Posts Tagged ‘Early modern drama reading project’

Books briefly noted: plays

May 19, 2023

Quick notes today on a few plays I have read recently.


The Acharnians
Translated from the Greek by Paul Roche
(New American, 2005) [425 BC]
62 p.

The Acharnians was not Aristophanes’ first comedy, but it is the earliest that we have. It won first prize at the Lenaean Festival in 425 BC, when the playwright was about twenty years old. It helps to understand the context: Athens was a half-dozen years into the war against Sparta, and each summer the Spartan army was marching into Attica and attempting to destroy the crops; people fled to the safety of the walls of Athens. In the play, Dikaiopolis, grown weary of the war and its hardships, and frustrated with the hawkishness of the Athenian Council, decides to make a private peace with the Spartans, just for himself and his family, so that he can open up trade in the marketplace and have nice things again. A pretty good premise, but Aristophanian humour must be hard to capture in translation, because I had little more enjoyment from this play than I’ve had with other of his plays in the past: mildly amusing, yes, but not much more. The play felt unstructured, the verse awkward, and I had a hard time imagining how the jokes would land successfully.


The Changeling
Thomas Middleton
and William Rowley

(Oxford, 2007) [1622]
50 p.

This play, a collaborative venture between Thomas Middleton and William Rowley, has earned a good reputation, with a relatively large number of revivals and adaptations in its wake. The story is about a woman who finds herself at the center of a love quadrangle: she is promised in marriage to a man she does not love, beset by advances from a man she despises, and unable to pursue marriage with the man she does love, and who loves her in return.

To untie this knot, she hits on a plan which she hopes will rid her of both unwanted suitors in one fell swoop. But, this being a Jacobean tragedy, the plan goes disastrously awry. It is worth noting, however, that it doesn’t go as totally awry as it might have; in time bodies do litter the stage, but not everyone’s body.

It seems a good play, but it didn’t appeal to me as some other of Middleton’s plays have. I appreciated the set-up, and the central characters are interesting, but I found some of the plot elements, such as a peculiar elixir to be administered to suspect wives by doubtful husbands, a tad bizarre, and a confusing subplot involving an entirely different cast of characters played for me as mere distraction. Maybe I just failed to grasp what Middleton and Rowley were up to. I confess I don’t understand the play’s title.


The Purgatory of St. Patrick
Pedro Calderón de la Barca
Translated from the Spanish by Denis Florence MacCarthy
(Henry S. King & Co., 1873) [before 1635]

Since medieval times there has been a pilgrimage site in the north of Ireland near Lough Derg called St Patrick’s Purgatory. I picked up this play thinking it would be about the site, and I was right. The pilgrimage site became such because it was believed that St Patrick revealed, on that spot, a cave through which one could pass to Purgatory. The play tells the story of how this came about.

In the first Act, Patrick and a criminal called Luis Enius come to Ireland, the former as a slave and the latter as a fugitive. The Irish people are pagans. In the second Act, Patrick performs miracles and reveals the entrance to Purgatory. In the last Act, many years later, Patrick has died and Luis, passing into Purgatory, goes on a Dante-esque journey through the afterlife that results in his conversion.

The robust Catholic piety of the play was pleasing to me; we English speakers are just not used to this in our theatre, but this Spanish playwright, at least, had no compunction about foregrounding religious matters on his stage. The third Act odyssey through the afterlife is quite imaginatively done.

That said, the play is not very good; certainly it is much inferior to the other of Calderón’s plays that I have read recently. The first Act is thrown off balance by a pair of monstrously oversized monologues from Patrick and Luis. The action of the play develops in a haphazard manner, without a clear logic and without character motivation. The characters themselves are thin. The whole thing seemed to lurch from scene to scene without much at stake.

As to the verse, it’s hard for me to say. The 1873 translation — the only one, so far, into English, I believe — makes a valiant effort to be true to Calderón’s metre and rhyme, but I didn’t find much music in it. Late in the play one of the characters exclaims, “Oh! who that’s not insane / Will enter Patrick’s Purgatory again?”, and while I wouldn’t pose the question in just that way, my answer is very likely, and regrettably, “Not I”.

