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August 10, 2010

What's To Like About … (3) Mucedorus

(This is the third in a series of blogs where I make a case for the interest of several neglected "apocryphal" plays)

Mucedorus has had something of a tough rap. Its unprecedented number of early editions (seventeen known) makes it, on paper, the single most popular play of the Renaissance stage, yet this popularity has been largely attributed to provincial touring, entertainment over art, expedience and sensation - the chance to make use of a live bear. More recently, though, a revived interest in the influence of the romance genre on the early modern theatre - inevitably, primarily on Shakespeare - perhaps gives us a better route into understanding and appreciating a play that, while flawed, is thoroughly entertaining.

1) In terms of genre, it's fascinating. A framing device between Comedy and Envy makes the conflict of tone explicit; and there are two onstage deaths amid the clowning. This is no mongrel conflation of styles, though, but a comic romance in the old vein that deliberately articulates the negotiation of mood it enacts. For a modern audience, there's the genuine possibility for surprise.

2) It begins - in the original text at least, following the induction - with a bear chase! There are few more exciting starting points in the early modern drama.

3) It's ahead of its time. Part of my thesis argument points out that the additions made to the third quarto conceal the fact that, in the original version, we don't find out Mucedorus's true identity and rank until the final scene of the play. These "surprise endings" were far more common in the 1610s, but relatively rare in the 1580s/90s.

4) It's amusing. Mouse, the deaf and greedy clown-servant, is relentless in his banter, and provides a great opportunity for a capable comic actor. His banter with the dastardly Segasto provides good value too.

5) Bremo is a fascinating figure, the wild and cannibalistic king of the woods, who is animalistic in his actions but all too human in his assumption of power within his own realm. Prefiguring Caliban by some twenty years, he is softened by the presence of a woman, and creates a perverted mirror-court reflecting civilised society. He's a disturbing and threatening presence within the play.

6) The semi-magical wood, ruled over by an otherly force and into which characters disappear on their flight from society, is a recurring motif throughout the drama of the period - see Two Gentlemen, Dream, Philaster and others. Mucedorus is only one influence, but its apparent popularity reminds us that it's no doubt an important one.

7) It's an interesting play in terms of class conflict and prejudice. The battle for the hand of the princess between a rich suitor (made rich by his father's usury) and an heroic shepherd (even if, by 1610, we know he's really a prince) allows for a great deal of debate about the worth of a human being, and Amadine's choice to live wild with a shepherd and disown both father and society is a powerful one.

8) For a comedy written of as simple and uninteresting, it has some surprising moments of poetic interest. Mucedorus's comparison of himself to Orpheus in Scene xv stands out, and Bremo's introductory soliloquy of Scene vii is an assertive and disquieting moment.

9) It even comes with its own doubling chart, ready for performance!

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The recent work focussing on Shakespeare's "late" plays, both in terms of genre and in the retrospective mood of the 1610s, has brought Mucedorus back to the fore, with critics accepting the influence of this popular play on the new, more sophisticated takes on romance in Italianate tragicomedy. It'd be fascinating to see the play treated again on the stage - a double-bill with Winter's Tale or Cymbeline would be especially welcome.

August 03, 2010

What's To Like About … (2) Thomas More

(This is the second in a series of blogs where I make a case for the interest of several neglected "apocryphal" plays)

Unlike Thomas Lord Cromwell, The Book of Sir Thomas More requires little pleading. It's a great play, and one of the more widely available of the apocrypha (in the 2nd Oxford Complete Works, the Revels Plays and an RSC performance text from Nick Hern).

What is more often overlooked with this play is how coherent and satisfying a piece it is as a whole. The repeated printing of merely the Hand D extract (the section generally believed to be by Shakespeare) has encouraged the interest in the play for the fragment of Shakespeare it preserves, and it's only really been in the last twenty years or so that scholars and theatremakers have championed the play over its author(s). Here are some of the reasons why:

1) Thomas More himself - one of the largest parts in the extant early modern drama, and a joy for actors. Constantly joking, playacting and philosophising, seen both in public and intimate settings, managing his house and rioting multitudes, and steeling himself for his final inevitable execution, the part requires an actor of tremendous range, charisma and capability.

