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Heroic Mode and Political Crisis, 1660–1745 (review)
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At the Restoration various models of heroism lay open to the aspiring writer: among them, Homeric brawn (Achilles), Homeric brains (Odysseus), Virgilian pietas, Lucanian liberty-in-defeat, Dantesque and Spenserian holiness, Machiavellian virtù, Marlovian rant and murder, and Foxean martyrdom. Both sides in the Civil War had represented themselves as adhering to at least one of these models, and the practice continued after 1660. The Royalist Samuel Butler skewered Puritan and parliamentary pretensions to heroism and celebrated loyalists’ suffering and perseverance in Hudibras. The Republican Milton lauded “the better fortitude / Of patience and heroic martyrdom” in Paradise Lost and performed such martyrdom himself by suicidally publishing The Readie and Easie Way to a Free Commonwealth not once but twice on the eve of the Restoration, before the Machiavellian occasione vanished. More serious martyrdom arrived in the sufferings of fellow Dissenters such as Bunyan or the Quakers, who stuck to their faith in the face of jailings, praemunire, transportation, and the illness and death they often entailed. In the tradition of political dissent that flowed into Whiggism, Marvell’s Account of the Growth of Popery and Arbitrary Government praised the heroism of Buckingham and Shaftesbury, who openly defied the Regime’s absolutism in the House of Lords and went to the Tower on numerous occasions for it. Out of this welter of competing heroisms, passive and active, humble and spectacular, arose that oddest of forms: the heroic drama. Dreamed up by Boyle and perfected by Dryden, it provides the point of departure for Elaine McGirr’s fine study of “the heroic,” both a generic mode and, she convincingly argues, a partisan discourse in its appearance on the London stage.

McGirr’s Introduction presents the core of her argument that the heroic primarily functioned as propaganda for the restored Court, and in particular for the king’s brother: James, Duke of York, the future James II and father of the Old and Young Pretenders. Even after James was deposed in the Glorious Revolution, the heroic continued to function as material for Jacobite propaganda and Hanoverian vilification, up to the failed rebellion of 1745, when it essentially died. At this point the novel had begun to overtake the theater as the prime forum for discussion in the public sphere, and in the hands of Richardson and Fielding the novel projected a more humble, rational, polite mode of heroism, if indeed heroism was the relevant word. This Whiggish/Georgian counter-heroic took a while to develop, and the best Whigs could do before 1701, when Steele published his idea of the Christian hero, was to degrade or mock the heroic—a strategy that apparently backfired, only testifying to the heroic’s importance.

Chapter 1 (“Restoration and Reaction”) examines Boyle’s creation and Dryden’s perfection of the heroic drama. The former created it out of Davenant’s materials, particularly The Siege of Rhodes, as part of what became a propaganda initiative; Charles II, for example, “demand[ed] heroic plays” from Orrery “in ’67 and ’69 as his reputation waned due to the mid-1660s series of natural, naval, and fiscal disasters, suggesting that Charles consciously used the heroic for propaganda and public relations” (20; cp. 42, 44). But Dryden, after defending both royal brothers as heroic in their response to the Fire of London in the poem Annus Mirabilis, perfected the form in plays such as The Conquest of Granada (with its various paratextual essays) as propaganda tool for the Catholic James. This argument makes good sense of Dryden’s repeated dedications to York and his wives, casting Dryden as the Duke’s dutiful client. Because the heroic was so strongly identified with the Court and with James, the oppositional Duke of Buckingham used his parody of the heroic drama, The Rehearsal, to attack both the Court’s politics via its favorite genre. McGirr does not really tackle other attempts at the heroic drama in the 1670s—for example, by Settle and Lee—but her characterization of the former’s work as “antiheroic” (71) suggests that these non-Court or proto-Whig playwrights failed to mount their own serious version of the stage heroic to counter the Court’s; they could only deconstruct and...



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