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  • The Persistence of Allegory: Drama and Neoclassicism from Shakespeare to Wagner
  • Robert C. Ketterer (bio)
The Persistence of Allegory: Drama and Neoclassicism from Shakespeare to Wagner. By Jane K. Brown. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007. xii + 296 pp. $59.95.

The title of this book appears to involve a contradiction, since neoclassical realism is generally thought to have stood in opposition to, and ultimately to have replaced, allegorical approaches in playwriting in early modern Europe. Brown does not deny that this change occurred, but argues that the final disappearance of allegory as a viable mode of representation finally took place in the nineteenth century. In the meantime, the process of replacement was neither simple nor linear: “[T]he history of European drama is not just a chain of Aristotelian plays, but the mutual interaction of many different forms. . . . I want to show how reading all the possibilities together changes our understanding of the more narrowly defined traditions of drama. . . . I will focus here on the eddies of literary history” (5). Herein lies the interest of the book, but also its difficulty. Eddies are chaotic systems, and so are the interactions of dramatic forms as Brown describes them. At times, her melding of neoclassical mimesis and allegorical morality is so complete that it becomes difficult to keep track of what defines either, and the influence from one tradition or the other on a given stage piece hard to identify with any certainty. Nevertheless, Brown’s achievement in this book is to move towards what she calls “a revised taxonomy” of drama (47), made possible by acknowledging allegory as an active ingredient in the works of playwrights like Shakespeare, Racine, Calderón, Metastasio, and Goethe.

The Persistence of Allegory has eight chapters and a coda. The first two chapters provide an overview of the complexity of Brown’s subject and method. In her introduction (chapter 1), Brown explores the differences between allegorical and neoclassical modes of representing spiritual, [End Page 537] psychological, and physical planes of existence. But she points out that neoclassicism is itself a complex phenomenon, and not merely a continuous response to Aristotelian theory. Neoclassical drama in all its manifestations includes imitations of comedy, Senecan tragedy, and Vitruvian stage illusion, some of which elements lend themselves readily to allegorical representation. Allegorical morality plays, on the other hand, with their sources in the epics of Prudentius may itself be “the earliest neoclassical impulse in European drama” (13; cf. 47–8). In chapter 2, Brown uses the landscape painting of Claude Lorraine and its reception by later painters including Cézanne and Monet, to illustrate the gradual shift from allegorical representation that finds its conclusion in the later nineteenth century. But she observes that “there can be no completely mimetic representation any more than there can be completely allegorical representation. Without mimesis there can be nothing to see and interpret, and similarly without allegoresis, there can be no knowledge of what is seen. Classicism [in painting—but it applies to drama as well in Brown’s view] is not the triumph of mimesis but rather the perfect balance of mimesis and allegory” (45).

The next three chapters explore different sources of classical influence and their interplay with the allegorical tradition. Chapter 3 (“Secular Tragedy”) looks at medieval morality drama’s encounter with Aristotelian and Platonic theory and the pastoral tradition in the sixteenth century, and observes its effect on the historical dramas of Shakespeare, especially King John. Chapter 4 (“Allegory and Passion”) examines the seventeenth-century use of classical Latin drama—Senecan tragedy and Roman comedy—especially as they impacted Racinian and Shakespearean dramaturgy. Chapter 5 (“The Allegorical Idioms of the Illusionist Stage”) describes the permanent change effected in the seventeenth century on all forms of drama by the adoption of illusionist stage scenery derived from Vitruvius’s De architectura, particularly observable in court masques and the autos of Calderón. This change, “so essential to the naturalism of an Ibsen or Shaw led first to a great flowering of allegorical drama” (113–14). The fundamental contradiction embodied in this marriage of classical naturalism with allegorical morality was so great that it generated a crisis in representation and...


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pp. 537-539
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