Anatomizing the body politic: corporeal rhetoric in The Maid's Tragedy.
Nineteenth-century readers--Coleridge most infamously--found in Beaumont and Fletcher's plays benighted characters, prostrate before arcane political notions. The playwrights, mere sensationalists, are supposed to have been "the most servile jure divino royalists," their words not only cut off from quotidian reality, but existing in empty, stultified, formal patterns, like "a well-arranged bed of flowers." Romantic idealizations of Shakespeare appear in vivid and repeated contrast, the bard likened to trees rather than flowers, granted "height, breadth, and depth," as against mere "mechanism," "juxtaposition," and "succession." (1) T. S. Eliot went one step further, uprooting Coleridge's flower-bed and leaving the blossoms "stuck in sand," stripped of context altogether. (2) Later critics have both reconceived these plays aesthetically and begun to register their complex political engagements, but we are still a long way from adequately understanding Beaumont and Fletcher's tremendous seventeenth-century popularity. J. F. Danby recasts Eliot's image of rhetorical excess as a deliberate representation of court decadence; Eugene Waith builds a way of reading their canon that rightly turns on oratorical and declamatory modes. Both these critics, and a few others, stress that casting aspersions on characterological incongruity is a poor way to read plays that function by dislocation and juxtaposition. (3) The awkward fact, however, is that our understanding of The Maid's Tragedy has been only sporadically advanced and that some important readers have continued to argue that the play deliberately insulates itself from the pressing political concerns of the Jacobean court. (4)
This essay stresses two issues in connection with one another. Even the occasional champions of The Maid's Tragedy have been disinclined to treat the play as poetry, preferring to observe its manipulations of situation. (5) Danby remarks that a Beaumont and Fletcher play is strangely impervious to "verbal analysis, the examination of recurrent images"; this is a common, if not always stated, assumption. (6) I will attempt to suggest otherwise by carrying out a sustained analysis of some of the text's figural maneuverings. Genuflections to Shakespeare continue to clutter essays on Beaumont and Fletcher. Shakespeare's more lyrical and "organic" use of language is deemed to be more responsive to verbal analysis, always at the expense of his contemporaries. I suggest that the figural language of The Maid's Tragedy is different but no less sophisticated, less likely to turn on the evolution of metaphor than obsessive repetition or redefinition of key rhetorical elements that lock into conceptual modes under contemporary debate. Alongside this methodological corrective, my reading devotes specific analysis to the play's political engagements, an especially necessary move since one recent writer has gone so far as to suggest that this text is written in such a way as to "effectively remove [it] from the context of contemporary political thought." (7) If Coleridge's image of Beaumont and Fletcher's political servility has been partly displaced, most critics hesitate to register fully the subversive elements of their plays. Though the play's political agenda is hardly clear-cut, I will argue that it does carry out a sustained critique of one aspect of early Stuart political thought, exposing divisions in the notion of the body politic by focusing obsessively on the language of blood, disease, and the body.
The relative obscurity of the play necessitates at least a brief summary. The scene is set at the court at Rhodes, where preparations for a wedding and a celebratory masque are under way. Amintor and Aspatia had been expected to marry, but the play's un-named King has, before the play's opening, arranged a substitute bride for Amintor: He will marry Evadne, who, we will later learn, is already the King's mistress. Melantius, a stalwart soldier, Amintor's closest friend, and Evadne's brother, returns from the wars to celebrate the occasion. Even before the revelation of the King's lechery and his violation of the institution of marriage, there is tension on two fronts. Aspatia, the spurned maid, wanders about disconsolately, casting a pall over the court. Her father, Calianax, has a pre-existing antipathy toward Melantius and the jilting of his
daughter leaves him filled with spleen, outraged with the court at large. After a rather ominous masque, Amintor retires with Evadne only to learn that his marriage is to be an unconsummated sham, himself a cuckold. The next morning, Amintor is obliged to maintain appearances and pretend to have had a night of connubial bliss, but his performances are erratic in quality. The King believes his mistress has been unfaithful to him and flies into a jealous rage; Melantius knows his friend better and senses a deeper wound. He eventually pries the truth from Amintor and learns of his sister's lightness and the King's sexual indiscretions. The soldier takes it upon himself to be the primary actor, forcing a confession from his sister, convincing her to stab the King, and tricking Calianax into giving him the keys to the fort, allowing him the military backing to avoid punishment for his eventual part in regicide. The fifth act is, predictably, a debacle. Evadne avenges the loss of her honor by killing the King; the jilted Aspatia, still despondent, disguises herself as her brother and challenges Amintor to a duel; Amintor kills Aspatia and spurns the repentant Evadne; Amintor and Evadne, both distraught, kill themselves separately. The King's brother, Lysippus, takes the throne and Melantius is allowed, awkwardly, to live.
Even a summary of the action suggests the political ideas at issue. We have a clash between king and court, between the public marriage of the king and the people (a favorite trope of James I) and the private bonds and troth-plights among members of the court. These networks of conflicting obligations destabilize the King's own iconic centrality. The play's metaphorical registers highlight this and constantly emphasize the unruly physicality of the King and his subjects. If the idea of the representative kingly body relies on a tenuous notion of personal integrity, Beaumont and Fletcher's king is painfully reliant on others for gratification, intrusive into the relationships of his subordinates, and subject to his own impulses. (8) In essence, he cannot maintain the serenely iconic presence that is the ideal--the play's own strained metaphorical language is a reflection of this fundamental problem of representation. If the language of the play has felt to some like bunches of disjointed rhetorical flowers, it is because things and words are as tenuously joined as the King and the court that is supposed to be a continuous expression of him. Two key problems trouble the King's representative function: In the first place, the iconic nature of royal power is not limited to the royal figure alone--what assures him power assures everyone power by analogy--the play explicitly grants the same communicative force to the bodies of the wronged subjects. What is more, that corporeal likeness, that commonality, also makes the King himself susceptible to corruption and incision, to an emerging forensic language for the body itself.
