Posts Tagged ‘Early modern drama reading project’

Ford: ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore

December 1, 2022

‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore
John Ford
(Methuen, 2003) [c.1630]
176 p.

“Peace! Thou hast told a tale whose every word
Threatens eternal slaughter to the soul.”

I don’t know if Romeo and Juliet was a reference point for John Ford when he wrote this play, but it’s a convenient one for us. Those star-crossed lovers violate the wishes of their parents, and so are, in that sense, in the wrong. But Shakespeare, at least in the most common interpretation of the play, brings us around to their side, so that we hope their love succeeds. Imagine, though, how it looked to Signor Capulet: the whole romance was grotesque and intolerable, a sin against filial piety, headstrong and very probably wanton, and so impulsive and uncontrolled that it was likely to lead to destruction.

John Ford has written Signor Capulet’s Romeo and Juliet. There are two young lovers pursuing a forbidden tryst. There is an intelligent and enterprising Friar who gives them counsel. Our Juliet character — here called Annabella — even has a serving lady who is in on her secret. But Ford ensures that we, like Capulet senior, oppose the young lovers with all the opprobrium at our command, and he does it by one neat change: instead of our lovers coming from warring families, they come from the same family. Giovanni and Annabella are brother and sister.

This disturbing premise plays out in about as disturbing a manner as you would expect. The attraction between the two is portrayed as overwhelming and irresistible. When Giovanni first reveals his feelings to his sister, he confesses that he cannot help it:

O, Annabella, I am quite undone:
The love of thee, my sister, and the view
Of thy immortal beauty hath untuned
All harmony both of my rest and life.

And she, for her part, puts up no resistance whatsoever, for she too has fought in vain against her feelings:

Thou hast won
The field, and never fought: what thou has urged,
My captive heart had long ago resolved.
I blush to tell thee (but I’ll tell thee now),
For every sigh that thou hast spent for me,
I have sighed ten; for every tear shed twenty;
And not so much for that I loved, as that
I durst not say I loved, nor scarcely think it.
(I, ii)

Overlooking the family ties between the two, this is not so different from what we find in Romeo and Juliet, nor indeed in a thousand other romances, and maybe that is the point. Plato saw being “in love” as a kind of madness likely to lead a man astray while he suffered under its influence, and this “anti-romantic” view has a distinguished tradition, albeit a minor one in our culture since the chivalric tradition triumphed in medieval Europe. I think it’s plausible that John Ford belongs, at least in this play, to that anti-romantic tradition: look, he says to us, at these wanton fools, out of their minds.

I didn’t do much in the way of background reading on the play, but I did come upon the claim that Ford presents this incestuous plot without passing judgement on it. This is true in a way; there is no Don Giovanni-like epilogue in which the lovers are dragged to Hell. But there is one character in the play who condemns the lovers in the strongest terms, and that is the Friar. He is the first person to speak in the play — indeed, the play opens in medias res with him denouncing Giovanni’s infatuation:

Alone within thy chamber, then fall down
On both thy knees, and grovel on the ground,
Cry to thy heart, wash every word thou utter’st
In tears, and, if’t be possible, of blood.
Beg Heaven to cleanse the leprosy of lust
That rots thy soul. Acknowledge what thou art,
A wretch, a worm, a nothing.
(I, i)

The Friar is presented throughout as a wise, thoughtful man who has enough distance from the situation to judge it fairly and disinterestedly.  As in Romeo and Juliet, I think his response guides ours.

Despite the Friar’s warnings, Giovanni and Annabella pursue their fateful course, and it appears, for a time, that perhaps no reckoning will come. Giovanni even hazards a few attempts at self-justification, arguing, for instance, that posterity will approve of their actions because, as they say, love wins:

If ever aftertimes should hear
Of our fast knit affections, though perhaps
The laws of conscience and of civil use
May justly blame us, yet when they but know
Our loves, that love will wipe away that rigour
Which would in other incests be abhorred.
(V, v)

But the actual responses of the play’s other characters, when they learn the truth, belie this rosy future. Judgement, when it comes, is swift.

