Tragicomic Transformations: Passion, Politics, and the ‘Art to Turn’
in Fletcher’s The Island Princess
Jean E. Feerick
Jean E. Feerick. “Tragicomic Transformations: Passion, Politics, and the ‘Art to Turn’ in Fletcher’s The Island Princess.” Early Modern Literary Studies Special Issue 19 (2009) 3.1-24 <URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/si-19/feerflet.html>.
Derrida reminds us, embody, instate, and enforce cultural systems.
They speak to a culture’s most basic principles of order, as
effectively as any legal decree. In his words, “[a]s soon as the
word ‘genre’ is sounded, as soon as it is heard, as soon as one
attempts to conceive it, a limit is drawn. And when a limit is
established, norms and interdictions are not far behind: ‘Do,’
‘Do not’ says ‘genre,’ the word ‘genre,’ the figure, the
voice, or the law of genre.” But the logic of separations and rules
that inform genres, Derrida reminds us, are not limited to cultural
systems alone. They are also at the core of “natural” taxonomies;
indeed the rules governing physis or “nature” are “neither
separable nor inseparable,” according to Derrida, from those
expressed by “an artistic, poetic, or literary genre” (“Law of
Genre” 56). The inter-animating force of the generic laws governing
both categories–nature and culture–can be readily detected
through the etymological connections that constitute what Derrida
elsewhere describes as a “family of words – genesis, genre,
genealogy, generosity; and genius.” Each is a version of the
others, constructed in, upon, and through concepts of “the family,
birth, and filiation” (Geneses 8-9). As such, literary
“genres”–or what the early moderns referred to as “kinds”–can
potentially reveal a good deal about the logic that informs a
culture’s system of “kinds” or “difference” more generally.
If we follow Derrida and assume that laws of literary kind are
entangled with and around the laws governing human “kinds,” we
would be right in asking what is at stake when the boundaries of
genres are redrawn, reconfigured, and rewritten, as they were when
tragicomedy emerged as the unwanted “mixed” offspring of dramatic
form in the late sixteenth century.1 How, that is, did these shifting generic codes serve to instate and
express a larger cultural reorganization of kinds? Is it, perhaps,
possible to track the emergence of a new social form in the emergent
generic form embodied by tragicomedy?2
1 Recent studies of the genre include Maguire; McMullan and Hope; Mukherji and Lyne; and Forman.
2 Critics have documented just how “emergent” this genre was in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries by demonstrating how slow the dramatic category was to take hold, particularly as evidenced by few uses of the generic designation on title pages. According to McMullan and Hope, although “tragicomedie” was a term used with reference to the drama as early as the late sixteenth century–Marston’s Malcontent having been published as a “Tragiecomedia” in 1604, followed by a few “pastoral tragicomedies” in the subsequent decade–“plays were not regularly published as tragicomedies until 1630. In the sixty-two years from 1567 to 1629, there are four so-called on their title-pages; in the next thirty years, to 1660, there are forty-eight”; see McMullan and Hope 19, n.18.
Lois Potter suggests that “Dramatists were obviously aware of the genre in its newer, more formal sense, but were curiously reluctant to claim that this was what they were writing” (196-97). See also Zachary Lesser’s suggestion that tragicomedy came to “cohere” as a genre as a function of publication history, namely, publisher Humphrey Moseley’s decision to cast the Beaumont and Fletcher canon as “a forthrightly royalist folio,” one that Lesser suggests seriously distorts the genre’s concerns at the moment of its “birth” in the early seventeenth century (882).
3 For Coleridge’s famous quote, see Edwards 161. The view that Beaumont and Fletcher’s drama was written as primarily courtly entertainment has a long tradition, gaining expression in the twentieth century by critics such as Waith. More recently, this thesis has been challenged by Finkelpearl “Role of the Court” and Court and Country Politics. These critiques are developed further by McMullan, who argues that Fletcher’s politics tends to align with the “country politics” of his patron, the Earl of Huntington.
4 See, for instance, Raman; Neill, “Material Flames”; Loomba; and, most recently, Forman.
5 Neill, for instance, describes the play as an “instrument of nationalist propaganda in the trade war against the Dutch” (“Material Flames” 338), while Loomba examines how the play “offers a fantasy of colonial and sexual possession” (68).
6 Raman’s essay on the play is a notable exception, since it scrutinizes divisions of “class” alongside those of “nation” among the Portuguese colonizers; he does not, however, consider how the play’s emphasis on the royal identities of the islanders may further implicate these constructions, as I aim to do here.
7 The exceptions are Panura (attendant to the princess Quisara) and the townspeople of both islands, who make brief cameo appearances as collectivities, yet undergo little further development.
