Elizabethan Drama Beyond New Historicism: Marlowe’s unnatural histories and the melancholy properties of the stage Drew Milne The tradition of the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the minds of the living.  There is no document of culture which is not at the same time a document of barbarism. And just as such a document is not free from barbarism, barbarism also taints the process of transmission ..  Recent critical discussions of Elizabethan drama, above all of Shakespeare, have centred around `new historicism’, a trend consolidated in critical anthologies. New historicism is characterised by an interest in the historicity of texts and the textuality of history, and by affinities with theoretical projects concerned with power, identity and the construction of subject positions. Despite important political differences, new historicism has been linked with what has become known as `cultural materialism’. Many of the political differences stem from the uneasy relation of new historicism, and of cultural materialism, to the Marxist conception of history or historical materialism, differences which this essay seeks to accentuate. Raymond Williams is often claimed as a major precursor of cultural materialism, but interest in institutions, discursive practices and subject positions suggests the different legacy of Althusser’s attack on humanism and the influence of Foucault.
New historicism, by contrast, shows scant regard for Marxism while being especially indebted to Foucault’s version of Nietzsche’s will to power and perspectival historicism, despite important critiques of Foucault’s work. The Althusserian approach is more overtly committed to the possibility of political change but tends towards a similarly theoreticist, even formalist reduction of history. The possibility of resisting power and the power of ideology marks the decisive conflict in these different assimilations of history to culture. New historicism, lost in proliferating examples of contingent but seemingly inescapable discourses of power, seems at best to expand the archive of wry smiles at the ruses of history and power. As an academic guise in which to rework the glories of the past without pausing too long over the enormity of the history surveyed, the reproduction of literary history now lies in the hands of those who can offer few reasons for continuing to produce the object of critique. Sinfield suggests that, `New historicists, therefore, like their colleagues, are sustaining many of the old routines while knowing, really, that their validity has evaporated.' As such, new historicists could be described as reformists who do not believe in progress.
If we are to awake from the nightmare of history, perhaps such historicism should be left alone to dull the air with discoursive moans, as Aeneas puts it in Marlowe’s Dido, Queen of Carthage. The persistent naturalisation of suffering in history should be resisted if the process of transmitting historical documents is not to further the process. Herein lies the need to offer estranging perspectives on Elizabethan drama and the intervening historical gulf. One aspect of the difficulty is the continuing investment in naturalising both the language and dramaturgy of Elizabethan drama within a literary tradition dominated by Shakespeare and the Shakespeare industry. This essay seeks to provide an estranging perspective through a reading of new historicist accounts of Marlowe.
Focussing on Tamburlaine, I hope to suggest some different approaches with regard to the melancholy dramatisation of history as a scene of unnatural events, by drawing on the work of Walter Benjamin and Franco Moretti. A distinctive and estranging approach to dramatising the enormity of history is evident in the prevalence of violence, murder and arbitrary death in Elizabethan drama itself. This prevalence has long been seen as excessive, a mark of something unnatural in its historical imaginary, without being understood. History in Elizabethan drama is, as title-pages characteristically predict, lamentable. The structure of effects suggested by drama as an occasion for melancholic lamentation helps to contextualise the roles of Tamburlaine, Barabas and Guise in Marlowe’s plays, where it seems particularly in-appropriate to reduce their dramatic ambivalence to the need to identify with a central protagonist or autonomous `character’. As David Bevington suggests: `The well-known type of “Lamentable Tragedy, Mixed Full of Pleasant Mirth” .. traces its origins to the view that vicious behavior is at once funny and terrifying as a spectacle, admirable and yet grotesque, amusing but also edifying as a perverse distortion of moral behavior.' Elizabethan drama, par-ticularly Marlowe’s, dramatises the contradictions of seeing history as a record of divine providence in which the world is the theatre of divine judgment. The prologue to the first part of Tamburlaine invites audience and reader to `View but his picture in this tragicke glasse, / And then applaud his fortunes if you please.' Indeed the play seems to relish the ambivalent moral possibilities of melancholy pleasure in lamenting a world without divine providence.
In this theatre history is both unnatural and inhuman. Violent suffering without end or grace goes against the notion of a fall from a greater nature or the prospect of a redeemed nature to come. History is then seen as the non-identity of nature with itself, unnatural forces struggling with natural ones. Unnatural forces, however, must also be seen as emerging from nature, while the dramatisation of history in terms of human agency suggests that unnatural acts are an aspect of human nature for which no secular concept of wordly evil is adequate. In Elizabethan drama the stage is not so much beyond good and evil as caught in an attempt to develop a secular concept of evil.
