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Profit and pleasure in Tourneur's The Atheist's Tragedy.

In the Ars Poetica, Horace famously prescribes mixing profit and pleasure in his formula for poetic success. Though he makes a distinction between the two--to quote Ben Jonson's translation of the poem, "Poets would either profit or delight"--he proposes that it is best to do both concurrently: "Or, mixing sweet and fit, teach life the right." But the basis and aim of delight and instruction remain conceptually distinct. It doesn't seem, as Sidney has it in the Defense of Poetry, that the poet can most delightfully instruct by enticing an audience to "take that goodness in hand, which without delight they would fly as from a stranger," thereby working "to make them know that goodness whereby they are moved." (1) In Sidney, pleasure yields profit by drawing an unwitting audience into a process through which moral cognition and conviction occur gradually or eventually. In Horace, profit derives from a succinct formulation that allows for immediate recognition and retention. A segment of the audience--specifically, "our grave men" who expect instruction, so that "poems void of profit" will be "Cast out by voices"-can both come away with something and know that they've come away with something: precepts (praecipes) must be quickly perceptible (percipiant):
   Be brief in what thou wouldst command, that so
   The docile mind may soon thy precepts know,
   And hold them faithfully; for nothing rests,
   But flows out, that o'erswelleth the breasts.

Delight, on the other hand, comes of a pleasurable engagement with a verisimilar world of credible illusion without which the young Roman aristocrats in the audience will otherwise disdain the poet's offerings. The formula is more complex than it might seem, and it may be that a portion of the audience will find a work without a clearly discernable moral unpleasurable, and without an appeal to a less morally earnest element the work will be unprofitable. But in relatively few cases would moral improvement and aesthetic engagement work together in a mutually reinforcing way.

The conclusion of Cyril Tourneur's The Atheist's Tragedy, or, The Honest Man's Revenge (printed in 1611 A5 in divers places it hath often beene Acted) delivers readily apprehensible, even unmistakable, moral axioms: First, the titular villain D'Amville affirms as he expires that "Nature is a fool. There is a power / Above her that hath overthrown the pride / Of all my projects and posterity" (5.2.256-58), a cautionary moral for those who would deny the supervision and superseding of the natural by the supernatural. (2) The play's protagonist, Charlemont, articulates a suasive moral: "That Patience is the Honest Man's Revenge." The play ends in a spectacular coup de theatre literalizing what Horatio calls "purposes mistook / And fallen on the inventors' heads": D'Amville dashes out his own brains with the ax with which he intended to execute the hero and Castabella, the heroine, who had offered their necks to the stroke with extravagant stoic submission. In a play marked by a frequent interrupted acts and encounters, this last interruption has seemed to signify explicitly and definitively the effective intervention of the displeasure of God, the like of which had been conspicuously absent in the play's many precursors from the previous decade. (3)

For many, it has seemed that Tourneur aimed to resolve the revenge tragedy's ambivalence about the hero's mental state and moral culpability: revenge in this play becomes justice by leaving the execution to a God who proclaims "Vengeance is mine." The play has been seen as a countervailing response to more skeptical representations of providence. Unlike earlier revenge heroes in whom melancholy and derangement complicate their status as the agents of heaven's providential retribution, Charlemont avoids guiltiness through the admonishment of the ghost of his murdered father, who counsels patience rather than incites to swift revenge. Vengeance is achieved through the punctual and precise act of an affronted providence rather than by the accidental and wholesale destruction wrought by an aggrieved and maddened human agent. Thus, Fredson Bowers argued several decades ago, Tourneur sought an end to a "moral chaos that could not long endure." For Bowers, the absence of dramatic depth and vitality in the hero, "a motionless and undramatic figure," was "forced" upon Tourneur by a cultural imperative to substitute the vengeance of heaven for the bewilderingly problematic deputations of pathological human agents. (4) More recently, Katherine Eisaman Maus has seen the play as also politically recuperative: the play's central conflict, she finds, does not expose the figures and institutions of authority to the corrosive skepticism of earlier revenge tragedies. Instead, the contrivances of the atheist cause "things [to] go temporarily awry," while in the end "The Atheist's Tragedy salvages the absolute power that the other revenge tragedies condemn by associating it not with fallible human authorities but with a beneficent deity." (5) Acknowledging that the hero and heroine of the play lack dramatic appeal, Maus suggests Tourneur achieves moral clarity at the expense of theatrical stimulation: "Against D'Amville's subversiveness, Tourneur pits the profoundly conventional virtues of Charlemont and Castabella" in order to demonstrate that "custom rightly understood is the path to happiness;" their virtues are unmistakable, as "everyone understands the widely endorsed principles behind their behavior" presented in "easily comprehensible terms." (6)

In its instructive clarity, the play has been linked to accounts of the typically wittily condign forms of divine vengeance taken against "notorious sinners," most notably Thomas Beard's The Theatre of God's Judgments, which first appeared in 1597 and was revised and augmented several times thereafter. (7) The text is most well-known for its account of the death of Christopher Marlowe, a "manifest figure of God's judgment, but also an horrible and fearful terror to all that beheld him" in the manner of his death: "But herein did the justice of God most notably appear, in that he compelled his own hand which had written these blasphemies to be the instrument to punish him and that in his brain which had devised the same." This passage is cited by Janet Clare as an inexact but still "arresting parallel" to the fate of D'Amville; she comments that "allowing for the difference of genre," The Atheist's Tragedy is "clearly of the same ideological discourse." (8)

However, locating the play within this discourse does not diminish the possibilities for finding a multivalent mix of the pleasurable and the profitable. In her extensive study of Providence in Early Modern England, Alexandra Walsham argues that interest in reports of providential supervision and intervention was nearly universal but not uniform in its implications or applications. Providentialist beliefs formed a widely shared "cluster of presuppositions" with differences in "temperature rather than substance" distinguishing the emphatically godly from the larger public. Differences multiply when Walsham examines the different social locations and discursive sites of these stories, beginning with the divergence of preaching and print: while "both shared a preoccupation with the blessings and punishments God showered down ... to reward virtue and correct vice" (32), print provided "a fixity and familiarity which both contributed to their potency and began to sow tiny seeds of suspicion in at least some hearers and readers" (36). She cautions against assuming that the pamphlets and broadsides give these beliefs unequivocal expression. Readers cannot be presumed to be docile, as reading can be "an inventive, selective, and even subversive process, an hermeneutic struggle," and the full effects of a performance are impossible to recapture, so that we must remain alert to "plural and potentially contradictory meanings" the frequently circulated versions of stories may have conveyed. As with Tourneur, we know "frustratingly little" about the writers of this material, and so we're left with questions about the circulation of their "strange news" of providential workings: "What were the motives of the middlemen who collaborated in its production and sale: profit, piety, or a fragile alliance of the two?" (9)

Translated to the stage, it's less likely that these stories would function in a uniform fashion upon a homogenous audience. Walsham highlights the "tension between teaching and delighting, between edification and recreation" in later compilations that imitated Beard's. Many recent studies of the Renaissance stage have argued that we should not imagine audience as an "undifferentiated mass," to use a Brechtian term, whose disposition to performance would be passively receptive. (10) Charles Whitney argues that the problems posed by the multiple make-up of the audience in the commercial theater "is not to be solved simply by an appeal to some shared standard." Instead, he suggests, playwrights wrote for an audience for whom "metatheatrical awareness of the signifier remained vital," to the extent that "something like Bertolt Brecht's 'alienation effect' must have been intrinsic ... that logically could lead to reflection on religion and society as well as the self." According to Whitney, even educated members of the audience for whom the theater was a source of moral instruction were on the lookout for material for their commonplace books: plays "invite playgoers to engage in a continuing dialogue of sententiae ... giving them the authority to interpret and apply unimpeachable wisdom ... to question and test as well as to support existing institutions and practices," "a responsive practice" rather than a simply receptive one involving a "diacritical" interaction with "multiple implied readers, audience segments, or subject positions, either to tailor one complex meaning differentially, or to enable the reception of different meanings or effects by different audience segments." (11)

