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drama, The Devil and the Lady, which he wrote when he was fourteen or fifteen and which remained unfinished and unpublished until long after his death.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 , 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...
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- Critical Essays