Political Tragedy in the 1560s

Dermot Cavanagh

in The Oxford Handbook of Tudor Literature

Published in print September 2009 | ISBN: 9780199205882
Published online September 2012 | | DOI:

Series: Oxford Handbooks of Literature

 Political Tragedy in the 1560s

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Norman Rabkin's thesis is that the artistic ineptitude of plays such as Cambises and Gorboduc is, paradoxically, their greatest strength. The dramatists of the early 1560s may attempt to compose genuinely edifying works but they are also inventive enough to explore some independent dramatic possibilities; these keep outwitting their best intentions. They become fascinated, for example, by the appeal of the immorality they should condemn, or they grant equal weight to the role of destiny and individual choices in the onset of catastrophe. Consequently, these plays keep producing contradictions as well as problems of interpretation. Unwittingly, Rabkin suggests, such works made a truly tragic theatre possible, one that could range far beyond the scope of doctrinal teaching to explore more profound and irresolvable ethical problems and political conflicts. This article considers the teaching offered by both plays and then explores how their tragic aspirations lead to a more unsettling understanding of political experience and, especially, of political sovereignty.

Keywords: Elizabethan drama; Norman Rabkin; tragic theatre; canonical plays; political sovereignty

Article.  7579 words. 

Subjects: Literature ; Literary Studies (1500 to 1800)

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