1 The Tragedy of Nobility on the Seventeenth-Century Stage

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1 The Tragedy of Nobility on the Seventeenth-Century Stage

David Quint

The rise in the 1980's of criticism intent on restoring

historical meaning to the literary text has raised concerns about its capacity to recognize the text as literary. If we read the text as another document of a given historical moment, as another historical document tout court in the "archive" -- we may forget, and forget to teach our students, its identifying marks as a literature: its formal features, conventions, and place within a literary history. Literary criticism risks losing its object of study and its distinctiveness as a discipline.1 It is easier to throw the baby out with the bathwater, when one can no longer tell the baby from the bathwater.

To dwell upon genre is one way to resist such disciplinary amnesia. Genres contain their own explicit and implicit conventions and meanings: they block themselves off from other non-literary forms of writing in the system of culture as well as from other genres within a literary system. Some of the most advanced critical models and practices of the last decades (Jameson, Moretti) have turned to genre in order to effect a criticism responsible both to literature as a separate cultural domain and to its changing relationship in history to the culture that surrounds it.2

Genres persist in Western literary history in part because of inertia: they offer templates for the writer working in the larger literary system, and it is easier to continue a genre than invent a new one. The classical patrimony was especially rich and offered the modern writer a myriad of choices: epic, tragedy, comedy, romance novel, novella, pastoral, love lyric, ode, satire, drinking song, etc.3 Genres also persist because they give voice to enduring -- let us not call them universal, nor essential -- areas of human experience and feeling.4 At the same time, the circumstances of a given period shape the tendencies of a genre, lending both its form and its content of feeling a historical and social inflection.5 These are simple enough axioms for the literary scholar and interpreter. It may be more difficult in practice to account both for a core of affective response that a particular instantiation of the genre may produce for the present-day reader -- Aristotle's pity and terror in the examples of tragedy that will follow below -- and for the sociohistorical meaning one can read out of it. The two are ideally inseparable, and we hope to arrive at the former (our experiential, emotional recognition) through the latter (our enriched historical understanding). The excursion to the contextual archive, largely directed by the text's own topical reference, is a critical means rather than end.

What can this archive suggest about one period of the genre of tragedy -- Renaissance and neoclassical -- that arose in the seventeenth century and seemed to have run its course by the century's end? We may posit that at the basis of tragic experience lies the prospect that death will destroy the identity and consciousness of the human individual: tragic plots offer variously displaced versions of this root experience of forfeiting the place one occupies in the world.6 A defining strain of seventeenth century tragedy -- something larger than a subgenre -- dramatizes the loss of a particular, high aristocratic identity, and focuses the genre upon the travails of a nobility imperilled and disempowered by the centralizing projects of a newly powerful monarchy.7 Conflict between king and noble vassal, between royal court and local grandee had provided a political issue and literary theme throughout the middle ages. It becomes a nucleus of tragedy at the moment when this conflict was, in fact, nearing its end, decided in favor of the monarch, and when a style of noble independence and self-assertion was already the object of nostalgia.8 The tragedy of the age treats the disappearance of this noble way of being in the world as its subject and, at the same time, as the reason why tragedy itself is ceasing to be possible. It is at the end of the century of tragedy that we accordingly begin.

1. Racine and Corneille

The scene is set at Versailles, which is called Trézène, the palace with its nearby woods and hunting grounds. The King, one Thésée, has gone missing and is presumed dead. In his absence, three possible heirs to the throne do what aristocrats do best: they make love to one another, and use the kingdom and its succession as pretexts for courtship, rather than seek to possess it. Hippolyte even proposes to Aricie that the realm be divided into thirds so that he can gallantly give his portion to her (II.2.474-508). The final political verdict is delivered, however, not by these noble characters at all. The city of Paris, here called Athens, puts the matter to a vote (II.6.721-728). The city, thought to support the native-born Aricie, makes a surpising decision in favor of the son of Phèdre.

It is the more suprising because it reverses the recent history of the Fronde, when Paris sent packing the regent Anne of Austria and her eleven year old son, Louis XIV. In 1652, the Parlement of Paris had made the radical claim to have the right to vest royal authority on whomever it chose.9 This devolution of power to the city and its people would be the situation of Racine's Phèdre (1677) did not Thésée now return, setting into motion the play's tragic catastrophe.