*

The plot is complicated by a number of subplots involving double-crossing servants, a bevy of suitors, and jilted, vengeful lovers. (One character, contemplating revenge on the man who seduced and abandoned her, says at one point, “On this delicious bane my thoughts shall banquet.”  A nice line.) In all cases, lust and infidelity lead to suffering and destruction. It gets pretty gruesome, and, naturally, the play ends with bloodied bodies lying everywhere.

*

So extreme is the premise that I think there must be a particular point to it. Nobody sits down to write an incest play just because they are interested in the scenario. I’ve suggested above that maybe it can be seen as a kind of re-do of Romeo and Juliet, or of any number of other, similar romances, but done in such a way that we are forced into disapproval. Or maybe it was an attempt to write a reductio ad absurdum of the wayward-lust play. Or maybe, I guess, it was just an attempt to provoke and scandalize the public and earn notoriety for the author. If the latter, then it has had a certain amount of success.

At the level of craft, it’s a well-written play with generally fine verse, and I expect it would work effectively on the stage. Not that I’m especially eager to see it.

***

Massinger: The City Madam

October 31, 2022

The City Madam
Philip Massinger
(Delphi Classics) [1632]

After a reasonably good experience with a play by Philip Massinger, I decided to pluck another from his considerable body of work, and I plucked The City Madam. It’s a domestic comedy about two brothers — one, Sir John, a successful manager of his wealthy estate, the other, Luke, a wastrel and a scoundrel — and about what happens when the latter assumes the responsibilities of the former.

As the play opens, Luke has been brought to the family estate by his brother after having been released from debtors’ prison. The family, thinking ill of him, treat him as they would an abused servant:

My proud Ladie
Admits him to her Table, marry ever
Beneath the Salt, and there he sits the subject
Of her contempt and scorn; and dinner ended,
His courteous Neeces find emploiment for him
Fitting an under-prentice, or a Footman,
And not an Uncle. (I, i)

But Luke, at least initially, appears to be content with his humble station:

I am a Freeman, all my debts discharg’d,
Nor does one Creditor undone by me
Curse my loose riots. I have meat and cloaths,
Time to ask heaven remission for what’s past;
Cares of the world by me are laid aside,
My present poverty’s a blessing to me;
And though I have been long, I dare not say
I ever liv’d till now. (I, ii)

In fact, his character seems to be so reformed — though we, the audience, being privy to his conversations with the other servants, know this seeming to be false — that his brother, Sir John, devises a test: he, John, announces that he intends to devote himself to religious life in a monastery, and permanently transfers ownership and management of the estate to Luke. “Outward gloss,” he says in private, “often deceivs, may it not prove so in him.” Meanwhile, Sir John intends to return to the estate in disguise to see what transpires.

It doesn’t take long for Luke to reveal his true colours. He abuses his sister-in-law and nieces, throwing them into poverty (“Hee’s cruel to himself, that dares not be / Severe to those that us’d him cruelly.”), and entraps the servants by goading them into wrongdoing and then punishing them. In one memorable speech, he reveals that his sudden ascent has inflamed his greed:

Increase of wealth
Is the rich mans ambition, and mine
Shall know no bounds. The valiant Macedon
Having in his conceit subdu’d one world,
Lamented that there were no more to conquer:
in my way he shall be my great example.
And when my private house in cram’d abundance
Shall prove the chamber of the City poor,
And Genoways banquers shall look pale with envy
When I am mention’d, I shall grieve there is
No more to be exhausted in one Kingdome.
Religion, conscience, charity, farewell.
To me you are words onely, and no more,
All humane happinesse consists in store.
(IV, ii)

His wickedness reaches a humorous zenith when Sir John, who has adopted the guise of a Satan-worshipping wizard from barbarous lands (that is, from Virginia!) come in search of virgins for his rites of human sacrifice, finds Luke all-too-willing to offer up his nieces for the purpose (“They are burden some to me, and eat too much.”). Sir John conjures up a procession of all those — family, servants, and friends — whom Luke has harmed during his brief term in power, which only provokes malign laughter from him:

This move me to compassion? or raise
One sign of seeming pity in my face?
You are deceiv’d: it rather renders me more flinty,
and obdurate. A South wind
Shall sooner soften marble, and the rain
That slides down gently from his flaggy wings
O’reflow the Alps: then knees, or tears, or groans
Shall wrest compunction from me. ’Tis my glory
That they are wretched, and by me made so,
It sets my happinesse off.
(V, iii)

But it is too much. Sir John unveils himself, to great acclaim from all hands, and Luke’s downfall is immediate. He is denounced as an “avaritious Atheist” and sent away to some desert, or to Virginia!

