All entries for Tuesday 13 January 2009

January 13, 2009

A Yorkshire Tragedy – a hypothesis

A Yorkshire Tragedy is one of the most unified of the apocryphal plays. Scenes 2-10 of the play follow a prose source extremely closely in a dramatic tour de force of relentless bloody action.

Scene 1 of the play, however, is a problem. Three servants appear and discuss their betters, the story of a master having deserted a mistress. While their conversation is related to the source, the scene has almost no bearing on the remainder of the play. In addition, the style of the scene is very different, and this is the only scene in which characters are named (for the rest of the play, characters are simply 'Husband', 'Wife' etc.).

It's easy to conclude from this that Scene 1 was a later addition by another playwright. However, Baldwin Maxwell (1956) puts the more difficult question: Why was it written? The addition serves no apparent dramatic function.

Stanley Wells, in his edition of the play for the Oxford Middleton (2007), finds a possible solution in the original performance conditions of the play. The 1608 quarto bills it as 'One of the four plays in one, called A Yorkshire Tragedy'. Wells wonders if the scene acts as some kind of induction, connecting the short play to the other plays in the 'four-in-one'.

I agree with Wells that the origins of this scene probably lie in the original performance conditions, in the nature of the 'four-in-one' performance at the Globe. I would like to make an even more specific conjecture, however, regarding the nature of this addition.

Shakespeare's main source for Othello was the Hecatommithi of Cinthio. Each story in this 110-story collection began with summary and discussion of the play that had immediately preceded it. Thus, the Othello source-story begins with a group of characters discussing the action of the previous play, leading into one of them suggesting the Othello-source as their next tale.

The other three parts of the 'Four-in-one' are not extant, but I would like to suggest that their presentation owed something to Cinthio's structure. Imagine four short plays being played in an afternoon. They would doubtless have breaks between them. After the break, minor characters from the story before may have reappeared in a dramatic interlude to link the two stories. Thus, the quarto of A Yorkshire Tragedy as we have received it may well preserve the 'induction' scene that relates to the story immediately before it.

This fits in with Wells' hypothesis, but is dangerously more specific (happily, a blog allows me to conjecture freely). Rather than a general induction-style device which linked all four plays, I am suggesting a linear series of inductions similar to the Hecatommithi, where each piece connected to the next. I am also suggesting that the dramatist of each piece would be responsible for writing the next link. Therefore, Scene 1 of Yorkshire Tragedy would not have been written by Middleton (the writer of the main play), but by the writer of the play before.

This would explain the extremely loose engagement with the source material, compared to Middleton's close adherence to it. Let us imagine, for a moment, that the play before A Yorkshire Tragedy in the sequence was by Shakespeare, the in-house dramatist (who we know, of course, was familiar with Cinthio's work). Let us imagine that he had completed his part of the play, and was then required to create a linking piece to Middleton's play. The linking piece would not be in any way prestigious or worthy of painstaking work. He would most likely have skimmed Middleton's piece, glanced at the source material to see what remained unused, and then written a short scene in his own style to feed into the play.

While it probably wasn't Shakespeare who contributed Scene One (though those arguments have not completely died away), I don't find this an improbable scenario. It seems to explain the unique features of Scene One and doesn't seem out of keeping with what we know of playhouse practice. The problem, of course, is that none of the other plays in the sequence have survived, and so it is impossible to prove. However, I think this may be a useful hypothesis to work with, and an example of how, even in matters of textual authorship, an understanding of performance practice is indispensable.


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I’m Peter Kirwan, a final year doctoral student in the English Department at Warwick, and this is my PhD blog.


Conferences, reviews, articles, thoughts and links relating to my interests in the Shakespeare apocrypha, early modern drama, authorship and performance.

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