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Elizabethan Drama

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.. wer to imitate any place. This vacancy – quite literally, this absence of scenery – is the equivalent in the medium of the theater to the secularization of space ..

(p. 195) On this basis Marlowe’s dramatisation of the history of Tamburlaine is seen by Greenblatt as Tamburlaine’s will to power in the occupation of theatrical space. Just as Elizabethan dramatists breezily rewrite historical source materials, so Greenblatt breezily rewrites Tamburlaine in terms which implicitly argue the perspicuity of Deleuze and Guattari: `Tamburlaine is a machine, a desiring machine that produces violence and death.’ (p. 195) Hence the terms of Tamburlaine’s dynamic occupation of stage space are further abstracted from Marlowe’s theatrical allegory of history, and dramatised in Greenblatt’s anachronistic allegory: `Space is transformed into an abstraction, then fed to the appetitive machine.

This is the voice of conquest, but it is also the voice of wants never finished and of transcendental homelessness.’ (p. 196) While Greenblatt’s analogue indicates the dialectical relation between culture and barbarity suggested by Walter Benjamin, he does not use it to examine specific power struggles in history, but rather as an anecdotal allegory to suggest the historicity of power. Greenblatt’s conception of theatricality is nevertheless a sophisticated one. This is salutary amid the prevalent reluctance to recognize the centrality of theatre and theatricality for Elizabethan drama, a reluctance which reflects the dominance of print-culture perspectives on drama and more recent attempts to conceive history as a form of textuality.

However, his account of theatricality risks remaining immanent within the metaphors generated by theatricality in Marlowe’s plays. Comparing `the violence of Tamburlaine and of the English merchant’ (p.197) this leads Greenblatt into an alarming aestheticisation of their respective representations and experiences of stage space and geography: experiencing this limitlessness, this transformation of space and time into abstractions, men do violence as a means of marking boundaries, effecting transformation, signaling closure. To burn a town or to kill all of its inhabitants is to make an end, and in so doing, to give life a shape and a certainty that it would otherwise lack. (p.197) There is something chilling in these lines, not least in the trans-formation of violence into formal patterns and the assimilation of human suffering – `to burn a town’ – to the perspective of the violent protagonist. For Greenblatt the structure of limits give shape but no escape: `in Marlowe’s ironic world, these desperate attempts at boundary and closure produce the opposite effect, reinforcing the condition they are meant to efface.’ (p. 198) The key anachronism is the suggestion of ironic and implicitly inescapable reversals of power.

Marlowe’s plays fails to give such intelligible shape or indeed another moral scheme by which to understand the spectacle of violence because the dramatic presentation is not restricted to the self-fashioning of the protagonist: we also see the victims. In the fifth act of Tamburlaine 1, for example, Tamburlaine sacks the town of Damascus and kills all of its inhabitants, save the father of Zenocrate, Tamburlaine’s wife-to-be. The play offers the Brechtian possibility that the audience need not identify with Tamburlaine by offering perspectives on Tamburlaine’s victims through Bajazeth, Zabina and, most importantly, Zenocrate. Amid the death of Damascus, so to speak, and reports of the speared and slaughtered carcasses of the virgins unsuccessfully sent by Damascus to intercede with Tamburlaine, the audience also sees the laments and then suicides of Bajazeth, Emperor of the Turks, and Zabina his wife, having had enough of being paraded as Tamburlaine’s symbolic slaves. As Zabina puts it, `Then is there left no Mahomet, no God, / No Feend, no Fortune, nor no hope of end / To our infamous monstrous slaveries?’ (Pt.1: V.i.239-241) An audience might more easily identify with such a lament than with a man who has killed a town. The laments of Bajazeth and Zabina are highly charged and, juxtaposed with the slaughtered virgins, their self-fashioned deaths suggest the extremes of the social scale to suffer at the hands of Tamburlaine.[21] Their deaths are immediately followed by the entrance of Zenocrate who laments the sack of her home town by her supposed lover: Zenocrate.

