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This book gives a detailed and comprehensive survey of the diverse,
theatrically vital formal conventions of the drama of Shakespeare
and his contemporaries. Besides providing new readings of plays
such as Hamlet, Othello, Merchant of Venice, and Titus Andronicus, it also
places Shakespeare emphatically within his own theatrical context,
insisting on his identity as just one of many working playwrights,
and focusing on the relationship between the extremely demanding repertory system of the time and the conventions and content
of the plays. Lopez argues that the limitations of the relatively bare
stage and non-naturalistic mode of early modern theatre would
have made the potential for failure very great, and he proposes
that understanding this potential for failure the way playwrights
anticipated it and audiences responded to it is crucial for understanding the way in which the drama succeeded on stage. The book
offers new perspectives on familiar conventions such as the pun, the
aside, and the expository speech; and it works toward a denition of
early modern theatrical genres based on the relationship between
these well-known conventions and the incoherent experience of
early modern theatrical narratives.
is Assistant Professor of English Literature at the
College of William and Mary, Virginia. He is the author of An
Annotated Bibliography of Textual Scholarship in Elizabethan
Drama, , Research Opportunities in Renaissance Drama,

College of William and Mary

Cambridge, New York, Melbourne, Madrid, Cape Town, Singapore, So Paulo
Cambridge University Press
The Edinburgh Building, Cambridge , United Kingdom
Published in the United States of America by Cambridge University Press, New York
Information on this title: www.cambridge.org/9780521820066
Jeremy Lopez 2003
This book is in copyright. Subject to statutory exception and to the provision of
relevant collective licensing agreements, no reproduction of any part may take place
without the written permission of Cambridge University Press.
First published in print format 2002
isbn-13 978-0-511-07387-8 eBook (EBL)
isbn-10 0-511-07387-9 eBook (EBL)
isbn-13 978-0-521-82006-6 hardback
isbn-10 0-521-82006-5 hardback

Cambridge University Press has no responsibility for the persistence or accuracy of

s for external or third-party internet websites referred to in this book, and does not
guarantee that any content on such websites is, or will remain, accurate or appropriate.

For my parents



page viii



As it was acted to great applause: Elizabethan and

Jacobean audiences and the physicality of response

. Meat, magic, and metamorphosis: on puns and wordplay

. Managing the aside

. Exposition, redundancy, action

. Disorder and convention

Introduction to Part

. Drama of disappointment: character and narrative in

Elizabethan and Jacobean tragedy

. Laughter and narrative in Elizabethan and Jacobean


. Epilogue: Jonson and Shakespeare

Plays and editions cited

Works cited



I am very grateful for the attentive readings and criticism given this book
and parts of this book in its earliest and most recent forms by: Mary Bly,
Stephen Booth, Walter Cohen, Genevieve Love, Scott McMillin, Neil
Saccamano, and Gordon Teskey. I am also grateful to Sarah Stanton
and the two anonymous readers at Cambridge University Press for their
encouraging and judicious comments. And nally, I would like to thank
the many teachers, actors, and students with whom I have worked in the
past several years, and who have helped me discover the extraordinary
vitality of early modern drama.



Fowler you know was appointed for the conquering parts, and it
being given out that he was to play the Part of a great Captain and
mighty Warriour, drew much Company; the Play began, and ended
with his Valour; but at the end of the Fourth Act he laid so heavily
about him, that some Mutes who stood for Souldiers, fell down as
they were dead ere he had toucht their trembling Targets; so he
brandisht his Sword & made his Exit nere minding to bring off his
dead men; which they perceiving, crauld into the Tyreing house, at
which, Fowler grew angry, and told em, Dogs you should have laine
there till you had been fetcht off; and so they crauled out again,
which gave the People such an occasion of Laughter, they cryd that
again that again, that again.

It is commonplace to extol the virtues of the relatively bare stage and

non-naturalistic mode of the early modern theatre. Robert Weimann
sees in the popular stage a exible platform dramaturgy which was
able to subsume a variety of theatrical modes in order to create an
astonishing variety and richness of language. Andrew Gurr notes that
the conventions of continuous staging and unlocalized settings in
both public and private theatres allowed for an easy interplay between
illusion and reality. Dening Jacobean private theatre as mannerist,
Keith Sturgess does not argue for any signicant difference in indoor and
outdoor acting styles, but nds that the combination of indoor venue and

This is from the Knavery in all Trades (ascribed to John Tatham), quoted in Bentleys Jacobean
and Caroline Stage (Oxford: Clarendon, ), pp. . It is from a passage where several
gentlemen reminisce about the plays of Prince Charless men at the Fortune Theatre and about
actors such as, here, Richard Fowler. The plays of Prince Charless men are outside the scope of
this study, and the status of this reminiscence is of course somewhat doubtful, but the passage is
vividly suggestive in terms of the questions of convention, theatrical efcacy, and theatrical failure
that I will be taking up and which I think are pertinent to all Renaissance drama.
Shakespeare and the Popular Tradition in the Theater (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, ),
p. .
The Shakespearean Stage (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, ), p. . See
also Una Ellis-Fermor, The Jacobean Drama (London: Methuen, ), pp. .

Theatrical Convention and Audience Response

stylized acting produced, in plays such as The Duchess of Mal, a species of

melodrama which mixes farce and sentiment in a challenging way. The
transparent dramaturgy typical of adult companies was given another
layer in the private, indoor theatres of the boy companies, where adult
roles were acted by young boys. Michael Shapiros analysis of this is fairly
typical: boy companies played on the audiences dual consciousness of
reality and illusion. In tragedies . . . the use of child actors afforded the
spectator a detachment from material that threatened his own precarious social identity. The comedies . . . are studded with various devices
intended to remind the audiences of the actors behind the characters.
This book will not take issue with these estimations of the exibility
of the early modern stage and the dual consciousness of early modern
audiences; indeed, it may at times seem to take them too much to heart,
insisting as it does not only that Elizabethan and Jacobean drama was extremely self-conscious, but that it demanded an equal self-consciousness
from its audience as well. Where my discussion will differ from others
of its kind is in its insistence that the potential for failure of many of the
theatrical devices indigenous to or inherent in early modern drama is
an essential part of understanding their potential success. That is, to say
that Elizabethan and Jacobean playgoers knew only a non-naturalistic
mode of drama and were thus content with fragile illusions is not enough.
Ideas about realism or naturalism would certainly have been signicantly
different from our own, but my goal is to demonstrate that the drama
and its audience were very much aware of the limitations of the early
modern stage, and that the potential for dramatic representation to be
ridiculous or inefcient or incompetent was a constant and vital part
of audiences experience of the plays. External evidence of the potential
problems (and pleasures) with a practical and ubiquitous convention such
as taking dead characters off-stage, which we see in the epigraph above,
is unfortunately quite rare, but the evidence of such problems throughout the drama is I think visible in the plays themselves. The project of

Jacobean Private Theatre (London: Routledge, ), p. .

Children of the Revels (New York: Columbia University Press, ), pp. .
Sidneys famous objection to the violation of the unities is perhaps another piece of external
evidence of the potential strain on probability present in the drama throughout the period (see
Sidney, A Defence of Poetry, ed. J. A. Van Dorsten [Oxford: Oxford University Press, ]), pp. .
In The Jacobean Drama, Ellis-Fermor notes that the raggedness . . . to which repertory playing is
liable must have beset the Elizabethans ( p. ), but suggests that there was nevertheless a
ow of sympathy from auditorium to the stage and back again [which raised] the standard of
acting ( p. ). One of the best explorations of difcult, potentially awkward habits of staging
and stage effects within the plays themselves is George Fullmer Reynoldss The Staging of Elizabethan
Plays at the Red Bull Theater (New York: Modern Language Association, ).


this book will be to examine this evidence, to consider the relationship

between theatrical performance and failure, and to reconsider modern
scholarships relationship to the wealth of popular, now-obscure drama
that constitutes the vast majority of extant Elizabethan and Jacobean
play-texts. In undertaking this project I endeavor to consider Elizabethan
and Jacobean drama as broadly as possible and in doing so to provide an
essential larger theatrical context within which to think about the works
of Shakespeare.
Early modern tragedy, Jonathan Dollimore says in Radical Tragedy,
violates the cherished aesthetic principles which legislate that the ultimate
aim of art is to order discordant elements; to explore conict in order
ultimately to resolve it; to explore suffering in order ultimately to transcend it (p. , emphasis original). This is a view to which this book will
vehemently subscribe, with respect to comedy as well as tragedy. In my
discussions of failure and potential failure, however, I will also assume
that early modern dramas most vital effects come from the fact that
it attempts to cling to these cherished aesthetic principles even as it
agrantly violates them. The value and effectiveness of the violation can
be measured only in relation to the drive for coherence. A brief example
will serve to illustrate this point. Beaumont and Fletchers early comedy
The Woman Hater is a play that concerns a misogynist (Gondarino), the
woman he hates (Oriana), the Duke who loves her, two spies, two prostitutes, two ofcious advisors to the Duke, a pander, a mercer, and a
hungry courtier character desperate to partake of an exotic shs head
that is to be served at the Dukes table. By the end of the play, which
acts simultaneously like a humors comedy and a city comedy, Gondarino
has been punished by being tied to a chair and teased by women; the
Duke has tested Orianas chastity (Gondarino accuses her of being
a whore) by asking one of his advisors to pretend to try to rape her;
and the hungry courtier, after being arrested for and then exonerated of
treason (the play is partially a satire of post-Gunpowder Plot London),
has given up his desire for the sh-head after being married to a prostitute. The way in which the plays multiple plots and its various pairings
jostle against one another and complexly resonate with the plays title,
with its overarching themes, and with its theatrical and political context creates a kind of potential interpretive cacophony that is exemplary
of everything literary criticism has tended to nd incoherent, silly, or
obscene about early modern drama. At the same time, the extent to

Chicago: University of Chicago Press, .

Theatrical Convention and Audience Response

which each part of the play resonates with every other part creates
a surfeit of coherence, or potential coherence. Playwrights construct
plays that contain and interconnect a dizzying number of levels, to the
point that the fundamental components of those levels plot and character are in danger of collapsing under the sheer weight of potential
After an introductory chapter on audiences and audience response,
I undertake a discussion of three well-noted conventions of Elizabethan
and Jacobean drama whose functionality has generally been but cannot
be, I think, entirely accounted for simply by pointing out that they are
conventions. These are: obvious, often superuous, largely sexual puns
and wordplay; asides; and expository speeches. Like Alan Dessen in
Elizabethan Stage Conventions and Early Modern Interpreters, I believe that
the key to understanding what is distinctive about [early modern]
drama . . . lies in the anomalies, the surprises, the moments that make us
aware of the full stretch of the dramaturgy, and that the consideration
of obscure plays of questionable merit on a serious and minute level
will help us better understand the terms upon which an Elizabethan
audience at a performance of Hamlet or King Lear agreed to meet (p. ).
Where this study will differ from and, I hope, add to Dessens, is in its
large-scale consideration not only of anomalous or surprising moments,
but also of moments, habits, and conventions in the drama that are so
pervasive that they all but demand to be taken for granted. My concern
with such moments is with the way that, deliberately or not, they call
attention to the articial relationships between dramatist and performer,
performer and role, stage and audience. The interpretations I offer of
these moments, and of their potential effects and effectiveness, will be
based on the assumption that repetition in the commercial theatre is a
good index of theatrical success: for a device to become conventional
it must be functional and give pleasure. But while the three pervasive
conventions I focus on are functional in fairly obvious ways, they are
frequently deployed or exploited in ways that would seem to y in the face
of functionality and pleasure. Form gets in the way of content. It is in such
inefcient moments that the value and function of convention are most
tested, and it is moments like these that most clearly reveal how audiences
and playwrights think about dramatic action and their own relationship
to it. The nal chapter of Part is a broader discussion of some other, less

Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, .


frequently noted conventions and what they reveal about the relationship
between convention and genre in Elizabethan and Jacobean drama.
In Part I undertake a more extensive discussion of genre, and
shift my focus from an audiences experience of specic kinds of
moments in the drama in general to its experience of plot and character
in comedy and tragedy. In order to make an argument that is usefully
specic as well as usefully general, I structure each chapter around close
readings of three plays that span the period with which this study is
concerned. In chapter , on tragedy, I discuss Soliman and Perseda,
Marstons Sophonisba, and Tourneurs The Atheists Tragedy; in chapter ,
on comedy, I discuss Beaumont and Fletchers The Captain, (anon.), How a
Man May Choose a Good Wife from a Bad, and Lylys Gallathea. Elizabethan
and Jacobean plays, I argue, are self-conscious about genre in the same
way they are self-conscious about conventional verbal and theatrical
devices: virtually every play in Renaissance drama announces its genre
quite explicitly, and operates under the assumption that an audience is
clear about what is expected of its response to any particular genre. But
the phenomenon of experiencing an Elizabethan or Jacobean play as
generically coherent involves another kind of self-consciousness as well:
the audience is constantly put in the position of having to react to events
that do not t with the generic demands it expects to govern the play. We
see this in Renaissance tragedys tendency to employ a variety of tragic
modes simultaneously or in rapid succession, each of which demands
both a visceral and a distanced response to events that are meant to horrify and move; and in Renaissance comedys thematization of laughter
by means of ostentatiously introducing into its movement episodes that
are not funny but are structurally presented as though they are. The
incoherent response which these processes provoke results in a disjuncture between the audiences experience of character and its experience of
plot. This disjuncture is signicantly different in tragedy and in comedy
and is of crucial importance to dening the nature of each: in tragedy,
the plays presentation and an audiences experience of character must
change from one moment to the next in the face of the actions absurdly
logical movement toward catastrophe; in comedy, the movement toward
resolution occurs improbably rather than logically, but the plays presentation and an audiences experience of character are almost always
consistent, no matter how ridiculous the turn of events.
In dening and describing audiences experience of plays, I repeatedly return in this book to notions of space, a term whose usage I should
clarify from the outset. When I use the term physical space, I refer to the

Theatrical Convention and Audience Response

actual stage, its physical features, and the physical and spatial relationships between characters and other characters, characters and props or
set, and characters and the audience. When I use the term theatrical
space, I refer to the metaphorical space which the physical space
of the theatre allows to be created: a space collectively shared by the
audience, wherein the physical space of the stage is transformed by
representation and illusion; where words, characters, and events are
understood metaphorically or guratively even while the literal, physical features and limitations of the stage continue to make themselves
known. Extending the spatial metaphor, I frequently refer to audiences
or characters being inside or outside of the events happening on stage.
The term inside refers to moments when audiences are aware, or when
characters show an awareness of the physical space only insofar as it
allows them to become more or less wholly invested in the signicance
of the theatrical space referring repeatedly to a stage-column as a
tree, for example. Outside refers to those moments when the articiality of both kinds of spaces is self-consciously evident, to audience or
characters or both moments such as A Midsummer Nights Dream ., the
mechanicals rehearsal, where Quince refers to a hawthorn brake as
the tiring house, and then sends Bottom into that brake, only to see
him return a few moments later newly attired with the head of an ass.
The difcult process of making a connection between extremely limiting
physical space and extremely liberating theatrical space, and the energy
that results when the process is successful, is I think the distinguishing
characteristic of Elizabethan and Jacobean drama.
The period this book covers is , and it has been important to
my project to take into account as many as possible of the extant plays
produced in that period. Occasionally I may seem to pursue the discussion of obscure plays simply for the sake of doing so, and at the expense of
more familiar examples from Shakespeare or other major playwrights.
It is my hope that the nuisance of such moments is outweighed by the
advantages of looking more broadly than we yet have at the minutiae
of the lesser-known Elizabethan and Jacobean drama; to this end, we
might begin to better contextualize, even reunderstand, the minutiae
such as that of Shakespeare we have come to know so well.
The prevailing orthodoxy at least since Alfred Harbages Shakespeares
Audience has been that one can better understand the plays of the English

New York: Columbia University Press, .


Renaissance if one better understands their audiences. In this book

I want to suggest something different: that one can better understand
the audiences of the English Renaissance if one better understands the
plays they watched. That is, the plays contain within themselves most
of the evidence needed to understand what audiences expected and
enjoyed and experienced. In order to make a convincing case for this,
one must look at a great many plays, and look at them quite closely.
Thus in this book I will assume that plays that have been labeled as
minor, and have been condemned to relative obscurity, have the same
kind of linguistic and dramatic complexity as the works of Shakespeare,
and are worth looking at as closely. One important goal of working
from these assumptions will be to draw some conclusions both about
sixteenth- and seventeenth-century audiences, and audiences in general,
and to do so without the bias betrayed in audience studies with titles
like Shakespeares Audience, Shakespeare and the Rival Traditions, The Privileged
Playgoer in Shakespeares London, The Shakespearean Stage, and Playgoing in
Shakespeares London. I do not claim to be discovering new masterpieces
or building a new canon, nor even to be establishing a new tradition of
audience study, but rather to be developing an approach to Renaissance
drama that will give students of the drama a more accurate picture of
the nature, variety, and scope of the drama than the massive Shakespeare
text and criticism industry otherwise might.
We know from their textual histories, their revivals, and the number
of allusions to them that The Spanish Tragedy and Doctor Faustus and Hamlet
were particularly popular; we know from the extraordinary number of
editions it went through (sixteen between and ) that Mucedorus
was probably very popular; we know of the success of A Game at Chess;
and we know that Sejanus was so unpopular as to be driven from the
stage. The vivid idea we have of these plays reception is quite unusual;
more commonly we have to rely on the sifting effects of time to decide
what plays are worth considering as representative of the periods drama.
But given the massively disproportionate number of modern editions of
Shakespeare to editions of virtually all other playwrights of the period, it
is obviously not the case that only those plays that have stood the test of
time are representative of the drama, or even the plays that Elizabethan
and Jacobean audiences would have preferred. When one considers that,
as we see in Henslowes Diary entries for , many new plays such as
the marchant of eamdon or Deoclesyan were performed once and
apparently never again; or that the ve performances in July of
bellendon were extraordinary even for a new play (bellendon rst

Theatrical Convention and Audience Response

appears in June of that year), it is clear that the enduring popularity of,
say, Tamburlaine was the exception rather than the rule, and that the
greater part of a companys commercial success came from its ability to
constantly present audiences with something never before seen. The
plays, and the conditions under which they were performed and seen
have about them a sense of deliberate, exuberant haste a sense of
expendability simultaneously suggested by the nature of the repertory
system and belied by the way in which playwrights constantly returned
to, built on, parodied, or even simply stole one anothers plots, characters,
and devices.
Chapter examines the nature of Elizabethan and Jacobean audiences and the responses they expected and were expected to have in the
theatre. Here, I am not much interested in analyzing audience response
by dividing audiences into ever smaller and more specic groups. Instead, I argue that the differences between different kinds of audience and
different kinds of playgoers, as laid out in the audience study-tradition of
Harbage, Cook, and Gurr, were very much differences of degree rather
than kind: Elizabethan and Jacobean drama seems to be very sure of the
response it wants from its audience as a whole at any given moment. The
arguments formulated in chapter inform all subsequent analysis, and
are present in the term audience as it is used throughout: the audience I
imagine in chapter is the audience I imagine Elizabethan and Jacobean
dramatists to have imagined, and the audience for which the effects I
describe would have been most effective. At the same time, however, one
major project of this book is to demonstrate that non-Shakespearean
drama can be taken more seriously than it has been on the modern stage
as well as in the modern classroom, and to this end I often use terms like
the audience, an audience, and we interchangeably and ahistorically. I rarely use the term reader, but this does not imply an absolute
privileging of theatrical over readerly audiences nor that my extremely
minute close readings of theatrical language and action are valuable
only when manifested as actual theatrical choices. As the work of critics such as Gary Taylor and Harry Berger, Jr. has shown, any good

The Diary of Philip Henslowe, ed. R. A. Foakes and R. T. Rickert (Cambridge: Cambridge University
Press, ). Even Tamburlaines power as a box ofce draw was limited in the long run. The novelty
of an apparent revival on August produced very high box ofce receipts ( s, compared
to s for Mahomet the day before and s d for bellendon the day after), but the receipts
and rate of performance after this become gradually more ordinary until May , after which
the play only appears twice more (August and November) that year.
Moment by Moment in Shakespeare (London: Macmillan, ).
Imaginary Audition: Shakespeare on Stage and Page (Berkeley: University of California Press, ).


interpretation or performance of a play must contain strong elements of

readerly as well as theatrical analysis, and I try throughout to maintain a
balance between them. My willingness to use the ahistorical we derives
from what I hope my analysis shows to be an accurate estimation of the
plays potential as theatrical and not simply historical objects. This we
has given me rhetorical as well as analytical freedom, and will I hope
do the same for others, to discuss the continuing theatrical viability and
vitality of many long-forgotten texts.

As it was acted to great applause: Elizabethan and

Jacobean audiences and the physicality of response

The purpose of this book is to explain how Elizabethan and Jacobean

drama works: what it assumes of its audience and how its audience experiences it and responds to it. If this project is to be successful, a working
notion must be developed of what is meant by the term audience, and
in particular of that term as it applies to a group of playgoers for whom
the plays under discussion can be imagined to have been written. That is
the aim of this chapter. But the purpose of this book is also to invigorate
analytical and theatrical discourse around a body of largely forgotten
drama, and if that project is to be successful, the notion of audience
must be expanded to include modern and even future audiences. The
argument thus becomes more a phenomenological than a historical one.
That must, for the most part, be the aim of the subsequent seven chapters.
My own audience may wonder then why I begin with a historical
approach only to seem to discard it. The reason is this: signicant
distinctions between a Renaissance audience and a modern audience
are, like distinctions between different kinds of audience members in
any audience, more frequently made than necessary. Modern audiences
can understand and appreciate even the most bizarre conventions of
Renaissance drama; this is attested to by the enduring popularity of,
and the enduring willingness of directors to work with plays like
The Winters Tale, The Tempest, and Loves Labors Lost. The work of the seven
chapters that follow this one must be to show that these and the rest of
Shakespeares plays are for the most part simply of a piece with the
majority of extant Renaissance drama: if the phenomenology I argue
for in those chapters is convincing, it will be because the claims it makes
seem plausibly pertinent to hypothetical audiences of Shakespeare and
his contemporaries at any time. For now I will make certain claims about
Elizabethan and Jacobean audiences, and these claims will absolutely
pertain to the word audience as it is used throughout. But the claims
I make about Elizabethan and Jacobean audiences should at no time be

Theatrical Convention and Audience Response

seen as exclusive of possible effects a modern audience might experience.

It is essential to historicize audience response in order to be condent,
as I wish to be, in making claims about what playwrights expected of
dramatic action and their audiences; but it is then equally important
to dehistoricize audience response in order to argue for the continuing
vitality of a theatrical tradition.
Most of my historical evidence in this chapter will be antitheatrical
writings from between the years of and . These writings, I suggest, represent the darker side of theatrical pleasure in the period, but the
fact that they differ from protheatrical writings only in their estimation
of the virtue of the tremendous hold plays could have over audiences,
makes them a good index of the ways in which plays maintained this hold.
In using anxiety about the theatre as a way of introducing a discussion
of the pleasure of the theatre, I will lay the foundation for an ongoing
discussion of the way in which plays rely on and manipulate audiences
awareness of themselves and of dramatic artice, and the potential for
excess, self-indulgence, and failure, as well as for spectacular success that
this entails.
Twenty-eight purple lines into his Hecuba-speech in Hamlet, the Player
is interrupted by Polonius: This is too long (.. ). The audience,
having been taught that nothing Polonius says can be taken seriously,
laughs. The simple interpretation of this laughter is that one laughs
because one sees once again how Polonius is misguided in his judgment:
the speech is not too long. It is notable that the audience has this kind of
laugh at this point because it is prepared for quite the opposite reaction.
Hamlet himself speaks the rst part of the speech (lines ) and
Poloniuss response, Fore God, my lord, well spoken, with good accent
and good discretion (lines ), indicates either that the speech was
bad but Polonius does not know any better, or that the speech was bad but
Polonius is simply humoring Hamlet. An audience in , immersed
in the biting satire of the war of the theatres to which Hamlet and
Rosencrantz allude in lines , would probably have found Hamlets
vivid recollection of an old play amusing more than anything else and
would have been prepared to think of it somewhat sardonically. That is,
a remark like the one Polonius makes could only be made by a yes-man,
since everyone would know that such plays were out of style. Further,
Hamlet, who has shown himself to be up-to-date on matters theatrical

In order to minimize edition-related footnotes, I have cited all editions of plays discussed in this
study in the list of plays cited at the end.

As it was acted to great applause

in the way that his audience would be, might simply be playing another
verbal game with Polonius or the Player or both, the irony of which will
soon become apparent.
This would have been the audiences frame of mind as the Player
himself began to speak. If Poloniuss interjection at line is to have
the proper effect, however, there would have to be a moment in the
Players speech where the audience stopped thinking sardonically and,
even if only because of the Players genuinely good accent and good
discretion, began to take it seriously. At the same time, the sardonic
tendency could not be squelched entirely, because audiences are wary of
missing opportunities for irony. Thus Poloniuss line provides a moment
where the audience can remember how it is supposed to feel about
speeches like this. Hamlets own interruption of the speech just as it is
about to get going again (The mobled queen? [line ]) provides
similar breathing room and reintroduces the possibility that Hamlet is
simply playing a mysterious game. But that Shakespeare was aware of
the potential for this kind of speech actually to affect audiences seems
clear from the fact that he gives the player fteen more lines, at the end
of which Polonius and Hamlet are actually in agreement.
Look where he has not turned his colour, and has tears ins eyes.
Prithee no more.
Tis well, Ill have thee speak out the rest of this soon.
(lines )

If Polonius and Hamlet are not genuinely moved, Hamlets later use of
the players will not have much force. In this way Hamlet strikes a doubleedged blow in the war of the theatres, not only giving its audience the
satire and railing it expects and enjoys (as at lines or ), but
also making that audience susceptible to, and thus proving the effectiveness of, a public theatre style that even public theatre audiences of
would have claimed to nd silly. And still further, that same audience is
given with line an opportunity for irony that it can simultaneously
take and pass up Poloniuss line expresses what one would think one
should feel but, since it is spoken by Polonius, ends up also expressing
something worth disagreeing with.
I want to suggest that the multileveled experience I have just described
was among the chief pleasures Elizabethan and Jacobean audiences
looked for in plays, and that Hamlets consistent and highly efcient presentation of such experience was what made that play among the most
popular plays of its age. While I will not be discussing Hamlet very much

Theatrical Convention and Audience Response

throughout this chapter, I feel that it is a useful point of departure for a

discussion of what audiences value in plays because both contemporary
accounts and the subsequent centuries of criticism give ample testimony
to the plays ability to please all. It is worth noting, however, and
usually not noted, that when the author of Daiphantus, who is talking
about what an Epistle to the Reader should be, said this about Hamlet,
he went on to say that if his Epistle were like Prince Hamlet, it were
to be feared he would runne mad: In sooth I will not be moonsicke to
please: nor out of my wits though I displeased all. This conveys a certain
anxiety about the potentially frantic nature of something that tries to or
actually can please all, and this is an important point, which will become more relevant in later chapters where I discuss the plays potential
for failure.
The question of audience has become more and more fraught over the
last one hundred years, and has resulted in the tradition of audience
study we see most clearly in Alfred Harbage, Ann Jennalie Cook, and
Andrew Gurr. This tradition has generally presented audience study
and debate about audiences as a hard science. The four major works
on audiences in the last sixty years Harbages Shakespeares Audience
and Shakespeare and the Rival Traditions, Cooks The Privileged Playgoer in
Shakespeares London, and Gurrs Playgoing in Shakespeares London are full
of numbers, statistics, charts, measurements, and original documents, all
combining to create an impressive, quite exact picture of the playhouses
physical, social, and economic place in early modern England. There is
much classication: of popular and coterie plays and audiences in
Harbage; of privileged and plebeian plays and audiences in Cook; of
amphitheatres and halls, citizen and artisan audiences, and even
different kinds of mental composition in Gurr. All of this classication,
used to provide a context within which to consider the drama, gives on
the surface the impression of more rigidly segregated audiences and more
easily dichotomized audience tastes than the evidence actually yields up.

This phrase appears in the Epistle to the Reader of the Daiphantus (ed. Alexander B. Grossart
[ Manchester: Charles Simms, ]). For further discussion of Daiphantus and Hamlet see Josephine
A. Roberts, Daiphantus (): a Jacobean Perspective on Hamlets Madness, Library Chronicle
. (): . Roberts notes that Daiphantus demonstrates the way in which echoes of
Hamlets role could be combined in a skillful burlesque of the stock literary convention of the
tormented lover an idea that will be important to consider alongside the arguments I will make
in the nal chapter of this book.
Princeton: Princeton University Press, .
New York: Macmillan, .
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, .

