Reference: Jenny Sager, (2012). ‘the strategy with cunning shows’: the aesthetics of spectacle in the plays of Robert Greene. DPhil. University of Oxford.Citable link to this page:
This is the first full-scale study of Robert Greene’s drama, offering a new interpretation of the dramatic oeuvre of one Shakespeare’s most neglected literary predecessors. Recent criticism has emphasised Greene’s pioneering role as an author of Elizabethan romance. Yet, in contrast to the numerous prose works which were printed during his life time, his drama, which was printed posthumously, has received little attention.
Greene’s plays are visually magnificent: madmen wander on stage waving the severed limbs of their victims (Orlando Furioso, c. 1591), the dead are resurrected (James IV, c. 1590), tyrants gruesomely mutilate their subjects (Selimus, c. 1591-4), extravagant stage properties such as the mysterious brazen head prophesy to the audience (Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay, c. 1589), and sinners are swallowed into hell accompanied by fireworks (A Looking Glass for London and England, c. 1588). This thesis will examine the way in which these stage images evoke astonishment, which in turn encourages the audience to contemplate their symbolic significance. The triumph of Greene’s drama is not one of effects over affect; it lies in the interaction between effect and affect.
My principal objective in this thesis is to develop a methodological strategy which will allow critics of non-Shakespearean plays, which frequently lack a substantial performance tradition, to study drama through the lens of performance. Engaging purposively with anachronism as an enabling mode of linking old and new, this thesis will draw analogies between the early modern stage and modern cinema in order to emphasise the relevance of early modern drama to today’s ocularcentric world, a relevance that more historical theoretical approaches would seek to deny.
My opening chapter will try to establish Greene’s dramatic canon and assess the critical reception of Greene’s plays. Drawing on material from Greene’s entire oeuvre, Chapter Two will outline my methodological and conceptual approach. This chapter will include an extended analysis of Friar Bacon’s discussion of the ‘strategy with cunning shows’ in John of Bordeaux (JB. 735). Launching into detailed studies of specific spectacles, Chapter Three focuses on Thomas Lodge and Robert Greene’s collaborative effort, the biblical drama A Looking Glass for London and England. During the play, Prophet Jonah is ‘cast out of the whale’s belly upon the stage’ (LG. IV.i.1460-1). Focusing on this stage spectacle, this chapter seeks to emphasise the commercial appeal of this biblical drama. Examining another stage property, Chapter Four will explore the melodramatic and sensational potential of the tomb stage property in Greene’s James IV. Examining the apparent tension between the play’s two presenters, I will demonstrate that Bohan, a cynical Scot, and Oberon, the King of the Fairies, proffer two distinct, but not mutually exclusive, ways of conceiving of and interpreting theatrical spectacle. Completing my study of spectacular stage properties, Chapter Five examines the symbolic significance of the brazen head, which appears in two of Greene’s plays: Alphonsus, King of Aragon and Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay. In both plays, the brazen head becomes an object of excessive or supreme devotion as either a religious idol or a secular deity. The brazen head is perceived as monstrous not simply because it is a source of horror or astonishment but because it represents the misplaced veneration or worship of something other than God.
Turning away from stage properties, my final two chapters look at how Greene exploited specific stage conventions. Directing my attention towards Greene’s Orlando Furioso (c. 1591), I will argue that the figure of Orlando Furioso bequeathed an enduring legacy to early modern theatrical discourse, contributing to the convention of the mad poet, which would be replicated and parodied by a new generation of dramatists. Orlando’s behaviour, which rapidly alternates between that of a madman and that of a poet, forces the audience to contemplate the link between the mania of the mentally ill and the melancholia of the creative genius. Ridiculing the concept of furor poeticus, Greene’s play interrogates the belief that great writers are divinely inspired by God through ecstatic revelation.
My final chapter will explore the aesthetics of violence in Selimus. A relatively recent addition to the Greene canon, Selimus depicts the rise of an anti-hero amidst a cycle of brutal violence. My reading of this play posits Selimus as a surrogate playwright, arguing that the semiotics of dismemberment allows Greene to interrogate the concept of artistic autonomy.
Widespread indifference to Greene’s work has facilitated critical blindness to the powerful aesthetic appeal of spectacle in early modern drama. This reassessment of Robert Greene’s dramatic oeuvre offers a new perspective on the aesthetics of spectacle in early modern drama.
|Digital Origin:||Born digital|
|Type of Award:||DPhil|
|Level of Award:||Doctoral|
|Awarding Institution:||University of Oxford|
|Notes:||This thesis is not currently available in ORA.|
|Copyright Holder:||Dr Jenny Emma Sager|