Calderón: The Mighty Magician

April 20, 2023

The Mighty Magician
Pedro Calderón de la Barca
Translated from the Spanish by Edward Fitzgerald
(MacMillan and Co, 1906) [1637]
72 p.

Dr Faustus meets St Felicity in this delightful and surprising play about a group of early Christians facing persecution.

Set in Antioch sometime in the early centuries of the Church, it introduces us to Cipriano, a scholar who doubts the reality of the pagan gods but is convinced on philosophical grounds that a high God must exist. His contemplations, however, being disturbed by two quarreling students, both rivals for the heart of Justina, a young woman of the town, he offers to mediate between them and her in order to discover which, if any, she will consent to have. Unbeknownst to all of them, Justina is one of the despised Christians.

But a surprise is in store, for Cipriano’s philosophical meditations have disturbed the equanimity of Old Scratch himself.  The first meeting with Lucifer has its amusing aspect:

CIPRIANO. And have you travell’d much?
LUCIFER: Ay, little else,
One may say, since I came into the world
Than going up and down it.

Lucifer goes on to disparage Cipriano’s quest for natural knowledge of God, arguing that mankind

LUCIFER: … having of this undigested heap
Composed a world, must make its Maker too,
Of abstract attributes, of each of which
Still more unsure than of the palpable,
Forthwith he draws to some consistent One
The accumulated ignorance of each
In so compact a plausibility
As light to carry as it was to build.

and tosses in the old adage about religion being the kill-joy of the masses:

… [the gods are] nothing more
Than the mere coinage of our proper brain
To cheat us of our scanty pleasure here
With terror of a harsh account hereafter.

Lucifer knows that Cipriano’s students have been fighting over Justina, and he sees in his forthcoming visit to her a chance to ensnare his soul:

LUCIFER: For I will lend you wings to burn yourself
In the same taper they are singed withal.

Not only that, but he considers that entanglement with Cipriano might give him an entry point to claim Justina, who has thus far proved impervious to his temptations:

Of this detested race would hinder all
From joining in the triumph of my fall
Whom I may hinder; and of these, these twain;
Each other by each other snaring; yea,
Either at once the other’s snare and prey.

(I’d like to pause to admire the verse, which is nicely compact and elegant: “…these, these…”, and “each other by each other”. Although I note with some disapproval that Lucifer is allowed to rhyme, which goes against tradition and all sound reason.)

Sure enough, when Cipriano sees Justina he is smitten, at which Lucifer rejoices:

The shaft has hit the mark; and by the care
Of hellish surgery shall fester there.

The whole of the middle Act is devoted to an epic encounter between Lucifer and Cipriano, in which Satan offers not only the conquest of Justina, but also immense powers over nature if Cipriano will but consent to become his protege and helper.

LUCIFER: What if I make you master at a blow,
Not only of the easy woman’s heart
You now despair of as impregnable,
And wanting but my word to let you in,
But lord of nature’s secret, and the lore
That shall not only with the knowledge, but
Possess you with the very power of him
You sought so far and vainly for before:
So far All-eyes, All-wise, Omnipotent —
If not to fashion, able yet to shake
That which the other took such pains to make.

Cipriano agrees to the bargain, and Lucifer, it seems, is triumphant.

But in the final Act all his plans, and all his empty promises, come unraveled. It begins, naturally enough, with a betrayal: instead of giving Cipriano Justina, as he had promised — he has no power over a pure Christian soul — he presents only a ghostly image of her, whereon Cipriano, invested now with mighty powers of magic, demands that Lucifer reveal what power could subdue him (Lucifer). To Cipriano’s great surprise, the devil confesses that only Jesus Christ has power over him. Cipriano sees what he must do:

CIPRIANO: And all the gods I worship’d heretofore,
And all that you now worship and adore,
From thundering Zeus to cloven-footed Pan,
But lies and idols, by the hand of man
Of brass and stone—fit emblems as they be,
With ears that hear not; eyes that cannot see;
And multitude where only One can be—
From man’s own lewd imagination built.

He returns to Justina, and converts to Christianity just in time to be caught up in a violent uprising against the Christians. Confessing his love to Justina, both he and she march to the scaffold and martyrdom.