As it was acted to great applause

Harbage can in some ways be seen as responsible for this: his separation of popular and coterie plays combined with his valorization
of the Shakespearean audience as an audience of the many inspired the desire to break down the idea of a sentimentalized popular
audience and to set up new, more accurate categories than popular and
coterie. Anne Jennalie Cook supplied the categories of privileged
and plebeian. Gurr, taking exception to these, reestablished a broad
category of playgoers, and then attempted to break that category into
the smallest pieces possible, searching for truth in a mosaic rather than
a panoramic picture. Audience study begets audience study, and the
search for new, more accurate categories is as seductive as the search
for a common humanity in a diverse audience and not always more
useful, as we see in Gurrs highly detailed but frequently redundant
The Shakespearean Stage, . The encyclopedic impulse obscures
the importance of the idea of a playgoing public which is at the heart of
even the later audience studies. Gurr, for example, provides surprising
evidence for unity in spite of his search for distinct categories, noting
that only by though not much before the . . . Red Bull and
Fortune served a distinctly less gentlemanly clientele than the hall playhouses in the City . . . and, in the summer, the Globe (The Shakespearean
Stage, p. ); and that there was essentially no class loyalty to specic
repertoires (p. ). And while Cook devotes much energy to implying
a distinction between privileged Londoners and the rest of the people
who lived there, she all but renders that distinction useless in terms of the
theatre by arguing that anyone who could go to a play was privileged.
The increasing exactness, especially in the economic focus, of audience
study may have moved us away from facile discussions of the common man, but it may also have begun to be unnecessarily paralyzing,
making it seem as though we cannot talk about the effects of a play on an
audience until we understand the exact composition of that audience.
But Antonios Revenge, an utterly unexpected sequel to Antonio and Mellida,
was acted at Pauls in , with presumably heavy indebtedness to the
ur-Hamlet of some ten or more years prior; was probably written to
capitalize on the popularity of Hamlet (probably rst produced in
and similarly indebted to the older play) and revenge tragedy; and was

Shakespeares Audience, p. .
James P. Bednarz says that Antonios Revenge was probably staged to capitalize on Shakespeares
revival of revenge tragedy and also argues, agreeing with Honigmanns The Date of
Hamlet, that Hamlets little eyases passage was added to the text in , shortly after the
staging of Poetaster, Satiromastix, and Troilus and Cressida. See Bednarz, Shakespeare and the Poets War
(New York: Columbia University Press, ), p. .

Theatrical Convention and Audience Response

then parodied by the Chapel Children in Poetaster the same year. And
the awareness each play assumes its audience has of the others, and the
way the plays themselves (especially Antonios Revenge and Hamlet) do not
conform very rigidly to what we might expect from their auspices, would
seem to suggest that we can to a large extent generalize a playgoing public
even while acknowledging that it was in no way homogenous.
One of the main problems with using audience study as a tool for
understanding plays, over and above London society of the sixteenth and
seventeenth centuries, is that the impulse to divide and classify inherent
in such studies can make arguing for a collective experience which is
what plays try to provide more difcult than it needs to be. Passages
like Middletons prologue to No Wit, No Help Like a Womans are frequently
invoked to prove the diversity of audience constitution and response:
How ist possible to sufce
So many ears, so many eyes?
Some in wit, and some in shows
Take delight, and some in clothes;
Some for mirth they chiey come,
Some for passion, for both some;
Some for lascivious meetings, thats their arrant;
Some to detract, and ignorance their warrant.
How ist possible to please
Opinion tossd in such wild seas?

This is what Cook quotes, by way of making this point: Besides the
various tastes of the audience, the playwright also had to contend with
distractions from the performance. It was a difcult, if not impossible task,
as Thomas Middleton openly confessed (The Privileged Playgoer, p. ).
But such an interpretation of this and other, similar prologues ignores the
fact that this kind of self-reexivity is a tool for unifying the spectators;
for making each person see him or herself good-naturedly as a part of an
unruly bunch, and also as someone above the ignorant who detract.
It seems to me that if Middleton had really been worried about the
diversity of tastes in his audience ruining his play, he would not have
risked taunting this audience quite so casually, or in such bad poetry.
Further, Cook omits from her argument and her quotation the last four
lines of the prologue, in which we see Middletons condence in being
able to get a diversity of collective response from his diverse audience.

Her footnote to the quotation, which does not give line numbers, even seems to suggest that she
has quoted the prologue in its entirety.

As it was acted to great applause

Yet I doubt not, if attention

Seize you above, and apprehension
You below, to take things quickly,
We shall both make you sad and tickle ye.

Open hostility to audiences from the stage is rare, even in the case of the
pugnacious Jonson. More typically, such hostility is saved for prologues
for readers, as in Websters Address to the Reader of The White Devil,
or the much less subtle Dedication to the Reader of Jonsons The New
Inn. The reason for these remarks is not the diversity of response, but a
collectively negative response, something with which Jonson was quite familiar; and the reason for putting these remarks on the page rather than
the stage is to avoid further such collective responses. In his plays, Jonson,
and others with gripes about audiences, are more carefully equivocal: remarks like the one about the man who will swear, Jeronimo, or Andronicus
are the best plays (Bartholomew Fair, Induction, lines ) assumes that
anyone in the audience who feels this way will laugh at himself, and that
the audience in general is in agreement about these old plays. Similarly,
his parody of theatre gallants in The Devil is an Ass (.. ) mocks the
members of the plays actual audience, but does so in a way that assumes
that the ironic laughter the joke will provoke will both give pleasure
and incorporate distracting behavior into the desired response. Above
all, playwrights seem simply to have wanted audiences that would pay
attention to their plays and laugh or be moved in the right places.
While we do not have very much evidence about how audiences felt
about specic plays or specic moments in specic plays, we do have a fair
amount of evidence about how plays and playgoing in general were perceived. Somewhat unfortunately most of this is negative evidence, in the

Jonsons rst prologue to Epicoene is in fact highly solicitous or at least seems to be. Comparing
poets to cooks and audiences to diners, Jonson condemns poets who will taste nothing popular
(line ) and promises that there will be cates t for ladies . . . lords, knights, squires, /. . . your
waiting-wench and city-wrens /. . . your men and daughters of Whitefriars (lines ). It is
difcult to see this as anything but disingenuous, coming from the pen of Jonson particularly in
light of the second prologue (occasioned by the Prince of Moldavia scandal that had Epicoene
suppressed in February ) in which all particular audience response is made subject to the
judgment of the poet (lines ). Examples from Jonson must always be considered rather separately but the idea of the rst prologue to Epicoene seems to be fundamentally similar to Middletons
attitude and the attitude of playwrights of the period in general: the audience is made a collective
when each person in the audience believes the play is specically speaking to him (or her).
Webster said that his play was acted, in so dull a time of winter, presented in so open and black a
theatre, that it wanted . . . a full and understanding auditory (The White Devil, lines ). Jonson
found his audience to be full of a hundred fastidious impertinents, who . . . make afdavit to the
whole house of their not understanding one scene (The New Inn, lines ).

Theatrical Convention and Audience Response

form of antitheatrical tracts and responses to them. This is unfortunate

because most of the antitheatricalists, with some notable exceptions such
as Gosson, did not really patronize the theatres or at least betray no
knowledge of plays specic enough to suggest that they did. And because
the antitheatricalists tended to repeat and even plagiarize each others
arguments, it can be difcult to take them seriously. In The Antitheatrical
Prejudice, Jonas Barish says that no antitheatrical pamphlet between
and makes an important dialectical contribution. Rarely do
they pursue an argument closely; more often they disintegrate into freeassociative rambles. They repeat themselves, and each other, without
shame or scruple (p. ). This dismissive point of view is seductive, but
also worth being somewhat wary of, as it potentially implies that the
Puritans ought to have imagined the possibility of a protheatrical prejudice, and engaged seriously with the opposition made a dialectical
contribution when it is clear from all their writings that this was quite
literally out of the question. If the antitheatricalists repeated the same
scriptures again and again as evidence for the Biblical proscription of
playgoing, it was generally not so much out of laziness as out of a sincere
conviction that the players and playgoers had to be made to hear what
was obviously true. Elbert N. S. Thompson, in The Controversy Between the
Puritans and the Stage, makes this point about Puritan redundancy and
without acknowledgment Northbrooke incorporated in his [Treatise wherein
Dicing, Dauncing, Vaine Playes, or Enterluds . . . are reproved . . . ] the words of a forerunner [ William Alley]; Stubbes described the subject matter of plays in almost
Gossons exact words, as if the passage were the common property of all Puritans;
and now we see how closely the author of the Refutation [of The Apologie for Actors]
was dependent on Stubbes . . . These passages reveal the intimate relation between the different Puritan attacks. In its argument there is nothing especially
new in the Refutation, but in its spirit evidences both of changed feelings and
changed conditions are noticeable. (pp. )

The changed feelings and changed conditions Thompson refers to

are that the moderate, more careful condemnation of the stage seen in
Northbrooke is gone by the time of the Refutation (), and that the
author of the latter work clearly writes with at least the feeling of a great
deal of public support behind him. Repetition in this case works only to
validate that which is being repeated, and the increasing vehemence in

Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, .

New York: Henry Holt, .

As it was acted to great applause

antitheatrical attacks would eliminate the need for nuance in or variation

on old arguments. Indeed, the arguments only get simpler in later years:
by the time of the Refutation, there is less attention to other idle pastimes
like dicing and dancing. Says Thompson, Of all the unlawful and articial pleasures devised by Satan, stage-plays, the author felt, were the
most impious and pernicious (The Controversy Between the Puritans and the
Stage, p. ).
As with the plays themselves, I assume that repetition in antitheatrical
writings is an index of perceived success, and a key to understanding
what the authors were trying to achieve with respect to their audience.
The antitheatricalists employed rhetorical methods similar to those of
the medium they opposed in order to persuade those who were not
clearly on one side or the other of the debate. The consistent repetition,
increasing in intensity, of antitheatrical arguments, culminating in the
massive and highly redundant Histrio-Mastix of William Prynne (),
shows that there was a sense among the antitheatricalists that the plays
themselves were always the same, both in substance and in their effects. Of course, a certain narrowness of mind can be blamed for this,
and one might easily argue that since the antitheatricalists were probably not going to plays they simply relied on the arguments of writers
like Northbrooke and Gosson, who did have theatrical experience, and
supplied the appropriate invective. But this argument is not entirely sufcient, since no protheatrical writer ever really contradicts the central
antitheatrical argument that plays teach audiences to do bad things.
Rather, they simply provide the opposite (but not mutually exclusive)
point of view. [W]hat English blood, asks Heywood in his Apologie for
Actors (),
seeing the person of any bold English man presented and doth not hugge his
fame, and hunnye at his valor, pursuing him in his enterprise with his best
wishes . . . as if the Personater were the man personated, so bewitching a thing
is lively and well spirited action, that it hath power to new mold the harts of the
spectators and fashion them to the shape of any noble and notable attempt. (Br)

This is itself a repeated idea among the defenders of the stage, and I will
return to it later. I introduce it here to emphasize that the perception of
plays as having an importantly collective effect is a constant on both sides
of the debate, and that the issue at stake is whether the effect is positive
or negative. Even when Heywood, or Lodge, admits that different plays
might have different (negative rather than positive) effects, the focus is
collective rather than individual.

Theatrical Convention and Audience Response

. . . if you [Gosson] had reprehended the foolish fantasies of our Poets nomine non
re which they bring on stage, my self would have liked of you and allowed your
labor . . . I abhor those Poets that savor of ribaldry: I will with the zealous admit
the expullcion of such enormities; Poetry is dispraised not for the folly that is in
it, but for the abuse which manye ill wryters couller by it.

The argument is that certain plays affect whole audiences negatively,

not that certain audience members make of good plays bad ends. The
antitheatricalists and those actors and playwrights who respond to them
do not make much of a distinction between public and private theatres
or privileged and plebeian playgoers. While in each case this obviously
reects an agenda to lump all playgoers and players together as sinners
or as saints I think it also indicates fairly clearly that, outside of individual playwrights quarrels with audiences, the pleasures and perils
of playgoing were seen by Londoners on both sides of the debate as
applicable to any member of any audience of any play.
It will be useful here to list some of the most common repetitions in
antitheatrical literature between and . These are: a propensity
for voluminous lists of the evils in plays, the evil effects of plays, and/or
the evil people who patronize plays; a form that either mimics or seems to
mimic the form of the drama it is condemning; the presence of at least one
statement clarifying the difference between comedy and tragedy; and the
use of at least one metaphor involving food as a means of illustrating the
effects of the theatre. Obviously there are more common characteristics
than these. I have chosen these, and listed them in this order, because
I nd them to be particularly important for the issue of what kind of
experience antitheatricalists see plays providing, and because they will
allow me to move from a discussion of general trends in antitheatrical
criticism to specic moments in specic texts.
Philip Stubbess The Anatomie of Abuses () spends only about six
pages on plays (pp. ), but manages to cover most of the ground that
other writers cover in three times that number. The project of Stubbess
work is essentially to catalogue the various abuses in English society at
the time, and the overall structure necessitated by such a project is recapitulated at the level of individual chapters, paragraphs, and sentences.
For the sake of example I will quote at some length three passages from
the short section on plays. The rst discusses the stages abuse of the
sacred word of God.

Reply to Stephen Gossons Schoole of Abuse, in Thomas Lodge, A Defence of Poetry, Music, and Stage Plays,
ed. David Laing (London: Shakespeare Society, ), p. .
Ed. Frederick J. Furnivall. London: N. Trubner & Co., .

As it was acted to great applause

All the holy company of Heauen, Angels, Archangels, Cherubins, Seraphins,

and all other powers whateuer, yea, the Deuills themselues (as Iames saith) doo
tremble & quake at the naming of God, and at the presence of his wrath: and
doo these Mockers and Flowters of his Maiesty, these dissembling Hipocrites, and
attering Gnatoes, think to escape vnpunished? beware, therefore, you masking
Players, you painted sepulchres, you doble dealing ambodexters, be warned
betymes. . . . ( p. )

The second is on the evils that plays induce.

Do not they maintaine bawdrie, insinuat folery, & renue the remembrance of
hethen ydolatrie? Do they not induce whoredom & vnclennes? nay, are they
not rather plaine deuourers of maydenly virginitie and chastitie? For proofe
whereof, but marke the ocking and running to Theaters & curtens, daylie and
hourely, night and daye, tyme and tyde, to see Playes and Enterludes; where
such wanton gestures, such bawdie speaches, such laughing and eering, such
kissing and bussing, such clipping and culling, such winckinge and glancinge of
wanton eyes, and the like, is vsed, as is wonderfull to behold. ( p. )

And the third is on what one might learn from plays.

If you will learn to rebel against Princes, to commit treasons, to consume treasurs,
to practise ydlenes, to sing and talke of bawdie loue and venery: if you will lerne
to deride, scoffe, mock, & owt, to atter & smooth: If you will learn to play the
whore-maister, the glutton, Drunkard, or incestuous person: if you will learn to
become proude, hawtie, & arrogant; and nally, if you will learne to contemne
G and al his lawes, to care neither for heauen nor hel, and to commit al kinde
of sinne and mischeef, you need goe to no other schoole. ( p. )

These lists are typical of the rhetoric of antitheatrical writings in the

period. Compare, for example, Northbrookes warning against the slippery slope of taking pleasure in idle words; or Gossons discussion of
the behavior of audiences in The Schoole of Abuse; or I. G.s lists of the
matter and characters of plays in the Refutation of the Apologie for Actors;
or almost any page of Prynnes Histrio-Mastix.
While such passages certainly have a shrillness about them are in
fact stylistically among the chief reasons it is so easy now to dismiss
antitheatrical pamphlets with a laugh they also reveal quite clearly
what must have been one of the most powerful forces against which the
authors had to ght: audiences love of the variety offered by plays. The
lists give a sense of a wide variety of desires among playhouse audiences,

In his A Treatise against Dicing, dauncing, Plays, and Interludes, with Other idle Pastimes, ed. J. P.
Collier (London Shakespeare Society, ), p. .
Ed. Edward Arber (London: Alex Murray, ), p. .
Ed. Richard H. Perkinson (New York: Scholars Facsimiles and Reprints, ), pp. .

Theatrical Convention and Audience Response

and of the ability of plays to satisfy them all. They are almost a direct
inversion of Middletons prologue to No Wit, No Help Like a Womans;
the all-encompassing appeal of plays unites the disparate desires of the
spectators into a collective evil. At the same time, it is as though the
Puritan writers are attempting to drown out or substitute for the sumptuous variety of personalities, events, and costumes on stage, with their
own elaborate stylistic displays. Indeed Stubbess entire work seems to
epitomize this project. By providing an extensive, minute, and endlessly
colorful picture of Englands abuses, he attempts to draw readers away
from the abuses themselves. While other antitheatrical authors are not
always as successful as Stubbes, they are certainly on the same path. They
clearly take pleasure in writing these lists, and hope that their readers
will take pleasure in reading them; and that the attention and interest
sparked by this pleasure will lead to a realization of the truth of the words.
One might argue to the contrary that the repetition of such lists over time
would make them less pleasurable. It is probably true that by the fourth
or fth pamphlet one read one would begin skimming over the lists, but
this would come about because the claims of the lists began to be taken
for granted: the lists took on the status of a convention which one looked
for as part of ones experience when coming to a pamphlet.
Puritan authors, of course, would not have thought of their tracts or
the lists in them as fun, but rather as instructive. The primary function
of the lists is to show an awareness of all sides of a given issue (which
is not the same as a desire to give any credence to the opposing side).
Whether or not Stubbes or I. G. or Prynne has been to a play, each
seems to be encyclopedic in his knowledge of them, seems to know his
adversary well enough to justify his invective. This kind of rhetoric aims
at inspiring a sense of knowingness in the reader, and it is not necessarily
appealing only to those who agree with its argument. As the popularity
of Stubbess book would seem to demonstrate, even people participating
in the many abuses listed by the book took pleasure in reading about
them. The kind of pleasure involved in reading The Anatomie of Abuses, or
the more vigorous sections of the antitheatrical works, can be similar to
the kind of pleasure involved in watching the rst scene with the Players
in Hamlet. One can take pleasure in seeing a picturesque description of
certain activities one knows well or participates in, even as they are being
condemned; or one can feel that one sees the whole of the situation and is
therefore in a position to judge both sides. Obviously the antitheatrical

In Shakespeares Festive Comedy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, ) C. L. Barber says of

the Anatomies invective against May Day:

As it was acted to great applause

writers are looking for a positive judgment on one side and a negative
on the other in a way that Shakespeare is not, but they also seem to be
trying to harness the impulse that would obtain for plays as a step toward
converting the skeptical reader. Whether antitheatrical tracts were read
by avid playgoers who did not (like Lodge or Heywood) have a vested
interest in refuting them is uncertain. But they must have been read by a
fair number of on-the-fence Londoners, and this undecided readership,
those who perhaps found playgoing to be a slightly guilty pleasure, would
have accounted for much of the rhetorical usefulness of the lists I have
just discussed.
This undecided readership would also have accounted for the usefulness of the dialogue or quasi-dramatic form in which antitheatrical
tracts are written, and their apparent eagerness to clarify and dene dramatic genres. As to the rst of these, much could be and has been made
of the fact that Northbrookes Treatise is in the form of a dialogue between Youth and Age; that Gosson followed his Schoole of Abuse with Plays
Confuted in Five Actions; that Stubbess entire book is in dialogue form and
in fact creates an imaginary, anagrammatic land, Aligna, to stand in for
Anglia; and that Prynnes Histrio-Mastix is divided into two tragedies,
each consisting of thirteen acts, complete with prologues and choruses. Elbert Thompson sounds a useful note of caution with regard
to pursuing an ironic reading of tracts not as explicitly theatrical as
Gossons or Prynnes: to the Puritan, dialogue had no necessary connection with the drama. The Book of Job had that form; it was used by
Grindal . . . and later by Bunyan; and even to those Puritans unfamiliar
with Plato no inconsistency in Northbrookes method could have suggested itself (The Controversy Between the Puritans and the Stage, p. ). At the
same time, even while protheatrical respondents to the Puritans do not
make anything of the potentially self-contradictory form of the Puritan
writings, it seems hard to imagine that the irony would not occasionally
suggest itself to a reader, especially when it is obviously intentional, as in
Gosson and Prynne. The desired effect of this irony, from the antitheatrical point of view, can be seen magnied one hundred-fold in Prynnes
work which, as Barish says, both exploits the possibilities inherent in
It is remarkable how pleasantly the holiday comes through in spite of Stubbes railing on the
sidelines. Partly this appeal comes from shrewd journalism: he is writing a pleasant invective,
to use a phrase from the title of [Gossons] similar School of Abuse. Partly it is the result of the fact
that despite his drastic attitude he writes in the language of Merry England and so is betrayed
into phrases like sweet nosegays [ placed on the horns of oxen in May Day parades]. And his
Elizabethan eye is too much on the object to leave out tangible details, so that, astonishingly, he
describes this stinking idol [the May Pole] as covered all over with owers and herbs. ( p. ).

Theatrical Convention and Audience Response

[a dramatic] arrangement, and [creates] a running irony, to turn the

terminology of dramatic structure against its usual practitioners and
make it serve a godly rather than a satanic purpose (The Antitheatrical
Prejudice, p. ). As with the catalogues of abuses in and at plays, the
dramatic structure of the tracts allows the antitheatricalists to capitalize
on a readers desire to feel knowing and sophisticated, to feel that the
irony of a potential contradiction can be resolved neatly into a sound
A related but different appeal to the judiciousness of the reader is
involved in the statement of generic characteristics that can be found
in virtually every antitheatrical tract. Northbrooke provides an example
that is striking in its detachment from any antitheatrical argument. This
comes at the very end of the section on stage plays, just after Age has
laid down some rules for the acceptable academic use of theatre.
What difference is there, I pray you, between a tragedie and a comedie?
. . . a tragedie, properly, is that kind of play in the which calamities and
miserable ends of kings, princes, and great rulers, are described and set
forth, and it hath for the most part a sadde and heauy beginning and
ending. A comedie hath in it humble and private persons; it beginnith with
turbulent and troublesome matters, but it hath a merie ende.

Immediately after this passage, Northbrooke moves on to An Inuectiue

Against Dice Playing. This moment feels tacked on no judgment is
made about the virtues or relative virtues of either genre and also like
something Northbrooke thought essential to get in one way or another.
His successors feel the same way, but do more to make the generic
specications part of the argument against plays. I. G.s Refutation provides
a typical example.
To discribe the matter of prophaine playes, wee are to consider the generall
kindes of Playes, which is the Tragedy, and the Comedy. The matter of
Tragedies is haughtinesse, arrogancy, ambition, pride, iniury, anger . . . Of Comedies
the matter is loue, lust, lechery, baudry, scortation, adultery, vncleannesse,
pollution. ( pp. )

The need to make these kinds of generic claims seems tied to the antitheatricalists fear of the seductive variety provided by the theatre, and
bespeaks a desire to order that variety by means of categories with distinct characteristics (which nevertheless, as we see in I. G., sometimes
overlap), the better to judge them. At the same time, no author making
such generic claims makes them as though they are unknown rather,
there is a sense of amplifying with invective and hyperbole something

As it was acted to great applause

that is taken for granted. This again responds, I think, to an impulse the
Puritans saw in the audiences they were trying to convert or correct: the
impulse to give a single and simple name to an experience of great variety
and even disparity in its parts. That this impulse was something audiences
felt would seem to be at least partly corroborated by the title pages of
printed plays of the period, on which the genre of the play is almost always
mentioned; or by works such as Meress Palladis Tamia, which is incessantly, often tediously exact in its Comparatiue Discourse, dividing
authors into the best of various modes and genres, usually by means
of encyclopedic lists.
Each of the three repetitions I have discussed lists, dramatic or dialogic structure, statements of generic characteristics as well as the
repetition of similar or identical Biblical arguments by different authors,
is a deliberate rhetorical strategy. The authors employ these strategies
for specic stylistic reasons and, I have suggested, do so in response to
habits they perceive in the theatregoing public they are attempting to
convert. The repetition of food metaphors, however, is not something
the antitheatrical authors insist on, or seem concerned to call attention to. That is why I have singled it out as particularly important.
Food metaphors seem to be something that antitheatrical authors are
able to call up automatically as an obvious way of thinking about their
subject, and thus they represent something particularly inherent to the
writers assumptions about theatre. I now list some key examples, starting as far back as the early fteenth century, with the anonymous Lollard
piece, A Treatise of Miraclis Pleyinge. I list them to the end that we might
see both the development and the various expressions of the common
For right as the children of Israel, when Moyses was in the hil bisily preying for
hem, they mistristing to him, honouriden a calf of gold and afterward eetyn and
drinken and risen to playn, and afterward weren sleyn of hem thre and twenty
thousend of men . . . So this miraclis pleyinge is verre wittnesse of mennus averice
and covetise byfore . . . for that that they shulden spendyn upon the nedis of ther
neighbors, they spenden upon the pleyis. (Miraclis Pleyinge, pp. )
I marvayle why you do speake against such enterludes and places for
playes, seeing that many times they play histories out of the scriptures.
Assuredly that is very evill so to doe; to mingle scurrilitie with diuinitie,
that is to eat meate with vnwashed hands.
(Northbrooke, Treatise, p. )

Ed. Clifford Davidson (Kalamazoo: Western Michigan University Press, ).

Theatrical Convention and Audience Response

I may well liken Homer to Mithecus, and Poets to Cookes, the pleasures of the
one winnes the body from labor and conquereth the sense; the allurement of
the other drawes the mind from vertue, and confoundeth wit. (Gosson, Schoole
of Abuse, p. )
. . . those wanton spectacles . . . will hurte them more, then if at the Epicures
table they had nigh burst their guts with ouerfeeding. For if the body bee ouercharged, it may bee holpe; but the surfeite of the soule is hardly cured. (Schoole
of Abuse, p. )
. . . the exercise that is nowe among vs, is banqueting, playing, pipyng, and
dauncing, and all suche delightes as may win vs to pleasure, or rocke vs a sleepe.
(Schoole of Abuse, p. )
[Some say] that [plays] be as good as sermons, and that many a good
example may be learned out of them.
Oh blasphemie intollerable! Are lthie playes & bawdie enterluds comparable to the word of God, the foode of life, and life itselfe?
(Stubbes, Anatomie of Abuses, pp. )
[Whether plays] be diuine or prophane, they are quite contrary to the word of
grace, and sucked out of the Diuils teates to nourish vs in Idolatry, heathenry,
and sinne. (I. G., Refutation of the Apology for Actors, p. )
[Papal Rome showed its decadence] not onely in their great solemnities and
festivals, which were spent commonly in bellie cheare and Playes . . . much after
the fashion of the Israelites, sitting downe to eate and drinke, and rising up to
play: but specially in their rich Iubilies. (anon., A Short Treatise of Stage Plays, p. )
Those who are temperate and abstemious at all other times, prove Epicures and
drunkards [during Christmas revels]. Those who make conscience to redeeme all
other seasons, deeme it a point of Christianity to mispend all this, eating drinking, and
rising up to play, whole days and nights together. (Prynne, Histrio-Mastix, p.
[Ccccc v], emphasis original)
All the eloquence and sweetnesse therefore that is in stage-playes, is but like the
drops of honey out of a poysoned limbecke, which please the palate onely, but destroy
the man that tastes them. (Histrio-Mastix, p. [Hhhhhv], emphasis original)

These examples of the food metaphors are by no means all the same.
But the differences between the passages, combined with the fact that
they are all based on a common idea, reveals the idea of food generally
to facilitate an important conuence of a number of different but related
ideas about plays.
Here are some of the relevant associations I think there are between
food and playgoing in these passages: food and play showed the sin and

London, .

