In Which I Friend-Zone Early Modern Drama

Where are the plays of yester-month? Mostly, to be honest, they are in a 3-ring binder on my office shelf. They have notes scrawled in the margins—because I’m a fan of material texts and have a whole project about annotated plays—but those notes have stayed private and those binders have stayed put. Consequently, anything I might have wanted to say about them has remained private, static, frozen in amber (or at least something middling sticky like maple syrup).

That’s obviously antithetical to what I had in mind when I embarked on my play-reading project. I’d heard from fellow scholars who’d accomplished the considerable feat of reading all plays listed in W.W. Greg before that it was less the reading and more the keeping of notes that would be hard. My goodness, were they ever right! (Sidebar: can we collect data on how many of us have done or attempted this? You know, for posterity? And also make up a catchy name that is similar to, but far better than, the Mile High Club for those who finish?)

To try to learn from the experience as it happens in the real world (and not as it was ideally plotted out in my beginning-of-semester calendar) I’ve devoted some time thinking about why it’s so hard to do a write-up of a play you’ve read. For me, it has to do with the fact that, no matter how colloquial my tone or how many references to “Buffy” I make, I can’t afford to conceive of blog posts as “public” but not “professional.” If I were writing on some unrelated topic—the knitting I do, the food I make, the wine I drink—I think I would be able to draw the line more solidly. But if you are an early career academic specializing in Shakespeare and early modern drama a blog post, even just a wee little post, about an early modern play becomes a part of your professional portfolio whether you intend for it to or not. Or, at least, that’s the fear.

I intended to read plays at a good clip and to use the blog as, at once, a tool to keep track of my thoughts about various texts and a way to make the process more social or collaborative. In line with my Protestant heritage, however, the individual, solitary, private reading of plays has proved far easier to integrate into my routine than the public commentary or analysis. But that’s largely because I find myself genuinely incapable of recording the kind of “raw material” response to a play that I’d imagined. I underline, annotate, and, if there’s an especially striking passage or passage, transcribe all before I even think about putting fingers to keyboard. And, I’ve come to realize over the past 6 weeks, that it’s not simply that I’m afraid of publically saying things that are not “scholarly” enough to impress a search committee.

To my surprise and disappointment, I find that I’m not able to remove these plays from their “scholarly” category and approach them as fun, non-serious objects of entertainment. I have, effectively (and affectively), friend-zoned them. Look, EM drama, I like you. I really do. We have some good times together and I feel like we really understand each other on a fundamental level. We have a lot of fun and when I feel sad you’re right there with me. We are ALWAYS going to hang out. But when I want to unwind, relax, laugh and just, y’know, play, I’m always going to be looking at television.

Seriously, though. I started the play-a-day project partly to attempt to recreate the “horizons of expectations” — I just love Reception theory more and more the older I get– of dedicated reader-viewers of early modern drama. And in some sense I will succeed at this—getting a better picture of what was it was “normal” (or not) to see on stage, judging more accurately when something is “innovative,” and catching up on a hell of a lot of inside jokes. But what it’s never going to be possible for me to do is to consume 400-year-old artifacts of mass entertainment the way that I consume contemporary ones.

If I really wanted to do a parallel kind of project, I would have been blogging about the episodes of “Supernatural” I’ve been watching on Netflix. I started the series about the same time as I started the play-a-day project and I have definitely watched more than an average of one a day over the past 8 weeks. In fact, I just checked and I’ve watched 115 (and that’s not counting the ones I watched twice because they were so funny/meta/or otherwise awesome). And I can safely say that I’d find it pretty easy to write unmediated notes on each episode. (Right now I inflict them on my long-suffering partner who must listen to my monologues on how “souls work differently here than in the Buffyverse” or “it’s a shame that the only women who are allowed to have agency are evil.”)

Now, I haven’t and won’t be analyzing the TV I’ve been watching (even though I could because how is there not a book on Milton’s theology and Supernatural?!) because that’s not what it’s “for” (for me). But the ease with which I feel welcomed into, understand, and “get” the world of television is the kind of experience I imagine early modern audience members having in the theater: it speaks to them and they just “get” it.

When you enter a fandom that isn’t yours.