**

Is it a good play? It has its merits: it is funny without being frivolous, it has a pleasing, clear structure with a satisfying ending, and its moral instincts are sound. On the other hand, the verse is, with rare exceptions, pedestrian, and the characters are not especially distinctive.

It has been occasionally revived, including in a series of 2011 performances by the Royal Shakespeare Company in the UK, but we could not say that it has had enduring success on the stage.

The title of the play is oddly tangential. There are one or two references to a “City Madam” or “City Dame”, but none, it seems to me, come near the central action of the play.

Let me put it this way: The City Madam has convinced me that I’m finished with Philip Massinger for now; with no ill will, but with no real regret either, I am moving on.

Massinger: A New Way to Pay Old Debts

September 26, 2022

A New Way to Pay Old Debts
Philip Massinger
(Methuen, 2004) [c.1625]
129 p.

If Richard III had been rewritten as a comedy — that is, as a play finding its conclusion in one or more happy marriages — it would in certain respects resemble Philip Massinger’s A New Way to Pay Old Debts. The axis on which the play turns is the villain, and there are few laughs to be had as it unspools, but the structure of the drama follows that of a romantic comedy of the period, with forbidden romances, mistaken identities, mismatched partners, and all the rest of it. This peculiar combination of qualities made the play quite interesting and entertaining to me.

One of the things I liked most about the story was the manner in which Massinger made use of secrets. At two points the plot involved whispered exchanges inaudible to the audience. We knew that some subterfuge was afoot, but we didn’t know what, and I found this added to both the fun and the dramatic tension.

If I’ve compared the play to Richard III it’s not to imply that the play’s villain is any match for that bunch-backed toad. Massinger gives us Sir Giles Overreach — and, as an aside, I will note that Massinger is very devoted to the nomen est omen school of thought — a duplicitous, conniving man who plans to make his fortune by bilking money from dissolute wastrels. He is very conscious of his wicked motives; speaking, for instance, of one of his henchmen, he boasts:

OVER. […] so he serve
My purposes, let him hang or damn, I care not;
Friendship is but a word.
MAR. You are all wisdom.
OVER. I would be worldly-wise; for the other wisdom,
That does prescribe a well-governed life,
And to do right to others as ourselves,
I value not an atom.

And later, after describing to another character his willingness to ply his victims with flattery and largesse so as to achieve his ends (in this case, the marriage of his daughter), he is asked:

Are you not frighted with the imprecations
And curses of whole families, made wretched
By your sinister practices?

To which he replies:

OVER. Yes, as rocks are,
When foamy billows split themselves against
Their flinty ribs; or as the moon is moved,
When wolves, with hunger pined, howl at her brightness.
I am of a solid temper, and, like these,
Steer on, a constant course: with mine own sword,
If called into the field, I can make that right,
Which fearful enemies murmured at as wrong.
[…]
Nay, when my ears are pierced with widows’ cries,
And undone orphans wash with tears my threshold,
I only think what ’tis to have my daughter
Right honourable; and ’tis a powerful charm
Makes me insensible of remorse, or pity,
Or the least sting of conscience.

He is a man, therefore, who acts without empathy and unapologetically seeks his own advantage at the expense of others. This is not a level of villainy on par with that of Richard III, and, as a stage character, he pales beside that notorious monster, but within the parameters of this play I still found him an effective villain, hell-bent on destroying the lives of the innocent parties on whom he preys.

**

Who was Philip Massinger? I’d not heard of him before taking up this play, but it would appear that he was a well-regarded playwright of the generation after Shakespeare. He attended but failed to obtain a degree from Oxford, and lacked an artistic patron, which has led some to speculate that he may have been a Catholic convert. However that may be, he wrote dozens of plays, and collaborated widely with the other leading playwrights of the time, including Thomas Middleton, Thomas Dekker, John Webster, John Ford, John Fletcher, Ben Jonson, William Rowley, and George Chapman.

