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Charismatic Authority in Early Modern English Tragedy.

Raphael Falco. Charismatic Authority in Early Modern English Tragedy. Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000. Pp. x + 233. $39.95

Any book whose first chapter invites heavy underlining must be either smart or impenetrable. This one is smart, and quite ambitious. The "Introduction" to Charismatic Authority in Early Modern English Tragedy identifies its approach as interdisciplinary (ix). More specifically, it matches literary texts with sociological theory, in particular that of Max Weber, to describe the paradoxical phenomenon of charismatic authority. Falco insists that literary analysis drives his discussion, and he is right. Charismatic Authority never just applies sociological concepts to the texts, but at the same time, it does not shy away from hard concepts and, when appropriate, discipline-specific language. Without fail, this combination makes for an athletic, but satisfying, reading experience.

Falco begins by remarking on how the last twenty years of work on early modern subjectivity has produced a false evolutionary model for subjectivity, an "either/or" narrative of historical change that posits a discontinuous self beneath the "continuous interiority" of liberal humanism. The phenomenon of charisma challenges either/or thinking because charismatic authority is a "shared experience" (12). Falco's explanation of charisma in his "Introduction" depends on a series of paradoxes. What he calls "systemic mutuality" (7, 18) involves a leader whose power borders on the divine and who achieves high status by being exceptional. The charismatic leader has unbounded agency, which relieves his followers of the need for making choices. The charismatic leader therefore undermines the status quo, but introduces in their place new normalizing structures. This process Weber calls the "routinization" of charisma. Leader and followers are locked in an economy of mutual dependence, but according to yet another paradoxical twist in the argument, the first casualty of this mutuality is the charismatic hero himself. The idealization of the leader's mission "reifies it, occluding the individual at its center" (17). That is, the hero loses his position to a symbolic version of himself.

Chapter 1, "Revolution to Routinization," examines both parts of Tamburlaine the Great as a limit case, a study in "pure charisma." Beginning with Helen Gardner's observation that Tamburlaine's magic over other people wanes in Part 2, Falco offers a fresh view of the play's quirks that explains in a theoretically sound way not only Tamburlaine's quixotic behavior, but also the sometimes astonishing responses of others to him. In his ambitious quest for an earthly crown, Tamburlaine manipulates masterfully the "processes of disorder" (29) through his physical stature and his extraordinary desire. Attracting followers through a shared but suppressed libidinal desire, Tamburlaine establishes a monarchy based on "the charismatic quality of honor rather than hereditary kingship" (30). Tamburlaine's problems start when he marries Zenocrate and bureaucratizes the egalitarian and irrational grounds of group dependence. The homosocial bonds between Tamburlaine and his followers, which were guaranteed by his own sexual asceticism, are strained. "The formation of charismatic groups depends in varying degrees on the erotic undercurrent that binds members to leader," Falco writes: "as long as erotic needs remain activated but unrealized, regardless of whether they are homosexual or heterosexual in objective, they can act as the glue binding a group together" (37).

Zenocrates's passion for Tamburlaine puts an end to all that, so that in Part 2 we find Tamburlaine becoming trapped by his own charismatic symbols. He slips into mistaking symbolic means for ends, so that his later exploits, such as burning the town where Zenocrate died, neither solidify the group nor advance his empire. No longer a messiah, Tamburlaine replicates the very authorities he had supplanted so that his rhetoric begins to ring hollow. His charisma, in Weber's terms, has become routinized. As a result, Tamburlaine finds himself betrayed by both family and friends and his attempts to guarantee the succession of his charismatic power through lineal descent ends ambiguously, with the death of effeminate Calyphas and the succession of Amyras, his eldest son.

Chapter 2, "Charismas in Conflict," gives a surprising new twist to well-worn comparisons between Richard II and Henry Bolingbroke in the first play of Shakespeare's second tetralogy. Falco focuses not so much on Bolingbroke's personal charisma, a topic that has received much attention under other labels, but on Richard's paradoxical negotiation between personal and the impersonal charisma in a political structure that has reified "lineage charisma," a state in which "lineage replaces the unique leader with the impersonal--and presumably more stable--authority of a family" (71). Richard relies on the "myth of the transferability of charisma through blood ties," which is the "foundational myth of aristocracy" (73). Paradoxically, when this myth is proven to be patently false, Richard successfully exhibits personal subjectivity and, in defeat, achieves a degree of charisma not possible when he relied solely on the impersonal authority of blood ties. This observation allows Falco to make an important correction in standard versions of the contrast between Richard and Bolingbroke, to show that both maneuver within the spaces between personal and impersonal charisma and to suggest that Richard's defeat is not inevitable; it has its own tensions and drama.