The resources for such a concept are figurative rather than conceptual, resorting to melancholy in face of the unthinkably arbitrary and violent prevalence of suffering. Benjamin’s account is helpful here. The contemplation of lamentable stories of death by unnatural causes finds its aesthetic purpose in allegories of unholy dying, allegories in which history is a fallen nature, a world of evil without the consolations of natural justice. On such an unnaturally cruel and violent stage dominated by seemingly arbitrary and unreliable powers, the possibility that evil might be recognisable without theology is consoling. Indeed it is the reduction of history to worldly evil which makes it possible to stage history as a state of unnatural nature that can be lamented.
The mirror of magistrates becomes a wheel which needs to be reinvented because it never quite comes full circle, notably in the lurching rhythms of the failure of poetic justice at the end of King Lear. Hence, although a fashion for stage violence can be traced from Cambises and Gorboduc to The Spanish Tragedy, its historical significance is complicated. Thus it is difficult to understand why Tamburlaine was so popular, even to the extent of imitation in The First part of the Tragical raigne of Selimus. Tamburlaine’s simple linear plot seems to offer little more than a violent pageant of power and destruction enlivened by occasional striking tableaux. This taste for horror in aesthetic form has remained unexplained in its more specific historical manifestations, and in general, perhaps because it reflects but fails to explain the nightmare of history. In rethinking this nightmare, much of the critical verve of new historicism is derived from the historicisation, if not critique, of humanist or idealist conceptions of subjectivity in the reception and critical transmission of Elizabethan drama.
There is a danger in assimilating the different approaches associated with new historicism to one paradigm, but the centrality of conceptions of subjectivity is evident. Catherine Belsey, while developing an attack on liberal humanism, seeks `to chart in the drama of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries the eventual construction of an order of subjectivity which is recognizably modern.' This finds its strategic justification in the need to displace the largely romantic and post-romantic conceptions of the subject dominant in the modern reception of Shakespeare and so-called Renaissance drama more generally. Jonathan Dollimore describes the task as `a critique of the way literary critics have reproduced Renaissance drama in terms of a modern depoliticized subjectivity, and an attempt to recover a more adequate history of subjectivity’. Dollimore argues that Elizabethan tragedy itself challenged Christian essentialism and in the process decentred `Man’; but he also highlights the danger of anachronism: the incorrect procedure is that which insists on reading the early seventeenth century through the grid of an essentialist humanism which in historical fact post-dates it and in effect only really emerges with the Enlightenment; in other words, what makes a materialist analysis of subjectivity in that period seem inappropriate is itself a thoroughly anachronistic perspective. Nevertheless there are striking similarities between Dollimore’s account of Tamburlaine and the persistent Nietzschean romanticism which marks previous critical accounts of Marlowe. Hazlitt says of Marlowe that: `There is a lust of power in his writings, a hunger and thirst after unrighteousness, a glow of the imagination, unhallowed by anything but its own energies.'; while Helen Gardner argues less effusively that: `The first part of Tamburlaine glorifies the human will: the second displays its inevitable limits.'; and Harry Levin offers the following stirring formulation of Marlowe’s Barabas: `His will to power is gratified less by possession than by control. In this he does not resemble the conqueror so much as he adumbrates the capitalist; and Marlowe has grasped what is truly imaginative, what in his time was almost heroic, about business enterprise.' This Nietzschean aesthetic of the will to power and primitive accumulation, in which naked ambition and the arbitrary amassing of power and wealth is celebrated as the legitimate aspiration of human energy, finds surprising echoes in Dollimore’s account of Tamburlaine: With his indomitable will to power and warrior prowess, Tamburlaine really does approximate to the self-determining hero bent on transcendent autonomy .
. . exclusion may be the basis not just of Tamburlaine as fantasy projection but Tamburlaine as transgressive text: it liberates from its Christian and ethical framework the humanist conception of man as essentially free, dynamic and aspiring.  In Dollimore’s argument these terms are ambivalent rather than celebratory, but seem to preclude the more Brechtian possibility that Marlowe does not in the end intend sympathy with Tamburlaine. Perhaps, like Mother Courage, Marlowe intended a sense that the passage of war and destruction might be understood as the responsibility of a badly motivated human agent, such that Tamburlaine’s exploits are an occasion for reflective lamentation, rather than Nietzschean identification with a superman.
The central hermeneutic difficulty, however, is that the attempt to historicise anachronistically imputed conceptions of subjectivity relies on claiming that more recent conceptions of decentred subjectivity are not similarly anachronistic, an objection which could also be extended to Brecht’s plays. Much depends on whether we applaud the fortunes seen in the `tragicke glasse’ of Tamburlaine as a stage on which the will to power is enacted, or whether we prefer to steel ourselves against the figurative idealism which lurks in such mirrors of nature. If we applaud the fortunes of Tamburlaine then we identify with that difference of nature from itself which produces the spectacle of history, thus naturalising Tamburlaine’s will to power. If we do not identify with Tamburlaine’s struggle for power as something natural then we have to lament the spectacle of unnatural history or find a perspective from which to understand it differently. Thus the focus on subjective agency, individual will or dramatic identity tends to abstract from history to highlight the ideological forms which transcend the historical gulf between modern and pre-modern fictions of society.
