In John Dryden’s The Indian Emperor, there is a clear sense of nationalism. There seem to be throughout the play inclinations of a kind of promotion of an ideal monarchy. The time of the Restoration was one in which the idea of nationalism, and the further enrichment of ideologies, flourished under the newly reinstated king Charles II.
An aspect of monarchy is the distinction between the classes of people. The king himself was seen as one chosen under the divine right of God. It is even portrayed in the opinions of those who believe in an elitist society that some ideas are too farfetched for the grasp of the lesser individual, those in the lower classes. The class system is portrayed within the very architecture of the grand theatres where plays were performed. The architecture exemplifies where people should remain. What this has to do with the play itself, is the ideas of boundaries and duties. Though love and duties crossed boundaries, it seems the most important aspect as exemplified in the play, is the natural rule of order. It is within the play that we see the crossing of classes through love, as with Cortez and Cydaria, however it is still the idea of holding onto to ones duties as the aspect that prevails.
Another aspect that cues to nationalism within Dryden’s play is his goals of what the play will incite within the viewers. In the lecture notes it is stated that he thought, “What is essential however, is not the mere emotional impact of the dramatic action, but the incitement of admiration” (page 8). The incitement of admiration could also be thought of as the play being a catalyst for his viewers to want to act as it feels they should. As nations that control colonies, and execute the proper actions of their classes as they feel best suits the nation. Perhaps a reason why Dryden chose to cast the Spaniards and natives was to allude to the idea that if they can respect the rules of monarchy and the abiding of ones positions, then so indeed should we.
Something interesting to think about and possibly take away form the reading of The Indian Emperor is indeed the concept of boundaries. Whether it is within the architecture of the theater, or within the play itself, a division exists. Within the play, this can be seen with the mere male and female characters. The central woman, Cydaria, does not have honor. As her most important ideal is the pleasure she can derive through herself, that with the courtship of Cortez. And it is with Cortez, the leading hero, that he defines a man as he should be, one who sticks to his honor. And ultimately there is no conclusion between the two, perhaps this is alluding to the idea that there simply cannot be a communion with them. Perhaps Dryden is illustrating to us the boundaries in love, that cannot be crossed.
Within the concept of abiding to nationalism, there are indeed rules that one must seemingly follow in order to be the best citizen they can.
I believe the playwright was trying to convey that doubts about the relationship between the Conquistadors and Aztec natives through Cydaria and Cortez. The love Cydaria and Cortez is used to move the audience, as their love is forbidden and they must choose between their duty to their kings and passion of love. By the end of the play Cortez has won over Cydaria and it seems to me that Cydaria is a silent partner in the success of the Conquistadors, even though Cydaria had influence over Cortez. Cydaria has met her match in the foreign stranger, because both throw their duties to the side for individual desires and passions. Which is evident when Cydaria influences Cortez to try and stop the attack and stop the men from killing her father. Loyalty and their duties to their kingdoms are temporary things for both Cortez and Cydaria when they put love ahead of their political obligations. Instead of taking political action they relied on their love to ensure that everything would come out fine for both kingdoms, which was not the case. Cortez came out on top because he succeeded in accomplishing his mission while Cydaria was left with a kingdom in ruins, her father dead, and a man that was capable of loving more than one women at a time. The relationship is a metaphor for foreign policy and making it legible about what is right and wrong when dealing with foreign countries. It also suggests that an ethical approach when dealing with foreign countries would be best as exemplified through the torture of Montezuma and his high priestess.
The play serves to dramatize the cruelties of the Conquistadors and also the cruelties of other imperialist countries. The characters also represent the English politics and the current situation of the king. There is a fight for power between two kingdoms that challenge monarchy. Both Montezuma and Cortez are honorable leaders who both are influenced by love.
In John Dryden’s The Indian Emperour, the theme of love versus honor, private interests versus the public good, drives the characters’ dramatic actions, especially between the conquering male Spaniards and the female natives. However, while the play’s ending hints at the requited love between Cydaria and Cortez, Dryden never explicitly brings them together in union and matrimony. In making this decision, is the playwright conveying to his audience doubts or anxieties about the relationship between the foreign imperialists (Catholic Conquistadors) and the Aztec natives? Situate your answer in the context of the Restoration theater and politics that colored the audiences’ reception of the play (feel free to reference the inserted images).
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Scene from John Dryden’s “The Indian Emperour or the Conquest of Mexico,” print by English artist William Hogarth, 1732. The play is here staged in a private English residence.