Most of the commentary on The Atheist's Tragedy has continued to emphasize what Whitney calls "identifying the Unitarian response." (12) The Atheist's Tragedy has been termed "a thesis play," in which the atheistic views posited by D'Amville in its opening are refuted by the course of the action. (13) The providential God he defies defeats him and rewards those whom he would have displaced, whose virtues are preserved and exalted. As critics have maintained, the centrality of this emblematic meaning, large parts of the play's text have been excluded from close examination of its dramatic embodiment and enactment. (14) The play's "relative neglect" has been attributed to distaste for its didactic aim, its essentially homiletic structure and purpose at odds with a fashionable irreligious skepticism. According to Alison Shell, critical neglect of the play demonstrates a reflexive preference for unbelief. (15) With few exceptions, critics have seen Charlemont and Castabella as exemplary figures of chastity and patience. But rather than seeing the illustrative quality of the protagonists, I propose a dramatic reading that suggests that it may be the commitment to exceptional virtue that renders their exemplarity questionable and raises questions about its substance. The unmistakably evil manipulations and deceptions of the play's villain have made it all too easy to make this didactic case without examining the implications of the "profoundly conventional virtues" of the protagonists.

At the very outset of the play, an audience is made privy to D'Amville's atheistic scheme to enhance himself substantially at the expense of his older brother, the baron Montferrers, and his son, Charlemont. D'Amville bids a servant offstage to seek Charlemont, giving the actor portraying him an opportunity to reveal a difference between his public demeanor and his "intriguing" manner. The Atheist's Tragedy begins with an interruption: in the interim between sending for his nephew and the latter's arrival, waiting to further pursue an already launched plot against him, D'Amville and his entirely serviceable "instrument" Borachio engage in a "learned" dialogue on "nature and her large philosophy," the upshot of which is that there is nothing beyond or above nature to guide or limit the pursuit of human aims. This is the sort of fatal intellectual presumption that many contemporary writers on atheism would lead one to expect, and as such it has often been taken as the positing of a position that the play sets out to refute, demonstrating the antisocial lengths to which one unrestrained by belief in a higher power will go.

Bacon wrote that "The contemplative atheist is rare," and that "none deny there is a God but those for whom it maketh that there is no God." (16) But D'Amville's very rarity (in much of the contemporary literature on atheism, it is presented as both an unthinkable reality and a pervasive threat) and the outlandishness of his exchange with Borachio surely could awaken theatrical alertness and intellectual attentiveness rather than simply triggering moral alarm. (17) As with other confessedly evil intriguers in Renaissance drama, who function to drive and enliven the action, moral judgment seems moot, both a topic introduced for hypothetical debate and beside the point, given the obvious nefarious intent. In the case of D'Amville--whose very name gives his "baseness of soul" and ultimate spiritual destination away so completely that judgment seems redundant--the substance and the style of the exchange might seem to provide theatrical bravura and rhetorical delectation.

The opening scene of the play also initiates an intricate rhetorical and semantic pattern in the play. The connection that I'm making between the Horation truism and Tourneur's play is more than adventitious, as the play exhibits a compulsive range of variations on the terms profit and pleasure, which are in turn conceptually linked with other terms in a similar field. Beginning with this opening exchange, the words "pleasure," "pleases," "displeases," and "delight" recur with a frequency matched only by those related to profit, "gain," "addition," and "increase." Moreover, they are often linked to their rhetorical cognates "ornament" and "use." These also seem conceptually linked to "aim," "purpose," "instruction," and "end," along with references to "means." These terms cluster around the philosophically and philologically fraught term "substance," which can mean both something or someone's "essential nature" or its apparent opposite "not what man essentially is, but what he acquires," both of which senses D'Amville conjoins. (18) It also is used to denote the content of a verbal exchange, something like the Freudian "germ plasm," and later in the play, it's glossed by Maus as both "money" and "semen." (19) Overlooked or dismissed as non-dramatic, this opening is potentially intricately enjoyable, but it also announces the play's nearly obsessive self-reflexive focus on profit and pleasure, the movement between activity as enjoyment and as a means to an aim or end.

The play's opening disquisition poses the choice between immediate pleasure and eventual profit, between experienced delight and deferred, abstracted or extracted gain. Given the impediment to a "free and full" experience and expression of a human nature and capacity that would distinguish it from a mere beast's, subjected to the limits of Nature (namely, death), D'Amville declares for an immediate and orgasmic annihilation, making of the familiar connection of death and sexual climax a grand Bataillean expenditure:
                  Then, if death cast up
   Our total sum of joy and happiness,
   Let me have all my senses feasted in
   The abundant fullness of delight at once,
   And with a sweet insensible increase
   Of pleasing surfeit melt into my dust.

In the richness of these lines' carefully distributed and chiming vowels, the gentle sibilance, and the sinuous rhythm, the extravagance of the language matches the gratuitous waste of the gesture. Borachio, however, usefully notes "how improvident it were / To spend our substance in a minute's pleasure," leading D'Amville to forgo pursuit of this fatal disbursement of enjoyment, opting for more prorated, profit seeking approach. He arrives at a nonsequitur ("So, thou conclud'st that pleasure only flows / Upon the stream of riches" [28-29]) that suggests that the previous part of the exchange had been a playful preliminary for the real business of plotting the disinheritance of Charlemont, the pursuit of an "increase of substance" to ensure "My eternity" in his sons: "My life in them / And their succession shall forever live, / And in my reason dwells the providence / To add to life as much of happiness" (1.1.124-27).

Undoubtedly, the overestimation of reason and a calculating "providence" creates an expectation that D'Amville's plotting will be overruled and interrupted by a more farseeing power. But it's not simple selfishness and greed that D'Amville advocates. One of the most frequently repeated synonyms for "means" in the play is "instrument" (Borachio, for instance, is listed in the Dramatis Personae as "D'Amville's instrument," and he fulfills that function in a strangely total way). D'Amville instrumentalizes himself; his selfserving seems to foresee the role of the will described by Freud in "On the Introduction of Narcissism":

The individual really does lead a double existence both as an end in himself, and as a link in a chain that he serves against his will, or at any rate regardless of his will. He even supposes sexuality to be one of his own designs--whereas on an alternative view he appears as a mere appendage of his germ plasm, to whose purpose he devotes all his energies in return for the reward of a mere sensation of pleasure. On this view, he is but the mortal vehicle of a--perhaps-immortal essence; like the lord of an entailed estate, he is but the temporary occupant of an institution that will outlast him. (20)

D'Amville takes this view of his substantial existence, rationalizing and even moralizing his acquisitive individuality and dishonesty:
   Had not my body spread itself
   Into posterity, perhaps I should
   Desire no more increase of substance than
   Would hold proportion with mine own dimensions.
   Yet even in that sufficiency of state
   A man has reason to provide and add ...
   And for my children ...
   As they increase, so should my providence,
   For from my substance they receive the sap
   Whereby they live and flourish.