Wretched Zenocrate, that livest to see, Damascus walles di’d with Egyptian blood: Thy Fathers subjects and thy countrimen. Thy streetes strowed with dissevered jointes of men, And wounded bodies gasping yet for life… Ah, Tamburlaine, wert thou the cause of this That tearm’st Zenocrate thy dearest love? Whose lives were dearer to Zenocrate Than her own life, or ought save thine owne love. (Pt. 1, V.i.319-323, 334-5) Coming after Bajazeth and Zabina, Zenocrate reminds the audience of the slaughter of Damascus, and highlights the depth of Tamburlaine’s rejection of the natural pity which might be associated with love.

But if this isn’t enough to suggest that we might identify with the victims of Tamburlaine, Zenocrate then turns to see the `bloody spectacle’ of Bajazeth and Zabina: `Behold the Turke and his great Emperesse./ Ah Tamburlaine, my love, sweet Tamburlaine, / That fights for Scepters and for slippery crownes’ (Pt.1, V.i.354-6). This suggests the way in which the play might be read as the tragedy of Bajazeth and Zabina, their history as moral exemplum in the mirror of magistrates tradition. However, despite the efforts of Zenocrate and Anippe, her maid, to summon the wheel of fortune scheme this serves instead to highlight the dramatic ambivalence of Tamburlaine’s unstopped rise to power. Roy Battenhouse offers the most sustained attempt to reinscribe Tamburlaine in a moral scheme, focussing in particular on the end of part 2, and reading the play in terms offered by Tamburlaine’s final words, as the story of a `Scourge of God’ (Pt.2: V.iii.258), but this reading has to work against the grain of Marlowe’s more ambivalent moral and theological implications.

History itself, as Battenhouse concedes, makes his case hard to sustain: The tradition of Tamburlaine’s peaceful and natural death being thus firmly established, we must recognize that Marlowe’s opportunities to make of the history an example of God’s punishing of sin were definitely limited. The histories were attributing to this Scythian scourge a long life of unobscured glory – a career which looked like a blasphemous challenge to the Puritan dogma of Providence. [22] The approach suggested by Greenblatt is more convincing in this respect: `Tamburlaine repeatedly teases its audience with the form of the cautionary tale, only to violate the convention. All of the signals of the tragic are produced, but the play stubbornly, radically, refuses to become a tragedy.’ (p.

202) Part 1, in particular, ends with Tamburlaine triumphant, crowning Zenocrate queen of Persia and talking of marriage rites to come, presenting the melancholy spectacle of inhuman, ruthless violence and tyranny unpunished. Indeed the audience are encouraged to view this spectacle with horror and amazement. For most of act five of part 1 Tamburlaine is identified with death, entering as the stage direction puts it: `all in blacke, and verie melancholy’ (Pt.1: V.i.inter 63-4). In one of Marlowe’s finest theatrical touches he shows the horror of Tamburlaine’s power through the rhetoric of allegorical reference to his sword as he claims that death is his servant and dismisses the virgins sent by Damascus to intercede with him: Tamburlaine: Virgins, in vaine ye labour to prevent That which mine honor sweares shal be perform’d: Behold my sword, what see you at the point. 1. Virgin: Nothing but feare and fatall steele my Lord.

Tamburlaine: Your fearfull minds are thicke and mistie then, For there sits Death, there sits imperious Death, Keeping his circuit by the slicing edge. But I am pleasde you shall not see him there: He now is seated on my horsmens speares, And on their points his fleshlesse bodie feeds. Techelles, straight goe charge a few of them To charge these Dames, and shew my servant death, Sitting in scarlet on their armed speares. (Pt. 1: V.i.106-118) Tamburlaine’s sword is more than an object of fear and potentially fatal steel, becoming an allegory in which the stage property is an object of melancholic perception, a figure of death. Benjamin comments that `once human life has sunk into the merely creaturely, even the life of apparently dead objects secures power over it.'[23] And while the fatal power of swords as objects is evident, the importance of the stage property here is the significance of this sword as an object of contemplation into which history has been metonymically distilled.

The illumination of the fateful qualities of the most trivial stage property, such as a handkerchief or a glove, reveal such props to be objects, often poisonous ones, which signify the fateful arbitrariness of objective history. Indeed the relation between protagonists and the fateful objects with which they identify is a central dramaturgical part of the opening of many of Marlowe’s plays: a letter for Gaveston; Faustus and books; Barabas and heaps of gold. The significance of this is highlighted by the insignificance of such stage props in classical drama. As Benjamin argues: `In moral examples and in catastrophes history served only as an aspect of the subject matter of emblematics.