If the alternative is popular sovereignty, the noble characters may welcome the return of the king, even a tyrannical absolutist king, as the guarantor of aristocratic society. Hippolyte and Aricie exhibit a peculiar and ultimately self-destructive piety in the lengths to which they go to spare the feelings and dignity of Thésée. Hippolyte refuses to let his father know of Phèdre's incestuous love for him and asks,

Devais-je, en lui faisant un récit trop sincère

D'un indigne rougeur couvrir le front d'un père?10


(Should I, in making too unvarnished an account of the matter, cover a father's brow with a blush unworthy of him?)

This piety towards father and king corresponds in the double plot of Phèdre -- for even this most classical of plays has a characteristically modern double plot -- to the piety that Phèdre, in the immediately preceding scene, has herself expressed towards the gods against the blasphemy of Oenone (IV.6.1307). Phédre upholds the theological order that destroys her as Hippolyte upholds the paternal and political one that will similarly destroy him, and the two orders are, of course, closely connected by the play.11 Like Louis, Thésée is a sacred king, and he indeed can summon the monstrous violence of the gods -- or of the State -- to annhilate his son. But the alternative to such a king is the rule of the people and the city.12

The sacrifice of Hippolyte to this royal and paternal authority suggests that Phèdre is no less a tragedy of the noble subject living under the absolutist French monarchy that succeeded the Fronde than is Suréna, the last play of the aged Corneille, performed only three years earlier in 1674. Suréna, as critics have pointed out, depicts the collapse of the compromise between monarch and mighty -- even overmighty -- subject worked out in Corneille's earlier tragedies that had allowed the two to co-exist in a relation of mutual respect and loyalty.13 Suréna, the Parthian general, has grown so great in reputation and power that he is mistrusted by Orode, the king whom he has put on the throne -- "Un service au-dessus de toute recompense" (III.1.705).14 The hero proudly simplifies the issues of the play:

Mon crime véritable est d'avoir aujourd'hui

Plus de nom que mon Roi, plus de vertu que lui,


(My true crime is to have today a greater renown than my King, more virtue than he has.)

Suréna goes offstage -- "A peine du palais il sortait dans la rue. . ." (V.v.1713) -- to be cut down by three arrows by an unknown hand. Both Suréna and Phèdre depict tyrannical royal power crushing a noble and innocent victim. Suréna goes defiantly to his death, breathing a last Corneillian affirmation of the independence and individual glory (V.3.1659-1662) of the greathearted nobleman.15 But Hippolyte, the royal subject transposed into royal son, is governed, in the words of Aricie, by the "respect," both political deference and filial piety, he wishes to preserve for Thésée (V.3.1447): in some sense Hippolyte colludes in his own destruction. As if by inverse recompense, the death of Suréna is shockingly bathetic in the brevity of the five verses that report it, in the ignominy of falling in the street to the Parthians' proverbially cowardly weapon of choice, and in the way that its royal origin is hidden behind assassination, a "mystery of state." 16 In contrast, Racine's Hippolyte goes off to a heroic offstage death -- "A peine nous sortions des portes de Trézène. . ." (V.6.1498) -- his combat against the monster from the sea reported in the long récit of Théramène: it is as if the playwright rewards him for his reverence towards his king and father, for a kind of self-sacrifice.

Phèdre and Suréna each represent their respective dramatist's farewell to secular tragedy; twelve years would pass before Racine would turn to sacred drama. Together, they suggest that absolutism has now made untellable the central political story of French neoclassical tragedy, the struggle of the great aristocrat to preserve an older identity of feudal independence and self-asserting honor -- his or her "gloire" -- in relation to a centralizing monarchy. This story had been defined by the terms of Corneille's drama, whose themes, Paul Bénichou observes, both anticipated the aristocratic revolt of the Fronde and in plays like Nicomède (1651) appeared to comment on them.17 But it is precisely the memory of the Fronde in Phèdre that accounts for its difference in tone from Suréna. The revolt of the nobles had been accompanied by the revolt of Paris, and Racine's play suggests that the city could have made itself the master of the situation. Caught between the spectre of popular rule from below and the absolute monarch above them, Racine's aristocrats may have no choice but to defer and cling to their fatherly king in the interests of their aristocractic order, even if it means the loss of their autonomy of action and even their own individual demise.18 Suréna ends bitterly, but in the last line of Phèdre Thésée takes Aricie under his protection as his adoptive daughter, preserving the rights of this princess of the blood. As the French aristocracy, the prisoners of Versailles like Aricie at Trézène, depended on Louis XIV and ceased to be political actors, the national tragic stage lost its central protagonists and its great period came to an end.

