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SEL Studies in English Literature 1500-1900
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Arthur Noel Kincaid
Abstract: The structure of More's History of King Richard III is based on a dramatic conceit by which the author expresses the work's moral purpose. The structure is generally thought to be based on Richard's manipulation of all events in his pursuit of the throne. But another movement, which surrounds and runs as an undercurrent to this must be considered the primary structure. This movement, outlined by use of the stage metaphor in the gradual reaction against Richard, points toward his downfall and an ultimate reestablishing of order. Like a morality play the work is exemplary, and its moral exposition depends on relations between actor and audience. There are two audiences: the reader and the London populace. Relations between these two audiences are manipulated for mood and emphasis. The reader sees Richard as a morality tyrant striving for worthless transitory gain. More uses characterization, dialogue, oration and action to bring the narrative into dramatic focus for the reader-audience, and like an actor in a morality play, he addresses them sometimes directly, guiding their response by stressing moral points and using an ironic tone first playful then increasingly bitter as Richard's actions become more criminal. Inside the "play" is the audience of the London populace observing and reacting to a series of shows staged by Richard as actor-producer. At times these scenes are technically perfect but fail to convince. At others they fail from technical flaws. As in the theater the success of Richard's schemes depends on audience participation, and this participation is shown gradually to withdraw as the work progresses, outlining the moral structure in theatrical terms.
Stephen S. Hilliard
Abstract: John Lyly's Midas is structured in terms of traditional allegorizations of the Ovidian myth that represent Midas as an avaricious and ignorant tyrant. Lyly is thus concerned with a theme popular in the public theater, but he treats it in allegorical manner distinctive in its focus on theme rather than character or action. The play first portrays Midas's mistaken choice of a private end, the accumulation of wealth for its own sake and as a means of financing lechery and aggression, then suggests the difficulties this causes in the governing of his kingdom. The episode in which Midas judges the singing contest of Pan and Apollo is not unrelated; rather it contributes to the thematic development by depicting allegorically the ignorance of the divine order which caused Midas's tyranny. In the last act the repentant king submits to the divine order in a scene of Lyly's invention that underscores the allegorical theme.
Lawrence D. Green
Abstract: The fascination of critics and actors with the psychology of the character of Shakespeare's Lear can be traced to Nahum Tate's redaction of King Lear in 1681. The Fool is an essential part of the context in which Lear speaks, but comparison of texts shows that Tate's Lear uses the same language without the Fool. Tate's omission of the Fool consequently isolated Lear's character and forced the individual actor to create the missing context outside of the lines themselves. As actors realized the degree of freedom this isolation granted and how potentially spectacular the role was, the play became secondary to interest in the inner workings of Lear's mind. This shift in emphasis continued past the restoration of Shakespeare's text and the Fool in 1838. The concept of an internalized Lear has lasted beyond the necessity of Tate's text and has extended itself into more recent interpretations of Shakespeare's text.
John Ellis
Abstract: The subplot in Shakespeare's King Lear, Edmund's swift deception of Gloucester and Edgar, comments by parallel and contrast not only on the main plot but also on the character of Lear. Gloucester's fumbling and confused response to the deception contrasts with Lear's tragic strength and will in the face of the machinations against him by his own children. Critics from Bradley onward have attacked the credibility of Edmund's success. They find the action contrary to human nature, though some argue his success has greater dramatic impact than a more careful attention to psychological motivation might have provided. However, the gulling of Gloucester is psychologically prepared for in the first scene of the play. Gloucester cannot understand what has caused the chaos occurring in his absence then; but Edmund can, for he is present throughout that action. He uses both his father's bewilderment and his love to supplant him and further his own fortunes. Edmund's letter, attacked as a clumsy forgery by the critics, is, on the contrary, well calculated to shatter Gloucester, echoing as it does the action of the first scene and arguing for children's rule over aged parents.
Lawrence L. Levin
Abstract: In the early play, Every Man in his Humor, Doctor Clement functions in a complex manner and anticipates elements in Jonson's later plays. As a magistrate, Clement represents an ideal reality, for Jonson, incorporating the dramatist's attitudes toward law, justice, and social order. Clement's treatment of Cob in Act III foreshadows the play's catastrophe and Clement's role as the enlightened benevolent justice figure. As a normative agent, Clement opposes the humor figures who attempt to disrupt society through the dislocation of language, the misuse of poetry, the generation conflict, uncontrolled passion, and misdirected wit. In order to counter successfully the socially disruptive forces, Clement plays the roles of priest, educator, and poet-reformer—as well as magistrate. In his manipulation of the characters in his Act V "motion," Clement identifies himself further with Jonson, the comic dramatist. In Every Man in his Humor, Jonson departs from the Elizabethan convention of the dull-witted justice of the peace and creates a new type of magistrate who is a shrewd humanist (a sharp contrast to later justices in Jonson's comic canon) and a prototype for particular characters in the next four plays that follow.