I could go on at great(er) length about which parallels obtain between the “culture industry” of Shakespeare’s theater and that of modern Hollywood, but instead I will end by asking myself (and you, Dear Reader) whether it’s the “silent reading” aspect that keeps me bound to academic approaches to play texts. I have very limited experience with play readings but those I have done were social—not to say raucous. Is this perhaps the difference between “drama” (a form of literature to be read silently on one’s own) and “plays” (existing in performance)? And when did these categories evolve for English vernacular literature?

Also: if this blog suddenly becomes entirely devoted to WB/CW shows from the late 90s and 00s—now you know why.


Incest -> Tragedy but Not!Incest -> Comedy: The Wit of a Woman

Maybe it’s because I read this play in a Nyquil haze (hello, September cold!) but I found it exactly as the prologue promised—silly, harmless fun. Besides, I like a play where a drunken character gets to call someone who’s been pranked with fake medicine “Sir Snot” (with 2 long “S”s of course!).

The Wit of a Woman is classed as “closet drama” by Harbage and my initial questions for the play had to do with its genre. Most generally, it means a play that was never performed (only read). But as a theater historian I always wonder how we could possibly know that it was never performed when our records are so incomplete. Sure, records from Henslowe (or similar evidence) that a play was performed establish beyond any reasonable doubt; but what’s the equivalent for non-performance?

In those cases, you have to adopt a strategy of excluding other possibilities, which is presumably what Harbage did. Just at first read it’s obvious that the play would either have a very large cast or would employ doubling. The cast list consists of an old schoolmistress (Baria) plus the young ladies she’s in charge of (Erinta, Lodovica, Gianetta, Isabella). These four young ladies have four brothers (Veronto, Filenio, Gerillo, Rinaldo). Each brother-sister pair has a father (but no mother)—Bario, Nemo, Ferio, Dorio—and each father, in turn, is in love with one of the young ladies who isn’t his daughter. Of course, the sons are also in love with the ladies who aren’t their sisters, recapitulating the situation familiar from Roman comedy (and also A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum) where father and son fall in love with the same woman. (HAHAHA great jokes! Endless humor!)

We’ll get to the high creepiness factor of all these fathers and brothers being in love with women who are functionally their daughters and sisters, but first a word about doubling. I assumed at the outset that the young men would be doubling as the old men. There were even what I took to be self-referential jokes about it, as when the aged doctor soliloquizes, “I was when I was young, a fine fellowe, and had my spirit as full of life as a wagtayle, but now the case is altered, and yet me thinks I am this day younger by twentie yeares then I tooke my selfe for.” These lines are a lot funnier if the actor playing the old man is the young man with a white beard. And what better way to make the conflict between youth and age more harmless than to have youth and age be the same person? It sounds like it would work out well and, for a time, it seems to because the old men are never onstage with more than two young men.

But then you get to the last scene. It’s a massive wedding—why not? —with four couples prepared to be wed. But which four?! The question is left unresolved as ALL TWELVE main characters stand together before the priest, the old men hoping to be married to the ladies, the ladies inclined to marry the young men. As the title indicates, the ladies get their way all thanks to their ingenious scheming. But the fact remains: all 12 are onstage together at the end, meaning they must have been played by 12 actors.

So, theater historians, I invite you to consider whether this is strong enough evidence for the play as a never-performed closet drama. Could it instead have been put on by a group of provincial players (REED folks?)? Two boys’ troupes combined? Something else entirely? It would need a cast of at least 15 and definitely seems like a boys’ play. I’m intrigued, but haven’t delved into the matter myself.

In conclusion, I’d like to offer a few literary-critical reflections that might bring me back to this play or maybe will help direct you to some of it (since it’s absolutely non-canonical!):

