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Elizabethan Drama and The Art of Abstraction Russell Fraser The new drama of the Renaissance, as its roots are in the medieval Morality play, is notably partial to abstraction and to generalization. Its governing dictate is expressed in the proposition, Universalia ante rem. Like the Morality, it is zealous for truth; but not for the in­ digenous or phenomenal truth. It desires to come to the heart of the matter. For that reason, it is suspicious of analogy and exemplification. (The comment is not tenable of Shakespeare; but it holds, I think, for most of his fellows.) T o the degree that this new drama prefers the general formulation, it tends to depreciate particulars as necessarily parochial. The truth it is after transcends the particular exemplification. It is not for an age but for all time. The ideal hero it presents is Everyman. His behavior is predictable and therefore determined. It rises unswervingly from a common nature, which is analyzable and responsive to law. The language that is spoken by this generic hero is, at least by design, an uninflected language, purged of obscurity or provinciality. Ideally, it is a language such as all men do use. Particularization makes against the attempt to reproduce this more catholic speech. The partisans of the unoccluded truth endeavor, there­ fore, to attenuate the concrete or delimiting word. It is their idea to supplant it with an abstraction. Already in Shakespeare’s plays, the attack on the intransigent or particular thing has begun to be mounted. 1 In King ]ohn, men who are potent and powerful are rendered generically as potents (Il.i. 358); the resolutes, in Hamlet, displace the resolute men (I.i. 98). King Lear dramatizes, not the business of cruel creatures but cruets (Ill.vii. 64); and The Winter’s Tale, not that of common or vulgar people but, less specifically, vulgars (Il.i. 94). In Antony and Cleopatra, it is the discontents who repair to the ports (I.iv. 38f.), in lieu of the discontented men. As the adjective increases in value, so a kind of metonymy becomes conspicuous, the summarizing quality taking precedence over the per­ sons who manifest it. In Julius Caesar, the armies drawn up on the plains of Philippi are depicted in terms of the battles they will fight (V.i. 4 ); and the color bearer in terms of the colors or ensign he carries (v.ii. 3). Polonius in Hamlet describes as a courage the youth who is 73 74 Comparative Drama gallant and courageous (I.iii. 65). Othello prefers the condition, a harlotry, to the individual, the particular harlot (IV.ii. 233). So does Romeo and Juliet (IV.ii. 14). In Edward III, a play often given to Shakespeare in whole or in part, the wanton King is a wantonnes (III.v. 101).2 Lear assimilates the soldier to his weapon: the swords­ man is merged in the sword (V.iii. 33); conscripted lancers dwindle to the lances they bear (V.iii. 51). The poor who have no shelter are stripped even further, are made collectively a houseless poverty (IILiv. 26). The villainous messenger is reduced to the villainous message: Oswald is the post unsanctified ( 276). Spies, whose func­ tion is to look on or to speculate, are personified in that function, becoming speculations (Ill.i. 24). The discreet individual, as he is disinclined to be obtrusive, effaces what is peculiar to him: he is only a discretion (Il.iv. 150). In Troilus and Cressida (IV.v. 6), as also in Lear (V.iii. 119), the trumpeter shrinks to the trumpet; the gar­ rulous old man who delights in telling his chronicle or story becomes the chronicle himself (IV.v. 202); and the ignorant man, the ignor­ ance that mars him (Ill.iii. 320); and the man of adverse fortune, the adversity with which he is beset (V.i. 14). In Antony and Cleo­ patra, the Parthians who shoot from their horses are lumped together as “ darting Parthia” by the abstracting (the careless) eye of Ventidius, who subdues them (Ill.i. 1). In the same manner, Antony, from whom Ventidius takes his cue, diminishes to anonymity the source of his information. He...


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