Academic journal article Medieval & Renaissance Drama in England

"Titles Are Jests": The Challenge to Generic Dialectic in A King and No King

Academic journal article Medieval & Renaissance Drama in England

"Titles Are Jests": The Challenge to Generic Dialectic in A King and No King

Article excerpt

RECENT criticism of Fletcherian tragicomedy has focused on its political commentary. Such criticism is reasonable; tragicomedy appears particularly well-suited to courtly criticism, inasmuch as it can combine the lofty characters and high emotional and political stakes of tragedy, while avoiding that genre's necessarily cataclysmic conclusion, which might easily give offense to the courtiers observing their doppelgangers' demise. Instead, tragicomedy provides "a form which expresse[s] in theatrical fiction the belief that in spite of potentially dangerous circumstances harmony and order [will] prevail in the end," (1) and so enables an appropriate means for the artistic community to comment on the conduct of their social superiors. By incorporating instead comedy's resolution of harmony, the rhetoric of exhortation can replace that of condemnation. Such generic opportunity was unlikely to be neglected by the politically-minded Fletcher. Gordon McMullan has demonstrated thoroughly the political agenda of Fletcher's canon in The Politics of Unease in the Plays of John Fletcher, and the combination of such an author and such a genre yields the reasonably decisive conclusion that we are secure in reading his works for their political content.

But there is a problem with applying this rubric too broadly, particularly with regard to A King and No King, generally regarded as the most successful tragicomedy in the Fletcherian canon: political commentary, like all forms of rhetoric, requires a relatively stable genre to inform and sustain its argument. This need is particularly acute in those genres in which the commentary is implicit within the mimesis of art, and which therefore demands the interpretation of the audience in order to sway its opinion. Genre is a powerful device for easing this interpretation, as Alastair Fowler explains: "In literary communication, genres are functional: they actively form the experience of each work of literature." (2) For the playwright, the tropes of dramatic genre function as Aristotelian enthymeme--familiarities that prompt concession without requiring proof or digressive justifications: "The generic markers ... of a work have a strategic role in guiding the reader. They help to establish, as soon as possible, an appropriate mental 'set' that allows the work's generic codes to be read." (3) The wide assortment of generic hallmarks available to playwrights (character types, plot devices, commonplaces of imagery or action) serve to enable comprehension of the grounds upon which an argument is formed, and act as an illustration of that argument's movement from premise to telos. An audience familiar with watching a comedy or a tragedy is familiar with the meanings of the hallmarks of those genres, and by recognizing them, can more successfully be led to the playwright's desired concordance of opinion. Such rhetorical use of a genre's predictability can be problematic, however, in two ways. First, if the genre, like tragicomedy, is less rigorously defined and understood by author and audience, its ability to construct an argument based on accepted indices can be compromised. Second, overfamiliarity with any genre can lead to an ossification of the audience's judgment; elements that appear to be the hallmarks of a genre may be received contrary to the author's intent, and an audience preconditioned to see generic meaning can, with little or no prompting, see nothing else.

For the generically-minded playwright, there must be concern that the enabling of comprehension offered by genre can tip over into an occlusion of comprehension when familiarity of generic tropes replaces the ability to interpret objects that do not, in fact, embody those tropes. This problem is particularly acute for those working in tragicomedy, which must render its composers self-conscious about its generic elements. Tragicomedy, which assembles its arsenal of tropes from both comedy and tragedy, as well as many that are sui generis, must confront the rhetorically-minded author with the challenge of constructing an argument based on tropes that may lead an audience to anticipate (as the audience for The Faithful Shepherdess did) a play and an argument far from the author's intent. …

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