Posts Tagged ‘Early modern drama reading project’

Plays, briefly noted

August 7, 2021

A few quick notes today on several plays I’ve read as part of a survey of early-ish modern drama.


Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay
Robert Greene
(Ernest Benn, 1969) [c.1590]
xxxvi + 95 p.

An early example of a romantic comedy for the English stage, Robert Greene’s Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay is an entertaining play that would be fun to see staged. I was surprised to discover that a significant group of the characters are based on real historical figures — King Henry III and his son, the future Edward I, and Elinor of Castile; I didn’t expect to encounter such a precise historical setting in a comedy, although, on reflection, I suppose there is no good reason that it should not be done. Even the titular Friar Bacon, although the connection is not explicitly made, is thought to have been based on the Oxford master Roger Bacon.

The play is notable for its double-plot, which was to become a staple of Shakespeare’s comedies, but which had been previously rare. In one, Prince Edward, intended in marriage to Elinor, falls in love with a fresh-faced peasant girl, the Fair Maid of Fressingfield, but a love quadrangle arises when an Earl also falls for her. In another plot, Friar Bacon uses magical arts to assist various characters to achieve their particular ends: he teleports them, allows them to see events far removed (using something like a palantír), and conjures devils. This portrait of Bacon was among the most intriguing aspects of the play; C.S. Lewis often remarked on the close relationship of magic and science in the early modern period, and this play is a good exhibit of the tendency. Bacon is the university scholar and experimentalist par excellence, and within the play that essentially means that he is a master of dark arts.

Friar Bungay is a secondary character whom, one suspects, was vaulted into the play’s title primarily for alliterative effect. The play is written mostly in blank verse — one character speaks in rhyme to good comedic effect — but to my ear the verse is not particularly distinguished.


The White Devil
John Webster
(Oxford, 1996) [1612]
102 p.

I enjoyed Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi so much that I was greatly looking forward to reading this play, written just a couple of years earlier. Its Roman setting, its plot driven by high church intrigue among the Medicis, and its good press had me expecting another success.

Alas. Alas for me, no doubt. I had enormous difficulties following the story, could not seem to remember how characters were related to one another, failed to grasp why characters killed other characters, and arrived at the last page without having marked a single passage as being of special interest. If pressed, I am not sure I could say what the white devil happened. I am ready to heap the blame on my own head, for it is undeniably true that I have been reading under inauspicious circumstances (ie. tending to sudden, though inadequately prolonged, bouts of unconsciousness). It’s probably a fine play; you should read it and tell me about it.


A Chaste Maid in Cheapside
Thomas Middleton
(Oxford, 2007) [c.1613]
52 p.

The title, as I understand it, is as much to say, “A snowball in hell”. We have here a riotous comedy of London life in which the social classes are caught up in a melee of adultery and procreation. We learn, along the way — although one hates for superficial prejudices to be confirmed — never to trust a man surnamed “Whorehound”.

There actually is a chaste maid, just as there is, they say, a slender chance of a Hadesian snowball. She wants to marry a fine young man who loves her truly, but is under pressure to accept the proposal of the aforementioned Whorehound. Under such circumstances, there’s but one thing to be done: run away! And, failing that, the play indulges in a rather sweet, Much Ado About Nothing-style feigned death to bring everyone to their senses.

My favourite character was the elder brother of the fine young man, a married man who, in desperation, plans to separate from his wife to avoid impregnating her again:

But as thou sayst, we must give way to need
And live awhile asunder, our desires
Are both too fruitful for our barren fortunes.
How adverse runs the destiny of some creatures–
Some only can get riches and no children,
We only can get children and no riches;
Then ’tis the prudent’st part to check our wills,
And till our state rise, make our bloods lie still.
Life, every year a child, and some years two,
Besides drinkings abroad, that’s never reckoned;
This gear will not hold out.

I can relate. Mind you, he goes on to offer his impregnation services to whomever wishes to take advantage of them, a course to which, though my virtue be but little, I cannot relate.

Anyway, it’s a fun play, stuffed with double entendres and outlandish characters, and it all wraps up splendidly.

Middleton: The Revenger’s Tragedy

April 27, 2021

The Revenger’s Tragedy
Thomas Middleton
(Oxford, 2007) [c.1606]
50 p.

In his 1908 study of Elizabethan and Jacobean drama, Charles Swinburne calls The Revenger’s Tragedy “the most perfect and most terrible incarnation of the idea of retribution impersonate and concentrated revenge that ever haunted the dreams of a tragic poet or the vigils of a future tyrannicide”. It is indeed a bracing play, propelled by a long-simmering animosity now brought to boil, and it moves nimbly and surely through its scenes toward the vengeance for which it hungers.

At the play’s center is Vindice, a man whose beloved had been poisoned by the Duke nine years previously; in the interim he has been watching, waiting, and plotting his revenge. When an opportunity arises to offer a service to the Duke, he seizes on it, relishing the chance to get close to his target. As the play spools out, he gets his wish — the nine-years-gone poisoning returning in macabre echo — and more than his wish. The play ends, as such plays do, with bodies littering the stage.

We are in the hands of a dark poet. This is a play in which a man tries to convince his sister to play the prostitute to the Duke; in which the stake in a case of mistaken identity is whether a man is beheaded; in which heads swing in burlap sacks and lascivious men unwittingly kiss skulls. But it is also a play with a “profound and noble reverence for goodness” (Swinburne again), a goodness embodied with memorable strength by Castiza, a woman whose adamantine resistance to temptation burns white hot and casts a bright light in the darkness.