8 As such, tragicomedy’s romance features perform a function not dissimilar to that of utopias; see the classic argument by Jameson.
9 For an innovative and flexible approach to the signifying registers of geography on the early modern stage, one that allows that foreign spaces may figure the displacement of English social tensions, see Howard.
10 King James I famously defends the grounds of kingly authority and royal prerogative in his True Law of Free Monarchies: Or the Reciprock and Mutual Duty Betwixt a Free King, and His Natural Subjects (Edinburgh, 1598), a book published while James occupied the throne of Scotland but before he succeeded Queen Elizabeth to the throne of England. Here he defines monarchy as the “true pattern of divinity … the lineal succession of crowns being begun among the people of God, and happily continued in divers Christian commonwealths” (194, 209).
11 To the extent that tragicomedy embodies an alternative to or modification of an absolutist ideology, it functions as a logical response to the “deconsecration” of the monarch, which Franco Moretti has identified as the function of tragedy (7-40).
12 For a detailed discussion of these disputes, see Zaller; and Kishlansky.
13 If Sidney’s critique emphasized the issue of decorum, a range of English writers criticized the staging of romance material on the grounds that it produced a “sprawling” effect. Robert Henke includes Jonson, Gosson, Whetstone, and Nashe as among those who voiced this “neoclassical critique” (37).
14 He uses the word “gape” to describe forms of comedy that are indecorous: “For what is it to make folks gape at a wretched beggar and a beggarly clown; or, against law of hospitality, to jest at strangers, because they speak not English so well as we do?” (69).
15 The treatises were Il Verato ovvero difesa di quanto ha scritto M. Giason Denores contra le tragicomedie, et le pastorali, in un suo discorso di poesia (Ferrara, 1588); and Il Verato secondo ovvero replica dell’attizzato accademico ferrarese in difesa del pastor fido (Florence, 1593). In 1601, Guarini published a work that incorporated major points of both earlier treatises in the essay Compendio della poesia tragicomica, tratto dai duo Verati, per opera dell’autore del pastor fido, colla giunta di molte cose spettanti all’arte (Venice, 1601). For an overview of this history, see Weinberg 2:1104-1105.
16 All references to Guarini are to the 1601 Compendio della poesia tragicomica text translated by Allan H. Gilbert as The Compendium of Tragicomic Poetry.
17 For a discussion of the radical potential of Guarini’s theory of genre, see Henke’s chapter “Social Negotiations,” 166-181. Henke argues that “Because Renaissance kinds had recognizable, though flexible, social codings, a generically multiple form like tragicomedy could refer to social and political issues, either mediating or, in some cases, sharpening social difference” (166).
18 For this characterization of the Este court, see Henke 168-69; for the statements on those in attendance at the Blackfriars theater, see Henke 175.
19 The association of the Beaumont and Fletcher’s corpus with the representation of passion, an emphasis praised by those writing dedicatory poems for the Folio, has been a touchstone of critical accounts of these plays. Coleridge, who early insisted on these connections, inaugurated a tendency to perceive the plays’ investment in passion as pernicious. For him, the representation of passion expressed the dramatists’ moral deficiencies, insofar as it worked, in his view, to “ridicule virtue and encourage vice,” thereby [“pandering] to the lowest and basest passions of our nature”; see Coleridge 2:30. Many have followed Coleridge in equating the plays’ figurations of passion with dramatic decadence, a pattern that my reading here aims to challenge.
20 The peripeteias of Fletcherian tragicomedy have been emphasized by Michael Neill (“Defence of Contraries,” “Turn and Counterturn”) among others.
21 All quotations of the play are to Alexander Dyce’s edition; subsequent quotations will be cited parenthetically in the text with reference to page number.
22 For an elaboration of these correspondences, see Paster, esp. 1-24 and 27-28.
23Of course, tyranny was the term invoked when this relationship faltered. As La Perrière urges in his The Mirrour of Policie (London, 1598): “Tyrannical power is put into the hands of one alone who beareth rule, or rather as I may say, tyrannizeth according to his disordinate will. The contrarie unto this, is the good king or Prince, who governeth and ruleth his people, not according to his sensual appetite and will, but by ripeness of counsel, observations of lawes, and right of justice” (e3v, as quoted in Bushnell, 51, n. 38). Bushnell tracks in detail the shifting conceptions of king and tyrant across the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, observing the movement from a humanist emphasis on morality as the principle dividing the two types of rule to notions of legality, particularly as expressed in the period leading up to the Civil War, partly in response to Beaumont and Fletcher’s dramatic representations of absolutist rulers. As Bushnell suggests, these plays were weighing the merits of blood or legitimacy as against character as the basis of rule; see Chap. 5, esp. 171.