The opening of the play sets in motion a chain of images which will eventually draw repeated, pointed attention to the relationship between politics, language, and the body. The opening gesture belongs to Strato, a gentleman at court, who discourses on the commendatory nature of masques, the degree to which they are "tied to rules of flattery." (9) Just when we expect to hear a rebuttal of that rather bald claim by Lysippus (the King's brother), Melantius enters, returning from war and interrupting the conversation. Lysippus's greeting of him perhaps couches a reply to Strato:
Noble Melantius! The land by me welcomes thy virtues home to Rhodes, Thou that with blood abroad buyest us our peace. The breath of kings is like the breath of gods; My brother wish'd thee here, and thou art here. (1.1.13-17)
The notion of representative bodies becomes an issue immediately. Lysippus, though not the king, speaks on behalf of a populace, the "land" speaking through him. The language of economics, which will surface periodically, appears here in the image of blood as currency; Melantius's business is war, and he thus trades in blood, his particular representative virtues serving to obtain a collective reward, "our peace." In opposition to these more instrumental notions of exchange, the king's word is, predictably, magic. The lavish and uncompromising image of kingly fiat is perhaps undercut by Strato's prior mention of flattery, but Strato will also not be heard speaking in that vein again, as if even a second-hand description of royal authority can effectively silence dissent. The abstract delicacy of the image of divine breath prefigures the invocation of "vernal blasts and gentle winds," the natural forces of air and sea that will praise the court in the masque, but here we abruptly encounter a very different image of speech, in Melantius's reply:
My lord, my thanks, but these scratch'd limbs of mine Have spoke my love and truth unto my friends More than my tongue e'er could. My mind's the same It ever was to you; where I find worth I love the keeper till he let it go, And then I follow it. (1.1.21-26)
Melantius will tend to offer this sort of blunt, soldierly usage, predictably eschewing "soft and silken wars" for "shrill" music, but his response here is closely geared to the ideas already in play and is no simple stock pronouncement. The passage contrasts the delicate suspirance of kings with a more corporeal image of rhetoric which will resurface regularly and eventually grow considerably more violent.
The image of the soldier's body as an open book, or a sort of speaking picture, evokes Cicero, first and foremost. In De oratore, Crassus tells of an orator who won his client's case by arousing sympathy through the most elemental language: "For what grace, what power, what spirit, what dignity was wanting to that orator, who, at the close, of a speech, did not hesitate to call forth his accused client, though of consular rank, and to tear open his garment, and to expose to the judges the scars on the breast of the old commander?" (10) What is at stake here is the representative body; Lysippus speaks for the land, the King speaks as if he were a god, and Melantius's "scratch'd limbs" articulate his character. In part, I would suggest, the notion of direct agency implied by Melantius's words draws attention to the facile performativity granted the King, but both postulates are built on an assumption of coherence between a word and what it means, or a physical mark and what it signifies. The trouble is that these vital connections are already implicitly shaken. Melantius, significantly, has suggested that allegiance is transferable, that the body is a vessel for a set of attributes, a mere "keeper" whose contents may shift abruptly. We have been prepared for this in line 14, where Lysippus welcomes not Melantius per se, but the "virtues" of which he is possessed. More troubling still, Melantius's own body will begin to take on a magical quality of its own, implicitly displacing the King's, as he recounts his friend Amintor's wonder at him. The younger courtier eyes the soldier, as if to find the physical ground for virtue, a link between corporeal form and content: "he would gaze upon me / And view me round, to find in what one limb / The virtue lay to do those things he heard" (1.1.52-54).
In addition to establishing a concern with the body as a communicative object to be scrutinized, Beaumont and Fletcher quickly develop a set of metaphorical terms for describing the impact of the body on the viewer, as if the former created a direct propulsion of meaning toward the latter. Evadne, Melantius's sister and Amintor's betrothed, has a certain violence to her; she is a lady "That bears the light about her, and strikes dead / With flashes of her eye" (1.1.75-76). The critical word "strike" is almost immediately echoed in a description of the maid Amintor has spurned, the grief-stricken Aspatia, who "carries with her an infectious grief / That strikes all her beholders" (1.1.97-98). In a play obsessively concerned with brandishing swords, to "strike" inevitably connects a look with a blow, giving a sigh or a glance an almost penetrating quality. This is also the first appearance of infection in the text, an idea which will grow more prominent in the play's metaphorical texture. The word obviously means to taint with disease or corruption, but also has a more strictly emotive meaning, "to affect a person with some feeling," or the "catching and diffusive influence or operation of example, sympathy and the like." (11) What this begins to suggest is the centrality of these ideas of contagion, as they appear early in the play. We have already seen Melantius's virtue infecting Amintor, Evadne's forceful presence infecting all who look on her, and Aspatia's grief infecting a group of women, sending them "weeping one by one away." I think we are meant to intuit one problem with Lysippus's notion of kingship. If the King wishes for something and it happens promptly, the odd thing is that most of the characters thus far seem granted a similar iconic force, a multitude of figures who all absorb nearly as much attention as, say, a King at a masque.
