At the Crossroads: Gendered Desire, Political Occasion, and Dryden and Lee's Oedipus

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Let me begin with three common observations about the 1678 Oedipus of Dryden and Lee. First, more than their predecessor versions by Sophocles, Seneca, and Corneille, the Restoration playwrights emphasize the erotic nature of the incestuous relationship between Oedipus and Jocasta. (1) Second, Creon is transformed from the relatively ambitionless playboy prince of Sophocles' original to the physically and morally twisted precipitator of the crisis, analogous to "the figure of Shaftesbury seen through royalist eyes and representations" (Novak, "Commentary to Oedipus" 462). (2) Third, as the previous suggests, Dryden and Lee's play, while offering no strict allegory, has relevance to contemporary events--the Popish Plot and the gathering Exclusion Crisis--not least in that, with its added subplot, their version focuses more than others on issues of legitimacy and succession. (3) My focus here is the link between the first observation--the exaggerated eroticism of the play--and the others, a link that exists since a patriarchal, monarchical society transmits its power and property through the body of a woman. That eroticism has usually been attributed to Lee's tendencies toward the sensationalistic, by contrast to Dryden's judicial and metaphysical emphases. (4) Insofar as that may be true, and I will severely qualify its applicability, I would argue that in the collaboration, especially in the depiction of Jocasta, if these are Lee's means, they nevertheless serve--in a complex way--Dryden's ends.


We should begin by placing the composition of Dryden and Lee's Oedipus in its historical context. Max Novak has written that in 1678 "the political theater of the Popish Plot [had] ... distracted ... theatergoers from the beauties of the legitimate stage" ("Commentary to Troilus and Cressida" 497). The Popish Plot, of course, was a series of alleged Catholic-backed plots that involved the planned assassination of Charles II by Jesuits, the installation of James on the throne, and a Catholic invasion. The Earl of Shaftesbury led the Whigs in exploiting the supposed danger by pressing for the exclusion of James from the succession and the legitimization of the Duke of Monmouth, Charles's bastard--and Protestant--son. The larger issue, of course, was a Parliamentary struggle to reverse the flow of power, to restructure both constitutional laws and historic notions of kingship, which was accomplished, finally, with the Glorious Revolution.

But Novak's term the "legitimate stage" posits a drama untainted by politics--arguably untrue of all theater, as indeed of all art. A most explicitly political work is Dryden's own Absalom and Achitophel, published in 1681during Shaftesbury's trial, the climax of the "Plot." Dryden first published it anonymously--a transparent attempt at distancing himself from his argument, but an attempt all the same. The relation of Oedipus to contemporary events is more oblique. In choosing to adapt so well known a play, Dryden and Lee could do implicitly what Dryden later did explicitly in the later political crisis, the Glorious Revolution, when he claimed, somewhat disingenuously, that his plays were not political commentaries but "plain stor[ies]" (Cleomenes 79). Dramatically, the collaborators would wait until 1683, with The Duke of Guise and its "Vindication," to make contemporary relevance more plain. Yet Oedipus does have at least broad relevance to the Popish Plot in that guilt is unexpectedly uncovered and innocence falsely accused. (It may be telling, too, that Dryden's next play, Troilus and Cressida [1679], is subtitled The Truth Found Too Late.)

Since Dryden, according to his own declaration, composed the whole design of Oedipus as well as writing Acts I and III ("Vindication" 344), it is worthwhile to review his personal involvement in contemporary events. In 1681, he claimed that he had "seen through" the Plot from the start (Winn 317). Be that as it may, as early as 1677, Dryden would have been aware and personally concerned with its developing implications. …


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