24 See Argensola. If Argensola does not detail the conditions of the King’s imprisonment, he does speculate that his death soon after his release may have been caused by poison, since he was known for adhering to a “temperate way of Living” (103). As such, his apoplexy could not have been attributed to dietary “Excess,” the cause often linked to this malady (103). It should also be noted that although Argensola says little about the King’s personal struggle, he elsewhere relies on the language of passion to explain the behaviors of both the Portuguese and Moluccan figures whom he describes. He defends the violence of one “very brave” Portuguese man, for instance, by noting that his “excesses of Fierceness” proceeded not from a customary intemperate disposition but by the “extraordinary Force in the irascible Part of the mind,” noting that “Patience often provok’d turns that Courage into Fury and Rage” (67).
I suggest that this idea that passions can effect sudden “turns” in disposition is something that interested Fletcher across his career. Compellingly, in his earliest representations of passion–as in The Faithful Shepherdess–Fletcher seems eager to repudiate passion in the interests of political stability, placing the power to “cure” passion singularly in the hands of Clorin, the play’s image of a centralized authority. The play repeatedly describes the mechanism’s of passion’s movements through the language of “turning,” as in the Sullen Shepherd’s demand that the overly constant Amarillis “turne againe, / Turne with thy open armes and clip the swayne / That hath performed all this, turne turne I say” (5.3.129-32), or when Thenot bemoans the seeming change in his constant lover, Clorin, and urges, “I hate thee now: yet turne” (4.5.52). By the time of his mature tragicomedies, however, I suggest that passion’s ability to effect a powerful turn–a rupture of sorts–makes it indispensable to Fletcher’s political vision.
25Although the name “Ruy Dias” can be traced to the Argensola source-text, it seems highly significant that the name was also associated with the historical figure Rodrigo Diaz de Vivar, who was heroized in the epic poem the Lay of the Cid, among countless other chronicles and romances. The hero’s formal name was often abbreviated as simply “Ruy Diaz,” and Fletcher seems to have played up the potential connections between his Portuguese commander and the Spanish hero in his decision to portray Ruy as a man defined by what the play presents as an antiquated heroic mode. It is quite possible that Fletcher was familiar with the heroic excesses of El Cid from his reading of Cervantes, as the romances that documented El Cid’s feats are a source for Don Quixote. In Cervantes’s mock epic, for instance, the titular figure often compares his steed Rocinante to El Cid’s famously beloved steed, Babieca. For an overview of the connections between Fletcher’s plot and those of Cervantes, see Schelling (145-50).
26 Argensola describes the man who rescues the Princess, Cachil Salam, as “A near Kinsman of [the King], well known for his Valour in the Wars” (100).
27 See Loomba, who describes Armusia as a “composite colonizer – gentleman, adventurer, merchant” (96), although she understands this representation as feeding into the play’s opposition of West against East and the instatement of Western hegemony at large. By contrast, I see the play’s interest in the ideological differences among the Portuguese men as possessing a potentially subversive implication for political and social relations in England in that the play selects the man of least social stature and most ambiguous lineal identity as the man who can and should win the Princess. At the very least, this insistence suggests Fletcher’s preference that political power be extended beyond a courtly group–as represented in a figure like Ruy Dias–to “newcomers” like Armusia, who might be a figure for those just recently admitted to the rank of gentry. Compellingly, Henke suggests new gentlemen may have comprised a majority of the auditors at the Blackfriars (175).
28 For a discussion of this pervasive trope of fieriness in the play, see Neill, “Material Flames,” passim.
29 Of course, the violation of “rape” in this period has strong connections to political seizure. See, for instance, how Prospero describes the events that lead to his own political demise as a kind of self-rape, since he describes himself as “rapt” in secret studies. Consider, also, how Caliban’s first threat to his power gains expression as an attempted rape of his daughter, Miranda. For a larger exposition of the connections between rape and political seizures, see Jed. The affective “stirring” that Armusia seeks to elicit in Quisara, then, introduces a new principle of power not through the use of force but through the evocation of desire.
30 In this respect, my reading echoes the observation of Lee Bliss with regard to The Maid’s Tragedy, which she reads as depicting “the king’s subjects discovering that their king is nothing but a man” (106); in the case of this later play we are allowed to observe the affective similarities that link a princess and a mere gentleman of dubious origin.
31 It is notable that in Argensola, it is the Armusia figure, Cachil Salama, who proposes that he leave the chamber instantly as an expression of his obedience to her. In changing this detail, Fletcher enhances the absolutist tinge of Quisara’s representation (102).
Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at M.Steggle@shu.ac.uk.
© 2009-, Matthew Steggle (Editor, EMLS).