Fool me once with a character death, shame on you Pierre du Ryer. Fool me twice with a character death, shame on me. You cannot, I repeat, cannot, kill the same character three times in the same play and then have them come back three times. This play would put modern soap opera writers to shame for the frequency with which it tries to fool or shock its audience. I always thought that the rule of vraisemblance, or verisimilitude in neoclassical plays was a little silly. The subjects of most plays are outside of the realm of normal life, that’s what makes them dramatic. But now I understand that the rule was intended to prevent plays like this one from ever being conceived. I don’t want to say that the play was bad or not well written, it's simply the fact that there is enough material here for three separate plays. Many critics of the neoclassical plays says that the plot is too tight, that there is not enough going on to capture the audience’s attention, in contrast to Shakespearean drama that has subplots in its subplots, but it is this concise plot that makes those plays so gripping. Plays like Clitophon, where one can barely tell where the characters are, much less what is happening, is not immersive in the way Phèdre is because it is too concerned with being unpredictable and not enough about whether or not the audience actually cares what happens to its heroine the second or third time that she miraculously comes back to life.
This play engages in a common theatrical device of the period, mistaken identities as the crux of its drama. Ligdamon is in love with Sylvie, who pretends she doesn't love him back, while Lidias and Amerine are in love with each other. Lidias and Ligdamon are confused for each other and much physical comedy is played off of the situations they find themselves in, but it lacks the plot structure that we see in similar plays of the period, notably plays like Shakespeare's The Comedy of Errors. That play leans into the pure comedy of misunderstanding, while Ligdamon et Lidias tries to find a tragicomic middle ground. While the characters nearly die from the misunderstanding, this does not feel tragic, but nonsensical. I can understand why neoclassic writers believed that the mixing of comedy and tragedy were cheapening to both when presented with plays such as this. Not that I believe that humor and tragedy cannot be mixed, but like anything else, it should be constructed with some foresight, whereas this play feels like an awkward combination of two separate plots.
This play is described by its author as a heroic poem, though interestingly the large part of it is not written in verse. The plot is fairly bland; two couples whose love is derailed by well meaning parents. This leads to attempted murder and two faked deaths to end with a happy conclusion. As I've noted from several other plays in this period, this play takes many cues from Elizabethan drama with its misadventures and misdirections, but I'd like to focus on a dramatic device that was common in Elizabethan drama, but is also seen in Celinde, the play within a play. Typically the play within a play structure is a smaller scale illustration of what is happening in the play itself, in order for the characters to have a dialogue in a meta-narrative. In Celinde however, the play performed in the third act is a dramatization of the life of Judith, which is interrupted by the attempted murder of Floridan. I found this puzzling because the two stories seem to lack a common theme. Judith uses deception and her sexuality to infiltrate the enemy and save her people, while Celinde is driven to murder from the desperation of her situation in a marriage that she wants to avoid. It should be noted that Floridan is not the one pressuring her into this marriage, but instead her father. I have no answer as to the relation between the play within a play and the larger plot of Celinde, but it is nonetheless interesting to consider the reasons for its inclusion.
This play was tricky in a number of ways. It is clearly a pastoral, all of the characters are shepherds and shepherdesses running around and in love with each other. Sylvanire, the title character, holds the heart of several men, at one point the text jokes “Who isn’t in love with Sylvanire?” She is not your typical heroine however, batting off men’s advances with wit and cunning. The debates between characters are reminiscent of Renaissance love dialogues, with long arguments over the nature of love, who has the right or duty to serve the other sex, etc. It is clear to me that Sylvanire wins all of these battles of wits, so one would expect that her spurned male lover would simply take her by force and carry her off, but instead he poisons (or maybe cursed? It was not clear) her with the goal of getting her alone to have his way with her. It is a common trope that poison is a woman’s weapon, so this further flips the gender roles where Sylvanire always seems to come out on top, whether it be with jilted lovers, admirers, or her father. This poisoning episode reminds me of a happier version of Romeo and Juliet where the plot is discovered at the last moment and the two are saved. But this dip towards the tragic casts a dark shadow over the rest of the play, leaving the audience confused as to whether this was a tragedy or a comedy. Plays like this help to explain the neoclassical desire for the clarity of genres, as a way to remedy unclear plots and emotional rollercoasters. Indeed, Sylvanire has much more in common with the Elizabethan drama than the neoclassical french.
This play takes its source material the doomed lovers Pyramus and Thisbe, who communicate through a crack in the wall between their homes. The beginnings of the neoclassic obsession with passion and its destructive power is placed at the center, but it is also a pointed critique of monarchy. The king, who is also in love with Thisbe dispatches some assassins to kill Pyramus, and when his aide scoffs at the immorality and illegality of his actions, the king responds that kings are above the law. There is a lot to dig into here concerning passion, duty, and the beginnings of proper neoclassical forms, but I would like to take a neoplatonist perspective on this. Neoplatonism meaning that pure love is an intellectual aspiration for the perfect form that sheds the sinful nature of physical love. The problem of the play is not merely the passions that drive the characters to illogical and destructive ends, but their pursuit of physical fulfillment of those desires. Pyramus and Thisbe’s relationship through the wall is passionate, but pure because it aspires to the spiritual. The king will not be satisfied until he can possess Thisbe physically, and thus is consumed by physical passion. The couple’s decision to meet does not have explicitly sexual connotations, but their reactions to the perceived or real death of the other is the consequence of their physical passions and the impossibility of their fulfillment. In this respect, Pyramus and Thisbe are not the victims of fate or misunderstanding, but of their own physical desires. Neither can imagine a physical world without the other, forgetting the spiritual (according to neoplatonists) connection of their souls. This play is an early example of attempts by 17th century writers to adapt pagan tales from antiquity to a christian audience.