Borachio completes the line with an interruption: "Sir, enough. /I understand the mark whereat you aim," highlighting the elaborate peculiarity of D'Amville's account of his motives. D'Amville in turn cuts short the interruption: "Silence. W'are interrupted--Charlemont!" The scene concludes with the silent entrance of D' Amville's sons, Roussard and Sebastian; in the course of the action, the former will prove impotent and the latter profligate, defeating D'Amville's dreams of endless succession, one incapable of profitable pleasure and the other, a second son, so indiscriminating in its pursuit as to deprive the substantial gain of any symbolic value (along providing with some surprisingly substantial resistance, as we shall see). Their appearance might deflate the sinister force of D'Amville's closing couplet by revealing the gap between his purposed end and his immediate instrumental means: "Let all men lose, so I increase my gain;/I have no feeling of another's pain" (1.1.129-30). The opening establishes a pattern of interruption and introduces a series of extravagantly scandalous references and passages that make the connections between pleasure and profit, increase, or gain. (21)

Moving to 1.2, an energetic unbelief in anything beyond goes to work on a world in which belief seems nugatory. Rather than a "normal" order of positive virtues D'Amville will disrupt, an audience encounters an insubstantial hierarchy entirely susceptible to D'Amville's machinations. The interruption in 1.1 introduces a Charlemont already inserted into D'Amville's plot: he lacks financial substance and is "forced" to turn to D'Amville, who provides him with the monetary support denied him by his father for his resolution to follow his "inclination" and "affection to the war." D'Amville bestows on his nephew "substance" to overcome the "strong necessity" of his father's refusal to support his aim in outfitting himself in a manner befitting his station: "maintenance / To put me in the habit of my rank" (1.1.8385). He lacks substance in another sense: his aim is not rooted in a commitment or cause; claiming "My disposition is forced against itself," his requirement suggests that the war is an occasion for aristocratic exhibition rather than meaningful engagement, the kind of empty, self-regarding "stoic heroism" Benjamin detects in Trauerspiel: "In the baroque drama fatherland, liberty, and faith are no more than freely interchangeable causes which put private virtue to the test." (22)

This impression is reinforced in his exchange (interrupted in due course) with his father. He answers Montferrers' intense pleading to "Divert thy inclination" for his sake and for the sufficiency of the present with a stirring but suspect appeal to reputation. Montferrers tearfully insists that the honor he seeks is "but a vain addition to thy name," adding nothing to "A dignity sufficient, and as great/As thou hast substance to maintain and bear." Charlemont's defense of his inclination "as hereditary as my blood" lacks any wider aim than his own image in posterity, a concern oddly parallel with D'Amville's, if less dastardly then no less self-seeking in its sacrifice:
                               Shall I serve
   For nothing but a vain parenthesis
   In th'honoured story of your family
   Or hang but like an empty scutcheon
   Between the trophies of my predecessors
   And the rich arms of my posterity?

Rather than exemplifying a clear contrast to D'Amvillean self-seeking, Charlemont echoes it in his single-minded pursuit of increase against all appeals and to the painful expense of others. Moreover, his lines emphatically abstract him from the immediate substantiality of lived reality. He projects himself into posterity as a sign of distinction; his inclination becomes an alacrity for death that drives him throughout the play.

D'Amville's entrance deprives Montferrers the opportunity to reply, as the uncle seconds the nephew and the father stands aside: "What to the father of a gentleman / Should be more tender than the maintenance / And the increase of honour to his house?" Montferrers meekly retires, very wanly evoking God: "Your importunities have overcome ... / Pray God my forced grant prove not ominous" (1.2.36-38, 42-43). D'Amville later crows to Borachio that separating Charlemont from Castabella in order to secure a "wealthy heir" for his own son for the sake of his posterity has been a "work" of "profitable policy," diverting Charlemont's inclination from its more pleasurable attachment to Castabella: "That was the reason I propounded him / Employment fixed upon a foreign place, / To draw his inclination out o'th'way" (1.2.218-20). Charlemont's account of his inclination is immaterial: he seems comically suggestible to the extent that he becomes exemplary of the "patient" man in being entirely the object of another's action, manipulated and operated upon.

As Montferrers' accession to Charlemont's "importunities" (the product of D'Amville's propounding) is followed by the arrival of Belforest, Levidulcea, and Castabella, the scene continues to conduce to D'Amville's instigation. Montferrers' capitulation seems a forgone conclusion, as Belforest pronounces conventional formalities endorsing the virtue of Charlemont's "resolution": "I wish your undertakings a success ... / The great commander of the war / Prosper the course you undertake" (1.2. 56-57, 129-30). Belforest, we soon discover, has come under the sway of Languebeau Snuffe, a stage Puritan who would have been recognizable to an audience as soon as he stepped onstage. Prior to his appearance, however, Belforest introduces his "precise" manner of speaking, as he responds censoriously to Charlemont's polite two-line reply: "Accompliments are more for ornament / Than use. We should employ no time in them / But what our serious business will admit" (1.2.60-62). This odd, disproportionate response completes the image of a hapless hierarchy. His language will be echoed later in the scene, immediately by Charlemont, and make the judgment seem proleptic, and secondly by Snuffe, to reveal that Belforest had been weirdly ventriloquizing Snuffe.

When the "accompliment" pre-censured by Belforest arrives, it is so extravagantly ornamented and rhetorically attenuated as to vitiate its use. His farewell to Castabella is the most atrocious verse of the play, an elaborate display of periphrasis, its awkward enjambments interrupting the fluency it claims:
   My noble mistress, this accompliment
   Is like an elegant and moving speech
   Composed of many sweet and persuasive points
   Which second one another with a fluent
   Increase and confirmation of their force
   Reserving still the best until the last,
   To crown the strong impulsion of the rest
   With a full conquest of the hearer's sense ...
   So that all that now salute my taking leave
   Have added numerously to the love
   Wherewith I did receive their courtesy.
   But you, dear mistress, being the last and best
   That speaks my farewell, like an imperious close
   Of a most sweet oration, wholly have
   Possessed my liking, and shall ever live
   Within the soul of my true memory.
   So, mistress, with this kiss I take my leave.

Having mistaken D'Amville's prompting for his own purpose, Charlemont further accentuates his misapprehension, deploying this monumental diction to both elevate and enervate himself. Castabella attempts to recall him to the immediate, insisting in spare direct verse on something "mutual and incorporated" in reply to his vacuity:
   My worthy servant, you mistake th' intent
   Of kissing. 'Twas not meant to separate
   A pair of lovers, but to be the seal
   Of love, importing by the joining of
   Our mutual and incorporated breaths
   That we should breathe but one contracted life.

Charlemont remains impervious to appeal, and dismisses her suggestion that he "Or stay at home, or let me go with you" as "dishonorable" on the one hand and open to the charge of "immodesty" on the other.

Beginning in this opening scene and consistently throughout, the "conventional virtues" which Maus suggests that the protagonists embody and which the play endorses are inflected by interruption. Charlemont's grandiloquent misapprehension is compounded--and D'Amville's scheme further accommodated--with the reentry of Snuffe. If he would be immediately recognized as "a kind of Puritan," he would be revealed as sham as soon as he speaks. As Charlemont presents him to Castabella "for the satisfaction of your love," it becomes apparent how thoroughly he has missed her plain appeal for "one contracted life," as he names this preposterous figure "a man whose knowledge I have made / A witness to the contract of our vows / Which my return by marriage shall confirm." An audience might see, first, how egregiously in error Charlemont is to entrust Castabella to his care (a trust also accorded by Belforest and Montferrers), but Snuffe also introduces, comically and ironically, the embodiment that Charlemont's "accompliment" had been at pains to deny: "I salute you both with the spirit of copulation. I am already informed of your matrimonial purposes, and will be a testimony to the integrity of your promises" (1.2.100-105). Castabella in eloquent despair evokes an immanent heaven that sorrows rather than superintends:
   O the sad trouble of my fearful soul!
   My faithful servant, did you never hear
   That when a certain great man went to th'war
   The lovely face of Heav'n was masked with sorrow,
   The sighing winds did move the breast of earth,
   The heavy clouds hung down their heavy heads,
   And wept sad showers the day that he went hence,
   As if that day presaged some ill success
   That fatally should kill his happiness,
   And so it came to pass. Methinks my eyes,
   Sweet Heav'n forbid, are like those weeping clouds,
   And as their showers presaged, so do my tears;
   Some sad event will follow my sad fears.