As it was acted to great applause

brought about the death of the Israelites in the desert, and are therefore
against Gods will; eating, like playgoing, and especially eating excessively,
is time spent indulging oneself when one could be serving or helping
others; food, like the sumptuous variety of sensory experience at plays,
provides the potential for surfeit, which is gluttony; eating, like playgoing,
requires leisure time, which can lead to idleness; food nourishes the body
as the word of God nourishes the soul, and as one destroys the body by
feeding it improperly (or starving it), so one destroys the soul by indulging
in things contrary to (or lacking) the word of God. This is all fairly obvious
from the passages and, above that, conventional. I present the list as a
synthesis rather than a revelation. What I want to look at more closely
is the attitude in these passages toward both the physical effects of plays
and toward the human capacity for self-control.
The author of the Treatise of Miraclis Pleyinge does not mean that the
Israelites in the desert put on a play after eetyn and drinken, but the
ease with which his analogy moves into a condemnation of miraclis
pleyinge hardly calls attention to the distinction between the two kinds
of play. Subsequent authors, as we see in the Short Treatise and Prynne,
are more than happy to continue the punning connection. Preceding the
easy phonetic slip into pleyinge, is the causally automatic association
of eating, drinking, and play. Once the Israelites have worshiped the
golden calf, they inevitably tend toward the misuse of nourishment and
free time. The Lollard author clearly has not spent a lot of time creating
his gure and analogy here, but the very automaticness with which food
and play get associated bespeaks the attitude that the misuse of one
inevitably leads to the misuse of the other.
We see a similar automatic association of banqueting and playing
as pernicious vices of the age in the third passage from Gosson, and in the
rst from Prynne. In the rst Gosson passage, the analogy between poets
and cooks makes explicit what is probably going on in each authors mind
in the other works. Here, both food and plays are seen as inescapable
traps of gluttony. The diner or the playgoer is a relatively passive victim,
conquered or confounded by the sensory feast before him. What
is more, the distinction between the works of the poet and the cook
is initially even more blurry than one would expect. The structure of
Gossons analogy turns out to be chiasmatic Poet: Cook. Food: Poetry
but one could quite easily think at rst that the one winnes the body

Prynne makes a similar analogy, citing the Roman Mariuss claim that he kept never a stageplayer nor costly cooke about him, as other voluptuous, effeminate, dissolute Romans did
(Histrio-Mastix, [ Mmm v])

Theatrical Convention and Audience Response

from labor and conquereth sense was the rst part of a formerlatter
construction, and referred to the poet and poetry rather than to the cook
and food. Thus the differences between labor and vertue, sense
and wit, which are meant to be the differences of things physical and
things mental, also become blurred so that the upshot seems to be that
going to plays destroys you both physically and mentally. This is similar to
what happens in Northbrookes gure, where the discussion of meate
makes diuinitie into something that one almost consumes physically
simply by representing it or seeing it represented. There is the sense
that once you have mixed divinity with your vain play, you have set a
disease in motion in your body: it is not within your power any longer
to control it.
Even as there is this identication of playgoing with poisoned or unnourishing food, there is also the implicit claim that playgoing is worse
than eating too much, or eating the wrong kind of food. For, as Gosson
says, if the body bee overcharged, it may bee holpe; but the surfeite of
the soule is hardly cured (Schoole of Abuse, p. ). Underlying this notion
is the idea in the central argument of Stubbes, where plays are opposed
to the word of God, the foode of life, and life itselfe. Stubbes begins his
discussion of plays by invoking the gospel of John and the equivalence
of the word and God: Wherefore, who so euer abuseth this word of
our God on stage in playes and enterludes, abuseth the Maiesty of G
(Anatomie of Abuses, p. ). And since the word of God is the foode of
life, indulging in something contrary to that word is to eat the food of
death. Nowhere is this more clearly expressed than in the Refutation, with
its metaphor of the Diuils teates (to which Prynnes discussion of eloquence and honey runs a close second). This last passage brings together
a number of related and slightly contradictory ideas oating around in
all of these passages: that plays, like the word of God, are a form of
nourishment, but the wrong kind; that the nourishment is taken both
voluntarily (one wants to eat) and passively (one must eat, or satises an
appetite automatically, as an infant would); and that the nourishment
affects the body (draws it from labor, tempts it with idleness, leads to
other kinds of gluttony), but even more the soul (takes over the mind,
replaces the word of God with something else). If we take as the basic
metaphor at work in all these passages that plays are like, in Gossons
words, a feast at the Epicures table, the general idea seems to be that
one cannot help partaking of this feast once one comes to the table, that
ones sense in all senses of that word is overcome, that the satisfaction
of the appetite only increases that appetite, and that the food begins to

As it was acted to great applause

destroy one both inside and out. Nowhere do the authors suggest that
one might be able to check the appetite once the fruit, as it were, has
been tasted.
That the antitheatricalists did not labor to create these connections
that they were, rather, fundamental to their, and others way of thinking
about the theatre seems clear from the fact that the defenders of the
stage do not labor to respond to them; Heywood and Lodge, who are
responding quite directly to most of the literature noted here, do not
much talk about food. Where they do overlap with the ideas of selfcontrol and experience at work in the antitheatrical tracts, the defenders
of the stage actually seem to agree with their adversaries; arguing from
the same assumptions about the effects of plays on audiences, they only
put a more positive spin on their conclusions.
Even though he nds Heywoods Apologie for Actors to be the only comparable attempt [after Sidneys Defence] to defend the theatre itself in the
period (The Antitheatrical Prejudice, p. ), Jonas Barish shows little admiration for the tract. Peppering his discussion with words like absurd,
inept, and clumsy, Barish faults Heywood for managing, like the
Puritans, to befog the distinction between the real and the imaginary
( p. ).
. . . when he attempts to defend the public stage, Heywood manages to push the
argument into absurdity at once, by alleging as his prime instance of the power
and the glory of the stage the rape of the Sabines, the signal for which was
given by Romulus at the theater. This extraordinary example in effect not only
concedes, but actively espouses, the thesis of the opposition. For the adversaries
of the stage never doubted its hold over audiences; they simply considered that
hold a malignant one. Northbrooke had actually cited the incident of the Sabine
women as an instance of the iniquity of the theater. ( p. )

Whether Heywoods defense is adequate or not, what is striking is the

correspondence between defenders of and detractors from the stage in
their assessment of the theatres effects precisely their inability, or perhaps unwillingness to separate the real and the imaginary. And if
both the Puritans and their adversaries were willing to argue publicly
that a play could affect reality and the lives of its audience, it seems more

Jonson, of course, uses the food metaphor in the rst prologue to Epicoene (see above, footnote ),
and the off-hand manner in which he does so stresses that metaphors conventionality. Jonson
will later use a similar metaphor in the prologue to The New Inn.
While Lodge tends to see more abuse in plays than Heywood, he also holds that, were plays
as pure as they could be, they would allow audiences to decypher the abuses of the world
(A Defence of Poetry, p. ).

Theatrical Convention and Audience Response

than safe to assume that this is the kind of assumption playgoers would
have brought with them to the playhouse. I should make it clear at this
point that I am not arguing one way or the other about whether plays
actually had or have an effect on reality that is, whether it is possible
not to befog the distinction between the two only that playwrights
and play-opposers and playgoers alike seem genuinely to have believed
in the possibility.
The attempt to present positively the physicality of effect or response
suggested by the antitheatrical food metaphors can be seen not only in
something like Heywoods example of the rape of the Sabines, but also
in descriptions like the one that follows, from An Excellent Actor,
which is somewhat less invested in defending than simply describing
the stage.
. . . by a ful and signicant action of body, [the actor] charmes our attention: sit
in a full Theater, and you will thinke you see so many lines drawen from the
circumference of so many eares, while the Actor is the Center. (p. )

An ideal performance is one where there is a sense of physical and

emotional connection between audience and actor; the shape of this
connection seems to mimic the physical shape of the theatre itself.
Thus it is signicant that Hamlets long speech after the Player is
gone (.. ) tends notably toward physical imagery. Three times
in the rst fteen lines, he mentions the Players weeping. The hypothetical audience is also physically susceptible to the words the Player
speaks: these words will cleave the general ear (line ). Further on,
Hamlet hopes that the play he will give the Players will make murder,
though it have no tongue . . . speak / With most miraculous organ (lines
). Upbraiding himself for his cowardice, he asks, Who calls me
villain, breaks my pate across, / Plucks off my beard and blows it in my
face, / Tweaks me by th nose, gives me the lie i th throat / As deep as to
the lungs? Who does me this?, and laments that all he can do is like a
whore unpack my heart with words, / And fall a-cursing (lines ).
The audience is meant to, and I think does, see the logic of this does feel

Lest this argument begin to seem too much to be presenting a quaint picture of credulous
Elizabethans standing agape with passion at the high astounding terms of their theatre, I should
make clear the probably obvious fact that modern audiences and critics and students of all kinds
of dramatic literature and performance (Brecht is one prominent example) similarly believe in
the possibility that representation can and does affect reality.
In The Conceited Newes Of Sir Thomas Overbury And His Friends: A Facsimile Reproduction of the Ninth
Impression of of Sir Thomas Overbury His Wife, ed. James E. Savage (Gainesville: Scholars
Facsimiles & Reprints, ), pp. .

As it was acted to great applause

that Hamlet should be able to act because mere plays do move spectators
emotionally as well as physically.
I am not saying that this connection is logical, only that it seems so;
and it seems so, I think, not only because of the correspondence between
world and stage which plays (and thus audiences) are always ready
to make, but also because of the fact that plays fundamentally and always
seek a specic physical response: applause. I cannot say for certain, but
it seems to me that more than any other drama, early modern drama
talks about and openly solicits applause. To call attention to this as an
example of the belief in a direct, collective physical response as a measure
of a plays value might be merely ingenious if it were not for this passage
from Prynnes Histrio-Mastix:
if we believe Tertullian, these Applauses so pollute mens hands, that they can neither lift
them up to God in prayer, nor yet stretch them out to receive the Sacrament in an holy manner.
God requires Christians to lift up holy hands to him in prayer: to bring cleaned, washed,
pure hands and hearts unto his sacraments, not tainted with the lth of any sinne. Now
Stage-applauses dele mens hands and hearts, making them so polluted, that
they can neither lift them up in prayers . . . nor yet extend them to embrace
Christs saved Body and Blood, without delement. ( p. [Qq v], emphasis

This is the most negative possible expression of the idea we have seen
presented glowingly in An Excellent Actor, where the actor is the center
of a circle whose circumference is the audience, and whose radii are
each spectators relationship with the actor. In both cases the words and
actions of the stage, either pleasurably mutable and transitory, or vain and
unholy, have a direct line to the spectators body and soul; either infuse
or infect it; move it to the greatest affection or the worst delement. The
audiences response is in the rst case a measure of the plays worth, in
the second of the spectators; it is therefore worth noting that Claudiuss
response to The Murder of Gonzago is a vexed representation of both.
The preceding pages have attempted to give a general outline of the
possible nature of the receptivity of an Elizabethan and Jacobean playgoing public. I want briey to review the claims I have made here, in the
interest of consolidating the assumptions I am making about audiences
which will govern the analysis of the plays that follows. Elizabethan and
Jacobean audiences enjoyed the theatre for its variety the variety of
events portrayed on stage, the variety of characters played day to day or
even scene to scene by single actors, the variety of emotions it provoked,

Theatrical Convention and Audience Response

and the variety it provided in the routine of daily life. These audiences
enjoyed the self-reexivity of the theatre Hamlets discussion of the
boy companies, for example and the feeling of being in on all the
jokes this self-reexivity provided. They enjoyed maintaining an ironic
distance from the action or words on stage, and also losing that distance,
and then being made aware of moments when they had lost it. They
enjoyed going to the theatre for reasons other than seeing the play
to see and be seen by others, to loiter about, to meet members of the
opposite sex, to show off new clothes. They enjoyed complex, multileveled plays which they could nevertheless easily classify as tragedies
or comedies. They enjoyed thinking of themselves and being thought
of as a collective entity, whose collective response quite powerfully determined the value of a play. And above all they enjoyed and playwrights
enjoyed them responding, visibly, audibly, and physically: the transparent self-reexivity of the language and the dramaturgy, like the relative
bareness of the stage and brightness of the theatre, would have made this
both inevitable and essential.

Meat, magic, and metamorphosis: on puns

and wordplay

A huge, bare, outdoor stage, like the Globe, or a smaller, bare, indoor stage on which audience members were allowed to sit, like the
Blackfriars, would have required an actor to be acutely aware of space:
of the physical space between actor and audience, and of the more
metaphorical theatrical space within which the sense of an illusion
would have to be developed. The silence must indeed have been deafening to an actor speaking a soliloquy in Websters White Devil before
a sparse crowd in the open and black Red Bull theatre, especially
if the auditory was not a sympathetic one; and the antics of a gallant like the one described by Jonson in The Devil is an Ass could certainly be expected to rival the events on the stage, occurring as they
would have been at the front of it. Whether too close to or far from
the stage, the spectators very visibility made quite denite demands
on both the physical and metaphorical space of the theatre: a constant
sense both of illusion and of awareness of illusion as illusion had to be
maintained. Extravagant, stylized, often bloody spectacle was one way
of meeting these demands, and it will be discussed at further length in
chapter . First, however, I want to look at the smaller, verbal equivalents
of such spectacle the linguistic habits or tics for which Renaissance
drama is so well known and which have become virtually dismissible
as conventions. These are: puns, asides, and expository speeches. I
deal with each in turn over the course of this and the following two
chapters, attempting to account for the way in which each works to
ll the physical and theatrical space with the sound of an audiences
Discussions of puns and wordplay in or out of Renaissance drama, by
critics as diverse as William Empson, Patricia Parker, Walter Redfern,
Debra Fried, and Stephen Booth tend to focus on complex, hidden
puns; extended systems of ideational puns; and potential or unmade

Theatrical Convention and Audience Response

puns puns for which often only the raw materials exist. And most
good discussions of the language of any Renaissance dramatist or play
spend a fair amount of time discovering and illuminating exciting, ambiguously intentional but undeniably pertinent wordplay. What seems
always to fascinate are moments of accidental, potentially uncomprehended, often non-signifying connections and echoes: the weird accidents, amazing ashes, and lucky hits that the one-armed bandit of
language dishes up. Such ashes are always potentially part of an audiences or readers experience, but much of the joy of the criticism,
and the joy the criticism nds in the works it studies, has to do with
the fact that these puns occur and work whether or not an audience
notices them. This kind of analysis is more immediately satisfying than
the analysis that will occupy the rst two-thirds of this chapter, because
the potential for new and surprising connections between thematic and
semantic elements is great. I have chosen to go a different direction because I want to talk about what Elizabethan and Jacobean playwrights
thought, and assumed their audiences thought about puns and similar
wordplay; and I want to talk about what kind of experience puns provide that made them such a valuable theatrical commodity. The most
efcient way of doing this is to look at obvious, surface-level puns: puns
that are not only obviously intentional, but difcult not to notice.
Such puns as these are presented casually, in an offhand manner, and
with a self-conscious condence that they are all clever and necessary.
Their casualness is studied, such as to imply that everyone will get the
jokes. When a play is as full of puns as, say, Marstons The Insatiate Countess
or Middleton and Dekkers The Roaring Girl, one has little time to guffaw
at each one. Rather, one must adopt an attitude of some sophistication,
of seeing punning and wordplay as inevitable and necessary, and of
condence in ones ability to absorb it all; one can feel privately clever
while also feeling ones cleverness afrmed and sanctioned by the openly

Raw materials is Booths term, which he uses in a number of his essays. I cite it from the rst
page of Close Readings without Readings in Shakespeare Reread: The Texts in New Contexts, ed.
Russ McDonald (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, ), pp. .
Debra Fried, Rhyme Puns, in On Puns, ed. Jonathan Culler (Oxford: Blackwell, ), p. . Fried
does not deal exclusively with Renaissance drama, though she does spend some time discussing
the heirhair pun that is frequent in Shakespeare and also discussed by Booth.
In her essay Interpreting through Wordplay (in Teaching with Shakespeare, ed. Bruce McIver and
Ruth Stevenson [ Newark: University of Delaware Press, ], pp. ), Patricia Parker
voices a similar, less accident-focused idea to Frieds. Speculating about the importance of wordplay that occurs between different versions of the same play, or even different plays, she suggests
the possibility that such networks are part of an independent homophonic or metaphorical logic
(p. ).

Meat, magic, and metamorphosis: on puns and wordplay

private cleverness of everyone else in the audience. These puns and the
apparently unquenchable desire to make them, suggest that theatrical
language and situations were seen as transparent enough, as so invested
in lling each moment with as much stimulus as possible, to indulge and
delight in complexity for its own sake.
We must work very hard not to think of such indulgence as a perversion or exaggeration of a more aesthetically sophisticated, obviously
preferable subtlety. Rather, it is so prevalent, so all-pervasive in the best
and worst drama of the period that it must be seen as one of the cornerstones of the fundamental kind of pleasure Elizabethan and Jacobean
drama sought to provide. When, in The Roaring Girl, Moll says that she
that has wit and spirit / May scorn to live beholding to her body for meat
(.. ), there are probably puns on wit ( penis/vagina) and spirit
(semen) in the authors minds which enrich the patterns of insinuation
in the play concerning Molls sexual ambiguity, and the ambiguity of
others desire for her. This is satisfying critically because it requires a
little digging and yields tangibly ephemeral results, but it seems unlikely
that such connections are part of the audiences conscious experience in
any but the most potential way. Most of what people enjoy in the theatre
in any period is what they experience at a surface, or possibly visceral,
level, and this would seem to be especially true of a period when so many
different plays were being produced so rapidly. This is why it is important that two playwrights as different as Heywood and Marston, in plays
as different as A Woman Killed with Kindness and The Insatiate Countess can
resort to virtually the same predictable pun on instrument (musical
instrument / penis) simply because it is convenient. Constant, unsubtle,

For puns on wit, see Stephen Booths note on Sonnet , lines in his edition of
Shakespeares Sonnets (New Haven: Yale University Press, ). For puns on spirit, see his
note on Sonnet ..
In Heywoods play, there is this exchange between the adulterous Anne and Frankfords loyal
servant Nick:
[ handing her the lute] There.
I know the lute. Oft have I sang to thee;
We are both out of tune, both out of time.
Would that had been the worst instrument that eer you played on!
(. )

Isabellas rst scorned lover, Roberto, in Marstons play nds at the end that he can forgive
Isabella, though she were More common than the looser songs of Petrarch, / To every several
zanys instrument (.. ). The end of Act and beginning of Act in Chapmans An Humorous
Days Mirth revolve around an elaborate and hilarious confusion over the phrase instrument of
procreation and the Queens concern over the fact that her husband seems to have lost his. In
that play the pun is not entirely musical, but somewhat more strained: the instrument turns out
to be Martia, whom the King is pursuing to make his lover.

Theatrical Convention and Audience Response

even strained puns keep the surface very active. When the surface is
active, the audience responds. Audiences know how to respond to puns:
by acknowledging that they get the joke. Puns beget more puns, and
when this is successful, the more puns the audience hears, the more it
wants. An audience that has a lot to respond to, and that enjoys responding, is a happy audience, and will probably come back to the theatre: the
evidence of that response the laughter or knowing smile or even groan
that puns require becomes an index of a plays success.
We can see playwrights seeking this evidence in the wide variety of
play on simple words in disparate contexts, and also in the somewhat
more striking moments of opportunistically inappropriate cleverness.
Kyd, hardly an inveterate punner, nevertheless nds the most inappropriate moment possible to make Hieronimo witty, giving him a pun on
discord and the cord that took his sons life (The Spanish Tragedy, .
. ). This anticipates moments like .. of Titus Andronicus,
where Titus calls attention to the punning on hands that has been
virtually incessant throughout the play. Less jarring are the frequent notentirely-sexual puns on tale and tail, as in (anon.) The Old Wives Tale,
line , Taming of the Shrew .. , and Othello .. . The famous
son and sun puns of Hamlet (.. ) and Henry IV (.. ) have
echoes in The Shrew .. , Middletons Michaelmas Term .. , and
Roaring Girl .. . Puns on change (the verb) with either change
(a round of dancing) or Exchange occur more frequently than one
might expect see for example (anon.) Warning for Fair Women, line ,
(anon.) How a Man May Choose a Good Wife from a Bad, lines , Machin
and Markhams Dumb Knight, ., and Insatiate Countess .. and following. And puns involving angels (money or heavenly spirits), heart
and hart (or dear and deer), and horns (musical, animal, or
otherwise, always insinuating cuckoldry) are so common in so wide a
variety of contexts as not to require illustration.
One is equally in danger of claiming too much and too little for the
aesthetic value of these repeated, obvious puns. Using the complex workings of surface-level puns, critics such as Patricia Parker and Mary Bly
have argued persuasively that wordplay in the Renaissance can be vitally
political in its self-conscious theatricality: Shakespearean wordplay, says
far from the inconsequentiality to which it has been reduced not only by the
inuence of neoclassicism but by continuing critical assumptions about the

This scene occurs only in the Folio.

The sexual version also occurs in The Shrew at .. .

Meat, magic, and metamorphosis: on puns and wordplay

transparency (or unimportance) of the language of the plays [involves] a network

whose linkages expose (even as the plays themselves may appear simply to iterate
or rehearse) the orthodoxies and ideologies of the texts they evoke.

Bly, talking about the plays of the short-lived Whitefriars boys, says that
[s]ubcultures delight in puns, most markedly when subverting the cloying paradigms of a dominant ideology. Where my argument will differ
from these points of view is in its assumption that puns are formal devices
rst and foremost, and that the form of the theatre does not demand
the exposure or subversion of a dominant ideology. Theatre is most successful when it seems to erase distinctions between the members of its
audience: the laughter which puns can evoke be it knowing, embarrassed, shocked, or superior ultimately has a unied sound.
Stephen Booth, on the other hand, would probably say that obvious
puns are not much to talk about because their effect is observable and
observably nite. One gets the joke and moves on, and since context
has very little to do with getting the joke, the mind is not busied with
sorting out different levels of pertinence. More important are the halfand unmade puns, the diffuse, complex connections for which the language of the plays provides only the raw materials. These keep the mind
in a constant state of unobserved, and therefore undemanding activity,
with complex and satisfying, but never entirely tangible results. Booth
is right, I think, but it is also important to point out more clearly than
he does that overt punning and unintentional, unnoticeable punning
are closely related, and that the unignorable presence of the former in
Elizabethan and Jacobean drama is the key evidence that allows us to assume the importance of the effects of the latter. Exploring the connection
between overt, surface-level puns and submerged systems of wordplay
and metaphor will help us begin to understand the way in which almost
mechanical verbal conventions ( puns, asides, expository speeches) work
to create the sense of illusion that must ll the physical and metaphorical
space of the non-naturalistic theatre.
More than anything else, puns and verbal jokes in Renaissance drama
tend toward the sexual. Sexual wordplay is therefore perhaps the best index we have for understanding the phenomena of punning and wordplay
in general. As with non-bawdy puns like those on discord or change
noted above, the very ostentatiousness of many sexual puns makes clear
the length to which playwrights are willing to go to make the audience

Patricia Parker, Shakespeare from the Margins (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, ), p. .
Mary Bly, Queer Virgins and Virgin Queans on the Early Modern Stage (Oxford: Oxford University Press,
), pp. .

Theatrical Convention and Audience Response

make connections between relatively disparate semantic and ideational

elements. Licio in Lylys Midas says his mistresss head is round as a
tennis ball, which prompts his friend Petulus to create this joke:
I would my bed were a hazard.
Nothing, but that I would have her head there among other balls.
(.. )

In Haughtons Englishmen for my Money, Pisaro res his daughters schoolmaster Anthony for wooing the women on behalf of the Englishmen; he
believes Anthony has been trying to help the men get back their lands
and money, which Pisaro currently holds against their debts. Anthony,
however, protests that he acted out of concern for the mens love, not
their nances: Why sir, I taught them not to keepe a Marchants Booke,
or cast accompt: yet to a word much like that word Account (Ar, emphasis added). Pisaro, like Licio, does not react to the obscenity in any
way that suggests he has understood it: the obscenity is not for him, but
the audience. This is the case too in a moment of surprisingly incongruous impropriety in (anon.) King Leir: Cornwall tells Cambria that with
their newly declared engagements to Leirs daughters, they will have
the whole of England between them. Cambria replies, The hole!
How mean you that? Zlood, I hope / We shall have two holes between
us (. ). Cornwalls response is simply to clarify his meaning: the
whole kingdom. And Chough and Trimtram, accusing Russell of trying
to marry Chough to a whore in Middleton and Rowleys A Fair Quarrel,
embark on an extraordinary discussion of local geography that leaves
the issue at hand quite behind:
I could have had a whore at Plymouth.
Aye, or at Peryn.
Aye, or under the Mount.

The obvious joke about fellatio gets an added level of (im)pertinence from the faint suggestions
of maidenhead in head.
The countcunt pun is persistent in the period. Elimine in Chapmans Blind Beggar of Alexandria
cannot even bring herself to say the word Count, because it comes so neare a thing that I
knowe (. ). In Heywoods The Fair Maid of the Exchange the Cripple asks Bowdler if he has
been in prison lately, and Bowdler replies that no, he has been with a wench:
Ye lthy dog, I was encountred by a wench, I say.
In a wenches counter ! I thought no lesse: what, sirra, didst thou lie in the Knights ward,
or on the maisters side?
Neither, neither yfaith.
Where then, in the Hole?
(.. )

Meat, magic, and metamorphosis: on puns and wordplay

Or as you came, at Evil.

Or at Hockey Hole in Somersetshire.
Or at the hanging-stones in Wiltshire.
Or at Maidenhead in Berkshire; and did I come in by Maidenhead to go
out by Staines?
(.. , emphasis added)

The appeal of these moments is in their virtuosic vulgarity, which separates them almost entirely from what is actually going on on-stage. They
are like asides spoken by the playwright indicators of the possibilities
his language always holds, and markers for the level one should strive to
achieve in seeing those possibilities.
Most bawdy wordplay is slightly less ostentatious than this, less the
ingenious product of a highly specic semantic situation. Like nonsexual puns on hart and heart, or deer and dear, or horns,
or angels, the sexual puns that recur most frequently derive much of
their energy and usefulness from a broadly applicable vagueness. Play
on the word meat and similar words dish, mutton is one of
the most common sexual puns, and is particularly convenient because
it can be used in reference to either men or women. Thus in Roaring
Girl Moll can demand of Laxton, Am I thought meat for you that never
yet / Had angling rod to cast towards me? ( .. ), and thirty lines
later say that she will make her enemies know that she that has wit
and spirit / May scorn to live beholding to her body for meat ( lines
). Meat is opposed to rod in the rst case, a synonym for it in
the next. Mutton, of course, was slang for prostitute, and frequently
comes up in discussion of meat, either intentionally as in Lecherys lines
in Marlowes Doctor Faustus (I am one that loves an inch of raw mutton
better than an ell of fried stocksh, .. ); or unintentionally as
in Aminadabs blessing in How a Man May Choose: I say grace / . . . [for]
Mutton and beef . . . / And other meat thats in the house; / For racks, for
breasts, for legs for loins (lines ,). Meat can be bawdy even when
it is not meat, as in Dekkers If this be not a Good Play, the Devil is Int, ..
, where Narcisso says that he would love a woman but as I love a
walnut, to crush it, and peel it, eat the meat, and then throw away the
shell. And in perhaps one of the most sustained examples of play on the

Because I am focusing on recurrent bawdy wordplay I will tend to concentrate on these broadly
applicable puns and double meanings. Dictionaries of bawdy language, such as Partridges
Shakespeares Bawdy (New York: E. P. Dutton, ), James T. Henkes Renaissance Dramatic Bawdy
(Salzburg: Salzburg Studies in English Literature, ), and Gordon Williamss A Glossary of
Shakespeares Sexual Language (London: Athlone, ) are extremely useful in providing indices
not only of the recurrent wordplay, but also the most obscure, strained possibilities.

Theatrical Convention and Audience Response

word, Middleton, Jonson, and Fletcher ll The Widow with references to

meat a widow, Ricardo says, brings a man money and meat and
then let Ricardo end the play in this way:
[To Francisco as he exits] Stay, Stay, sir, Im as hungry of my Widdow,
As you can be upon your Maid beleeve it,
But we must come to our desires in order;
Theres duties to be paid ere we go further;
[To the audience] He that without your likings, leaves this place,
Is like one falls to meat, and forgets grace.
And thats not hansome, trust me, no,
Our rights being paid, and your loves understood,
My Widdow, and my meat, then dos me good;
I ha no money, Wench, I told thee true,
For my report, pray let her heart from you.

Sexual, gustatory, and theatrical pleasure come together in a word.

Wit is similarly versatile and frequent. Booth, following Herbert A.
Ellis, notes in his discussion of Shakespeares Sonnets and that
wit could mean penis as well as vagina, and we see examples
in (anon.) Arden of Feversham .: such kind husbands seldom want
excuses; / Home is a wild cat to a wandring wit ; in Jonsons Alchemist
.. : Is she in no way accessible? No means, / No trick, to give a
man a taste of her wit / Or so?; and in The Shrew .. :
Where did you study all this goodly speech?
It is extempore, from my mother-wit.
A witty mother! Witless else her son.

As meat has immediate pertinence to other sensual pleasures besides

sex, so wit always carries the weight of its primary sense, intelligence
or cunning a sense that is generally pertinent to the issues of adultery,
cuckoldry, or other bawdry that are raised around the obscene use of
the word. A sense of multiplicity of meaning is achieved more effortlessly
than it is in, say, the scene from A Fair Quarrel. The pleasure of being in on
a joke shifts slightly to the pleasure of knowing that jokes are everywhere.
This occurs with many common gender-specic puns as well. Among
the most common of these are quaint (cunt) and prick (either as
noun or verb). Sarpego in Chapmans The Gentleman Usher promises that
from the court masque this quaint duchess here shall see / The fault of
virgin nicety (.. ); the lusty king in Beaumont and Fletchers The
Maids Tragedy, thinking he is bound for pleasure as Evadne ties him up,

Shakespeares Lusty Punning in Loves Labours Lost (The Hague: Mouton, ).

Meat, magic, and metamorphosis: on puns and wordplay

asks What prettie new device is this Evadne? / . . . By my love / This is a

queint one (.. ). Consumed with lust for Anne, Wendoll in Heywoods
A Woman Killed with Kindness tries to control himself, but then is resigned:
some fury pricks me on (. ); in The Insatiate Countess, Abigail and
Thais pledge condence in one another in the face of their unfaithful
. . . why, we two are one anothers grounds, without which would be no
Well said, wench; and the prick-song we use shall be our husbands.
(.. )

Cornelia enters in . of (anon.) The Wisdom of Doctor Dodypoll singing a

fairly racy song in which the lines What thing is loue? . . . / It is a prick,
it is a thing, it is a prettie, prettie thing (lines ) nicely broaden the
implications of prick as it is attached to the also-common innuendo
of thing. Other common sexual puns occur with die (orgasm);
hang (often play on the gallows and being well hung); hole (often
with whole or holy); almost any word having to do with standing
or rising or falling; most weapons and pointed objects; and coney
or coney-catching (punning with cunt).

The countcunt quibble occurs constantly in this play as well.