This play is unique in that it is a historical play that was performed contemporaneously with the events it portrays. It follows the scandal of Marie de Medici and her two Italian courtiers after the assassination of Henri IV and the assumption of her son, Louis VIII, to the throne. The two courtiers are convicted of sorcery and killed, and this is basically the entire plot, but what strikes me is the flagrant propaganda of this play. The final act begins with the line:
“Quelles harpes, quels luths mariés à nos voix, Chanteront maintenant l'honneur du roi des Rois”
Which one could loosely translate to “What harps, what lutes paired with our voices, will now sing the honor of our king of kings?” One might think this is referring to Jesus Christ, but in fact it is referring to the French king, who speaks this line himself. He goes on to compare himself ordering the assassination of this widowed female courtier to the triumph of David over Goliath. It is hard to tell here if that is sexism in the perceived sorcery of powerful women, or pure xenophobia against Italians (keeping in mind that Louis VIII’s mother was Marie de Medici, who was very much Italian.) Given the fact that the play was produced the same year that the courtiers were assassinated, one must think about the political culture that produced this play and what purpose it served. It is clearly propaganda, but who funded the production and where was it performed and what effect did it have on its audience? These questions surrounding the play strike me as far more interesting than a purely textual analysis.
I consider this play impossible to be read in a modern feminist context, not because of controversial gender issues, but because the modern shift towards gender equality negates any sort of tension to the plot. Aristotle held that a tragedy's most important component is the reversal of fortune of a hero who has one hamartia, or fatal flaw. In the original context, Meleager's flaw is his passion for Atalanta, a huntress who he invites on the hunt of the Calydonian boar. Because she draws first blood, he gives her the hide of the boar, angering his uncles whom he eventually kills. As a result, his mother in anger, retaliates and kills Meleager. The problem is that in a modern context, it's hard to find a flaw in Meleager's decision. Even if he is overcome by passion for Atalanta, his only action is to give her a present that by all counts she deserves. This brings the play closer to the realm of melodrama, where the main protagonists have no flaws and are preyed upon by purely evil people. Without outdated gender roles, Meleager has no harmartia, and therefore as Aristotle would say, there is no pity in his reversal of fortune but instead outrage at the injustice inherent in the story. That is not to stay that injustice has no place in drama, but simply that Renaissance tragedy tries to emulate the Greek style in which good people are rewarded and bad people are punished because that is in concurrence with the laws of nature. In this way, Méléagre fails in the goals it set out for itself.
This play was difficult for a number of reasons, the first being that it lacks the presence of a chorus to transition between acts and explain to the audience their implications. Previously I had thought that the chorus was unnecessarily repetitive, but for the majority of the time I found myself thinking that a chorus would help me understand and pull me out of the confusing dialogue. The other complicating factor in understanding this play is that it does not follow the canonical death of Achilles that we know of, but it follows another version where Achilles falls in love with Priam's daughter and is subsequently killed by Paris. This was a different experience than many of the other Renaissance tragedies that I have read where I knew exactly what the action would be. Here, I had an understanding that Achilles would die, but I did not know how or under what circumstances. The struggle to understand the implications of the text, rather than its poetry which is the real meat of Renaissance tragedies, meant that I was missing out on the point of the play. This may just be a personal experience, but I found the play confusing and difficult to follow the action, or lack thereof. It made me long for the simplicity of neoclassical drama, with its clarity, repetition, and straightforward plot, but also it is clear why those principles grew out of the messy plots of the Renaissance.
It was very difficult to read this text without constantly comparing it to Cleopâtre captive, written by the same author a mere two years earlier. A better comparison might be Christopher Marlowe's Queen of Carthage published fifty years after Jodelle's adaptation, but for now I'd like to look at the similarities and differences between Dido and Cleopatra's plights. Essentially the stories are the same : a woman is abandoned by her lover, through death or by choice, and her response is to commit suicide, and the play goes into great poetic detail of the emotions involved. However, Cleopatra's death makes sense to a modern, feminist perspective, in that she is not killing herself due to the loss of Antony, but in response to the loss of her freedom. Rather than live in captivity, she sees death as a liberation from the mortal world, with the possibility that she will she Antony in the next. In the context of a society where the mortal world is simply a testing ground for the eternal life to come, is this death not a triumph? It has more in common with Mary's death in L'Écossaise, where her death is merely the release of her soul to heaven. In this sense, Dido's death can be seen in a very different light. Her choice to die is not a reaction to Aeneas leaving for Italy, but the shame that she feels for betraying her first, now deceased, husband. Her decision to "wash her sins with blood" comes across as far more savage and backwards than Cleopatra's search for freedom, and seems more aligned with a darker view of humanity that must be punished to be freed of its sins. With two seemingly opposing worldviews, one must imagine why Jodelle in the span of two years turned towards a more pessimistic outlook on the state of human sin and what must be done to achieve a peaceful life after death.
It's certainly not original to say that nothing happens in Renaissance tragedies. The play doesn't simply start in medias res, it starts at the climax, assuming you know all the preceding action, it is only interested in the emotions of the most charged moment. Cleopâtre captive is no exception, dealing almost exclusively with Cleopatra's suicide, which is not even shown, simply discussed. Rather than looking at the plot, I think it is more interesting to analyze the surprisingly experimental nature of the poetry. Truly, the play reads more like a collection of poetry on a particular theme than it does like a play. Jodelle moves between line length and style fluidly, playing with the tempo and rhyme scheme in every act. He uses repetition and the rhythm of the line to build tension rather than rising action. While this makes the play slightly boring for a modern audience, scholars of poetry will find no end to analysis and discussions to be had about the daring innovations of poetry in this play.