2) The dramatists' attention to character even in the small parts is quite extraordinary for a chronicle history of this sort. Doll Williamson is one of the liveliest characters I've ever come across, while bit parts such as Falkner, Randall and Lifter are sympathetically drawn. Even the nameless Warders and Woman of V.i are surprisingly fleshed out.

3) The riot scenes of the first two acts are a source of genuine excitement, picking up on similar scenes in 2 Henry VI and Jack Straw that allow rioting citizens to both air their grievances and condemn themselves with their foolishness. Lincoln is a complicated anti-hero, noble at first then succumbing to more base demands, before being allowed a fine gallows speech. The bustle of these scenes is expertly drawn to give More's speech all the more impact.

4) There's some beautiful poetry, particularly in More's reflections on his own rise and fall. The start of Act III ("It is in Heaven that I am thus and thus") is a particular stand out, although obviously the "Shakespeare" speech has attracted most attention.

5) The mid-point set-piece, the playlet of The Marriage of Wit and Wisdom, is not only a great character moment for More and a well-constructed piece of drama, but also provides some fascinating insights into the contingencies of early touring players: Luggins has run to get a beard, one boy actor is down to play three parts, and Wit is required to improvise to match More's interruptions. As a snapshot of the expectations and potential of early modern players, it's extremely revealing.

6) Amazingly, the play works despite effectively lacking an antagonist. As in Cromwell, Henry VIII is kept resolutely offstage, his distance from events this time precluding him from seeing More as we see him, allowing us to (dangerously) invest more in More's position than the official line. The play's more obviously unpleasant characters - particularly the French of the first scene - are deliciously obnoxious, but it is in the silent Downes that the opposing forces of the play find embodiment. Only opening his mouth to announce More's arrest, he's a powerful presence.

7) It's a satisfying arc: we get a full ascendancy, a brief period of power and favour, and then a slow descent to the execution. The moments of More's career chosen to illustrate this movement are well-chosen, oscillating between his most public appearances (the May Day riots, his execution) and private ones (his conversation with Erasmus, his defence of his position to his family). In balancing character and plot, the dramatists create a coherent portrait that, ultimately, goes to show the fickleness of favour and the cost of piety.

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Despite a major RSC revival, the play still hasn't made as much of an impression on the modern stage as it deserves, but as it gets included in more Shakespeare series, no doubt we'll see much more of More. I've seen it once, and it's a thoroughly stageworthy and entertaining piece; and as a piece of literature, it repays repeated readings.

August 02, 2010

What's To Like About … (1) Thomas Lord Cromwell

(This is the first in a series of blogs where I make a case for the interest of several neglected "apocryphal" plays)

The True Chronicle History of the Whole Life and Death of Thomas Lord Cromwell is one of the most ignored of all the "Shakespeare Apocrypha", and if I'm being honest, it's not hard to see why. Its plot is linear and rambling; it has almost no poetic value (you're unlikely to read many plays this mundane in terms of language); and it has an overly moralistic tone that grates. Yet it's also one of the plays I'm most drawn back to, and bears much closer attention than it has garnered.

The problem is, as with so much of the non-Shakespearean drama of the period, that an unfavourable aesthetic judgement leads to critical neglect; yet Thomas Lord Cromwell, while not pretty, offers a great deal of interest to scholars, and it's a not-uninteresting hour for the casual reader too. The latter is particularly neglected because there is no decent modern-spelling edition available for readers, which no doubt contributes to the play's entire absence from the stage. Here, then, are some of the reasons to revisit this forgotten play.

1) It's incredibly accessible. What it lacks in imagery or complexity, it makes up for in a quick and efficient style that even readers unfamiliar with early modern language could read with no difficulty. The story of Cromwell is, of course, fascinating in and of itself, and particularly since the Globe's successful revival of Henry VIII and the runaway bestseller Wolf Hall's Booker Prize victory, I'd be surprised if there isn't something of a market for a dramatisation of his life.