There are a number of things that could be said about the play, but the first is that it’s very good. I began reading without any idea of what I would find, and I read in amazement and delight. The devil! A Faustian bargain! A dramatic conversion! I enjoyed every page, and it was over too soon.

Granted, the play may have some problems of balance. Of the three Acts, the first two are set-up, and most of the play’s action is packed into the last. But I, at least, didn’t have the sense from the page that it was moving too fast or abruptly through those last scenes.

It is an overtly Christian play, the first that I have encountered in this survey of early-ish modern drama, which is a little surprising. I’m not sure whether to ask why so many plays were not overtly Christian, or to ask why this one was. Is it a difference between English and Spanish cultures? Protestant and Catholic? Or is it just a peculiarity of Calderón (who, recall, became a priest later in life)? In any case, though it is far too pious to be tolerated by your average theatre company today, there is no reason why modern Christians should not take an interest. It’s the work of a major playwright, and it belongs to us. I’m grateful to have discovered it. Are there more like it?

This particular play has been translated into English more than once. I read a 1906 translation by Edward Fitzgerald, and, as I’ve already suggested, I thought it was outstanding. He translated a group of Calderón’s plays, and I may well read another in the near future.

Corneille: Le Cid

March 26, 2023

Le Cid
Pierre Corneille
Translated from the French by Richard Wilbur
(Mariner, 2009) [1636]
118 p.

In his youth, before he was Le Cid, and well before he had sons-in-law on whom to seek revenge, he was just Rodrigo — or, as Corneille calls him, Don Rodrigue — and he was in love with Chimène, whom he intended to marry. Corneille’s play is an account of the troubled road to that happy consummation.

The set-up is quite ingenious. The two young lovers are on the brink of marriage when the unthinkable happens: their fathers quarrel, and Rodrigue is obliged, by the rules of honourable conduct, to avenge the insult by killing Chimène’s father. Soon enough she, too, finds herself trapped by a social obligation to seek the death of Rodrigue. Both lovers are impaled on the horns of a dilemma: family honour or love?

DON RODRIGUE: O miracle of love!
CHIMÈNE: \, \, \, \, O misery!
DON RODRIGUE: What pain our sires bequeath to you and me!

Corneille is adept at coming up with clever ways to express the quandary, and he tends to give them to Chimène to express:

Weep, weep, my blinded eyes, for half my heart
Is in the tomb, slain by the other part!
And after that fell blow I must take pains
To avenge what I have lost on what remains.

My passion strives against my wrath; I see
My lover’s features in my enemy.
I ask his head, although my heart can’t stand it;
His death will cause my own, yet I demand it!

… having lost him, I must now lose you,
Curbing my love as honour bids me do,
While hateful duty, with its heart of stone,
Drives me to work your ruin and my own.

This knot is not one easily untied, and the play casts about for various strategies before hitting on one that just might work. We actually don’t find out, from Corneille, if it works — a rather surprising conclusion, given theatrical conventions, then as now — but comparing the name of the real-life Cid’s wife to “Chimène” suggests that it did, in time.


On a dramatic level, I really enjoyed the play. Simple in concept, it’s tremendously intricate in execution, relying on motivation and feeling more than on events, and the characters are quite appealing and well-drawn. Tonally, it’s a complicated combination of tragedy, or near tragedy, and comedic undertones, as the pickle in which our hero and heroine find themselves gets ever more pickled.

My primary reservation is a poetic one, as it concerns the rhymes. The play is constructed almost entirely of rhyming couplets, and Richard Wilbur, one of our finest translators, has preserved that feature in his English. At the same time, Corneille’s twelve-syllable Alexandrine lines have been converted into ten-syllable English lines. There were scenes in which I found this structure very effective, as, for instance, in the crucial early scene in which the fathers of Rodrigue and Chimène quarrel over the king’s granting an honour to Don Diegue (Rodrigue’s father):

COUNT: He should have chosen me; you stole the prize.
DIÈGUE: The king’s decision was both just and wise.
COUNT: The post should go to him who’d fill it best.
DIÈGUE: In some respect, you must have failed the test.
COUNT: To win, you used your influence at court.
DIÈGUE: My glorious exploits were my sole support.
COUNT: The king but honours you because you’re old.
DIÈGUE: He honours only what is brave and bold.
COUNT: Why then, it’s this brave arm that he should choose.
DIÈGUE: Whoever did not win deserved to lose.

