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Mocking the Meat It Feeds On: Representing Sarah Churchill's Hystericks in Addison's Rosamond Luis R. Gámez ? Modern readers of Joseph Addison's opera Rosamond—like those audiences of its few 1 707 Drury Lane performances—tend to view it as a light, pleasing confection, one of several preHandel Italianate operas (that is, arias and recitatives all sung in English) that invaded London in the early eighteenth century. Dr. Johnson's assessment speaks for many: The subject is well-chosen, the fiction is pleasing, and the praise of Marlborough ... is, what perhaps every human excellence must be, the product of good-luck improved by genius. The thoughts are sometimes great, and sometimes tender; the versification is easy and gay. . . . The whole drama is airy and elegant; engaging in its process, and pleasing in its conclusion. If Addison had cultivated the lighter parts of poetry he would probably have excelled.1 The action centers upon Henry II's affair with his lovely mistress Rosamond Clifford, whom he keeps at Wood-stock Park in Oxfordshire , in a bowery maze of Daedalian intricacy. The jealous queen Eleonora seeks out Rosamond and, offering to murder the young beauty, presents her with a dagger and a poisoned cup. Rosamond drinks from the cup and presumably dies, though actually only drugged; she is carried off to a neighboring convent where she will live her days atoning for her and Henry's sins. King and Queen are reconciled, and all ends well. Some lighthearted action is provided by Rosamond's guardian Sir Trusty and his marital squabbles with wife Gridclinc—squabbles which mirror the king and queen's. Johnson's "good-luck improved by genius" points to the public context for Addison's design which all contemporary audi270 Luis R. Gómez271 enees would have assumed: Henry is meant to emblematize the Duke of Marlborough, England's national hero for his victories in the War of the Spanish Succession. Addison's best praise comes in a spectacular scene in the last act: King Henry dreams in the bower and—like Aeneas in the underworld, or Adam in Paradise Lost—has a vision of the future glory of England. A patriotic typology is at work here: Wood-stock Park, the setting of the Rosamond legend, happened to be the site of the new estate , Blenheim, that Queen Anne gave the Duke as a reward for his stupendous victory on the field of Blenheim on the Danube in 1704.: The spectators see a prospect of the modern Blenheim palace (at that time being completed for Marlborough) arise as part of Henry's vision of "A thousand glorious Deeds that lye/ In deep Futurity obscure."1 One part of the opera, though, leaves Johnson baffled, and that is Addison's dedication oí Rosamond to Sarah Jennings Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough—"a woman," he sneers, "without skill or pretensions to skill in poetry or literature"; for Dr. Johnson, Addison's ridiculous dedication is "an instance of servile absurdity ."4 I believe, however, that a meaningful interpretation can be found not in a public but in a private context: Addison's interest in hysterica pathi and particularly in the culturally constructed hysteria accepted by the friends and lovers of Sarah Churchill. Here I will present some account of that construed hysteria as it reflected Sarah's troubled emotional state in the years 1703-04; I suggest that Addison's Rosamond, besides complimenting the military prowess of the Duke of Marlborough in the War of the Spanish Succession, is designed to allegorize Sarah's passionate, heroic struggle with conflicting feelings ofjealousy and conjugal devotion. In his operatic representation of Sarah Churchill, I believe, Addison cautions against the dangerous intrusions of perceived female hysteria upon vital English interests; he presents a scene in which corrosive private hystericks and marital disfunctions threaten to leach into the groundwater of public affairs. II The spring of 1703 was the first emotional crisis for Sarah Churchill, for on 20 February her son Jack died of smallpox; he was the Marquis of Blandford, seventeen years old and the heir to the dukedom. Grief afflicted both parents, but maybe affected Sarah the most: she was rumored to have...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1936-1637
Print ISSN
0010-4078
Pages
pp. 270-285
Launched on MUSE
2016-10-05
Open Access
No
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