The verse of the play is excellent throughout. Swinburne works himself up into quite a sweat in his enthusiasm, waxing eloquent about “the fiery jet of his molten verse, the rush of its radiant and rhythmic lava”. This is not my style, but his love is understandable. Consider this passage, from the first scene, in which Vindice addresses the skull of his beloved, which he has kept with him since she died:

Thou sallow picture of my poisoned love,
My study’s ornament, thou shell of death,
Once the bright face of my betrothed lady,
When life and beauty naturally filled out
These ragged imperfections;
When two heaven-pointed diamonds were set
In these unsightly rings;—then ’twas a face
So far beyond the artificial shine
Of any woman’s bought complexion
That the uprightest man (if such there be,
That sin but seven times a day) broke custom
And made up eight with looking after her.

The introductory essay in my Oxford edition of Middleton suggests that the presiding spirit of the play is that of Yorick, and it is in passages like this that the claim is most convincing.

In general Middleton doesn’t give his characters long speeches — the above is one of the longest — and while this allows the story to move on briskly, it also limits his ability to really develop and unfold his characters. This becomes a problem at the very end of the play when Vindice, his revenge finally achieved, does something that was to me surprising and incongruous: he, who had nursed his anger in secret for so many years, suddenly and most imprudently boasts of his vengeance, to his death. I am tempted to call this a simple, though significant, fault. It is possible, perhaps, that a good actor could find a character arc that makes it plausible, but the text of the play really doesn’t lead us to expect it.

There is also, in this play, the problem that afflicts so many action movies: the drama is engaging until the action begins, and then it slackens and drains. There are many characters who must die before the play ends, and Middleton opts to pack most of them into one scene — the “action scene”, if you wish — in which daggers fly and bodies drop, but in such quick succession that the audience isn’t given time to absorb it; I found it dramatically unsuccessful.

All the same, I found this a ferociously good play, one that would be well worth revisiting. I’ll give the last word to Swinburne, as I gave the first:

There never was such a thunder-storm of a play: it quickens and exhilarates the sense of the reader as the sense of a healthy man or boy is quickened and exhilarated by the rolling music of a tempest and the leaping exultation of its flames.

Tourneur: The Atheist’s Tragedy

February 27, 2021

The Atheist’s Tragedy
Cyril Tourneur
(Vizetilly, 1888) [c.1611]
98 p.

A play so named would seem to have a wide scope to explore: the tragedy of living in a cosmos bereft of objective goodness; the agony of the reign of will and power over truth; the madness of a rational creature in a world dissolved of intelligible natures; the absence of final justice in a world plagued by injustice; the loneliness of a being endowed with powers of love and reason adrift in infinite silence and empty darkness.

But we are here in the seventeenth century, not the twentieth, and our playwright is not Beckett but one Cyril Tourneur, a contemporary of Shakespeare whose modest legacy for the stage includes this play and, perhaps, one other.

The play focuses on the Machiavellian ambitions of a French nobleman called D’Amville, whose schemes to overthrow and assume the power of his elder brother wreak destruction on everyone who comes within range. D’Amville is an atheist, which for Tourneur seems mostly to have meant that he lived for pleasure rather than principle:

D’Am. Then, if Death casts up
Our total sum of joy and happiness,
Let me have all my senses feasted in
The abundant fulness of delight at once,
And, with a sweet insensible increase
Of pleasing surfeit, melt into my dust.

and that he believed in Fate rather than a personal Providence:

And I am of a confident belief
That even the time, place, manner of our deaths
Do follow Fate with that necessity
That makes us sure to die. (I, 2)

Just what is meant by Fate here is unclear, but in another place he relates Fate to the realm of human power and actions, saying, of a pile of gold coins,

These are the stars, the ministers of Fate,
And man’s high wisdom the superior power
To which their forces are subordinate. (V, 1)

In other words, he acknowledges no power higher than his own. Interestingly, we are told that he became an atheist, or perhaps was simply confirmed in disbelief, by the hypocrisy of churchmen:

D’Am. Borachio, didst precisely note this man?

Bor. His own profession would report him pure.

D’Am. And seems to know if any benefit
Arises of religion after death.
Yet but compare’s profession with his life;—
They so directly contradict themselves,
As if the end of his instructions were
But to divert the world from sin, that he
More easily might ingross it to himself.
By that I am confirmed an atheist.
(I, 2)

which is all too plausible. (The specific churchman in question here, a parody on a Puritan divine, turns out to be a lecherous candlemaker masquerading as a churchman.)

Be that as it may, D’Amville sets about murdering his brother, disinheriting his nephew and spoiling his engagement, on one hand, and, on the other, enriching himself, forging advantageous marriages for his sons, and then trying to rape their fiancées — all the things you’d expect an amoral French baron to do. Violence, greed, and lust run amok until by a series of chances — if they are chances — they bring about the downfall of D’Amville and all his ambitions. He suffers the indignity of undergoing one of the least dignified deaths one could imagine, accidentally hitting himself with an executioner’s axe seized in a moment of murderous rage. Says the executioner:

Exe. In lifting up the axe
I think he’s knocked his brains out. (V, 2)

It would take a good actor to deliver those lines without them being comedic, I would think, and this at the tragic climax, which perhaps hints at Tourneur’s limitations as a dramatist.

The secondary focus of the play is a love affair between D’Amville’s to-be-disinherited-or-murdered nephew, Charlemont, and a young woman called Castabella. Although they are secondary to the plot, they are central to the play’s heart, and Tourneur lavishes wonderful lines on them. Consider this passage, in which Charlemont, preparing to depart to battle, and having bidden farewell to his family, now turns to Castabella:

Charl. My noble mistress, this accompliment
Is like an elegant and moving speech,
Composed of many sweet persuasive points,
Which second one another, with a fluent
Increase and confirmation of their force,
Reserving still the best until the last,
To crown the strong impulsion of the rest
With a full conquest of the hearer’s sense;
Because the impression of the last we speak
Doth always longest and most constantly
Possess the entertainment of remembrance.
So all that now salute my taking leave
Have added numerously to the love
Wherewith I did receive their courtesy.
But you, dear mistress, being the last and best
That speaks my farewell, like the imperious close
Of a most sweet oration, wholly have
Possessed my liking, and shall ever live
Within the soul of my true memory.
So, mistress, with this kiss I take my leave.
(I, 2)

That is really lovely, and an oration containing a simile comparing an oration to an oration is rather entertaining!

