Radical Royalism: Strategy and Ambivalence in Dryden's Tragicomedies

By Coltharp, Duane | Philological Quarterly, Fall 1999 | Go to article overview

Radical Royalism: Strategy and Ambivalence in Dryden's Tragicomedies


Coltharp, Duane, Philological Quarterly


In the following pages, I want to ask what it might mean to call John Dryden, particularly the Dryden who produces the two-plot tragicomedies, a "radical royalist." Christopher Hill has coined this phrase to describe those Restoration writers who embraced the intellectual heritage of the English Revolution--ideas championed by Levellers, Diggers, Ranters, and republican regicides--while nonetheless serving the Stuart monarchy. Hill defines this category so as to include Samuel Butler and John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, among others; he generally neglects Dryden.(1) As if to correct for Hill's oversight, David Haley has recently argued that Dryden retained the puritan radicalism of his family throughout much of his public career, repositioning himself as an Anglican royalist only when the Exclusion Crisis threatened to plunge England into another civil war.(2) Haley's book provides a salutary rebuke to the habit of reading Dryden as a Tory-royalist mouthpiece, but I think that it announces Dryden's radicalism too baldly, without sufficient regard for the contradictions that Hill's phrase implies for Restoration royalism. In Dryden's case, these contradictions are both strategic and ambivalent. They proceed from Dryden's attempt to appropriate revolutionary energies for royalist uses; but they prepare for a less confident articulation of royalist doctrine, in which the panegyric celebration of monarchical authority is threatened by the satiric denunciation of royal flaws.

As a systematically divided, ostensibly disjunctive form, Drydenesque tragicomedy bears the outward marks of the Restoration paradox.(3) Although my concerns are not primarily formal, I take this divided form as the raison d'etre for an analysis that sees Dryden's tragicomedy as a complex intervention within a conflicted historical moment. In pursuing this analysis, I want to challenge the more straightforward accounts of the ways in which royalism operates in Restoration tragicomedy, including accounts by Douglas Canfield and Nancy Klein Maguire.(4) At the same time, I want to question the most paradoxical of all discussions of Restoration tragicomedy, the dialectical reading of Marriage A-la-Mode offered by Michael McKeon.(5) For McKeon, the heroic plot of Marriage A-la-Mode embodies a set of "feudal-aristocratic, heroic, idealistic, and hierarchical values"--the conservative values that Canfield, for instance, finds dominant throughout the tragicomic structure--while the comic plot bears an opposite set of "individualistic, mundane, skeptical, and empiricist values": in short, the emergent values of a bourgeois society.(6) Associating the two plots with competing economic forces, McKeon then finds, in the subtle relations between plots, a dialectical knowledge that overrides Dryden's avowed preference for monarchical authority and aristocratic privilege. McKeon's is a strong reading, but it errs by treating art as a way of knowing rather than, say, a way of believing and enforcing belief. Neglecting the rhetorical functions of art in favor of its epistemological ones, McKeon must finally say that Marriage A-la-Mode tells the whole truth about class struggle in seventeenth-century England, even if this truth is such that it exceeds Dryden's own intentions. Perhaps the best rejoinder to such a reading was offered, albeit proleptically, by William Empson. The double plot "gives an impression of dealing with life completely," Empson wrote, "so that critics sometimes say that Henry IV deals with the whole of English life at some date, either Shakespeare's or Henry's; this is palpable nonsense, but what the device wants to make you feel."(7)

Following Empson rather than McKeon, one might suppose that the appearance of dialectical wholeness is itself a strategic fiction, a rhetorical effect. This effect depends, paradoxically, on the narrowing of social range that characterizes Dryden's tragicomedies. There is no "low" plot to speak of in these plays, no Falstaff (as in Henry IV) and no Mak and Gill (as in The Second Shepherds' Play). …

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