The placement and proportions of the ensuing masque in The Maid's Tragedy are virtually unprecedented. (12) It functions in part to begin splitting the figure of the King, preparing us for his eventual disintegration. The entertainment begins with what feels like an antimasque, the introduction of the figure of Night, gloating at her preeminence: "Our reign is come, for in the raging sea / The sun is drown'd, and with him fell the Day" (1.2.112-13). A reader's first instinct is presumably to identify the sun with the King, the day with his serene and perspicuous sphere, but this masque will distort the conventional polarities. The figures of Night and Cynthia initially conspire to extend their power, usurping the day:
Yet whilst our reign lasts, let us stretch our power To give our servants one contented hour, With such unwonted solemn grace and state As may forever after force them hate Our brother's glorious beams ... (1.1.36-44)
Cynthia, Night's ringleader, gathers up supporting forces to create a spectacular entertainment to upstage the day, drawing upon other amorphous or chaotic forces, like Neptune, Proteus, Aeolus, and the winds. Our first suggestion that such upheaval is dangerous comes with Aeolus's announcement that Boreas has broken his chains and escaped, but while Proteus, Neptune, and their assorted dancers and masquers perform, Cynthia's goal is for us to be entirely immersed in the spectacle, suspending the break of day for the benefit of the bride and groom. As the first song has it, "And no day, Come to steal this night away / Till the rites of love are ended." Beaumont and Fletcher have, in other words, fashioned a kind of masque-aubade. This is a wedding masque and, though wickedly ironic, it celebrates a wedding night, proffering extended hours for the couple--on the surface, Amintor and Evadne. (13) To satisfy that function, however, Night must also aggrandize her own power, extending her dominion to "make an hour an age." The masque, in other words, exposes the cross purposes of the King. If one ideal endpoint of the masque is the reassertion of order figured in the sunrise--which is never actually enacted--and the valedictory words of the King, another is the permanent suspension of that resolution. The Second Song makes this irony explicit:
Hold back thy hours, dark Night, till we have done; The Day will come too soon. Young maids will curse thee if thou steal'st away, And leav'st their blushes open to the day. Stay, stay, and hide The blushes of the bride. Stay, gentle Night, and with thy darkness cover The kisses of her lover. Stay and confound her tears and her shrill cryings, Her weak denials, vows, and often-dyings; Stay and hide all, But help not though she call. (1.2.223-34)
If we continue to assume the ordinary association between sun, day, and King, the joke becomes clear. The day will come too soon, in the person of the King whose totemic, if not physical, presence will violate and preempt the comfort and sanctity night is supposed to promise the new couple. Yet night also serves the King, implicitly: The kisses in line 230 are those of a "lover" not a husband, which should remind us that the King's interests lie in subterfuge, hence the entire device of the sham marriage. The result is a strange double bind. Night's pause disrupts the coming of day, just as the King's nocturnal exploits ultimately undercut his position, but Night is also a necessary agent, covering the indiscretions of the trope whose power it is supposed to ensure by its punctual disappearance. The King's own appearance is by definition a revelation, yet he is also a king of dark corners, a doubleness the masque serves to point up. In effect, the usual polarities by which masques order meaning could hardly be more muddled--and the straightforwardly iconic system of representation we would tend to expect founders. We are thus left with a masque that is a public celebration and a private, perverse joke at the same time.
Almost as if a consequence of the masque's destabilizing force, a new semantic pattern bursts into play. We have already noted the heavy repetition of the word "strike"; with the end of the masque and the staging of the wedding night comes the stranger and more forceful language of "shooting." The impending sunrise at the end of the masque is described like so: "The day breaks here, and yon sun-flaring stream / Shot from the south." The image suggests the rupturing and penetration of night's fabric. The word "shot" is fairly unobtrusive here, but images of shooting will accrue considerable force as the drama proceeds, drawing attention to the permeability of the human body as well. It is no accident that immediately after the masque we will hear it twice again. As Evadne prepares for her wedding night, Dula, her maid, and Aspatia wait on her. Aspatia resents Evadne's impending pleasure (recall that Aspatia was originally meant to marry Amintor before the King's sham marriage plan took shape) and threatens her vaguely: "Thou think'st thy heart hard, but if thou be'st caught, / Remember me; thou shalt perceive a fire / Shot suddenly into thee." Dula's bawdy response is to make shooting a literal, rather than a metaphorical, penetration: "That's not so good; / Let 'em shoot anything but fire, and I / Fear 'em not" (2.1.60-64). These images should return us to the initial scenes and their preoccupation with corporeality and the "striking" power certain figures can have in affecting others emotionally. Dula's sexual image helps develop a linkage between physical and emotional penetration. Despite the bawdy build-up, there is of course no conjugal satisfaction in store for the couple. Evadne will devastate Amintor by revealing that the King he follows has made him a dupe and that she will be faithful not to her husband, but her royal lover.
Oddly enough, if Amintor's wedding night is a dismal instance of coitus pre-emptus, there is a sort of strange consummation between him and Aspatia, whose grief is itself penetrative. When he meets her on his way to Evadne and the anticipated consummation of his marriage, Aspatia has gone from the infectious griever of Act I to a force of nature, almost mingling bloods with Amintor: "Methinks I feel / Her grief shoot suddenly through all my veins; / Mine eyes run" (2.1.123-25). (14) Amintor is a peculiarly vacillating figure, generally bearing the impress of the person with whom has last been talking. (15) Here, he plays the female to Aspatia's soul, reinforcing our sense of the diffusion of iconic power in this play, and thus evoking the first explicit moment of conflicted allegiance, as Amintor, "too sensible," negotiates between his troth-plight to Aspatia and the King that "forc'd" him to marry another.
