From Philadelphia to Arden and Back: Reading Shakespeare in The Story of Constantius and Pulchera

Sari Altschuler
University of South Florida

Though set in “the suburbs of the city of Philadelphia,” Constantius and Pulchera opens with our heroine, “on the terrace of an high building, forty feet from the ground…a most beautiful Lady of age sixteen…clad in a long white vest her hair of a beautiful chesnut colour hanging carelessly over her shoulders, every mark of greatness was visible in her countenance, which was overcast with a solemn gloom, and now and then, the unwilling tear unnoticed, rolled down her cheek” (4). A student put it best: “I turned the page expecting to her to shout, ‘O Romeo, Romeo! Wherefore art thou Romeo?’ Or at least ‘Wherefore art thou, Constantius?’” Pulchera essentially does. “Constantius! Constantius!” she cries after filling the night air with the frustrated sighs of “cruel fortune,” a “cruel parent,” and a “banished” lover (5).

My students pressed to talk more about Shakespeare. Over the next twenty minutes, we pooled our collective knowledge and came up with a long list of Shakespearean allusions. The balcony scene was most certainly from Romeo and Juliet and so were the star-crossed lovers more generally. The shipwreck felt like The Tempest, but it also could have referred to any number of other plays featuring shipwrecks including The Comedy of Errors, Hamlet, and Twelfth Night. Twelfth Night also features cross-dressing that resembles Pulchera’s transformation into Valorus, though other students thought the scene in which Pulchera tests Constantius’s love while dressed as a man felt more like the fourth act of As You Like It. Together we noted a number of other allusions to As You Like It. Pulchera proclaims that she will “retire from the theatre of this world” just as Jaques offers his world-weary lament in the “all the world’s a stage” soliloquy. As spoken dialogue in a serialized story Pulchera’s metaphor cannot gain its force from metatheatricality but rather the story relies on the audience’s early modern associations. The naming conventions of this early American narrative also resemble As You Like It—the wealthy “Le Monte” (the mount), one student pointed out, stands in for Shakespeare’s “DuBois” (of the wood).[1]  Finally, when Constantius and Pulchera “join their hands at the altar of Hymen” in Philadelphia, we might as well be in the forest of Arden with Hymen, Rosalind, and Orlando (30).

But we were still missing an important allusion. “The Winter’s Tale?” I asked. One student, a self-proclaimed “Shakespeare buff,” looked dismayed. “Wait, where?” “The bear.” “The bear?…Oh, the bear! Yes! ‘Exit pursued by a bear.’ Best line in Shakespeare.” Here the conversation turned; Constantius and Pulchera’s bear is not exactly like Shakespeare’s though both miraculously appear on a remote island. The more we pushed, the clearer the differences became. This famous stage direction announces Antigonus’s off-stage death, a sacrifice for king and country. The bear in Constantius and Pulchera, on the other hand, is the agent of mercy. This second bear keeps the shipwrecked crew from cannibalism and saves Pulchera from being eaten. The reversal of fortune is consistent with Shakespearean narratives, but the story notably revises the scene. Both bears participate in scenes of salvation for the female protagonist (Pulchera/Perdita), but no one dies in Constantius and Pulchera and no one sacrifices himself for the king. In fact, the bear allows Pulchera/Valorus to maintain her performance as an American lieutenant.

In addition to these politically suggestive revisions, Constantius and Pulchera’s bear scene illustrates the power of men over nature, offering an Enlightenment vision that echoes the earlier scientific language of the story. For example, in the opening scene the Juliet-esque Pulchera longs for her Romeo: “But hark, I hear his footsteps, it is he, and not his spirit—Once more have my optic nerves reanimated my almost deserted body—CONSTANTIUS!” (5). Pulchera’s romantic Shakespearean hearing slips into an Enlightenment articulation of seeing to dispense with dangerous romantic illusions and offer a firmer, more rational grounding for our heroine’s allegiances. (Nothing sexier than “optic nerves.”) The bear’s entrance likewise proves that Pulchera will not be the “sport of fortune” as she fears but rather, thanks to her companions and a gun, victor over nature (19).

