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  • Theater and Civility in Dryden’s “Essay”
  • Thomas Reinert

At the climax of Dryden’s Conquest of Granada, the protagonist Almanzor discovers his father. Until this discovery, he is uncivilized: a solitary orphan and a Hobbesian egotist who violates all social constraints upon his passions. He is programmatically identified with the figure of man in the “state of nature.” “I am as free as Nature first made man,” he says, “‘Ere the base Laws of Servitude began / When wild in woods the noble Savage ran.” 1 His father, it turns out, is a Spanish nobleman; Almanzor was orphaned after African natives captured him in his infancy (CG,–5). Discovering his father not only means discovering his proper social status and milieu, but also a whole range of political responsibilities. He is immediately drawn into a web of social obligations.

Before he can enter the bonds of civil society, he must fulfill a special condition first: he must suppress his desire, in particular, his sexual desire. This is dramatized in the play with a schematic and allegorical clarity. As Almanzor prepares to seduce Almahide—whom he loves but who is also the wife of his nominal over-lord—his mother’s ghost appears to him, promising him that if he renounces his illicit passion he will discover his father, “the Author of thy Race” (CG, By violating the bonds of marriage, the voice implies, he foregoes his place as a member of civil society.

The play does not support the ghost unequivocally. Almanzor’s value to the state—and likewise to Almahide—consists in his recklessness. Untrammeled passion is a danger but also a virtue. 2 Almanzor rejects the voice’s warning and tells himself that in doing so he proves the earnestness of his passion for Almahide. Nevertheless, despite this violation, in the end he does in fact meet up with his father and, thanks to the voice, discovers his father’s identity just as he is about to kill him. The Oedipal crime is averted, and Almanzor is received into the court.

The sacrifice Almahide performs allows him to evince his passion even as he enters the bonds of civil society. In order to prevent Almanzor from destroying his position in society, Almahide suppresses her passion. Her chastity, by blocking consummation, allows him to [End Page 857] express his passion in unimpeded ranting without materially offending against the prohibition placed upon him. The behavior is something like joking, as Freud explains it, the sort men indulge in about a woman when they cannot seduce her. 3

In order for Almanzor to become civilized, Almahide has to suppress her passion. Dryden has little to say about the cost of that suppression for Almahide; his perspective on it betrays a sexist narrowness. But the problem Almanzor faces is, I think, of real importance to Dryden. It is presented with an allegorical resonance that invites generalization, and in one variation or another, it recurs in his other plays and theoretical writings. 4

What interests Dryden is how Almanzor’s passion is subjected to doubt. When Almahide suppresses her own passion, Almanzor becomes unsure whether she loves him, and when she is accused of sleeping with another man, he suspects that the accusation is true. The other male characters suffer from similar doubts; in general, the play dramatizes the distress that arises because there are no reliable “publick marks” of love (CG, Presumably such doubt is a condition for civility, and the allegorical spareness of Almanzor’s story suggests as much. Almanzor has to learn to worry whether his passion is misleading him. 5

But at the same time, passion is a good thing. There can be no question of eradicating it altogether. Once passion has submitted to doubt, it turns into form: into talk, first of all, like Almanzor’s fruitless ranting at Almahide, but more generally into empty gestures, into actions that paradoxically symbolize passion without expressing it. Thus at the play’s crisis when both Almanzor and the king, Almahide’s husband, imagine that she is disloyal, Almanzor proves his worthiness by defending her despite his real feelings...

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pp. 857-876
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