What the poetic language of The Maid's Tragedy seems to be doing then is anatomizing an analogy. If the masque splits the King into diurnal and nocturnal effigies (devious Night and ordering Sun), he is already a divided figure. His body--and everyone else's--is also compromised in so far as it is caught between two conceptions, one of the body as a relatively self-contained, communicative icon, and the other where a character can seem a forensic locus, a contested site of investigation and inquiry. In the first image, the body is integral; in the latter, it is divided or broken. If Aspatia is the most straightforwardly iconic figure, signifying grief in her every member, Evadne plays the divided opposite, representing the fissured body. Thus, she is always the subject of crude jokes--the mocking words of the gentlemen when she visits the King and the "morning after" wisecracks of her brothers and Strato. The crudest is the assumption that her sexual integrity can be determined at a glance on the basis of bodily evidence:
Diphilus. Sister, Dula swears she heard you cry two rooms off. Evadne. Fie, how you talk! Diphilus. Let's see you walk, Evadne. By my troth, y'are spoiled. (3.1.93-95)
Melantius's body speaks--it can testify to his virtue and clear him of wrongdoing, as it does later when the King proves incapable of making him blush at the suggestion of his treason. His sister's body, by contrast, is something to be probed and questioned, a body which will reveal its secrets with the merest step. It is this predicament to which the King is subject by analogy, and into which Evadne intends to plunge him by laying bare his sins with a knife. The implicit, and rather jaded, joke on the part of the playwrights is really that the image of the body politic is vitiated by its participation in a duality, caught between the singularity of royalty and the commonality of the visceral body, which is neither self-sufficient, nor immune to penetration and examination by the light that the King himself metaphorically casts.
Beaumont and Fletcher continue to emphasize the divided quality of the King in the confrontation after the wedding night. Evadne and Amintor pretend to have enjoyed themselves to maintain the royal charade, but Amintor's performance fools the King into thinking his mistress really has enjoyed her sham husband. Evadne denies that the marriage was consummated ("I did not only shun him for a night, / But told him I would never close with him.") but the King insists on assuming that she is lying and that Amintor's lie is truth. The awkward ground of his assumption is the physical and emotional likeness among men; he forgets, in a sense, his own putative singularity:
Do not I know the uncontrolled thoughts That youth brings with him, when his blood is high With expectation and desire of that He long hath waited for? Is not his spirit, Though he be temperate, of a valiant strain As this our age hath known? What could he do If sudden speech had met his blood But ruin thee forever, if he had not kill'd thee? He could not bear it thus; he is as we Or any other wrong'd man. (3.1.200-9)
The King effectively places himself and Amintor on the same level, lowering himself and raising his subject. Amintor is thus associated with "high" blood, valiance, and so forth, but the real emphasis is on the description of the King by analogy. The penultimate line retains the royal "we," but effectively fails to discriminate between King and subject: A wronged man is a wronged man is a wronged man. The King is thus "uncontrolled," his blood elevated and difficult to subdue, associated with "desire" and (perhaps bawdily) "spirit." If the King is like Amintor, he himself must react in purely visceral terms, his mind effectively disengaged by the continued emphasis on blood, as if the bodily fluid associated throughout with lust, guilt, impolicy, and instantaneous reaction were his sole apparatus for apprehending the world. Thus both Amintor and the King hear with their veins: "What could be do / If such a sudden speech had met his blood, / But ruin thee forever, if he had not kill'd thee?"
Amintor has stepped away for this conference between the King and Evadne. After a brief outburst ("Y'are a tyrant") his reactions are meek, built on the fundamental assumption of difference indicated by the institution of kingship, but ineptly maintained by the actual figure on the stage. In one of the play's many sword brandishings, the purely formal distinction between the two is driven home:
King. Draw not thy sword; thou know'st I cannot fear A subject's hand; but thou shalt feel the weight Of this, if thou dost rage. [Draws his sword.] Amintor. The weight of that! If you have any worth, for Heaven's sake, think I fear not swords, for, as you are mere man, I dare as easily kill you for this deed As you dare think to do it. But there is Divinity about you that strikes dead My rising passions; as you are my king, I fall before you and present my sword To cut mine own flesh, if it be your will. Alas! I am nothing but a multitude Of walking griefs! (3.1.239-51)
The King's speech sounds predicated on reason, driven by logical conjunctions like "but" and "if," only it is self-evidently a piece of mystification. He does not so much articulate or persuade as invoke something already in Amintor. The most suggestive word is "cannot" in line 239. The King "cannot fear" in more than one sense. Putatively, he is simply above the fray, immune to the threats of an inferior, but, to the attentive auditor, he also cannot, must not, fear, for the acknowledgement of fear is tantamount to an announcement of his conventional humanity, an admission to Amintor of all the King has already foolishly admitted to Evadne by his behavior. The recourse to physical threat indicates sharply that this magic is already in a state of disrepair, reliant on extremes to which a more magisterial leader might not resort--say, an Othello, who can dispel conflict with serenity: "Put up your bright swords for the dew will rust them." It is the threat to which Amintor first responds, insisting that he fears no physical violence and demystifying the king's two bodies by stressing the ruler's mere manhood. The magic of the higher body politic is not quite voided yet, however, and there is a clear suggestion of sexual impotence in Amintor's next move. He drops his sword and the play's word for iconic force reappears, as the King's "Divinity" "strikes dead the courtier's potential revolt." This quasi-erotic force dashes the "rising passions" and the sort of high blood and "spirit" the King predicted would reveal itself; Amintor is left metaphorically flaccid and the King lives another day, his rival in love reduced to "a multitude of walking griefs," without singular force, allowing his high blood to be imagistically let. (16)
That said, the developing fissure is inescapable, as Evadne makes painfully clear in the play's most succinct debunking of the king's two bodies. (17) In this same scene, in an exchange packed with "dissembling" and predictable playing with the word "lie," the King refuses to believe Evadne's claim that her marriage went unconsummated. Before the King has formally announced his conception of his likeness to Amintor, Evadne has already gotten the idea and the game is up:
King. Why, thou dissemblest, and it is in me To punish thee. Evadne. Why it is in me, then, Not to love you, which will more afflict Your body than your punishment can mine. (3.1.187-90)
The depiction of emotional qualities or intentions as if they were the contents of a vessel ("it is in me to punish thee") draws us back to some of the motifs at the play's opening, the questions surrounding in what part of the body virtue resides. Here the contents of Evadne's body trump the contents of the King's because her punishment has more force and her own body (ironically, given Renaissance sexual dynamics) has a greater integrity. Just before this passage, she had emphasized the truth of her protestations by wishing for leprosy if she lied. The language of disease reappears and the king's body, at least as prone to "affliction" as her own, cannot withstand the threat of an Aristophanic revolt by his mistress, a powerful reminder that the king's one body cannot withstand the divine onus of his other, that his own putative integrity is itself dissembled.