  • The competition between the sexes is handily won by the women and that would be fun to teach or perform. The young men come up with a scheme that might have worked in a different comedy—they disguise themselves as various professionals (physician, painter, schoolmaster, dancing instructor) to obtain admission to the ladies’ house. The women see RIGHT through their “disguises” and tease them for trying such an old-hat trick. The men are only able to con the gullible Russian tourist and are clueless as to the resolution the ladies are plotting.
  • There’s another scene of double entendre concerning women learning to write just as in Westward Ho! Is it part of a growing anxiety about women’s literary (or whatever the corresponding term is for being able to write as well as read)?
  • The “family” stuff is SUPER WEIRD. The play makes a big deal of the fact that the daughters live together as sisters and call each other “sister.” It also makes a huge deal out of the logical fallacy that if the girls love their fathers they should then want to take a man their father’s age as a husband and love and honor him. The girls don’t end up doing it, of course, but only because the old men kindly allow them their choice. It’s pretty obvious that it could easily have gone the other way (the brothers even complain about the old men being misled!!) and probably would outside of the genre of comedy. The situation the ladies find themselves in—having to find a polite, unimpeachably honorable way to get out of marrying their father’s friend without disobeying or upsetting their father—is actually quite scary. I wonder how common it was? I also wonder if the play is trying to get us to feel uncomfortable with the whole situation. All I know is that I ended up thinking “There’s no way to make this not creepy when the BETTER choice for a husband is the man she grew up with like a brother.”
  • This shares some DNA with Love’s Labours Lost—the sequestering of the sexes at the beginning, the battle of wits as a field of love, the hilarious Russian guy—and describes the “taming” of woman that is like that shown in both Shrew plays (though that’s not saying much since those come from a long popular tradition).
  • There are several physicians and lots of talk about physicians’ cures that I’d follow up on if I did not have urgent tea-drinking to attend to. But really, it’s interesting that comedies always have more scenes of people consulting physicians—is it connected to the humoral body?

And there you have it! Next time, I plan to write about two Chapman plays so, if you’ve felt the lack of Chapman in your life lately, check back in.

Politics, Adultery, and Incest—oh my! (The Phoenix and Law Tricks)

Happy Wednesday, drama lovers! At the end of my last post I promised notes on the remaining Week One plays (even as I am reading those for Week 2). This brings me to an important but obvious observation about the process of doing this project: it’s easier to find time to read than time to write.

The lack of time to write is the refrain of The Ballad of the Frustrated Academic (well, actually, many also lament the lack of time to read or do any research). I know that for me, however, this has partly to do with feeling as though I have to produce at least a semi-reputable scholarly assessment when I write. Well, no more!! (Or at least, not today!) I’m giving myself a limited amount of time to work on this post (max 1 hour) as a way of avoiding this particular trap.

I read Thomas Middleton’s The Phoenix when I wrote a dissertation chapter on “disguised duke” plays. I did not reread it in its entirety because, well, it’s pretty boring. I do love Middleton—he’s probably my favorite practitioner of city comedy—but this is not his best effort. It is his first play for the professional theater, though; so let’s cut him some slack.

Generically, the play is a strange combination of Mirror for Magistrates-type morality drama and a city comedy. The play opens with the aged Duke of Ferrara (who has not coincidentally ruled precisely as long as Elizabeth did) reflecting that he’s getting too old to rule and intends to settle the succession on his son Phoenix. So far, the play has more in common with Gorboduc and the Chronicle Historie Leir than with our disguised dukes. (I’ve come to sincerely question whether “disguised duke” is really a genre or really particular to 1603-04. But let’s move on.)

And, indeed, like Gorboduc and Leir, Ferrara appears vulnerable to manipulation. His flattering counselors indicate a lurking danger that manifests in Proditor, the chief member of his counsel whose asides establish him unequivocally as a Machiavellian villain. Proditor’s goal is to remove Phoenix from the state in order to claim the kingdom for himself. The speed with which Ferrara abandons his plan for an immediate succession and adopts Proditor’s in its place, “We have thought good and meet, by the consent/ Of these our nobles, to move you toward travel” (1.38-39), proves that he is effectively controlled by his self-interested counselors.

This state of affairs is encapsulated in Ferrara’s ill-conceived advice to his son, “He that knows how to obey, knows how to reign” (1.57). The misguided character of this advice would have been clear to Middleton’s audience; the ruler is not meant to obey but to use his good judgment to weigh the advice of others. Phoenix’s experience over the course of the play reveals him to be the right kind of ruler, ultimately convincing his father to alter his maxim for ruling into “He’s fit to reign whose knowledge can refine” (15.181). The intervening scenes of Middleton’s play show the process by which Phoenix’s “knowledge,” that is his faculty of understanding, becomes able to “refine,” to purify and perfect the state. The play concerns the education of a prince, and, as in the Mirror for Magistrates tradition, Phoenix learns to rule by contemplating negative examples.