Charlemont's response--"Fie! Superstitious! Is it bad to kiss?"--couples his unresponsiveness to pathetic appeal with a precise non sequitur: he has not heard or felt Castabella's lament. He is almost moved by the sight of Castabe11a reduced to tears, but draws back from his substantial emotional connection with her to commit himself to the abstract virtue he has been induced to pursue by D'Amville: "Something within me would persuade me stay / But reputation will not yield unto't" (1.2.133-34). An audience could suspect that heeding the "something within" that Charlemont disavows--the prompting of that impulse to stay and yield to the "spirit of copulation" and engage in "the spirit of consolation" that Snuffe professes--is his actual inclination and genuine duty, rather than the outward and ostensible "affection to the wars" for the sake of reputation. Following upon his taking Snuffe as a spiritual advisor, this substantial failure of discernment forms the basis of his "patience" in the rest of the play.

Despite the provocation of the avowed atheist, then, Charlemont's and the barons' belief in Snuffe--and therein their belief in God--might cue an audience's incredulity. D'Amville and Borachio grasp an obliviousness that seems likely to become obvious to an audience. Apart from Castabella's poignant appeal to a helpless heaven, belief only appears as callow credulousness and cant. D'Amville quickly and comically capitalizes on Charlemont's blunder, turning Snuffe to his own purpose with a clear-eyed view of Snuffe's shallow hypocrisy, securing him for an "employment well becoming the goodness of your disposition": using his influence with Belforest to match Castabella with his son Roussard. The atheist and the religious imposter understand one another, as Snuffe picks up on D'Amville's interest in Castabella, describing her as "most sweetly modest, fair, honest, handsome, wise, well-born, and rich," drops a hint by comparing her to a diamond, pretends to refuse but accepts a ring when D'Amville threatens to swear. It's a funny exchange, and it returns to the familiar terms: Snuffe notes that Castabella "exceeds a jewel. This is but for ornament, she for both ornament and use," to which D'Amville replies, "Yet unprofitably kept without use" (1.2.16465, 176-78).

D'Amville questions Borachio about the departing Snuffe--"Borachio, didst precisely note this man?"--drawing attention to what an audience hardly could have not noted: that he is a precisian, whose "own profession would report him pure." D'Amville's anatomy of this character type might further suggest that his avowed atheism derives from a practical atheism at large. Thus Snuffe
   seems to know if any benefit
   Arises of religion after death;
   Yet but compare's profession with his life;
   They so directly contradict themselves
   As if the end of his instructions were
   But to divert the world from sin, that he
   Might more easily engross it to himself.
   By that I am confirmed atheist.
                        (1.2.205-14, emphasis added)

An audience could be confirmed in a suspicion that the barons' reception of Snuffe's self-interested "instructions" is as telling of the absence of the substantial belief in anything divine as D'Amville's confirmation of his own atheism, even perhaps raising the possibility that D'Amville is only too obviously the atheist of play's title. While critics have seen the watchful eye of God supervising and exercising control over the world of the play, it at the same time seems to insinuate his absence from within it. Rather than encountering in these opening scenes a world in which, in Maus's phrase, things begin to go "temporarily awry," I suggest that the play presents an audience no certain sense of going aright. Incidentally set in Paris, the play gives the impression of some baronial backwater, the sort of setting that Benjamin identifies as the common locale of Trauerspiel: "Christian provinces whose historical actions no longer claim to be integrated in the process of redemption," "a world which was denied direct access to the beyond." (23) Gestures and expressions of belief or faith are mistaken and invested in no intimacy or immediacy. This moral and spiritual vacuum makes the protagonists susceptible to the plot of D'Amville, unimpeded and even actively assisted by the interruptions that seem accidental but which further D'Amville's aims.

Charlemont's and Castabella's passivity and credulousness are common to victims of the virtuoso villains of Renaissance drama. But one of the odd things about the play's critical history is that dubious remarks about Charlemont in particular from the first part of the last century have largely given way to affirmations of their exemplarity. Critics often suggested that the characters simply do not engage their author's (and hence the audience's) sympathy, but we often find more blunt dismissals, for instance, Una Ellis-Fermor's view of Charlemont as a "prig and a cad." Herschel Baker (in 1952) questions the inevitability of an audience's taking him as a moral model: Charlemont is "the reductio ad absurdum of the Stoic hero" who "seems to be the death wish made articulate." (24) Charlemont's and Castabella's submission to their fate takes resignation to a pathological extreme. Faced with D'Amville's successful maneuverings, Charlemont and Castabella are said to faithfully encounter death, but for the greater part of the play's last two acts, insofar as they can be said to act at all, they ardently pursue it. (25) The play frames their most morally lofty gestures and speeches in contexts that render them citable as morals but difficult to credit as morality. Thus, in a climactic scene in the graveyard in act 4, wherein different strands of the plot converge and to which different characters resort for divergent purposes, the rapid shifts in register and tone make it difficult to abstract moral clarity in the form of a maxim (even though several are offered)--despite the play's most explicit and recurrent references to the themes of profit and pleasure.

Both protagonists find themselves in the cemetery without willing their way thither. Charlemont "rudely" takes leave of the wary stalemate that exists with D'Amville after his return from the wars (recalled home by an encounter with his murdered father's etiolated ghost) and wanders there, but Tourneur dramatizes the unwitting vacancy of Castabella's compliance with D'Amville's most nefarious schemes. Recognizing that Roussard will not be able to fulfill his reproductive role in the infinite expansion of his bodily substance, and conceding that the "loose humor" of Sebastian disqualifies him, D'Amville pauses to "call my projects to account." He finds his dream of the succession of "my proper blood" at stake, which drives him to employ drastic means to achieve his end:
   O pity that the profitable end
   Of such a prosperous murder should be lost!
   Nature forbid! I hope I have a body
   That will not suffer me to lose my labor
   For want of issue, yet. But then 't must be
   A bastard. Tush, they only father bastards
   That father other men's begettings. Daughter!
   Be it mine own, let it come whence it will.
   I am resolved. Daughter!

Before the servant who has appeared can fulfill his command to call her, Castabella enters: "Your pleasure, sir?" The repeated calls and the superfluous servant ironically underscore her compliant readiness, even though her laconic dialogue bespeaks her blank lack of affect. Informed that her servant was not to accompany them on "a turn or two," she answers indifferently, "No matter; stay." For D'Amville, "This falls out happily."

In 4.3, Charlemont enters the graveyard at the stroke of midnight, tailed and overheard by the assassin Borachio, and finds an apt setting for his sententious musings: "How fit a place for contemplation / Is this dead of night, among the dwellings / Of the dead" (4.3.3-5). In a series of stoic commonplaces, he projects upon the dead not only his own devoutly wished consummation but "The world's condition at its best!" The reflections cue Borachio's assault, which misfires, and somehow in the exchange, Borachio is killed. Charlemont overcomes his initial disappointment at his survival, first by considering that submission to the law will end "This violent increase of misery," and then revived by the thought that "It may / Be Heav'n reserves me to some better end" (4.3.36-37).