The tension between the King's singularity and commonality is followed out thematically by the ensuing conversations between Melantius and Amintor. Their exchange turns on suppressing disparate, multiplicitous relationships in favor of a symbolically univocal conception of "friendship." After the elaborate unfolding of the theme of dissimulation amongst the King, Amintor, and Evadne, Melantius's probing of Amintor's false happiness tracks out some of the same distinctions. They debate friendship, Melantius's contention being that a friend should always lay open his troubles and not "Cover o'er with smiles" (3.2.68). Amintor insists on his happiness in language drawn from the King's image of sexual and emotional vigor in the previous scene: "No, I am light, / And feel the courses of my blood more warm / And stirring than they were." The word "friend" is endlessly repeated and debated ("'tis not like a friend / To hide your soul from me"), distinguished from mere "acquaintance," "foe," or "miler." The courtiers, like the King, attempt to maintain predictable relationships and their angst prompts some of the play's most forceful rhetoric, eventually leading to a critical transition in the metaphorical language of the text. Amintor has at last admitted that he is a cuckold, Melantius's sister a whore, and the King a blackguard, but Melantius's promised vengeance makes the younger courtier want his secret back from his more soldierly compeer:
Amintor. It must not be so. Stay. Mine eyes would tell How loath I am to this, but, love and tears, Leave me awhile, for I have hazarded All that this world calls happy. Thou hast wrought A secret from me under name of friend, Which art could ne'er have found, nor torture wrung From out my bosom. Give it me again, For I will find it wheresoe'er it lies, Hid in the mortal'st part; invent a way To give it back. (3.2.204-13)
The transition turns on incorporating far more invasive violence into the ideational language of the body, the notion that a quality inheres physically. The elaborately maintained ideal of friendship and fraternal confidence has brought Amintor to a point physical suffering could not have and the request that his secret be returned takes the form of a threat. Where, in Act 1, Amintor looked on his friend longingly, in search of the physical seat of virtue, he now would find a secret and remove it, even at the cost of violating "the mortal'st part." Beaumont and Fletcher are nothing if not systematic, for, moments later, that violence appears twofold in Melantius's compact with his brother Diphilus. The two agree to work together according to Melantius's plan for vengeance: "Thou art my brother, and if I did believe / Thou hadst a base thought, I would rip it out, / Lie where it durst." Diphilus would just as soon maintain his own corporeal truth, masochistic suggestions notwithstanding: "You should not; I would first/Mangle myself and find it" (3.2.270-73).
This new register is more fully exploited in another structurally parallel exchange, Melantius's interrogation of his sister, a scene of conversion by force that critics constantly liken to the closet scene from Hamlet. (18) Melantius, inclined to think himself a straightforward, scarred tablet of his own virtues, will allow his sister no such recourse, no such claims of contiguity between body and soul: (19)
Evadne. My faults, sir? I would have you know I care not If they were written here, here in my forehead. Melantius. Thy body is too little for the story, The lusts of which would fill another woman, Though she had twins within her. (4.1.31-34)
Like the King, Melantius assumes that Evadne is a master of dissemblance, even though she hides little or nothing--in this case only the identity of her lover for some hundred lines. They also both assume her body is an inadequate container, despite the fact that the King's seems more so. The reference to hypothetical twins evokes the doubling and contagious duplicity of which she is accused. Melantius, so frustrated he would rather "grapple with the plague," excoriates her in terms clearly derived from the anatomizing language of the masculine exchanges just discussed:
Quench me this mighty humor, and then tell me Whose whore you are; for you are one, I know it. Let all mine honors perish but I'll find him, Though he lie lock'd up in thy blood. Be sudden; There is no facing it. And be not flattered: The burnt air when the Dog reigns is not fouler Than thy contagious name, till thy repentance (If the gods grant thee any) purge thy sickness. (4.1.52-55)
To "face it" is of course to use appearances to evade (which Evadne's name evokes). (20) A face is singular but what Evadne represents to Melantius is not: She is a breeding ground for disease, associated with animality and doubleness. This is a passage about the public and the private, hence the language of locks, but the lines between the two spheres are contorted and blurred because it is the private person of a public figure, the King himself, that "lies," locked in Evadne's blood. She later accuses that public figure of infecting her with contagion and she will be right; it is the break in the King's person that creates these twinning effects and representational anomalies. Evadne could be, and might as well be, pregnant, for Melantius imagines her as two or three people in one, a whore, a sister, and a mistress. In a moment of what feels like proto-germ theory, she has a name (which Melantius is presumably less than comfortable sharing) that is foul, laden with plague. Evadne thus becomes a figure who, though hardly without fault, is saddled with a metaphorical pregnancy, the scandal she gives birth to and the fissured King whose venality she is suffered to portray for her brother. Melantius, indeed, splits her persona even further, reading her "branded flesh" as an emblem both for her "black shame" and his own righteous "justice" (4.1.109-10).