And here’s where one storied artistic tradition (Mirror for Magistrates itself depends on morality plays, emblem books, and exempla) meets that young parvenu, city comedy. Phoenix’s disguise—with the able assistance of his loyal page Fidelio (of COURSE!)—facilitates his education. It is only by observing unobserved that Phoenix’s judgment can be trained to separate the gold from the dross. The characters he encounters along the way are the staples of city comedies, from the new-made Knight Pleasure and the Jeweller’s Wife to the amoral Captain and the divided young lovers. As in city comedy generally, the masses are primarily a source of entertainment not anxiety.

Even the play’s villain, Proditor, is comfortingly easy to spot AND to catch since Proditor is conveniently quick to trust his business to strangers in his employ. Proditor pays Fidelio (also disguised) to put him in touch with a (fictitious) friend who would be willing to perform an act of treason, the assassination of the Duke. The “friend,” Phoenix himself, is then instructed by Proditor in the murder he is to commit. The obvious irony—that Proditor has hired the man he wishes to blame for the murder to commit it—turns the proposed assassination of Ferrara and the baseless execution of Phoenix into a comic situation. As with the adultery of city comedy, the threat of a political coup is never a real threat; it is effectively neutralized from the start by Phoenix’s ability to see and hear all the right bits of information at all the right times.

Measure for Measure and Lear, Shakespeare’s related plays, each take on more serious questions of the sort posed here by Middleton. It always seems likely to me that Shakespeare enjoyed attending plays at London’s other playhouses and the connections among these texts seem like further strong circumstantial evidence of this to me.

But, moving on, we know that young gentlemen from the Inns of Court were watching these plays by children’s troupes and that the plays were tailored to their interests. John Day’s Law Tricks—the final Paul’s play from 1604—is chiefly a long string of jokes about lawyers. Clearly then, as now, no one enjoyed jokes about the corruption of lawyers more than lawyers themselves.

Of course, the young lawyers in the audience were low on the ladder in their new profession and would therefore enjoy seeing the bloviating older lawyers like Lurdo mocked. (City comedy is a young man’s genre for an audience of young men staged by boys.) Lurdo, the old fox, has found a legal pretext on which to divorce his virtuous wife the Countess, swearing that she has been unfaithful. Really he’s just grown bored with her and wants to hit on new game in town like Emilia—sorry, “Tristella”— young heir apparent Polymetes’s sister who has returned in disguise to her home country after surviving attack and kidnap by Turks! (Got that all?)

We’ve got a political plot—Polymetes is the successor to Duke Ferneze and appears religious and studious but, it turns out, is pulling a Richard III (as the Duke gets to see when, disguised, he brings news of his own death). We’ve got an adultery plot—Lurdo accuses the Countess as a pretext for divorce; his friend Horatio spies an opportunity to sleep with the her since her reputation is already sullied, but is rejected and vows to ruin her; Horatio’s page takes pity on the Countess and provides her with assistance and ultimately helps her escape an untimely demise. We’ve got potential incest—Polymetes is in love with the disguised Emilia (his sister, who he’s never seen IRL) as is Polymetes’ courtier friend Julio. Yep, we’re in a city comedy all right!

I’m about to hit my time limit, so I’ll let you unravel the ending on your own if you are so inclined. I will say, though, that this Horatio’s a really bad seed (in possession of early modern roofies), that Emilia gets displaced by her own page pretending to be her (and no one can tell the difference), and that (SPOILER ALERT) the Countess is not really dead when everyone realizes her innocence and mourns her. (Now that I think of it, the tradition of the revival of supposedly dead ladies who speak from the grave adds an extra dimension of creepiness/sadness to that scene in Duchess of Malfi.)

The epilogue acknowledges that there’s some pretty dark stuff going on in this comedy, “Who would have thought, such strange events should fall/ Into a course so smooth and comicall?” and I’m left thinking that its happy ending is not a lawyer’s but a playwright’s trick of resolution.

Weighty Affairs Will Just Have to Wait! (Westward Ho)

(Title credit to one of my favorite musical numbers ever, “Comedy Tonight” from A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. Treat yourself to Sondheim lyrics and plenty of theater jokes) 

What a relief it can be to get to comedy! In the airplane conversations I have about my work (the kind with non-specialists who either adore or hate Shakespeare from school and can’t wait to tell you their own authorship theory) I usually end up saying that I “work on tragedy.” This isn’t true in any meaningful way, but I say it because what I really mean is “I work out tragedy.” I find it easier to listen to, easier to find it “saying” something. Tragedy has a vision; comedy has déjà vu.