But the register is rapidly lowered (not for the last time in the scene) as Charlemont's rumination on the dead and encounter with death yield the stage to Snuffe and Soquette, a prostitute, for whom the graveyard is "a convenient unfrequented place" for their encounter: bawdy puns and comic fooling replace stoic saws and wrestling with death. Snuffe assures his companion that she will "profit by my instruction," but reassures her "conceive thou sha't not," so that "profit" implies a yield of pleasure while "conceive not" entails the absence of increase in cognitive or bodily conception. The comic interlude concludes with some farcical stage business with a false beard, as the return of Charlemont frightens off the trysters. Finding Snuffe's discarded disguise, Charlemont ponders its purpose, and assimilates it to the "better end" for which he has been preserved:
   What ha' we here? A sheet? A hair? A beard?
   What end was this disguise intended for?
   No matter what. I'll not expostulate
   The purpose of a friendly accident.
                               (4.3.70-73, emphasis added)

Further concealing himself in a nearby charnel house, he grabs hold of a death's head, which "slips and staggers him, " and provides the occasion for another sententious moral: "Death's head, deceiv'st my hold? / Such is the trust of all mortality." In order to construe a moral emblem, one would need to extract the maxim from the mixture of pratfall and portentousness in the theatrical sequence in which it is articulated. (26) Thus: the hero, believing himself the object of Heaven's intervention, having interrupted an assignation between a precisian and a prostitute, dons the discarded false beard meant to allow the religious hypocrite to be mistaken for the ghost of the hero's murdered father rumored to be haunting thereabouts, and in that guise "staggers" on a skull.

With his motto, Charlemont retires, succeeded by Castabella and D'Araville, who reveals and revels in his villainous purpose:
   Th' argument is love
   The smallest ornament of thy sweet form,
   The abstract of all pleasures, can command
   The senses into passion, and thy entire
   Perfection is my object.

D'Amville provides a warrant for his scandalous aim with an adaptation of Horace:
   All the purposes of man
   Aim but at one of these two ends, pleasure
   Or profit, and in this sweet conjunction
   Of our loves they both will meet.

The enormity of the proposal awakens Castabella's dormant powers of refusal, opting for oblivion "ere the greatest pleasure or / The greatest profit ever tempt me to / Continue it by incest" (4.3.110-14, 121-24). A melodramatic debate between Castabella's supplications of Heaven and the open atheist's dismissal and defiance follows, as D'Amville amplifies his limitless depravity and Castabella recoils before "the horror of the argument." The longest of the sub-scenes of 4.3, the length and intensity of the exchange drive Charlemont's more contemplative motto from the stage, but the heightened rhetoric serves to raise awareness and suspense about his whereabouts. D'Amville's taunt of Castabella's petition to her "great supposed protector" shocks Castabella into a recognition of his atheism, and draws from her a Senecan appeal to Heaven in her incomprehension at the continuance of pernicious evil:
   O patient Heav'n, why dost thou not express
   Thy wrath in thunderbolts, to tear the frame
   Of man in pieces? How can earth endure
   The burden of this wickedness without
   An earthquake, or the angry face of Heav'n
   Be not enflamed with lightening?

Heaven makes a more modest intervention, though with conspicuously histrionic timing. As D'Amville nears his intention to "do't", he is interrupted:

D'AMVILLE Tereus-like

Thus will I force my passage to--CHARLEMONT---the Devil!

Charlemont rises in the disguise and frights D'Amville away. Now, lady, with the hand of Charlemont! I thus redeem you from the arm of lust. My Castabella!


The providentialist literature compiled by Beard and others features frequent reiterations of God's weird, wicked irony in bringing about his desired ends and making his meaning apparent. Readings of the play have suggested an audience would have seen in this scene the hand of heaven acting through "the hand of Charlemont," so that decisively divine interruptions would stand out from the otherwise uninterrupted series of interruptions. But cued by stylistic shifts in this scene (and throughout the play), an audience could be provoked to an enjoyable attentiveness, curiously considering a God who watches and waits, and who may find Charlemont's sudden bearded emergence from the charnel house, if not risible, than at least provocatively comic rather than unquestionably providential. Charlemont's acknowledgement of heaven's preservation would only increase the curiosity. While ceasing to lament his sufferings, he continues to desire death:
   For all my wrongs I thank thee, gracious Heav'n;
   Th'ast made me satisfaction, to reserve
   Me for this blessed purpose. Now, sweet death,
   I'll bid thee welcome.

The midline switch from "blessed purpose" to "sweet death" is telling, and in response to Castabella's attempts to persuade him to avoid death by pleading self-defense, he embraces her in the pursuit of his demise: "Thou canst not satisfy me better than / To be the instrument of my release / From misery" (4.3.197-98).

Overcome by sleep, the pair settle down emblematically "with either of them a death's head for a pillow," and the action of the scene continues its rapid alterations of macabre farce and Senecan frenzy. First Snuffe reenters and mistakes the corpse of Borachio for Soquette, and flees crying murder; he is followed by D'Amville "distractedly," apparently having mistaken Charlemont in the false beard for the ghost of Montferrers, and so imagines a Faustus-like apprehension by "Black Beelzebub / And all his hellhounds." Snuffe, however, returns, and vouches for him to the watch, which has taken him for the murderer. Returned to his wits, when Charlemont and Castabella are discovered sleeping on the ground, D'Amville at first finds in the image of the pair sleeping soundly in these circumstances "some other / Happiness within the freedom of the / Conscience than my knowledge e'er attained to," but has them arrested, and for the remainder of the play they submit to their own execution with exceptional passivity. Charlemont yields without protest ("You sha' not need to examine me") necessitating the fifth act and its spectacular deliverance.

Charlemont's pursuit of moral distinctiveness seems to sacrifice particular interests and advantages on one level, but asserts an even more limited interest in moral singularity on another, providing not so much a substantial ethical example as extravagant ethical display. However, the play provides an unlikely and overlooked source of moral engagement and ethical substance: the second son, Sebastian, excluded from the main symbolic structure of the play--due to his "secondary" status but also because his libertinism and "boldly dangerous spirit" exclude him from incorporation into his father's scheme. He is the most appealing character in the play, and the speaker of a series of prose monologues that have gone unappreciated both for the pleasures they provide and for their moral perspective. (27) His ethical reflections seem likely to shape an audience's moral response to an entirely unnoticed extent.

At the close of act 1, succumbing to what he will later term a "general honesty," he cries out against the forced marriage of Castabella, taking a costly moral stance that the marriage is the equivalent of a rape. He defies his father by interrupting his plot, is denounced by Snuffe and Belforest, and dismissed and threatened by his father as a "disobedient villain." Sebastian's interruption disrupts the tragedy altogether and points up the insubstantiality of the existing moral order and its values, including those of the hero and heroine who submit and subscribe to them. Belforest's response--and his adherence to Snuffe as a spiritual guide--reveals his spiritual vacancy, so that when he commands "Come, set forward to the church" for the wedding, it would be hard to miss the force of the proverb Sebastian cites: "the nearer to the church, the farther from God." Sebastian concludes the first act with a prose soliloquy, which unlike the protagonists' soliloquies, selfregarding and addressed to a heaven believed to be regarding them, appeals to the immediate situation and more generalized concerns: his imprecations call for a suspension of the moral ordering of the world that would answer the outrage inflicted upon (and submitted to by) Castabella:
   Poor wench! For thy sake may his ability die in his appetite, that
   thou beest not troubled with him thou lovest not. May his appetite
   move thy desire to another man, so shall he help to make himself a
   cuckold. And let that man be one that he pays wages to, so shall
   thou profit by him that thou hatest. Let the chambers be matted,
   the hinges oiled, the curtain rings silenced, and the chamber maid
   hold her peace at his own request, that he may sleep the quietlier;
   and in that sleep let him be soundly cuckolded. And when he knows
   it, and seeks to sue for divorce, let him have no other
   satisfaction than this: 'he lay by and slept; the law will take no
   hold of her because he winked at it.'


Given the moral options encountered in this first act, Sebastian's sudden outspokenness provides an audience with a welcome antinomian rectitude, a reorientation towards and re-articulation of the terms of the play's first act, and, in engaging the dramatic situation rather than apostrophizing Heaven, a serious moral challenge to imagine the world otherwise.

