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About this book

When it was first published, Radical Tragedy was hailed as a groundbreaking reassessment of the drama of Shakespeare and his contemporaries. An engaged reading of the past with compelling contemporary significance, Radical Tragedy remains a landmark study of Renaissance drama and a classic of cultural materialist criticism. The corrected and reissued third edition of this critically acclaimed work includes a candid new Preface by the author and features a Foreword by Terry Eagleton.

Table of Contents

Radical Drama: Its Contexts and Emergence

Frontmatter

1. Contexts

Abstract
Writing of Jean Genet, Antonin Artaud and Bertolt Brecht — major exponents of what he calls ‘critical theatre’ — Jean-Paul Sartre declares: ‘these authors … far from being afraid of creating a scandal, want to provoke one as strongly as possible, because scandal must bring with it a certain disarray’. Theirs, adds Sartre, is a theatre of refusal (Politics and Literature, pp. 39, 65, 66). The disarray generated in and by Jacobean tragedy has likewise scandalised, then and subsequently. Few writers have provoked as much critical disagreement as, say, John Webster, who has been acutely problematic for a critical tradition which has wanted to keep alive all the conservative imperatives associated with ‘order’, ‘tradition’, the ‘human condition’ and ‘character’.1
Jonathan Dollimore

2. Emergence: Marston’s Antonio Plays (c. 1599–1601) and Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida (c. 1601–2)

Abstract
Marston’s Antonio plays show how individuals become alienated from their society. Bereaved, dispossessed, and in peril of their lives, they suffer extreme disorientation and are pushed to the very edge of mental collapse. Self-reintegration can only be achieved through social reintegration, the creation of a sub-culture dedicated to revenge: ‘vengeance absolute’ (Antonio’s Revenge, III. ii. 75).
Jonathan Dollimore

Structure, Mimesis, Providence

Frontmatter

3. Structure: From Resolution to Dislocation

Abstract
In his analysis of Anglo-American literary criticism John Fekete has identified what he sees as its fundamental preoccupation, namely:
A questioning of all forms of objectivity in relation to a telos of harmonic integration … The central problematic of the tradition is structured by questions of unity and equilibrium, of order and stability. From the beginning, but increasing systematically, the tradition embraces the ‘whole’ and structures a totality without struggle and historical movement. (The Critical Twilight, p. 195)
In this chapter I propose to look first at this tradition’s1 mediation of Jacobean tragedy, second at an alternative, almost entirely ignored yet far more productive critical perspective deriving from Brecht. I propose Brecht as the crucial link between Jacobean drama and the contemporary materialist criticism — first, because he was closely involved with adapting that drama (especially plays by Marlowe, Shakespeare and Webster), acknowledging in the process that it was a formative influence on his own work;2 second, because Brecht anticipated most of the important issues in materialistic critical theory.
Jonathan Dollimore

4. Renaissance Literary Theory: Two Concepts of Mimesis

Abstract
In the Renaissance a revival of mimetic realism1 in art coincided with new-found anxieties over the very nature of reality itself. Those anxieties stemmed in part from what Richard H. Popkin regards as the intellectual crisis generated by the Reformation. It was then of course that tradition as the infallible criterion of religious truth was challenged. In its place the reformers substituted the word of God in scripture and the self-evident criterion of subjective conviction (conscience). This, says Popkin, ‘raised a most fundamental question: how does one justify the basis of one’s knowledge? This problem was to unleash a sceptical crisis not only in theology but also, shortly thereafter, in the sciences and in all other areas of human knowledge’ (The History of Scepticism from Erasmus to Spinoza, p. 16, see also pp. 52–3).
Jonathan Dollimore

5. The Disintegration of Providentialist Belief

Abstract
Chapter 2 showed how Antonio’s Revenge and Troilus and Cressida subvert providentialist ideology and its corollary, natural law. Here I want to explore further the ideological dimension of providentialist belief in the period and also some of the forces making for what W. R. Elton describes as its sceptical disintegration. Since what follows is concerned almost entirely with these forces — which, in relation to providentialism, were intentionally and unintentionally subversive — it should be stressed at the outset that the very fact of their existence presupposed providentialism as a dominant discourse. Further, even when successfully challenged, ideologies rarely dissolve quietly away; rather, they go through various stages of reaction, displacement, and transformation.
Jonathan Dollimore

6. Dr Faustus (c. 1589–92): Subversion Through Transgression

Abstract
One problem in particular has exercised critics of Dr Faustus: its structure, inherited from the morality form, apparently negates what the play experientially affirms — the heroic aspiration of ‘Renaissance man’. Behind this discrepancy some have discerned a tension between, on the one hand, the moral and theological imperatives of a severe Christian orthodoxy and, on the other, an affirmation of Faustus as ‘the epitome of Renaissance aspiration … all the divine discontent, the unwearied and unsatisfied striving after knowledge that marked the age in which Marlowe wrote’ (Roma Gill, ed., Dr Faustus, p. xix).
Jonathan Dollimore

