Middle English Word of the Moment

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Choices, challenges and chance in the first part of Dryden's Conquest of Granada

Alright, so time to 'fess up: I am studying a Restoration course this semester and am thus not always thinking about the mediaeval. So I am having non-mediaeval thoughts sometimes. Such as about The Conquest of Granada.

I like to think I'm still not a terrible person?

The first part of Dryden’s Conquest of Granada was written in a society regaining its confidence after the upheavals of the Civil Wars, the Protectorate and the Restoration. It depicts a nation besieged from without, blithely (and wrongly) confident in its own power despite strife and divisions within. However, Dryden does not focus on the city as a direct analogue for English society in the past generation. Instead he explores the human motivations behind each character’s shifts of loyalty that destabilise their society, challenging his audience to self-analysis in a way that perhaps they could not have stood five years before. Almanzor and Lyndaraxa stand out from the general confusion, not for their constancy, but for the control that they alone manage to retain over their own power of choice.

The play opens to an image of a society perfectly ordered, or perfectly controlled. Powerful men – the king and the patriarchs of the leading families – sit in luxury and discuss the day’s games, a mediaeval-style tournament of male prowess and display (under the eyes of the ladies, naturally), with some fashionable local colour in the form of Spanish bulls. As in any era, the expensive and' extravagantly organised games are a display and proof of centralised power; and naturally, as the King expects, the heroes of the establishment[1] affirm their superiority over their hypermasculine opponents. The only catch is that the audience doesn’t see it. Uninvolved in the off-stage action, the audience’s point of view is limited to that of the character-turned-narrator, who thereby asserts his control of the events and world portrayed. The spectator relies on the perceptions of the most interested parties - and their complacent view of their world is soon dispelled by the “confus’d noise within” (I.I.98) that signals the beginning of civil disorder.

The eruption of combatants onto the stage – shocking after the elegant inaction and controlled, distant violence of the preceding speeches – exposes the flaws in Boabdelin’s model of kingship. In his world view, his authority and the system that sustains it are built of rock, not of people: an independent structure that stands regardless of the differences of mere mortals. Magnificent though he may be initially in confronting the armed mobs, his words have no effect because he does not realise the possibility of his subjects having opinions and agendas of their own, nor the necessity of addressing these to resolve the cause of the conflict. To manage the passions of a nation a king must surely first acknowledge them, but the competing hatreds exchanged across him – murders, superiority of family claims, racial or religious contamination - pass by unnoticed. It is his very insistence on absolute authority rather than disputation that causes the situation to escalate, recalling Charles I’s stubborn obliviousness to the depth of the currents, until the water around his stately galleon churned visibly white. Almanzor’s challenge (“I alone am king of me” etc, I.I.206), predicated on individualised honour and choice rather than state-harnessed honour and obedience, is incomprehensible to Boabdelin, alien to his stone-built tower of a world, and consequently unanswerable.

Boabdelin’s tower, however, is soon shaken and divided by the factionalism of civil war, prompting a flurry of about-turns from almost every major character. Abdalla rebels, Abdelmelech vacillates, Boabdelin throws his lot in with just one clan of his empire, and Abenamar and Selin turn against their respective children, who both abandon filial obedience for love. Rather than let these instances simply pile up, Dryden links them with imagery of wind and water, shifting, insubstantial and helpless. Memorably, Almanzor calls Boabdelin a “weathercock of State”, who “stands so high, with so unfix’t a mind, / Two factions turn him with each blast of wind” (III.I.10-12). Abdalla applies this idea to humanity more generally when he laments the insubstantial nature of “frail reason... kick’d up in the Air / While sence weighs down the Scale”: human conscience is too easily “born away: And forc’d to count’nance its own Rebels sway” (III.I.58-63). The same imagery recurs throughout the play, undermining each individual’s attempts to explain away their decisions and changes. The effect of this is to attribute the mutability not to the direct cause of each occasion, but to basic human nature, subject to chance.

The first major defection, Abdalla’s, is also the one Dryden examines most closely, exposing his ongoing fascination with the interior reasonings of these changes. It is initiated by Lyndaraxa’s half-promise to renege on her affections for Abdelmelech, and cemented by the excuses offered him by one of Boabdelin’s strongest subjects. Abdalla’s own consciousness of the moral implications of his decision (II.I.174-253) makes him look curiously helpless. He portrays himself as “tost” like a helpless ship between “love and vertue” (II.I.184), opposing internal forces which will decide his fate for him without the possibility of his own intervention. His plea to Zulema to second his flagging honour so it might “renue the fight” (II.I.189) also seems to absolve him of any personal responsibility for his decision, and Zulema’s persuasive arguments against that honour conveniently finish the job. After the event, he shows no hesitation in laying the blame on Lyndaraxa, using the language of the scorned chivalric lover (III.I.72-74) and of chauvinistic mistrust:

This enchanted place,
Like Circe’s Isle, is peopled with a Race
Of dogs and swine, yet, though their fate I know,
I look with pleasure and am turning too. (III.I.95-98)
To cast Lyndaraxa as Circe implicitly turns Abdalla into unfortunate victim made bestial through womanly wiles, incapable of honour or conscious decision; but it also implies that all of Granada is peopled by men who cannot retain their shape, or lack the moral drive to wish to.

Abdelmelech and Abdalla are equally helpless in their inability to renounce Lyndaraxa. Despite the knowledge of her changeability, each lacks the power to choose to turn away, or to take any other path than the one down which she drives them. Abdelmelech, for example, perceives that her heart “was never fix’d, nor rooted deep in Love” (III.I.164); but, through her skilful handling, he is begging permission within twenty-five lines to pledge his own constancy to the inconstant target, while Lyndaraxa mocks him with the possibility of his own future defection (“You would be perjur’d if you should I fear”, III.I.190). By the time he presses Lyndaraxa to run away with him as “proof of love to me” (IV.II.36), the city is a mess, Almanzor has changed sides and the tides of war twice, and the audience is as conscious as Lyndaraxa of the fruitlessness of any such proof. In this world as presented, no person can be proven, and a person who trusts in such proof is left vulnerable and manipulable.

