July 14, 2009

Not good enough for London

Just a quick post with something that caught my eye in the first scene of Ben Jonson's The Devil is an Ass.

Pug is trying to persuade Satan to send him to earth to cause some mischief. Satan's response:

You are too dull a devil to be trusted
Forth in those parts, Pug, upon any affair
That may concern our name on earth. It is not
Everyone's work. The state of Hell must care
Whom it employs in point of reputation,
Here about London. You would make, I think,
An agent to be sent, for Lancashire
Proper enough; or some parts of Northumberland,
So you'd good instructions, Pug. (I.i. 26-34).

Inocuous enough, but I'm interested in snippets such as these which make explicit snobbery towards the provinces. Several of the apocryphal plays deal with regional matters: The Yorkshire Tragedy, Arden of Feversham. I haven't decided how big a part this will play in my argument, but it is often noted that Shakespeare's plays are almost always set at a distance from their moment of composition, whether temporal (e.g. historical England) or spatial (most notably the Italian- and French-set comedies).

Taking into account the snobbish attitudes voiced in Satan's above speech, it is no small surprise that, by the 18th century, Warwickshire yokels could be openly mocked in David Garrick's Jubilee play. Shakespeare had been claimed for London, for the most advanced and sophisticated areas of British life. The severance from those apocryphal plays dealing with provincial life is, I believe, a part of this: it mattered for the image of 'Shakespeare' that his choice of settings and subject matters was romantic, removed, otherly. City comedies and domestic plays were, instead, the province of dramatists such as Heywood and Middleton, considered to be second-rate.

Jonson's speech for Satan doesn't tell us much, but it is a reminder that this hierarchy of region existed during Shakespeare's own period as well as later, and it might provide a neat contextual gobbet.

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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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