The transfixed face of signifying nature is victorious, and history must, once and for all, remain contained in the subordinate role of stage-property.'[24] Similarly, sovereignty is given allegorical representation in the metonymical form of sceptres and what Zenocrate calls `slippery crownes’. All through Tamburlaine crowns are the sad allegorical tokens of earthly power, but they become melancholic properties rather than moral exempla precisely when providential schemes of history as morality fail. Melancholic because the allegory of the objective world such stage props signify is one in which the dramatisation of history as evil recoils from the realisation that there is no evil in nature, only a subjective understanding with no correlative in reality. A striking passage from Plotinus’s third century Enneads suggests the possibility of seeing the enormity of history as the pleasurably lamentable work of a dramatic artist, while suggesting also the risks of failing to recognise the possible barbarity of neo-Platonist attempts to figure life as play, and so reduce the historical world to a phenomenon secondary to subjective understanding: Murders, death in all its guises, the reduction and sacking of cities, all must be to us just such a spectacle as the changing scenes of a play; all is but the varied incident of a plot, costume on and off, acted grief and lament. For on earth, in all the succession of life, it is not the Soul within but the Shadow outside of the authentic man that grieves and complains and acts out the plot on this world stage which men have dotted with stages of their own constructing.

All this is the doing of man knowing no more than to live the lower and outer life, and never perceiving that, in his weeping and in his graver doings alike, he is but at play; to handle matters austerely is reserved for the thoughtful: the other kind of man is himself a futility. Those incapable of thinking gravely read gravity into frivolities which correspond to their own frivolous Nature.[25] Murder, death in all its guises, and the reduction and sacking of cities are the spectacles and changing scenes of Marlowe’s unnatural histories, especially in Tamburlaine and The Massacre at Paris. The resort to theatrical melancholy need not collapse the world of suffering into a frivolous nature which corresponds to that melancholy, as though the sacking of cities were frivolous. Nevertheless, the dramatisation of such history as a pageant of power invariably threatens to be caught in a figure which naturalises history as play. Plotinus reminds us that some of the relevant figures are not as historically specific as they at first seem. The important difference is that Elizabethan drama, and in particular tragedy, registers an essential inhumanism, notably in the melancholic, metonymical significance of crowns, swords and other often poisonous stage properties whose seemingly modest objectivity overcomes the best efforts of human subjects.

Moreover the drama suggests an unfathomably lamentable quality in the struggle between natural and unnatural forces, precisely because without eschatology or a modern idea of natural history, history is reduced to an allegory of natural forces. Thus the understanding of Elizabethan drama would be furthered by examining the relation between nature, history and theatricality, so as to reveal its truth as a cognitive framework which has become historically alienated from the barbarity it sought to understand. Elizabethan drama attempts to stage history as nature; not nature in the modern sense, but rather an unnaturally horrific and lamentable allegory of nature as history. Decoding the history in this nature involves recognizing the way this allegorical staging of history helps us understand the necessity for historical distanciation, particularly from any attempt to displace the horror in its allegory of natural history with new allegories of the historicity of power and subjectivity.

In short, the effort to rethink Elizabethan drama might restore a sense of the unnatural histories which divide and rule our historical differences. Rather than rethinking such history in `our’ own natural interests, such documents might be blasted out of their continuity and given a sense of unrelenting strangeness rather than strained relevance. The hermeneutic shibboleths of power, subjectivity and identity may also have to give way to the rejection or at least melancholic recognition of the essential inhumanism of a world without grace whose historical nature is a nightmare from which we are yet to awake. Bibliography [1] Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, trans. B. Fowkes, Surveys from Exile: Political Writings, vol.

2, ed. D. Fernbach (Harmondsworth, 1973). [2] W. Benjamin, ‘Uber den Begriff der Geschichte’, Illuminationen, ed.

S.Unseld (Frankfurt am Main, 1977), p. 254; translation amended from ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’, Illuminations, trans. Harry Zohn (London, 1973), p. 258.

