punished for his hypocritical pretense of virtue (Is his presence a satirical jab at puritans?) Levidulcia tries to convince Castabella to marry Rousard and uses sexual pleasure as the bait. For her part, Levidulcia repents of her ways after her lechery leads to Sebastian's and Belforest's death and kills herself. Her repentence and suicide seem too abrupt and unlikely. Yet, as Gomme reminds us in the introduction, we're dealing with a symbolic tale here, a morality lesson. The history of western literature for at least the past 300 years is an attempt to provide a more realistic narrative with devices like interior monologue and stream of consciousness. A story can never truly be a realistic depiction, in terms of the movement of time and space, of an event and trying to make it such is, beyond a certain point, usually counterproductive. The scene in the courtyard with its mistaken identity and all too easy concealment may be rather silly when staged (an even more extreme example is D'Amville axing himself in the climax), but it is a curious juxtaposition of death (the graveyard, skulls, and Borachio's corpse) and life and generation (in all its strange and frustrated forms: Charlemont's and Castabella's failed romance, D'Amville's incestous proposal to the latter, and Snuffe and Soquette's trist) as well as some good poetry. Borachio the henchman was not the villain of this drama. D'Amville was. It is interesting to note that, when he seems to go mad with the death of his son, the perception of the natural world, his wisdom, he prides himself on begins to fail him when he perceives a glass of wine as blood). Here is another play (a preeminently Christian one like The Malcontent) with comedy, lust, adultery, perverse sex (or, at least, the desiring if not the doing on D'Amville's part), and vengeance. Oh, and, of course, frustrated love.

"Women Beware Women" from Thomast Middleton is a play that features some of the best poetry of any Jacobean play, an intriguingly complicated plot (which begins to falter at the end of the fourth act), some very realistic dialogue, and an intriguing (at least I consider her such) villianess in Livia, and an amazing lack of virtue on anyone's part. Even Leantio, victim of Bianca's betrayal with the duke, seems all too eager to take his promotion and start commiting adultery with Livia. Likewise Isabella is deceived into commiting incest with Hippolito but turns all too readily to adultery with the Ward. The Cardinal, usually a corrupt character, is the only voice of virtue in the play, and he is more of a symbol than a real character. As usual this play featured murder and sex aplenty (including the theme of incest again). However, I found this play hard to read. Many of the humorous lines and much of the bantering I did not get the significance of (particularly where Leantio's mother and Livia were playing chess). I found the language particularly difficult. I also found some of the plot very puzzling (and the lack of stage directions, paritcularly in the fifth act, didn't help). Why does Guardino want to revenge himself on the Duke and Bianca when he knows Livia is the one that deceived him into accepting Isabella? Where did the "poisoned cup" Bianca drinks come from? How does Isabella die? Her own poisoned incense? Nevertheless, Middleton puts the device of the dramatic aside to extensive and good use. Usually it is only used for the villain or hero. Here almost everyone uses it. Middleton also does some complex staging (with heavy use of the above stage) especially in the celebrated chess scene. Middleton has good characterization particularly in the way Bianca reacts to being seduced by the Duke ("likes the treason well, but hates the traitor" -- Guardino), the Duke's reaction at the thorough scolding by his brother the Cardinal,, and Isabella's reaction at being told she has commited incest. It was also interesting to note that the Ward, though foolish, seemed to sense more of Isabella's corruption (at least sometimes) than anyone else. In short, this play is about lots of people rationalizing their immorality and realizing their corruption and dying for their sins. This play certainly has one of the more vitrolic views of women (and not just in the title). It also has a clear and typically Jacobean moral message: lust kills. ( )
  RandyStafford | Jul 12, 2012 |
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