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  • Patriarchalism at Risk in The Spanish Fryar
  • Duane Coltharp (bio)

No one doubts that The Spanish Fryar; or, The Double Discovery (1680), John Dryden’s double-plot tragicomedy staged amid the Popish Plot and the Exclusion Crisis, reflects in some way upon the topical concerns of authority and obligation—the authority enjoyed by kings and fathers, the obligations entailed upon subjects and sons. The precise shape of this reflection, however, remains open to question. Not every critic would agree with Bruce King, who argued that, in The Spanish Fryar, Dryden drew directly upon Sir Robert Filmer’s Patriarcha, printed posthumously in the same year that Dryden’s play took the stage. 1 Many readers would prefer the more nuanced estimate made by Eric Rothstein and Frances Kavenik, who suggest that The Spanish Fryar “deploys Filmerism as an affective, limited, logically inconsistent, historically ungrounded proof of kingship, and so negotiates between Tory and Whig politics by acknowledging both parties.” 2 Even this assessment, however, leaves vital options unexplored. Rothstein and Kavenik perceive the oblique, evasive quality of patriarchalism as it operates in this play, but they read evasion as negotiation and so neglect the more cunning uses to which obliquity can be put. Such uses do not include striking compromises between Tory and Whig politics, between patriarchalist and contractualist theories of government. What I am calling Dryden’s obliquity—his indirect and uneven ways of dramatizing ideas in The Spanish Fryar—works to insulate patriarchalism from the impertinence of theory itself.

As it pertains to a discussion of Dryden, patriarchalism extends well beyond the theory of absolute royal power advanced in Filmer’s Patriarcha. More generally, patriarchalism includes the system of analogies, correspondences, and identities that relate the authority of husbands and fathers to the authority of magistrates and kings. 3 Patriarchalism provides [End Page 427] a theory of masculine and monarchical dominance, as well as an image of social and cosmic harmony; although dominance takes spectacular priority in the high-flying texts of Filmer, harmony holds a comparable importance for a more moderate Tory like Dryden. 4 As a continuous series of analogous hierarchies, patriarchalism provides the conceptual underpinnings that allow Dryden to juxtapose sexual and political narratives in his drama, both narratives tending toward the consolidation of legitimate authority. 5 In this sense, patriarchalism supports the whole practice of Dryden’s double-plot tragicomedy, depending as his tragicomedy does on implicit relations between public and private orders.

So delicately implicit are these relations, indeed, that they have provoked no critical consensus, leaving students of Dryden’s early tragicomedies to debate just how, or whether, the comic business of sexual intrigue is related to the heroic business of dynastic crisis. By enforcing a rigorous separation between the worlds of comic libertinism and chivalric heroism, Dryden, in Secret Love (1667) and Marriage A-la-Mode (1671), leaves the members of his audience to forge their own hypothetical connections, to volunteer their own conceptions of ordered variety. For playgoers who see the world as a continuous chain of naturally ordained hierarchies, the tragicomic juxtaposition of the family and the state would elicit, and by eliciting would confirm, their own patriarchalist assumptions. For more Whiggish playgoers, however—playgoers less inclined to see the monarchical state as a natural extension of the paternalistic family—this same juxtaposition would offer little reason for dissent. The patriarchal analogy between the family and the state supports a narrative action that preserves marriage in one plot and monarchy in the other; but the marriage and the monarchy thus preserved embody such different values, such divergent ethical styles and affective modes, that the patriarchal analogy would present itself only to those playgoers already convinced of its truth. This is not to say that Marriage A-la-Mode, for instance, has something to please everyone, but that it pleases the more conservative members of Dryden’s audience by forging covert, almost chimerical associations. If patriarchalism operates in Dryden’s early tragicomedies, it operates at the level of tacit knowledge, unvoiced and unchallenged.

In contrast to the earlier tragicomedies, The Spanish Fryar brings the patriarchal principles of Dryden’s drama to the surface, where they function as obsessions rather than assumptions...

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pp. 427-441
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