Sebastian's interruptions disrupt any moral schematization of the play by which we might assign Charlemont's and Castabella's virtues a preeminent place. He protests on behalf of the enforced and acquiescent Castabella, and intervenes on the behalf of the imprisoned and submissive Charlemont. He is integral, even instrumental, to the rescue and reunion of the protagonists, and gestures beyond the baronial status quo. Despite attempts to include his death at the end of act 4 as part of the retribution visited upon D'Amville's dynastic ambitions and the general unregeneracy, he enacts a substantial ethical subjectivity that cannot be subsumed by such a scheme. In act 3.2, Charlemont is stayed from killing Sebastian, who has come to D'Amville's defense, preserved by the timely (and histrionically timed) appearance of the ghost: "Let him revenge my murder and thy wrongs / To whom the justice of revenge belongs." Charlemont, often credited with patient restraint, is restrained from without rather than subjectively exercising patience, his only response anguished lines marked by his signature awkward enjambment ("You torture me between the passion of / My blood and the religion of my soul" 3.2.3235). Once Charlemont is led away, Sebastian, restored to his father's graces and rewarded with a thousand crowns, completes the scene. Commended, with complex irony, for being "worthily employed / A' God's name," and commanded to the practice of "gen'rous liberty" in place of "unbounded license," Sebastian hears a call "freely to bestow my abilities to honest purposes":
   Methinks I should not follow that instruction now, if, having the
   means to do an honest office for an honest fellow, I should neglect
   it. Charlemont lies in prison for a thousand crowns, and here I
   have a thousand crowns. Honesty tells me 'twere well done to
   release Charlemont. But discretion says I had much ado to come by
   this, and when this shall be gone I know not where to finger
   anymore, especially if I employ it to this use, which is like to
   endanger me into my father's perpetual displeasure.


An honest decision is reached with a generous discounting of selfinterest or regard. Sebastian shrugs off the gesture: "No matter ... 'Tis no courtesy I do thee, but thankfulness. I owe thee it and I'll pay it." As at the end of act 1, Sebastian couples his moral risk with a call for a moral reorientation of the world, this time on behalf of Charlemont:
   Arrant knaves! For using him discourteously, may the sins o' the
   poor people be so few that you sha' not be able to spare so much
   out o' your gettings as will pay for the hire of a lame starved
   hackney to ride to an execution, but go a-foot to the gallows and
   be hanged. May elder brothers turn good husbands and younger
   brothers get good wives, that there be no need of debt-books nor
   use of sergeants. May there be all peace but i' the war and all
   charity but i' the devil, so that prisons be turned to hospitals,
   though officers live o' the benevolence. If this curse might come
   to pass, the world would say, 'Blessed be he that curseth.'


As with his emblematic utterances and attitudes in the graveyard, Charlemont's address to heaven from prison in 3.3, immediately succeeding Sebastian's curse, has seemed to express his high-minded struggle to maintain fidelity with providence, and to encapsulate the profitable instruction of the play. But the speech is framed by Sebastian's appealing performance and exercise of honest self-appraisal and casual self-denial, and his appeal to Heaven is interrupted by Sebastian's entrance and intervention on his behalf. As does Castabella in a soliloquy opening 2.3 ("Heaven, is't my fate, / For loving that thou lov'st, to get thy hate?"), Charlemont addresses a Heaven that is remote, displeased, and punitive:
   I grant thee, Heaven, thy goodness doth command
   Our punishments, but yet no further than
   The measure of our sins. How should they else
   Be just? Or how should the good purpose of
   Thy justice take effect by bonding men
   Within the confines of humanity,
   When our afflictions do exceed our crimes?
   Then they do rather teach the barbarous world
   Examples that extend her cruelties
   Beyond their own dimensions, and instruct
   Our actions to be more, more barbarous.
   O my afflicted soul, how torment swells
   Thy apprehension with profane conceit
   Against the sacred justice of my God!
   Our own constructions are the authors of
   Our misery!


Sebastian's entrance brings out the bathos of Charlemont's apostrophe to heaven and his misery: he calls him "wild swaggerer," and comically condenses the moral lessons that Charlemont had been more ponderously enouncing: "'Twill humble the pride o' your mortality and arm your soul in complete patience to endure the weight of affliction without feeling it" (3.3.27-29). Sebastian's good-natured teasing and subsequent appreciation of Charlemont's performance undercut Charlemont's persistence in the high style. Charlemont believes Sebastian to be taunting him, motivated by "violent maliciousness," but the audience sees otherwise, and thus might observe Charlemont's inflated claim to a stoic apatheia, his irrelevant assertion of the capacity to "bear more than thou hast power t'inflict":
   I was a baron; that thy father has
   Deprived me of. Instead of that, I am
   Created king. I've lost a signory
   That was confined within a piece of earth,
   A wart upon the body of the world,
   But now I am an emp'ror of a world,
   This little world of man. My passions are
   My subjects, and I can command them laugh,
   While thou dost tickle 'em to death with misery.


The enjambments of these lines flow rather than falter, and it is Charlemont's finest oration. Sebastian applauds the performance--"'Tis bravely spoken, and I love you for it"--and in providing for Charlemont, disclaims the credit, attributing it to his father's "goodness" which he claims to be intended without "ostentation." Charlemont receives the offer grandly as a submission to "Fate," whose favors promise "th'inductions to some end / Of better fortunes, as whose instrument /1 thank thy courtesy" (3.3.60-62). Sebastian finishes the line and closes the scene with a shrug of anti-climax: "Well, come along." While Charlemont graciously (or grudgingly) acquiesces in Sebastian's instrumental help, Sebastian undertakes the decision that produces the "end / Of better fortunes" for the protagonist in which he does not share. It may be assumed that in highlighting his disposition to lechery Tourneur renders his demise at the end of act 4 straightforwardly instructive of the ends that await those who are not favored by providence due to their unrestrained inclinations. (28) But Sebastian's fate complicates thinking about the ways of providence, prompting questions by his integral and substantial presence in contrast to the unthinking and uncomprehendingly passive patience of Charlemont and Castabella. A didactic reading asks us to imagine an audience cued by the traditional "orthodox" images and emblems to abstract and extract clear moral meanings. (29) But Sebastian draws attention to the process of deriving moral profit from pleasurable recreation so as to interrogate moralizing.

Act 4, scene 1 advances the subplot by bringing Sebastian to the shop for "periwigs and attires" that serves as the cover for the brothel operated by Cataplasma and a site for the assignation with Levidulcea that will lead to his death at the hands of Belforest. However, the fairly lengthy scene engages the audience in the practice of "moralizing" interpretation of images of the futility, disease, and degeneracy of illicit sexuality. It begins with Cataplasma offering to "examine" the needlework of Soquette, in which she finds "very pretty" images of "a medlar with a plum tree growing hard by it." The images clearly speak against their makers, as Soquette explains: "The plum tree, forsooth, grows so near the medlar that the medlar sucks and draws all the sap from it and the natural strength o' the ground, so that it cannot prosper." When Sebastian arrives, an exchange with Cataplasma reflects the play's awareness of itself as an occasion for moral reading:

SEBASTIAN: What, moralizing upon this gentlewoman's needlework?

Let's see.

CATAPLASMA: No, sir, only examining whether it be done to the true

Nature and life o' the thing.


Sebastian follows with a remarkable ekphrasis of a pair of images, critiquing one for its failure to observe "the true / Nature and life o' the thing" and, turning to the other, observes, "But here's a moral":
   A poppering pear tree growing upon the bank of a river, seeming
   continually to look downwards into the water as if it were
   enamoured of it, and ever as the fruit ripens lets it fall for
   love, as it were, into her lap; which the wanton stream, like a
   strumpet, no sooner receives but she carries it away and bestows it
   upon some other creature she maintains, still seeming to play and
   dally under the poppering so long that it has almost washed away
   the earth from the root, and now the poor tree stands as it were
   ready to fall and perish by that whereon it spent all the substance
   it had.


