As a dramatist, James Sheridan Knowles was trying to achieve two conflicting goals. He wanted to reach his audience by banishing artificiality from dramatic poetry and by using more natural cadences of speech, yet he could not help but aspire to the traditional poetic standards of the greatest Renaissance writers. Both Knowles’s tragedies and his comedies reflected the taste of his time as well as the limitations of his creative abilities. Nevertheless, they are often superior to the dramas of his contemporaries, many of whom gave themselves up to writing facile and sensationalized melodramas. Knowles’s drama has its share of such elements, but their presence is always counterbalanced by the playwright’s attempt to restore the grandeur of the Renaissance tradition to the nineteenth century stage.
Though critics have maintained that Knowles’s tragedy Virginius is his greatest play, many of Knowles’s most characteristic themes find their earliest expression in his first mature and original play, the tragedy Caius Gracchus. Caius Gracchus is not a great play, but in spite of its flaws, it is in some respects both intense and compelling. Knowles’s radical political attitudes were crudely but vividly presented in some of the title character’s speeches, and the prosaic quality of the blank verse reflects Knowles’s intention of writing dialogue in a language that would be more accessible to his audience. The play also seeks to combine elements of the popular melodrama with the more traditional themes of political intrigue and ambition that characterize Shakespearean and Jacobean tragedy. Caius Gracchus is, in fact, modeled on Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, and Knowles’s title character closely resembles Shakespeare’s protagonist, particularly in his self-destructive devotion to the state. Caius Gracchus was Knowles’s first attempt to synthesize different dramatic influences into a popular form, the domestic tragedy. The later success of Virginius can largely be attributed to the fact that in that play Knowles achieved a more natural synthesis of these disparate influences than he did in Caius Gracchus. Therefore, the earlier play is interesting as a precursor of the values and techniques that Knowles tried to refine in his later tragedies.
Part of the problem with Caius Gracchus was that Knowles had selected an inappropriate story on which to graft his rather...
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