"A Stranger in a Strange Land": Biblical Typology of the Exodus in Dryden's 'The Spanish Friar'; or, 'The Double Discovery.'

Article excerpt

Critic Susan J. Owen bemoans the fate of John Dryden's The Spanish Friar; Or, the double discovery (1680), a play she deems important though much neglected (97). Discomfited by the play's disjointed appearance, scholars continue to neglect this tragicomedy. As early as 1763, Adam Smith avers that the play would be a "monstrous production" even if the differing plots were "interesting" and "well executed" (intimating, of course, that they are not) (283). Despite admitting some merit to both the high and low plots of The Spanish Friar, Smith suggests that both parts can best be appreciated as separate entities. "the effect of the one would not have contradicted that of the other" (283). Finding the serious and comic plot mixture both "tiresome" and "unnatural," Sir Walter Scott, in 1808, faults the play for its execution as well as its lack of propriety:

But it is chiefly tiresome, because it is unnatural; and, in respect of propriety, ought no more to be relieved by the introduction of a set of comic scenes, independent of those of a mournful complexion, than the sombre air of a funeral should be enlivened by a concert of fiddles. (348)

All of this speculation seems highly ironic in light of Dryden's own appraisal of his play as being unified. When I first design'd this play, I found, or thought I found, somewhat so moving in the serious part of it, and so pleasant in the comic, as might deserve a more than ordinary care in both; accordingly I us'd the best of my endeavor in the management of two plots, so very different from each other, that it was not perhaps, the talent of every writer to have made them of a piece.(1)

Dryden's claim that the high and low plots of The Spanish Friar function as a whole is in contrast to the claim of Judith Milhous and Robert Hume that the play "offers few of the ambiguities and interpretive complexities that invite literary explication" (141). Indeed, Dryden's dedication to Lord Haughton indicates that despite his having broken a "rule for the pleasure of variety" by "tack[ing] two plays together," he still has "us'd the best of [his] endeavor" and "talent," with more than "ordinary care," to construct the play as "a piece" (Ded. 307). Nevertheless, Dryden's remarks continue to baffle critics. Milhous and Hume hypothesize that Dryden had "parallelism in mind" (145) when he "yoked" together these "two seemingly unrelated plots" (142), yet they concede that "what these parallels add up to ... is not easy to say" (143). If Dryden did not mean for the plots to be parallel, these critics conjecture, then he "must have meant to make them antagonistic," his low plot serving as an ironic contrast to the high plot (145). Abandoning other theories, Milhous and Hume ultimately offer a pragmatic explanation for the dissimilarity, or riddle, of the "two plots that are one," deducing that Dryden was merely trying to "appeal to his audience" (142). Neither these critics, nor most others, view the plot surrounding the noble Torrismond as "enhance [d] by the juxtaposition of the Lorenzo-Elvira-Gomez-Dominic plot" (Milhous and Hume 145).(2)

Yet the distance between these two plots may not be as great as most scholars suppose. The key, I would like to suggest, may be found in Dryden's use of the biblical typology of the Exodus. Ironically, Milhous and Hume too quickly assume that "the political meaning of The Spanish Fryar resides almost entirely in the serious plot and has nothing to do with Catholicism" (146). A close reading of the biblical typology of the play, however, proves not only that the parts of Dryden's tragicomedy complement one another, ensuring unity, but also that the subplot works, after all, to "enhance" the heroism and nobility of Torrismond, the hero of the main plot. The playwright intricately weaves the typology of the Exodus story -- Moses's deliverance of his people out of bondage -- throughout both the serious and comic plots. Further, by adopting the Moses story as the basis for his play's grand design, the playwright successfully reflects an even grander plan, God's. …


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