2) It's a rags-to-riches tale. These are extremely rare in the period; the interest in historical figures is usually confined (in plays at least) to the figure's public life (cf Thomas More). Cromwell begins with the student, living in a room above his father's smithy, and follows him on his travels around Europe, long before his elevation to Wolsey's service. It's a real surprise that this hasn't received further attention; clearly, Cromwell's life was felt to be of particular interest to theatre audiences. It's also, perhaps, our best evidence for the lost play(s) on Cardinal Wolsey taking a similar approach: Wolsey's background as butcher is alluded to throughout Cromwell, and no doubt the Cardinal's background was a similar source of fascination.

3) We know the characters. Aside from their historical interest, this is a fascinating companion piece to both Thomas More and especially Henry VIII. Particularly after seeing the Globe's production, I've become interested in how prominent both Cromwell and Gardiner are in that play, having played such a major part in the company's earlier play on Cromwell. Thomas More, too, appears in all three, as well as Norfolk and Suffolk. Combined with the other plays of the period on Henry's reign - the lost Wolsey, When You See Me You Know Me etc. - there's something very interesting going on with this same recurring group of characters appearing in a variety of situations, in different companies, by different writers.

4) It tells history from the ground up. Perhaps in a bid for popular appeal, Cromwell shares with More a weighted attention to how the history of this court appears from the perspective of commoners and the middle classes, all concerned with their own day-to-day existence. Cromwell takes this to an extreme, with an entire subplot set among the mercantile middle-classes, and repeated commentary from citizens on Cromwell's actions. The construction of the play's protagonist through the voices of his subordinates is a particularly effective method, of course, of garnering sympathy for him.

5) It's implicitly critical of authority. Henry's absence from the play (probably occasioned by the date of composition) allows the dramatist(s) to show what happens when a King cedes too much authority to his councillors. Repeated appeals by Cromwell for the King are denied; he is rendered ineffectual through his distance from immediate affairs.

6) Cromwell doesn't go down lightly. Unlike More's pious acceptance of death, Cromwell complains to the end, after having been so patient throughout. He repeatedly attaches blame to Gardiner, cries out in despair when he realises he missed Bedford's warning, and gives warnings rather than stoic council to his son. This rather bitter end defies expectations and adds to the implicit criticism mentioned above.

7) It's quite funny. Hodge is an amusing comic sidekick for Cromwell, with some wry commentary after their robbing in Italy and opportunities for a great set-piece when he disguises himself as Bedford. The motif of the servant putting on the clothes of a lord and getting lost in his elevation recurs in More and Shrew, and offers great comic value. I also find Bagot, a pantomime villain if ever there was one, surprisingly amusing, particularly as his evil plot is never allowed to get too threatening. His offstage execution is a sobering moment in a comic subplot.

8) It's surprisingly neatly-structured. The various plot lines of the first three acts are pulled together in the fourth as Cromwell brings together acquaintances from all periods of his life for a celebratory dinner, thanking his various benefactors. The core moral message of the play ("Do unto others...") is rehearsed in a number of scenarios, particularly among the reciprocal acts of kindness of Friskiball and the Banisters.

9) It carries an interesting political contrast to Henry VIII and More. The rising and falling of More, Wolsey and Cromwell under Henry VIII were clearly popular stories; yet it's fascinating to see More and Cromwell, in particular, giving heroic status to two very different - even opposed - figures. Cromwell is the play far more in keeping with a strictly Protestant ideology, celebrating the mover of the English Reformation and demonising the bishop who attempts to prevent his labours. When put into conversation with More, though - celebrating a Catholic martyr - we start to see that it is not politics or religion so much as personal integrity that matters to both sets of dramatists.

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I don't claim any great status for the play; it's a modest piece, clearly important enough to be performed and printed, and no work of art. However, its treatment of a personality clearly embedded in the public consciousness; its connections to several better-esteemed plays in material and structure; its accessible and interesting narrative and its political interest demand the play be read once more.

July 20, 2009


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.

May 20, 2009

Problems of Bardolatry #1: Cardenio

As another Cardenio makes the rounds, it seems a perfect opportunity to point out one of Bardolatry's most glaring negative consequences.