Both genres are formulaic. (Questions for a later time: Is it possible to have a non-formulaic “genre”? Doesn’t “genre” just mean “formula”?) But, thanks to their larger-than-life protagonists, tragedies offer an easy means of differentiation, though it’s still manifestly possible to find yourself asking questions like “Which is the one where he eats his own children? No, not where they’re in a pie—the other one?” (Bonus nerd points awarded for correct answers.) The movements of tragedy are predictable (it’s why we have all those handy unspellable Greek terms for them) and, generally speaking, you can hear their thunderous approach like a T-Rex in Jurassic Park.

Does this reference horribly date me?

The ominous atmosphere this creates provides its own narrative pleasure and—when the truly unexpected happens—it can deliver a greater shock when tragic conventions are themselves violated. (That’s why Cordelia’s death was so offensive that it was effectively rewritten out of the play for more than a hundred years. Great thing of us forgot, indeed.) Personally, I’m barely able to keep track of (let alone predict) the moving parts of early modern comedy. I know that someone’s going to be in drag, someone else is going to be wearing layers of disguises, someone’s going to get caught in a compromising position behind the arras, and someone’s going to unwittingly agree to sex because he or she doesn’t understand a double entendre. I just don’t know how many times these things will happen or in what order.

What you do know, at least with city comedy, is that the person who ends up the butt of all jokes will be the one who doesn’t “get it.” What’s “it”? Well, if you asked me that, I’m sorry to have to tell you this but…you blew your fortune on a fake shipping expedition and your wife is cheating on you with her midwife (who is really a gallant named Pursesnatch). Seriously, though, it’s hard to explain what the “it” of city comedy is, though a lot of books have done an admirable job. The characters that “get it” are the ones who can make the world work to their advantage and out-trick the trickster. City comedies take place a world full of tricksters trying to out-trick each other; it’s like fabliau after fabliau.

And it’s fantastic. In later iterations, even just a year or two from 1604, it can become wearing, even ominous. But in 1604 city comedy is a new genre being performed (so far) by exclusively by the boys’ companies at Paul’s and Blackfriars. It was popular enough to occasion a slight in Hamlet (the “little eyases”) and the “theft” of The Malcontent from the Queen’s Revels Company by the King’s Men. I take the slight to be good-humored, though, and believe that the import so-called “War of the Theatres” was greatly exaggerated, even at the time, because such a perceived rivalry was good for everybody’s business. (And if I ever manage to get my article revisions done you may be able to read this theory of mine in print.)

Westward Ho! is one of the first city comedies and it cracks and pops with ostentatious wit. The rapid-fire bawdy puns, multi-layered disguises, baroquely complex plots, and multiplicity of clever female characters are, to me, hallmarks of the boys’ companies. Westward has all of these in spades. Our host for the evening is Justiniano, an Italian merchant who is irrevocably convinced that his (genuinely) chaste wife is cheating on him. Justiniano and his wife travel to England where he dons a disguise as Master Parenthesis, Latin instructor to citizens’ wives. (There is a fantastically raunchy scene where the husbands inquire how well each of the women is learning to “write” and are spared no detail. For those of you who know Restoration drama it’s a lot like the “china” scene in The Country Wife.) In this guise, and several others, Justiniano observes the behavior of the citizens and concludes that he must be right about his wife.

The three ladies we see most of—of whom the sharpest is Mistress Honeysuckle—decide to go on a pleasure trip to “Braineford” (Brentford) with their gallants on the pretext of visiting a sick child. Their husbands remain in London—and visit the house run by the bawd Birdlime—until Justiniano lets them in on the wives’ plan (that he facilitated, the old hypocrite). The joke’s on them, though, because the wives have refused to service their gallants in order to gain the upper hand in the battle of reputation. All six men look foolish and no harm is done.

