- Literary Form and the Representation of Slavery in Dryden’s Don Sebastian
In the past ten years, two distinct schools of criticism on Don Sebastian (1690) have emerged. The first focuses on Dryden’s use of tragicomedy and on the play as a complex political response to the Glorious Revolution, while the second situates the play in a Mediterranean context dominated by a history of Christian-Islamic conflict and, to a much lesser extent, slavery. Curiously, these two schools have had little overlap. The second school rarely attends to the issues of literary form raised by the first, while the first school has hardly anything to say about Dryden’s views on Islam, slavery, or the Mediterranean world, which are the main topics that dominate the second. In fact, neither school treats Dryden as an important figure in the history of literary representations of slavery; this is a larger problem in Restoration studies more generally, which has lavished attention on both Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko (1688) and its dramatic adaptation by Thomas Southerne (1695) but has generally neglected Dryden’s important contribution to a royalist Restoration discourse on slavery.1
This essay brings Dryden front and center to our discussions of slavery in Restoration literature by drawing together some of the emphases and insights of these two schools of criticism. By attending to issues of literary form and the tragicomic split-plot structure of the play, I argue that Don Sebastian is unique among Restoration dramatic treatments of slavery in that [End Page 101] Dryden assigns different sets of slaves to both the high and low plots. As a result, Dryden is able to put into conversation his sense of the very different options that defeated peoples have when confronting the existential threats of enslavement, particularly in the way that slavery threatens to annihilate the slave’s previous identity, especially in terms of their sexuality and status. While Behn and Southerne focus only on the sexual threats faced by female slaves, Dryden makes a unique and striking contribution to the period’s literary discourse on slavery by exploring and drawing parallels between the sexual threats faced by both male and female slaves once they become, to use Orlando Patterson’s term, “socially dead.”2 In so doing, Dryden invokes an English discourse about sodomy in North African slavery to underscore the point that all slaves are always potential victims of sexual violence.
Even though I turn to issues of tragicomedy and the depiction of slavery in the play, this does not mean that I will ignore Dryden’s response to the Glorious Revolution, an emphasis that has been a hallmark of the first school of Don Sebastian criticism. Rather, my approach opens up another way to understand Dryden’s play as his public response to the Revolution. Both politically defeated and increasingly persecuted for his Catholicism, Dryden uses the split-plot structure of Sebastian to put into dialectical tension two strategic modes available to defeated people. The first is the heroic resistance of the upper plot, which is associated with Sebastian and Almeyda’s brazen and noble refusal to be cowed by their conditions of slavery. This form of resistance is familiar from the story of Oroonoko, in both Behn’s and Southerne’s versions, and it typically leads to torture, tragedy, and death. Sebastian and Almeyda are unwilling to accommodate the desires of their slave master and, thus, are willing to risk all forms of pain and punishment to maintain their personal integrity, their status as sovereigns, and their right, tragically as it turns out, to keep control of their sexuality. The second form of resistance involves Antonio’s passive obedience and his playful attempts to use his charm and sexuality to entertain and pleasure his potential and actual masters. Having no regard for personal integrity, Antonio will do or say anything in order to survive and improve his slave condition. In striking contrast to Sebastian and Almeyda’s strategies of resistance, Antonio’s less assertive response to slavery ironically leads to wealth, love, and escape.
By putting these modes of resistance into dialectical play in the tragicomic structure, Dryden offers his audience a remarkable...