I quite enjoyed, overall, the qualities of Tourneur’s verse, which is admirably clear and musical. In the first pages of this play I came upon this speech in which Charlemont’s father tries to dissuade him from going to war:

Mont. I prithee, let this current of my tears
Divert thy inclination from the war,
For of my children thou art only left
To promise a succession to my house.
And all the honour thou canst get by arms
Will give but vain addition to thy name;
Since from thy ancestors thou dost derive
A dignity sufficient, and as great
As thou hast substance to maintain and bear.
I prithee, stay at home.
(I, 1)

I knew then that I was in good hands. Or, to take another passage that I marked as I was reading, consider this outpouring of grief as an unfaithful wife, repentant, laments over the body of her dead husband:

Dear husband, let
Not thy departed spirit be displeased
If with adulterate lips I kiss thy cheek.
Here I behold the hatefulness of lust,
Which brings me kneeling to embrace him dead
Whose body living I did loathe to touch.
Now I can weep. But what can tears do good
When I weep only water, they weep blood.
But could I make an ocean with my tears
That on the flood this broken vessel of
My body, laden heavy with light lust,
Might suffer shipwreck and so drown my shame.
Then weeping were to purpose, but alas!
The sea wants water enough to wash away
The foulness of my name. O! in their wounds
I feel my honour wounded to the death. (IV, 5)

Compelling imagery and neat compression of thought combine here to create really effective, and affecting, verse. Mind you, there are some infelicities here and there too. I’ve already mentioned the tonally awkward lines around the death of D’Amville. I also laughed at this fungal simile:

The love of a woman is like a mushroom,—it grows in one night and will serve somewhat pleasingly next morning to breakfast, but afterwards waxes fulsome and unwholesome. (IV.5)

I have to be careful, I suppose, to acknowledge comedy — of which there is a good deal in this tragedy — where it appears. There are awkward points in the plotting, too, as characters come and go to, it seems, little or no purpose at times. But they did not, on the whole, greatly impair my enjoyment.

There are several elements of the plot that remind us of Hamlet, which Shakespeare had written about 10 years earlier. There is, for instance, a ghost of a murdered father, come back to ask his son to seek revenge on the murderous brother. (But he’s very much a Protestant ghost, not, it seems, confined to fast in fires.) And there is a graveyard scene in which the characters contemplate skulls, though with markedly less eloquence than did the sweet prince. I don’t know what to make of these parallels at all.

At play’s end, the atheist D’Amville lies dead, alongside many others, and Charlemont and Castabella are together, ready to live happily ever after. In an ultimate rejection of D’Amville’s philosophy, a judge upholds the triumph of Providence over the designs of men:

1st Judge. Strange is his death and judgment.
With the hands
Of joy and justice I thus set you free.
The power of that eternal providence
Which overthrew his projects in their pride
Hath made your griefs the instruments to raise
Your blessings to a higher height than ever.

Charl. Only to Heaven I attribute the work,
Whose gracious motives made me still forbear
To be mine own revenger. Now I see
That patience is the honest man’s revenge. (V, 2)


Tourneur is sometimes credited with writing another play, The Revenger’s Tragedy. When not attributed to him, it goes to Thomas Middleton. It is generally regarded as being superior to The Atheist’s Tragedy, and I intend to read it soon.

Middleton: A Mad World, My Masters

February 7, 2021

A Mad World, My Masters
Thomas Middleton
(Oxford, 2007) [c.1605]
37 p.

A young man disguises himself in order to rob his grandfather. A jealous husband keeps anxious watch over his unfaithful wife. An adulterous man is tempted by a succubus. A mother pimps out her daughter. And it all wraps up with a happy marriage, or the similitude of one.

Thomas Middleton’s A Mad World, My Masters is a swirling, lively comedy in which lust and greed run amok in the mad world. It’s a crazy, quasi-allegorical London on the stage, populated by characters bearing names like Penitent Brothel, Master Harebrain, Follywit, and Bounteous Progress. Trickery and subterfuge are the order of the day —

Who gets th’opinion for a virtuous name
May sin at pleasure, and ne’er think of shame
(I, i)

— right up to the last scene, in which Follywit, true to form, marries a blushing maiden (actually, a prostitute).

This is my first encounter with Middleton, a playwright who enjoyed a long and fruitful career in Jacobean London. T.S. Eliot, I am told, thought him the second playwright of London, and there are several references to Middleton’s works within Eliot’s poetry. I’m reserving my own judgment for the time being, but I enjoyed this play a great deal; it moves swiftly, and the plot, though suitably complicated, isn’t overly difficult to follow. I found the supernatural elements jarring, but entertaining too. The language of this play is seeded a-plenty with double-entendres, although I’d not have picked up on half of them without the notes.

His plays haven’t been staged very frequently in the last few hundred years — though some high profile companies have done them, to some acclaim. Middleton does interesting things with the staging that it would be fun to see realized. For instance, he makes use of [asides], as did other playwrights of his time and place, but here is a case in which, instead of holding up time for the aside to happen, he gives it the flavour of a distracted reverie, in which he loses track of what is going on around him:

HAREBRAIN: Call down your mistress to welcome these two gentlemen my friends.
RAFE: I shall, sir.
HAREBRAIN [aside]:I will observe her carriage and watch
The slippery revolutions of her eye.
I’ll lie in wait for every glance she gives
And poise her words i’th’ balance of suspect.
If she but swag she’s gone, either on this hand
Overfamiliar, or on this too neglectful.
It does behoove her carry herself even.
POSSIBILITY: But Master Harebrain —
HAREBRAIN:                    True, I hear you, sir.
Was’t you said?
POSSIBILITY:    I have not spoke it yet, sir.
HAREBRAIN:Right, so I say.
(III, i)

Well, I know what that feels like.