Except, potentially, to Mistress Justiniano. While her husband has been “away” at “Stoad” (a bald-faced lie he told while he donned his disguise and bit his truant pen) Birdlime has procured her for an aged Earl. We can tell he’s ridiculous because he speaks in iambic pentameter verse and has outdated romantic notions about the assignation he has arranged. He also has more qualms about chastity than the young men—and good thing since his delay allows Mistress Justiniano to summon her husband who appears in her place (in drag, naturally) in the Earl’s bed. Struck by his conscience, the Earl repents and endows them with wealth. I read the Earl as a figure from a Shakespearean (or I should say “adult company”) comedy who’s out of his depth in the new comedic world but, again, that’s a too long disquisition for a blog post.

Everything works out fairly comfortably in the end—again except for Mistress Justiniano. Her husband does, at least, now believe in her chastity. But did he actually cheat on her with those citizens’ wives? Would she really have pulled a Lucrece (as is promised by Justiniano) if the Earl had raped her? What should women do if their husbands don’t rush in to don their clothes and take their place in bed? What will his jealousy look like from now on?

Ah, but these are questions for another time, or another genre perhaps. For now, all has worked out well and, the play concludes, “Gold that buyes health, can never be ill spent,/ Nor howres laid out in harmeless meryment.”

(Reflections on the rest of this week’s plays, Middleton’s The Phoenix, John Day’s Law Tricks, and the anonymous The Wit of a Woman, coming soon. Message me if you don’t have EEBO access and would like copies of any of the rarer titles.)

Guns Don’t Kill People; Poisoned Skulls Kill People! (Bussy D’Ambois)

Hello, and welcome! This is the first substantive post in my Play a Day project. I violated my own word count and also spent too much time worrying that my thoughts would not be “scholarly” enough when the WHOLE POINT of this was a less scholarly take on the drama I love. It’s clear that, among other things, this project will teach me about different ways to read and write about the same texts.

With that in mind, onto George Chapman’s Bussy D’Ambois!

It’s rare to see someone die of a gunshot wound in early modern drama. Poisoned skulls, books, soups, and beavers (the part of the helmet that covers the face—get your mind out of the gutter) are all par for the course. Stabbing, self-inflicted or otherwise, is a popular option as is hanging. Deaths in battle tend toward the glorious because otherwise the overall effect is bathetic. (Reader poll: What’s the most inglorious EM stage death you can think of?)

Shooting the protagonist of an early modern play feels like breaking some unspoken rule of the fictional universe. It’s a lot like (**SPOILER ALERT**) the conclusion of Buffy Season 6 where the villain is not an evil, supernatural Big Bad but a pissed-off, very human misogynist with a gun. In both cases, compared with the fights and deaths we’ve grown used to seeing, a gunshot is too sudden, too fast, too undramatic. And maybe (in both cases, but I’m only going to discuss Chapman’s play) that’s precisely the point.

Let’s back up a little, to the setup for the final showdown in Bussy D’Ambois. The King’s brother, Monsieur, begins the action by elevating the noble but impoverished Bussy with the gift of a thousand crowns, introducing him into the corrupt court life Bussy disdains in his opening monologue. Monsieur hopes that having Bussy in his debt will help him gain and keep the crown. Regicide is the named-unnamed act that Monsieur and Bussy dance around, culminating in the conclusion of Act 3, Scene 2 where Monsieur urges Bussy repeatedly to do anything except the “killing of the King” (3.2.313, 3.2.347, 3.2.356, 3.2.371, 3.2.410), lending himself plausible deniability while acknowledging his hope.

The same scene reveals that Bussy and Monsieur don’t think much of one another and, what’s more, that both are right. Monsieur accuses Bussy, whose martial prowess is unquestioned, unmatched, and uncomfortable, of possessing “Cannibal valour” (3.2.339) that cares not what it consumes as long as it can consume. Bussy retorts that “Your political head is the curs’d fount/ O fall the violence, rapine, cruelty,/ Tyranny and atheism flowing through the realm” (3.3.392-94) and insists that Monsieur is “utterly without a soul” (3.2.401). Monsieur replies with a cryptic (sarcastic) line: “Why now I see thou lov’st me, come to the banquet” (3.2.411). (I’d love to see this interpreted in performance.)