Producing a "lost Shakespeare play" is, without a doubt, one of the best theatrical marketing strategies you can hope for. In the case of Cardenio, every now and again a new staging of Theobald's Double Falsehood turns up, usually with claims that either the acting company or attendant academic have decided that it is, in fact, almost entirely Shakespearean. It's a necessary marketing factor: the more Shakespearean it is pretended to be, the more important it becomes (poor John Fletcher) and therefore the more attention and selling power it will have.

What is forgotten by the Bardolaters seeking for new Shakespeare is that the claim for the authenticity of Double Falsehood is actually dependent on its UNLIKENESS to Shakespeare. The claims that the play appears to be Shakespearean actually diminish the play's chances of having a genuine Shakespearean connection.

To explain this, we need to go back to 1728 and the publication of Lewis Theobald's hugely successfully Double Falsehood; or, the Distressed Lovers. The play did well on stage, and was subsequently published by Theobald as being Shakespeare's, fitted up for the contemporary stage by Theobald himself. Theobald's claim was that he, somehow, had acquired manuscripts of a Restoration adaption of a Shakespeare play, which he had now adapted himself. Suspiciously enough, despite the fact that he claimed to have no fewer than three copies of this manuscript, they were never seen by anyone else (or, at least, anyone who recorded seeing them). Then, conveniently, they were apparently burned up in a fire at Covent Garden, where they were on display. Again, no-one records viewing them.

This is, quite patently, extremely suspicious, and instantly cries out "Forgery!". That was the opinion of Theobald's contemporaries. It was pointed out that the play bore far more resemblance to the works of John Fletcher, and that Theobald's ascription of the play to Shakespeare was fraudulent. Theobald realised he didn't have a leg to stand on, and quietly withdrew his claims, omitting the play from his Complete Works of 1733 despite his promises five years earlier that he would publish the play in full, along with his arguments for its veracity. It seems that even Theobald lost faith in his own ascription. The subsequent centuries have largely assumed that this was a simple exercise in Bardolatrous forgery, similar to that of William Henry Ireland.

However, records were discovered much later suggesting that Shakespeare HAD written a play in his final years of active work, a collaboration with John Fletcher called Cardenio, the source (from Cervantes' Don Quixote) for the story in Double Falsehood. Theobald did not know of this. As recent scholarship has pointed out, he would therefore have had no reason to imitate Fletcher's style in forging a play. If the play IS a forgery, it would be pseudo-Shakespearean. Instead, it is Fletcherian, which actually supports the play's authenticity.

Restoration adaptations of Shakespeare's plays fitted them to the demands of the time. In the 1660s, the vogue was for Fletcherian tragicomedy, and Shakespeare's plays were fitted to this requirement (see, for example, the happy ending of Nahum Tate's King Lear). Most pertinently, Davenant and Dryden's adaptation of Fletcher and Shakespeare's The Two Noble Kinsmen into The Rivals excised almost all of Shakespeare's sections of the play while retaining most of the fashionable Fletcher. It follows, then, that a Restoration adaptation of Cardenio would likewise be primarily at Shakespeare's expense.

The authenticity of Double Falsehood as an adaptation of an adaption of Cardenio is now largely accepted. However, as explained above, this authenticity has been established on the grounds of the play's general unlikeness to Shakespeare and general likeness to Fletcher.

For modern companies and academics to claim that the surviving Double Falsehood is largely Shakespearean, therefore, defeats the point. If Theobald's play is seen to be like Shakespeare, then that fact actually instead supports the original assumption that the play is merely Theobald's attempt to mimic Shakespeare's style as part of a deliberate fraud. By buying into the Bardolatrous desire to credit Shakespeare with as much as possible, the play is actually pushed further away from canonical status.

It is notable that professional academic scholarship is generally united in the belief that any Shakespearean fragments surviving in Double Falsehood are few and brief. The claims for substantial Shakespearean authorship are primarily made by amateur or unaffiliated scholars (see also: the authorship conspiracy theorists), or by actors who are inevitably more familiar with Shakespeare than Fletcher anyway, and whose basis for comparison is therefore skewed. It's a shame, as with The Two Noble Kinsmen, that the majority of people are so concerned with the question of who wrote which bits. Is the importance of the play as a fragment of part of Shakespeare and Fletcher's later repertoire not enough? Sadly, it appears, not.

