Alfred, Lord Tennyson Essay - Critical Essays

Alfred, Lord Tennyson Drama Analysis

The fact that Alfred, Lord Tennyson began writing plays at the age of sixty-five is unusual and perhaps accounts in part for the relative failure of his poetic dramas. His friend Robert Browning had begun his career writing plays, but Browning realized that his gifts were not suited to playwriting, and he shifted with great success to the dramatic monologue and narrative poetry. Tennyson must have felt that he would succeed where Browning and others had failed. English drama during the nineteenth century had reached a low point with facile plots, melodramatic endings, stock characters, bombastic language, and pseudo-Elizabethan techniques. Every major poet of the century recognized the problem and wrote dramas, hoping to resurrect the proud past of the English stage. They, like Tennyson, failed. Tennyson might have had a better chance of success since, writing after others had failed, he could profit from their mistakes.

Drama was not for him a completely new turn. One of his earliest works was a blank-verse drama, The Devil and the Lady, which he wrote when he was fourteen or fifteen and which remained unfinished and unpublished until long after his death. His poetry had included dramatic elements, such as his dramatic monologues and the monodrama Maud. Moreover, he had an interest in the stage throughout his life—an interest that led to friendships with a number of actors and directors. He believed that he possessed the dramatic instinct and that he was a competent judge of acting and play production. Because of this background, limited though it was, he believed that he could overcome his lack of any real knowledge of stagecraft or the practical necessities of the theater. He expected his plays to be edited for stage production by those who had the special training. Such editing did occur, but his primary difficulty was his inability to portray the subjective action of the characters within the constraints of the dramatic form.

When Tennyson as a boy began writing blank-verse plays, his model was William Shakespeare. It is not surprising that when he later turned to drama, he would again look to Shakespeare, particularly Shakespeare’s historical plays. Tennyson, however, was careful to select subjects that had not been used by Shakespeare. He envisioned a trilogy of plays—Harold, Becket, and Queen Mary—that would portray the making of England. Harold centers on the great conflict among Danes, Saxons, and Normans for predominance, the awakening of the English people and the Church from their long sleep, and the forecast of greatness for England’s composite race. Becket concentrates on the struggle between the Crown and the Church for supremacy, a struggle that continued for hundreds of years. Queen Mary portrays the final defeat of Roman Catholicism in England and the beginning of a new age in which freedom of the individual replaced the priestly domination of the past.

Queen Mary

Queen Mary, the last in the trilogy, was the first play that Tennyson completed. He became interested in the subject because of the resurgence of Roman Catholicism brought on by the Tractarian movement. Several of his friends had converted, and the pronouncements of the Vatican were alarming to staunch Protestants. Tennyson, as spokesperson and sage, believed that he should write a poetic play on the life of Queen Mary and show the fiercest crisis of his country’s religious struggle. He was firmly on the side of the Protestants, but he was sympathetic to the tragic life of Mary, who was cast off by her father and treated with shameless contempt before her accession to the throne. Hallam, Lord Tennyson wrote that his father believed that “there was nothing more mournful than the final tragedy of this woman, who, with her deep longing for love, found herself hated by her people, abandoned by her husband, and harassed in the hour of her death by the restlessness of despair.”

Although Tennyson set out to relate the tragic story of this misunderstood queen, his desire to be faithful to the historical record caused him to include far more than a play could hold. A summary of the five acts suggests a harmonious pattern. Act 1 opens with Mary’s coronation and her decision to reinstate Catholicism, which she will cement through her marriage to Philip. Act 2 introduces the major military challenge to her authority with the unsuccessful rebellion by Thomas Wyatt. Act 3 deals with the marriage of Philip and Mary and the absolution of the members of the English Parliament by Cardinal Pole, the pope’s legate. Act 4 is used to present Thomas Cranmer’s death, which is the major spiritual challenge to Mary’s authority. Act 5 depicts the nation beginning to fall apart because of the military threats from abroad and the religious dissension within—a dissension that Mary, trapped in her marriage to the loveless Philip, is unable to combat. At her death, Elizabeth succeeds her to the throne, and a Protestant England is assured.

What distracts from this harmonious pattern is the loose structure, with capricious changes of scene to include a number of background events and characters that intrude on the main story. The political ploys and stratagems of France and Spain, the rise and fall of minor characters such as Edward Courtenay and Stephen Gardiner, even the major episodes of Wyatt’s rebellion and Cranmer’s death—all distract from the central character of the play. Tennyson’s published version of Queen Mary has twenty-three scenes and forty-five speaking characters. Although many of the scenes and characters were omitted in Henry Irving’s production of the play, the separate treatment of so many parts causes the reader or the spectator to become confused and lose sight of the central figure in the drama.