W. Speed Hill
Abstract: Recent discussions of Jonson's art ignore biography, but Jonson himself links "the good Poet" to "a good man" in urging themoral authority of his art. The issue is especially germane to Volpone, where the "catastrophe"—Volpone's punishment, added by Jonson—is so ambiguous and where, in the Dedicatory Epistle, Jonson reasserts the link between life and art. His biography—or more properly, his autobiography—thus illuminates the problem of ethical intention in a morally ambiguous art. The critical portrait in Drummond's Conversations should be balanced by the ideal self-portrait in Timber. Together they suggest that much of Jonson's personality was self-created and taken at face value by later generations. In the Dedicatory Epistle, Jonson urges the traditional public role of the moral poet as of his own making; similarly, his "classicism" may be seen as a publicly acceptable way of ordering private impulse in and for art. To the earlier subjectivism of Ellis-Fermor, most recent commentators on Volpone argue that a pervasive irony undercuts Volpone's surface magnificence. But irony is subject to misconstruction in Jonson's Venice, and evil is so rooted there that we cannot infer a countervailing good from a simple inversion of evil. The key to the morality of the play lies rather in a development of Jonson's earlier humor psychology. In the initial success and ultimate failure of Mosca and Volpone, Jonson argues that there is an inherent instability in evil, rooted in the vanity of success, that brings down its perpetrators. The moral innocence of Celia and Bonnario, the official justice of the Avocatari, are equally helpless. There is no Christian metamorphosis of evil into good. Rather, society's best hope is that evil will destroy itself before it destroys its host.
Devra Rowland Kifer
Abstract: Much of the criticism of The Staple of News has been concerned with the presence or absence of unity among the disparate elements of satire, morality, and allegory. Although all of these elements are present, the play is most properly viewed as a festive comedy whose central structure is a morality account of the salvation of Pennyboy Junior. Many specific references to Shrovetide and Lent support this contention. Even more important are the elements of holiday. The Gossips and Prologue enjoy holiday license to criticize the poet and his play; the Staple Office is a holiday joke mocking the venerable Wool Staple. Pennyboy Junior sets out to make his life a continuous holiday. His uncle, Pennyboy Senior, acts as a killjoy who opposes the spirit of holiday, but he is overcome and reclaimed. Lickfinger, the cook, acts as a professional supporter of holiday-making.
Peter Bement
Abstract: Renaissance neostoicism develops two major strains. One, represented by Du Vair, identifies the stoic Law of Nature with the laws of the state, and so makes of the wise man a good citizen. Another, represented by Justus Lipsius, argues a pessimistic individualism, seeing the state and society as corrupt and civic duty as opposed to right reason. Epictetus, Chapman's stoic mentor, is equivocal on the action v. contemplation issue. He urges indifference to externals (such as wealth, power, patriotism), and counsels just so much involvement in the active life as is possible to reconcile with these considerations. Sir Thomas Lodge shows that for the Renaissance the answer depended on optimism or pessimism about the social milieu—on whether one believed in the coincidence of Rational Law and the laws of society or not. Whatever the answer, stoicism did provide a rigid ethical framework for the old debate about action and contemplation, and this framework is why Chapman turns to it. Clermont D'Ambois approaches the problem of action from stoic principles. When he discovers that, despite the contagious corruption of the world, revenge is a duty enjoined by the Rational Law, he performs it: finding conditions afterwards irreconcilable with right reason, he commits suicide.
Philip J. Ayres
Abstract: When seen as a parodistic exposure of the amorality of the Kydian revenger, much of the confusion that has attended attempts to explain the play's own apparent amorality is dispelled. Antonio is developed along familiar lines until Act III. The rest of the play details the corruptive nature of revenge by paradox and the use of religious imagery that emphasizes discrepancies between appearance and reality. Antonio remains virtuous in his own eyes while his actions are exposed by various means as morally unacceptable. The "sacrifice" of Julio is ironically handled at Antonio's expense. Parallels are developed between him and Piero, and the latter is humanized as the revenger's vicious nature becomes clear. Marston's conclusion deliberately travesties the accepted formula and forces the sought response. Viewed in this way, the play is a logical outcome of his early preoccupation with the appearance-reality theme and reflects his didactic interests.
Charles A. Hallett
Abstract: In Women Beware Women Middleton traces the psychological stages in the growth of a cynic. Livia, representing the accomplished cynic, is a key to what Bianca will become. Disbelieving in the possibility of goodness in human motives, Livia enjoys the challenge of exposing virtue as a sham; this is the way she justifies her own sordid values. Bianca, on the other hand, is introduced as an innocent who naïvely believes the world will shower happiness on her. The rape shatters her dream, but Bianca does not attempt to replace her dream by searching for truth. Instead of questioning the justice of the Duke's act, she chooses to cover up and return to the dream. But the dream is shattered, and she begins to yearn for the luxuries of her former life. She blames Leantio for keeping her in want and thus forcing her to return to the Duke. Having learned how to blame others for her own moral choices, she is able to adjust to increasingly degrading situations and, like Livia, can soon defend her own vileness by pointing out weaknesses in others (witness her speech to the Cardinal). But her insistence that her life was predetermined by fate and her consequent inability to learn from experience prevent her from reaching a tragic awareness at the moment of her death, even though she admits her own foulness. The play traces not, as is usually believed, a journey into greater and greater sin but rather the series of rationalizations that lead to the erection of a barrier against self-knowledge, and thus cannot be classified as tragedy. Yet though Middleton's heroine refuses to face reality, she does not move in the direction of pathology as her counterpart in modern psychological drama would do (say, Amanda Wingfield). Bianca simply reinterprets everything that happens to her so that it confirms her belief—the belief of the cynic—that the world is a sordid place in which virtue is impossible.
Roy Battenhouse

©William Marsh Rice University 1972