Critical judgement has varied over time, but T.S. Eliot thought him an interesting enough case to have written an essay about him. He judges Massinger a lesser playwright, one whose command of language was not matched by a correspondingly rich palette of feeling, and thought him most successful “in a comedy which is serious, even sombre”, which is an apt description of A New Way to Pay Old Debts. In Massinger, Eliot saw the freedom and feeling of Shakespearean verse in transition to the statelier, more reserved poetry of Milton (who was a teenager when this play first appeared on the stage).

**

Whether such judgements are just is not something I can say on such slender exposure. I will report, however, that if Massinger’s plays are indeed, in retrospect, works of transition, the conclusion of this play is unmistakably, and delightfully, traditional, as he has one of his characters step forward and address the audience in these terms:

Nothing wants then
But your allowance — and in that our all
Is comprehended; it being known, nor we,
Nor he that wrote the comedy, can be free,
Without your manumission; which if you
Grant willingly, as a fair favour due
To the poet’s and our labours (as you may,
For we despair not, gentlemen, of the play),
We jointly shall profess your grace hath might
To teach us action, and him how to write.

That’s a nicely modest and elegant way to wrap things up.

Fletcher: The Tamer Tamed

September 7, 2022

The Tamer Tamed
Or, The Woman’s Prize
John Fletcher
(Cambridge, 1910) [c.1610]

This desultory tour through the plays of Shakespeare’s contemporaries has been instructive, in part, because these plays help me to better understand and appreciate Shakespeare’s plays. When it comes to stage dramas in this period, we typically see Shakespeare simply as foreground, with the background blank, but exploring the work of the lesser-known playwrights of the time has helped me to fill in that background. Maybe I see the figure a little more clearly now that I also see the ground.

In any case, John Fletcher’s The Tamer Tamed is a particularly intriguing example of contextualizing Shakespeare, because the play is actually a sequel to The Taming of the Shrew. In that play, remember, Petruchio had triumphed by bringing his belligerent and intransigent bride, Katherine, to heel, setting himself up for a lifetime of domestic harmony. Or so he thought, but we learn in Fletcher’s first scene that it hadn’t turned out that way: Katherine had reasserted herself after the wedding, and Petruchio suffered a trying marriage.

For yet the bare remembrance of his first wife
(I tell ye on my knowledge, and a truth too)
Will make him start in’s sleep, and very often
Cry out for Cudgels, Colestaves, any thing;
Hiding his breeches, out of fear her Ghost
Should walk, and wear ’em yet.
(I, i)

Poor Petruchio. But Katherine, as this passage implies, has died, and he is looking for a new bride, one, he hopes, who will be more pliable and gentle. He believes he has found one in Maria. But some men just have bad luck in women, and on the eve of their marriage, Maria vows that she, too, will tame Petruchio:

I’ll make you know, and fear a wife Petruchio,
There my cause lies.
You have been famous for a woman-tamer,
And bear the fear’d-name of a brave Wife-breaker:
A woman now shall take those honors off,
And tame you; nay, never look so big, she shall, believe me,
And I am she.
(I, iii)

Her method, though, is quite different from that we saw Katherine trying in The Taming of the Shrew. Rather than being stubborn, rude, and difficult, she takes a simpler tack: she simply denies Petruchio her bed until he submits to her will. (In addition to reminding us of Shakespeare’s prequel, then, the play also brings to mind Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, in which the same strategy is used.)  Misery for Petruchio, who cannot believe his ill stars, ensues.

The play isn’t much more complicated than that. By play’s end, Petruchio has heaped all manner of abuse on Maria, calling her (and I’m sorry about this harsh language) “thou Fruiterer”, and “thou Devil’s Broker”, and “thou seminary of all sedition” (an interesting anti-Catholic reference that presumably refers to the seminary in Douay), and also “thou thing”, and “thou pull’d Primrose”. But none of this shakes her resolve. There is, adding interest, a subplot in which Maria’s sister, promised in marriage to an old and ugly man, consorts instead with a dashing young lover and marries him in secret.