I’m going to read a few more plays by Middleton, including, I hope, some tragedies. For just $15, I find myself richly endowed with Middletoniana. You know how it goes: “I don’t have anything in my library by Thomas Middleton. I think it’s time I had everything by Thomas Middleton.” And if I should ever need to slay a burglar, or shore up the foundation of the house, I have a suitable object ready at hand.

Marston: The Malcontent

December 15, 2020

The Malcontent
John Marston
(Bloomsbury, 2014) [c.1603]
176 p.

Well, this disguise doth yet afford me that
Which kings do seldom hear, or great men use,—
Free speech: and though my state’s usurp’d,
Yet this affected strain gives me a tongue
As fetterless as is an emperor’s.

John Marston, about ten years younger than Shakespeare, was a successful playwright for the London stage, and a few of his plays recur in anthologies of the period. The Malcontent is one of them.

It is an entertaining play. Set in the court of Genoa, it tells a story in which the duke of Genoa, having been overthrown by a rival and sent into exile, returns disguised as a crabby, frank-talking jester, — the ‘malcontent’ of the play’s title — intent on protecting his wife and winning back his position. In a series of lively comedic scenes he worms his way into the court’s good opinion, meanwhile laying traps for his enemies.

One of those enemies, Mendoza, is a ladder-climbing sycophant willing to do anything to protect and advance his position:

I’ll be reveng’d. Duke, thy suspect;
Duchess, thy disgrace; Ferneze, thy rivalship;
Shall have swift vengeance. Nothing so holy,
No band of nature so strong,
No law of friendship so sacred,
But I’ll profane, burst, violate, ’fore I’ll
Endure disgrace, contempt, and poverty.

He reminded me of Iago in some respects — one of his lines (“Fortune still dotes on those who cannot blush.” (II.1)) might have come from Iago’s mouth without incongruity — though ultimately he is not nearly so vivid nor dangerous. (Othello is also a c.1603 play.)

The pleasure of the play, however, is not so much in the characters as it is in Marston’s clever plotting, in which disguises proliferate, false pretences spread thickly on the ground, and double-crossing is the order of the day. The plotting is not tight, exactly, for there were some scenes for which the purpose was obscure to me, but it is absorbing and moves swiftly to its happy conclusion.

This is the first of the Elizabethan/Jacobean plays I’ve read in this project that has been mostly prose. Verse pops up here and there, mostly at moments of high import or eloquence, but it is the exception.

In his study of the plays of this period, Swinburne finds Marston an uneven playwright, complaining that

the reader in struggling through some of the scenes and speeches feels as though he were compelled to push his way through a cactus hedge

yet concluding that despite his defects there are still good reasons to read him:

But when the poet is content to deliver his message like a man of this world, we discover with mingled satisfaction, astonishment, and irritation that he can write when he pleases in a style of the purest and noblest simplicity; that he can make his characters converse in a language worthy of Sophocles…

I don’t know whether I should agree with Swinburne here or not. A possible example of a cactus hedge might be this passage, in which the villain Mendoza erupts in a diatribe against women:

Women! nay, Furies; nay, worse; for they torment only the bad, but women good and bad. Damnation of mankind! Breath, hast thou praised them for this? and is’t you, Ferneze, are wriggled into smock-grace? sit sure. O, that I could rail against these monsters in nature, models of hell, curse of the earth, women! that dare attempt anything, and what they attempt they care not how they accomplish; without all premeditation or prevention; rash in asking, desperate in working, impatient in suffering, extreme in desiring, slaves unto appetite, mistresses in dissembling, only constant in unconstancy, only perfect in counterfeiting: their words are feigned, their eyes forged, their sighs dissembled, their looks counterfeit, their hair false, their given hopes deceitful, their very breath artificial: their blood is their only god; bad clothes, and old age, are only the devils they tremble at. (I.6)

It’s crass and stupid, of course, but consider who’s saying it, and I think it could be played to good comedic effect on stage, so I’m not sure it deserves outright censure. On the other hand, an example of Marston’s “pure and noble simplicity” might be this moral reflection:

Favours are writ in dust; but stripes we feel
Depravèd nature stamps in lasting steel.

Overall I found Marston remarkably amiable, and certainly less thorny-going than I found Jonson or Chapman. Perhaps further acquaintance would firm up my views; the other of his plays that I’ve seen anthologized is a tragedy, The Dutch Courtesan, and perhaps I’ll read it. We shall see.

Chapman: Bussy d’Ambois

November 6, 2020

Bussy d’Ambois
George Chapman
(D.C. Heath, 1933) [c.1604]
36 p.

Chapman is best known today because Keats once looked into his Homer; fewer readers will have looked into his Homer themselves, and fewer still, I imagine, will have read this, or any other, of his plays for the Jacobean stage. Yet he once enjoyed a high, or reasonably high, reputation, and this play, in particular, has been remembered as a good example of his art.

The play is a “contemporary drama”, being based on true and timely events –in this case, on the life and death of Louis de Bussy d’Amboise, a Frenchman who had risen high in the French court in the 1570s before carrying on an affair with the wife of a Count, for which transgression he was slain. Chapman takes the tale, amps it up with some lurid supernatural elements, complete with Latin spells and ghostly friars, and fashions from it a quite entertaining tale. (Chapman was not the only author who found in Bussy’s life a worthy subject: Dumas also wrote a novel about him.)

