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Howard Barker’s ‘monstrous assaults’: eroticism, death and the antique text

By Graham Saunders


Howard Barker is a writer who has made several notable excursions into what he calls ‘the charnel house…of European drama.’ David Ian Rabey has observed that a compelling property of these classical works lies in what he calls ‘the incompleteness of [their] prescriptions’, and Barker’s Women Beware Women (1986), Seven Lears (1990) and Gertrude: The Cry (2002), are in turn based around the gaps and interstices found in Thomas Middleton’s Women Beware Women (c1627), Shakespeare’s King Lear (c1604) and Hamlet (c1601) respectively. This extends from representing the missing queen from King Lear, who Barker observes, ‘is barely quoted even in the depths of rage or pity’, to his new ending for Middleton’s Jacobean tragedy and the erotic revivification of Hamlet’s mother. This paper will argue that each modern reappropriation accentuates a hidden but powerful feature in these Elizabethan and Jacobean plays – namely their clash between obsessive desire, sexual transgression and death against the imposed restitution of a prescribed morality. This contradiction acts as the basis for Barker’s own explorations of eroticism, death and tragedy. The paper will also discuss Barker’s project for these ‘antique texts’, one that goes beyond what he derisively calls ‘relevance’, but attempts instead to recover ‘smothered genius’, whereby the transgressive is ‘concealed within structures that lend an artificial elegance.’ Together with Barker’s own rediscovery of tragedy, the paper will assert that these rewritings of Elizabethan and Jacobean drama expose their hidden, yet unsettling and provocative ideologies concerning the relationship between political corruption / justice through the power of sexuality (notably through the allure and danger of the mature woman), and an erotics of death that produces tragedy for the contemporary age

Publisher: University of Hertfordshire Press
Year: 2010
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