On closer examination, the narrative has a number of moments that we were able to mine for their sophisticated dialogue with Shakespeare. While my students rightly noted that the story traffics in Shakespearean-cum-circumatlantic geographies, we warded against reading Constantius and Pulchera through a postcolonial condemnation that would treat the story simply as “bad Shakespeare.” Rather, the text uses Shakespeare to draw its readers in and to demonstrate its erudition while riffing on well-known plots. In so doing, it both rewrites and troubles the possibility of Arden for the post-revolutionary era.

This complexity is particularly apparent toward the end of Constantius and Pulchera when the Shakespearean allusions drop away. While much of the text articulates the late-eighteenth century in the terms of early modern romance, Constantius and Pulchera reunite legalistically. Constantius’s oral contract with Le Monte’s sister prompts Pulchera to clarify the terms of their agreement: “If Sir, I have possession of your heart, I shall be thankful for your hand also; but to have the latter without the former, is what is so foreign from my wish, that it never can obtain my consent, I plead no contract, but leave you to the free determination of your affections” (28). Constantius speaks more romantically of his “supreme affection” for “my dearest Pulchera” but adopts her language when he seeks to break off the engagement he speaks to Le Monte again in terms of contract: “you were no stranger to my treaty with Pulchera, to the passion I had for her, and the solemn obligations I was under to her, since her exit you have been fully let into the particulars of my negociations (sic) with your amiable sister…now Sir, supposing that Pulchera should prove to be still alive, and should insist on my fulfilling my engagements, what could you advise me to do Sir? (29). In the retelling Constantius manipulates the circumstances of his contract with Pulchera by leveraging her hypothetical “insist[ence]” upon the “engagements” (the word “supposing” does a lot of work for Constantius) and appealing to Le Monte’s “impartial opinion” and “advice” (29). Rendered in such terms, Le Monte berates Constantius for his apparent wavering, even though Constantius’s obligation robs Le Monte doubly of Pulchera as a wife and Constantius as a brother-in-law. Le Monte rails:

can you lawfully dispose of any article, after you have conveyed away the whole of your title to it? If you cannot, I wish to be informed of the means by which you were discharged from your obligations to Pulchera? will you say, you supposed she was dead? Is that sufficient think you? can your own mistake deprive her of that right which she had to you, in consequence of your voluntary contract? No… (29)

The scene continues with talk of “right, “claim,” and “fulfil[ling]…engagements” (30). While Pulchera’s apparently miraculous reanimation does echo that of the supposedly dead Hermione in The Winter’s Tale, the language does not. Constantius and Pulchera get themselves to the altar in the least romantic way possible: through the language of the law. Romance reappears only in the final sentence when they arrive “safely at Philadelphia” and are reunited with Pulchera’s father. Only then, in this last sentence, does the narrative retreat from the terms of the law and the nerves to proclamations of “joy” and “happiness” at “the altar of Hymen” (30).

In class discussion this juxtaposition provided a rich opening for Constantius and Pulchera as a postcolonial text. Ultimately we arrived at the conclusion that the Shakespearean framing delights readers and draws them into the early republican narrative, but that the text must move past such language to perform the cultural work of early American fiction. The story uses its audience’s investment in Shakespeare and the British tradition as the narrative slowly but surely pulls away and the links grow too tenuous to hold. Or perhaps they were too tenuous all along. Constantius and Pulchera’s engagement is, after all, imperiled from the start by breeches of reason, honor, and the law. Pulchera’s father seeks to break her contractual engagement to Constantius; Le Monte believes his French money can force an involuntary contract; and British forces kidnap Constantius from American shores in a familiar act of disrespect for American autonomy—impressment.

In short, Constantius and Pulchera was wonderful to teach in the early American survey class because it animated students who loved other periods of literary history but not yet the early republic and allowed them to use their expertise from other classes to perform sophisticated readings of this little known text. It also spurred a great discussion about the relationship between authority, allusion, and originality that pushed students to think more deeply about their aesthetic values. Finally, it wonderfully illustrated the anxieties of early U.S. culture and the tenuousness of statehood that I have found more difficult to demonstrate using more canonical texts like The Coquette and Charlotte Temple.

Many thanks to Duncan Faherty and Ed White for their lovely edition and for this excellent addition to the survey!

 


[1] The fourth edition of the Dictionnaire de l’Académie Française offers another definition: “Term which is used to designate the coupling of horses and mares and the time of this coupling” (Paris, 1762). This second definition hints at Le Monte’s perversion of “natural” desires.

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