As a dramatist I didn’t find Chapman particularly adroit though. The mechanics of the plot moved along briskly enough, but his characters did not emerge very clearly for me as individuals. When, in the third Act, I came across this description of Bussy, I felt I was getting to know him for the first time:

MONS. I think thee, then, a man
That dares as much as a wild horse or tiger,
As headstrong and as bloody; and to feed
The ravenous wolf of thy most cannibal valour
(Rather than not employ it) thou would’st turn
Hackster to any whore, slave to a Jew,
Or English usurer, to force possessions
(And cut men’s throats) of mortgaged estates;
Or thou would’st tire thee like a tinker’s strumpet,
And murther market folks; quarrel with sheep,
And run as mad as Ajax; serve a butcher;
Do any thing but killing of the King.
(III, ii)

And it is true, on reflection; he is a social climber, and not scrupulous about how he gets to the top.

The introductory notes to the play in my anthology express Chapman’s distinctive strengths well:

Chapman was not dowered with the penetrating imagination that reveals as by a lightning flash unsuspected depths of human character or of moral law. But he has the gnomic faculty that can convey truths of general experience in aphoristic form, and he can wind into a debatable moral issue with adroit casuistry. This gnomic faculty is active throughout this play. There are, for instance, these lines in which a character gives a back-handed compliment to the righteousness of princes:

That Prince doth high in virtue’s reckoning stand
That will entreat a vice, and not command.

(II, ii)

Or consider this brief passage in which one nobleman criticizes another for promoting Bussy to a position of influence, which ends neatly on an aphoristic note:

GUISE.Y’ave stuck us up a very worthy flag,
That takes more wind than we with all our sails.
MONS. O, so he spreads and flourishes.
GUISE. He must down;
Upstarts should never perch too near a crown.
(III, ii)

He experiments with longer set-pieces too, as in this passage about envy. (Whether this is an example of adroit moral casuistry or a example of failed moral illumination, I leave as an exercise.)

HENRY. This desperate quarrel sprung out of their envies
To D’Ambois sudden bravery, and great spirit.
GUISE. Neither is worth their envy.
HENRY. Less than either
Will make the gall of envy overflow;
She feeds on outcast entrails like a kite:
In which foul heap, if any ill lies hid,
She sticks her beak into it, shakes it up,
And hurls it all abroad, that all may view it.
Corruption is her nutriment; but touch her
With any precious ointment, and you kill her.
Where she finds any filth in men, she feasts,
And with her black throat bruits it through the world
Being sound and healthfull; but if she but taste
The slenderest pittance of commended virtue,
She surfeits of it, and is like a fly
That passes all the body’s soundest parts,
And dwells upon the sores; or if her squint eye
Have power to find none there, she forges some:
She makes that crooked ever which is straight;
Calls valour giddiness, justice tyranny:
A wise man may shun her, she not herself;
Whithersoever she flies from her harms,
She bears her foe still claspt in her own arms.
(II, i)

Actually, I think that’s rather good — I think. There is a density of thought and a readiness of expression that appeals to me. But I’ve read it a few times over, and typed it out, and there are still portions of it that I can’t quite follow. By the end I’m no longer sure what is being said.  This illustrates a general problem I had while reading the play: I found it hard to follow the development of the story. I was glad to find a decent scene-by-scene synopsis, which I fell to reading before tackling the same scene in Chapman. It helped me keep my bearings, and improved my appreciation of what I was reading. That said, I can’t say that I will be in a hurry to re-visit this play, or Chapman’s plays more generally. Maybe, just maybe, I’ll look into his Homer.

Heywood: A Woman Killed with Kindness

September 16, 2020

A Woman Killed with Kindness
Thomas Heywood
(Applause, 1967) [1603]
65 p.

Thomas Heywood was a somewhat younger contemporary of Shakespeare who had a long and successful career writing for the London stage. He claimed to have had “an entire hand or at least a maine finger” in writing over 200 plays, but the one that has survived into anthologies of the period is this one, A Woman Killed with Kindness, a so-called “domestic tragedy”. (We have seen another example of this genre before, in Arden of Faversham.)


The main thread of the play is about a woman tempted into an infidelity who, when her deed is discovered, is unexpectedly forgiven by her husband, but who is nonetheless consumed with guilt and (spoiler alert) dies. A secondary plot concerns a man who commits murder but is then ransomed by a man desperately in love with his (the murderer’s) sister. The only way the killer can conceive to repay this debt is to offer his sister to the man as a prostitute — an offer she fights to resist.

It is, therefore, a play very much concerned with the demands of conscience, and in particular with what happens to conscience when one is forgiven or otherwise evades punishment. Theories of punishment are various, but the leading thread in the Western tradition is that punishment is first and foremost retributive — the punishment is not imposed on the wrongdoer as something alien to him, but rather the punishment is what he deserves; it is what is due to him in justice, and to deny it upsets the moral order and, paradoxically perhaps, insults the wrongdoer’s dignity as a free, responsible being.

The play endorses this view of punishment. When she succumbs to temptation and is unfaithful to her husband, our adulteress stops and, in what I think would be a dramatically effective move in the playhouse, addressed the audience directly:

O women, women, you that have yet kept
Your holy matrimonial vow unstained,
Make me your instance. When you tread awry,
Your sins like mine will on your conscience lie.
(Sc. 13)

She is burdened by the weight of what she has done. Her husband responds with leniency, so she undertakes to punish herself, voluntarily starving herself. Her death is the endpoint of the downward spiral she enters, and afterwards her sister-in-law attributes her demise precisely to the mercy shown her:

All we that can plead interest in her grief,
Bestow upon her body funeral tears.
Brother, had you with threats and usage bad
Punished her sin, the grief of her offence
Had not with such true sorrow touched her heart.