The rhymes, here, give the scene an additional energy, as the two play off one another. But, when extended to the length of a whole play, I found that the couplets, and the rarity of enjambments, tended to give the verse a bouncy, sing-song quality. I found it worked against the tragic feeling the play was trying to cultivate. By its nature this effect is hard to convey in a short excerpt, but this speech by Rodrigue partly captures what I mean:

They will but say, “He loved Chimène, and could
Not bear her hatred, which he understood;
He yielded to the bitter fate that led
His cherished mistress to demand his head;
She asked his death, which he resolved to give,
Feeling that it would be a crime to live.
He kept his honour; for that, his love was lost;
He avenged his lady at his own life’s cost —
By these two choices sacrificing then
Chimène to honour, and life to his Chimène.”
Thus you can see that dying in this fight
Won’t dim my fame but render it more bright,
And that my willing death will honour you,
Making amends as nothing else could do.

I love rhyming, but couplets are naturally cheerful, and the main substance of the play is not.

Those issues aside, however, I found this a diverting and rewarding play, among the best that I have encountered in this survey of early-ish modern drama. It has been popular in France over the years, and it’s not hard to see why.

Milton: Comus

March 6, 2023

John Milton
Illustrated by Edmund Dulac
(Heritage Press, 1954) [1634]
72 p.

Comus is not a play in the sense to which we’ve become accustomed in our tour through early English drama. It was not written for profit, not staged in the city, and not really intended for a public audience at all.  It is different in genre, too — not a tragedy, not a comedy, not a historical play. It is a masque, a courtly drama with allegorical resonances, intended for the entertainment of a lord in his castle — in this case, the lord of Ludlow Castle, to whom Milton was a friend.

The story is of three young people, two brothers and their sister, who enter a dark wood and become separated. The woman is abducted by a monstrous being, Comus himself, a kind of demon of the woods, and offered various pleasures, all of which she staunchly resists until such time as her brothers, aided by a good spirit, come to her rescue and drive Comus away.

The work is a beautiful tribute to virtue, and especially the virtue of chastity, in the face of temptation and violence. In the early going Comus sets out into the woods, looking for trouble:

What hath night to do with sleep?
Night hath better sweets to prove,
Venus now wakes, and wak’ns Love.
Come let us our rights begin,
Tis only day-light that makes sin,
Which these dun shades will ne’er report.

He loves darkness rather than light, because his deeds are evil. And it doesn’t take him long to find his victim (whom the play calls only “the Lady”). He absconds with her to his lair. Meanwhile, the brothers search for her, one frantic with worry, and the other concerned but not overwrought, for he puts great faith in her goodness:

1 Bro: My sister is not so defenceless left
As you imagine, she has a hidden strength
Which you remember not.

2 Bro. What hidden strength,
Unless the strength of Heav’n, if you mean that?

1 Bro. I mean that too, but yet a hidden strength
Which if Heav’n gave it, may be term’d her own:
‘Tis chastity, my brother, chastity
So dear to Heav’n is Saintly chastity,
That when a soul is found sincerely so,
A thousand liveried Angels lackey her,
Driving far off each thing of sin and guilt
Against the threats
Of malice or of sorcery, or that power
Which erring men call Chance, this I hold firm;
Virtue may be assail’d, but never hurt,
Surprised by unjust force, but not enthralled,
Yea, even that which mischief meant most harm,
Shall in the happy trial prove most glory.

Meanwhile, back at the lair, Comus is setting to work on her resolve. He has cooked up a potion for her to drink. (He is the son, we learn, of Bacchus and Circe, and apparently takes after his mother in this matter of making potions.)

Comus. Why are you vexed, Lady? why do you frown?
Here dwell no frowns, nor anger, from these gates
Sorrow flies far: See, here be all the pleasures
That fancy can beget on youthful thoughts,
When the fresh blood grows lively, and returns
Brisk as the April buds in primrose-season.