P.S. The history page at the new Cardenio production's website has some interesting suggestions for further reading. It appears to be written in black on a black background, though, so you need to highlight the text in order to see it!

March 26, 2009

The True Tragedy of Richard III

I've just read the anonymous The True Tragedy of Richard III, and am quite amazed that no-one's made me read it before. Granted, it's relatively unavailable - I had to read it in the Malone Society reprint. However, it's a fascinating read for light it sheds on Shakespeare's writing of his Richard III, almost certainly a few years after the anonymous play. Here are some of the most interesting connections:

  • The presence of several minor plot points in Richard III is far better explained once placed in relation to the other play. Aspects I'm thinking of include: the reports of Mistress Shore's influence, the dilemma Stanley is placed in by Richard keeping his son George hostage, the reconcilement of Hastings and Buckingham with the Queen's faction, and the marriage of Richmond to Elizabeth's daughter. All of these things get lip service in Shakespeare's play, but are relatively minor to the main plot. However, all of these play major roles in the anonymous play; in particular, Mistress Shore gets an entire scene depicting her descent to begging on the streets, with the citizens forbidden on pain of death to relieve her. In many ways, the earlier play is actually richer in terms of its characters: Richard himself is less dominant, allowing several other characters to have their moments in a more generously ensemble piece.

  • Shakespeare's rewriting of the play takes into account his work on the Henry VI trilogy, and there is much work done to tie it in to the earlier pieces. Most obvious is the addition of Margaret, reappearing from the earlier plays to curse Richard. More subtly, Clarence (who only appears as a wordless ghost in the earlier play) is given a major role by Shakespeare, including speeches which hearken back to characters such as Warwick. Henry VI's funeral isn't present in the earlier play - its addition by Shakespeare is another link to the earlier trilogy.

  • The earlier play has a more traditional comic role in a Page who follows the action throughout, commenting on it for the audience's benefit. This role is completely omitted from Shakespeare. To enhance the central role, Shakespeare's play also reduces the role of Catesby, who is more dominant in the earlier play. Buckingham's role, however, is enhanced, as are those of Hastings, Rivers and Grey. Shakespeare's focus is Richard himself, and those conflicts which bolster Richard's role are given full weight.

  • Shore aside, women are mostly absent from the earlier play. Elizabeth has some stage time, as does her daughter, but otherwise it is a man's world. The addition of Margaret, the Duchess of York and Anne to Shakespeare's play, coupled with the enormous expansion of Elizabeth's role, is one of the most notable differences between the two.

  • The earlier play finishes with the actors stepping out of character and running through the line of Tudor monarchs (even Mary), finishing with explicit praise of Elizabeth and prayers that she will live forever. With this perspective, it is quite clear that the 'Tudor Myth' was being fully exploited in the earlier play, yet Shakespeare's is far less explicit about this aspect of the history.

  • One of the murderers employed by Tyrell to kill the princes is Black Will - a shock to anyone who knows Arden of Faversham! Considering the theory that Black Will was an early Shakespeare role, this reappearance of essentially the same character is hugely interesting.

  • Lastly, Shakespeare knows what's worth dramatising. In the earlier play, Richard merely reports his dream before the battle: in Shakespeare, it is fully dramatised and extended to include Richmond too. Likewise, key scenes such as the appearance of Richard with two priests before the crowd, the murder of Clarence and Richard's early days in power are only reported in the earlier play, scenes which Shakespeare makes good use of.

It's a hugely interesting play, and I highly recommend seeking it out if you're interested in Shakespeare's play. It's clearly (so it seems to me) a source, and shows us a great deal about the way Shakespeare reused material.

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.

