The Tragedy of Tragedies

by Henry Fielding

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Critical Evaluation

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Although Henry Fielding is chiefly remembered as the author of The History of the Adventures of Joseph Andrews, and of His Friend Mr. Abraham Adams (1742; commonly known as Joseph Andrews) and The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling (1749; commonly known as Tom Jones), he achieved his first literary success not as a novelist but as a playwright. In fact, it is fair to say that for roughly eight years between 1730 and 1737, during a particularly exciting era in the life of the London theater, Fielding was the town’s single most popular and most celebrated playwright. In 1730 alone, for example, four of Fielding’s plays were produced: The Temple Beau at the Goodman’s Fields Theater and, at the Little Theatre in the Haymarket, The Author’s Farce, and the Pleasures of the Town, Tom Thumb: A Tragedy, and Rape upon Rape: Or, Justice Caught in His Own Trap.

Two of these early plays, The Author’s Farce and Tom Thumb, are farce burlesques that lampoon a variety of targets ranging from well-known London actors and playwrights to such popular dramatic genres as heroic tragedy. Both plays were initial successes, and Tom Thumb in particular achieved enormous popularity, running nearly forty nights over a three-month period between April 24 and June 22 to packed houses, at a time when a nine- or ten-night run was considered a success. It was with this type of dramatic satire—high-spirited, immensely entertaining theatrical “hodgepodges” featuring music, dancing, and scenes of burlesque and parody—that Fielding was to achieve his greatest popular and financial success. Unfortunately, it was also this type of satire that eventually proved to be Fielding’s undoing in the theater. The satire of The Historical Register for the Year 1736 (performed in early 1737) proved so biting that it helped bring about the Licensing Act (June 21, 1737) and, only a few days later, the closing of Fielding’s Little Theatre in the Haymarket by order of the British prime minister, Sir Robert Walpole. The closing of Fielding’s theater marked the close of his career as a playwright.

Fielding’s best-known play, The Tragedy of Tragedies, began its theatrical life as a short “afterpiece” titled Tom Thumb. In the London of Fielding’s day, there were sometimes as many as six theaters open at the same time, all of them energetically competing for the theatergoer’s money, and it was common practice for theater managers to attempt to vary their menus to please popular tastes. On a particular evening, for example, a theater might offer a play by William Shakespeare or Ben Jonson as a main piece, followed by a pantomime, a brief comic farce, or even an animal act.

This first version of The Tragedy of Tragedies is a very general burlesque that takes as its main target the genre of heroic tragedy. Very popular in the Restoration period, these plays tended to emphasize visual spectacle and verbal bombast at the expense of plot and character. An audience does not need prior knowledge of heroic tragedy to find Fielding’s little farce amusing, although a knowledge of the ghosts at the conclusion of Thomas Otway’s Venice Preserved: Or, A Plot Discovered (pr., pb. 1682) would certainly add to one’s appreciation of Tom Thumb’s brief return as a ghost just before the multiple deaths that end the play. The deaths themselves suggest the carnage at the conclusion of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Prince of Denmark (pr. c. 1600-1601, pb. 1603). The many wonderful incongruities the play offers—beginning with a tragic hero compared to a “Cock-Sparrow” hopping “at the Head of an huge...

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Flock of Turkeys”—are themselves inherently funny. The expanded version ofTom Thumb, first presented in March, 1731, as The Tragedy of Tragedies, contains most of the original play’s words. It is, however, so very different from the original in many important ways as to make it a totally new work.

In addition to being nearly twice as long as the earlier work, The Tragedy of Tragedies is intended as much for readers as for theatergoers. Fielding complicated his plot through the addition of new characters and heightened conflicts, but in the published version he also added a huge array of pseudoscholarly material: a wordy preface and a long series of footnotes, all prepared by the fictional pedant H. Scriblerus Secundus. The result is still satire, but a satire both wider in scope and more focused in its intensity.

In the new play, Fielding widens his attack on heroic tragedy; an early editor of The Tragedy of Tragedies counted more than forty specific plays that Fielding attacks, most of them from the late seventeenth century, the heyday of heroic tragedy. As in the original version, Fielding burlesques the pompous, inflated language typical of heroic tragedy. Within the spoken text of the play, the satiric approach is relatively simple: Removed from its ostensibly serious context and relocated into the zany world of Fielding’s play, such language virtually satirizes itself. The addition of the “learned” commentary of H. Scriblerus Secundus, however, allows Fielding to expand and complicate the satire.

If there is one common thread running through Fielding’s literary career, it is his hatred of pedantry and false learning. The character of H. Scriblerus Secundus, with his verbose style and vast knowledge of theatrical trivia, is itself an effectively comic caricature of the pedant, but the joke goes beyond mere caricature. By annotating one passage after another with further quotations from obscure and forgotten plays, and by missing a long series of very obvious allusions to Shakespeare (“wherefore are thou Tom Thumb” is but one particularly flagrant example), Secundus expands the attack on earlier plays, increases the satire against the kind of false, pedantic learning his own practice so vividly exemplifies, and makes an even bigger fool of himself in the process.

The Tragedy of Tragedies has often been seen as in part politically motivated, but while it is possible to see a few general political references in the play (the descriptions of King Arthur and Queen Dollallolla might, for example, suggest King George II and Queen Caroline) there is simply not enough evidence to support a reading of the play as a coherent political satire.