But she answers:

Lady. Were it a draught for Juno when she banquets,
I would not taste thy treasonous offer; none
But such as are good men can give good things,
And that which is not good, is not delicious
To a well-governed and wise appetite.

Moving closer to the main point, he argues that beauty — her beauty — is meant to be enjoyed:

Comus. List, Lady; be not coy, and be not cozened
With that same vaunted name, Virginity,
Beauty is nature’s coin, must not be hoarded,
But must be current, and the good thereof
Consists in mutual and partaken bliss,
Unsavoury in the enjoyment of itself.
If you let slip time, like a neglected rose
It withers on the stalk with languished head.
Beauty is nature’s brag, and must be shown
In courts, at feasts, and high solemnities
Where most may wonder at the workmanship;
It is for homely features to keep home.

But she is unshaken:

Lady. Impostor! do not charge most innocent Nature,
As if she would her children should be riotous
With her abundance. She, good cateress,
Means her provision only to the good,
That live according to her sober laws,
And holy dictate of spare Temperance.

She realizes, though, that Comus’ nature is so depraved that he is incapable of apprehending the truth of what she says:

Lady. Thou hast nor ear, nor soul, to apprehend
The sublime notion and high mystery
That must be uttered to unfold the sage
And serious doctrine of Virginity;
And thou art worthy that thou shouldst not know
More happiness than this thy present lot.
Enjoy your dear wit, and gay rhetoric,
That hath so well been taught her dazzling fence;
Thou art not fit to hear thyself convinced.
Yet, should I try, the uncontrolled worth
Of this pure cause would kindle my rapt spirits
To such a flame of sacred vehemence
That dumb things would be moved to sympathise,
And the brute Earth would lend her nerves, and shake,
Till all thy magic structures, reared so high,
Were shattered into heaps o’er thy false head.

Whereupon Comus moves to force the drink upon her, but is prevented by the sudden arrival of her sword-wielding brothers. Comus flees, but they are unable to undo the enchanted bands with which he had enchained her. At this juncture Sabrina, a virgin goddess, arises and frees her. The attendant spirit who had guided the brothers to Comus’ den returns the three to the safety of their home, and the protection of their parents:

Spirit. Noble Lord, and Lady bright,
I have brought ye new delight,
Here behold so goodly grown
Three fair branches of your own,
Heav’n hath timely tried their youth,
Their faith, their patience, and their truth,
And sent them here through hard assays
With a crown of deathless Praise,
To triumph in victorious dance
O’er sensual Folly, and Intemperance.

And then this good Spirit closes the play with a brief exhortation:

Spirit. Mortals that would follow me,
Love Virtue, she alone is free,
She can teach ye how to climb
Higher than the sphery chime;
Or, if Virtue feeble were,
Heaven itself would stoop to her.


As I said, it’s a lovely work, with an appealing there-and-back-again structure. The verse is wonderful, of course. At just over 1000 lines, it’s fairly brief. It doesn’t have much in common with the other plays I’ve been reading from this period. There was a parallel tradition of masques, of which I am ignorant, but which apparently tended to the lascivious; Milton will have none of that. It reminded me of a fairy tale, like Hansel & Gretel, and I am also wondering what it owes to the medieval tradition of mystery plays, which I have not read for many years and cannot remember well.

In any case, imagine having John Milton as your family friend, and imagine that he offered to write a little masque for an evening’s entertainment for your family. (Even better, at the first performance it was the children of the castle’s lord who played the children in the masque.)


My edition of Comus is a mid-twentieth century volume from Heritage Press. It comes in a handsome slip case, and includes not only a set of watercolour illustrations, but also, at the end, musical scores for several airs that Henry Lawes wrote based on Milton’s text. It’s a very lovely book that I was fortunate to find at a used book sale last year.


[Wherever you go, there you are]
He that has light within his own clear breast
May sit i’ the center, and enjoy bright day,
But he that hides a dark soul, and foul thoughts
Benighted walks under the mid-day Sun;
Himself is his own dungeon.


