Elizabethan Drama

5217 WORDS

Elizabethan Drama

Beyond New Historicism: Marlowe's unnatural histories and the melancholy
properties of the stage Drew Milne The tradition of the dead generations weighs
like a nightmare on the minds of the living. [1] There is no document of culture
which is not at the same time a document of barbarism. And just as such a
document is not free from barbarism, barbarism also taints the process of
transmission ... [2] Recent critical discussions of Elizabethan drama, above all
of Shakespeare, have centred around 'new historicism', a trend consolidated in
critical anthologies.[3] New historicism is characterised by an interest in the
historicity of texts and the textuality of history, and by affinities with
theoretical projects concerned with power, identity and the construction of
subject positions. Despite important political differences, new historicism has
been linked with what has become known as 'cultural materialism'.[4] Many of the
political differences stem from the uneasy relation of new historicism, and of
cultural materialism, to the Marxist conception of history or historical
materialism, differences which this essay seeks to accentuate. Raymond Williams
is often claimed as a major precursor of cultural materialism, but interest in
institutions, discursive practices and subject positions suggests the different
legacy of Althusser's attack on humanism and the influence of Foucault. New
historicism, by contrast, shows scant regard for Marxism while being especially
indebted to Foucault's version of Nietzsche's will to power and perspectival
historicism, despite important critiques of Foucault's work.[5] The Althusserian
approach is more overtly committed to the possibility of political change but
tends towards a similarly theoreticist, even formalist reduction of history. The
possibility of resisting power and the power of ideology marks the decisive
conflict in these different assimilations of history to culture. New
historicism, lost in proliferating examples of contingent but seemingly
inescapable discourses of power, seems at best to expand the archive of wry
smiles at the ruses of history and power. As an academic guise in which to
rework the glories of the past without pausing too long over the enormity of the
history surveyed, the reproduction of literary history now lies in the hands of
those who can offer few reasons for continuing to produce the object of
critique. Sinfield suggests that, 'New historicists, therefore, like their
colleagues, are sustaining many of the old routines while knowing, really, that
their validity has evaporated.'[6] As such, new historicists could be described
as reformists who do not believe in progress. If we are to awake from the
nightmare of history, perhaps such historicism should be left alone to dull the
air with discoursive moans, as Aeneas puts it in Marlowe's Dido, Queen of

Carthage. The persistent naturalisation of suffering in history should be
resisted if the process of transmitting historical documents is not to further
the process. Herein lies the need to offer estranging perspectives on

Elizabethan drama and the intervening historical gulf. One aspect of the
difficulty is the continuing investment in naturalising both the language and
dramaturgy of Elizabethan drama within a literary tradition dominated by

Shakespeare and the Shakespeare industry. This essay seeks to provide an
estranging perspective through a reading of new historicist accounts of Marlowe.

Focussing on Tamburlaine, I hope to suggest some different approaches with
regard to the melancholy dramatisation of history as a scene of unnatural
events, by drawing on the work of Walter Benjamin and Franco Moretti.[7] A
distinctive and estranging approach to dramatising the enormity of history is
evident in the prevalence of violence, murder and arbitrary death in Elizabethan
drama itself. This prevalence has long been seen as excessive, a mark of
something unnatural in its historical imaginary, without being understood.

History in Elizabethan drama is, as title-pages characteristically predict,
lamentable. The structure of effects suggested by drama as an occasion for
melancholic lamentation helps to contextualise the roles of Tamburlaine, Barabas
and Guise in Marlowe's plays, where it seems particularly in-appropriate to
reduce their dramatic ambivalence to the need to identify with a central
protagonist or autonomous 'character'. As David Bevington suggests: 'The
well-known type of "Lamentable Tragedy, Mixed Full of Pleasant Mirth"
... traces its origins to the view that vicious behavior is at once funny and
terrifying as a spectacle, admirable and yet grotesque, amusing but also
edifying as a perverse distortion of moral behavior.'[8] Elizabethan drama, par-ticularly

Marlowe's, dramatises the contradictions of seeing history as a record of divine
providence in which the world is the theatre of divine judgment. The prologue to
the first part of Tamburlaine invites audience and reader to 'View but his
picture in this tragicke glasse, / And then applaud his fortunes if

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