[3] See New Historicism and Renaissance Drama, eds. Richard Wilson and Richard Dutton (London and New York, 1992); and Staging the Renaissance: Reinterpretations of Elizabethan and Jacobean Drama (New York and London, 1991), eds. David Scott Kastan and Peter Stallybrass. [4] See Jonathan Dollimore, ‘Introduction: Shakespeare, cultural materialism and the new historicism’, Political Shakespeare: New essays in cultural materialism, eds. Jonathan Dollimore and Alan Sinfield (Manchester, 1985); Jonathan Dollimore, Radical Tragedy (London, 1989), especially the preface to the second edition; and Alan Sinfield, Faultlines: Cultural Materialism and the Politics of Dissident Reading (Oxford, 1992).

[5] See Peter Dews, Logics of Disintegration: Post-structuralist Thought and the Claims of Critical Theory (London, 1987); and Jrgen Habermas, The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity, trans. Frederick Lawrence (Cambridge, Mass. and Cambridge, 1987). [6] Sinfield, Faultlines, p. 287.

[7] Walter Benjamin, The Origin of German Tragic Drama, trans. John Osborne (London, 1977); and Franco Moretti, ‘The Great Eclipse: Tragic Form as the Deconsecration of Sovereignty’, Signs Taken For Wonders, trans. David Miller (London, 1983). Benjamin’s work has had surprisingly little resonance in studies of Elizabethan and Jacobean drama. Helpful discussions of Benjamin’s work on ‘Trauerspiel’ and drama are provided by Charles Rosen, ‘The Ruins of Walter Benjamin’, On Walter Benjamin, ed. Gary Smith (Cambridge, Mass.

and London, 1988), pp. 129-5; and Rainer Ngele, Theater, Theory, Speculation: Walter Benjamin and the Scenes of Modernity (Baltimore and London, 1991). [8] David M. Bevington, From ‘Mankind’ to Marlowe (Cambridge, Mass., 1962), p. 161. [9] Tamburlaine, Part 1, The Complete Works of Christopher Marlowe, 2 vols., ed Fredson Bowers (Cambridge, 1973), vol.

1, p. 79. References to this edition hereafter in main text. [10] Catherine Belsey, The Subject of Tragedy (London, 1985), p.

4. [11] Dollimore, Radical Tragedy, preface to second edition, p. xxviii. [12] Radical Tragedy, p.

155. [13] William Hazlitt, from Lectures on the Dramatic Literature of the Age of Elizabeth, quoted from Critics on Marlowe, ed. Judith O’Neill (London, 1969), p.17. [14] Helen Gardner, ‘The Second Part of Tamburlaine the Great’, Critics on Marlowe, p. 42. [15] Harry Levin, `The Jew of Malta: Poor Old Rich Man’, Critics on Marlowe, p.

51. [16] Radical Tragedy, p. 112. [17] Franco Moretti, Signs Taken For Wonders, p. 78. [18] Staging the Renaissance, p.

9. [19] See T.W.Adorno, ‘The Idea of Natural History.’ trans. Bob Hullot-Kentor, Telos, 60 (Summer, 1984), 111-124. [20] Stephen Greenblatt, Renaissance Self-Fashioning: From More to Shakespeare (Chicago & London, 1980), p. 6.

References hereafter included in the main text. [21] On these laments and lament generally see Wolfgang Clemen’s neglected English Tragedy Before Shakespeare, trans. T.S.Dorsch (London, 1961), esp. ch.

14, `The Dramatic Lament and Its Forms’, pp. 211-252; and ch. 15, `The Pre-Shakespearian Dramatic Lament’, pp. 253-286.

[22] Roy W. Battenhouse, Marlowe’s Tamburlaine: A Study in Renaissance Moral Philosophy (Vanderbilt, Nashville, 1941; revised edition 1964), p. 144. [23] Benjamin, The Origin of German Tragic Drama, p. 132.

[24] Benjamin, pp. 170-1. [25] Plotinus, The Six Enneads, trans. Stephen MacKenna & B.S.Page (Chicago, 1952), III.ii.15, p. 90.

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