Thing can mean either penis or vagina, or, as here, both. See also Othello .. .
See anon., Arden . ; Marston, Insatiate Countess .. ; or, perhaps more interestingly, the
sentence passed on Love (Thou shalt be dying, yet neuer dead, but pining still in endless pain)
at line , of Wilsons Three Ladies of London.
See Porter, Two Angry Women of Abington lines ; anon., How a Man May Choose a Good Wife
from a Bad, lines ; and probably anon., A Warning for Fair Women, line ,.
See Jonson, Alchemist ..; Middleton, Michaelmas Term .. ; Webster, White Devil .. ;
Fletcher, The Womans Prize .. ; and an interestingly chaotic instance in anon., The Weakest
Goeth to the Wall when Sir Nicholas says that the esh pricks myself holy now and then (. ).
See also the other examples listed above in other passages, and my discussion of hole below.
See The Shrew, Induction . (stand and fall); Haughton, Grim the Collier of Croyden Hv
(fall and mounting); Chapman,Gentleman Usher .. (stand); Field, Amends for Ladies .
(get up); and Webster, Duchess of Mal .. (raise).
See Greene, Friar Bacon . (sword); Middleton and Rowley, Roaring Girl .. (auger);
Middleton, No Wit, No Help Like a Womans .. (weapon); Beaumont and Fletcher, Faithful
Friends, line (long tool); anon., Second Maidens Tragedy .. (weapon); and Duchess of
Mal .. (pistol).
One of the most extraordinary and elaborately vulgar puns on cony that I have seen occurs in
Porters Two Angry Women of Abington, when Mall Barnes waits in a cony-warren for her betrothed,
Frank Goursey.
Good Lord, what pretty things these conies are;
How nely they do feed till they be fat!
And then what a sweet meat a coney is,
And what smooth skins they have, both black and gray.
They say they run more in the night than day:

Theatrical Convention and Audience Response

The most important point I want to make about these puns and others
like them is that their relationship to context is simultaneously denite
and loose. It makes sense that Mall Barnes of Porters The Two Angry
Women of Abington is in a coney-warren when she puns on coney and
cunt, and that Aminadab is being unintentionally obscene while saying grace, but the jokes are clearly a product of convenience more than
design. The playwright capitalizes on the audiences delight in seeing
how far contextually appropriate language can be stretched in an inappropriate direction. There is not much subtlety, but there is also not as
much ostentation as we saw in the rst group of sexual puns; the presence
and potential of the puns is taken for granted. This is not to say that one
is meant to laugh leeringly at Wendolls use of prick in A Woman Killed
with Kindness, or the Kings use of quaint in The Maids Tragedy; all bawdy
puns are not absolute jokes. But neither is one being asked to think very
complexly about each characters word choice: it is not as though we do
not know Wendoll or the King is inappropriately lascivious before he
uses prick or quaint. Rather, one feels with the puns that one is in
a privileged, inside position with the play one understands how the
word ts the context even as the context does not demand the word. The
audiences enjoyment of an extra level of meaning is just that extra.
I have tried to give examples of different types of bawdy puns from
different types of plays, and plays from all different times in the period
in order to suggest that the inevitable superuity of sexual puns is a vital
constant over the course of the period. It will be of further use now to look
at some sexual puns that put more of a strain on the context than those I
have discussed. By looking at moments where the seams denitely show
we can see still more clearly what the processes at work are. In scene
of Greenes Friar Bacon Margaret, having apparently been spurned by
Lacy, has just vowed to become a nun (To shun the pricks of death, I
leave the world / And vow to meditate on heavenly bliss [ lines ]).
She stands in her nuns habit, talking to her father, as Lacy, Warren, and
What is the reason? Mark, why in the light
They see more passengers than in the night;
For harmful men many a hay do set,
And laugh to see them tumble in the net,
And they put ferrets in the holes e, e!
And they go up and down where conies lie,
And they lie still, they have so little wit . . .
(. )

Mary Bly discusses this and other sexual puns in Bawdy Puns and Lustful Virgins: The Legacy
of Juliets Desire in Comedies of the Early s, in Shakespeare Survey (): .

Meat, magic, and metamorphosis: on puns and wordplay

Ermsby approach. Apropos of nothing, Ermsby says of the father to Lacy,

The old lecher hath gotten holy mutton to him. A nun my lord (lines
). By force of lecher and mutton, holy comes also to mean
with a hole. Then the men discover that the nun is Margaret, and
innuendo is left behind. The pun on holy (and the use of mutton) is
one of many strange moments in the play concerning Margarets sexual
potential (note, for example, how many times she is referred to as either
a quaint or a country maid), but it is difcult to tell whether it is
a moment of Greene elaborating such strangeness or simply pursuing
recklessly a joke he has had in mind for some time ( perhaps since he
brought on the hostess with the shoulder of mutton in scene , of which
more later). The moment is so brief that I do not think one can, or even
needs to, separate the two possibilities.
At the same time, the sexual joke demands a response, and because
the joke is in Friar Bacon presented with the appearance of wittiness,
the response is probably laughter. Perhaps the impropriety of the laughter calls attention to the audiences complicity with the shallowness of
male sexual desire in this play, or perhaps it is simply the sound of a
bad joke just avoiding falling at. In either case, the strangeness of the
wordplay creates an interpretive gap. Greene makes no attempt to ll
the gap: the audience moves on because the play moves on and the
very fact of there being a moment where response is problematized
might contribute faintly to a general unsettling of our view of Lacy
and Margaret. In a somewhat less unsettling moment in How a Man
May Choose, we can perhaps see the playwrights awareness of such a
gap and then, anxious to keep the ingenious joke but worried that it
might fall at, his swift move to ll the gap with more jokes. Late in the
play, the servant Pipkin quarrels with the bawds Mrs. Mary and Mrs.
[To Mrs. Mary] Who, me? Turn me out of doors? Is this all the wages I
shall have at the years end? to be turned out of doors? You mistress! you
are a
A what? Speak, a what? touch her and touch me, taint her and taint me;
speak, speak, a what?
Marry, a woman that is kin to the frost.
( lines ,)

What Pipkin means is hoar-frost, but Splay does not get the joke,
and I nd it difcult to imagine a generally favorable (or comprehending) response from an audience of any era. Whatever subtlety there is

Theatrical Convention and Audience Response

in the joke is mostly lost in its ingenuity; if you get it, you get to feel
extra-clever, like the author. If you do not get it, the author has moved
on quickly to continue proving his intention to milk every word for all
it is worth: this passage is followed by a still more labored passage of
conventional punning on cozen and cousin. It is as though the potential gap created by the hoar joke is being over-lled with jokes the
audience has no choice but to get. Excess seems to be the whole point:
the language always over-compensates for the dull thuds its own overcompensation continually creates. The safety in over-compensation is
in the wealth of possibility for connection which the variety of attempts
Pericles has a few strangely inappropriate moments of sexual punning,
most of the excess of which is brought out and controlled in the bawd
scenes of . and .. That is, if one feels uneasy about sex in the play
(the action, after all, springs from the incestuous relationship between
Antiochus and his daughter), it is easy to blame it on those scenes where
one is most obviously supposed to feel uneasy. But I think this uneasiness, while obviously created by the bawd scenes, is made more pervasive
by the inappropriate puns, the strangest and most overt of which is in
Gowers speech before Act , as he talks about the wedding night of
Pericles and Thaisa.
Now sleep y-slack`ed hath the rout;
No din but snores about the house,
Made louder by the oer-fed breast
Of this most pompous marriage-feast.
The cat, with eyne of burning coal
Now couches from the mouses hole;
And crickets sing at the ovens mouth,
Are the blither for their drouth.
Hymen hath brought the bride to bed,
Where by the loss of maidenhead
A babe is moulded.
( lines , emphasis added)

And . and . are full of puns: on the idea of meat (.. , .. ); hole and
whole (.. ); piece (.. ); plough (.. ); thing (.. ); and sound (..
, a common joke especially prevalent in anon., The Revengers Tragedy about the unsound
bones caused by syphilis).
I think breast, burning coal, couches, and mouth all work to make the bawdiness of
hole quite plain. Burning coal is perhaps less well attested-to than the others for its bawdy
potential, but Cornelias song in anon., The Wisdom of Doctor Dodypoll, ., includes an obviously
bawdy use of coal ([love] is a coale, whose ame creeps in at euery hoale ). This is stronger
than but possibly similar to The Duchess of Mal .. , where Ferdinand uses the word coals

Meat, magic, and metamorphosis: on puns and wordplay

This sounds like The Rape of Lucrece in doggerel verse. One can think of it as
Gower getting a little carried away with his narrator role; or as a strangely
off-kilter epithalamion that is in keeping with the off-kilter romance that
is the plays subject; or one can over-compensate for the silliness of the
verse, as some editors do without acknowledging the pun, by seeing the
passage as the beginning of Shakespeares incomparably more vivid,
vigorous, and accomplished verse after two acts of Wilkins. But however one explains it, the fact remains that the audience has to react to a
dirty joke that is not shocking but is certainly not called for, and is only
emphasized by the sing-song quality of the verse. The pun is a very real
surfeit, and for the brief moment it is asked to deal with it, the audience
is on a level entirely separate from the action, and perhaps even the
physical space, of the play a level where getting the joke is the only
thing that matters.
In few places does this level more surprisingly impose itself on audiences than in the fourth act of Othello. About eighty lines after Othellos
awful cruelty (I cry you mercy then. / I took you for the cunning whore
of Venice [.. ]), Desdemona, talking to Emilia and Iago, suddenly sounds like a character out of Midsummer Nights Dream: I cannot
say whore: / It does abhor me now I speak the word (lines ). I do
not think that these lines are meant to provoke a cackle of mirth, but
I also cannot imagine an interpretation of them or of Desdemona that
could make them seem like anything other than the author announcing
his ingenious presence. Shakespeare plays with abhor in this way elsewhere for example, Sonnet , lines , and with the executioner
Abhorson in Measure for Measure ( both of which are noted, with Othello, in
Booths discussion of the sonnet). And a very similar instance of such
a joke occurs in (anon.) Revengers Tragedy ., where the Duchess says of
Lussurioso, He called his father villain and me strumpet, /A word that
I abhor to le my lips with (lines ). So play on the word was not
unusual, but it is rather extraordinary that Shakespeare introduces it into

in a way that probably suggests testicles: thinking about his sisters lust, he imagines some
lovely squire / That carries coals up to her privy lodgings.
This description comes from the introduction to the Signet edition (ed. Ernest Schanzer, ),
p. xxx. Echoing this sentiment is F. D. Hoeniger, editor of the Arden edition (), in a footnote:
the freer, more varied and syncopated rhythm of this chorus, point to Shakespeare as the
Abhorson in Measure for Measure gets almost immediately involved in a fairly subtle joke related to
his name when the Provost tells him that Pompey is to aid him in killing Claudio and Bernardine:
. . . he cannot plead his estimation with you: he hath been a bawd.
A bawd, sir? Fie upon him, he will discredit our mystery !

(.. )

Theatrical Convention and Audience Response

this crucially sad moment (in Revengers, while the Duchess is probably
scared, she is above all invested in having Lussurioso sent to the block,
and is certainly laying it on a bit thick). I cannot account for it, and I doubt
audiences can or do. If the actor can pull it off no small feat, because
the line sounds witty one might get the joke without being distracted,
feel an extra dimension of meaning without noticing that one is being
clever; but the play also does not seem to care whether one is distracted.
This kind of moment, where making and getting a joke are of primary,
total importance, epitomizes, perhaps not entirely positively, the general
function of puns in the drama: they remove an audience to a level where
the articiality of language is self-contained and self-sufcient.
In his discussion of the rst scene of Twelfth Night Stephen Booth calls
attention to the real but ordinarily impalpable illogic of lines ,
where Orsino pursues the hearthart pun into confusion rst saying
that he hunts the hart and then talking of himself as that hart. Booth notes
that the illogic of the lines is rarely noted, and explains that fact this way:
the well-known tracks of a traditional conceit and the appropriate and appropriately commonplace mythological ligree work make a listener superior to
expository logic. The action of the lines is assumed to be what our generic expectations call for, what the habitual activities of the hart/heart pun and the
mythological analogy make them. We do not notice what Orsino says; we hear
what he must be saying. We listen to nonsense as if it were sense. ( p. )

This is a more sophisticated version of what goes on with the four more
palpably difcult moments I have just discussed, where the audience
controls its response in an intelligible way because it knows how to
respond to puns even as that response does not really suit the context
or content of the scene. While those moments put enough strain on
context to foreground the potential failure of such balancing acts, they
also make a strong case for what Booth is talking about, and for the fact
that extended, half-submerged systems of puns, echoes, and semantic
connections work because a functional metaphorical way of thinking is
always ready at hand to replace the clumsy and cluttered literal. The
spaces between words or syllables (hoar and whore or -hor and
whore) that are related in only the most supercial way are always on
the verge of being lled with signicance.
In . of Chapmans The Gentleman Usher, Corteze returns from a
successful mission of spying on Margaret to nd out what other suitor is

In Precious Nonsense: The Gettysburg Address, Ben Jonsons Epitaphs on his Children, and Twelfth Night
(Berkeley: University of California Press, ), pp. .

Meat, magic, and metamorphosis: on puns and wordplay

threatening the duke Alphonsos suit. Medice, Alphonsos favorite, who

set Corteze on this mission, praises her, and she gloats:
O, these young girls engross up all the love
From us poor beldames, but I hold my hand;
Ill ferret all the cunni-holes of their kindness
Ere I have done with them.
( lines )

Chapmans spelling makes the potential dirtiness of coney holes even

more obvious than it already is. Understanding the wordplay here is
a weird and complex process. Ferret all the cunni-holes, as we have
also seen in Two Angry Women, obviously suggests sexual intercourse.
That is the joke of the pun. But it is also not what Corteze means;
she means that she will root out all her young girls secrets. Corteze
is, however, a lusty character who is constantly making lascivious advances to Medice, and so it is not unlikely that she would speak these
lines in such a way as to convey the sexual joke. Of course, the sexual
joke does not quite make sense, since Corteze is a woman; but the actor playing her would have been male, and so the joke would have had
on some level a faint pertinence (as well as a less faint impertinence,
since the actor would have been a boy rather than a man). Each of
the various layers of experience involves a simple but important collision of literal and gurative ways of understanding. One hears ferret
and cunni-holes and understands penis and vagina; one hears a
woman telling a sexual joke as though she were a man but (mostly) understands that joke to be the voice of the author, (mostly) independent
of the demands of context; one sees a boy in womens clothes and understands him to be a woman. The literal demands of language (ferret
and coney are animals), context (Corteze is talking about spying, not
sex), and the theatre (Corteze is played by a boy, not a woman) give
way to the more metaphorical demands of theatrical language and action; and here they converge around the conventional pun. Something
similar can occur with virtually any pun. Chapmans pun is not extraordinary as much as is the fact that Elizabethan and Jacobean drama
so constantly puts its audiences through such experiences, to the point
that the tendency of the mind to look for the convergence of literal
and gurative levels of meaning in any context must have been virtually
It is from this perspective that we can begin to see the important
possibility of unmade, potential, even non-signifying puns, which Booth
and others nd in Shakespeare, in works we might otherwise not have

Theatrical Convention and Audience Response

thought to contain them. We can also begin to see more clearly why they
are so important in the places we expect to nd them. I will now return
to an earlier topic of discussion, meat, and discuss its prevalence in the
language of two early and possibly related plays, Doctor Faustus and Friar
Bacon. In Faustus we nd Wagner calling Robin one who would give
his soul to the devil for a shoulder of mutton, though it were blood-raw
(.. ), and later Robin, having called forth Mephistopheles, asks, Will
it please you to take a shoulder of mutton to supper . . . and go back again?
(.. ). Faustus, who is obviously parodied in Robin, begins the
play by dining with Cornelius and Valdes, and announces that after
meat / Well canvass every quiddity of raising demons (.. ). Later,
as they are en route to dine invisibly with the Pope, Mephistopheles
promises Faustus, well be bold with his venison (.. ). And Lechery,
as has been noted above, makes an appearance among the Seven Deadly
Sins, proclaiming her love for raw mutton (.. ). In the connection
between Robins mutton and Lecherys, one might see the suggestion
that Robins hunger is not only literal, but sexual, and this might resonate
in complex ways with Faustuss own desires; in the potential connection
between the meat associated with Robin and that associated with
Faustus one might also perceive an extra level of the overt parody. But the
connections are faint, and it is not necessary to insist on the importance
of the audiences conscious perception of them; rather, the important
thing is that ones mind is repeatedly put in contexts involving meat and
magic, accompanied by the always potential association of meat and
sex. This quiet patterning encourages but does not bring to observable
resolution the connection that is made consciously when Lechery makes
her pun.
Friar Bacon presents still more fascinating opportunities for connections
between different kinds of meat and the effects of magic. The play
begins with Edward I malcontented (. s.d.) because, while he has
succeeded in lustily pulling down the deer of merry Fressingeld
(. ), he has not won Margaret, the lovely maid of Fressingeld
(. ). At the end of the play, when the keeper consents to the match of
Lacy and Margaret, he says he is as happy As if the English king had

The possibility that Greenes play is a response to Marlowes is discussed by Irving Ribner
in Greenes Attack on Marlowe: Some Light on Alphonsus and Selimus, Studies in Philology
(): . Scott McMillin and Sally-Beth Maclean also discuss the possibility, and note that
an anti-necromancy theme runs extensively through the comedies of the Queens Men (The
Queens Men and their Plays [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, ], p. ). It has also
been argued, of course, that Faustus was written after Friar Bacon.

Meat, magic, and metamorphosis: on puns and wordplay

given / The park and deer of Fressingeld to me (. ). Earlier

(scene ), in celebration of their engagement, Lacy has told Margaret
that they will have a feast of butter, cheese, and venison (line ); and
in scene , after the keeper has given his consent, Margaret says they
will have butter and cheese and humbles of a deer for breakfast ( line ).
Friar Bacon enters in scene and rst illustrates his powers when he
humiliates Burden by summoning with a devil a tavern-hostess with
a shoulder of mutton on a spit (. ) in order to show what kind of
studying Burden has been doing nightly. Bacon is later involved in a
rather awkward moment with the Emperor of Germany, who is offended
by the mess of pottage Bacon puts out for him to eat (. s.d.). Bacon
recovers by saying that his purpose was only to let thee see . . . / How
little meat renes our English wits (lines ); he then promises a great
feast. The play ends with a similar promise, this time from Henry III,
pledging to celebrate his sons wedding to Elinor of Castile with viands
such as Englands wealth affords (. ).
Meat, magic, love, luxury, country living, monastic austerity, and
courtly life momentarily converge in a syncopated way around the repeated, familiar but different contexts involving meat and its puns and
potential puns. Ermsbys strange holy mutton in scene has in some
ways been seen before, in the actual shoulder of mutton and lusty hostess
of scene ; the Keeper talks of Margarets marriage as Edward earlier
talked of Margaret; Henry speaks to the assembled company as Bacon
had to learn to speak to the German Emperor. As in Faustus, things of
the physical world a shoulder of mutton or a mess of pottage or a deers
humbles, to feed Robin or Burden or Faustus or Bacon or Margaret
have the capacity to metamorphose into the metaphors one might use to
discuss the meaning or meanings of either play: mutton makes women
into consumable objects, and the powerful men of these plays are always
seen eating Faustus can as easily order up a plate of grapes as Helen of
Troy; deer (or hart) makes women into something to be hunted, and

This series of related lines also activates the potential for a deerdear pun to be made.
I realize that Bacon was the name of the Friar in Greenes source (the prose-work, The Famous
History of Friar Bacon), and that suggesting a punning relationship between the Friars name (and
even, perhaps, the rst syllable of the word Friar) and the meat in the play seems ingenious, if
not silly. But such stretches are fundamental to my argument. One can in no way make a good
case for Greenes intention in the matter, or for the value (or, still more, the need) of noting the
pun consciously in the theatre, but one also cannot deny that bacon is a meat, and that meat pops
up a lot in the play. The combination of these facts emphasizes that the effects I am discussing
with these puns are almost wholly potential effects, but also that that potential is potentially quite
creative in the ways it encourages in a viewers mind the linking of irrelevant elements.
This episode is also in Greenes source. See previous footnote.

Theatrical Convention and Audience Response

the parallel between the two is made blatantly clear at the beginning of
Greenes play; the venison on which Faustus dines proves both the security and the vulgar worldliness of his power; that on which the Emperor
of Germany and Henry III dine is alternately a symbol of decadence
and majestic opulence, and stands in opposition, positive and negative,
to the more humble repast of the Friar and Margaret. It is doubtful that
these metamorphoses are ever so clear or synthetic as I can make them
seem here, but it seems undeniable that the energy of this potential is
a large part of what makes these plays, which are at heart about magic
and metamorphosis, so compelling.
Similar thematically pertinent punning phenomena occur in other
plays: with the word servant (in reference both to the lovers and to the
occupation of the mechanicals) in Lylys Gallathea; with the words rape,
reap, and ripe in The Spanish Tragedy (the central image for which puns
is Horatio hanging in the bower); with rain and reign in Marlowes
Tamburlaine (see the transition between . and ., and Tamburlaines
discussion of his thirst for reign at the beginning of the latter); wood
(forest) and wood (mad) in The Old Wives Tale; meat again in both
Shakespeares and the anonymous Shrew plays particularly after the
wedding, where Petrucchio (or Fernando) subdues Kate by depriving her
of meat; hair and heir in The Revengers Tragedy; hole and whole
in Barrys extremely bawdy Ram Alley, a play positively obsessed with
holes, ditches, slits, and openings of all kinds (most prominent are the Alley
of the title and the name of the usurer who lives there Throat); head
in Cymbeline (in particular around the scenes where Cloten seeks to take
Imogens maidenhead and ends up himself decapitated); and elaborate
systems of punning and insinuation involving cutting and pricking
built, with others, on the incessant clothing imagery in Michaelmas Term,
Your Five Gallants, The Roaring Girl, and many other Middleton plays.
Sometimes, as with the woman carrying the shoulder of mutton in
Friar Bacon, the play between literal and gurative is closely connected to
the action on the stage. An obvious example is in Jonsons The Alchemist,
.. , where Mammon says the word common a word with many
functions in this play and Doll Common herself enters at the same time. A
still more graphic example of this process occurring in reverse order is in
(anon.) Selimus: in scene , Agas eyes are pulled out and his hands are cut
off by Acomat, and in scene Mustaffa and Bajazet see him in this state.
In scene , Selimus has received his pardon from the terried Bajazet,
and makes a speech that unquestionably echoes the literal violence we
have just seen:

Meat, magic, and metamorphosis: on puns and wordplay

Will fortune favor me yet once again?

And will she thrust the cards into my hands?
Well, if I chance but once to get the deck,
To deal about and shufe as I would;
Let Selim never see daylight spring
Unless I shufe out myself a king.

( lines )

This is a more diffuse version of the cruel joke and overt wordplay
Acomat makes in scene when, after Aga says, let me never see that
day when Bajazet would be killed, Acomat replies, Yes, thou shalt live
but never see the day, and pulls out his eyes. More subtle, and much
less noticeable, is the play on fall in Marstons The Insatiate Countess. In
., at the wedding dance, Marston gives the stage direction Isabella
falls in love (line ), and it seems that some kind of conventional, if not
stylized, action or gesture or expression would be required of her here
and at each of the other two or three times she xates on a new man.
Forty lines later we have the direction The third change [of dancing]
ended, Ladies fall off (line ). Whether or not Marston wrote these
stage directions himself (though he probably did) we can assume that fall
in love and fall off were idiomatic ways of understanding the actions
Marston had in mind, and would have been approximately the phrases
by means of which the audience would have understood the actions.
Eight lines after the end of the dance, Massino, with whom Isabella has
fallen in love, falleth into the brides lap (line ). Thaisa asks Isabella
if she is hurt and she replies O no, an easy fall. / [Aside] Was I not deep
enough, thou god of lust, / But I must further wade? (lines ). The
lusty possibilities of easy fall are further brought out after the women
leave and Rogero teases Massino, saying that the fall was as common
a thing as can be. The stiffest man in Italy may fall between a womans
legs (lines ). Later, having fallen in love with the reluctant Gniaca,
Isabella begs him, Love me, and like Loves Queen Ill fall before thee
(.. ): the puns on queen (quean whore) and fall (worship, fuck)
are barely beneath the surface. And nally, at the end of Act , Don
Sago, acting on Isabellas orders, shoots Massino and boasts, Fames
register to future times shall tell / That by Don Sago, Count Guido fell
(.. ). The puns present but do not insist on the possibility of a
variety of simultaneously literal and metaphorical readings: Massinos

A similar episode occurs in anon., Alphonsus, Emperor of Germany where, on Hr, Saxon dashes out
the brains of Hedewicks child and then, on the verso side of that page, tells Edward, whom he
believes to be the father, that Unprincely thoughts do hammer in thy head.

Theatrical Convention and Audience Response

fall into Isabellas lap can be a symbol of his downfall, or of his falling
in love, or both; or (and) it can be simply a catalyst, the tragic accident,
that leads to his downfall. Pursuing either reading can get you to quite
a different place in interpretation. You can see the tragedy as symbolic
and fatalistic: Massino is doomed from the outset to fall in a variety
of increasingly dangerous ways. Or you can see it as an exploration of
Isabellas demonic power of seduction: once Massino falls into her lap he
has no chance. But the play does not really ask you to pursue either one;
rather, you should feel the manner in which they are always potentially
The collision of the literal and gurative modes of thinking, usually
resulting in the metamorphosis of the former into the latter, is potentially
very creative in that it mirrors and encourages the interpretive process
all audiences go through while watching a play: the process of drawing
general and metaphorical signicance from highly controlled, arbitrarily
meaningful represented actions. Puns bring about this kind of collision
on both the most minute and the most general levels. The success of punning in Elizabethan and Jacobean drama lies in the playwrights ability
to do it so casually, with so much more investment in the opportunity for
rather than the content of the joke, so that the audience always feels it
is getting something extra without having to work for it: holy mutton
gets the spotlight in Greenes play while the elaborate network of meatrelated puns remains at work unseen. For every moment like the hoar
frost joke in How a Man May Choose or Desdemonas abhor, there
are hundreds of slightly less forced moments that make those where the
seams show little more than faint ripples. Elizabethan playwrights picked
up on the value of constant, ostentatious punning fairly early, so that by
the early seventeenth century audiences were ready for the most quotidian words, phrases, and actions to turn into elaborate multiple meanings: consider, for example, the double-entendre that lls a backgammon

A simpler and non-sexual example of the work fall can do is in anon., The Troublesome Reign
of John, King of England when John orders the hanging of the soothsayer who foretold Johns
downfall. The Bastard comes to report the soothsayers death and replies to the question, What
newes with thee? with
The newes I heard was Peters prayers,
Who wisht like fortune to be fall us all:
And with that word, the rope his latest friend,
Kept him from falling headlong to the ground.
(. )

This is just after Hubert has announced to John that Arthur the lovely Prince / Seeking to escape
over the castle walles, / Fell headlong downe, and in the cursed fall / He brake his bones (lines

Meat, magic, and metamorphosis: on puns and wordplay

game and a card game in, respectively, Arden of Feversham and A Woman
Killed with Kindness; or the multiple meanings of backfriend chair,
backer or supporter, false friend, and sergeant all in response
to Sir Alexanders simple request for a chair in Roaring Girl .. . The
hyperactivity of the language and the propensity for creative connections it would have encouraged in audiences allowed plays to suggest
much more than they said, and to seem to contain connections they only
hinted at. It seems signicant that as play production and theatregoing increased to their highest levels in the early seventeenth century the
plays got more, not less, verbally sophisticated. Perhaps companies built
and maintained followings by continually increasing the demands their
plays made on their audiences attention, thus creating audiences that
could handle those demands. As we will see still more clearly in the next
two chapters, the rst on asides and the second on exposition, when a
character or a play has something to convey, no matter how obscure or
oblique or laden with double meanings, only the most foolish dupes do
not get it.

Somewhat less intentional card-game wordplay occurs in Machin and Markham, The Dumb
Knight . (vol. , Dodsleys Old English Plays [ London, ], pp. ).

