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  • The Persistence of Allegory: Drama and Neoclassicism from Shakespeare to Wagner
  • Marianne Tettlebaum
Jane K. Brown. The Persistence of Allegory: Drama and Neoclassicism from Shakespeare to Wagner. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007. Pp. xii + 292. $59.95.

Jane K. Brown's study of the relationship between allegory and mimesis in drama from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries is interdisciplinary and comparative in the truest sense of these words. Her analyses of painting as well as [End Page 527] spoken and musical drama in England, France, Germany, and Italy, and her discussion of the indebtedness of these various traditions to ancient Greek and Roman thought will prove of interest to scholars of art history, classics, literature, musicology, philosophy, and theater—indeed, to anyone interested in the interpretation or production of works for the stage.

The implications of Brown's study, however, extend far beyond the stage, to the theoretical question of the relationship between interpretation and representation. According to Brown, the development of drama from the Renaissance through the Enlightenment and into the nineteenth century does not follow a straightforward trajectory from allegory—"a mode of representation which renders the supernatural visible"—to mimesis—"a mode which imitates the natural, what is already visible" (5). Allegory and mimesis "necessarily implicate one another"; as Brown explains, "there can be no allegory without a mimetic component, for mimesis is required to represent any semblance of existence" (6). In the same way, mimesis depends on the "concreteness" of allegory, its ability to render visible abstract discursive concepts (6).

Although mimesis gradually replaces allegory as the dominant mode of representation in the theater, Brown argues that allegory persists. Yet the persistence of allegory has been largely ignored by contemporary scholarship, which focuses on the mimetic development of character rather than the allegorical underpinnings of plot (2–3). Brown attributes this dominance of character to the Horatian-inflected neoclassical reading of Aristotle that arose during the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries, promoted by writers such as René Rapin and Johann Christoph Gottsched. "Aristotle clearly subordinates character to plot," Brown writes, but "he says enough about character for it to be substantially reinterpreted in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries" (57). As a result, scholarship and teaching today, especially of a skilled portraitist of character such as Shakespeare, accord priority to "psychological mimesis" and overlook the critical role the interaction of mimesis with allegory plays in determining both character and plot (3).

"A mode of representation," Brown writes, is "like a language," and thus has to be learned (1). As Europe became secularized and the authority of the church was called into question, allegory, which relied on the kind of authoritative systems under scrutiny, became an outmoded form of dramatic representation. Dramatists had to adapt their language to suit the shifting systems of belief and hence the changing public taste. This adaptation, Brown demonstrates, took place only gradually; as late as the nineteenth century, dramatists were still experimenting with combinations of representational modes.

Brown devotes the bulk of her study to the analysis of various neoclassical experiments with representational modes; she shows, in other words, how allegory persists even in the most seemingly advanced mimetic works, among [End Page 528] them Claude Lorrain's landscape paintings (chapter 2); Shakespeare's histories (chapter 3), tragedies, and comedies (chapter 4); Racine's dramas (chapter 4); Ben Jonson's masques, Jacob Bidermann's Jesuit school dramas, Pedro Calderòn's morality plays and court spectaculars, and Andreas Gryphius's secular dramas (chapter 5); Metastasio's librettos, Orpheus operas by Monteverdi, Gluck, and others, and tragedies by Joseph Addison and Voltaire (chapter 6); Mozart's The Magic Flute and Goethe's Iphigenie auf Tauris (chapter 7); and, finally, Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen (chapter 8).

Brown does a remarkable job of maintaining historical and cultural specificity in analyzing these diverse works and in tracing the changing valence of the terms mimesis and allegory in their relationship to neoclassicism. In her pursuit of evidence for her thesis about the continued use of allegory, however, she overwhelms her readers with so much detail that she risks trivializing her otherwise profound conclusions. The weight of the evidence threatens to crush her...


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