In the end, Maria gets her way: Petruchio becomes like clay in her hands, ready to do her bidding, whereupon she gives up the game and reconciles:

I have done my worst, and have my end, forgive me;
From this hour make me what you please: I have tam’d ye,
And now am vow’d your servant: Look not strangely,
Nor fear what I say to you. Dare you kiss me?
Thus I begin my new love.
(V, iv)

We expect comedies in this period to end in marriage; this one, contrarily, begins with marriage, but finds its happy ending all the same.

**

It’s not an especially brilliant play. The association with Shakespeare might lead a few readers to it — as it did me — but, having done so, it suffers in the contrast. Shakespeare’s play is simply wittier, more energetic, and more fun. Fletcher’s verse is relatively plodding, his plot relatively simple, and his characters relatively thin. But if a double-bill were played, I’d line up to see it.

***

(Parenthetically, while on the theme of Shakespeare in relation to other playwrights of his time, I noticed that in The Taming of the Shrew Petruchio says at one point, “This is a way to kill a wife with kindness”. Zounds! I thought for certain this was a reference to Thomas Heywood’s play A Woman Killed with Kindness. But, alas, according to irrefutable authority the latter play was also the later, by a decade or so. And so my career as a literary sleuth came to an abrupt end.)

Middleton: Women Beware Women

May 18, 2022

Women Beware Women
Thomas Middleton
(Oxford, 2000) [c.1620]
55 p.

Lust is bold,
And will have vengeance speak ere’t be controlled.

Thomas Middleton’s Women Beware Women ranks, by reputation, as one of his finest tragedies for the English stage. It is a play in which lust, unruly and illicit, leads all to destruction. It’s a play with a high level of disturbing content, and not something you’d want to take your grandmother to.

It will be worthwhile to look in some detail at the plot, both for clarity’s sake, and because it will give us an opportunity to look at a few examples of the very fine verse. Essentially we have a double plot in which two young women, Isabella and Bianca, become enmeshed in illicit sexual affairs with older men, both through the corrupt dealings of an older woman, Livia.

**

Let’s begin with Isabella, who is Livia’s niece. She has attracted the wanton affections of her uncle (Livia’s brother), and Livia, for reasons not entirely clear, offers to help him seduce her:

LIVIA: You are not the first, brother, has attempted
Things more forbidden than this seems to be.

That “seems” tells us a lot about her. She convinces Isabella that her uncle isn’t actually her uncle, and that an affair with him would lead to certain advantages. Isabella, gullible, takes the bait.

Meanwhile, we are introduced to a newlywed couple, Leantio and Bianca. She has left a wealthy family to marry a humble man, for love, and their new life seems to be one of happiness and harmony. Departing on a business trip, however, Leantio asks that Bianca remain locked up at home while he is away, lest she inflame the desires of other men. This seems excessively controlling and neurotic, but, actually, turns out to be sensible and prudent — although insufficient!

She consents, but, following her husband’s departure, ventures to the window to see the Duke passing by, and, seen by him, is summoned to the castle where, maneuvered by Livia into being alone with the Duke, she is raped. The Duke offers her riches if she’ll consent to be his mistress.

This trauma brings about a dramatic change in Bianca’s character. Feeling herself despoiled by the Duke, she, in an act of apparent self-loathing, decides to throw all away and accept the Duke’s offer:

Yet since mine honour’s leprous, why should I
Preserve that fair that caused the leprosy?
Come, poison all at once.

Livia, the successful pander, seeing this transformation, but sensing a certain anguished reluctance behind it, tells us that

Her tender modesty is sea-sick a little,
Being not accustomed to the breaking billow
Of woman’s wavering faith, blown with temptations,
‘Tis but a qualm of honour; ’twill away;
A little bitter for the time, but lasts not,
Sin tastes at the first draught like wormwood-water,
But, drunk again, ’tis nectar ever after.

I’m not convinced this tells us much about what is actually the case in Bianca’s heart, but it does reveal that we are dealing, in Livia, with a seriously reprobate woman, if we had any doubts.

