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The Tragedy of Liberty: Civic Concern and Disillusionment in James Thomson's Tragic Dramas
Uppsala University, Humanistisk-samhällsvetenskapliga vetenskapsområdet, Faculty of Languages, Department of English.
2002 (English)Doctoral thesis, monograph (Other academic)
Abstract [en]

Early eighteenth-century serious drama often addresses the significance of liberty. This study focuses on the theme of civic and individual liberty in the little known tragedies of James Thomson, Sophonisba, Agamemnon and Tancred and Sigismunda, all of which problematise the condition of liberty under the influence of ideology.

Situating the plays in the political, ideological and philosophical debates of the day, this study, like previous research in the field, recognises Thomson’s connection with the political opposition to the Whig ministry. However, the plays are examined from a historical perspective as a response to tenets that, although similar to those embraced by the political opposition, were actually part of government Whig and Tory ideologies, as well as of contemporary thought about the individual as a social being.

The plays enact, it is argued, the problems involved in establishing and maintaining civic and individual liberty. What emerges is a set of binary relationships: private liberty is opposed to public duty; one country’s national liberty is set against another’s; a class-related stress on public social virtue is pitted against a more privately oriented social virtue. The tensions generated by these conflicting concepts of liberty influence the actions of the characters and the outcome of the tragedies. The tragic effect of Thomson’s plays arises, in large part, from an implicit suggestion that ideology is an insufficient means of upholding civic and individual liberty. The very tragedy of liberty springs from the realisation that civic liberty may in fact be impossible to sustain.

By revealing an inherent ambivalence towards ideology, the analyses of the plays corroborate the idea that Thomson is on the fringe of the Opposition but cannot be said to be a mouthpiece for Bolingbroke’s group of patriots. Moreover, rather than extolling ideology, Thomson’s plays question it, which moderates the commonly held view of him as a didactic playwright. Finally, Thomson’s tragedies, it is shown, challenge what appeared to be an accepted ideological stance. The relative complexity that his plays offer in terms of querying current notions of freedom and liberty’s possible realisation makes his plays some of the most thought-provoking of their time.

Place, publisher, year, edition, pages
Uppsala: Acta Universitatis Upsaliensis , 2002. , 144 p.
Studia Anglistica Upsaliensia, ISSN 0562-2719 ; 119
Keyword [en]
English language, Thomson, James, eighteenth-century literature, drama
Keyword [sv]
National Category
Specific Languages
Research subject
URN: urn:nbn:se:uu:diva-1812ISBN: 91-554-5253-1OAI: oai:DiVA.org:uu-1812DiVA: diva2:161400
Public defence
2002-04-06, Ihresalen, SVC, Uppsala, 10:15
Available from: 2002-03-14 Created: 2002-03-14Bibliographically approved

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