If it wasn’t already evident from Bussy’s growing closeness with the King, Monsieur has lost Bussy as a political agent. Yet the political plot, which started out looking like the locus of the action, cedes to the line following Bussy’s adulterous affair with Tamyra, wife of the powerful Count Montsurry. Bussy, whose earlier speeches made so much of ethics and virtue, appears to have no compunction about adultery. Tamyra may—it’s not clear to what extent her lament in Act 2, Scene 2 is to be taken as sincere. More significant is her feeling that she and Bussy are caught up in something beyond their control: “It is not I, but urgent destiny/ That (as great statesmen for their general end/ In politic justice, make poor men offend)/ Enforceth my offence to make it just” (3.1.43-46). (The play’s fatalism returns full-force with its conclusion.)

A quick sidebar with some thoughts on Tamyra: She shares qualities with both Isabella and Desdemona, protagonists we’ll get to later in this season. This is not the kind of situation where chronological priority is easy to determine so I won’t say that either is “influenced” by the other. I just want to offer the observation that Tamyra is a kind of anti-type for both Shakespearean characters in that she appears not to be guilty of the adultery she has committed and conceals her sins with the veneer of religious devotion. She’s also an anti-Lucrece, using her wounds to “speak” not of her chastity but its opposite. But she doesn’t move me as much as any of those women. For me this brings up the question of the line between character and archetype—a very gendered distinction.

In any case, much is made of Tamyra’s virtuous appearances and the kind of code that courtly lovers need to speak to veil their improprieties. Bussy’s chaste pretext is supplied by the Friar Comolet, who acts as pander at Tamyra’s request. Comolet later goes to ever more extreme lengths (the conjuring of devils, including the wonderfully named Cartophylax, “devil in charge of papers”) to help keep the lovers’ affair secret. To no avail, of course, as Tamyra’s husband tortures the truth out of her on the rack. He then forces her to write Bussy an invitation to a tryst using her own blood. (Early modern lovers—always keepin’ it classy!) Thanks to Cartophylax and the ghost of Friar Comolet (who died a quick natural death earlier in Act 5), however, Bussy is anticipating Montsurry’s trap. He and the ghost frighten off the murderers and he calls out Montsurry to fight him like a man (sooooo much machismo).

This is it. The chips are down. Personal vengeance (on the part of Montsurry) is about to solve a sticky political problem for Monsieur and Bussy’s other enemies. But just as quickly as it started, it’s over! Bussy has Montsurry down and Tamyra calls for him to be spared, “Favour my Lord, my love, O favour him” (5.3.118). Bussy lets up him at her request, “I will not touch him: take your life, my Lord,/ And be appeas’d” (5.3.119-120). Peace is being made.

But then—BANG! “Pistols shot within.” Bussy laments that “the coward Fates” have allowed “That Guise and Monsieur, Death and Destiny/ Come behind D’Ambois.” For all that Bussy was a great soul, a part divine, his body is, as he says, “But penetrable flesh” (5.3.120-125).

And so we are back to guns. If there’s a weapon that is the agent of “Death and Destiny,” the tool of inevitable fate, it’s a gun. Other methods of murder on the Jacobean stage require intricate plotting, extensive preparation, and coincidence of motivation. A gun just requires a trigger-man. We are set up to expect Chapman’s play to conclude with the first sort of death but instead it ends with the second. The dramatic economy of the pistol shot is appropriate to its political expediency and, perhaps, to a newly developing kind of politician.

The Director’s Welcome to the 1604-05 Season

Hail, fellow theater-goers! I bid you welcome to the stage in this the year of our Lord sixteen hundred and four. The new King is on the throne and even now his subjects rejoice at the Settled State of our affairs. The plaguey year of 1603 has passed and the fall brings promise of Health and Wellbeing to all. As a sign of which, and in good faith, our STAGES once again are open to the public. Come revel in our ranks and share the tragedies and comedies of th’year.

Ok, that’s quite enough, I think. I have no plans to conduct this entire (already esoteric) experiment Fakespeare! What is this experiment though? To answer briefly, it’s a challenge I’ve issued myself this semester to read an early modern play every (work) day and write a brief reflection upon it.

To answer expansively, I wear (along with other academic hats) the tricorn of the theater historian. For several years now, and in several excellent Shakespeare Association seminars, I’ve been thinking about the repertory theater of Shakespeare’s day and, more generally, what the rapid pace of production and consumption of plays must have been like. When teaching undergrads I have characterized it as being similar to working on serialized TV now: there are different studios, each with their own strengths, and a stable of writers moving among different rooms; there are recognized “talents” whose particular abilities beget certain kinds of shows; and there are core audiences with varying degrees of familiarity with The Industry and its products. (This analogy worked best when I taught at UCLA.)