And the woman’s husband concurs:

I see it had not; therefore on her grave
I will bestow this funeral epitaph,
Which on her marble tomb shall be engraved,
In golden letters shall these words be filled:
“Here lies she whom her husband’s kindness killed.”
(Sc. 18)

This raises all kinds of difficult questions. The harmonization of justice and mercy has been a preoccupation of Christian moralists down the centuries. When Jesus showed mercy to the woman at the well he prevented her being stoned, but we are not led to believe that she then went to another well and threw herself in. We can at least say this: for mercy to be just, the weight of the sin cannot be downplayed. Grace ought not to be made cheap. One must stand condemned before one can be ransomed. The play is putting its fingers on that tough knot where conscience, justice, and forgiveness tangle together.

The verse of A Woman Killed with Kindness is not particularly excellent, but it does have its moments. There is a nice scene, for instance, in which the characters are discussing card games and, according to this volume’s notes, engaging simultaneously in a long sequence of puns about adultery. I also noted, which may be of interest to collectors of the provenance of proverbs, that the saying “When the cat’s away the mouse may play” occurs in this play — though I’ve no reason to think it originated here.

Dekker: The Shoemaker’s Holiday

August 19, 2020

dekker-shoemakerThe Shoemaker’s Holiday
Thomas Dekker
(Methuen, 2008) [c.1599]
120 p.

Thomas Dekker was a prolific playwright working in London at the same time as Shakespeare, and The Shoemaker’s Holiday, which might as aptly have been called The Playgoer’s Holiday on account of its good cheer and genial tone, was one of his most successful.

It’s an early example of a “city comedy” — a play about artisans, merchants, and ordinary folk in London. In his appreciative introduction to a late nineteenth-century edition of Dekker’s plays, Ernest Rhys describes Dekker as a man of “abounding heartiness”, and singles out this play as among “the best comedies of pure joy of life which were produced by the Elizabethans”.

Much of that “joy of life” erupts from the play’s central character, Simon Eyre, a shoemaker who, by play’s end, has become Lord Mayor of London. Eyre is a man bursting with vitality and sturdy jollity, “the very incarnation [says Rhys] of the hearty English character on its prosperous workaday side.” He reminded me of no-one so much as Falstaff, right down to the joyous creativity of his volcanic speech:

Eyre. Away, you Islington whitepot! hence, you hopperarse! you barley-pudding, full of maggots! you broiled carbonado! avaunt, avaunt, avoid, Mephistophiles! Shall Sim Eyre learn to speak of you, Lady Madgy? Vanish, Mother Miniver-cap; vanish, go, trip and go; meddle with your partlets and your pishery-pashery, your flewes and your whirligigs; go, rub, out of mine alley! Sim Eyre knows how to speak to a Pope, to Sultan Soliman, to Tamburlaine, an he were here; and shall I melt, shall I droop before my sovereign? No, come, my Lady Madgy! Follow me, Hans! About your business, my frolic free-booters! Firk, frisk about, and about, and about, for the honour of mad Simon Eyre, lord mayor of London. (V, iv)

I don’t know what it all means, but it’s meant in good humour.


earlymoddrama-bookmarkThe play turns sweetly on a few charming romances. One thread has a nobleman in love with a lower class woman; he ducks military service and disguises himself as a Dutch shoemaker in order to be near her (speaking the while in a thick and fake Dutch accent that Dekker renders in almost undecipherable lines). Another has a young man wooing a woman whose husband is believed killed in a war against the French — until it turns out that the husband is in London but just hasn’t known where his wife is living! But I think it is fair to say that the story is largely just an occasion for the characters to do and say things, rather than the other way around.


Because we’re dealing here with the lower classes, much of the language of the play is challenging. As in Shakespeare, Dekker tends to give metrical lines to the upper classes and free prose to the lower, while endowing the latter’s speeches with a wealth of slang that would be hard going without notes. But this street talk is wonderfully colourful too, as in Eyre’s speech above.

Dekker also sometimes uses verse to signal important or especially graceful moments. There’s a scene I particularly liked in which a young man, Hammon, first approaches a woman, Jane, as she’s working in her shop. He loves her, and wants her to know it. It’s worth quoting at length:

Jane. Sir, what is’t you buy?
What is’t you lack, sir, calico, or lawn,
Fine cambric shirts, or bands, what will you buy?
Ham. (Aside.) That which thou wilt not sell. Faith, yet I’ll try:
How do you sell this handkerchief?
Jane. Good cheap.
Ham. And how these ruffs?
Jane. Cheap too.
Ham. And how this band?
Jane. Cheap too.
Ham. All cheap; how sell you then this hand?
Jane. My hands are not to be sold.
Ham. To be given then!
Nay, faith, I come to buy.
Jane. But none knows when.
Ham. Good sweet, leave work a little while; let’s play.
Jane. I cannot live by keeping holiday.
Ham. I’ll pay you for the time which shall be lost.
Jane. With me you shall not be at so much cost.
Ham. Look, how you wound this cloth, so you wound me.
Jane. It may be so.
Ham. ’Tis so.
Jane. What remedy?
Ham. Nay, faith, you are too coy.
Jane. Let go my hand.
Ham. I will do any task at your command,
I would let go this beauty, were I not
In mind to disobey you by a power
That controls kings: I love you!

This is simple and generous verse. That Dekker contrives to have the dialogue consist of rhyming couplets makes audible the happy harmony developing between them. In that respect it’s very much like the balcony scene in Romeo and Juliet (although in that case the two lovers actually compose a sonnet together).


I was also intrigued by how much Catholicism was in this play: the shoemakers belong to a guild devoted to St Hugh, and the characters swear by the Mass, by God’s wounds, by God’s nails, and other holy things characteristic of English Catholicism before the Reformation. Digging a bit, I found that the character of Simon Eyre is based on a real fifteenth-century Londoner, and so the action of the play is presumably meant to take place then.

