Anatomizing the Body Politic: Corporeal Rhetoric in the Maid's Tragedy
Denman, Jason R., Philological Quarterly
Nineteenth-century readers--Coleridge most infamously--found in Beaumont and Fletcher's plays benighted characters, prostrate before arcane political notions. The playwrights, mere sensationalists, are supposed to have been "the most servile jure divino royalists," their words not only cut off from quotidian reality, but existing in empty, stultified, formal patterns, like "a well-arranged bed of flowers." Romantic idealizations of Shakespeare appear in vivid and repeated contrast, the bard likened to trees rather than flowers, granted "height, breadth, and depth," as against mere "mechanism," "juxtaposition," and "succession." (1) T. S. Eliot went one step further, uprooting Coleridge's flower-bed and leaving the blossoms "stuck in sand," stripped of context altogether. (2) Later critics have both reconceived these plays aesthetically and begun to register their complex political engagements, but we are still a long way from adequately understanding Beaumont and Fletcher's tremendous seventeenth-century popularity. J. F. Danby recasts Eliot's image of rhetorical excess as a deliberate representation of court decadence; Eugene Waith builds a way of reading their canon that rightly turns on oratorical and declamatory modes. Both these critics, and a few others, stress that casting aspersions on characterological incongruity is a poor way to read plays that function by dislocation and juxtaposition. (3) The awkward fact, however, is that our understanding of The Maid's Tragedy has been only sporadically advanced and that some important readers have continued to argue that the play deliberately insulates itself from the pressing political concerns of the Jacobean court. (4)
This essay stresses two issues in connection with one another. Even the occasional champions of The Maid's Tragedy have been disinclined to treat the play as poetry, preferring to observe its manipulations of situation. (5) Danby remarks that a Beaumont and Fletcher play is strangely impervious to "verbal analysis, the examination of recurrent images"; this is a common, if not always stated, assumption. (6) I will attempt to suggest otherwise by carrying out a sustained analysis of some of the text's figural maneuverings. Genuflections to Shakespeare continue to clutter essays on Beaumont and Fletcher. Shakespeare's more lyrical and "organic" use of language is deemed to be more responsive to verbal analysis, always at the expense of his contemporaries. I suggest that the figural language of The Maid's Tragedy is different but no less sophisticated, less likely to turn on the evolution of metaphor than obsessive repetition or redefinition of key rhetorical elements that lock into conceptual modes under contemporary debate. Alongside this methodological corrective, my reading devotes specific analysis to the play's political engagements, an especially necessary move since one recent writer has gone so far as to suggest that this text is written in such a way as to "effectively remove [it] from the context of contemporary political thought." (7) If Coleridge's image of Beaumont and Fletcher's political servility has been partly displaced, most critics hesitate to register fully the subversive elements of their plays. Though the play's political agenda is hardly clear-cut, I will argue that it does carry out a sustained critique of one aspect of early Stuart political thought, exposing divisions in the notion of the body politic by focusing obsessively on the language of blood, disease, and the body.
The relative obscurity of the play necessitates at least a brief summary. The scene is set at the court at Rhodes, where preparations for a wedding and a celebratory masque are under way. Amintor and Aspatia had been expected to marry, but the play's un-named King has, before the play's opening, arranged a substitute bride for Amintor: He will marry Evadne, who, we will later learn, is already the King's mistress. Melantius, a stalwart soldier, Amintor's closest friend, and Evadne's brother, returns from the wars to celebrate the occasion. …