Tennyson set out to be fair to the queen, but he almost lost sight of her in the panorama of her struggles. One question that is left unanswered by the play is what caused her to change from the merciful, forgiving queen who could pitifully speak of “good Lady Jane as a poor innocent child who had but obeyed her father” to the vengeful queen who at her wedding wore red shoes, “as if her feet were washed in blood.” Not only does she have Lady Jane beheaded, but also she renounces the nobles’ plea for Cranmer’s exile by saying, “It is God’s will, the Holy Father’s will,/ And Philip’s will, and mine, that he should burn.” Her only motive throughout the play is to win the love of Philip, but such a motive is weak because Philip is almost a caricature of the ruthless, self-serving, loveless husband. Moreover, Mary knew this before she ever met Philip; she was told that he is a man “Stonehard, ice-cold—no dash of daring in him,” who lives a “very wanton life.” As Tennyson provides no insight into another, more favorable, side of Philip’s character, Mary’s devotion to him, which causes her to sacrifice the lives of so many “heretics” and almost causes her to lose her country, seems more pitiable than tragic.

Queen Mary, as Tennyson’s first play, is seriously flawed, but it also has some strengths. The multiple scenes and subjects suggest the confused temper of the age. There is also some good characterization, such as that of Thomas Cranmer, who is torn between his fear and his faith, his desire to live and his call to martyrdom, his pride and his humility. The play was not an unmitigated failure; indeed, after major editing, it enjoyed a fairly successful run.


Tennyson, more fully aware of his inexperience in the theater after seeing Queen Mary on the stage, read several contemporary plays before he began to write his second play, Harold, which would be the first in the completed trilogy. The structural improvement is apparent: He halved the number of scenes to eleven and the number of characters to twenty-three. Nevertheless, this was the only one of Tennyson’s plays not to be produced during his lifetime; there was no public performance until 1928.

The action of the play follows roughly the order of events represented on the Bayeux tapestry, which Tennyson had seen in Brittany some years earlier. The tapestry, two hundred twelve feet long and one and a half feet wide, shows Harold’s hunting expedition in Flanders, his capture and enforced stay with William of Normandy, his oath to assist William in becoming king of England, the return to England, the death of Edward, the coronation of Harold, and William’s invasion and victory at Hastings. Tennyson adds to his play Harold’s love for Edith and his political marriage to Aldwyth.

The story has the ingredients to make a fine tragedy. Harold is a strong character who is destined to be king because he had driven out the Normans and brought peace. He is presented in contrast to the other two kings—Edward the Confessor, pious and incompetent, and William of Normandy, strong but deceitful. Harold has both strength and honor, as he shows when he initially refuses to take an oath that he knows he cannot honor: “Better die than lie.” He cannot maintain this resolve, however, and he is doomed by fate to lose both the woman he loves and the country he tries to defend. On his deathbed, Edward commands Edith to be a virgin saint, to spend her life in prayer against the curse that Harold brought on himself and on England when he broke his oath.

Despite these potentially dramatic conflicts, the play is a failure, largely because all the major characters are weakly conceived and developed. Edward’s piety and saintliness are overemphasized, as are William’s cruelty and deceitfulness. There is nothing in the play to suggest the qualities of one who would unify the country and, in Tennyson’s own words, “mold the greatness of our composite race.” Edith is a stereotype of the lovely, faithful woman who will sacrifice her own happiness for Harold’s safety. Aldwyth, conversely, is the scheming, ambitious female who will destroy her country if it will make her its queen. Even Harold is a confusing portrait. He is presented as a strong leader and man of honor, but his actions too often belie his words. He naïvely believes that he can go to Normandy for a hunting holiday because the Normans certainly have forgotten and forgiven him and his father, who drove them out of England. He pledges his undying love to Edith but then quickly makes a political marriage with Aldwyth. His final defeat is expected and accepted because the inconsistencies in his character have confused the reader and muted the desired sympathy.


Tennyson did not have much better success with the final drama of his historical trilogy, Becket. Failing in his initial effort to have the play accepted for production, he published it with the apologetic statement that it “was not intended in its present form to meet the exigencies of our modern theatre.” In the last year of his life, it was accepted, and four months after his death it began a successful run of 112 nights.

Tennyson’s failure in this play, as in the two earlier plays, was twofold: his inability to control the historical material and his inability to develop character. He had chosen a fitting subject in the confrontation of temporal power with spiritual power, but he was not able to reveal the subjective crises that motivated Henry and Becket. The play opens with a chess game that obviously foreshadows the play’s theme. After Becket moves, he says, “Why—there then, for you see my bishop/ Hath brought your king to a standstill. You are beaten.” The struggle between Archbishop Becket and King Henry should now begin, but it fails to materialize because of the introduction of a subplot. Rather than allowing the two chess players to discuss the conflict of Church and State that will surely come, Henry urges Becket to help him protect his paramour, Rosamund de Clifford, from his jealous Queen Eleanor. The two plots war against each other throughout the play.