There is even a passage late in the play in which the King is asked to undo the inter-class marriage by an outraged father, which includes this exchange:

King. Are they not married?
Lincoln. No, my liege.
Both. We are.
King. Shall I divorce them then? O be it far,
That any hand on earth should dare untie
The sacred knot, knit by God’s majesty;
I would not for my crown disjoin their hands,
That are conjoïned in holy nuptial bands.

I can imagine raised eyebrows when this played in Elizabeth’s court.


Plays are not meant to be read, but acted and seen and heard, and so we’re working from a position of weakness when we approach an unfamiliar play on the page. This weakness is especially acute, I think, in a quick-moving, quick-witted comedy like The Shoemaker’s Holiday, which drops non-negligible difficulties of diction in our path. I would love to see this play on the stage, and especially to see what a talented actor could do with Simon Eyre. As it is, I enjoyed the play, but suspect that there is more to it than I gleaned on my own.

Kyd: The Spanish Tragedy

July 3, 2020

The Spanish Tragedy
Thomas Kyd
(Methuen, 2009) [c.1585]
187 p.

Where words prevail not, violence prevails.
(II, i)

The Spanish Tragedy was an Elizabethan hit, earning the admiration of contemporary playwrights and audiences, and establishing, in hindsight, a new dramatic genre for the Elizabethan stage: the revenge tale.


The action takes place mostly in the Spanish court in the aftermath of a battle between Spain and Portugal in which Spain was victorious and the Portuguese prince, Balthazar, was taken captive.

The seeds of the bloody spectacle that will eventually engulf the court were sown in that battle. It’s a bit complicated, but it goes like this:

Immediately before his capture, Prince Balthazar had killed a Spanish nobleman named Don Andrea, on whom a young Spanish noblewoman, Bel-imperia, had doted. She consequently conceived in her heart a hatred for Balthazar. Yet, as part of the peace plan between Spain and Portugal, she is offered to Balthazar in marriage. Her wits distracted, she begins to take a shine to the brave, young Spaniard, Horatio, who had captured Prince Balthazar in battle. But when Balthazar learns of this attachment, he brutally murders Horatio.

Thus far we have two dead men, both admired by Bel-imperia, who herself remains intended in marriage to the killer.

It is when Horatio’s father, Hieronimo, learns of his son’s murder, and of who committed it, that the revenge plot really kicks into gear. He and Bel-imperia form a compact to revenge themselves on Balthazar and everyone connected to him. Hieronimo adopts an affable demeanour in the court, but plots mercilessly, and eventually, in the play’s blood-soaked climax, exacts his revenge. Bodies litter the stage.


It’s an entertaining story. The tragedy that eventually swallows whole all the principal characters emerges naturally from the dramatic tensions of the tale — unlike, for instance, the tragic downfall of Tamburlaine, which had an arbitrary quality about it. Here the basic ingredients — a lover’s passion, a father’s grief — are elemental and powerful, and they propel the drama forward.

The verse in The Spanish Tragedy is not always top-tier. Kyd makes frequent use of parallel constructions in his lines, and though this sometimes works, more often I found it had a leaden quality. Consider this passage, in which Bel-imperia confesses her burgeoning love to Horatio; she interrupts an exchange in which the ‘love as war’ motif had been bandied about, and she says:

BEL-IMPERIA. Let dangers go; thy war shall be with me,
But such a war as breaks no bond of peace.
Speak thou fair words, I’ll cross them with fair words;
Send thou sweet looks, I’ll meet them with sweet looks;
Write loving lines, I’ll answer loving lines;
Give me a kiss, I’ll countercheck thy kiss:
Be this our warring peace, or peaceful war.

Perhaps that could have a winsome simplicity about it, if delivered by the right actress, and the final line does tie it up rather nicely with a bow, but I felt like I could guess the lines before having read them.

A worse example is this one, an exchange between the ghost of Don Andrea (killed in battle by Balthazar, recall, just before the play begins, and himself seeking revenge) and a personification of Revenge. They’ve just seen Andrea’s friend Horatio killed by Balthazar:

ANDREA. Brought’st thou me hither to increase my pain?
I look’d that Balthazar should have been slain;
But ’tis my friend Horatio that is slain,
And they abuse fair Bel-imperia,
On whom I doted more then all the world,
Because she lov’d me more then all the world.

REVENGE. Thou talk’st of harvest, when the corn is green;
The end is crown of every work well done;
The sickle comes not till the corn be ripe.
Be still, and, ere I lead thee from this place,
I’ll show thee Balthazar in heavy case.

Andrea’s lines are about as bad as any I’ve yet encountered in my tour of Elizabethan drama. Thud. Admittedly, Revenge’s lines make a decent recovery.

On the other hand, there are some really fine sections in the play as well. In this passage Hieronimo, father to the murdered Horatio, is asked by a minor character where to find Lorenzo, who had assisted Balthazar in Horatio’s murder, and Hieronimo, in a distracted state, talking more to himself than the questioner, answers:

But, if you be importunate to know
The way to him and where to find him out,
Then list to me, and I’ll resolve your doubt:
There is a path upon your left hand side
That leadeth from a guilty conscience
Unto a forest of distrust and fear,—
A darksome place and dangerous to pass,—
There shall you meet with melancholy thoughts
Whose baleful humours if you but behold,
It will conduct you to despair and death:
Whose rocky cliffs when you have once beheld,
Within a hugy dale of lasting night,
That, kindled with worlds of iniquities,
Doth cast up filthy and detested fumes,—
Not far from thence where murderers have built
A habitation for their cursed souls,
There, in a brazen caldron fix’d by Jove
In his fell wrath upon a sulfur flame,
Yourselves shall find Lorenzo bathing him
In boiling lead and blood of innocents.
(III, xi)

