All entries for July 2009

July 21, 2009

Not–So–Famous Victories

In what appears to be another case of external evidence being willfully ignored, I've stumbled upon a rather surprising omission in critical writing on The Famous Victories of Henry V. This is the old play upon which Shakespeare (probably) based his Henry IV and Henry V plays.

The first quarto of 1598 states that the play is printed "as it was plaide by thc [sic] Queenes Maiesties Players". This is the company attribution generally accepted for the play. By 1598, of course, the Queen's Men had ceased to exist, but the title-page no doubt acknowledges the play's most famous or long-standing attachment.

The second quarto of 1617, however, claims it is "As it was acted by the Kinges Maiesties Seruants". The immediate implication of this evidence, then, is that the play later found its way into the repertory of Shakespeare's company, being performed by them. The Second Quarto is regarded as having some authority, making occasional corrections - it is not a 'pirate' text.

So far, so straightforward. However, the evidence of the later quarto is ignored in every discussion I've so far read of both play and King's Men's repertory. Peter Corbin and Douglas Sedge completely ignore it in their Revels Companion volume The Oldcastle Controversy. Andrew Gurr meanwhile, in his The Shakespeare Company, 1594-1642, suggests that the play may have come into the Chamberlain's Men's repertory, but his suggestion is presented as a pure conjecture, failing to note the support that the title-page offers and omitting it from his survey of surviving company play-texts.

The most puzzling response, though, is that of Roslyn Knutson in The Repertory of Shakespeare's Company, 1594-1613, who acknowledges but categorically dismisses the information. I quote her in full:

I accept the claims of ownership by the Chamberlain's and King's men on title-pages of quartos except in the cases of The Famous Victories of Henry V and Alphonsus Emperor of Germany. On the title-page of the first quarto (1598) The Famous Victories of Henry V is attributed to the Queen's men. That claim is probably right. There is no evidence to suggest the migration of the playbook to Shakespeare's company by 1617, at which time it was published with an attribution on the title-page of the quarto to the King's Men (212).

The poor logic of this is hopefully immediately apparent. What Knutson actually means is that there is no additional evidence for the attribution: but the title-page of a quarto is, in itself, a substantive testimony that does not necessarily need extra support. Several plays are attributed unquestionably to companies purely on title-page evidence: Knutson herself gives Mucedorus, The Yorkshire Tragedy, The London Prodigal, A Warning for Fair Women and Sejanus to the Chamberlain's/King's Men on no greater grounds.

Furthermore, it is not as if the evidence of the two quartos is contradictory. By 1595 the Queen's Men had ceased to exist, and their repertory was divided up. In point of fact, I can think of no good reason to assume that the play did not go to the Chamberlain's Men: after all, if Shakespeare was to use the play as a primary source for his second tetralogy in 1597-9, surely it makes sense to imagine him having a copy of the playbook to hand.

So, why is the evidence of Q2 ignored in accounts of the King's Men's repertory, and of the play? There appears to, at some point, have entered into critical consciousness a conviction that the information of the quarto is simply wrong, and unworthy of discussion. This is bad practice: as Sam Schoenbaum has told us, "External evidence cannot be ignored, no matter how inconvenient" (Internal Evidence and Elizabethan Dramatic Authorship, 163).

The other reason that springs to mind for the ignoring of the information is the assumption that the play would not have been performed by the King's Men once they had Shakespeare's versions to draw on. This is a good argument, albeit one that needs to be articulated rather than just assumed. However, this does not mean that the play had no role in the repertory. I see two possible alternatives here:

  • 1. The play was popular, and may well have been performed regularly by the Chamberlain's Men for the first few years of their existence, before being replaced by Shakespeare's plays on the same matter. The attribution to the King's men on the 1617 title-page would then simply reflect the current title of the company that had most recently performed it.
  • 2. Is it actually justifiable to assume that it was replaced by Shakespeare's plays? Famous Victories is a play with its own intrinsic merits. Firstly, it allows for the whole story of Hal to be told in a single sitting: may the company have kept this 'abridged' version handy? It's also a highly comic play, with strong clown roles, and thus could have been considered sufficiently entertaining to maintain a place in the repertory.

Some of this is just conjecture, but is designed to demonstrate that the information on the Q2 title-page cannot simply be ignored. My personal suspicion is that the evidence is, indeed, good: that the popular old play came into the repertory of the Chamberlain's Men in 1594, that it was played regularly until the debut of Shakespeare's Hal plays, and that the play was later republished some years after it had used up its stage capital.


July 20, 2009

Surprise!

Andrew Gurr (The Shakespeare Company, 1594-1642) identifies one of the primary features of Fletcherian tragicomedy as its conscious efforts to surprise the audience. In the repertory of the King's Men, he cites examples from 1609 such as Philaster, that pull the rug out from under the audience's feet at the end of the play with a surprise revelation, such as a boy character turning out to be a girl (Philaster) or a statue of a dead woman coming to life (Winter's Tale). I'll add Epicoene to his examples, with its woman that turns out to be a boy.

In this light, the additions to Mucedorus, first included in the third quarto of 1610, are rather interesting. In the original version of the play (c.1590), Mucedorus is only identified as a shepherd for the entire play, until the final scene when he suddenly removes his disguise and reveals that he is, in fact, a wandering prince. Gasp! This romantic trope is obviously associated with later tragicomedy, although has its roots in earlier romantic pastoral. However, the 1610 additions are specifically designed to remove the element of surprise. An opening scene shows Mucedorus as prince, donning his disguise and explaining to his friend Anselmo that he is leaving specifically in order to see the princess of whose beauty he has heard report - this is the princess who, on his first appearance in the original version, he rescues from a bear, having apparently stumbled across her by accident. Other additions create roles for Anselmo and Mucedorus' father, reminding the audience of the prince's true identity.

This is interesting because the additions, written in the early years of James' reign (another change is the epilogue, now addressed to James rather than Elizabeth), go directly against what seems to be the emerging structure of the tragicomedy. It may be unsophisticated, but Mucedorus with its disguised traveller, its surprise revelations, its distant climes, wild locations, murders and bears (!) is a good fit for the repertory of c.1610, the drama of the day finally having caught up with the structure of the old play. Yet, at the same time, the play has been adjusted in order to soften those elements which Gurr suggests define the new drama.

I'm going to explore this further, as I think Mucedorus may well have something extremely interesting to say about the development of the tragicomic form within the King's Men at this point. Judging by allusions and reprints, it was one of the most popular plays of its time, and generically it seems to me that it may represent an important turning point in the company's consciousness of how its work was presented.


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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