As Cataplasma notes, an audience could apply Sebastian's moralizing to Sebastian himself: "Moral that for you that love those wanton running waters." But rather than reinforcing the moral lesson, the exchange produces a kind of reflective pathos. Sebastian discounts the application, and diverts the scene to a bawdy "lesson o' the lute to entertain the time" before Levidulcea arrives with Snuffe serving as "a shadow ... a property to cover the uncleanness of their purposes;" he is aroused rather than made indignant by the knowledge: "The very contemplation o' th' thing makes the spirit of the flesh begin to wriggle in my blood." Snuffe closes the scene with a couplet on the helplessness created by the conjunction of his proclivity and his circumstances: "The flesh is humble till the spirit move it / But when 'tis raised it will command above it" (4.1.87-88).

The scene seems comically indulgent and melancholy rather than morally censorious, appealing more to the pleasures of attentive interpretation than submission to homiletic instruction. Moreover, the manner in which "retribution" arrives with the conclusion of the subplot at the end of the act prompts moral deliberation rather than moral abstraction and summary judgment.30 Belforest, conspicuously undiscerning throughout the play, finally alerted to Levidulcea's being "affectedly inclined / To young Sebastian's company o' late" (4.4.2-3), accosts and extracts a confirmation from Fresco, which Fresco intones as a town crier ("Can you laugh it, my lord? I thought you had meant to proclaim yourself cuckold": 4.4.51-52.) Fortuitously joined by the watch, Belforest hastens to interrupt Sebastian's intended aim. Prior to his arrival, Levidulcea reflects on her "strange affection to this man!":
   'Tis like a natural sympathy which e'en among the senseless
   creatures of the earth commands a mutual inclination and consent.
   For though it seems to be the free effect of mine own voluntary
   love, yet I can neither restrain it, nor give reason for't.

Cataplasma attempts to reassure Levidulcea--"Enjoy your pleasure, madam, without fear"--and offers an Emilia-like justification for her action: "Methinks it is unjust that a reproach should be inflicted on a woman for offending but with one" (4.5.14-26).

The scene prompts inquiry about the nature of the transgression and the manner of the retribution that bursts in upon it. Fresco enters running with news of an impending "chargeable reckoning": "Somebody's doing has undone us, and we are like to pay dearly for't." Sebastian responds with strangely posed (and strangely poised) questions, which could reflect a hardened moral sensitivity or provoke a Brechtian interrogation of what might otherwise seem obvious: "Pay dear? For what?" Insofar as Belforest and the watch interrupt these proceedings, for which an audience may have developed some feeling identification and sympathetic understanding, questions about moral ends and means arise. Sebastian questions the comic cuckold (and his armed watch), moral reinforcements whom an audience has reason to regard curiously: "What violence is this? What seek you?" It may be that the apparent answers to these questions reveal Sebastian's moral turpitude, but they are just as likely to disclose the shaky moral legitimacy of the "reckoning."

Sebastian's death at the hands of Belforest, whom he also mortally wounds, can only be attributed to a proportional providential retribution by the most categorical summary: he is killed by an outraged husband while pursuing an illicit affair with a married woman. Against this abstract moral account we must put the immediate theatrical context and an examination of the action and plausible speculation about an audience's engagement. Despite his professed libertinism, Sebastian puts himself at risk in response to Levidulcea's plea: "Sebastian, if you love me, save my honour." The fatal exchange between Belforest and Sebastian contrasts the former's rage and crude condemnation with the latter's calm commitment to a decision:

SEBASTIAN: What violence is this? What seek you?

Enter Belforest and the Watch Zounds, you shall not pass.

BELFOREST: Pursue the strumpet!


Sebastian's dying words, "I ha't i'faith," along with his oath "Zounds" (i.e., "by God's wounds") here suggest the possibility that Sebastian's act is the only truly Christian gesture in the play.

I may be overstating, but there can be no simple contrast between the appealing but morally unprincipled Sebastian and the virtuous but uncompelling Charlemont. It remains to be said that there is nothing especially Christian about Charlemont's or Castabella's displays of virtue, especially in their vindication at the the close of the play. Dramatic disjunction and sense of anticlimax prevail in the play's final judgment scene, presided over by a pair of judges who, first, Volpone-like dispense severity to Cataplasma, Soquette, and Fresco to make them "fit for a repentant end," and expose Snuffe and return him to his occupation as a tallow-chandler before hearing the plea and preparing for the execution of Charlemont and Castabella in the presence of a D'Amville distracted by the deaths of his sons. The mortal terror of D'Amville provides clear contrast with the steadfastness of the couple in the face of death. But Charlemont's performance of "The great hard work of magnanimity" suggests a bravura performance: he showily submits to charges against him: "I have no purpose to desire / Remission for myself." His defiance of what he sees as D'Amville's "insulting pride" (as with Sebastian, he misses the mood and misrepresents the motives of his antagonist) is conspicuously and extravagantly stoic in its embrace of death:
   Thus, like a warlike navy on the sea,
   Bound for the conquest of some wealthy land,
   Passed through the stormy troubles of this life
   And now arrived upon the armed coast,
   In expectation of the victory
   Whose honour lies beyond this exigent,
   Through mortal danger, with an active spirit,
   Thus I aspire to undergo my death.

Castabella offers to "second thy brave enterprise," with an equally elaborate and similarly Stoic figure: as herbs are best when green, "So we in virtue are the best for death / While yet we have not live to such an age / That the increasing canker of our sins / Hath spread too far upon us" (5.1.122-29, 136-39). D'Amville is mystified by their willingness to undergo death, and in offering to take the place of the executioner, gives himself the death blow.

The instructive clarity of the atheist's end may be there for those inclined to receive it. But it is seemingly met with an absence of wonder or fear or any sense of the presence of the divine: the displaced executioner remarks, "In lifting up the axe, I think h'as knocked / His brains out." D'Amville's extremity produces a confession, to which Charlemont responds with an equally terse line of verse: "I claim the just advantage of his words." Although one of the Judges concludes, "Strange is his death and judgment" and acclaims "The power of that eternal providence, / Which overthrew his projects in their prime," The Atheist's Tragedy puts on view a "fantastic providence" (at which D'Amville scoffs in 5.1, just before the body of Sebastian is brought onstage) of intricate theatricality that provokes, if not "subversive" reactions then at least a productive, and pleasurable, perplexity about providential means and ends. For in the end an audience may see the elaborate action of providence preserving the aristocratic Charlemont and permitting him to "enjoy the full possession" of Castabella's preserved chastity along with engrossing "all titles due" to her that will "increase" his "wealth and honor," including, one might notice, the title of D'Amville.


(1.) Sir Philip Sidney, Selected Prose and Poetry. Ed. Robert Kimbrough. Second Edition (Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press), 1983, 111.

(2.) Cyril Tourneur, The Atheist's Tragedy, in Four Revenge Tragedies, ed. Katherine Eisaman Maus (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), 329. Subsequent references will be to this edition and will be cited parenthetically in the text by act, scene, and line number.

(3.) See for instance Geoffrey Aggler, Nobler in the Mind: The StoicSkeptic Dialogue in English Renaissance Tragedy (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1998): as an expression of its "pious orthodoxy," the play "admonishes us unequivocally that 'Patience is the Honest man's revenge,' " 60. The blunt, crude certainty of the play's moral conclusion is an ongoing focus of readings of the play, though critics have had to deal with the potential for incredulity generated by its theatricality. See Alan C. Dessen, Elizabethan Stage Conventions and Modern Interpreters, (Cambridge: University of Cambridge Press, 1984), 111-12, and Janet Clare, Revenge Tragedies of the Renaissance. Homdon: Northcote Publishing , 2006), 81.

(4.) Fredson Bowers, Elizabethan Revenge Tragedy: 1587-1642 (Gloucester, MA: Peter Smith, 1959), 144. See also Clifford Leech, "The Atheist's Tragedy as a Dramatic Comment on Chapman's Bussy Plays," JEPG 52 (1953): 525-30, 525; and Samuel Schuman, Cyril Tourneur (Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1977), 115.

