Academic journal article Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation

Fathers, Sons, and Lovers: The Transformation of Masculine Authority in Dryden's Aureng-Zebe

Academic journal article Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation

Fathers, Sons, and Lovers: The Transformation of Masculine Authority in Dryden's Aureng-Zebe

Article excerpt

Abraham's relation to Isaac, ethically speaking, is quite simply expressed by saying that a father shall love his son more dearly than himself.

--Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling

First acted in 1675 against a backdrop of mounting fear and anxiety regarding the succession of the English monarchy, John Dryden's Aureng-Zebe: A Tragedy (published 1676) (1) manipulates the events of contemporary Indian history in controversial and fascinatingly provocative ways. Seeming to provide Dryden with an apt political parallel to events at home, the vicious--indeed mortal--competition among the four sons of the Emperor Shah Jehan had been amply documented in Francois Bernier's influential History of the Late Revolution of the Empire of the Great Mogol, translated into English in 1671. Critics of the play have acknowledged its historical anachronism--the brothers' brutal battle had already run its sanguinary course by the time Dryden set his drama (2)--as well as the significant discrepancies between Dryden's fictionalized Aureng-Zebe, a model of filial loyalty, and his historical counterpart, a "Machiavellian manipulator" who imprisoned his father and betrayed and executed his brothers. (3) Yet readers have been far less attentive to another equally blatant distortion on Dryden's part--namely, the alteration of the hero's conjugal status. Whereas Dryden's character begins the play betrothed to the (fictional) Indamora, the historical Aurangzeb was long since married, with grown sons, when he ascended the Indian throne in 1658.

Dryden's misrepresentation of Aureng-Zebe's marital situation allows the playwright to create a complex scenario in which the competition over women serves as a surrogate for, and correlative of, the struggle for political power. The fabricated sexual subplot, in which father and sons vie for the same woman, brings to center stage the familiar trope of sexual contention among men, (4) a rivalry particularly potent in this play because it encompasses, and also potentially redirects, the political right to rule. In Dryden's rendering of Indian history, the ailing emperor (Shah Jehan, although he is never named) designates as successor Aureng-Zebe rather than his oldest son Dara, promising his now dutiful third-born son marriage to the "captive queen" Indamora in exchange for that son's continued loyalty. Once the emperor himself falls in love with Indamora, however, he retracts the promise of political power when Aureng-Zebe fails to relinquish her; Morat, the son the emperor subsequently favors, in turn becomes the adversary of both the emperor and Aureng-Zebe as he too grows enamored of the beautiful prisoner. Dryden, of course, is not alone in his exploration of the dynamics between sexual and political rivalry. In the years immediately following Aureng-Zebe, Thomas Otway and Nathaniel Lee produced similar dramas of father-son conflict, both with tragic results. (5) Indeed filial conflict among royalty, often resulting in the brutal murder of fathers, sons, or brothers, was to play an increasingly important role in the drama of the period, as serious dramatists "turned from celebration of restored authority to reflection upon the problems inherent in the exercise and very nature of power." (6)

Within the last decade, postcolonial critiques of Aureng-Zebe have challenged us to expand our understanding of power relations in the play by locating those dynamics within a broader colonial context. According to these readings, Dryden's manipulations of Indian history--most particularly his creation of "a fictional Aurangzeb unrecognizably transformed from the original monarch then on the throne at Agra"--are part of an emerging proto-imperialist discourse in which India becomes "the utterly other," ripe for the economic and political incursions that would follow in the wake of Aurangzeb's tumultuous rule. (7) By turning the historical ruler Aurangzeb into what Balachandra Rajan has called a "Mughal Englishman," (8) the play seemingly serves to further an incipient British imperialism by sanctioning the British right to govern an unruly India. …

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