Managing the aside

Puns ll the space between stage and audience by transforming all-too

literal words and syllables into a matrix of virtually endless gurative and
interpretive possibilities; asides, on the other hand, demarcate theatrical
space, isolating but insisting on the simultaneity of several different and
very specic interpretive possibilities for the on-stage action. The aside is
one of the most pervasive conventions of English Renaissance drama, and
one of the most potentially disruptive. It calls attention to the power of the
stage to represent a multiplicity of actions, dialogues, points of view that
is, it helps create a convincing theatrical space; but as a consequence it
opens up a variety of problems with respect to the negotiation of physical
space on the stage itself. Even as playwrights ask their audiences to focus
on the intricacies of poetic dialogue, they also break up that focus by
giving characters moments of (frequently intricate) direct address that
comment on, misinterpret, break into, or sound over that dialogue. Like
expository speeches (the subject of the next chapter), asides can stand in
for action can clarify motivation and background information even as
the main action and dialogue are moving forward. But, as we will see
too with expository speeches, the potential surfeit of information asides
provide requiring the audience to focus its attention on several points
at once can be more distracting than illuminating.
Unlike expository speeches, which tend to be an explicit product
of the relationship between playwright and audience, asides develop a
relationship between single characters and the audience, and thus have
a more immediate interpretive effect. Early on in the Italian plot of
Yaringtons Two Lamentable Tragedies, Fallerio reveals himself in a series of
asides to be interested only in Pedrinos will, even as he pretends to weep
over his dying brother. The fact that the information comes in the form
of asides makes Fallerios duplicity all the more evident and important.
Dion in Beaumont and Fletchers Philaster, Arruntius in Jonsons Sejanus,

Managing the aside

Thersites in Troilus and Cressida, and any number of other, similarly malcontented characters keep a running commentary on the hypocrisy of
the politicians, generals, and courtiers of the main action. Their separateness in speaking aside and offering interpretations of events emphasizes
to the audience that it is good, and ultimately more illuminating, to exist
outside the world the rest of the characters inhabit. But asides are also
used to draw the audience further into the action of the play than most
characters can be. In Beaumont and Fletchers The Scornful Lady, the
Elder Loveless, having been sent away by the eponymous Lady, pretends
to have died at sea and returns in disguise. He enters in . to announce
his own death to Young Loveless and does not discover himself to the
other characters until .. . Without seeing Loveless put on or plan
to put on his disguise, an audience used to seeing actors double roles
might not be certain that the character is Loveless; or a particularly good
disguise might keep the fact hidden in any case and make the revelation
scene similar in effect to, say, the end of Epicoene. But the playwrights give
out the secret almost immediately with an aside by the Elder Loveless
(.. ), and continue to give him asides that emphasize the irony
throughout. Surprise is to a certain extent beside the point: the desired
effect seems to be to make you aware of what everyone else is missing,
and to make you feel as a result that you are getting everything.
All asides impinge on an audiences focus to a certain degree, and all
asides create and rely on for their effects a simple dramatic irony: the
audience and some characters know more than some other characters.
Audiences enjoy this kind of irony and are therefore willing to accept disruptions in action that facilitate it. The danger, of course, is that the action
will be too disrupted, that the information provided will not be of great
enough importance or necessity to balance the intrusion of overt theatrical artice. Critical attention to asides has tended to fall less on their
disruptive force. The expansive formalist studies of Muriel Bradbrook
and Madeline Doran identify the convention as such, and allow the fact
of the convention to explain the effect. Bradbrook says that the recognition of direct speech as a legitimate convention is necessary to the
rehabilitation of Elizabethan methods of construction . . . It was easy to

Robert Weimann, distinguishing between upstage and downstage acting, says that downstage,
somewhere in between the socially and spatially elevated Claudius and Timon and the audience,
stood characters less inclined to accept the assumptions social, ideological, dramatic of the
localized action. In Shakespeare and the Popular Tradition in the Theater, p. .
Of course, as the end of Epicoene shows, this is not always the desired effect. The end of Epicoene
and similar moments (such as the end of The Widow) are discussed in the nal section of chapter .

Theatrical Convention and Audience Response

come out of character when neither action nor speech was realistic.
She goes on to call the aside the bridge between dialogue and soliloquy,
but does not elaborate on her subsequent point that [s]ome asides are
so lengthy that they are practically soliloquies (Themes and Conventions,
p. ). Doran notes that the aside, like the soliloquy, is used to exhibit
motivation rather baldly in ways not familiar to us, or at least, not
customary in modern dramatic usage. More performance-centered
studies, like B. L. Josephs Elizabethan Acting, attempt to reconceive the
baldness Doran nds in the aside as an easily understood part of theatrical performance. Departures from realism such as monologue and
aside did not make the actor communicate thought, emotion, and desire
any less naturally. . . [ The actor behaved] just as if he were the actual
person represented when he spoke asides. Others on stage continued to
behave as if they had not heard him (Elizabethan Acting, p. ).
Robert Weimanns discussion of Figurenposition and the extra-dramatic
moment in Shakespeare and the Popular Tradition in the Theater does some
work toward bridging the two points of view noted above, and moves
discussion of asides toward something more than simply the identication of a convention and its types. Concentrating in particular on
Hamlet and on Apemantus in Timon of Athens, downstage characters
who break out of the representational mode to call attention to the
hypocrisy of the actions of the upstage characters, Weimann argues
that when a character turns aside, spatial position assumes a moral
function: the actors rejection of illusion is turned into the characters
honesty which passes show (Shakespeare and the Popular Tradition, p. ).
The perspective Apemantus allows brings about a kind of balance: the
dual perspective that results acknowledges the sensuous attraction of
a dazzling theatrical occasion, but also penetrates the showy surface
(p. ). What Weimanns argument does not consider is the imbalance that must be created in moments like .. of Timon, where
Timons short speech is followed by Apemantuss thirteen-line aside. In
moments such as these, the illusion-breaking of the downstage character
necessitates the heightening of the illusion by the upstage characters: the

In Themes and Conventions of Elizabethan Tragedy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, ),

pp. .
In Endeavors of Art (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, ), p. .
New York: Octagon, .
The terms upstage and downstage might be somewhat inaccurate in this context, since the
audience in most early modern theatres would have been on three sides of the stage. But Weimanns
convenient terms do convey a sense of the relative proximity (even if it is not necessarily physical
proximity) of actors to audience and will, I hope, serve in the argument that follows.

Managing the aside

upstage actors must insist all the more urgently on their roles as banqueters in order that the downstage characters extra-dramatic moment
is convincingly (rather than arbitrarily) remote. Apemantus does not
provide a privileged perspective if his fellow actors give the audience
time to remember that there are other actors on stage not speaking.
The collision between literal and gurative thinking that we have seen
with puns, as for example in Cortezes speech in The Gentleman Usher,
is recapitulated with asides on a slightly larger scale and in a way that
is more directly connected to the physical facts of the stage. Wordplay
must capitalize on the energy created by the difference between context
(a speech about secrets) and content (a speech that sounds like it is about
sex): it converts this energy into the excitement of combining unlike
elements that is present in the experience of any pun. Asides have the
more difcult task of converting a tangible, visible problem (a character
implausibly stands or speaks apart from the action) into a visible necessity (a characters apartness is interpretable as a vital moral and/or
theatrical function). For the aside to work, we have to change the way
we see what we see. In this chapter I will look at some different kinds
of aside in Renaissance drama, and do so with the assumption that they
frequently, if not always, had the potential to irritate or confuse their
original audiences, and that this potential cannot have been something
of which playwrights were unaware, even as they used asides again and
It is important to note at the outset that most asides as we know them
in these plays are at least partly modern editorial constructs. While there
are many examples of stage directions specically ordering characters
to turn aside and speak or to speak to the people, their number
is disproportionately small compared to the vast number of unmarked
but evident asides. Most of the asides I will discuss here are just such
unmarked asides. And while I generally assume that modern editors are
correct in their labeling of asides, I will keep in mind throughout that in

See above, pp. .

See Alan Dessen and Leslie Thomson, A Dictionary of Stage Directions in English Drama,
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, ), p. .
Throughout Yaringtons Two Lamentable Tragedies, asides are marked with the direction To the
people. An important difference between the audiences perception of Kate in Taming of A Shrew
and Kate in Taming of the Shrew can perhaps be seen in the former play when Kate is directed
to turn aside and speak the line I methinks have lived too long a maid (. ). The Maids
Metamorphosis (anon.) makes an interesting distinction between asides and soliloquies: before Joculo
leaves Ascanius to go nd Eurymine he speakes to the people and tells them to look to my
master while he ( Joculo) is out of the action for a while. Ascanius is then left alone on-stage and
begins to speak, but without any direction to address the audience.

Theatrical Convention and Audience Response

each instance of labeling there is room for ambiguity; and I will assume
that this ambiguity is potentially a vital part of the asides effect. The
fact that playwrights did not generally take the time to mark asides as
separate seems to suggest that to a certain extent they did not see them
as separate: that their assumptions about an audiences range of focus
were somewhat different from what the clear marks of modern editions
dashes, brackets, and the italic aside would seem to imply.
In Titus Andronicus ., the scene which follows the scene where Lavinia
reveals the names of her rapists, Young Lucius brings Chiron and
Demetrius a bundle of weapons, and verses writ upon them (s.d.) from
Gramercy, lovely Lucius. Whats the news?
[Aside] That you are both deciphered, thats the news,
For villains marked with rape. [to them] May it please you,
My grandsire, well-advised, hath sent by me
The goodliest weapons of his armoury
To gratify your honourable youth,
The hope of Rome, for so he bid me say,
And so I do, and with his gifts present
Your lordships, that whenever you have need
You may be arm`ed and appointed well.
And so I leave you both [Aside] like bloody villains. Exit
Whats here? A scroll, and written round about?
Lets see:
Integer vitae, scelerisque purus,
Non eget Mauri iaculis, nec arcu.
O, tis a verse in Horace; I know it well,
I read it in the grammar long ago.
Ay, just, a verse in Horace, right, you have it.
[Aside] Now what a thing it is to be an ass.
Heres no sound jest! The old man hath found their guilt,
And sends them weapons wrapped about with lines
That wound, beyond their feeling, to the quick.
But were our witty empress well afoot
She would applaud Andronicus conceit.
But let her rest in her unrest awhile.
And now, young lords, wast not a happy star
Led us to Rome, strangers and more than so,
Captives, to be advanc`ed to this height?
It did me good before the palace gate
To brave the tribune in his brothers hearing.
But me more good to see so great a lord
Basely insinuate and send us gifts.
(.. )

Managing the aside

Jonathan Bates Arden edition, which presents essentially the same text
quoted here, provides two aside-related footnotes for this scene. The
rst is on line , And so I leave you both [aside] like bloody villains:
Bate quotes J. C. Maxwells note on the line, Q indicates the aside
by a capital for Like, preceded by a rather long space and a colon after
both, and then remarks that in the Deborah Warner production at
the Swan, the line was thrown back as the Boy ran off. Bates second
footnote is on the rst line of Aarons aside: T. W. Craik conjectures that
only an ass is spoken aside . . . But since this is a long aside continuing to
it would be awkward to begin it with a line that is initially addressed
to others. The sense of awkwardness these footnotes indicate is wellfounded. Both of Young Luciuss asides are awkwardly positioned his
rst coming before he replies to a direct question and his last coming in
the middle of a line. Aarons aside is quite long, hence the BateCraik
debate, and seems to break away from a conversation he is just beginning
with the Goth boys.
What is interesting about the disagreement between Craik and Bate
is that it is based on a stage direction given not by any of the early
quartos, but by Samuel Johnson. And what is interesting about Johnsons
stage direction (and editorial acceptance of it) is that it is in such an
unnecessarily awkward place. There is no reason that Aarons rst line,
Ay, just, a verse in Horace, right, you have it should be directed
to anyone. Chiron and Demetrius seem to be talking to each other, and
having Aaron join their conversation and then break off makes the ow of
the dialogue less smooth. If the dialogue were smoother, however, Aarons
lines would be less of an aside. Johnsons stage direction is plausible
because this kind of awkward aside is what seems to be important to
this scene as it opens: Young Lucius has already had two of them.

Titus Audronicus, ed. Jonathan Bate (London: Routledge, ).

In The Jacobean Drama Una Ellis-Fermor discusses a clumsy moment in The Spanish Tragedy in a
way that might be appropriate to the moment in question from Titus Andronicus. Villuppos speech
at the end of . (Thus have I with an envious, forged tale / Deceived the king, betrayed mine
enemy, /And hope for guerdon of my villainy) she says, was necessary for an audience untrained
in the twists and turns of a plotters mind (p. ). Once the conventions of revenge tragedy
were more rmly established, more complex information could be conveyed less awkwardly by
means of dramatic shorthand, a technical convention, tacitly agreed upon by dramatist and
audience (p. ). This is certainly true to a degree, and the earliness of Titus Andronicus might
be seen as a partial justication for awkward moments like these asides. However, as chapter
will show, expository moments, while perhaps ever more complex, do not necessarily get more
efcient in later plays. As well, as I will argue throughout, the practical function of a device or
convention does not preclude a thematic one.
These are also editorially constructed asides, but their content makes their positioning more
obviously appropriate.

Theatrical Convention and Audience Response

The scene seems to want to insist on Chiron and Demetriuss complete

unawareness of what others are saying, even if others are saying these
things at times that would seem to require the boys attention.
This is suggested in other ways as well. First, there is the fact that the
audience already knows that Titus knows who the rapists are, and has
just seen Titus, upon learning of this, send Young Lucius on his current
errand. The recent events of . are nothing Chiron and Demetrius can
actually know, but their very arrogance makes it seem as though they
should know, and the fact that they do not makes them seem both stupid
and worthy of punishment. Second, there is Young Luciuss affected,
overwrought speech, laden with ironic subordinate clauses (see, for example, lines ) and framed by stage whispers to the audience, which,
nevertheless, does not raise the Goths suspicions. And nally, there is the
Latin written on the bundle of weapons. Not only does Chiron know the
verse well, but so would much of the Elizabethan audience, for whom
Lilys Brevissima Institutio, in which the verse occurs twice, was a standard
school textbook. Chiron and Demetrius, however, just do not seem to
be listening to what is being said. Rather than a reaction on their part
showing a simultaneous awareness of and lack of concern about some
plot by Titus, the brothers quickly forget the scroll entirely, not even
joking with Aaron about the pertinence of Mauri.
There is an excess of evidence for the fact that Chiron and Demetrius
are stupid, and this risks drawing more attention to that excess itself
than to the facts the evidence supports. That is, in the scene immediately preceding this one, we have seen Lavinia reveal her rapists names,
and Titus explain with devious obliquity that he has a special message
for them. In . the message is delivered and Young Lucius emphasizes the transparent duplicity of his errand (which the audience already
knows) through his asides. Demetrius reads aloud the Latin message
which he, like the audience, understands; but he ignores its substance
entirely. Aaron then reiterates, in an aside, the import of the message
which, again, the audience already knows. Part of the pleasure of this
scene, of course, should come from seeing a sassy youth getting the rhetorical better of the older, simultaneously vicious and stupid brothers. For
the same reason, the scene might strain the plays credibility a little more
than it should. Since the boys asides occur at dramatically awkward
moments he will have to speak them with a particular glee that defuses
the awkwardness by drawing attention to it. The scene can become less
a cunning step toward Tituss perfectly crafted revenge and more a moment of levity, an opportunity for the actor playing Young Lucius to show
off a little. Rather than concentrating on the artice of Tituss revenge,

Managing the aside

as the play clearly intends, the audience may begin to concentrate on

the artice of the theatre, may begin to think too literally about what is
theatrically conventional that two characters are spending a lot of time
on stage not hearing what other characters on stage are saying.
The play deals with a representational problem how to heap as much
scorn and ridicule as possible on Chiron and Demetrius spatially by
asking the audience to imagine the characters to be unable to hear one
another, and doing so perhaps by manipulating conventional perceptions of upstage and downstage positioning. In doing this, however, the
play potentially creates both a spatial problem the audiences focus
might become unbalanced and an interpretive one the audience
might wonder, Why dont Chiron and Demetrius notice these asides?
Literal, practical ways of seeing the stage threaten to impinge on more
gurative, theatrical ones. What helps to give Titus Andronicus some balance at this moment is the fact that the plays continually escalating series
of horrifying events has brought the issue of response to the fore: think,
for example, of the puzzlement, on-stage and off, at Tituss laugh in ..
The difculty of determining what the proper response should be, or
how it should be interpreted, would often seem to make the need for the
kind of stepping-away that an aside is all the more urgent. Thus in .,
when Tamora and her sons come to Titus disguised as Revenge, Rapine,
and Murder, it is for a time unclear whether Titus sees through them
or whether he believes them to be who they say they are. His behavior up to that point makes either option equally plausible. At the same
time, Tamoras device is unexpectedly elaborate more foolish than
foolproof and believing that Titus believes it might mean giving the
theatre too much credit. Titus seems to be on the brink of responding in
an unsophisticated way, like Chiron and Demetrius in ., or like Titus
himself in . when, after not noticing Tamoras fourteen-line aside to
Saturninus (lines ), he accepts at face value her announcement
that she is a Roman now adopted happily (line ). But the audience can ultimately come to feel reassured in . that Titus has learned
from his mistakes, when he is able to prove Tamora at the mercy of the
same power borne of the distance between characters on stage: Titus
turns to the audience and says, I knew them all, though they supposed
me mad, /And will oerreach them in their own devices (lines ).

The past tense knew makes it sound like Titus is the only one on-stage, but Tamora and her
sons are still there and have three more lines after Tituss aside. The past tense, which is from
Q, is one way in which the play draws attention to the absolute separateness of the aside. The
potential implausibility of such separateness seems to have been felt even by earlier editors: Q,
Q, and F all read know.

Theatrical Convention and Audience Response

Whether or not you believe that Titus is nevertheless to a certain extent

mad, his aside gives you the necessary information to interpret Tamoras
bewildering plan: her own over-condence in her plot for revenge will
bring vengeance down on her. The information gap shifts, as it did in .,
from the victims to their tormentors as the tragedy moves into full-scale
revenge mode. Asides, especially when they place as much strain on
context as do these from Titus Andronicus, suspend an audience between
thinking about what it is seeing too literally and accepting the hyberbolically metaphorical way of thinking the play seems to be offering. If and
when such asides are successful, their unruly energy allows the audience
to see hyperbole as a theatrical and interpretive necessity.
In Elizabethan and Jacobean tragedy characters tend to use asides
to say exactly the opposite of what they have said or of what is being
said by others in the main dialogue. The more clear-cut the distinction
is between what Tamora says to Saturninus and what she says to Titus,
the more precipitous the unknowing characters fall will inevitably be.
Comedy, more interested in temporary confusion and surprising resolution, tends to use asides more to underscore the advantages and perils of
equivocation. There, the whole point is frequently about simply getting
the joke. Comic asides are closely bound up with puns and the gaps
in information the audience is asked to notice are more subtle than in
tragedy; but the audience is very seldom allowed not to notice these gaps.
In Middletons A Mad World My Masters ., Penitent Brothel disguises
himself as a physician and the Courtesan pretends to be ill. The purpose
of this deception is to provide Mistress Harebrain with an opportunity to
meet and have sex with Penitent Brothel Master Harebrain believes the
Courtesan to be an honest woman, and thus permits his wife to visit her
by herself. The scene involves several levels of deception. Before Mrs.
Harebrain arrives, the Courtesans keeper, Sir Bounteous Progress,
arrives, believing the Courtesan actually to be ill; he must be got rid of.
After he leaves, two rich brothers, Inesse and Possibility, stop by to check
on the Courtesan, and they also must be got rid of. When Mrs. Harebrain
arrives, her husband waits outside the door, listening for any potential
exchange of sinful secrets. Mrs. Harebrain knows that her husband will
be doing this and tells the Courtesan so, and the Courtesan holds a
virtuous conversation with herself for the benet of Mr. Harebrain while
Penitent Brothel and Mrs. Harebrain frolic off-stage.
The scene is full of equivocation, of characters taking each others
words at face value. Old Sir Bounteous, seeing the Courtesan sick, boasts,
I am afraid I have got thee with child, i faith (line ), and becomes

Managing the aside

convinced of the possibility when the Courtesan replies I fear that much,
sir (line ). Possibility and Inesse are slightly more clever: when the
Courtesan tells them to stay not above an hour from my sight, Inesse
replies, Sfoot, we are not going lady (lines ). Harebrain hears
the Courtesans phony sobs, and takes them to be his wifes sobs of penitence for not appreciating her husband enough. As chief plotter and
beneciary of the scene, Penitent Brothel calls attention to the dangers
of naive interpretation through his running commentary on the misperceptions of the duped characters.
How now, my wench? How dost?
[coughing] Huh weak, knight huh.
[aside] She says true: hes a weak knight indeed.
Where does it hold thee most, wench?
All parts alike, sir.
[aside] She says true still, for it holds her in none.
(.. )

Penitent Brothel shows a strange concern for truth in the Courtesans

words strange because it implies that an outright lie somehow would
not do, even though the occasion for these half-truths is blatantly
duplicitous. The desired effect is to heighten the audiences delight in
that duplicity; following along with Penitents asides, it is more fun to
watch Sir Bounteous be given a piece of truth that he cannot know
to be false (or that he understands to be true in the wrong way) than
to see him simply lied to. Penitent Brothels interjections slow down the
audiences experience of the scenes language; they allow the audience to
perceive equivocation both where there might otherwise be none (weak
knight) and where it might not have been immediately obvious (All
parts alike). The audience benets, in a way that Sir Bounteous does
not, from a privileged awareness of languages multiple possibilities, and
does so by means of the guidance of Penitent Brothel.
The audience does not need such guidance, however or would not if
the equivocations Penitent Brothel points out here were not so strained.
The privileged perspective the audience enjoys is also somewhat unprivileged in that it must be shared with Penitent Brothel. Anyone clever
enough to pick up on the equivocal possibilities of the Courtesans lines
will be to some extent robbed of his pleasure when Penitent Brothel points
them out himself. At the same time, one cannot be certain of ones cleverness until Penitent Brothel has made the joke obvious. For this moment
in the play, the doubleness of language is not so much something one

Theatrical Convention and Audience Response

is privileged to see as it is something one is expected to see not a

ludicrous superuity, but a necessity. Standing aside, Penitent Brothel
is still physically near to Sir Bounteous, but speaking aside in puns and
equivocations puts him in the same theatrical space as the audience
absolutely distant from the gulled character.
About thirty lines later, Penitent Brothel has been listing for
Sir Bounteous the various medicines he is prescribing for the Courtesan.
This takes up some eight or ten lines. Then, at a somewhat inappropriate
moment, as Penitent begins to say how he will mix these ingredients, Sir
Bounteous interrupts and says Nay, pray be patient sir (line ). This
provides a set-up for Penitents joke, Thats impossible; I cannot be patient and a physician too, sir (line ). Sir Bounteous Progresss, Oh,
cry you mercy, thats true sir (line ), allows the moment to become a
punchline more than anything else. The joke is so contrived that it can
only come across as a joke, in which both actors (rather than one or the
other of the characters) are complicit. The audience, however, does not
at this point really need any justication for the incongruity of the lines.
The patientphysician joke, while not really a great joke, will inevitably
be funnier than it otherwise might because it is a play on words that the
audience can get without anyone pointing its cleverness out, and because
it follows the previous lines where Penitent Brothel did guide us through
his jokes. After seeing in lines that a keen ear is necessary to enjoy the
gulling, these lines, which do not require a keen ear, make the audience
feel, like Penitent Brothel, entirely in control of language. This moment is
similar to but more successful than the moment of Desdemonas abhor
in Othello: the play virtually stands aside from itself, reveling in its cleverness and in the way in which it has created a context and a perspective
that has allowed the audience to share in that cleverness. For the rest of
the scene Sir Bounteous Progress seems to be playing into verbal traps
which we expect in advance, and which seem obvious because they
are to the audience, but which he actually has no reason to suspect.

As we see here this is rarely left to chance. Such deceitful sickbed scenes are fairly common,
especially in the Jacobean period when playwrights start writing a lot of plays with doctor
characters. A good parallel example is in Fletchers The Womans Prize. In ., Livia pretends to
be sick in order to trick one suitor, Morose, into relinquishing any interest in her to the other
suitor, Rowland, whom she truly loves. Livia and her cousin Byancha take the last fteen lines
of . to plot this trick, and Byancha begins to pretend to be sick right then. In ., Byancha
brings Rowland and Morose to her cousins chamber, laying it on pretty thick, and keeping the
audience in an ironic frame of mind with jokes like She is sick sir, / But you may kisse her whole
(.. ). In spite of all this preparation, Fletcher still gives Byancha an aside, Well done,
wench, after Livia appears and says she is very sick, very sick (lines ).
See above, pp. .

Managing the aside

A similar effect can also be achieved in tragedy: in Othello, every time

Othello says Honest Iago or Iago is most honest, it is an invitation for the audience to laugh knowingly at Othellos blindness. With
extraordinary cruelty Shakespeare gives Othello absolutely no reason
to suspect Iago and then asks the audience to laugh at him for being
trusting. The very qualities Iago would seem to make us want to value
honesty and trust are the qualities one cannot help but mock in Othello.
The effect depends on the audience being made to believe in the need
to question everything and to feel, as we see in Mad World as well, that
those who do not look for equivocation or who are not privy to asides
are fools. The superuity of Penitent Brothels asides in lines works
out for the best in lines and in the rest of the scene, in that the
audience now wholly accepts the rules of the scenes game. Thus when
the Courtesan holds a lengthy conversation with herself (lines )
and fools Harebrain (to whom she would probably be entirely visible,
though unseen, on the Elizabethan stage), there is no need to worry over
whether or not the action is plausible. This is simply what happens to
In a moment such as the weak, knightweak knight joke, the
audience must simultaneously focus rather minutely and avoid doing
so in order to keep up with the dialogue and the scenes rapid movement
forward. I think it would be hard to determine whether the audience
laughs at the equivocal possibilities of the Courtesans lines because it
sees them when Penitent Brothel points them out, or simply because the
rhythm of the aside and the tone of voice required imply a joke, which
is only really understood a few lines later. It would also be difcult to
determine whether people laugh more because Penitent Brothels jokes
are funny, or because the Courtesan is putting on a good show, or because
Sir Bounteous Progress is so in the dark. While potentially distracting
or confusing or even annoying, this surfeit of comic stimulus is nevertheless important to the effect this play and Elizabethan and Jacobean
comedy generally seeks: to make one feel like laughter is absolutely irrepressible, bursting out of every word and action. If one is uncertain why
one is laughing, or when one was supposed to start laughing, it is simply
because everything is funny.

In Shakespeares Festive Comedy, C. L. Barber describes a similar effect occurring in Loves Labors
Lost .. , where the extension of the pigeon and pedlar metaphors combined with a
complex pattern of alliteration make it seem as though language had conspired with Berowne
to mock Boyet ( p. ). Asides, I would suggest peripherally, inserted as frequently as they are
in most Renaissance drama, have a rhythmic, conspiratorial effect similar to what Barber nds
in alliteration, or to the effect Debra Fried sees in rhymed puns.

Theatrical Convention and Audience Response

The audiences focus is frequently spread much more thinly than in

this small passage, especially once the element of disguise is added, and
when the characters speaking aside are also holding real conversations.
A good example of such a situation is the third act of The Family of Love.
Maria has been forbidden by her guardian, Glister, to see Gerardine, the
man she loves. Glister believes Gerardine to be at sea, and is keeping safe
for him a trunk full of his belongings. This trunk is in Marias room, and
turns out to contain Gerardine himself. As Gerardine and Maria prepare to enjoy a surreptitious consummation, Lipsalve, Gerardines rival,
appears below Marias window, accompanied by his servant Shrimp.
Lipsalve is disguised as Gerardine. The dialogue that follows involves
Lipsalves transparent lies, Marias ironic replies to them, Shrimps comments, aside, on the fact that Maria does not seem deceived, and conversation between Gerardine and Maria about Lipsalves foolishness. As
with the weapons-delivery scene in Titus Andronicus, this scene has troubled the plays few editors because it is difcult to see how the asides
might plausibly be managed.
Bullens edition of the play provides Dyces stage direction for Maria
coming to her window after Gerardine has spotted Lipsalve below:
Maria appears above; Gerardine concealing himself behind her
(.. ). Dyces footnote to this stage direction says this: The stage
direction in the old ed. [Q ] is Enter Gerardine and Maria above. I may
observe, that as curtains were suspended before the upper-stage, to conceal, if necessary, those who occupied it, they were probably used here for
that purpose by Gerardine. Dyces reassurance, that appropriate stage
business would have made the scene more plausible, implies the belief

Gary Taylor, Paul Mulholland, and MacDonald P. Jackson have convincingly demonstrated
that Family of Love was probably written by Lording Barry around . See Taylor, et al.,
Thomas Middleton, Lording Barry, and The Family of Love, : (): . Because
Middletons authorship c. has been widely accepted (see Gurr, Shakespearean Stage, Gair,
Children of Pauls, and David Lake, The Canon of Thomas Middletons Plays [Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, ) and because the best available edited text of the play (Dillon, New York
University dissertation, ) attributes it to Middleton, the play is listed under both Barry and
Middleton in my list of plays cited. In the argument that follows, I briey discuss Dyce and
Bullens respective interpretations of the staging of Family of Love . interpretations based
on the assumption that the play was performed at Pauls rather than, as Taylor et al. argue,
at Whitefriars. Since Pauls and Whitefriars were similarly tiny theatres (for a description of
the physical characteristics of Whitefriars see Jean MacIntyre, Production Resources at the
Whitefriars Playhouse, , Early Modern Literary Studies : []: ) and since both
were equipped with an above space, I feel that Dyce and Bullens remarks are resonant even
if one does not accept Middletons authorship.
Works of Thomas Middleton, ed. A. H. Bullen (London: John C. Nimmo, ). In the edition I am
using (see Plays cited) this scene is . and the stage direction occurs at line . The remaining
citations to Family of Love will be from the edition noted in Plays cited.