As Leantio returns home from his trip, he is given a speech on the joys of marriage which, in context, must come across to the audience as ironic and tragic, or perhaps darkly comic, depending on how the lines are delivered:

What a delicious breath marriage sends forth
the violet bed’s not sweeter. Honest wedlock
Is like a banqueting-house built in a garden
On which the spring’s chaste flowers take delight
To cast their modest odours; when base lust
With all her powders, paintings, and best pride
Is but a fair house built by a ditch side.
When I behold a glorious dangerous Strumpet,
Sparkling in Beauty and Destruction too,
Both at a twinkling , I do liken straight
Her beautifi’d body to a goodly Temple
That’s built on Vaults where Carkasses lie rotting,
And so by little and little I shrink back again,
And quench desire with a cool Meditation,
And I’m as well methinks.

That starts out quite beautifully, but there’s something wrong with it. He spends more time thinking about the strumpet than about his new wife, and seems to be struggling still to quench a wayward desire. In any case, even the modest odours of married love are about to take on unpleasant overtones (if, perchance, odours can have overtones). He finds her suddenly discontented with the humble status of his household:

Wives do not give away themselves to husbands
To the end to be quite cast away; they look
To be the better used and tendered, rather,
Higher respected, and maintained the richer.

She announces that she is leaving him to live with the Duke. Leantio’s ode to marriage comes back, but in full reverse:

O thou the ripe time of man’s misery, wedlock;
When all his thoughts, like overladen trees,
Crack with the fruits they bear, in cares, in jealousies,
O, that’s a fruit that ripes hastily
After ’tis knit to marriage. It begins,
As soon as the sun shines upon the bride,
A little to show colour. Blessed powers,
Whence comes this alteration? The distractions,
The fears and doubts it brings are numberless,
And yet the cause I know not. What a peace
Has he that never marries! If he knew
The benefit he enjoy’d, or had the fortune
To come and speak with me, he should know then
The infinite wealth he had, and discern rightly
The greatness of his treasure by my loss:
Nay, what a quietness has he ‘bove mine,
That wears his youth out in a strumpet’s arms,
And never spends more care upon a woman
Than at the time of lust; but walks away,
And if he find her dead at his return,
His pity is soon done, he breaks a sigh
In many parts, and gives her but a peace on’t!
But all the fears, shames, jealousies, costs and troubles,
And still renew’d cares of a marriage bed,
Live in the issue, when the wife is dead.

Pretty grim stuff.

Meanwhile, as Leantio is coming to terms with his wife’s departure, he himself catches the eye of Livia, who makes him an offer that parallels the Duke’s offer to Bianca: become my plaything in exchange for wealth and status. Leantio thinks briefly of his wife (“Why should my love last longer than her truth?”) before he, too, throws away fidelity and takes up the offer.

At this point, in the play, therefore, we have three illicit affairs underway, two adulterous and one incestuous. Although Leantio’s infidelity is, in most respects, parallel to Bianca’s, and is arguably worse for not having been initiated by sexual assault, when he next meets her he has withering words for her:

Why do I talk to thee of sense or virtue,
That art as dark as death? and as much madness
To set light before thee, as to lead blind folks
To see the monuments, which they may smell as soon
As they behold; marry, ofttimes their heads,
For want of light, may feel the hardness of ’em;
So shall thy blind pride my revenge and anger
That canst not see it now; and it may fall
At such an hour, when thou least seest of all:
So to an ignorance darker than thy womb,
I leave thy perjur’d soul: a plague will come!

In addition to being fine verse, this is a noteworthy speech because it signals a transition in the play from prevailing lust to prevailing violence. Indeed, shortly afterward Isabella discovers that she has been carrying on an affair with a man who is actually her uncle. Horrified, she too vows revenge:

If the least means but favour my revenge,
That I may practise the like cruel cunning
Upon her life, as she has on mine honour,
I’ll act it without pity.

And so the play launches into its last act, where sickly feints at romance give way to blood-letting, and lots of it.

It begins in a rather unexpected way: with the introduction of a new, righteous character. The predatory Duke, it turns out, has a brother who is a Cardinal, and this Cardinal (implausible as it may seem to us) is not a hypocrite or a pervert or a criminal, but, it appears, a genuinely good man who grieves over his brother’s sins and urgently calls him to repentance:

’tis a work
Of infinite mercy you can never merit
That yet you are not death-struck; no, not yet:
I dare not stay you long, for fear you should not
Have time enough allowed you to repent in.