2. Shakespeare

The French theater offers the clearest case of how the "crisis of the aristocracy," the conflict between the European nobility and the institutions of the modern state, provided the predominant subject of early modern tragedy. The case may not seem so obvious at first glance in the more multifaceted English theater, especially when we look at the four great Shakespearean tragedies -- though the threefold division of the kingdom in King Lear seems to offer a dystopian return to feudal independence, though we feel a transition from the open heroism of Old Hamlet killing old Fortinbras in single combat to the indirection and claustrophobia of the court of Claudius, though Macbeth offers a case of the overmighty subject making himself king.19 Coleridge made a marginal note suggesting that Macbeth's reaction to Duncan's investiture of Malcolm (I.4.35-42) was the model for the revolt of Satan in Paradise Lost (5.576f.) against the elevation of God's Son. Milton's devil is perhaps the age's greatest tragic representative of the aristocrat in crisis.20

Shakespeare's Roman plays, however, suggest a schematic treatment of a nobility losing its status before the pressure of new historical forces. In Coriolanus, it is the urban populace which, as in Phèdre, dictates new conditions to the patricians. In Julius Caesar, Brutus, the noblest Roman of them all, and his co-conspirators find themselves dwarfed beneath the colossal Caesar, the absolute ruler, and, here, too, at the mercy of the city mob that Antony, literally taking up Caesar's mantle, incites against those "honorable men."21 Antony and Cleopatra is the most complex example, for beneath its fall of princes plot it suggests that it is in the larger-than-life Antony that the last vestiges of noble generosity, chivalry, and risk-taking persist, while Octavius Caesar represents the modern Machiavellian monarch, a calculating and far less glamorous figure ruling over a world of reduced possiblity.

Antony and Cleopatra represents, in fact, a case of Shakespearean rewriting. It redistributes the terms and recasts the characters of Henry IV, Part One, Shakespeare's most explicit treatment of the struggle of the great feudal magnate against the crown. The earlier history play maintains a careful balance among its three sets of characters: King Henry and his court, Prince Hal rioting with Falstaff in the tavern, Hotspur and the other noble rebels, rebels who would themselves divide the realm into three parts as the playwright does. The tragedy of the impetuous but unfeigned Hotspur -- who would leap to the moon and dive beneath the sea for the sake of honor and who at his death laments equally the loss of his "titles" as a noble fighting man and the loss of consciousness itself, his thoughts that "Must have a stop," (V.4.77-82) -- has a pathos that can almost outweigh the comic plot of Prince Hal's coming of age.22 Nonetheless, it is Hal who is the central figure of the play, capable not only of drinking with any tinker in his own language, but of taking all the parts, of being as Machiavellian as his father, as gallant as and more successful on the battlefield than Hotspur. In the tavern scene of Act II, Hal, in fact, plays his father in the tavern, at one point impersonates and proposes to play Hotspur, and of course, plays -- as he is always playing -- himself.

Antony and Cleopatra rewrites the struggle between monarch, Prince Hal and his father on one side, and feudal noble, Hotspur and his confederates on the other, into the conflict between Octavius Caesar, the "universal landlord" (III.13.72), and Mark Antony and Cleopatra, would-be world-rulers in their own turn, who nonetheless seem to embody outmoded noble values and modes of behavior. The balance has shifted drastically in favor of the expansive Hotspur figure, Antony, and the play is largely told from the perspective of the glamorous historical loser. It was the rebel nobleman Hotspur who, as a kind of complement to his chivalry, enjoyed a bantering sexual relationship with his wife, Lady Percy -- "Come, wilt thou see me ride?" he asks her (II.3.100) -- an erotic relationship that is doubled in Mortimer's marriage to the Welsh daughter of Glendower. As the double title of Antony and Cleopatra suggests, the love between the Roman general and Egyptian queen dominates the tragedy, and Cleopatra herself associates horsemanship and sexual play -- "Or is he on his horse? / O happy horse, to bear the weight of Antony!" (I.5.20-21). If excluded from such erotic fulfillment, Prince Hal by way of compensation had the pleasures of drink and the companionship of Falstaff -- at least until the rejection of the fat knight at the end of the sequel play. But in
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