If we last saw Amintor stripped of all force, Evadne's contrition after her interrogation reinvigorates him and further diffuses the totemic force that ought to be more strictly associated with kingship. After her encounter with Melantius, Evadne and Amintor share their own compact in a strange scene that evokes both an oath of allegiance and a sexual consummation. Evadne, in abasing herself, takes on the images of disease and infidelity; she casts herself as the antimasque and begs for a rejuvenating, divine light from the otherwise inconsequential figure of Amintor:
Evadne. I do present myself the foulest creature, Most poisonous, dangerous, and despis'd of men Lerna e'er bred or Nilus. I am hell, Till you, my dear lord, shoot your light into me, The beams of your forgiveness; I am soul-sick, And wither with the fear of one condemn'd Till I have got your pardon. Amintor. Rise Evadne. Those heavenly powers that put this good into thee Grant a continuance of it. I forgive thee. (4.1.229-37)
The images here are clearly calibrated to return us to the world of the masque, where "a sun-flaring stream / Shot from the south," appears at the end. The greatest force of misrule in the masque is Boreas, the north wind; thus the passage connects Amintor by analogy with an opposite order of perspicuous, contained meaning. This is almost a sacramental encounter, with Amintor providing a sort of absolution. Ordinarily a wayward figure, Amintor is addressed as a "lord" and he exists here as an exemplar of sorts. As a character he has not necessarily changed--he will still have a tendency to vacillate as the plot unfolds--but, for a moment, Beaumont and Fletcher grant the couple a delicately maintained purity, as Evadne re-places her allegiance, and in the image of shooting light, grants Amintor a semblance of conjugal gratification and of representative power. The result, a few lines later, is a mutual liquefaction, Evadne weeping like Niobe, Amintor momentarily "at peace": "I am now dissolved; / My frozen soul melts" (4.1.259-60). Amintor is a callous confessor, holding her responsible for his fallen honor (line 277), but the scene represents a consummation nonetheless. The King worries that Evadne has been sexually unfaithful to him. She has not been, but this scene represents an infidelity of another sort. The King is physically dependant on Evadne, as we have seen, and the simple fact of that physicality has plunged him into these multiple networks of association and allegiance. His personal mistress and public subject has now entered into another union, asking to be shot through with a light not his own.
Until Act 5, the King retains a suggestion of his vestigial power. When Melantius needs to prevent Amintor from attacking the King himself and destroying his own plan, he calmly returns Amintor to a state of virtual prostration by simply invoking, in an oft-quoted line, "the king, the king, the king," thus charming the sword from Amintor's hand. The important interlude ends with a reminder of the link between the body and power, which is about to be turned on its head. Dissuaded from revenge, Amintor reverses the direction of the scene and warns Melantius of the King's power: "There's not the least limb growing to a king / But carries thunder in't" (4.2.325-26). I have not seen the sexual joke here remarked, but clearly the king's least limb is one seat of his power, the origin of succession, the part with which he destroys Evadne and subjugates Amintor entirely. Thunder evokes lightning and perhaps the running metaphor of shooting; Melantius disingenuously assures Amintor that he has no thunder equal to the task of revolt, but we know he has got the fort and will have other forms of artillery at his back, demystified weaponry to be directed at the King and his heir, assuring at least his own scarred authority for the time being.
The Act 5 regicide brings the now-developed language of bodily penetration home to roost and allows for Evadne at least partially to displace the burden of disease she assumed in Act 4. Her exchanges with the King foreground the degree to which the metaphors for kingship have developed a centrifugal relation to their putative center:
Evadne. Stay, sir, stay; You are too hot, and I have brought you physic To temper your high veins. King. Prithee, to bed then; let me take it warm; There thou shalt know the state of my body better. Evadne. I know you have a surfeited foul body, And you must bleed. [Draws a knife.] (5.1.52-58)
It should perhaps be obvious that this is a literalization of the metaphorical thread whose development I have traced thus far. (21) The lines are not all that simple to paraphrase. Like Helena in All's Well That Ends Well, Evadne plays the doctor ministering to the King. Here the King's commonality, his connection to other men, returns in the images of heat and blood--his "blood is high with expectation and desire." Evadne's role is now to let the blood from the person of the tyrant and by extension to deflate the tyranny he embodies. The punning phrase "state of my body" connects the King's two bodies inextricably, the death of the one encapsulating the death of the other. Evadne even goes so far as to recast the diseased images she used to describe herself to Amintor in a tirade that effectively makes the King the ill weather that blots out his own symbolic luminosity; he is
A thing out of the overcharge of nature, Sent like a thick cloud to disperse a plague Upon weak catching women, such a tyrant, That for his lust would sell away his subjects, Ay, all his heaven hereafter. (5.1.91-95)
The King has now absorbed the images of excess that have routinely clung to Evadne herself; he is thick, overcharged, raining corruption. It takes more than one stroke of the knife to dispatch him, but the gentlemen outside the chamber will wonder momentarily that the encounter was so brief: "How quickly he had done with her! I sec kings can do no more that way than other mortal people" (5.1.117-18). In this, the play's most jarring joke, we have the precipitous collapse of a myth and a return to the masque with which the play more or less began. (22) The ideal there was suspension, the assumption that a night of lust ought well to last, but here the King too is circumscribed, his erotic temporality violently foreclosed. The play's action and metaphorical fabric have made the King's body no different than any other, susceptible to the same failings, the same investigations and violations, incommensurable with its own attendant symbology. He is unable, clearly, to inhabit the myth, his mortal body coarsely emphasized in a one-liner that reminds us in how many senses the King is dead. Masques end with a new beginning, the royal presence ordering the world, the priapic sun reinvesting the night. Beaumont and Fletcher's king has come and gone; Evadne has divested him of mystery, tempered his "high veins," and, in so doing, anatomized the body politic.