Calderon: Life is a Dream

January 16, 2023

Life is a Dream
Pedro Calderón de la Barca
Translated from the Spanish by Gregary Racz
(Penguin Classics, 2006) [c.1630]
xxvi + 123 p.

Pedro Calderón, who, it so happened, was born on a boat (hence, ‘de la Barca’), was a Spanish playwright of the generation after Lope de Vega. Unlike de Vega, who tossed off plays like Denny’s tosses off hotcakes, Calderón was known for his careful polishing, revisiting and revising his plays in order to invest them with beauty and philosophical depth. He had an interesting life. He was already writing for the stage in his twenties, and achieved renown in his thirties. When he was fifty years old, however, he (mostly) gave up writing plays and became a priest, devoting his talents thereafter to the composition of autos sacramentales, one-act allegorical dramas traditionally performed in Spain during the Feast of Corpus Christi. Perhaps we’ll read one of those at a later date, if we can find one.

Life is a Dream is apparently generally considered to be one of his greatest achievements. It takes place in Poland, and is involved with a succession problem in the Polish court. The king is elderly, and, though he has a son, Segismund, his son has, since birth, been imprisoned in a tower because it was foretold, by various omens, that the king’s son would be a ruthless tyrant who would destroy the realm. The king ordered him confined for the good of the kingdom.

But the king is a Christian, and is unsure whether he ought rightly to trust the omens and astrologers who claim that the prince’s fate is fixed:

The direst fate, we know for fact,
Much like the rashest temperament
Or strongest planetary pull,
May boast some influence on free will
But cannot make man bad or good.
(I, vi)

He therefore decides on a clever stratagem: drugging his son with a strong sedative, he removes him from the tower and brings him to court, setting him up amid all the trappings of royalty. The idea is to see if he behaves justly or tyrannically. If the former, he can become heir; if the latter, he will be sedated again, returned to the tower, and told that the experiment was just a dream.

The prince, it turns out, behaves very badly indeed. Nearly his first act as “king” is to defenestrate a servant, and he is bent on worse. Back to the tower he goes, where, awaking, he speaks to his tutor with amazement about his “dream”:

My heart made bold with power and vice…
I’d thought to rule with tyranny
And match the evil I’d been done.
(II, xviii)

But sleeping princes, unlike sleeping dogs, cannot be allowed to lie. The people now know that their prince lives, and they raid the tower to liberate him. A civil war ensues, son against father, for the throne.

The play seems destined for a familiar tragic ending, bodies littering the stage. But — at the risk of spoiling a 400-year-old story — a funny thing happens, and it ends in joy instead, marriages all around. Just how this reversal comes about is presumably an ingredient in the play’s good reputation, although I myself feel that I’d like to see it staged before deciding whether it manages the tricky maneuver successfully.


There is much rumination in the play about the difference between dreams and reality, between sleeping and waking. How do I know that I am awake and not dreaming? Am I the same person when I dream? Do my actions in a dream reveal, or even shape, my character?  The structure of the story allows these kinds of questions to arise in an intriguing way.

Years ago I took an interest in the phenomenon of ‘lucid dreaming’, in which one becomes aware, in a dream, that one is in fact dreaming, and then consciously uses the greater freedom of dreams to have experiences, like flight, which are otherwise impossible. I never made it far enough into this practice to discover if it is a real thing or not, and for years now dreams of any kind have been rare, but the play reminded me of the strangeness of dreams, that shadow world in which we, at least sometimes, are awake even while we sleep. “I sleep,” said the singer of songs, “but my heart is awake.”

I was also reminded of Christopher Nolan’s film Inception, which is similarly all about the interplay between dreaming and waking. Those familiar with the film might have been dismayed, as I was, by the prevalence of those faults that beset so many science fiction films: arbitrary rules, non sequiturs, and irrational choices. Why is the implanting of a thought — “inception” — thought to be difficult to achieve? Doesn’t it happen every day, all the time? How exactly does the token help distinguish the dream world from the real? Why must they not “die” in the dream? The entire film is sustained by a tissue of these logical lacunae. But the difficulties vanish if we suppose that the film’s “reality” is actually a dream, for dreams are full of these kinds of non sequiturs. The whole “reality” of the film is, on this reading, happening in the mind of the main character while he dreams, and in fact the film contains quite a number of hints that this is indeed the case. The main difference with Calderón’s play is that in the film a dream state is mistaken for reality, whereas in the play it is the other way around.

