Summarization of the Jonathan Dollimore’s Radical Tragedy

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These three books have each been seminal in the field of Shakespeare studies in the late twentieth century and their influence continues to be central to the field today. They may all be collected under the umbrella of 'materialist Shakespeare criticism'[1]or 'political criticism',[2]and all emerged from similar assumptions concerning the contingency of cultural artefacts upon the social and historical circumstances of their production.

Whilst Dollimore's work springs from the British movement of Cultural Materialism,[3]Greenblatt and Montrose are situated in the predominantly American movement of New Historicism.[4]During the middle part of the nineteen eighties, critics from both of these schools of thought contributed to the ground-breaking collection of essays, Political Shakespeare: Essays in Cultural Materialism (Dollimore and Sinfield, 1985), but over the course of time there have developed some quite substantial differences between them.Dollimore's Radical Tragedy (1984, 1989) is clear in attributing its debt to the work of the Marxist critic, Raymond Williams, who first coined the term 'cultural materialism'. Williams's description of the 'residual, dominant and emergent elements which coexist at any cultural moment'[5]is taken up by Dollimore in his discussion of the 'struggle' between these elements that is manifest in Renaissance drama.[6]Dollimore argues that dominant ideologies of the time, such as the religious idea of providentialism, 'constituted an ideological underpinning for ideas of absolute monarchy and divine right'[7]and were thus used by the state to support its centres of power.

But he cites examples of plays that 'probe' ideologies such as religious belief[8]and he argues that dramatists were instrumental in subverting the dominant ideology of the time because Jacobean tragedy was a form that 'ironically inscribe[d] a subordinate viewpoint within a dominant one'[9]and that utilised a residual ideology (such as the notion of universal decay) in order to subvert the dominant ideology of providentialism in order to propose an emergent ideology of scepticism.[10]Thus, Dollimore argues that Jacobean tragedy offered a radical critique of state power in Renaissance England, but one that of necessity evaded the powers of state censorship by using a form of 'underlying subversion' that utilised 'parody, dislocation and structural disjunction',[11]so bypassing 'the perfunctory surveillance of the censor' to be 'reactivated in performance'.[12]In the introduction to the second edition of Radical Tragedy, Dollimore distinguishes his position from that of New Historicists such as Stephen Greenblatt because he argues a truly radical challenge to authority in the 'subversive knowledge of political domination, a knowledge which interrogated prevailing beliefs, submitted them to a kind of intellectual vandalism'.[13]In contrast, Greenblatt has argued, in Shakespearean Negotiations (1988, 1990), that, wherever the Renaissance theatre seems to be subversive, that subversion is consistently 'contained' and therefore turned against itself. Greenblatt uses the example of Henry V to show how the staging of 'subversive doubts' is actually used to create an 'enhancement of royal power'[14]and how the audience is invited to be complicit in supplementing the imaginary power that reality lacks.

He similarly exposes the ways in which the state enhances its power by 'the staging of anxiety'[15]and the management of insecurity,[16]discussing the theatre's ability to turn political and social anxiety into 'pleasure'.[17]Greenblatt proposes, therefore, that, because Shakespeare wrote for a theatre that was subject to state censorship, the theatre companies were, in effect, co-opted by the ideological apparatuses of the state in order to bolster the power of the state. His conclusion about Renaissance drama is therefore that 'the form itself, as a primary expression of Renaissance power, helps to contain the radical doubts it continually provokes'.[18]Throughout Shakespearean Negotiations, Greenblatt uses the technique of juxtaposing (apparently) unrelated texts in order to demonstrate how the power of the Tudor and Stuart monarchies was maintained through the theatre and how 'social energy' was circulated through all kinds of different textual productions, not in a 'single coherent, totalizing system', but rather in a manner that was distinguished by its 'partial, fragmentary, conflictual' nature.[19]Greenblatt has come to be seen as having a more conservative outlook than Dollimore.

His emphasis upon the containment of subversion creates the view that the theatre did not contribute to any substantial social change, but that the social circumstances of its production (particularly the presence of state censorship) made it unavailable as a stimulator of revolutionary change. This viewpoint is utterly opposite to Dollimore's argument that the theatre played a crucial role in contributing to the eventual collapse of the institutions of the Church and State that led to the outbreak of the English Civil War.[20]Although Louis Montrose has played a significant part in the development if New Historicism, his book The Purpose of Playing (1996) could be seen as marking a departure from Greenblatt's influential theory concerning subversion and its containment on the Renaissance stage.

Montrose situates his book as a part of the project which emphasises 'the interconnectedness of the discursive and material domains'[21]which he characterises as 'a reciprocal concern with the historicity of texts and the textuality of histories'.[22]In this way, he can be said to be aligned with New Historicism and his use of a wide variety of different textual sources within his book has much in common with Greenblatt's juxtaposition of widely diverse texts. Yet Montrose aligns himself with Raymond Williams's view of the residual, emergent and dominant cultural forms, and thus reveals a common perspective with Dollimore's work.

Montrose does not accept that there is a straightforward choice between subversion and containment, but rather posits an 'open, changing and contradictory discourse'.[23]Montrose emphasises that the theatre in Renaissance England had a predominant element of 'play' and that, as a form of an 'emergent commercial entertainment', it lay neither wholly in the world of political subversion nor in the world of state control and power, but rather can be seen as partaking in a mixture of elements that combined to 'address vital collective needs and interests'[24]Although all three of these writers see the power of the state in Renaissance England as having a vital relationship with the theatre, Montrose is most sceptical about this and places most emphasis upon the emergent commercial concerns that made the theatre appeal to a wide popular audience. For Greenblatt, it seems that the state control over the theatre meant that the theatre did not do much to alter society, yet for Dollimore the reverse is true.

Montrose, however, sees the matter in much more reciprocal terms and prefers to describe an interplay between the two. It may be argued that Montrose's point of view is more subtle and less committed to a singular way of looking at Renaissance theatre, but it can also be argued that his book is less clear; however, his attempted synthesis between the concerns of Cultural Materialism and those of New Historicism reveal that both ways of seeing Renaissance theatre continue to have something to contribute to the ongoing debate.

Article name: Summarization of the Jonathan Dollimore’s Radical Tragedy essay, research paper, dissertation