Managing the aside

that if the audience could see a character (in this case Gerardine) it would
have difculty assuming that other characters (in this case Lipsalve) could
not see him as well. This seems reasonable the potential for failure
is there but it is also fairly clear in the scene that Gerardine is visible to the audience: he has several asides which, if nothing else, would
be acoustically less practical if spoken from a place where he could not
be seen. These asides are largely in the form of direct conversation with
Maria: Thart in the right, sweet wench, more of that vayne! he tells
her (.. ) after she addresses Lipsalve as though she believes he
is Gerardine. In lines , he congratulates Maria on her plan to
make a fool of Lipsalve by asking him for a favour she supposedly
gave to Gerardine: Now dost thou put him toot: / More Tenters for his
wit; hees Nonplus quite. And in the middle of the dialogue, Maria and
Gerardine work together to develop a cloth-based conceit that mocks
the oblivious suitor:
Ha! Let me see: my loue so soone returnd?
I never trauelld farther then thine eyes;
My bruted iourney was a happy proiect
To cast a myst before thy iealous guardyan,
Who now suspectles, gives some hope t attaine
My wisht delight, before pursud in vaine.
[Aside] Ask if he straynd not hard for that same proiect.
Has not that proiect ouerrackt thy braine,
And spent more wit then thou hast left behind?
[Aside] By this light, she owts him.
No wit is innite; I spent some brayne;
Thy loue did stretch my wit vpon the Tenters.
[Aside] Then ist like to shrinke in the wetting.
It cottens well.
(lines )

Dyce refers to a curtained discovery space, for which there is ambiguous evidence. In The
Children of Pauls (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, ) Reavely Gair describes the
Pauls playhouse as having at the back of the main acting area a central double door, which
was provided with a curtain and could be left open to be used as a discovery space ( p. ).
In Production Resources at the Whitefriars Playhouse, Jean MacIntyre also nds evidence in
Whitefriars play-texts for a discovery space. But there is nothing to suggest that this scene makes
use of the discovery space. Qs direction, above can be taken literally: Gerardine and Maria,
who leave the stage at the end of . and return at the beginning of ., probably go to the balcony
area, thus both distancing themselves from the action and making the relationship between the
two scenes more intelligible. One might argue that Gerardine and Maria retire to some kind
of upstage structure with a window (see .. ) that way the trunk could be plausibly left
on-stage (i.e. it would not be suggested in Lipsalves entrance that he was now in the bedroom). In
any case there is no mention of curtains, and nothing in the scene, as my argument will attempt
to show, suggests Gerardine should be actually hidden.

Theatrical Convention and Audience Response

The concerted effort and self-congratulation of the two lovers depends

on their proximity to one another: something quite different more a
sense of Gerardine as intriguer and Maria his instrument would be
conveyed by Gerardine whispering out his lines from a hiding place.
But the end of the scene, when Glister arrives unexpectedly, does not
support this interpretation. Maria is quite clearly Gerardines equal in
intrigue: Now must we be abrupt; retire sweet friend/To thy smallease, she says. [W]hat more remaines to do/Weel consumate at our
next enteruiew (lines ). The audience probably would have had to
make the initial adjustment, as Dyce does, from thinking Will Lipsalve
see Gerardine and realize the idiocy of his plan? to Lipsalve does not
see Gerardine, and will only continue in the idiocy of his plan, and this
adjustment, once made, allows the improbability of Gerardines visibility
to emphasize Lipsalves distance from what is actually going on.
Causing the audience to make adjustments in what it perceives, and
in what it perceives the characters to perceive, is what the scene, and in
fact the play, is all about. When Gerardine rises out of the trunk which
had formerly been easily interpretable as an object of Glisters greed (he
had been planning to keep its contents for himself if Gerardine died at
sea) it is as much of a surprise to the audience as it is to Maria. When
Lipsalve enters in his disguise, he must briey insist upon it in order to
ensure that the audience knows what is going on: I am so like Gerardine,
ha, ist not so boy? Shrimps response is at this point ambiguous: As if
you were spit out ons mouth sir; you must needs be like him, for you are
both cut out of a peece (lines ). Is this to be taken as mockery of
the adequacy of the disguise or simply a servants impudence? Are we to
interpret the non-resemblance of Lipsalve and Gerardine as a function
of the practicalities of casting or of Lipsalves ineptitude? Does Maria
recognize Lipsalve for who he really is only because Gerardine is already
in her room, or would she have seen through the disguise in any case?
These questions potentially bear upon the scene in important ways,
but since Gerardine is in Marias room and can be seen by the audience,
they probably do not bear very strongly. Since he is the visible evidence
of Lipsalves blunder, questions about the adequacy of the disguise simply will not come up. Because Gerardines asides work in concert with
Marias out-loud words, the single adjustment the audience must make
to organize and accept the relationships of the characters on the stage
draws attention away from the less obviously relevant kinds of artice
that are a result of the disguise. As with Penitent Brothels asides in Mad
World, it is as if we hear the jokes in the scene before they literally occur.

Managing the aside

That is, we rst see Gerardine suggest a play on words, which is funny
in itself because the identically dressed Lipsalve can neither hear nor see
it, and then we see Maria make the joke, or take it in a new direction,
which is also funny because Lipsalve does not get it.
As though not content with this success, however, the playwright adds
another level to the scene, and one which threatens to detract from
rather than enhance the effects the scene achieves. Shrimps asides are
uniformly useless. His remark about Lipsalves disguise establishes him
early on as a saucy knave, and all his lines thereafter work to develop
his character in that direction. Lest we forget that Lipsalve is on a fools
quest, Shrimp reminds us that we are to look irreverently at the wooing.
So when Lipsalve says Boy, I haue spyd my saint, Shrimp responds
Then downe on your knees (lines ). Once Maria has warmed to
the task of gulling Lipsalve, Shrimp remarks, By this light, she owts
him (line ). Later, as Lipsalve fumbles for an excuse why he does not
have Marias favour (Tis in my tother hose), Shrimp makes some
rather extended remarks, which make the codpiece/penis joke that is
always potential, and predictable, when someone mentions his hose.
In your tother hose? She talkt of a ladder of Ropes; if she would let it downe;
for my life, he would hang himselfe int. In your tother hose? Why, those hose
are in Lauender, besides, they haue neuer a codpeece: but indeed there needs
no Iuy where the wine is good. In your tother hose? (lines )

While Shrimps lines probably do not make the scene less funny, they
certainly do not make it more funny. One is reminded of Fabians incessantly unnecessary asides in Twelfth Night, ., as Malvolio discovers the
forged letter.
Of course, the playwright might have intended the audience to have
a negative view of Shrimp Lipsalve does tell him to go away at the
beginning of the scene, lest Maria see him, and he hangs around anyway,
with the apparent sole purpose of mocking his master. What is interesting
about Shrimp is the way in which his superuity and annoyingness make
him both a character we do not want to pay attention to and a character
we must pay attention to. Shrimp introduces the motif of clothing (you
are both cut out of a peece) that is taken up more effectively by Gerardine
and Maria, and returns to it with his joke about the tother hose. He
also anticipates Marias Has not that proiect ouerrackt thy braine?
with But, lord, sir, how you hunt the chase of loue, are you not weary?
(lines ). Shrimp is largely redundant. His constant and openly ironic
position in relation to the action By this light, she outs him simply

Theatrical Convention and Audience Response

insists on what the audience has long perceived. And the attention that
his overt sarcasm requires, especially in the lengthy aside of lines ,
both shifts the audiences focus away from the central action and almost
forces laughter. For, to ignore Shrimps remarks or not to laugh at them is
to become willfully unaware of another level of the scene; and awareness,
as Lipsalve is in the process of illustrating, is what separates the wits from
the fools.
If we imagine this scene on stage, Weimanns upstage / downstage
distinction becomes somewhat too simple. Shrimp is certainly a downstage character after the fashion of Apemantus, and he will be physically
downstage; but Lipsalve will also have to be downstage, because Maria
and Gerardine are either upstage or up- and above-stage; and these latter two, whose entire success depends on their being physically upstage,
create a theatrically downstage relationship with the audience. If we further imagine Shrimp and Lipsalve on different sides of the stage (Lipsalve
does not seem party to Shrimps cracks), we can see the playwright projecting a different voice from virtually every part of the stage. There is
no space in the theatre (and this includes the audience) that is not, by
virtue of its intricate overlap with the other spaces, part of the theatrical
space which gives energy to and derives energy from the masterful farce.
What is perhaps most remarkable, and speaks most powerfully to the
fact that distinctions between public and private theatre dramaturgy are
provisional at best, is the fact that Family of Love was performed on a tiny
indoor stage, not on a huge platform stage where the need to attend to
different parts of the house would seem more pressing. The effect of a
scene like this in a small theatre would have been overwhelming; but the
fact that such scenes abound in private as well as public theatre plays
makes it clear that their effects were necessary.
Perhaps one of the most overwhelming such scenes in a public theatre
play is Othello .. Here, questions of awareness become still more
urgent as there is more distance between the main action and the
aside-speaking character and one character has the privilege of standing wholly apart from the on-stage action. This kind of scene does
not have the same plausibility problems as the other kinds of asides.
That is, there is no difculty establishing that one character can speak,
even at length, out of hearing of the others. What is difcult is establishing how much the character standing apart can or cannot hear
while remaining in a believably remote place. In Troilus and Cressida
., Troilus hears every word spoken by Diomedes and Cressida, and
reacts so strongly as to prompt Ulysses to quiet him down lest they be

Managing the aside

discovered. Ulyssess awareness of the potential for discovery complements and validates the audiences similar worry: it gives the scene a
sense of verisimilitude (Ulysses and Troilus are standing close enough
to hear or be heard) and, like the asides in Titus Andronicus, makes the
issue of response central. The action will now proceed by means of the
standing-aside character overhearing and/or misconstruing important
In Othello ., Iago prepares Othello for what he should expect to see
Cassio do and then prepares the audience for what it should look for as
misconstruable evidence.
Do but encave yourself,
And mark the f leers, the gibes, and notable scorns
That dwell in every region of his face;
For I will make him tell the tale anew,
Where, how, how oft, how long ago, and when
He hath and is again to cope your wife.
I say but mark his gesture . . .
[Aside] As he [Cassio] shall smile, Othello shall go mad;
And his unbookish jealousy must construe
Poor Cassios smiles, gestures, and light behaviours
Quite in the wrong.
(lines )

Iago encourages Othello to look at non-verbal things facial expressions,

gesture, laughter and the audience to watch how he misinterprets
them. The audience, however, must also be focused on the verbal aspects
of the scene because it, unlike Othello, cannot choose but hear what is
being said. The discrepancy between our focus and Othellos creates a
tension we are helplessly worried about his mistake that is mirrored
in the discrepancy between the level at which Othello reacts (So, so, so,
so; they laugh that wins, etc.) and the fact that he cannot hear what is
being said. He already seems to be misinterpreting Cassios words, even
though we are the only ones who can hear them. This is a tragic version

The Revengers Tragedy . possibly gets itself into trouble by defying this convention. Vindice and
Hippolito stand aside as Spurio discusses with his attendants his plan to kill Lussurioso, but they
do not hear what is said. That is why Vindice immediately tells Lussurioso that Spurio has gone
to sleep with the Duchess, and why Lussurioso then nds himself in the particularly awkward
position of bursting in on his sleeping father and stepmother. One might argue that Vindices
mistake is thematically important, as it is just one more example of a largely accidental series
of events resulting in perfect or near-perfect revenge; and one would be right. However, it is
also true that an audience that has heard Spurios real plans and seen Vindice usually a keen
observer apparently listening to them will be at least briey confused when Vindice announces
a course of action that depends on his not hearing.

Theatrical Convention and Audience Response

of what happens to Sir Bounteous Progresss experience of language and

the audiences experience of Sir Penitent Brothel in Mad World ..
A further discrepancy develops at line , where Iago beckons
Othello to approach and listen to the story Cassio is about to tell. A
primary effect of Iagos beckoning is to show that Cassio is an equally
unknowing party in the scene. The importance of body language as an
object of scrutiny has been built up to a point that Cassios not noticing Iagos movement will require of the audience a certain amount of
adjustment a moment where it asks, Could Cassio have seen that?
Cassios involvement in telling his own story, like Othello commenting
on laughter when he could be saved by attention to something more
minute, words, probably ends up emphasizing the obvious that Iago is
in complete control. Everyone else on stage is focused on the wrong thing.
This continues to be the case for the next few lines when Othello, who
has come closer with the express purpose of listening to Cassios words
suddenly becomes quite intent on his gestures, and actually does not hear
what Cassio is saying and does not correctly interpret his movements.
So hangs and lolls and weeps upon me, so hales and pulls me. Ha, ha,
[Aside] Now he tells how she plucked him to my chamber.
O, I see that nose of yours, but not that dog I shall throw it to!
(lines )

What the audience expects to see and, I imagine, thinks it sees in this
scene is Othello misinterpreting evidence that he cannot but misinterpret because of his physical and contextual distance from what is being
said by Cassio and Iago. And Iago, we think, keeps him off or brings him
closer at exactly the right times, increasing the potential for Othello to
be fooled. The audience thinks this because this makes sense, because
it creates an easily intelligible dramatic irony wherein the asides make
Othellos wrongness more tragic because the audience knows how he is
wrong. What the audience actually, literally sees, however, especially in
lines , is Othello misinterpreting things he does not actually hear.
It would not matter what Iago said to Cassio, or when he beckoned
Othello closer: the substantively relevant Bianca material is for the sake
of the audiences sense of irony. Thus it is difcult to notice the complete implausibility of Biancas entrance at line , where she merely
repeats the reservations about the handkerchief which she just expressed
at the end of . (lines ). Her entrance seems logical rather than

Managing the aside

contrived because the handkerchief is a tangible piece of misinterpretable

evidence and because the complex system of asides in the preceding lines
has made the audience think that something tangible, a point of absolute convergence between the variously remote characters on stage, is all
that is necessary now to bring on the catastrophic action. In this way the
show Iago puts on is similar (and similarly successful) to the show we are
treated to in Family of Love .. In The Family of Love, the real Gerardine
is like the handkerchief Bianca brings in at the end of Othello ., and
both are similar, to return to chapter , to Ermsbys holy mutton joke
at the end of Friar Bacon: superuous but vital. The excess of information, of evidence, of signicance insists that the smallest movement
Shakespeares, Shrimps, Greenes, Iagos is worth looking at.
The Duchess of Mal has two children between Acts and . This is
revealed at the beginning of ., in a conversation between Antonio and
Delio: since you last saw her, says Antonio, She hath had two children
more, a son and daughter (Duchess of Mal ..). The footnote
to these lines in Elizabeth Brennans edition alludes to the RSC
production of Duchess, which put the intermission after the end of Act ,
and then says that Productions which do not follow this example do
Webster a disservice by rendering these lines unintentionally farcical. The
NT production omitted these children. It is strange that Brennan
would nd the lack of an intermission to be a disservice to Webster,
since the original venues of the play, the Globe and the Blackfriars, would
have allowed the play, respectively, no intermission and possibly a brief
candle trimming interval (Brennan herself brings these facts to light on
page xxxiii of her introduction). The fault would seem to lie with Webster,
not with modern directors if the lack of intermission between the two
acts results in unintentional farce.
Brennan is naturally resistant to blaming Webster and more willing to
put the burden on modern directors to smooth over the experience of a
twentieth-century audience that she imagines to be less credulous than
a Jacobean audience. But her discomfort with the problem of elapsed
time seems likely to be more a function of Websters awareness of the
problem than her footnote admits. This is the expository passage in its
entirety (Brennans footnote is attached only to lines ).
Our noble friend, my most beloved Delio,
Oh, you have been a stranger long at court,
Came you along with the Lord Ferdinand?
I did, sir, and how fares your noble Duchess?

Theatrical Convention and Audience Response

Right fortunately well. Shes an excellent
Feeder of pedigrees: since you last saw her,
She hath had two children more, a son and daughter.
Methinks twas yesterday. Let me but wink,
And not behold your face, which to mine eye
Is somewhat leaner: verily I should dream
It were within this half hour.
You have not been in law, friend Delio,
Nor in prison, nor a suitor at the court,
Nor beggd the reversion of some great mans place,
Nor troubled with an old wife, which doth make
Your time insensibly hasten.

Pray sir tell me,

Hath not this news arrivd yet to the ear
(.. )
Of the Cardinal?

While not necessarily intentional farce, these lines do joke about the
very problem that worries Brennan. Delios Methinks twas yesterday
and then verily I should dream/It were within this half hour are
quite clearly jokes between the actors and the audience about the fact
that Antonio and Delio have literally seen each other within the half
hour in the second scene of Act . Antonios rather hyperbolical
meditation on the subjective experience of time is a parody of more
solemn such meditations in the interest of acknowledging to the audience
the telescoping of time that the theatre requires. That it is no more than
this is made clear by Delios immediate transition into the events at hand
which now we must, the play seems to say, accept and get on with it.
This short exchange is similar to an aside by a knowing character to the
audience: largely unnecessary but somehow irresistible. The unknowing
character is in this case the audience member who does not want to
accept that two children can be born in thirty minutes. That such audience members were potentially present in as much as they are
today seems amply indicated by Websters decision to make the exchange
humorous. Of course, with this humor Webster inevitably denies the
knowing part of his audience some of the pleasure of being knowing, and
risks making them feel as perhaps Brennan does somewhat cheated

And by the fact that similar scenes abound in the drama of the period, later as well as earlier. Chapter will briey take up one that occurs in Beaumont and Fletchers The Captain. A
good earlier example on a different topic occurs in King Leir. After Gallia and Mumford have
disguised themselves, Gallia suggests that they call each other, in their disguises, Trossilus
and Denapoll, and Mumford says Might I be made the monarch of the world, / I could not
hit upon these names, I swear. So they go with Will and Jack (. ). Playwrights, like
Byancha in The Womans Prize (see above, footnote ), cannot resist the temptation to wink slyly
at the already quite accommodating audience.

Managing the aside

out of enjoying the artice of the theatre without having to be reminded

that they are doing so. Similarly, constant interrupting asides risk taking
away some of the audiences pleasure in recognizing, without having
to be shown, the doubleness or slipperiness of language, or the aptness
and subtlety of revenge. What seems most to be at stake for playwrights
in these moments is controlling the audiences relationship to theatrical
and linguistic artice. And it would seem that audiences enjoyed being
controlled in this way enjoyed the awareness that they were, or had the
capacity to be, paying attention to all the right things.

Exposition, redundancy, action

With asides, paying attention to all the right things frequently means
simply getting all the jokes. In serious plays or situations it means seeing
through pretense or seeing what should be but, tragically, is not obvious to other characters. In both serious and comic situations, the tone
of asides as well as their formal structure direct engagement with the
audience generally suggest that we are not being told anything we
do not already know. The stakes are somewhat different with the convention of expository speeches or dialogue: here, the information we
must pay attention to is implicitly essential, and not something we are
expected to know until the moment we hear it. Once we hear it, it is assumed we will remember it. Whereas puns and asides work to create the
theatrical space required for the non-naturalistic stage, exposition lls
the spaces where that stage cannot, or seems that it cannot, represent
Muriel Bradbrook argues that exposition of plot, like the convention of characters describing their feelings with scientic detachment,
is due to the Elizabethan habit of making everything explicit and of
stating everything in the verse itself (p. ). These conventions show
that the awareness of the audience was acknowledged, and that there
was no question of the characters stepping out of the picture, for
they were never in it (p. ). This graduation between frank appeal
ad spectatores and the subtlest nuances of Shakespearean dramaturgy,
make the dead-level of modern dialogue seem a very primitive affair
(p. ). For Bradbrook, the effect of exposition is to engage the audience
actively in the theatrical process of setting a scene or creating a character.
She goes on to argue that [e]xpository soliloquy is usually preferable to
expository dialogue . . . The use of dialogue implies an attempt to hide
the exposition, to make it naturalistic, and if the disguise is not efcient

In Themes and Conventions.

Exposition, redundancy, action

there is a denite sense of failure (p. ). She cites as examples of such

failure the opening scenes of As You Like It, Hamlet, and Richard III.
This last point would seem difcult to argue with: expository dialogue
does seem to tend toward a too-articial sound: one character tends to
speak much more than the others and the audience, even though it is
the sole reason for the conversation, is put strangely at a distance from
the expository information by the mostly silent on-stage listeners. But the
fact is that most expository scenes in particular, scenes at the beginning
of plays, which serve to set plots in motion are in dialogue rather than
soliloquy. Openings like that of The Winters Tale, where the main action
of the play is discussed in the rst scene and then re-revealed in more
active form in the next, are far more common than openings like that of
Marstons Antonio and Mellida, where the hero delivers a soliloquy about
what has just happened, why he is disguised, and what he intends to do.
At the same time, it seems a mistake to say that the Elizabethan habit
of making everything explicit in the verse itself allows exposition simply
to stand in for action itself. Plays frequently spend large amounts of onstage time developing lines of action that have little or no effect on the
main plot: consider, for example, the Villuppo plot in The Spanish Tragedy,
or the Junior Brother plot in The Revengers Tragedy. Even travel scenes, for
which exposition is frequently used, are not so theatrically cumbersome
that they cannot be represented: the rst scene of The Tempest provides
a ne case in point. The Tempest also contains a travel narrative that
is not represented on stage: the tediously presented story Prospero tells
Miranda in . of how they arrived on the island. The contrast between
these two scenes makes quite clear that exposition is more often a choice
than a necessity. This chapter will discuss a number of different kinds
of exposition and the value of frequent expository scenes, and especially
expository dialogue, in a drama that actively seeks to stage spectacular,
complex, virtually impossible-to-stage events.
I will begin by discussing some forms of exposition that are more
closely related to the aside: expository speeches, spoken by a chorus or
a choric gure, which foretell the action or advance it temporally or
geographically; and dumbshows that serve a similar purpose. Because
these kinds of scenes involve direct address more or less uncomplicated by

David Bevington, in From Mankind to Marlowe (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, ),
notes that the opposite might originally have been the case: in morality plays, soliloquy repeatedly
occupies the interval required for brief costume changes ( p. ). While the need for costume
interval does not always require soliloquy . . . the function of soliloquy in these plays of limited
cast reinforces its value to the plot. The result is an ever-increasing use of this dramatic technique
which was so much a part of the later Elizabethan stage ( p. ).

Theatrical Convention and Audience Response

other, more urgent business on stage, and because they involve a single,
usually somehow-omniscient character talking directly to the audience,
an audiences focus is not subject to the same strain as with asides or fastpaced expository dialogue. Just a few examples of choric, travel-related
exposition are: the narrative of Edwards return to England from France
in Heywoods Edward IV; the narrative of Besss adventures at sea at
the end of Act in Heywoods The Fair Maid of the West; Fortunatuss
trip to Babylon at the beginning of Act in Dekkers Old Fortunatus;
the many international voyages in Pericles, (anon.) Thomas Lord Cromwell,
and Dabornes A Christian Turned Turk; and the chorus of Time in The
Winters Tale. Some examples of dumbshow exposition are: the beginning
of (anon.) The Weakest Goeth to the Wall; the inter-act pauses in (anon.)
A Warning for Fair Women; during the latter part of the choric speech in
Fair Maid of the West; during some of Gowers speeches in Pericles; and
early on in Heywoods Four Prentices of London, when a Presenter comes
on to narrate dumbshows that show the travels of the four prentices.
The choric parts here are characterized by long speeches (usually no
fewer than twenty-ve lines), a sense of great sweep in distance or time,
and the use of words like imagine, suppose, and allow. These
words call attention to the limits of the theatre, but also allow one to
revel in the fact that the theatre is the place where thousands of miles, or
dozens of years, can be traversed by means of a relatively brief speech. In
expository dumbshows, action is foretold (or retold) either literally as at
the beginning of Weakest Goeth to the Wall, where we see the abandonment
and rescue of baby Frederick, later a crucial event to remember; or
metaphorically as throughout Warning for Fair Women, where Tragedy,
Lust, and Chastity create weird extra-temporal moments where they
interact with the characters of the main action and either perform actions
on them (rubbing Anne and Brownes ngers with blood) or make them
perform actions (Anne and Browne cut down a tree that represents
Annes husband, the impediment to their lust) that represent what they
will do in the scenes to follow. This use of dumbshows, especially when
coupled with exposition by a chorus, presenter, or prologue of some
kind, calls attention to the amplitude of resources verbal as well as

See Edward IV P v. ; Fair Maid .. ; Cromwell B r. ; Pericles , induction, . The most

famous example of imagine in this context is probably the opening of Henry V.
See Dekker, Old Fortunatus , prelude, ; Daborue, Christian Turned Turk . .
See Winters Tale .. .
Another type of dumbshow can be found in anon., Locrine, where Ate presents an allegorical show,
usually involving animals, before each act and then interprets its signicance in terms of the past
and coming action.

Exposition, redundancy, action

visual available to the theatre, and emphasizes through repetition the

interpretive importance of various acts the audience will see. Moments
like the dumbshows of Warning for Fair Women ll the stage space with all
manner of characters and props, and the theatrical space with a variety
of kinds of meaning (iconographic, allegorical, moral); the theatre seems
veritably to be bursting with the plenitude of its own means of signifying.
Moments like the beginning of Act of The Duchess of Mal show that
you do not need an elaborate Chorus (as in Winters Tale) to convey the
passage of time, and plays like Antony and Cleopatra and Greenes Alphonsus,
King of Aragon show that you do not need expository speeches to cover
a wide geographical range. The economy of Renaissance dramaturgy
with respect to setting (This is Ilyria, lady) is well known and cannot
be discounted. But the plays that use elaborate exposition to establish
temporal or geographical setting seem to be counting on an audiences
pleasure in simply hearing the details of a journey that perhaps could not
be represented in as much detail on stage; in the epic, stylized feel created
by the slightly archaic chorus or dumbshow calling on the audience to
imagine what it cannot see, and calling attention to what it should nd
meaningful; and in the plays proudly self-conscious implication that it
is taking on as successfully as possible far more material than could ever
really be put into the connes of a theatre.
The deliberate excess of stimulus and signicance provided by
Elizabethan and Jacobean plays, which we have seen in puns, in asides,
and now in the spectacular redundancies of exposition by dumbshow and
chorus, makes the issue of response of paramount importance. Something is always overtly demanding a denite reaction or interpretive
response, and the drama puts its audience in the habit of judging characters in terms of the way they react to the information the audience is
given, whether or not the characters have access to it. One is constantly
in the process of evaluating and validating ones own response. While
irrelevant puns and distracting asides both complicate and bolster ones
sense of control over the events and dialogue of the main action, exposition works on some level to extend ones feeling of mastery to the
realm of things that occur off-stage: the theatrical space includes even
physical space that we cannot see. At the same time, the frequency of
scenes where crucial events are reported rather than seen, and the frequency with which such scenes end up surprising us with an inaccuracy

It seems likely that even in the s and s the conventions of the dumbshow and chorus,
which had already been used quite extensively in Gorboduc of some twenty or thirty years earlier,
would have seemed familiar and slightly outmoded.

Theatrical Convention and Audience Response

or an outright lie in the reporting keeps us from becoming complacent

in our reactions and makes the play seem always one step ahead: always
capable of providing us with more than we bargained for.
The most common occasion for surprising turns in apparently
straightforward exposition is in the reporting of death or battle scenes.
The bleeding captains speech in Macbeth . sends a message dont
believe everything you hear particularly appropriate to that play, but
also applicable to tragedy in general. When the invading Humber seems
about to conquer England in the anonymous Locrine, Albanact gives
up hope too soon, and kills himself. Thrasimachus reports to Locrine
that Albanact Yielded his life and honor to the dust; Locrine, assuming this means Humber killed him, vows revenge in high astounding
terms (.. ) and transforms the play from a military history into
a revenge tragedy. The shift in register precipitated by the discrepancy
between the expository information and the actual information has consequences that the play is very interested to explore: in the search for
revenge, no one gets what he or she wants. Virtually all the characters
who die in this play including Locrine, who in the end becomes himself an object of revenge die by committing suicide. Taking even the
minute details of an expository speech too much at face value is like
taking the equivocations of a Middletonian comic character too much at
face value: one has to pay for being out of the loop. In the case of Locrine
the audience is or is supposed to be privy to this kind of irony: the slip
between intentions and outcome is made pathetic but also funny when
the ghost of Albanact, throughout the play desperate to drive Humber
to his grave, arrives at the end of Act just-too-late to see his enemys
The audience can also be put out of the loop, as at the end of Alphonsus,
Emperor of Germany. When Alexander comes back from the battle to report
that Alphonsus has lost his kingdom to Richard, Duke of Cornwall, neither we nor Alphonsus have any reason to disbelieve him. Here, perhaps
similar to the moment when Andreas tale causes Proserpine to smile
at the beginning of The Spanish Tragedy, exposition becomes a weapon.
When Alphonsus becomes repentant and confesses that he, not Isabella
or Edward, killed Alexanders father, the function of Alexanders lie
formerly to prevent Alphonsus from prolonging Isabellas and Edwards
lives changes to serve a different vengeful end. He has forced Alphonsus
to go into rather graphic detail about how and when he killed Lorenzo.
Alexander essentially turns this weapon on himself when, after killing
Alphonsus, he is asked by Saxon to explain himself, and more or less

Exposition, redundancy, action

repeats once again the heinous deeds he did for Alphonsus and for
revenge. Saxon gives Edward the power to sentence Alexander and
Alexander is sent to be hangd / As here the Jewes are hangd (Kr)
while Richard is given the German empery. The threefold exposition
of the murderous acts of the play seems to have purged the kingdom of
the thoughts and deeds that were that expositions subject. At the same
time, the repetition serves to bludgeon the audience with the details of
what it has seen both to emphasize the extent of the horror, and make
it still more terrible in its very comprehensibility.
The numbness fostered by lists and repeated lists of atrocities stands in
vital tension with the imaginative scope they provide the audience. One
is torn between reacting like Sylla, who is moved to the point of giving up
his dictatorship when, at the end of Lodge and Greenes The Wounds of
Civil War, he hears of the suicide of Marius and his men; or like Terentius
who, at the end of Sejanus, makes a remarkably brief and bland moral
of the or so lines he and the Nuntius have taken up describing
the mutilation, rape, and death of Sejanus and his children. When this
tension is effective as stage history seems to show it was not in Sejanus
(though it certainly might have been in other plays, since the convention
of reported deaths was certainly prevalent through the period) the
effect is important, perhaps essential to tragedy: one feels that judgment,
or even response itself, is inadequate in the face of events whose horror
is both magnied and surprisingly contained in the act of narration, in
the space of the theatre.
Reported deaths in comedy tend to be inaccurate: the Elder Lovelesss announcement, in disguise, of his own death in The Scornful Lady
(discussed in the previous chapter) is a typical example of the kind of
irony this exposition creates in comedy. Quite the opposite of tragedy,
comedy tends to use exposition to clarify the audiences sense of judgment. A classic example is Solanio and Salerio in Shakespeares Merchant
of Venice. For minor characters, these two hold an extraordinary amount
of authority. They appear at or know of all the plays crucial events; they
have and express an opinion about everyone in the play; and, perhaps
most importantly, they seem to know of everyones comings and goings
at all times. At .. , Solanio tells Antonio, Here comes Bassanio,
your most noble kinsman, / Gratiano, and Lorenzo. In ., waiting with
Gratiano for Lorenzo, Salerio sees him rst: Here comes Lorenzo; more

This bludgeoning effect might partially account for the effect of the bizarre double exposition at
the end of The Spanish Tragedy.