Nor should we forget that a film, like a play, is a sort of dream for us: an alternate reality that we inhabit for a time. While we watch it we are “asleep”; when it ends we “awake”.


There are a number of interesting ideas at work in the play, therefore, and I enjoyed reading it. One feature of the play that I appreciated was that Calderón gave his characters several long speeches; this is something that we find in Shakespeare, but which I really have not found in the other English playwrights from the time. These long speeches allow us a sustained window into the thoughts of the characters, which I found enriched the play considerably.

As to its literary merits, it’s hard to judge in translation. Calderón wrote in verse, and in this Penguin edition Gregary Racz does his best to mimic the verse forms in English, complete with rhyming, where appropriate. It was pleasant to read, but it’s not really possible to say more.

There are a few more plays by Calderón that interest me, so I believe I’ll be returning to him again over the next few months.


Vega: Fuente Ovejuna

December 19, 2022

Fuente Ovejuna
Lope de Vega
Translated from the Spanish by Gwynne Edwards
(Oxford, 1999) [c.1613]
80 p.

My course of reading in early-ish modern drama has, until now, been confined to the sceptered isle, but now, after a few dozen plays made for the London stage, I am soaring south and east, to Spain, and the plays — or, at least, a play — of Lope de Vega.

I confess I didn’t know anything about him prior to picking up this volume. According to the introduction, he was one of the principal architects of Spanish drama in the seventeenth century, responsible for developing several of the conventions that subsequent playwrights relied on. His plays broke with the classical unities of time and place, were not shy to mix comedy and tragedy, and were often explicit about the moral lessons conveyed by the play’s action.

He was also tremendously prolific. Cervantes called him monstruo de naturaleza — a monster of nature — because of his incredible productivity. Some contemporaries reported that he had written over 2000 plays, and he himself boasted that he could write a play in a single day. Impious exaggeration, perhaps, but over 350 of his plays are extant, so he was, at minimum, ten times more prolific than Shakespeare.

The present play, Fuente Ovejuna, is a history play based on events that happened in a town of that name in the late 15th century. The ruler was cruel and tyrannical. When he was found murdered, an investigation was opened by the royal court, but the townspeople, when ordered, even under torture, to reveal the identity of the murderer, would only answer, “Fuente Ovejuna”. This solidarity was their protection, and no-one was ever convicted.

It’s a good story, then, with a winsome portrait of ordinary people resisting unjust power through friendship and loyalty. De Vega embellishes the plot with some romance. There are a few scenes with Ferdinand and Isabella, for pomp and circumstance. But the play, on the whole, felt to me rather thin and forgettable. The characters felt generic, and the language — at least in translation, and that is an important caveat — fell far short of the richness I’ve grown accustomed to from the English playwrights. There were no neat aphorisms, no impressive speeches, nothing much going on linguistically beyond serviceable verse to move the story forward.

By way of brief illustration, the play ends, as many English plays of the period do, with an actor turning and speaking directly to the audience. But compare this

If we shadows have offended,
Think but this, and all is mended,
That you have but slumber’d here
While these visions did appear.
And this weak and idle theme,
No more yielding but a dream,
Gentles, do not reprehend:
if you pardon, we will mend:
And, as I am an honest Puck,
If we have unearned luck
Now to ‘scape the serpent’s tongue,
We will make amends ere long;
Else the Puck a liar call;
So, good night unto you all.
Give me your hands, if we be friends,
And Robin shall restore amends.

to what we get here:

And so, my friends, we end Fuente Ovejuna.

It is possible that this apparent lack of depth and richness is traceable to the aforementioned haste with which he was reputed to write; I don’t really know. I do know, however, that my original plans to read all three of the plays in this Oxford edition are being shelved for now, and I plan to move on to one of the Spanish playwrights of the next generation, Pedro Calderon de la Barca.


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.)