Sunday, December 25, 2011

Radical Tragedy

Jonathan Dollimore's book Radical Tragedy looks amazing. I am excited to read the whole thing, as I am with Greenblatt's Renaissance Self-Fashioning and Tiffany Stern's Shakespeare in Parts and Andrew Gurr's Playgoing and Gary Taylor's Reinventing Shakespeare. So many good books, so many introductions read and chapters left undiscovered. I think I can finish most of my reviews of books by Jan 5, though, and have the rest of January to read plays and articles and book-chapters.

Dollimore's introduction itself is a really great introduction to new historicism. Arguing against any view of literature as autonomous (something I'll get to later on), Dollimore sees Jacobean tragedy as created by and commenting upon the political and social realities of the era, an era characterized by the failure of the monarchy, the decline of the aristocracy, the rise in the gentry . . . ultimately, lowered confidence in existing authorities and sense of need for change in church and government. He compares this to Raymond William's idea of "a problem of order" and John Fekete's concept of "a telos of harmonic integration," only, instead of retreating from chaos and grasping at order as many modern artists and writers do/did, the Jacobean dramatists "confronted and articulated that crisis, indeed . . . actually helped precipitate it" (5).

He rejects the idea that $hakespeare and other authors bought into the "Elizabethan World Picture," an ideology founded on order and hierarchy. But he also rejects the idea that they rejected it wholesale. He argues, rather, that they disclosed ideology as misrepresentation from within, by dramatizing it and exposing its contradictions. He provides a really concise description of the ways in which Renaissance authors (often skeptics, whether politically or intellectually) discussed and understood ideology. Bacon, Machiavelli, Hobbes, Montaigne, even John Calvin, show a sophisticated understanding of an Althusserian definition of ideology, although they may refer to it as "custom" or "manners."

And time and again, Jacobean tragedians represent skepticism about ideology: they worry about cosmic decay, they destabilize ideas and representations of divine providence, they dramatize societies being destroyed from within. These dramatists do not denounce religious or political structures outright; they subvert them. Dollimore gives the example of the masque/anti-masque tradition, in which the elements of chaos and social destruction are staged (the anti-masque) and then overcome by elements of orthodox belief in order and hierarchy (the masque). Often the king himself would take part in the masque as the representative of Authority or God on earth, making all things right. Dollimore says, "The court masque was clearly an ideological legitimization of the power structure, as was the preliminary anti-masque" (27). But what about in The Revenger's Tragedy when the antimasque comes after the masque, superceding it and overturning all the order it provided? According to Dollimore, this is an example of Jacobean tragedy's radical possibilities, showing the court as "ineradicably corrupt" and rupturing "the aesthetic front which mystified its violent appropriation of power" from within.

What I am really looking forward to about this book is that the chapters are focused tightly on different plays and they are all really short.

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