(1) Coleridge as cited in Sandra Clark's The Plays of Beaumont and Fletcher: Sexual Themes and Dramatic Representation (New York: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1994), 7, 101. See also Roberta F. Brinkley, Coledridge on the Seventeenth Century (Duke U. Press, 1955), 656-68. Earlier versions of this essay were presented at the annual conference of The Group for Early Modern Cultural Studies (October, 2003) and as part of the Fall 2004 Lecture Series at The Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies at Binghamton University. Fellowships from Utica College and from the William Andrews Clark Memorial Library provided invaluable support. I would also like to record my gratitude to Victoria Silver and Richard Kroll for their comments and suggestions.
(2) See Eliot's chapter on Jonson in Elizabethan Essays (New York: Haskell House, 1964), esp. 77-79. Originally published in 1934 (London: Faber & Faber).
(3) See J. F. Danby, Poets on Fortune's Hill (London: Faber and Faber, 1952) and Eugene Waith, The Pattern of Tragicomedy in Beaumont and Fletcher (Yale U. Press, 1952). The most thorough recent statement of the awkward relationship between Beaumont and Fletcher and post-romantic literary criticism is the astute introduction to Sandra Clark's The Plays of Beaumont and Fletcher which emphasizes the ill-suitedness of these plays to the liberal humanist interest in character and the deleterious effect of bardolatry on non-Shakespearean (and especially collaborative) Renaissance drama.
(4) A. C. Kirsch claims that we are not supposed to take "the protagonists very seriously. The choices are indeed empty of meaning ... because the alternatives they pose are essentially rhetorical counters in a theatrical display ... In this respect the old judgment, held by both Coleridge and Eliot, that Beaumont and Fletcher s plays are parasitic and without inner meaning, seems just." See Jacobean Dramatic Perspectives (U. Press of Virginia, 1972), 47. Walter Cohen, more recently, agrees, alleging that The Maid's Tragedy "plays with moral and political issues so that they will heighten the emotional effect without acquiring any significance in the process." See Drama of a Nation: Public Theater in Renaissance England and Spain (Cornell U. Press, 1985), 370-71. He even goes so far as to say that "Beaumont and Fletcher's solution to conflict combines dramaturgical exploitation with ideological evasion: it ignores all difficulty" (392).
(5) In addition to the fact that these plays were dramatic successes, it is worth noting that the later publication of the Beaumont and Fletcher Folio clearly insinuates that these are plays to be read as wen. The prefatory verses, according to Clark "implicitly accord the Beaumont and Fletcher plays the status of poetry, of texts that will reward reading" (15).
(6) See Danby, 201. For another instance of this skepticism, see also Michael Neill who, though a brilliant reader of the play, has doubts about its poetic coherence: "The language of the Fletcher plays obviously lacks the poetic intensity of the best Elizabethan and Jacobean work, and it does not appear to be organized in patterns which can be called (except in the broadest sense) morally significant." See Neill's "'The Simetry, Which Gives a Poem Grace': Masque, Imagery, and the Fancy of The Maid s Tragedy," Renaissance Drama 3 (1970): 111-36, esp. 115. I might venture the suggestion that this typical disinclination may have something to do with the fact of joint authorship. But naively to assume that, say, an image pattern from Hamlet is by definition more coherent and susceptible to analysis is to disguise the fact that most Tudor and Stuart drama is co-written and to believe blindly in notions of individual genius. My invocation of Hamlet is of course disingenuous. As the Shakespearean touchstone par excellence, it inevitably appears in blithe remarks like the following: "Of course the 'echoes' of Hamlet in The Maid's Tragedy merely accentuate the emptiness of its ethical and political issues. Its agonizing reappraisals of honor and loyalty are merely words, words, words; its characters doomed by the unpredictable quirks of their deranged personalities, not by the inexorable consequences of their acts." See Robert Ornstein, The Moral Vision of Jacobean Tragedy (U. of Wisconsin Press, 1960), 174.
(7) Italics mine. See Ronald Broude, "Divine Right and Divine Retribution" in Shakespeare and Dramatic Tradition, ed. W. R. Elton and William B. Long (London and Toronto: Associated University Presses, 1989), 251. He goes on to say that "the concepts of kingship upon which The Maid's Tragedy draws are applied to a situation so apolitical and so unusual that they seem to have little if any relevance to the real world of politics." See also note 13: "Significantly, no attempt is made to invoke the tradition of the king's 'two bodies.'" My reading seeks to counter these claims by focusing more closely on the language of the play. In stark contrast to Broude's insistence on the non-specificity of the political issues in the play, Bowers argues that Amintor's speeches "carefully copied James's own utterances" (175). The notion that the play is politically disengaged might also be countered by raising the issue of its probable censorship, a complicated, and, for my purposes, peripheral question. For a thorough discussion see: Robert D. Hume, "The Maid's Tragedy and Censorship in the Restoration Theatre," PQ 61 (1982): 484-89.