Theatrical Convention and Audience Response

of this hereafter (line ). The plot thickens in .. with this expository

Why, man, I saw Bassanio under sail,
With him is Gratiano gone along;
And in their ship I am sure Lorenzo is not.
The villain Jew with outcries raised the Duke,
Who went with him to search Bassanios ship.
He came too late, the ship was under sail.
But there the Duke was given to understand
That in a gondola were seen together
Lorenzo and his amorous Jessica.
Besides, Antonio certied the Duke
They were not with Bassanio in his ship
(lines )

Solanio and Salerio talk of news on the Rialto at the beginning of .

and then shift their energies to mockery as Shylock appears: here [the
devil] comes in the likeness of a Jew ( line ). Even Tubals entrance
is preceded by an introduction from Solanio: Here comes another of
the tribe (line ). Later, Salerio will bring Bassanio Antonios letter
from prison and tell him of Shylocks cruelty. In ., as the trial begins,
Salerio is the one to respond to the Dukes order, call the Jew into the
court, with He is ready at the door; he comes my, lord (lines );
and he also announces the arrival of A messenger with letters from the
doctor, / New come from Padua ( lines ). The quiet but persistent omniscience of these characters makes it difcult not to accept their
version of events as truth; they have no reason to lie to one another,
and they are right about the identities, whereabouts, and actions of all
the other characters, so why would one question the My daughter!
O my ducats! story in .? One might well question their motivations
and veracity nevertheless, especially when their petty mockery comes up
against Shylocks famous speech in . (to this, Solanio and Salerio are
given no lines of reaction, thus probably leaving the audience at somewhat of a loss as well); but their aloofness from and ordering presence
in the action provides the semblance of an external, infallible perspective that makes sympathy for Shylock difcult even as one recognizes his
Characters like Solanio and Salerio of which there are countless
examples in both comedy and tragedy provide facts. Their status as
obviously minor characters makes it seem as if they have no other reason
to be on stage except to provide vital information, and it is in light of
the facts they present that we judge the actions of other characters.

Exposition, redundancy, action

Thomas Lord Cromwell, while it has a Chorus to move the action from one
place to another, nevertheless follows Cromwells arrest and precedes his
appearance in prison with a scene where two citizens talk of his arrest
and say that Tis pittie that this noble man should fall, / He did so many
charitable deeds (Fv). Citizen concludes the scene by saying that
Some will speak hardly, some will speake in pitie, and this perspective
emphasizes that only one of these is the obvious right choice. The
Kings botched meeting with Wat Tyler and his men in Act of (anon.)
The Life and Death of Jack Straw is not seen, but is discussed rst by the
irate Tyler and Straw, then by the fleeing and frightened King (These
people are not to be talkt withall / . . . / That so vnorderly with shrikes
and cries, / Make shew as though they would invade vs all [Cv]), and
then by the sympathetic but awed Sir John Newton and a Bargeman.
The cowardice of the King and the might of the rebels are given equal
weight in a way they could not be if the King were shown on-stage
running from eight or ten men who were supposed to represent twenty
In Jack Straw the interpretive function of reported action is very closely
linked to the practical function: the ridiculousness of the King cannot
be such that it makes the rebels, who are the focus of the play, seem
trivial. Asking the audience to imagine twenty thousand men is thus
more effective when the men can be wholly imagined: it is not that the
physical space cannot represent twenty thousand men, only that the theatrical space is more effective if the physical space does not make the
attempt. This is perhaps frequently the reason for reported death or
battle scenes in tragedy, though there are enough scenes of on-stage
battle, dismemberment, or death involving elaborate special effects to
suggest that the effects could be effective and not simply laughable. But
even as they can work to counter unwanted laughter or implausibility,
expository scenes must frequently deal with their own cumbersomeness. A typical example of a play being aware of the clumsy way in
which it is about to provide information, but proceeding anyway, is in
scene of Munday, Hathaway, Drayton, and Wilsons Sir John Oldcastle

A similar scene involving two merchants (quite possibly the same actors who play the two
citizens) occurs earlier, on Ev: the merchants joke about the antagonism between Cromwell
and the Bishop of Winchester, and reinforce our perception of Winchester as arrogant and
Consider, for example the siege scenes in the Tamburlaine plays; or the attack on Thomas
Winchester in Yaringtons Two Lamentable Tragedies, when Merrie striketh six blowes on his
head & with the seauenth leaues the hammer sticking in his head (Cr); or the scene in anon.,
Edmund Ironside (.) where Canutus cuts off the noses of Leofrick and Turkillus. These and other
such moments are discussed at more length in chapter .

Theatrical Convention and Audience Response

where, through Lord Scroop, we rst learn of Cambridges claim to the

Once more, my Lord of Cambridge, make rehearsal
How you do stand entitled to the crown.
The deeper shall we print it in our minds,
And every man the better be resolved
When he perceives his quarrel to be just.

( lines )

In response Cambridge launches into a complicated thirty-line genealogical explanation which Scroop interrupts once (lines ) for further
clarication. On one level, this is all for the audience: it lays out the
most minute specics of the conict. At the same time, such minutiae
are probably unnecessary to an understanding of the plot, and are expressed in a complicated enough way to be difcult to follow. Scroops
pat response, I am resolved our enterprise is just ( line ), can however be a moment of valuable laughter whether he speaks it like he has
grasped all of Cambridges reasons or not. If he has, he has bought into
elaborately specious logic that will do little to persuade a sympathetic
audience against Henry V; if he has not but says he is satised out of
stubborn loyalty and a desire for Cambridge to stop talking, Cambridge
looks still more the pompous ass, and Scroop and the other followers still
more the yes-men that the play proves them to be. The problem of needing articially to turn aside and simply give the audience information
is incorporated into the play to potentially good dramatic and thematic
But if the information we get, as in Oldcastle, is not entirely necessary
or, if it is, is presented in a way too difcult to follow, what is the point
of creating a scene where such information seems necessary to present
and then creating an ironic framework which justies that scenes existence? What are the advantages, or at least the effects, of self-conscious
inefciency? To answer this question I will turn now to probably the most
common type of exposition, and the most difcult to follow exposition
that occurs in the rst scene or rst act of a play, and which bombards
the audience with a lot of information about something that happened
off-stage and/or in the dramatic past even as the audience is trying to
take in what is happening on-stage and in the dramatic present.
Una Ellis-Fermor says that expository scenes are concerned . . . to
put us in tune with certain emotions, to set us thinking along certain lines; invariably they take the most direct way to present this

Exposition, redundancy, action

reality . . . without undue concern about maintaining at the same time

a strict correspondence with the surface of life. While the discussion
that follows will agree with the rst and last parts of this argument, it
will take lengthy exception to the phrase most direct way. Expository
scenes, especially at the beginnings of plays, are, I think, inefcient and
indirect in important ways ways that perhaps ultimately give a sense
of directness or efciency that is more important than the thing itself.
I want to focus now on three very complicated plays with very complicated opening scenes in order to demonstrate the way in which the
minutiae of expository scenes do affect our experience of a play in a
way importantly particular to these kinds of scenes. The three plays are:
Cymbeline, Marstons Antonios Revenge, and Middletons No Wit, No Help
Like a Womans. The rst scene in each play tells of the disappearance
and/or return of an important relative: in Antonios Revenge it is the wife
of the now-dead Andrugio; in No Wit it is Philip Twilights mother and
sister; and in Cymbeline it is Belarius and the kings two sons. In two of the
plays we also learn of important people who are absent because dead or
banished: Posthumus is banished before Cymbeline begins; Piero enters
in Antonios Revenge smeared with the blood of Felice, whom he has just
stabbed to death, and gloating over the death of Andrugio, whom he has
just poisoned. Two of the plays set up schemes that will structure much
of the ensuing action: Savorwit in No Wit concocts the marry-and-switch
plot for Philip and Sandeld, and Piero plans to kill Antonio and marry
Maria. Finally, each rst scene sets in motion events whose outcome
seems fairly predictable: the kings daughter will probably marry the
banished Posthumus, and his two lost sons will probably be found; Philip
Twilights falsied report of his own mothers death will probably backre
on him; and Pieros plan to marry Maria after killing both her husband
and son will probably not go entirely as planned.
In each of these three plays there is a rapid condensation of the past,
the most obvious effect of which is to give the action a rapidity and immediacy: we are being told that we are beginning in the middle. At
the same time, it is important to remember that in relation to what audiences expect from the theatre action exposition slows things down,
no matter how quickly the actors speak. That is why it feels necessary
to begin discussions of Cymbeline . as editors frequently do: by pointing

In The Jacobean Drama, p. .

Middletons play makes this quite explicit with a metatheatrical joke: the frantic Savorwit says
to his frantic master, How can there be any / Hope i th middle when were both at our / Wits
end in the beginning? (.. ).

Theatrical Convention and Audience Response

out that such rst scenes are conventional. If the play began with the
second scene rather than the rst (and it certainly could in . we see
dramatized the wrath of the king at his daughter and Posthumus which
we have already heard about), it would not invite explanatory comment.
The result of this slowing down is a different kind of condensation: wary
playwrights work to create a rapid-re dialogue that will not try an audiences patience. Consequently the exposition, trying to convey as much
information as possible as quickly as possible, and putting into narrative
form events that could be (and often are later) more clearly presented on
stage, also tends to be confusing.
Piero explains his murder of Andrugio this way:
We were both rivals in our May of blood
Unto Maria, fair Ferraras heir.
He won the Lady, to my honours death,
And from her sweets cropped this Antonio;
For which I burned in inward sweltring hate . . .

(Antonios Revenge .. )

I want to dwell at some length on this short passage in order to illustrate that what might in many ways justly be taken by standard
views of exposition as Marstons over-labored writing is in fact representative of the kinds of confusion that occur in comparable passages
in the other two plays. The words rivals in create the expectation of
a stock phrase like rivals in love or rivals in arms. What the line
delivers instead is the awkward May of blood, presumably meaning
youth. We are given a designation of time where we expect one of
condition, and what we are given is unidiomatic. The rst lines of
Pieros story about why he has done what he has done give us what
we want not once, but twice. We should, of course, be fairly certain of
what Piero is talking about, but the syntactic awkwardness, the nonidiomatic sound, and the fact that blood is pertinent to the events
of the moment should all work to make the sense at least somewhat
cloudy. A sonic version of this cloudiness is then provided by the proliferation of f s and rs in the next line, and this line is made murkier
still by the introduction of two characters about whom we know nothing. The speech presses ahead to the pronoun He in line , which

It seems reasonable to make this claim not only because I cannot nd any other use of blood
comparable to this, but also because Gairs edition provides no gloss on the phrase. May, of
course, does most of the work. May of my years occurs in Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet , and
May of youth occurs in Much Ado .. . May of blood is a rather over-strained variation
on these.

Exposition, redundancy, action

refers to Andrugio, who was last mentioned by name in line , just

before Strotzo interrupted Piero and was himself cut off. Thus He
for a moment seems to refer to its nearest antecedent, Ferrara. This
ambiguity passes quickly, but is followed by a similar one at the end of
line , where Piero mentions this Antonio in a way specic enough
to suggest that he has mentioned Antonio before. He has not. On the
way to this point, we muddle through the difcult dative of to my
honours death, and through the straightforward-sounding but chaotic
cropped which means begot, hints of rape, and, similar to the
labors of May of blood, possibly suggests a combined idea of both.
What we have then is a proliferation of ambiguously specic names
and pronouns, set against a backdrop of unidiomatic gures (May of
blood) and strained idiomatic phrases (to my honours death, from
her sweets cropped).
Further, while Antonio is the titular hero of this play and its predecessor, Maria does not appear in Antonio and Mellida is not, in fact, even
mentioned in that play. Her sudden importance at line of this play
will itself be rather surprising. The surprise might be compounded into a
momentary confusion at line , when the woman who has been labeled
as Ferraras heir is now called Genoas duchess. There should not
be much confusion, but it is important to recognize that the less-efcient
mode of expression is being used at virtually every turn in the course of
the exposition concerning Maria. Not only must we ght against Pieros
syntax just to understand what is motivating his actions, but neither Piero
nor Strotzo refers to her by the title that would connect her clearly to
the action, namely Andrugios wife or Antonios mother.
Similar patterns of ambiguous pronouns, multiple names or name
words, and confusing clauses occur in No Wit and Cymbeline. In No Wit,
Savorwit describes Philip Twilights mother this way:
My mistress, his good mother, with a daughter
About the age of six, crossing to Guernsey,
Was taken by the Dunkirks . . .
(.. )

The First Gentleman in Cymbeline responds to the question Whats the

matter? this way:
His [Cymbelines] daughter, and the heir of s kingdom (whom
He purposd to his wifes sole son a widow
That late he married) hath referrd herself
Unto a poor but worthy gentleman. . . .
(.. )

Theatrical Convention and Audience Response

In identifying the main character in his story, Savorwit, similar to Piero

and Strotzo, puts the less-important term rst my mistress and the
crucial relationship his good mother second. (Compounding this potential confusion is the fact that Savorwit, and not Philip himself, is telling
the story.) The First Gentleman, in a slightly different way, clutters his
speech with potentially ambiguous nominations, the important one here
being His daughter, and the heir of s kingdom, where it is potentially
unclear whether the daughter and the heir are different people or the
In Middletons play this is how Savorwit explains his plan for Philip
and Sandeld to marry one anothers girlfriends and then switch later:
This brought about
And wittily dissembled on both parts,
You to affect his love, he to love yours,
Ill so beguile the father at the marriage
That each shall have his own, and both being welcomd
And chamberd in one house, as tis his pride
To have his childrens children got successively
On his forefathers feather beds, in the day times,
To please the old mans eyesight, you may dally
And set a kiss on the wrong lip; no sin int,
Brothers and sisters dot, cousins do more,
But pray take heed you be not kin to them.
So in the night time, nothing can deceive you,
Let each to his own work, and there I leave you.

(No Wit .. )

On a small scale, it is potentially not clear whether in the day times

( line ) is when his childrens children should be got, or when the
men should set a kiss on the wrong lip. I imagine that, by the time
one hears line , the function of line is clear, but at the time one
hears line , the syntax is rushing forward too quickly to allow for
an easy separation and comprehension of its various parts. This has a
larger-scale parallel in the relationship between lines and .
The latter two lines, of course, foreshadow the incestuous difculties to
come, but neither Savorwit nor the audience has any way of knowing
that at this point; Savorwit seems, rather, to get carried away with the
motion of his own speech (much as he does with the unnecessary and
sonically clunky feather beds in line ), and we remain in a kind of
syntactic limbo until he recovers with a weak but logical-sounding nale,
a rhymed couplet introduced by So.

Exposition, redundancy, action

In Pieros description of his murder of Andrugio, we again have the

difculty of ambiguous modication due to convoluted subordination.
Say, faith didst thou eer hear, or read, or see
Such happy vengeance, unsuspected death?
That I should drop strong poison in the bowl
Which I myself caroused unto his health
And future fortune of our unity;
That it should work even in the hush of night,
And strangle him on sudden, that fair show
Of death for the excessive joy of his fate
Might choke the murder! Ha, Strotzo, ist not rare?

(Antonios Revenge .. )

The function of the third that (line ) is briey or perhaps not so

briey unclear (is it a demonstrative pronoun modifying fair show
or the introduction of a third parallel noun clause dependent on hear,
or read, or see?), and the idea it introduces death choking murder is
virtually incomprehensible. Adding to the potential confusion is the fact
that this speech entirely revises the end of Antonio and Mellida, where Piero
and Andrugio drink a toast of apparent unproblematic reconciliation
and does so without mentioning Andrugio by name.
What should be fairly clear from these examples is that exposition,
which we tend to think of as a making-clear, tends to be confusing.
The language does not put out information, but instead almost requires
us to dig into it to extract information. Editors and critics tend to go
about explaining away this confusion by making it mimetic. The First

Gair notes in his introduction to Antonios Revenge that there is some discrepancy between original
intent and execution that suggests a reasonable interval between Antonio and Mellida and
Antonios Revenge. The discrepancy arises from the fact that there is nothing in the nal scene of
Antonio and Mellida to suggest the kind of menacing lack of resolution with which it would have to
end in order to justify the turn of events with which the sequel begins. Piero does not even pour
the wine himself in the rst plays last scene (Fill us fresh wine, .. ). Obviously, modern
productions might perform the plays in sequence and end the rst with a secret poisoning, but
it seems that such preparation would not have been provided for the plays original audiences.
In his Arden edition, J. M. Nosworthy provides this footnote to the opening scene of Cymbeline:
This short opening scene is characteristically Shakespearean . . . The First Gentlemans speeches
are, at times tantalizing elliptical, and have undergone much emendation. To emend is to miss
Shakespeares point completely. The Second Gentleman is a stranger to the Court: his companion
has a strange tale to tell, and tells it breathlessly, excitedly, and, at times, rather incoherently.
Nosworthy is charitable, as are most editors of Shakespeare (though there is, of course, a long
tradition of wry criticism about the inadequacy of Cymbelines plot). Non-Shakespearean authors
are commonly subject to editorial attack. One default mode of Marston criticism is simply to
call him a bad writer. For Middleton there is the charge of excessive ingenuity. Lowell Johnsons
introduction to No Wit says that To judge the value of any Middleton comedy by its plot is to
dismiss them all ( p. xvi).

Theatrical Convention and Audience Response

Gentlemans syntax is tangled because he is speaking so excitedly, because

great things are taking place at the court of Cymbeline. It would be no
stretch to say basically the same thing about Piero and Savorwit. But
taking the mimetic route only explains why confusion exists; it does not
make the confusion any less confusing as we experience it. We might be
willing to accept the fact that Piero or Savorwit or the First Gentleman
is speaking too quickly to be understood, but we will still wonder what
he is saying. And while the syntactic difculties of these rst scenes will
not cannot trouble us for more than a moment or two at a time, there
is the larger difculty of the potential for the exposition itself simply
to seem unnecessary. Indeed, as I have noted, Marstons play seems
particularly aware of this potential, and uses Strotzo to work against it:
most of Strotzos lines in the scene are failed attempts to get a word in
edgewise, to tell Piero something he does not know, as Piero revels in his
own just-performed evil deeds.
It is important to notice now that exposition gets itself into some
trouble by the very act of trying to solve its inherent problems. That is,
there must be an excuse for a character to run on for some time about
events that the audience can have no clear connection to and/or events
that everyone on stage is clearly familiar with. The excuse tends to be
one characters excitement or anothers ignorance, or both. The effect
of speaking lines excitedly, or with the goal of lling in a character on
all he does not know is, however, often simply to confuse the audience
to ll the space of the stage with something that might be replaced by
something the audience can more easily hold onto: action. Even if one
moves beyond the syntactic difculties of the scenes, it is unlikely that
one will be able to keep straight all the lost relatives, returning relatives,
and evil step-relatives introduced until they become a physical part of
the action.
So many plays begin this way, or have comparable moments within
them, and are comparably confusing at one moment or another, that it
seems worthwhile to consider confusion to be a vital part of expositions
effect. The multiplication of identity words and the hyperactive syntax
in the three plays considered thus far create the sense of events unfathomably complex about which the exposition says only the smallest part.
When First Gentleman says that Posthumous is a creature such / As, to
seek through the regions of the earth / For one his like; there would be
something failing / In him that should compare (Cymbeline .. ),
we have no more idea what he is like than we did before, but the sheer

Exposition, redundancy, action

activity of the language suggests that knowing is important. I use the

word activity quite literally. The grammatical construction of this short
passage changes a number of times. If we accept Nosworthys semicolon
in line , lines sound like a modier for line : Posthumus is a
creature such as that is to say who would seek through the regions of
the earth . . . Even if we do not accept the semicolon, this construction
will likely make itself heard. The sudden shift to the impersonal there
would be is abrupt testimony to which is the semicolon question itself.
The him of In him that should compare is also ambiguous. Glosses
on the line argue that him is the one doing the comparing, but since
the only him we know of so far in these lines is the creature such,
it seems more than likely that we will hear the two as being the same,
even if the next four lines, in slightly more explicit praise of Posthumus,
cause us unconsciously to revise that understanding. Something similar
but less complicated happens with the that clauses in Antonios Revenge
discussed above; and in lines of No Wit, the subject, My mistress,
once it is taken by the Dunkirks suddenly becomes the Dunkirks themselves, and then both the mistress and daughter: My mistress . . . with a
daughter / . . . / Was taken by the Dunkirks, sold both, and separated.
The language of expository scenes is patently unrealistic. It is a language for whose likeness to the language not only of everyday life but
of life in heightened terms, says Ellis-Fermor, no case can be made
out (The Jacobean Drama, p. ). The syntax and grammar of expository speeches is restlessly disjointed, never allowing the listeners mind
to become comfortable with its semantic surroundings. One strains to
see through, behind, or ahead of the language, always in expectation of
seeing the development of the events everyone is talking about because
once the consequences of past events are manifested on stage, there is no
need to expend energy trying to sort the past events out. Thus on one
important level, exposition is useless. Its language is inherently confusing,
inherently more demanding of a listeners attention and memory than
it has a right to be; and the audiences desire to plumb that languages
mysteries does not extend much further than the expository moment
itself. Of this last point the plays under discussion here are certainly
aware. The ten self-consciously cryptic lines about the disappearance of

We are almost not even sure who the Gentleman is talking about. At the beginning of his speech,
he refers to Cloten as He that missed Imogen, and Posthumus as He that hath her, and each
of these phrases could quite easily apply to either man before the Gentleman claries at line .
This remark is made in particular reference to the opening speech of The Revengers Tragedy.

Theatrical Convention and Audience Response

Cymbelines sons (.. ) are recapitulated, elaborated, and doubled

in size by Belarius himself in the nal scene (.. ). When Lady
Twilight arrives in . of No Wit, her repentant and surprised son repeats
the tale of how he deceived his father, which we heard from Sandeld in
.. And at the beginning of Act of Antonios Revenge, Piero, now having
imprisoned his daughter Mellida for adultery she did not commit, gives
almost the same this is who I have killed and who I am going to marry
speech that he gave at the beginning of the previous act (and this time
he refers to Maria as Antonios mother). I do not mean to suggest
that these speeches do not point up dramatic ironies, or make bolder the
brushstrokes of a characters loyalty or silliness or villainy. Rather, I want
to suggest that they are also simply, perhaps inefciently, repetitive, and
that they are so because one of their primary functions is to remind audiences of what they have forgotten. Moments that repeat information
that was given at some length in dialogue in the opening scene indicate
that that dialogue was not the most efcient means of conveying the
information. Exposition once again causes the play to create one problem redundancy as it tries to solve another too much information
presented too quickly too early on. Exposition, especially expository dialogue, frequently fails fails due to the articiality Bradbrook notes and
fails because once we realize we cannot hold onto all of the information
it is putting before us, we decide simply to stop listening too carefully
and simply wait to see what happens. Then, when Mellida is in prison
or Lady Twilight returns or Cymbeline meets his children again, we are
happy to be told what we should have remembered, because we now
have the benet of signicant intervening events by which to judge the
information we have been given in narrative form, and by which to
judge what our reaction should be to that informations plausibility and
irony and potential for surprise. In failing, then, in being articial and
obscure, exposition achieves a valuable, vital effect: it makes us want to
see action, and gives that action a sense of vital and intricate connection
to everything else in the play when it occurs.
Some objections might be made here to some apparent contradictions. I have accused exposition of bringing about redundancy, but I
have insisted that redundancy is necessary since the audience has forgotten the thing that is being repeated. I have accused exposition of
syntactic obscurity, but I have also suggested that the audience tolerates such obscurity because it looks forward to the action that will clarify it. Thus I have created a straw man out of exposition which, in
being knocked down, allows a clever and useful reversal: by being bad,

Exposition, redundancy, action

exposition is in fact good. The last of these objections troubles me most,

for I do not want to suggest that the playwrights I am discussing were
self-indulgent enough to write a bad scene in order to put the audience through a mimetically irritating experience; nor do I believe the
playwrights to be bad enough simply to write something unnecessary
that turns out to have a useful effect. Corroborating this is, I think, the
fact that so many plays begin with such scenes and contain such repetitions.
What I would offer as a counter to the too-clever argument is the
argument that, while expository speeches are inherently difcult to make
clear, plays frequently begin with exposition because exposition gives a
play a denite sense of a beginning. Listening to characters discuss things
that have happened and things that will happen situates the audience
at a turning point, and turning points are worth caring about because
action follows from them: this is the way in which the theatrical space is
initially, essentially opened up for the audience. The sense of a beginning
which an expository scene can give a play is frequently justied by the
plays end: the aesthetic satisfaction that must come, for the playwright if
not necessarily the audience, from tying together all the threads rapidly
introduced at the beginning seems to make the risk of confusing the
audience worthwhile. The confusion, after all, ultimately comes from a
surfeit of coherence.
Exposition pertains directly to the important spatial problems of the
early modern theatre problems of physical space (too much or not
enough) and of theatrical, representational space (the importance of its
emptiness or the need to ll it): exposition more or less overtly implies
that there are certain things that do not need to be represented onstage, that can be summed up in a rapid (apparently direct) forty or
fty lines, and this whets an audiences appetite for the real action to
follow. Paradoxically, exposition also conveys a denite sense that there
is much more to the play than can be put on stage, much more to a
single speech than we can comprehend in the time it takes to hear that
speech, and this encourages what is sometimes called willing suspension of disbelief, but what might more accurately be called a willingness
to think of the play as though it were not a representation, as though
it, like real life, did not have a carefully constructed beginning, middle, and end, only a series of ever more bafing turns of events. Of
course, one might also argue that the super-complexity of events described in exposition draws attention to the articiality of the play, not
its likeness to life, and this would be true too. The tensions between

Theatrical Convention and Audience Response

articial and life-like complexity, between action reported and an audiences desire for action seen, between the implicit importance of that
reported action and the almost studied refusal of the play to report it
clearly, create the vital energy that makes expository scenes effective beginnings, and allows them literally to act in the place of on-stage action

Disorder and convention

I suggest that conventions occur rst as anticonventions or antisigns . . . that is, to the extent that something is a convention it is
also a sign, meaning that it has taken its place as one of the efcient
and invisible chips in the informational circuitry. But how did it get
there in the rst place if not as an attempt to break into the circuit,
to pester the circuit with nuance, to wound it with the resistance of
its presence? In other words, it began as an image in which the
known world was, in some sense, being recreated or revised out of
its primal linguistic matter. In some such way all images, to one degree or other, erupt delightfully and claim their presence as a site of
disclosure, putting us somewhere else than we usually tend to be.
Without this character as site, there is no delight, only the passage
of information.

To this point I have dealt primarily with potentially inefcient or intrusive verbal phenomena. My explicit assumption has been from the
beginning that the potential clumsiness of these phenomena is a vital
and valuable part of their effect. The repetition of extra-dramatic or
partially extra-dramatic verbal moments, moments where the artice
of the language is greater or almost greater than context can bear, creates a powerful conventional system wherein audiences are given a sense
of knowingness and perception that supersedes even outrightly disguises excess, incoherence, and discontinuity. In early modern drama
the passage of information is rapid, complicated, and frequently disruptive in itself; the goal is to present as much experience as possible
as quickly as possible. The delight lies in the way in which disruption
is continually converted into functional hyperbole the way in which
the primal linguistic matter of a jumble of lines, events, scenes, becomes a framework wherein the audience is given a sense of control over
experience which is, nevertheless, likely to be disrupted at any moment.

Bert States, Great Reckonings in Little Rooms: On the Phenomenology of Theater (Berkeley: University of
California Press, ), p. , emphasis original.