I could see that working very well as a set piece. The same could be said of a later speech of Hieronimo, delivered when he witnesses a play in which a grieving father avenges his son’s death. It provokes from Hieronimo a passionate outburst of self-accusation for the patience with which he himself proceeds in his bloody plotting:

HIERONIMO. See, see, oh, see thy shame, Hieronimo!
See here a loving father to his son:
Behold the sorrows and the sad laments
That he deliv’reth for his son’s decease.
If love’s effect so strives in lesser things,
If love enforce such moods in meaner wits,
If love express such power in poor estates,
Hieronimo, as when a raging sea,
Toss’d with the wind and tide, o’er-turneth then
The upper-billows course of waves to keep,
Whilst lesser waters labour in the deep,
Then sham’st thou not, Hieronimo, to neglect
The swift revenge of thy Horatio?
(III, xiii)


The play has a few interesting elements that were, possibly, borrowed by Shakespeare when he wrote Hamlet. One is the use of a vengeful ghost on stage; in this case Don Andrea’s, and in that King Hamlet’s. Both want to see their killers punished. Kyd’s ghost has none of the Catholic elements that Shakespeare’s does; he simply wanders the stage (perhaps always present?) and comments on the action at the end of each Act, functioning something like a Chorus in Greco-Roman drama.

Another, very striking similarity to Hamlet is the use of a play-within-the-play. In this case Hieronimo stages a play for the king and court that becomes the means by which he avenges himself on Balthazar. I would be curious to see how well this would work on stage, because, although the idea is a good one, it felt abrupt to me on paper.

But I’ll probably never have a chance to see it staged. Revivals have been very occasional, and the play is more often read than seen, and to say it is “often read” would be an exaggeration.

This relatively low profile has limited its influence. T.S. Eliot made a reference to it in The Waste Land, a modest efflorescence of glory. Insofar as it fathered imitators, it could be said to stand behind a long string of revenge tales, from The Count of Monte Cristo to, well, almost all of Tarantino’s films, but then it itself owes a debt to Seneca in that respect. To cite Eliot again, there is behind any individual talent a tradition, and Kyd was no exception.

Arden of Faversham

April 22, 2020

Arden of Faversham
(Methuen, 2014) [c.1592]
160 p.

Arden of Faversham is, to borrow an apt phrase, a “shabby little shocker”. It came to the English stage in the early 1590s, and told the more-or-less true story of how Alice Arden and her lover plotted to murder her husband, Thomas Arden, events which had occurred about 40 years earlier, and about which tongues still wagged. It belongs to a genre I’ve not encountered before in Elizabethan drama: the “true crime” tale.

I was prepared, therefore, for it to be bloody, but I did not expect it to be so funny. Thomas Arden is a marked man, surrounded on all sides — though he knows it not — by people determined to see him dead. Yet much of the action of the play dramatizes thwarted attempts on his life, as he guilelessly avoids the knife time and again — until he doesn’t. But the effect on stage would, I think, be quite comical, with an undercurrent of violence ready to burst forth. The play is something like an Elizabethan Fargo.


Written mostly in blank iambic pentameter, the verse of the play is often excellent. Consider this passage, from Act III, in which Arden meditates on the bad character of his wife, whom he knows to be an adulteress:

If love of me or care of womanhood,
If fear of God or common speech of men,
Who mangle credit with their wounding words,
And couch dishonour as dishonour buds,
Might join repentance in her wanton thoughts,
No question then but she would turn the leaf
And sorrow for her dissolution;
But she is rooted in her wickedness,
Perverse and stubborn, not to be reclaimed;
Good counsel is to her as rain to weeds,
And reprehension makes her vice to grow
As Hydra’s head that plenished by decay.
Her faults, methink, are painted in my face,
For every searching eye to overread.

Or consider this passage, in which Alice’s lover, in a moment of moral clarity, considers how his scheming to murder and supplant Arden has destroyed his own happiness:

My golden time was when I had no gold;
Though then I wanted, yet I slept secure;
My daily toil begat me night’s repose,
My night’s repose made daylight fresh to me.
But since I climbed the top-bough of the tree
And sought to build my nest among the clouds,
Each gentle stirry gale doth shake my bed,
And makes me dread my downfall to the earth.
But whither doth contemplation carry me?
The way I seek to find, where pleasure dwells,
Is hedged behind me that I cannot back,
But needs must on, although to danger’s gate.
Then, Arden, perish thou by that decree.

This is a fine reflection on how it might feel to be trapped by and soured upon one’s own ambition.


The characters in the play are, in a certain sense, stock characters: the unfaithful wife, the jealous lover, the jilted husband, the crafty servant, the hired gun. But there are numerous touches here and there that render them more interesting. The relationship between Alice and her lover, for instance, is a passionate one, but also one prone to lurking suspicions and violent eruptions of bitterness. Though the characters seek happiness together, for the audience there is no expectation that they will find it.

And in the final act, when once the deed has been done, the playwright very deftly shows us Alice cracking under the strain: feigning ignorance of Arden’s whereabouts (for he actually lies in a side room, “smeared in blood and filthy gore”), she repeatedly asks aloud where he might be, awkwardly invites her lover to sit in her husband’s chair at the table, and starts at every mention of his name. It is a quite masterful portrait of a guilty conscience.


One wonders how a play as good as this can be anonymous. It seems an injustice. I am told that over the years it has been attributed to Christopher Marlowe and Thomas Kyd, among others. The 2016 edition of The Oxford Shakespeare actually attributes it partly to young William himself, who was just launching his playwrighting at about this time, and actually I find this attribution, while not obviously right, at least not obviously wrong, for the use of asides and monologues reminded me frequently of Shakespeare, and, as I’ve already said, the verse is often very good. In any case, whoever it was wrote the thing did a fine job, and the play is an entertaining read. I would jump at the chance to see it on stage.