Academic journal article Restoration and 18th Century Theatre Research

Nicholas Rowe's the Tragedy of Jane Shore Gives Actresses a Hamlet of Their Own

Academic journal article Restoration and 18th Century Theatre Research

Nicholas Rowe's the Tragedy of Jane Shore Gives Actresses a Hamlet of Their Own

Article excerpt

"That Shakespeare was declared to rule world literature at the same time that Britannia was declared to rule the waves may, indeed, be more than a coincidence,"1 Michael Dobson states, and, as Britain forged its nationhood over the eighteenth century, literary and theatrical figures helped to expedite Shakespeare's evolution as both the quintessential English and universal writer. Furthermore, "it could indeed be said without too much exaggeration that the eighteenth century 'created' Shakespeare as we know him," Anthony Dawson concurs,2 crediting the efforts of the theatre in the eighteenth-century search for British identity. The search was already on for what would constitute a purely English drama when Dryden penned his Essay of Dramatic Poesy in 1667, and although Shakespeare did not yet reign, his regime would soon begin; Jean Marsden points out that Dryden's praise for Shakespeare is "embedded within a dialogue spoken during the English defeat of the Dutch fleet."3 Subsequently, Shakespeare became the playwright to follow, for he was praised as the one who managed simultaneously to capture the ideal and the real. Dawson identifies one crucial step in the development of Shakespeare's reputation: a concern for careful editing, which took into consideration both literary and theatrical aspects, adding for instance both critical and biographical introductions, as well as act and scene divisions and stage directions.4 In addition, a "popular type of idolatry" of Shakespeare was writing plays in his style.5 What more sincere way to flatter than to imitate, and who better, then, to emulate Shakespeare than one who was both an accomplished writer of tragedy and a celebrated editor of Shakespeare, who, as editors well know, had lived intimately with the playwright for several years?

Enter Nicholas Rowe, who after achieving some success with The Fair Penitent (1703), and staging three relatively unsuccessful plays in a row, The Biter (1704), Ulysses (1705), and The Royal Convert (1707), retired from the stage for several years, and in that interim, edited the first modern edition of Shakespeare's works, which was published in 1709; a second edition came out in 1714, the same year as his The Tragedy of Jane Shore. Scholars have noted the influence of Shakespeare's work on Rowe by remarking that Jane Shore, his masterpiece, is a much betterwritten piece of drama than his earlier plays. The title-page ?? Jane Shore indicates that Rowe intended for us to see the play as "written in imitation of Shakespeare's style," as does the prologue, which tells us the "humble author. ./...owns he had the mighty bard in view" (Prologue, H.21-22)6 and any number of critics, particularly of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries (it doesn't seem to concern modern critics to quite the same degree) point out how they cannot possibly see what Rowe has in common with Shakespeare, and scoff disdainfully that Jane Shore has so little in common with Richard III1 1 agree. Primarily, the background material on the historical Jane Shore, Richard, Hastings and others was culled from Heywood's play Edward IV and More's The History of King Richard III. Rowe may have borrowed figures and some aspects of situation from Richard III but the reader cannot help but notice that the character of Jane Shore which emerges from Rowe's interpretation is indebted to another Shakespearean work, for when he edited Shakespeare, Rowe had ample time to observe a range of charismatic, enigmatic madpeople, including Macbeth, King Lear - and Hamlet, for of Shakespeare's characters, it is Hamlet who Jane Shore resembles.

In this essay I suggest that in his creation of the perfect dramatic heroine for the she-tragedy to match the greatest hero of the (he-) tragedy, Rowe created a vital role that had been missing for actresses; we might say, in other words, that with Jane Shore, Rowe provided actresses with a Hamlet of their own. Jane Shore and Hamlet share a number of characteristics - I center on what I find most compelling, their madnesses - but more importantly the roles serve much the same fonction for theatre artists and audiences. …

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