How Dryden’s Play Conjoins Nationalism and Anti-Colonialism Perspectives

John Dryden promotes themes of nationalism in The Indian Emperor or the Conquest of Mexico by the Spaniards, yet, ironically, he also hints at anti-colonialism ideas in his heroic play.  Given the context of the restoration period, and Dryden’s background as a royalist, his overarching undertones of nationalistic consent should come as to no surprise to the audience.  Charles II knew the vitality of theatre and heroic plays as patriotic forms of expression. As mentioned in lecture, watching a live performance was more preferable than having to scrutinize the small font of a text.  Such plays that spotlighted the stage must relate to the politics of the era, so Dryden was careful to focus on the restoration, and use Mexico and the empire as a metaphor for the actual period. The playwright’s reasons for the transient romance between Cortes and Cydaria stems from his desire to showcase Protestant nationalism and to innovate stories told during the restoration era.

Dryden wanted to show how England was not only more tolerant of natives, but also more civilized as well.  Since the English did not largely interbreed with natives as much as other cultures, this not only showcases a respect for them, but also reveals how civilized they are for not dominating them sexually to the point of a population overgrowth. Notably, a romance between such two persons of different political rank “excites the passions” as is the aim of Dryden as a poet and playwright. Cortez’s affair is not only forbidden, but also risky in the political realm, and imagining such an encounter would heighten the audience’s fantasy and the drama of such a situation. Instead of displaying doubts between these two unlikely partners, his play functions to reveal the struggle between honor and love. Even Cortez tells Pizarro he is “graced by no triumph, but a lover’s name.”  He still prioritizes love, even after the war has started, and Cydaria places importance on love rather, than her people, based on her pursuit of her relationship with Cortez. Dryden tries to instill an image of the Spanish Conquistadors as an oppressive, hyper-Catholic people, so his consistency with this stereotype works in his favor for England’s anti-Catholic nationalism. The play poses questions to the audience even after they have left the theatre; were Cortez’s actions moral?  Should Cortez still be seen as the heroic character or should Montezuma be the titular hero?  The relationship has nothing to do with anxieties about foreign imperialists, since it is evident to England that they are seen as antagonists, but moreover to accomplish what he desires in his art. Whatever are the politics of the time, Dryden must conform to England’s set of values, while also innovating his story with anti-colonial thinking to spark an interest in his audiences.-Jessica Mijares


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