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Mongrel Forms: Tragedy, Comedy, and Mixed Genres in Britain, 1680-1760

  • Author(s): Davis, Vivian
  • Advisor(s): Nussbaum, Felicity A
  • et al.

This dissertation analyzes the unlicensed mixtures of tragedy and comedy that appeared in the playhouses, periodicals, and novels of the eighteenth century. Scholars have argued that in the Restoration's coterie theaters, the tragicomic dialectic functioned as a heuristic device for debates about political theory. "Mongrel forms" extends this premise, contending that by the turn into the eighteenth century, the tidiness of bipartite tragicomedy had been replaced by powerful ideas about generic contagion and corruption. For an increasingly bourgeois audience, tragicomic monsters and mongrels, widely derided by literary and dramatic critics, became associated less with debates about kingship and more closely aligned with a discourse on the perils and pleasures of different kinds of social mixing. As dramatic genres were mediated by live, feeling bodies, the "mongrelization" of tragedy and comedy created sites of contact in which social categories, such as race, class, gender and sexuality, could be contested or confirmed. The social re-organization intimated by mixed genres could be attacked as aesthetically monstrous. The blended form was also deployed to make visible identities and experiences not otherwise legible.

The five chapters of the dissertation include a number of case studies in which mongrelizing tragedy and comedy creates a vital space in which players, writers, spectators, and critics imagine possibilities of change to aspects of English civil society. The first chapter begins with neoclassical critic Thomas Rymer's infamous 1693 treatise on Othello's comic flaws, an essay in which a critique of a corrupted tragedy becomes inseparable from fears about interracial desire. Colley Cibber's critically neglected writing for the tragic stage comprises the dissertation's second chapter. The third chapter assesses Nahum Tate's notorious adaptation of Shakespeare's King Lear in light of the changing sexual politics of the London stage. The fourth chapter analyzes the tragicomic structure of Charlotte Lennox's The Female Quixote (1752), a novel in which generic friction signals the obstacles faced both by Lennox's titular heroine and professional female authors at midcentury. The dissertation closes with a study of Sir Joshua Reynolds' Garrick between Tragedy and Comedy (1761), an allegorical canvas that assuages contemporary worries about actors' sexuality and rank.

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