7. Mustapha (c. 1594–6): Ruined Aesthetic, Ruined Theology

Abstract
The very structure of Mustapha,1 like the idealist mimesis which informs it, constitutes a reaction formation to doubt, anxiety and emergent scepticism. As such the play provokes more disquiet than it allays: Greville’s interrogative text undermines its own providentialist brief, reconstituting, even as it struggles to foreclose, the disjunction between idealist and realist mimesis and, relatedly, the contradictions within protestant theology. It is a brilliant, fascinating and still underrated text.
Jonathan Dollimore

8. Sejanus (1603): History and Realpolitik

Abstract
Sejanus, like Mustapha, seeks to represent the mechanisms of state power and in so doing confronts without resolving the disjunctions between idealist and realist mimesis, religion and policy, providentialism and realpolitik.
Jonathan Dollimore

9. The Revenger‘s Tragedy (c. 1606): Providence, Parody and Black Camp

Abstract
Many critics have felt that if The Revenger’s Tragedy1 cannot be shown to he fundamentally orthodox then it cannot help but be hopelessly decadent. If, for example, it can be shown to affirm morality-play didacticism and its corresponding metaphysical categories (and hence idealist mimesis), an otherwise very disturbing play is rendered respectable. Moreover, the embarrassing accusation of a critic like Archer — that the play is ‘the product either of sheer barbarism, or of some pitiable psychopathic perversion’ — can be countered with the alternative view that it is a ‘late morality’ where ‘the moral scheme is everything’.2
Jonathan Dollimore

Man Decentred

Frontmatter

10. Subjectivity and Social Process

Abstract
Jacobean tragedy anticipates, and is therefore usefully explored in relation to, a central tenet of materialist analysis, namely that the essentialist concept of ‘man’ mystifies and obscures the real historical conditions in which the actual identity of people is rooted.
Jonathan Dollimore

11. Bussy D’Ambois (c. 1604): A Hero at Court

Abstract
Bussy D’Ambois (c. 1604) occupies an interesting position in the radical drama of the period. Like the earlier plays it interrogates providence and decentres the tragic subject but now the emphasis is shifted; before, the emphasis had tended to fall on the first of these projects, now and henceforth the reverse tends to be the case.
Jonathan Dollimore

12. King Lear (c. 1605–6) and Essentialist Humanism

Abstract
When he is on the heath King Lear is moved to pity. As unaccommodated man he feels what wretches feel. For the humanist the tragic paradox arises here: debasement gives rise to dignity and at the moment when Lear might be expected to be most brutalised he becomes most human. Through kindness and shared vulnerability human kind redeems itself in a universe where the gods are at best callously just, at worst sadistically vindictive.
Jonathan Dollimore

13. Antony and Cleopatra (c. 1607): Virtus under Erasure

Abstract
In Jonson’s Sejanus, Silius, about to take his own life in order to escape the persecution of Tiberius, tells the latter: ‘The means that makes your greatness, must not come/In mention of it’ (III. 311–12). He is of course exposing a strategy of power familiar to the period: first there occurs an effacement of the material conditions of its possibility, second, a claim for its transcendent origin, one ostensibly legitimating it and putting it beyond question — hence Tiberius’ invocation only moments before of ‘the Capitol,/ … all our Gods … the dear Republic,/Our sacred Laws, and just authority’ (III. 216–18). In Sejanus this is transparent enough. In other plays — I choose for analysis here Antony and Cleopatra and Coriolanus — the representation of power is more complex in that we are shown how the ideology in question constitutes not only the authority of those in power but their very identity.
Jonathan Dollimore

14. Coriolanus (c. 1608): The Chariot Wheel and its Dust

Abstract
Coriolanus, perhaps even more than Antony, is constituted by the contradiction inherent in the martial ideal: though identified in terms of an innate superiority he is in fact the ideological effect of powers antecedent to and independent of him. This becomes manifest in the encomium for Coriolanus, delivered as part of a campaign for his election to the consulship. Its language is uncompromisingly essentialist; Coriolanus is, we are told, in possession of ‘valour … the chiefest virtue’; in battle he becomes omnipotence personified: ‘Alone he ent’red … aidless came off … Now all’s his’, and so on. But this is followed immediately by the loaded remark of the nameless First Senator: ‘He cannot but with measure fit the honours/Which we devise him’ (II. ii. 80–122; my italics).
Jonathan Dollimore

15. The White Devil (1612): Transgression Without Virtue

Abstract
In The White Devil the decentring of the tragic subject is most fully in the service of another preoccupation of Jacobean tragedy: the demystifying of state power and ideology. In no other play is the identity of the individual shown to depend so much on social interaction; even as they speak protagonists are, as it were, off-centre. It is a process of displacement which shifts attention from individuals to their context and above all to a dominating power structure which constructs them as either agents or victims of power, or both.
Jonathan Dollimore

Subjectivity: Idealism Versus Materialism

Frontmatter

16. Beyond Essentialist Humanism

Abstract
Anti-humanism and its declared objective — the decentring of man — is probably the most controversial aspect of Marxist, structuralist and post-structuralist theory. An adequate account of the controversy and the issues it raises — essentialism, humanism, materialism, the subject/society relationship and more — would need a book in its own right and it is perhaps reckless to embark upon such a discussion in the space of a concluding chapter. I do so for three reasons at least.
Jonathan Dollimore
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