But what does it mean for a scholar to consider that plays then might have worked as TV shows do now? What does highly localized reading–of plays for a single company in a single season, for example–do to our notions of things like “influence” or “quotation”? And, what’s more, what happens when you consume them rapidly, as seventeenth-century audiences are reported to have done? We all have a notion of what it means to “binge watch” television (which I am a huge supporter of, as anyone who knows me outside academic life can testify) but what would binge-watching plays be like? That’s what I’m aiming to find out. And you’re all extremely welcome to follow along or, ideally, join in.

In case you’re wondering (and it warms my heart to know that many of you nitpickers are), I’ll be using Alfred Harbage’s Annals of English Drama, 975-1700 as my guide. (Which edition? Why, the 1964 edition with revisions by Samuel Schoenbaum, since you asked. Because that’s the one I bought on AbeBooks and have by my desk. You’ll have to leave comments about his methodology when it’s flawed as I won’t be tackling this aspect.) My criteria for including plays were: 1) Must be in English, 2) Must be extant (and not only in MS), and 3) Must be for the “popular” stage.

The third criterion is admittedly the fuzziest. I’m considering “popular” to mean “written for a playing company that regularly performed in London.” That means I’m excluding masques, civic pageants, university dramas (even when written in English), plays for the Inns of Court, and closet drama. I have kept in some plays that are labeled “Unacted” by Harbage if it seems like they were written on the commission of a professional playing company.

I’ll be starting with the year 1604, the first solid year of theater under the new King of England (and old King of Scotland), James the VI and I. This is partly also to answer a question I have about periodization: what does “Stuart” drama look like? Shakespeare wrote more plays–and arguably more important plays–under James than under Elizabeth, yet very often is regarded as an “Elizabethan” playwright. “Jacobean” drama tends not to stretch much later than 1613 even though, by sheer number, play production boomed under Charles. It would take many months to work my way from 1604 to James’s death in 1625, and even more to get to the closure of the theaters in 1642. In the long term, however, I want to do so and to discover what it means to produce “Stuart drama.”

And now, to coincide with the beginning of many classes, here is our syllabus. I’ve allocated 5 plays a week which we can all distribute as we’d like. I’ll aim to post about each one, but realistically I may do a “digest” post at the end of each week. I’ll try to keep each post brief–maybe 500 words for each play. I’ll also be tweeting @Shxperienced, #EMplayaday, if you’d like to play along (see what I did there?). Here’s the schedule for the first month, which will take us through Harbage’s 1604 and make a good trial period. Good reading, all!

The Play-a-Day Project (1604):

Week One (9/8 – 9/14)

Chapman, George                    Bussy D’Ambois                                 (Paul’s boys)

Dekker and Webster               Westward Ho!                                     (Paul’s boys)

Middleton, Thomas                 The Phoenix                                        (Paul’s boys)

Day, John                                Law Tricks                                          (K Revels)

Anon.                                      The Wit of a Woman                          (Unacted?)

Week Two (9/15– 9/21):

Chapman, George                    All Fools                                             (Q Revels)

Chapman, George                    Monsieur D’Olive                                (Q Revels)

Daniel, Samuel                        Philotas                                               (Q Revels)

Marston, John                         The Dutch Courtesan                          (Q Revels)

Marston and Webster              The Malcontent                                   (Q Revels & King’s)

Week Three (9/22 – 9/28):

Shakespeare, William              Measure for Measure                          (King’s)

Shakespeare, William              Othello                                                           (King’s)

Anon.                                      The Fair Maid of Bristow                    (King’s)

Anon.                                      1 Jeronimo, Wars of Portugal             (King’s?)

Anon.                                      The London Prodigal                          (King’s)

Week Four (9/29 – 10/5):

Dekker and Webster               Sir Thomas Wyatt                               (Q Anne’s)

Heywood, Thomas                  1 If You Know Not Me                       (Q Anne’s)

Heywood, Thomas                  The Wise Woman of Hogsdon           (Q Anne’s)

Dekker and Middleton            1 The Honest Whore                           (P Henry’s)

Rowley, Samuel                       When You See Me You Know Me      (P Henry’s)