September 12, 2008

Are They Any Good? Another Four Plays

Following straight on from the first four plays, here are some thoughts on another four plays that I'll be working on:

  • The Life and Death of Thomas Lord Cromwell

This is a really interesting biographical history, in particular containing some fascinating musings on the inconstant nature of Fate. Part of the fun comes from seeing the return of characters familiar from Thomas More and Henry VIII. The play itself follows the basic outline of Thomas More quite closely, tracking the rise and fall of one of Henry's favourites. In many ways it is better structured though. Subsidiary characters from the earlier parts of the play, who meet Cromwell in his lower state, encounter him again when in power, and as such it's a more satisfying dramatic piece with a greater range of good parts. There's also a lot of discourse about debt exchange, which is reminiscent of both The Merchant of Venice and Timon of Athens. It's a really good play, and offers a lot of potential for performance in that it's a bit more complex than Thomas More. In particular, while the central character is portrayed as noble, his shades are far greyer than More's - in early scenes he is more self-indulgent, concerned with his reputation and studies rather than the practicalities of daily life, yet he retains a basically noble nature.

  • The Merry Devil of Edmonton

The first of the plays that I don't particularly like. Frankly, it's a bit rubbish. It starts with echoes of Marlowe's Faustus, introducing a scholar called Peter Fabell who has made a deal with a demon similar to Faustus', and here tricks the demon into giving him another seven years. From this promising start, however, it descends into a very basic and rather dull domestic comedy, featuring a father who tries to thwart the marriage between his daughter and the man she loves and marry him to another, and then the tricks of the young people and Fabell to get their own way. There are a lots of echoes of Merry Wives, interestingly - the play is set in and around a provincial inn near a wood, and both the Host and a preacher called Sir John recall the Shakespeare play. However, it's all a bit tired and the plot seems horribly holey. It's also the most difficult to read of the plays I've flicked through thus far, with a great deal of colloquial language. It'll be interesting to study, I'm sure, but so far I'm not enamoured of it.

  • Fair Em, the Miller's Daughter

This is a double-plotted play, with the two plots extremely disconnected until the end (I haven't followed this thought through, but in a sense it structurally reminded me of The Changeling, albeit without the darkness). Both stories are quite fun, the main one involving William the Conqueror travelling to the Danish court to find a girl he has seen a picture of, then finding the real girl to be uglier than expected. He immediately transfers his affections onto her friend, who his companion is betrothed to, and we are left with an interesting mix of power/honour relations, some good comedy and the potential for some quite dark moments. Meanwhile, in England, Fair Em is wooed by three courtly suitors. The one she was in love with, however, has a massive jealous rage when he finds out about the other suitors and abandons her, even while she is pretending to be deaf and dumb for her sake. The main interest in this story is the shifting loyalties the reader feels to the various suitors, with the eventual 'winner' not being the one you might expect at first. Here, jealousy genuinely destroys their relationship, and in that we see the themes of Othello and The Winter's Tale being taken to a point between the two, where jealousy only causes the jealous man to lose out. A trick played on William, who is made to marry a woman he believes to be someone else, is a common Elizabethan device, cf. All's Well That Ends Well and Much Ado about Nothing which both touch on the idea. Good fun - not the greatest play, and the plots are deceptively simple, but it's genuinely very funny.

  • The London Prodigal

This is possibly my favourite of the plays so far, utterly rivetting in its depiction of the seemingly irredeemable Flowerdale. Flowerdale is the prodigal of the title, a spendthrift and liar who loves only money. His father is disguised in order to see how he conducts himself (Measure for Measure, of course, springs to mind) and follows him throughout. Flowerdals is a shocking human being, leading to a phenomenal central scene. Having just married the beautiful and loyal Luce, who has been forced into the marriage by her father, Flowerdale's father than arranges for him to be arrested for his debts in public to shame him. Luce's father orders her to return to him and forsake her husband, but Luce points out his hypocrisy and stays with her husband, and her father disowns him for her pains. Forsaken by her entire family, she turns to her husband, who is released at her suit, but Flowerdale casts her off as her dowry has been revoked. In a powerfully awful moment, he tells her that he will never more see her, unless she turns prostitute, in which case he might bump into her from time to time. The shock and sheer injustice of this scene are among the best things I've ever read in Renaissance drama. There is also a surprisingly enlightened attitude towards women - here, loyalty is the key quality (cf Cymbeline or the old stories of Geraint and Enid), and the cleverest of Luce's sisters, Delia, at the end chooses not to marry either of two suitors, as she would rather be single. Almost all the characters are fully fleshed out and interesting, and the play retains a solid pace throughout. If there's any play in this project that I want to see performed, it's this.


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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