Academic journal article Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation

The Succession Crisis and Elkanah Settle's the Conquest of China by the Tartars

Academic journal article Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation

The Succession Crisis and Elkanah Settle's the Conquest of China by the Tartars

Article excerpt

Elkanah Settle is perhaps best known as a blatant political opportunist who shifted his allegiance from Whig to Tory during the Exclusion Crisis. After the 1682 fall of Shaftesbury, Settle's sudden disavowal of his Whig propaganda, which included pamphlets denouncing James II's succession and a virulent anti-Catholic tragedy, The Female Prelate (1680), was viewed with suspicion even by the Tories. Settle's notoriety subsequently has led critics-until very recently-to focus on his polemical works during the Exclusion crisis and to overlook the political implications of his heroic tragedies of the early- to mid1670s, including Cambyses, King of Persia (1671), The Empress of Morocco (1673), and The Conquest of China by the Tartars (1675). John Dryden's famous and scathing critique of The Empress of Morocco as a "Rhapsody of Nonsense"1 appeared to cement Settle's reputation for gratuitous stage violence, bombastic heroic speeches, and lurid stage spectacle that had no literary merit. During this time, however, Settle enjoyed greater favor at court and success in the theater than Dryden. In 1717, John Dennis recalled that from about 1671 to 1676, Settle "was then a formidable Rival to Mr. DRYDEN," noting that in both London and at the University of Cambridge, "the Younger Fry, inclin'd to ELKANAH."2 I argue that the popularity of Settle's early tragedies was partly the result of the way in which they offered imaginary solutions to the impending succession crisis. In particular, Settle's dramatization of the downfall of the Ming dynasty and the establishment of the Qing in The Conquest of China offered his audiences reassurances about the stability of the Restoration settlement.

Recent criticism about Settle's heroic tragedies has focused on his more popular The Empress of Morocco, although The Conquest of China has received some critical attention-most notably from Derek Hughes and Bridget Orr.31 maintain that The Conquest of China plays a key role in understanding how Restoration drama "was an important location for the representation and negotiation of local political issues in the period."4 In part, The Conquest of China reveals how Western perceptions of Eastern empires were a crucial influence on English political and economic ideology. Orr points out that concerning questions of empire, "dramatists incorporated and presented a great deal of what was becoming received wisdom about Asian, African, and American societies."5 The histories of far-flung and exotic empires of Morocco, Persia, and China offered Settle ideal political settings in which to subsume anxieties over succession issues within fantasies of political stability. These histories were able to function as such, in part, because of underlying assumptions on the part of many Europeans about how empires such as China represented universal truths about religious and sociopolitical origins. Settle's insistence that The Conquest of China had "History and Truth for her Excuse" underscores the way in which he believed that his sources contained certain accepted "Truths" about the political lessons that he wished to present in the play.6 Settle's source for the play was the Jesuit Martinus Martini's scholarly and widely-read history of the 1644 overthrow of the Ming dynasty by the Qing, De Bella Tartarico Historia (London, 1654), which became the "most authoritative and best-known description of the Manchu conquest."7 As we shall see, Martini's history was a perfect ideological vehicle through which Settle could adapt the overthrow of the Ming regime to the conventions of Restoration tragedy.

The notion that absolutist policies and foreign encroachment were a threat to English traditions, as Steven Pincus points out, was closely linked to popery, raising fears that James IFs occupation of the throne would usher in a Catholic regime whereby Parliamentary and religious freedoms would be revoked.8 At the same time, removing James from the order of succession was fraught with unsettling ideological and political implications about the stability of the Restoration settlement. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.