Lyndaraxa plays to reserve the moment of choice only because she is more conscious of this fact than are the men around her: she admits freely to herself that “I my self scarce my own thoughts can ghess, / So much I find ‘em varied by success” (IV.II.4-5). She speaks the unacknowledged creed of almost every other character in the play when she declares that she “will be constant yet, if Fortune can” (IV.II.7), consciously placing her own steadfastness in the power of that most fickle of deities. By contrast, each man appears to believe his current loyalty to be the only admissible possibility, leaving himself subject to Fortune’s whims.

Almanzor is an exception within this general turmoil. The difference lies not in his stability of loyalties – he is the most infamously changeable character of all – but in his consciousness of the power of his own choices. Instead of reacting to changes in Fortune, Almanzor causes them: if Boabdelin is a weathercock turned by each passing wind, Almanzor turns himself, knowing the wind will swing to follow him. Initially, Almanzor seems to stand in opposition to human fickleness. On his first appearance, he appears to provide a stable moral centre to the play, disproving the supremacy of the old regime and epitomising a new system based on personal honour and conscience. He stands up to the irrational judgements of a tyrannical king (I.I.204-231), advocates responsibility with power (I.I.218-20), notes the weakness in the current system (I.I.226-29, I.I.285-86, III.I.10-12) and offers to fix it by pinning the weathercock with his own immovable weight:

The word which I have giv’n shall stand like Fate;
But now he shall not veer: my word is past:
I’ll take his heart by th’roots, and hold it fast. (III.I.9-14)
With these words, the king seems but a butterfly, weak and movable: Almanzor, staunch and strong, standing for eternal principle against self-interest and factions’ advice. But Abdalla’s request immediately following unsettles this comforting impression. Remaining firm to his own individual “word”, Almanzor commits himself to the ultimate social disruption of civil war. As various characters comment, including Almanzor, from that point he takes on Fortune’s role (“I am your fortune; but am swift like her”, IV.I.30), and his actions govern the consequent reactions of the remaining characters. Almanzor is characterised not as a changeable subject to the vagaries of the Fortune’s wind, but as the agent of change, steering the fortunes of others “as winds drive storms before ‘em in the sky” (III.I.526).

The change is not in Almanzor, it should be noted, but in the audience’s growing realisation of their inability to trust any moral advocate, no matter how charismatic. The terms in which he agrees to help Abdalla (III.I.21-28), and announces to Boabdelin his intention to continue to change sides as he chooses (IV.I.54-55), are consistent with his first glorious speeches that win the stage to him. His very first line (“I cannot stay to ask which cause is best; / But this is so to me because opprest”, I.I.128-29), despite its consciousness of the arbitrary nature of any such judgement, shows a determination to retain control of the moral context of his decisions – and potentially the power to change his choice at a later date, if the first judgement should prove erroneous. By consciously assuming the power and responsibility for his shifts in loyalty, and acknowledging the possibility of Fortune changing, Almanzor reserves to himself the power of change rather than the Fortune-shaped reactions of his compatriots.

The sheer number of these human changes, once realised, makes the whole world appear mutable. The city of Granada has little concrete existence of its own. Unlike the village and houses of Sir Samuel Tuke’s The Adventures of Five Hours or the streets and rooms and islands of Thomas Shadwell’s The Libertine, the writing of Conquest evokes no firm sense of locale. Most scenes could be set indoors or outdoors, in a hall or garden or a street, or on a blank stage. The strongest scene-painting in the play is the opening description of the bullfight (I.I.1-98), an event which takes place offstage and therefore exists only in the words of its narrators. While a hypothetical set might provide some context and colour, its effect is little next to the spoken word: the theatre’s lack of a cohesive authorial voice ensures that in most plays the characters and their words are the world. Juliet’s orchard is vividly alive, regardless of staging choices. But Granada, as a city, is barely there: she has her only substance in the minds of her inhabitants, and she is soon forgotten. As a society, she is only as substantial as a group illusion. In the first act, by questioning certain fundamental issues of social organisation - the proper nature of government and kingship (I.I.194-288), the right to inheritance and title (I.I.292-346) – Dryden destabilises the social structure binding the individual characters together. With these things recognised as insubstantial, the characters themselves are left to hold their world together unassisted. As each wanders off whithersoever he (or potentially she) would, the whole of social structure becomes illusory.

Despite the gloominess of such a point of view, the final vision, for its first audience, need not have been so bleak. For those who made the comparison between the events in Granada and the storms of the last generation, there remains sufficient distance in Dryden’s writing that they need not have assumed Granada’s downfall was England’s. There is no consistent parallel between any character in the play and any on England’s recent political stage, though there are occasional passing similarities. Granada’s character is sufficiently foreign, especially with the real Christians hovering at the gates, that the audience could be in no danger of identifying themselves completely with the Moors who comprise her population. Dryden challenges his audience to consider the nature, causes and moral implications of the changes humans make under pressure, but England is not Granada. England has come through the wars, is not doomed, and can consider these questions in retrospect, without the danger being pulled to pieces from within.


[1] Almanzor, the triumphant stranger, is potentially a threat, and will so prove; but at this point the speakers claim him as their hero, the epitome of those qualities that they treasure in the world their words create. Though Abenamar recognises him as "more than man" (I.I.48), he appears to consider it only a matter of degree: the challenge implicit in this difference is not recognised.

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