Tennyson must have felt that he could not sustain the interest of the audience solely by the spiritual conflict within Becket, and thus he brought in the love triangle with Becket as an unwilling accomplice. The unsatisfactory union of history and romantic legend confuses and distorts the conflict between the two men. Because of the Rosamund story, Becket appears only briefly in the third and fourth acts. The principal distortion is that Rosamund becomes the cause of Becket’s death. In Tennyson’s version of the story, it is after Eleanor tells Harold a lie, saying “Your cleric has your lady,” that Henry utters the famous words, “Will no man free me from this pestilent priest?” The great conflict between Church and State is incidental to the king’s love for his paramour.

The subplot also prevents Tennyson from exploring Becket’s inner conflict. Becket often mentions his doubts, but whenever he begins to engage in serious introspection, the demands of the plot intrude and the reader cannot experience his spiritual crisis. After Becket is told that he will become archbishop, he begins to doubt his calling, asking, “Am I the man?” Twenty-five lines later, however, he concludes, “I do believe thee, then. I am the man.” When he is asked to sign the “customs,” which will restrict the power of the Church, he does so impulsively, without introspection, and then, just as quickly, he recants and refuses to seal them. Too often in the play the act of deciding is omitted, and only the decision itself is presented. Even before his martyrdom, his friends try to persuade him to save himself, but Becket ignores them. Again, the decision is already made.

Tennyson’s real success in the play lies in his portrayal of Becket as a man who becomes consumed by his spiritual pride. Once he assumes the robes of the Church, he begins to confuse his will with the will of God. He even uses Christ’s words to refer to himself: “Why, John, my kingdom is not of this world,” but John answers him: “We are self-uncertain creatures, and we may,/ Yea, even when we know not, mix our spites/ And private hates with our defense of Heaven.” It is clear that Tennyson admires Becket, but he sees the fundamental flaw of those who will themselves to martyrdom.

The Falcon

Tennyson was not discouraged by his failure readily to find a producer for his last two plays. He wrote four more plays, but he did not again try to write a history play. His next play, The Falcon, was a sentimental comedy in one act based on a tale from Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron: O, Prencipe Galetto (1349-1351; The Decameron, 1620). Count Federigo, who has squandered all of his wealth in the vain pursuit of the widowed Lady Giovanni, is forced to live in a cottage with only his falcon to delight him. When Lady Giovanni unexpectedly comes to visit him, he realizes that he has no food to offer her, but he does not hesitate to order the killing of the falcon to provide a suitable meal for her. He then discovers the reason for her visit. Her desperately ill son had begged for the falcon to help him recover. It is a rather touching and mournful story, but the lady is won over by the gentleman’s sacrifice, and the play ends as they embrace. Though there is not much substance to the work, it enjoyed a limited success on the stage.

The Cup

The Cup is a two-act play based on a story in Plutarch, a tale of revenge in which the beautiful Galatian priestess Camma avenges the death of her husband, the victim of the lecherous and devious Synorix. When Synorix pursues her into the temple, she feigns a willingness to yield, but she says they must drink together from one cup. After she has poisoned the cup, she drinks half and gives the other half to her guilty lover, rejoicing that she has been permitted to avenge and then rejoin her dead husband.

The Cup had a long run, but its success was largely the result of spectacular staging. In this lavish production, more than two thousand pounds was spent on costumes and sets, and one hundred beautiful actresses were selected as vestal virgins, Camma’s attendants in the temple. A review in The Times of London praised the magnificence of the production and the excellence of the acting, but it found “something shadowy and unreal” in the play.

The Foresters

Tennyson returned to a full-length play with The Foresters, an old man’s nostalgic dream of Robin Hood and Sherwood Forest. Robin Hood, the ideal outlaw, appears as a dubious shadow of King Arthur, the ideal king; his merry men’s efforts to revolt against tyranny are marred by sentimentality and boyish antics. Interestingly, although the play was a failure in England, it was very successful in the United States.

The Promise of May

The Promise of May is noteworthy for several reasons: It was Tennyson’s only play on a contemporary subject, it is predominantly prose, and it was his last play. It was also a dismal failure on the stage. Tennyson intended to present “a surface man of many theories,” but his central character, Philip Edgar, is really an insincere hedonist with no ideology at all. The contrived plot involves an intellectual from the city corrupting and then abandoning a simple country girl, only to be forgiven by her at the end. Tennyson himself realized that it was a failure, and he did not try again to write plays.