And the Duke, much to my surprise, takes his brother’s reproof to heart. Maybe this is a point where the psychology of the play betrays itself as superficial, but he immediately resolves to bring the adulterous relationship to an end. The trouble is that, as in the case of David and Bathsheba, he proposes to stop the adultery but not the relationship; he resolves to kill her husband!

I have vowed
Never to know her as a strumpet more,
And I must save my oath. If fury fail not,
Her husband dies tonight.

Die he does, and the stage is set for a bloodbath at the marriage feast of the Duke and Bianca. I’ll spare the details, but in short order Isabella and her uncle and Livia and Bianca and the Duke — all the principal characters — are dead, and bodies litter the stage in true tragic fashion.

***

On first reading, it strikes me as a very good play, though these things are admittedly hard to judge merely from the page. The story develops surely and comprehensibly, the characters are distinctive, the villainy is clear but clothed in suavity, and, not least, the lucid verse is a pleasure to read. The principal weakness that I see is that the story relies on several abrupt changes of character, in Bianca first, and then in both Leantio and the Duke. Of these, Leantio’s is handled most ably and convincingly, but still seemed too tidy to me.

Rumour is that Middleton’s next project was to meddle with a play called Measure for Measure as it was being prepared for publication. An honour, surely, but in retrospect one that might have been better left alone.

Beaumont: The Knight of the Burning Pestle

October 5, 2021

The Knight of the Burning Pestle
Francis Beaumont
(Methuen, 2002) [c.1607]
224 p.

Chivalric romance is the genre of The Knight of the Burning Pestle — or, better, chivalric romance is the target, for this play is a good-natured satire on the genre. For modern readers it is bound to remind us of Don Quixote, and perhaps with very good reason: the first part of that great work was published in 1605, and (I am told) Beaumont was an adept in the Spanish tongue. Although I gather that some controversy swirls around the question, I think it plausible that the play was inspired by Cervantes.

But it is more than just a quixotic satire: it’s a fun meta-play too that experiments with the conventions of play-going. The Don Quixote character, Rafe, isn’t even part of the play that the other actors have come to perform — that play, called “The London Merchant”, is a romance about a young couple planning to elope. But early in the play a boorish grocer and his wife, in the audience, clamber on stage, interrupting the show and asking if their young apprentice, Rafe, can join the play. He, dubbing himself a ‘Grocer-Errant’, likes the idea and wrangles two friends into being his squire and dwarf — indispensable accoutrements for any chivalric knight:

My beloved Squire, and George my Dwarfe, I charge you that from henceforth you never call me by any other name, but the Right courteous and valiant Knight of the Burning Pestle, and that you never call any Female by the name of a Woman or Wench, but fair Lady, if she have her desires; if not, distressed Damsel; that you call all Forrests and Heaths, Desarts, and all Horses Palfries. (1.1)

And so, for the remainder of the play, Rafe, as the valiant Knight, embarks on a variety of adventures to rescue ladies in peril, adventures which periodically bring him back to the playhouse, where he interrupts the action of the play the other actors are trying to perform. It’s a nice re-imagining of Don Quixote’s delusional tendencies for the play-house.

I will admit that the convention of having on-stage characters comment on the action of another play, as happens, on a lesser scale, in Hamlet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, is one that I grudgingly accept rather than appreciate, and here too I found the stream of commentary from the grocer and his wife kind of annoying. But I didn’t feel the same about poor Rafe, whose commitment to his role, and success in assuming it, was sufficiently gallant and sincere as to exclude criticism:

Ralph. My trusty Dwarf and friend, reach me my shield,
And hold it while I swear, first by my Knighthood,
Then by the soul of Amadis de Gaule,
My famous Ancestor, then by my Sword,
The beauteous Brionella girt about me,
By this bright burning Pestle of mine honor,
The living Trophie, and by all respect
Due to distressed Damsels, here I vow
Never to end the quest of this fair Lady,
And that forsaken Squire, till by my valour
I gain their liberty. (2.1)

*

The Knight of the Burning Pestle is a play unlike any other that I’ve encountered in this reading project, and I’m pleased to have read it. It would be fun to see staged (and it has been occasionally revived).

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.