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REVIEWS Cobum Freer. The Poetics of Jacobean Drama. Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1981. Pp. xxiv + 256. $22.50. Perhaps a more accurate title could have been found for this serious and useful study. It is not a systematic treatise eludicating the aesthetic principles of its subject, as “poetics” implies, but rather (1) a declaration of the significance of metrical variation in dramatic blank verse and (2) an exploration of the interplay between the rhythms resulting from such variations and other elements of dramatury. “Jacobean drama,” moreover, is represented by only five plays—Tourneur’s The Revenger’s Tragedy, Shakespeare’s Cymbeline, Webster’s The White Devil and The Duchess of Malfi, and Ford’s The Broken Heart. These are all major works but may be too limited a sampling to justify the title, especially when the discussions of three plays focus on the lines of a single character. Modem criticism of English Renaissance drama, Freer maintains, has largely avoided the rigorous investigation of prosody. Our interest in the poetry of the plays, he argues in the opening chapter, invariably confines itself to figurative language. The few studies we do have of prosody in verse drama of the period are either “extractive,” statistical, or impres­ sionistic. Freer challenges us to consider the rhythmic effects available within the iambic pentameter line (the normative mode of most plays), which is capable of infinite variation in itself and in its relation to sound, imagery, character, action, and structure. Freer believes that playwrights, actors, and auditors were highly con­ scious of the technical means of achieving rhythmic variation: playwrights heard the characters’ “voices” in their heads, and these voices were dis­ tinctive primarily in their rhythms, which could be conveyed with pre­ cision to the actors by the text, and by them to the audience. Indeed, the second chapter is essentially an argument for the historical validity of prosodic analysis on the grounds that English audiences (until 1642 or possibly a couple of decades earlier) were more technically attuned to rhythmic subtleties than later generations. The evidence, aside from a broad cultural change from orality to literacy, does not indicate as clearly as Freer thinks it does that such aural sensitivity existed at a high level of conscious awareness. If the “voices” authors hear in their heads are like the sounds composers hear, then their task is to approximate that elusive music as well as they can using an inherently imperfect sys­ tem of notation rather than to transcribe it exactly. Praising an actor for the musicality of his delivery may refer to proper distribution of stress, as Freer contends, but it may also refer to pitch, timbre, range, and control over dynamics. Freer might have argued, without jeopardizing his larger purposes, that rhythmic variations could affect the auditors on 383 384 Comparative Drama a level of consciousness which we might call subliminal. How many auditors, despite the study of Latin prosody in grammar school, could join the poet Joseph Hall in describing what they heard as the interplay of “nimble dactyls” and “drawling spondees”? Even if it could be dem­ onstrated convincingly, such conscious awareness of prosodic detail among English theater-goers is beside the point. If the dactyls and spondees are there in the text, we are entitled to speculate about their effects. In short, Freer needs no historical justification to perform prosodic analysis on Renaissance verse drama—all he needs is a good ear, which on the whole he has. Let one example among many suffice. Freer quotes two lines spoken by Orgilus in The Broken Heart: Most right, my most good lord, my most great lord, My gracious princely lord, I might add, royal. (4.3.102-03) He then comments that “much of the humor lies in the varied music of the lines, the tensions against the meter in the first line resolved in die deliberately trite falling rhythms of the second” (p. 183). The book is full of such sharply articulated perceptions, which catch the emotional connotations of the rhythms in crisp and lively prose. But having a good ear does not guarantee exclusive claim to correctness, for stresses and pauses—however precisely intended by...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1936-1637
Print ISSN
0010-4078
Pages
pp. 383-385
Launched on MUSE
2018-07-11
Open Access
No
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