Academic journal article Philological Quarterly

Wish-Fulfillment Fantasies in Dryden's Aureng-Zebe

Academic journal article Philological Quarterly

Wish-Fulfillment Fantasies in Dryden's Aureng-Zebe

Article excerpt

But wishes, Madam, are extravagant. They are not bounded with things possible: I may wish more then I presume to tell: Desire's the vast extent of humane mind.

--Aureng-Zebe, 2.1.52-55

The prologue and the dedication to Dryden's Aureng-Zebe, staged at the Royal Theatre in the late fall of 1675, announce the playwright's growing disaffection with writing rhymed heroic plays. "What Verse can do, he has perform'd in this, / Which he presumes the most correct of his," Dryden proclaims in the prologue, already beginning the process of dissociating himself from the genre he had championed so vigorously over the past seven years as the mode through which he and his generation might challenge the Jacobeans' blank-verse tragedies. (1) Aureng-Zebe is widely considered the best of Dryden's heroic plays, a judgment he affirms and simultaneously devalues in the punctilious phrasing with which he delivers his own measured verdict on the play's verse. His emphasis falls instead on the labor Dryden has invested in writing Aureng-Zebe and, by extension, in promoting heroic drama. "OUR Author ... / out of no feign'd modesty, this day, / Damns his laborious Trifle of a Play" (1-4) he declares in his prologue, and in the dedication Dryden describes himself as the "Sisyphus of the Stage" (12:154) in mounting an extended comparison to the classical figure most associated with tortuous and repetitive fruitless labor. As James A. Winn has argued, the half-decade spanning 1673 to 1677 represents a period of crisis as Dryden, now in his forties, reconsidered his commitment to writing for the stage, floated (unsuccessfully) the possibility of writing an epic poem in the royalist cause under the long shadow of Milton's Paradise Lost, faced the troubled financial state of the floundering Royal Theatre, and reflected on his deteriorating relations with both his wife Elizabeth and his mistress, Anne Reeves, an actress who was cast in minor roles in the company. (2) In the prefatory texts to Aureng-Zebe, that crisis comes to a head in Dryden's recognition of a terminus point in his experiment with rhymed heroic drama. Embedded in his prologue is a self-depreciating reference to the sham war in heaven, where Mihon's God summarily suspends the battle with the words, "War wearied hath perform'd what War can do": (3) Dryden too has apparently wearied of demonstrating "what Verse can do" in his contest with his Jacobean precursors.

Recent scholarship has focused on the heroic plays' political and ideological investments. (4) Dryden's plays invite and reward such allegorical readings as have been proposed, and, as Bridget Orr has argued in Empire on the English Stage, 1660-1714, "Contemporary audiences expected heroic poems to be allegorical, offering several layers of meaning, and could be expected to recognize that such texts had multiple significations." (5) As a Stuart propagandist over some forty years, Dryden found himself enmeshed in the nation's recurring succession crises and in the lingering unresolved trauma of the English civil wars, a trauma that was repeatedly revived for him with the varying fortunes of the Stuarts. Dryden's plays address domestic political crises through their quasi-transparent coded allegories; the heroic plays also, as Orr has convincingly shown, explore the anxieties and fantasies associated with England's growing economic and cultural imperialism. The heroic play, both as a peculiarly Restoration genre and in the hands of its most skilled practitioner, Dryden, sustains multiple--and ultimately interrelated--allegorical readings, to which I will add another, an investigation of Aureng-Zebe as a play dramatizing Dryden's conflicted responses to his Jacobean dramatic precursors through its double oedipal plot. Aureng-Zebe also heralds a new direction in Dryden's career as a playwright. After 1675, he no longer writes or promotes rhymed heroic drama, but instead turns to embrace a different career path for the next four years predicated on emulating "the Divine Shakespeare; which that I might perform more freely, I have dis-incumber'd my self from Rhyme" (13:18). …

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