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67 THREE Problem-Solving in Milton’s Biblical Drama Sketches Throughout his early adulthood, Milton kept a private notebook containing both rough drafts and fair copies of several of his early works, including Lycidas, Arcades, Comus, and various sonnets. Seven pages of the notebook are also filled with titles, subjects, speech outlines, character lists, and plot summaries for projected tragedies based on biblical and medieval British narratives. Because the document was eventually donated to Trinity College, Cambridge, after the poet’s death and remains there to this day, it is called the Trinity manuscript (TMS hereafter). He probably began jotting down the material on tragedies in TMS in the late 1630s, not long after his tour of the Continent (1638–39), and might have continued doing so until as late as 1652, before the onset of total blindness . It is even possible that he had various amanuenses read the plans to him when he began composing Samson Agonistes, most likely in the late 1660s.1 The plans are invaluable because they constitute, in J. Milton French’s apt phrase, “chips from the poet’s workshop.” In them we see a playwright at work, selecting subjects, experimenting with titles, writing down personae lists, outlining plots, and confronting problems of physical staging and characterization. Moreover, while Milton’s two dramas were 68 Milton the Dramatist composed nearly forty years apart, the plans evidence his ongoing commitment to drama during a significant portion of that time. With certain exceptions, scholarship has focused on the ways this material forecasts Milton’s achievement in the epic, especially since the most developed of the plans constitute multiple drafts for a play about the Fall.2 However, because the plans also offer a wealth of information on Milton’s thinking about drama, as well as insight into his process of composition and revision, they also deserve to be studied in relation to his growth as a dramatist. I. Challenges in Dramatizing the Fall While the total number of subjects listed for play topics is approximately 100, it is impossible to arrive at an exact count because certain listings may constitute alternate titles rather than separate anticipated dramas. Roughly 61 are biblical in origin, and the rest are taken from medieval British history. Some entries consist of little more than a title (e.g., “The Deluge,” based on the Genesis flood), others provide brief plot summaries (e.g., “Wulfer slaying his two sons for being Christians”), and still others are considerably developed, furnishing personae lists, plot outlines, speeches, and staging cues. Four TMS entries are longer and more detailed than any others; these include the Fall and Sodom sketches as well as one on Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Isaac and one entitled “Baptistes,” on the death of John the Baptist. It is probable that Milton regarded these entries as potential tragedies as opposed to epics or other types of plays, for two reasons : first, on the opening page of the dramatic plans (TMS, 35), between the two opening Fall drafts, each of which lists the personae in order of appearance, he wrote “other tragedies,” and then, underneath this phrase, listed three titles: “Adam in Banishment,” “The Flood,” and “Abraham in Egypt.” Second, the third page of the plans (37) is entitled “British Trag.,” which most editors agree is an abbreviation for “British Tragedies.” Such a denomination makes sense, for it contrasts with the first two pages of play material (35–36) on biblical tragedies. Furthermore, the projected Abraham drama describes the patriarch in terms that seem to allude to Aristotle’s discussion of the ideal tragic hero, set forth in Poetics 13, which argues that the tragic hero is a person of high stature, but not faultless, who experiences misfortune. Thus, in Milton’s sketches, the chorus laments the supposed “fate of so noble a man [Abraham] fallen from his reputation.” The entries are mostly chronological, following the order of the books of the Old Testament, as if Milton read it through searching for potential tragedies. What was he seeking? One clue is provided by “The Reason of Church-Government,” published in 1642, about the same time he was setting down play ideas. As I discussed in chapter 1, this pamphlet furnishes a substantial autobiographical digression that delineates Milton’s plans for future literary projects and contemplates the benefits and drawbacks of epic, tragedy, ode, and lyric. In the digression, he voices his hope of ascertaining which genre might prove the most “doctrinal and exemplary to a...


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