Thomas Hardy Drama Analysis
It is not really surprising that Thomas Hardy should have turned his talents to the production of dramatic poetry. There are many indications of an early and lifelong interest in the drama—both folk and professional. Hardy enjoyed plays both in the study and on the stage, and he read widely among the classical Greek, Elizabethan, modern Continental, and modern English playwrights. He was a frequent playgoer in London and knew many theatrical people, among them Harley Granville-Barker, Sir James Barrie, George Bernard Shaw, and John Galsworthy. In fact, at one point in his life Hardy had thought of becoming a playwright himself, and as early as 1867, he was considering writing plays in blank verse but postponed this project after being discouraged by the realities of a stage production.
Hardy’s interest in playwriting lay dormant for many years, but, having abandoned the writing of fiction, disgusted by the adverse critical reaction to his later novels, he turned to poetry and drama—his interest in the latter whetted by stage adaptations of Far from the Madding Crowd and Tess of the D’Urbervilles. Thus, near the end of the 1890’s, Hardy plunged into the writing of a verse drama; “nothing could interfere with it,” as he said, for it was intended for a “mental performance.”
Hardy’s The Dynasts is, along with John Milton’s Samson Agonistes (1671) and Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound (1820), one of the longest closet dramas in English literature. This vast epic drama, consisting of nineteen acts and 130 scenes, traces the Napoleonic Wars from 1805 to 1815. On publication, The Dynasts was hailed as a major achievement, but subsequent generations have found the massive work more problematic. Indeed, while Hardy’s novels continue to be read and are available in numerous editions in any bookstore, only Victorian scholars are likely to plough their way through the 10,553 lines of The Dynasts. As Hardy’s importance as a novelist increases, his importance as a dramatic poet seems to be fading, despite pleading by some critics to justify The Dynasts categorically either as an epic or as a drama.
The Dynasts, which was published in three separate parts in 1903, 1906, and 1908, was initially untitled and was referred to simply as “A Drama of Kings.” When all three parts of the completed work were published together in 1910, Hardy labeled it an epic drama and gave it the title by which it is now known. Hardy’s title comes from a line on the last page of the final act: “. . . who hurlest Dynasts from their thrones?” As to his choice of this title, Hardy wrote, “it was the best and shortest inclusive one I could think of to express the rulers of Europe in their desperate struggle to maintain their dynasties rather than to benefit their people.”
The Dynasts required all of Hardy’s skills as a writer. Written in a variety of verse forms, the drama tells an epic story with a cast of thousands. Hardy’s forte as a novelist was his ability to tell a story with interest and suspense, and his talent with plot did not desert him here. The Dynasts relates a well-known story—the rise and fall of Napoleon—with vivid and fresh appeal. There are scenes of battle, of political intrigue, and of the ordinary life of the people that provide spectacle on the scale of the films of the late Cecil B. De Mille. Unlike previous closet dramas, such as Lord Byron’s Manfred (pb. 1817), Shelley’s The Cenci (pb. 1819), or Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s Harold (pb. 1876), Hardy selected a recent historical event as his subject, as he did in his novels, in which the setting is generally only a few decades removed from the telling. In The Dynasts, the time of the action is 1805-1815. Whereas in his fiction Hardy was concerned with the fate of common people in the grips of an indifferent destiny, in the epic drama his concern was to show how princes and powerful men, who often seem to control the fate of the masses, are in turn moved and influenced by the same blind forces that govern the humblest of people.
Hardy’s epic drama was the result of his lifelong interest in Napoleon’s character and career, a subject that had attracted many other writers of his own and earlier generations. It was his intention to do more than dramatize the turbulent period of the Napoleonic Wars; Hardy’s purpose was to show how the events that led up to the period of conflict had been shaped by blind causes rather than human will; the major premise underlying The Dynasts is that all human thought and action are predestined—an expression of the anthropomorphic force that Hardy called the “Immanent Will,” rather than of Divine Providence. Although this was an advanced idea for 1904, it seems to make the drama passé to modern readers, who are not as concerned with questions of ultimate causation as were the post-Victorians.
The cast of characters in Hardy’s drama, epic in proportions, is arranged on three levels: first, the celestial abstractions—the Will, the Ironies, the Spirit Sinister, the Shade of the Earth, and the Earth of the Years; next, the great historical figures—Napoleon, the Duke of Wellington, Lord Nelson, George III, William Pitt, the Younger, and the various kings, princes, and generals of Prussia, Austria, Spain, and Russia (these are the dynasts of Europe, all of whom are concerned only to maintain their rule); and finally, the ordinary people, the suffering masses who are puppets caught in the grip of political and historical forces beyond their control. Hardy makes these lower-class characters his collective protagonists, the heroes of the play. On the other hand, the conquerors and kings, the so-called dynasts, are cast as the antagonists, indifferent to the plight of the people and concerned only with expanding their borders; they side with Napoleon when he is up and combine against him when he is down. In the struggles on the human level among the dynasts and their nations, only England stands above the sordid schemes of the Continental kings as the British defy Napoleon’s design for world conquest. Among the British generals, Wellington emerges as a worthy rival, whose tenacity will prove to be a match for Napoleon’s brilliant strategies.
Of all the characters in the drama, Napoleon is by far the most interesting. He is a complex and...
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