(8) This feature of the play is briefly discussed by Lee Bliss: "In splitting his own two bodies and allowing the private man's lust to subvert the royal figure's responsibilities, the king has forced his subjects to reevaluate not merely their own duty to him but the whole system of values and beliefs he theoretically embodies." See her Francis Beaumont (Boston: Twayne, 1987), 94. For the classic studies of the king's two bodies and ideas of divine right, see Ernst Kantorowicz, The King's Two Bodies : A Study in Mediaeval Political Theology (Princeton U. Press, 1997); and John Neville Figgis, The Divine Right of Kings (Cambridge U. Press, 1922). For other key discussions of royal duplicity and the king's two bodies see Louis Marin, Portrait of the King, trans. Martha Houle (U. of Minnesota Press, 1988) and Jonathan Goldberg, James I and the Politics of Literature (The Johns Hopkins U. Press, 1983).
(9) The Maid's Tragedy, ed. Howard B. Norland (U. of Nebraska Press, 1968), 4. All references to The Maid's Tragedy are to this edition and will be cited parenthetically by act, scene, and fine numbers.
(10) See De oratore, in Cicero ou Oratory and Orators, ed. J. S. Watson (Southern Illinois U. Press, 1970), 116. "Quod enim ornamentum, quae vis, qui animus, quae dignitas illi oratori defuit, qui in causa peroranda non dubitavit excitare reum consularem et eius diloricare tunicam et iudicibus cicatrices adversas senis imperatoris ostendere?" (Cicero, De oratore, 2.28.124).
(11) OED, 2nd ed., s.v. "infect" and "infectious." Aspatia's speech is cited under the following denotation: "Of actions, emotions, etc.: Having the quality of spreading from one to another; 'catching', contagious."
(12) The masque has been something of a touchstone in criticism of the play. Sarah Sutherland emphasizes its singularity among other masques within plays, elaborates some of its sexual undertones, and reads the escape of Boreas as anticipating the rebellion in the play at large. See her Masques in Jacobean Tragedy (New York: AMS Press, Inc., 1983), esp. 62-69. The two most extended articles on The Maid's Tragedy explore the masque at length. Michael Neill reads it as an equivocal combination of epithalamic and epitaphic patterns that resounds through the play. William Shullenberger, in an exceptionally compelling essay, analyzes the loose ends of the masque and extends them into a reading of the play's troubled and collapsing values, its awareness of a culture's "unstable purchase on political and metaphysical authority." See Neill (op.cit.) and Shullenberger, "'This For the Most Wrong'd of Women': A Reappraisal of The Maid s Tragedy, Renaissance Drama 13 (1982): 131-56, esp. 133.
(13) My understanding of the ironies of the masque is partly informed by a colleague's dissertation: Peter Byrne, "I and I: Incarnations of the Autarch in Seventeenth-Century English Drama" (Ph.D. diss., University of California, Irvine, 2004). Byrne explores the structural implications of the masque for royal agency and argues that, in this case, the King seizes a form of power in the masque by virtue of the fact that only he can read its doubleness, its function as both a false encomium and a cryptic celebration of his own lustful arrangement with Evadne.
(14) It is worth noting that this imagery of mingling bloods, also a feature of Philaster, appears occasionally throughout The Maid's Tragedy. See especially 1.2.79-83, where we have a virtual transfusion imagined between Melantius and Calianax.
(15) Two major readings focus particular attention on Amintor. Bowers reads him, somewhat implausibly, as the hero of the play, caught between his conflicting obligations to virtue and revenge. Philip Finkelpearl builds a nuanced reading of Amintor's dilemma, stressing the vacillation that comes along with his blend of honor-boundness and "honest" guilelessness. See Court and Country Politics in the Plays of Beaumont and Fletcher (Princeton U. Press, 1990), 189-94.
(16) The image of "a multitude of walking griefs" also highlights Amintor's developing resemblance to Aspatia, a fact noted periodically in the critical tradition; see especially Finkelpearl, 194.
(17) Evadne's power and singularity as a character has generated a few gendered readings of the play. Anne M. Haselkorn perhaps oversimplifies, making Evadne simply a buttress for patriarchy, "a confused, dependent, inconsistent character, riddled with masochistic self-condemnation and misguidedly subjected to the will of all the men in her life husband, brother, lover." Cristina Leon Alfar offers a more precise critique of Evadne's commodification in the play; Shullenberger provocatively makes her the tragic hero. See Haselkom, "Sin and the Politics of Penitence: Three Jacobean Adulturesses," in The Renaissance Englishwoman in Print, ed. Haselkorn and Betty S. Travitsky (U. of Massachusetts Press, 1990), 119-36, esp. 123; Alfar, "Staging the Feminine Performance of Desire: Masochism in The Maid's Tragedy," Papers on Language and Literature 31 (1995): 313-33; and the more general discussion in Clark, esp. 101-13.
(18) The critical tradition is littered with comparisons between Hamlet and this and other Beaumont and Fletcher plays--out of which relatively little is usually made. For the most prominent connective discussions see Orustein, 171-84; and H. Neville Davies, "Beaumont and Fletcher's Hamlet," in Shakespeare Man of the Theater, ed. Kenneth Muir, Jay L. Halio, and D.J. Palmer (London and Toronto: Associated University Presses, 1983), 173-81.
(19) Just before the description of Evadne's faults being written in her forehead, Melantius reminds us again of his "honor'd sears," reinforcing the disparity between her body and his (4.1.27-28).
(20) I suspect this is the logic behind the suggestion by Stephen Booth that "Evadne" means "wayward," as reported in passing by Finkelpearl (191, n. 15).
(21) A number of critics have offered readings of the death scene. As Howard B. Norland puts it, the scene "literally acts out the contemporary metaphor for sexual intercourse, to die" (xvii). In this reading, he follows Ornstein, (176). For slightly different readings, see also the fine discussions by Byrne, Neill, and especially Shullenberger.
(22) Finkelpearl also grasps the demystifying quality of this important line (201).
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|Author:||Denman, Jason R.|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2005|
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