A materialist account of subjectivity may restore individuals to history, but the political relevance of theoretical hindsight is mortgaged to the reception history it seeks to displace. In other words, by making subjectivity such a central analytical tool new historicism succeeds in decentring subjects, showing how such subjects were never centred, but obscures the historical and cognitive significance of the different terms in which Elizabethan drama dramatised history. As Moretti argues, taking up Benjamin’s account of allegory: `allegory is not a subjective deception to which someone might be imagined to hold the semantic key, but the objectively deceptive condition of the nature of history by which everyone is ultimately betrayed.' Moreover, subjectivity in Elizabethan drama is invariably a chimera given the persistent ambivalence of theatricality. Kastan and Stallybrass, for example, suggest that `Acting itself threatens to reveal the artificial and arbitrary nature of social being.' The nature of social being, however, is not arbitrary save in constructions which make being the ground of historicity. Human history cannot be understood in terms of a history of human subjectivity without reference to the nature against which it struggles, and that nature is itself historical. The history of subjectivity is never the same as the history of subjects as objects in human attempts to dominate nature. The thought that the antagonistic domination of human nature and the struggle to dominate nature itself might be superseded and shown to be neither natural nor contingently historical, is perhaps what Marx meant by the pre-history of human society.
If there is an affinity between modern conceptions of decentred subjectivity and pre-modern Elizabethan drama, it may be that both Elizabethan dramatisations of history and contemporary historicism collapse history, indeed naturalize it in terms of a drama of subjective wills. Stephen Greenblatt’s Renaissance Self-Fashioning (1980), an important text in the emergence of new historicism, provides exemplary instances of these difficulties. In his introduction Greenblatt concedes the risk of anachronism, and comments on his small group of chosen texts that: `It is we who enlist them in a kind of historical drama’. Greenblatt provocatively suggests a dramatised analogy with Nietzsche’s conception of the will to power in the very title of the chapter `Marlowe and the Will to Absolute Play’. Such anachronism is significant insofar as the naturalization of history as power suggested by Nietzsche, and also in Foucault’s work, is a historically determinate attempt to understand social process in terms of illusory subject positions. As Greenblatt explains in his epilogue: Whenever I focused sharply upon a moment of apparently autonomous self-fashioning, I found not an epiphany of identity freely chosen, but a cultural artifact.
If there remained traces of free choice, the choice was among possibilities whose range was strictly delineated by the social and ideological system in force. (p. 256) Hence Greenblatt describes Marlowe’s plays by explicitly evoking Marx’s The Eighteenth Brumaire: `Marlowe’s protagonists rebel against orthodoxy, but they do not do so just as they please; their acts of negation not only conjure up the order they would destroy, but seem at times to be themselves conjured up by that very order.’ (p. 210) The subtle difference, however, is the shift to a more structuring account of `order’, and, more fundamentally, the stress on the dramatic protagonist as the interpretative key, despite arguing that it is the social order which fashions such protagonists. Consequently, Greenblatt’s approach needs to be understood as both a sketch of the development of human autonomy in the Renaissance, what might be called a romanticist reading of the early modern period, and the historicisation of such autonomy as being illusory: `Marlowe’s heroes must live their lives as projects, but they do so in the midst of intimations that the projects are illusions.’ (p. 213) Accordingly, in a move which has become characteristic of new historicism, Greenblatt prefaces his account of self-fashioning in Marlowe’s plays with an anecdotal historical analogue for the contemporary `system’ of power. This analogue juxtaposes Marlowe’s plays with the `casual, unexplained violence’ in an English merchant’s tale of a voyage in 1586 to Sierre Leone, suggesting an historical ‘matrix’ of the relentless power-hunger of Tudor absolutism, and in particular the acquisitive energies of English merchants, entre-preneurs, and adventurers.(p. 194) In some respects this echoes what might be called the old historicist account of L.C.Knights in Drama and Society in the Age of Jonson (1937), which examines the social and economic bases of Elizabethan-Jacobean culture in rather more detail.
But Greenblatt does not relate nascent English capitalism and colonialism to the specific religious and political conflicts dramatised in Tamburlaine. Rather, he deploys history as `matrix’ in a more metaphorical analogy between the dynamic political geography of merchant capital and the theatrical representation of space. Just as merchant capitalism seeks to reduce geographical differences to an expression of its power, so, for Greenblatt, Marlowe uses theatrical power to represent different spaces: In Tamburlaine Marlowe contrives to efface all such differences, as if to insist upon the essential meaninglessness of theatrical space, the vacancy that is the dark side of its po …