(5.) Katherine Eisamen Maus, Introduction to Four Revenge Tragedies, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), xxix.

(6.) Ibid., xxx.

(7.) See Ronald, Broude, "Revenge and Revenge Tragedy in Renaissance England," Renaissance Quarterly 28 (1975): 38-58, for the way the theme informs Renaissance revenge tragedy (especially 52-57).

(8.) Clare, Revenge Tragedies, 84.

(9.) Alexandra Walsham, Providence in Early Modern England (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), 32, 36, 38-39, 41.

(10.) Bertolt Brecht, Brecht on Theater: The Development of an Aesthetic, ed. and trans. John Willet (New York: Hill and Wang, 1964), 143.

(11.) Charles Whitney, "Ante-aesthetics: Towards a theory of early modern audience Response," in Shakespeare and Modernity: Early Modern to Millennium, ed. Hugh Grady (London: Routledge, 2000), 40-60, 52, 58. See also his Early Responses to Renaissance Drama (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006).

(12.) Whitney, "Ante-aesthetics," 58. Thomas Rist, in Revenge tragedy and the drama of commemoration in reforming England (Aldershot, England: Ashgate, 2008), has drawn attention to an "unstable irony" at work in the play, though that irony works ultimately to heighten attention to what he sees as "the focal point" of revenge drama, the commemoration of the dead: when D'Amville stages an elaborate funeral for the brother he has murdered and the nephew he has disinherited in 3.1, that irony is imagined to strike an audience uniformly in appealing to what Rist claims as the center of their playgoing attention: "the audience can sees the irony, but hears the mourning" (114). Linda Woodbridge, in English Revenge Drama: Money, Resistance, Equality (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), questions Bowers' assumption of a "unanimous audience" and its revulsion against revenge and Gordon Braden's suggestion that an audience would find in the "one anomalous attitude" of Charlemont the "Christian standard for a hero's behavior" they had been waiting for (30, 32). She more generally questions the "rather quaint assumption that Elizabethans attended revenge plays for moral guidance--or should have" (47), but her scattered remarks on The Atheist's Tragedy rest on the questionable assumption that an audiences would have (I am tempted to say could have) found the providential deliverance of Charlemont a confirmation of fairness, justice, and equality on the model of other revengers who redress grievances against tyrants.

(13.) See Martin White, Middleton and Tourneur. English Dramatists. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1992, 158-64. See also Clare, Revenge Tragedies, 81-82.

(14.) All of the work on the play in the last 25 years, in fact, has appeared in introductions, general studies, and companions: Maus, Jeremy Lopez, Theatrical Convention and Audience Response in Early Modern Drama (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, Rist, Clare, and Alison Shell, "Tragedy and Religion," in The Cambridge Companion to English Renaissance Tragedy, eds. Emma Smith and Garret A. Sullivan (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 153-62.

(15.) Shell, "Tragedy and Religion," 48.

(16.) Francis Bacon, Francis Bacon. The Oxford Authors, ed. Brian Vickers (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), 372.

(17.) Richard Strier has written of the similarly extravagant and dynamic villainies of Shakespeare's Richard III "co-opting us into enjoyment," suggesting that there is "no mystery about the moral dimension of these scenes, and no interest in it;" see "Shakespeare Against Morality," in Reading Renaissance Ethics, ed. Marshall Grossman (New York: Routledge, 2007), 206-25, 208.

(18.) Jonathan Dollimore, Radical Tragedy: Religion, Ideology, and Power in the Drama of Shakespeare and his Contemporaries 3rd ed. (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004), 182.

(19.) Maus, Introduction to Four Revenge Tragedies, 415.

(20.) Sigmund Freud, "On the Introduction of Narcissism," in Beyond the Pleasure Principle and Other Writings, trans. John Reddick (London: Penguin Books, 2003), 7.

(21.) For instance, attempting to persuade Castabella to marry the (incipiently impotent) Roussard, Levidulcea presents a kind of Sidneian view of pleasure as an allurement to undertake activity that would otherwise seem distasteful or disadvantageous but which nonetheless produces increase: "Wise Nature ... hath / Reserved for our inducement to our sense / Our greatest pleasure in that greatest work...." (1.4.87-89).

(22.) Walter Benjamin, The Origin of German Tragic Drama, trans. John Osborne (London: Verso, 1998), 89.

(23.) Ibid., 78-79.

(24.) Una Ellis-Fermor, The Jacobean Drama: An Interpretation, 4th ed. (London: Methuen, 1958), 164; Herschel Baker, The Wars of Truth: Studies in the Decay of Christian Humanism In the Earlier Seventeenth Century (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1952), 113.

(25.) See Huston Diehl, " 'Reduce Thy Understanding to Thine Eye' ": Seeing and Interpreting in The Atheist's Tragedy, " Studies in Philology 78 (1981), 47-60, 54: the protagonists "willingly accept death and triumphantly ascend the scaffold to be executed while claiming the ultimate victory."

(26.) Ibid., 48: "The play seems interested in exploring the ways in which men see and interpret their darkened universe; it suggests that the physical phenomena of this fallen world may be signs, hieroglyphics of God's higher moral purpose, if man could but learn to see correctly."

(27.) Sebastian received favorable notice earlier in the last century, from for instance Ellis-Fermor in 1936 and Michael H. Higgins in 1943, in "The Influence of Calvinistic Thought on Tourneur's The Atheist's Tragedy," The Review of English Studies 19 (1943) 255-62. Richard Levin entirely subsumes Sebastian in the supposed moral scheme of the play, and concludes we must therefore resist his appeal, in "The Subplot of The Atheist's Tragedy." Huntington Library Quarterly 29 (1965): 17-33, 23-24. Schuman calls him "the only really human character in the play" but follows Levin's scheme in seeing him cursed by God (117). More recently, he's gone unnoticed, with bare mentions in Diehl, Clare, and Rist and none at all in Maus and Woodbridge.

(28.) See Levin and Schuman for the view that an audience would conclude that Sebastian's death follows from his character's indiscriminate pursuit of the pleasures of the flesh.

(29.) See Diehl, "'Reduce Thy Understanding to Thine Eye,'" and Maus, who suggests that the play's "emblematic devices" ("all of them quite orthodox") in conjunction with "dramatic events, places, and appearances all work to reinforce the play's moral lesson" (xxxi). Brian Morris and Roma Gill, while lamenting that, given the absence of any stage history, "we are denied the evidence that only the theatre can provide," nonetheless stress the decisiveness of the play's "emblematic technique" as "the dramatic point is made by the impact of the spectacle on the audience." See their introduction to The New Mermaids Edition of The Atheist's Tragedy by Cyril Tourneur (New York: W.W. Norton, 1989), xxxi-xxxii. In all of these critics, characters, scenes, and speeches serve an orthodox meaning taken in by an audience already in possession of that meaning from "traditional" sources or a general "religious culture." This is seen recently in Shell: "Tourneur's audience, passive participants in the drama by definition are being exhorted to exemplary patience, too, as they await God's providence to be acted out" (51).

(30.) For a Brechtian account of the second half of this scene, which he calls an "implicit parody of retributive justice," see William Gruber, "Building a Scene: The Text and Its Representation in The Atheist's Tragedy," Comparative Drama 10 (1985), 193-208. Dollimore also claims that The Atheist's Tragedy is only "Ostensibly ... a piece of unmitigated propaganda for retributive providentialism," the catastrophe of which "hilariously parodies the by then rather tired dramatic convention" (89).


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Title Annotation:Cyril Tourneur
Author:Swartz, Doug
Publication:Medieval and Renaissance Drama in England
Date:Jan 1, 2017
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