This course will study a selection of drama written and performed in England in the 17th century. Our focus in the first part of the course will be a cluster of plays that were produced at the beginning of the century in the wake of James I’s reign. These plays performed as part of a range of court theatricals were a complex site for the negotiation of emergent shifts in political, philosophical and religious beliefs: an increasing dissatisfaction among the nobility and landowners with royal arrogance, the rising power of the mercantile class and their desire to contribute to processes of governance, James’ suppression of Catholic liturgy and his episcopal policy of uniting the church and the state in the figure of the monarch culminating in the commissioning of a comprehensive translation of The Bible in 1611, a growing interest in the physical dimension of the human body— its contribution to fashioning a cosmetic self deployed through surface manipulations, and its relationship with the larger body politic of the nation state. Such negotiation took on a generic form in the recurrent concerns of these plays with violence, decadent behaviour, dissembling, sexual perversions and a pervasive cynicism about the value of human relationships, becoming in turn covert commentaries on the corruptions of the Jacobean court. The plays of the Jacobean age characterised by “murderous plans, fortuitous escapes, bloody dispatches, clumsy attempts at concealment and final judicial retribution” (Sanders: 1994) were thus both products and critiques of the age that engendered them. These thematic features can be traced to a context in which knowledge, including knowledge of the private self, became an expansive and examined category. Francis Bacon’s Novum Organum foregrounded scientific truth and a mode of inductive reasoning as a category of inquiry independent of theological premises. The plays themselves attempted to give aesthetic expression to the idea of “theatrum mundi”: an ironic attitude that saw human life as analogous to the ephemeral and spectacular life of the theatrical act. The majority of Jacobean playwrights responded to this context of cultural change and accommodated it to the form of the drama itself, both in the deployment of plot, character and dialogue as well as in the use of specific theatrical machinery: props, tableaux and mise-en-scènes that have both narrative and symbolic functions.
In the second half of the course we shall examine another set of plays produced after the reopening of public theatres and the restoration of the monarchical office in 1660. These plays produced for a recreated domain of public, commercial performance responded to ongoing revisions in canons of aesthetic value and taste. Restoration comedy or the comedy of manners was an often ironic, tongue-in-cheek exploration of the foibles and excesses of the aristocratic elite and their zealous production of a set of social and moral codes based in fashionable deportment, witty repartee, sexual licentiousness and sophisticated urbanity. We will explore how a new semiotics of the self, including the gendered self, was created in these plays, where individual identity became a set of unstable and shifting locutions of language and comportment, constantly challenging the self’s fixed location in available institutional structures like marriage, morality and sexual fidelity. We will examine the plays in the context of the conditions surrounding performance in the wake of Charles II’s reign. One significant historical factor that will be taken into account is the introduction of actresses on the English stage and how this impacted the representation of gender roles in the plays.
In locating 17th century drama within a history of performance forms and practices, we will investigate the close nexus between political ideologies of the time, including the spectacle of monarchical power, and the theatre as a material, aesthetic, pedagogical and philosophical site for continuing and contesting these ideologies through the stage’s particular deployment of spectacle, time, scenography and rhetoric.