"Individuation as Disintegration: Hamlet and Othello," the third chapter, is the most eccentric in the book and the one with which I wanted to argue the most strenuously, but for these reasons it is also a simulating chapter. The pairing seems a bit forced, as the chapter begins by admitting that Hamlet and Othello "kill for utterly different reasons and they are victims of patently different kinds of betrayal" (101). Both halves of this somewhat bifurcated chapter deal with the lead characters, not the plays as a whole. The section on Hamlet, nevertheless, gives a new and different perspective on Hamlet's failures and ultimate disintegration. Falco sees Hamlet as struggling unsuccessfully with the charisma of his departed father. While he disrupts the status quo, Hamlet is unable to gather a group around him. Hamlet's tragedy is therefore the tragedy of individuation, or failed charisma. The section on Othello is less convincing. Falco does a good job of offering a new explanation for Iago's antipathy for Desdemona as the group member's opposition to the figure who disrupts the "aim-inhibited" erotic bonds of the male charismatic group. Yet Othello's charisma, in this reading, is so much a thing of the past that the play before us is incompletely explicated. Notably missing is attention to Desdemona's role in the tragedy.

Chapter 4,"Charisma as Catastrophe: Samson's Gift;' continues in the same vein. Milton's Samson, as a Nazarite and a denizen of the Book of Judges, is destined to be a charismatic leader; yet his status, set apart for God, also prevents him from gathering around him the Israelites as a group. A political naif, he either does not know how to or refuses to manipulate the symbols of his special condition as a deliverer of the Israelites. Samson does not exploit properly his "symbolic capital." Again, the hero's individuation and the role played by the charismatic group and its needs are at odds with one another. Sympathy for Samson grows when he is subjected to humiliation by his Philistine captors; Falco traces the changes through the Chorus's speeches. Samson's tragedy, however, is that his death follows hard on his moment of greatest power and influence. He leaves behind "a leaderless charismatic movement and a uninheritable set of charismatic symbols" (167). Falco calls Samson Agonistes a clear "flow chart of charisma" and the clarity with which he argues this chapter bears out his claim.

Charismatic Authority in Early Modern English Tragedy concludes with "Erotic Charismas: The Tragedies of Cleopatra." Falco works primarily with Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra but also refers to other early modern versions of the Cleopatra myth, which at times can become confusing. But because no definition of erotic charisma exists in the sociological literature, although Weber does attend to the role of the erotic in charismatic groups, this is perhaps the most adventurous chapter in the book. It sets out to explain the phenomenon of charisma when "aim-inhibited libidinal" impulses are actually fulfilled. Two particularly interesting readings emerge from this chapter. The first explains the ambivalence behind Caesar's tribute to Antony's behavior on the retreat from Modena, the rational Botome's response to Antony's peculiarly Botome charismatic leadership. The second reading, which relies on other versions of Cleopatra, argues that Cleopatra's fall involves a retreat into Egyptian state religion and thus a retreat from the paradoxes of an erotic charisma that depends on group validation but also on an exclusive absorption of the two lovers with one another. Raphael Falco concludes Charismatic Authority by hoping to see the book soon be superseded. Falco approaches his topic with almost a missionary zeal, and the result is a lively, different, and engaging exploration of charisma in early modern tragedy.

WINTER: Raphael Falco, Charismatic Authority in Early Modern English Tragedy (Christy Desmet), Angela C. Pao, The Orient of the Boulevards: Exoticism, Empire, and Nineteenth-Century French Theater (Lifongo Vetinde); Of Borders and Thresholds: Theatre History, Practice, and Theory, ed. Michal Kobialka (Frank Bradley); Ralph Berry, Tragic Instance: The Sequence of Shakespeare's Tragedies (Alexander Leggatt), Richard Foulkes, Church and Stage in Victorian England (Robert Sawyer); La comedia espanola y el teatro europeo del siglo XVII., ed. Henry W. Sullivan, Raul A. Galoppe, and Mahlon L. Stoutz (Gary E. Bigelow).
University of Georgia
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Author:Desmet, Christy
Publication:Comparative Drama
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 22, 2000
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