Theatrical Convention and Audience Response

In this chapter I will look at a series of complex conventions of the

drama, and I will attempt to describe their relationship to the pleasures
afforded by Elizabethan and Jacobean dramaturgy. These conventions
are: scenes involving one or more characters conversing with an echo;
scenes that take place in the dark or a thick fog; scenes involving graphic
on-stage violence; the use of incest as a plot device; and moments in
disguise plots where one character immediately and unexpectedly sees
through the disguise of another. On the surface these different kinds of
scenes do not seem to have much to do with each other, and a case need
not be made for their manifold similarities on a deeper level. I have
chosen these particular conventions for a few reasons. First, and most
importantly, each is potentially intrusive or inefcient both in a manner
similar to the moments I have described in the previous three chapters,
and in a manner that is more particularly relevant either to the use and
management of physical space on the stage or to the creation of a certain
kind of theatrical space at a crucial moment. The rst three conventions
are devices that are largely incidental to plot and which put signicant
strain on the audiences experience of the plot at the moment in which
they occur; the other two conventions tend to be integral and inherent
to the plot and affect the audiences experience of the structure and
meaning of the play as a whole.
The second reason I have chosen to look at these particular conventions is the hope that the range of my examples within different categories
will convey a sense of the bizarre variety of Renaissance drama, and of
the way in which that variety characterizes the dramaturgy of the period.
And nally, I am interested to come up with a new and useful way of talking about the bizarreness and roughness of Renaissance drama, and particularly (though by no means exclusively) non-Shakespearean drama,
which does not involve the limiting use of the word convention does
not involve allowing the word conventional to stand in for the actual
effect of the convention. I label the moments I discuss in this chapter
conventions because each occurs in similar circumstances and accompanied with informational and ideational baggage similar to those other
moments of its kind; some moments seem to or obviously do allude to
one another; each of these moments would have been recognizable to its
original audience as a certain type of moment. But it is important to
keep in mind Statess idea of conventions as originally eruptions in an
established circuitry and to imagine, at least in the case of Renaissance
drama, that the residual power of this eruption always lies, only halfdormant, beneath the surface, ready to turn a familiar convention into a

Disorder and convention

new one, to turn a comic scene tragic or a tragic scene comic, to turn an
astonishing scene into an infuriating one. It is the energy resulting from
the continuing tension between efciency and disruption that primarily fuels Elizabethan and Jacobean plays as they negotiate the turbulent
space between the bare stage and the imagination, between literal and
gurative modes of experience.

It is difcult not to dislike scenes where a character converses with an
echo, of which there are many examples in this period of Elizabethan and
Jacobean drama. Because the meanings that an echos contorted and
selective repetitions create almost inevitably take on a signicance that
is difcult to credit, and because the character conversing with the echo
is generally on stage alone, the scenes have great potential simply to look
silly. Thomas Dekker seems pretty well aware of this, even as he allows
the scene to drag on for some time, when he introduces Fortunatus as a
fool by having him argue inanely with an echo (Old Fortunatus .. ).
This argument is a version of the kind of stupidity or vanity hearing
only what he wants to hear that Fortunatus will demonstrate when, at
the end of the scene, he chooses from Fortunes bounty the gift of innite
wealth, in spite of Fortunes explicit warnings.
The thematic function as we see it in Fortunatus helps an actor, director, or reader in that it gives the device a reason to be there, but it
does not make the device any less potentially ridiculous. Aristophaness
parody of the echo scene from Euripidess Andromeda (Women at the
Thesmophoria ,) and the scorn Butler heaps on such devices in
Hudibras (.. ff.) show that the potential for ridicule was probably
always there. This potential is perhaps most effectively expressed and
controlled in the English Renaissance by Jonson in Cynthias Revels .
and .. Jonson brings Echo on-stage as a character (in all other plays

F. L. Lucas, in The Complete Works of John Webster (London: Chatto and Windus, ), traces the
device as far back as fragments of Euripidess lost Andromeda and up through Thomas Hardys
Human Shows; Far Phantasies ( pp. n. ).
Wilsons The Cobblers Prophecy, lines , contains a particularly incomprehensible instance of
an echo whose primary function is to make someone look like a fool. It is useful to think about
scenes like Dekkers and Wilsons in terms of Stephen Booths distinction between characters
whom audiences recognize as somehow pleasant or unpleasant and characters who are actually
pleasing or displeasing to an audience. See Syntax as Rhetoric in Richard II, Mosaic . ():
. The quotation is from p. . The cumbersomeness of the echo device as it is handled in
each play makes Fortunatus shift between being the former to being the latter kind of character;
and Wilsons Raphe, Soldier, and the Echo that haunts them purely the latter.

Theatrical Convention and Audience Response

the echo is a voice off-stage) and even gives her speeches the rst
word or two of which always echo the last word or two of her interlocutor. Echos function is to christen and curse the Fountain of Self Love
(where Narcissus died) in .. She disappears after ., when she ees
from Amorphous, who, amorously pursuing her, pauses to cool himself
in this fountain. This begins the series of similar coolings in or drinkings
from the fountain that motivate the satire. Each character who comes in
contact with the water becomes an exaggeratedly signicant version of
him- or herself something like what echoes in the drama generally do
to the ends of characters sentences.
Jonsons embodiment of the device in a character, and his satirical
deation of the characters who suffer the consequences of coming to
Echos fountain, recapitulates and parodies the use of echoes elsewhere
as a means to wish fulllment. Banished and wandering in the woods
in The Wounds of Civil War, Marius hears his echo tell him rst that
his only comfort will be griefes and then that better fortune is at
hand (.. ). Thereupon he sits down to await the end that fate
alloteth me ( line ), and almost immediately his son and loyal followers
pass by, rescue him, and take him as their leader in the battle against
Scilla. Carracus in Tailors Hog Hath Lost His Pearl also wanders in the
woods and learns from the echo that Maria was false against her wil,
and that she is not dead (p. ). The sound of the echo in that
play leads Albert, disguised as a hermit, to his friend, and he begins
setting right the wrongs he began when he tricked Maria into sleeping
with him before she was to elope with Carracus. Antonios is a more
melancholy revelation when, in The Duchess of Mal, the echo tells him
that he will Never see [the Duchess] more, and on the sudden, a clear
light / Presented me a face folded in sorrow (.. ).
F. L. Lucas nds the Duchess of Mal echo scene to rise far above the
norm, and sees Webster remoulding the commonplace and making
beautiful what most of his contemporaries made banal (in Webster,
Complete Works, p. n. ). But I think that the most skillfully handled
echo scene in the period, and the one that best captures the nature of
the pleasure playwrights sought to provide with such scenes is in Act
of the anonymous Maids Metamorphosis. Here echoes of his own dialogue
reveal to Ascanio that his lost love Eurymine Liues, and that she is
somewhere Neere and in Disguise (Er). Shortly thereafter, Ascanio
and his companion Joculo come upon Aramanthus, the aged Hermit
whom Ascanio was told in a dream that he would meet told this in
this dream by Morpheus in the shape of Eurymine. This Hermit is to

Disorder and convention

bring the lovers both together at last, and so in the logic of the dream
doubling and the casting, Eurymine leads Ascanio to Eurymine. Joculo
initially accuses Aramanthus of being the voice of the echo, and while
there is no evidence that Aramanthus would have done the voice onstage, the actor certainly might have off-stage. The Hermit is of less help
than Ascanio might wish, revealing Eurymines situation (she is eeing
the court disguised as a boy) by means of a riddle: he tells Ascanio that
Whom you affect so much, is but a boy (F r). Almost immediately,
Eurymine in her disguise walks past singing and, not seeing the men,
reveals her identity:
I cannot chuse
But blush for shame, that any one should see
Eurymine in this disguise to bee.
(F r)

Ascanio is astonished: It is, it is not my love, Eurymine (F v). With an

exquisite subtlety characteristic of the play a range of doubles coalesces
around the doubleness of It is, it is not my love: the doubleness of
the characters in the dream and the actor playing them; the potential
doubleness of the echo and the actor playing the hermit; the doubleness
of Eurymine in her disguise; of Aramanthuss riddle; and of the echo
itself which, by virtue of its very superuity, seems somehow the cause
of the reunion. Like the dream that turns Eurymine into Morpheusbecome-Eurymine, the convention of the echo transforms one thing into
another without changing its shape. Like puns that are obvious but in

That Morpheus-as-Eurymine was simply played by the actor who played Eurymine is probably
shown by the stage direction, Enter Eurymine, to be supposed Morpheus (Cv).
I should note that the reunion is not actually complete until the beginning of Act (Fr); Eurymine
ees when she is recognized because she is afraid of bringing down Ascanios fathers wrath on him.
John Masons later, extremely bizarre The Turk, involves the use of an echo in a way that seems
almost to be a parody of the comic efcacy we see in Maids Metamorphosis. Masons device of
choice throughout his play is to have characters fake their deaths and then appear disguised as
ghosts of themselves or others in order to torment the characters who think they are dead. The
culmination of these scenes is in . when Borgias, believed by his wife Timoclea to be dead at
her own hand, acts rst as an echo and then as his own ghost in a scene that begins with Timoclea
Hell and ye furies wheresoere you be,
Show me your tortures, and present your selues
Or let the burning monarch clad in ame,
Make an infernall eccho to my name. (.. )
Borgias ends up strangling his wife with her owne haire (.. s.d.), which seems to be
a particularly hideous metaphor for the kind of self-inicted entanglements with which all
the characters, through their devious doublings, destroy themselves. Despair, Timoclea says,
thou art a false glasse to the soule ( line ), but the real false glass of the scene is Borgiass echoes
that bring forth his wifes terrible confessions.

Theatrical Convention and Audience Response

some way contextually absurd (think of Moll in Two Angry Women or

Corteze in The Gentleman Usher), the echo is a product of a disembodied and utterly theatrical voice one that lls the physical space of the
stage in a way that frequently makes too great demands, because of its
starkly blatant signicance, on the interpretive space it creates. Involving logistical problems of acoustics, timing, and motivation that would
probably produce diminishing returns in any theatre, the echo is frequently a crude kind of theatrical magic, but one whose core elements
are fundamental.

Discussing Elizabethan staging conventions, Andrew Gurr says of Hamlet

that we dont know how the audience in the daylight of [the] London
afternoon received the news, delivered in the plays opening lines, that
it was supposed to be shortly after midnight and bitterly cold. But the
high number of scenes that occur in outdoor as well as indoor theatres
in an imagined pitch black, or thick fog, is evidence that the simple
theatrical pleasure of imagining darkness in daylight was one audiences
did not tire of. The actor playing Puck in . of Midsummer Nights Dream
is given the chance for a virtuosic physical and verbal performance
impersonating Lysander and Demetrius as he leads all the lovers to the
same place by Oberons typically straightforward but astonishingly
powerful command:
Hie therefore, Robin, overcast the night;
The starry welkin cover thou anon
With drooping fog as black as Acheron.

( lines )

This recalls and is ultimately a reversal of the consequences of the similar

imperative of .. , I am invisible, which Oberon speaks before overhearing Demetrius and Helenas conversation and deciding to interfere
with their loves. Both moments allow an audience to experience with
joy what the characters experience as pain through most of the play:
staring directly at something (literally or guratively), but only seeing it
for what it is not.

Playgoing in Shakespeares London (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, ), p. .

Harold Brooks notes in his Arden edition (London: Methuen, ) that Oberon might have
become invisible by means of a cloak, like the cote for to goo invisibell listed among Henslowes
props. Nevertheless the audience would, of course, still see the actor.

Disorder and convention

On-stage darkness is often, as here, achieved through supernatural agency. The morning on which Catilines conspiracy is planned in
Jonsons Catiline is not rosy-ngered, but swollen black (.. ), and
when the conspirators gather, Jonson gives a further stage direction: A
darkness comes over the place ( line ). Whether Catiline was performed at Blackfriars or the Globe, it is hard to imagine that a noticeable instantaneous darkening could be achieved, but Fulviuss Darkness
grows more and more! ( line ) amply compensates for this. Nature
seems from the beginning ill-disposed toward Catiline, as she might be
toward the hapless hired guns Shakebag and Will in Arden of Feversham,
who have one of their many attempts to murder Arden foiled by a thick
mist (scenes ). In Arden the physical mist (which we do not actually see) drifts into the language, becoming all too visible guratively:
the Ferryman who takes Arden from the launch at which Shakebag and
Will arrive too late, and who can know nothing of Ardens situation,
compares the mist to a curst wife . . . that never leaves her husband till
she have driven him out at doors with a wet pair of eyes. Arden then
says that he feels stied with this fog (scene , lines ). In the next
scene Will marvels, See how the sun hath cleared the foggy mist, / Now
we have missed the mark of our intent ( lines ). The pun in line
insists on the imaginative leap one must make between thinking of the
mist literally and thinking of it as gurative or magical; such a leap is
of a piece with those required by choruses that help along the passing of sixteen years, or scene changes that move us between Egypt and
More frequently, however, transitions to darkness are made by means
of a simple action or simple dialogue: a thick morning mist is announced,
as in Heywoods If You Know Not Me, ; nightfall is announced, as in
Two Angry Women , (anon.) Merry Devil of Edmonton ., and Englishmen
for My Money F r; or a candle is extinguished, as in Middletons The
Phoenix ., Barness The Devils Charter line ,, Beaumont and
Fletchers The Night Walker ., Tourneurs Atheists Tragedy ., and the
rst act of Hog Hath Lost His Pearl. The second scene of Beaumont and
Fletchers Loves Pilgrimage begins in a dark bedroom and reaches its
climax when Philippo calls for a candle to show his face to the disguised
sister who has unwittingly discovered herself to him. Similarly, the darkness of the palace in Duchess of Mal . is revealed by Bosolas decision

This stage direction at line was probably written for the plays readers, of whom Jonson is
mindful in two short prologues.

Theatrical Convention and Audience Response

not to light a candle (So it must be done i th dark, [line ]) and

to strike at Antonio (whom he believes to be the Cardinal) before the
servant can fetch . . . a dark lanthorn ( line ). The simple ironic effect
of such broad-daylight darkness is made most clear in tragedy: Bosola
kills the wrong man and we see his mistake before he does; in The Atheists
Tragedy, DAmville thrusts his brother Montferrers into the gravel pit
and protests that it was some villains, all the while wondering passionately if Heaven, / [Has shut its] eye to wink at murders, or / [Has]
put the sable garment on to mourn / Ats death? (.. ). We see a
tragic irony in events which other characters cannot. The irony can be
a little more complex in comic scenes as when in The Phoenix, Phoenix,
as well as the audience, realizes that the Jewelers Wife has mistaken him
for her lover the Knight, and he draws out as much of her bawdry as
But what is most signicantly common to almost all dark scenes or
thick-fog scenes is the extensive and exuberant use of the resources of
the stage. The Two Angry Women contains a night scene that, at over
, lines, makes up about half of the play (it extends from the beginning of scene through scene ). As Mall attempts to elope with
Frank, and the two angry women embark on a search for the lovers
that involves all the other characters in the play, we see, besides all the
expected mistaken identities and comic impersonations: a balcony or

A similar scene, but one involving off-stage darkness, is in Middletons The Witch ., where
Francesca, having told Antonio that his wife Isabella is sleeping with Abberzanes, sends the
servant Gaspero to Isabellas dark bedroom. Antonio, in a blind fury, kills both (off-stage) and
only afterwards discovers that his wife is innocent (Abberzanes slept with and impregnated
Francesca), and that he has killed the wrong man. The comic equivalent of such off-stage misunderstandings is the very common bed-trick, where one person, usually a woman, is substituted
for another without the second partys knowledge. For other discussions of the bed-trick see
William R. Bowden, The Bed Trick, : Its Mechanics, Ethics, and Effects, Shakespeare
Studies (): ; and Marliss C. Desens, The Bed Trick in English Renaissance Drama (Newark:
University of Delaware Press, ). Desenss study is particularly thorough and frequently illuminating as she works to eliminate the view of the convention as merely conventional, and to
discuss it both in terms of the efcacy of its theatricality and the uneasiness this theatricality can
provoke in an audience.
In Night and Darkness on the Elizabethan Stage (Renaissance Papers []: ) Alan Dessen
discusses some scenes that are discussed in this chapter and many that are not. Dessen says that
imaginary stage darkness can . . . set up . . . audience superiority in seeing and awareness basic
to many different comic effects ( p. ). His example for this point is Haughtons Englishmen for
My Money (see my discussion below). He goes on to discuss the implications of the Elizabethan
convention for understanding (and perhaps bridging the gaps between) the differences between
Elizabethan and modern dramaturgy: For us, one gure fails to see another because the stage
is dark; for them, one gure failed to see another and therefore the stage was assumed to be dark
( p. , emphasis original).

Disorder and convention

window scene (. ); Mall hiding behind a tree as her mother

searches for her (. ); Dick Coomes bumping into a post (. ); and
Coomes entering wet after falling, off-stage, into a pond (. ).
Haughtons Englishmen for my Money uses an extended dark scene to
facilitate its denouement, and here we see the stage transformed into
a virtual map of London, as well as the Dutchman Vandal lured into
a basket which is lifted high above the stage. Under cover of darkness
the Greeks prepare to sack Troy in Heywoods Iron Age, Menelaus
pointing out that the black darkness couers vs, / And we without suspition easily can / Disperse our selues about these high built wals
( line ). In A Woman Killed With Kindness, scene , as Frankford enters his house to see his wife sleeping with Wendoll, much emphasis is
laid on the different parts of the house he must pass through or look
into rst the gate ( line ), then the last door ( line ), and nally the inside of the bedchamber ( line ). Banks the Miller enters
in the long night scene of Merry Devil of Edmonton (. .) wet on
his legs, having bin in fteene ditches betweene this and the forrest
(.. ). We also nd ditches in Atheists Tragedy . and Arden ; and in
Fletchers Faithful Shepherdess ., the Sullen Shepherd inges Amoret
into the well, where she is almost immediately rescued by the God
of the River, who Riseth with Amoret in his armes ( lines ).

For a discussion of this scene as an echo of Romeo and Juliet see Mary Bly, Bawdy Puns and
Lustful Virgins. Romeo comes to Juliet bescreend in night (.. ).
The foreigners, looking for Pisaros house, get lost because, as Vandal says, tis so Darke ey can
neit see (Fr). The Englishmen, working in concert with Pisaros daughters, work to mislead the
foreigners, their own identities disguised by the darkness. The following exchange between Delion
the Frenchman and Heigham the Englishman (the latter pretending to be a glass merchant) is
typical of the scene.
I be deceeu dis darke neight; here be no Wenshe, I be no in de right plashe: I pray,
Monsieur, wat be name dis Streete, and wishe be de way to Croche-friers?
Marry, this is Fanchurch-streete,
And the best way to Crotched-friers, is to follow your nose.
Vanshe, street, How shaunce me come to Vanshe streete?
vell monsieur, me must alle to Croche-friers.

Later, Alvaro the Italian, Delion, and Pisaros clown Frisco will all meet and argue over whether
they are in Fenchurch Street, Leadenhall, or Tower Street.
Putting further pressure on the illusion of darkness is the fact that the well here might have
been a prop that was moved on- and off-stage solely for the purposes of the scene. While it is
possible that the well was represented by a trap-door, Reynolds shows in Staging of Elizabethan
Plays at the Red Bull Theater evidence from as early as that a well was a real setting and not
merely a trapdoor in an innyard playing place, and that at the Red Bull it might have even been
placed sometimes on the front stage. (A Woman Killed with Kindness was probably initially staged at
the Curtain, but Reynolds, p. , notes that the plays popularity suggests its presentation also
at the Red Bull.)

Theatrical Convention and Audience Response

In Barness The Devils Charter Caesar and Frescobaldi lie in wait for
Candy, and after Caesar trips up Candies heels and the men stab
him ( line , s.d.), they throw his body into the Tiber (come to
the bridge with him [line ,]). To leave no rubs nor botches in the
work, Caesar then casteth Frescobaldi after ( line , s.d.). Tawnicoat
does not fall into a ditch, but appears on stage digging one in the thick
mist of If You Know Not Me. Wet characters are fairly common, as
are ladders and windows: Romeo and Juliet, Hog Hath Lost His Pearl, and
Englishmen for my Money contain ladder and window scenes in the dark. In
Dekkers Blurt, Master-Constable ., Curvetto, standing below Imperias
window with a lantern, pulls a cord hanging from a window and is
duckd over head and ears with a chamber pot ( lines ). And
Marstons Insatiate Countess ., where Mendosa comes beneath Lady
Lentuluss window and tries to ascend (but falls) with a rope ladder,
begins with the line Night like a sudden mourner frowns on earth.
Other big effects occur in Fletchers Night Walker ., where the darkness allows Lurcher and his Boy to mistakenly steal the cofn containing
Marias not-dead body; and in Catiline . where the onset of darkness
is accompanied by a groan of many people . . . heard underground
( line s.d.).
It is not that spectacular effects on the Elizabethan and Jacobean stage
occur only in dark scenes, but that dark scenes tend to be crowded with
spectacular effects. When the language of the play most insists on the
invisibility of characters, objects, and locations, the action works most
vigorously to call our attention to these things: dark scenes tend to ll the
stage with characters, to use all of its levels, to underscore the importance
of props, to maximize the potential of visible, physical space. The dark
scene is a convention that, like the aside, changes the way we see the
Such scenes, like many scenes full of asides, deliberately strain the
imaginative resources of the audience as well. Over the , lines of
the dark scene in Two Angry Women, one is bound to forget occasionally that it is supposed to be dark; reminders come in the form of
sudden, unexpectedly silly (for the moment it takes us to remember
that it is supposed to be dark) use of the physical space of the stage.
Emphasizing, even aunting, the visible in scenes whose actions and
consequences are predicated on invisibility is an amusingly dangerous
game; and to succeed at this game, as these plays seem to effortlessly, is
to triumph over the limitations of perhaps the most difcult kind of stage

Disorder and convention

to act on, to suit the stage to the illusion rather than the illusion to the

The number and variety of on-stage mutilation scenes, or scenes involving the on-stage display of severed body parts, is truly extraordinary.
A somewhat lengthy but, admittedly, only partial list will serve to give
some idea of this. The bodies are whole in the dead-princes scene of
Heywoods Edward IV and the dead-children scene of (anon.) A Yorkshire
Tragedy, but they are presented in much the same way as the severed
limbs of other plays. Heywood, taking a somewhat different approach
from Shakespeare, has the bodies of the young princes killed off-stage,
brought out, one under each arm, by Dighton and Forrest. It is a disturbing answer to the question Shakespeares Richard III asks Tyrell: But
didst thou see them dead? (.. ). Their lifeless bodies provide a moment of shock for the audience and vexed penitence for the murderers,
similar to the two bleeding boyes laid forth vpon the thresholde at the
end of A Yorkshire Tragedy.
The trophy head of a recent conquered enemy is brandished aloft
at the end of Marlowes Edward II (Mortimer), Dekkers Sir Thomas
Wyatt ( Jane Shore), Macbeth (Macbeth), and (anon.) Thomas Lord Cromwell
(Cromwell); and in earlier scenes of Fletchers Bonduca (a Roman soldier
killed by Caratach in .), Heywoods Silver Age and Iron Age (an armed
king in . of the former, and Penthesilea toward the end of the rst
act in the latter), Cymbeline (Cloten in .), and The Revengers Tragedy
( Junior Brother in .). Faustus is beheaded on-stage in the B-text (.),
and Marstons insatiate countess, resignedly telling the headsman to
strike, suffers a more permanent version of the same fate (.. ).

The shock in Heywoods play is maximized by the fascinating inefciency of the murder plan and
the scene. The princes appear on-stage on C v and say their prayers before exiting, to bedde.
Tyrrel then comes on, saying Go lay yee downe, but neuer more to rise (Cr. ), which suggests
that he is on his way to do the deed. We then hear a noise off-stage and shortly after this Dighton
and Forrest appear, each with a dead prince under his arm. Tyrrel expresses some regret and
then says The priest here in the Tower will bury them as the murderers lay [the bodies]
downe (Cv. s.d). The next scene, involving a completely different location, must therefore
begin after the bodies of the princes are removed, presumably by someone other than the killers.
The tful way the action in this scene progresses, and the extremely inconvenient way in which
it ends, emphasize the physicality of the princes in a way similar to, for example, the end of
Macbeth, where Macduff leaves Macbeths body on stage after killing him and it must somehow
be removed so that it can be beheaded before the nal scene.

Theatrical Convention and Audience Response

Beechs boy is struck six blowes on his head & with the seauenth
[ Merrie] leaues the hammer sticking in his head in Yarringtons Two
Lamentable Tragedies (Cr). Alphonsus of Germany dashes out the brains
of Hedewicks child (Hr). Mucedorus and Hercules make short offstage work of, respectively, a bear ([anon.] Mucedorus .) and a lion
(Heywood, Silver Age Act ), the head of which each brings on-stage almost immediately. Gloucesters eyes are pulled out by Cornwall in . of
Lear, a scene probably only half as gruesome as (anon.) Edmund Ironside
., where Canutus cuts off the hands and noses of two sons of disloyal
men. Hieronimo famously bites out his tongue at the end of The Spanish
Tragedy; less famously but with perhaps even more fury, Antonio and his
revengers pluck out Pieros tongue at the end of Antonios Revenge. Piero
is shortly thereafter served a dish on which are arranged the limbs of his
son Julio (.. ), a scene that echoes the nal scene of Titus Andronicus
and is echoed in Heywoods Golden Age when Jupiter celebrates his victory over Melliseus with a banquet with the limbes of a Man in the
seruice (.). Aaron cuts off Tituss hand (.), Lavinia is discovered in
. of the same play with neither hands nor tongue, the Horse-courser
of Faustus B (.) pulls off the sleeping Faustuss leg (which he promptly
grows back), Orlando Furioso takes an innocent shepherd for Medor and
tears off his leg (.. ), Ferdinand presents his sister the Duchess
of Mal with a dead mans hand in the dark (.), Faustuss limbs are
spit out from Hell after the devils take him, and Beech, his limbs having
been severed by Merrie off-stage early in Yaringtons play, is reassembled on-stage when his various parts wash ashore from the river at the
end (G). Of a similarly spectacular nature and equally difcult to stage
are the very numerous scenes of execution by hanging, and scenes like
the slitting of Chiron and Demetriuss throats as they hang upside down
in Titus Andronicus ., Tullias treading on her fathers dead body in
Heywoods Rape of Lucrece ( line , s.d.), Bajazeth and Zabina braining
themselves against the cage in Tamburlaine ., and the discovery of
Remilia stroken with Thunder, blacke after she and her brother Rasni
decide, in Lodge and Greenes Looking Glass for London and England, to
carry on an openly incestuous relationship (Cv).
We know very little about the technology that was used to create false
limbs, or to effect such spectacular scenes as the bludgeoning of Beechs
boy, on-stage beheadings, or Remilias charred body. What can be

Andrew Gurr, in The Shakespearean Stage, pp. ff., gives some known examples of special effects techniques (mostly bladders full of vinegar or animal blood), including a drawing from

Disorder and convention

inferred from the large number of such scenes throughout the period
(there is not, I think, a convincing case to be made for a real decline in
the number after ) is that the technology was simple enough to be
used widely and as needed, but sophisticated enough in its effects to be
worth whatever trouble it was. What is unfortunate about studies that talk
about a stage technology like this one largely in terms of spectacle
is that they present a reductive view of the technology as dramaturgy
they do not give due attention to the way in which playwrights take these
body parts (or even bodies) very seriously for what they fundamentally
are: props.
The transition from pastoral to tragedy in Greenes Orlando Furioso is
complete after Orlando has run mad and ripped off the Shepherds leg in
.. The transition involves a detour into broad comedy. Orlando, quickly
going mad as he reads on trees of the love of Medor and Angelica, rst
accuses Orgalio of being Medor ( lines ). Terried of his masters
fury, Orgalio points to the helpless Shepherd.
Art thou Orgalio? Tell me where Medor is.
My lorde, looke where he sits.
What, sits he there, and braves me too?

Reginald Scotts Discoverie of Witchcraft () that demonstrates how to behead a man. Books in
the Theatre Production Studies Series (London: Routledge, John Russell Brown general editor) such as
Michael Hattaways Elizabethan Popular Theatre (), Alexander Leggatts Jacobean Public Theatre
(), and Sturgesss Jacobean Private Theatre () include excellent surveys of Elizabethan and
Jacobean production values, but nevertheless have a dearth of information regarding on-stage
dismemberment or similar violence. By far the best and most thorough discussion of staging and
stage effects is still Reynoldss Staging of Elizabethan Plays at the Red Bull Theater.
Gurr says that Realism of this kind . . . appears usually as a special effect designed to intensify
the inherent comedy or tragedy of its occasion. When the bad bleedes, Vindice says in The
Revengers Tragedy, then is the Tragedie good (The Shakespearean Stage, p. ). The general
slant of studies such as Gurrs or those in the Theatre Production Series seems to be to emphasize,
in opposition to modern theatre, the non-naturalistic quality of Renaissance stage violence. More
often than not, however, this approach takes the tone of excusing, from a modern perspective,
early modern dramas bewildering habits on the basis of the supposed navete of its playwrights
and audiences. This is why Reynoldss study is so important, insisting as it does throughout that
Elizabethans did at least in some particulars delight in realism to an extraordinary degree
(Staging of Elizabethan Plays at the Red Bull Theater, p. ), and concluding that their chief difculty
was that having accepted a certain distance from reality they could not stick to it. Whenever
a sensational effect could be secured by realistic business, or a plot required a situation no
matter how unsuited to theatrical conditions, the playwrights, at least most of those at the
Red Bull, let no considerations of artistic consistency or of taste deter them from attempting
it ( p. ).
While he does not focus specically on moments of dismemberment, Alan Dessen does offer an
excellent discussion of the way in which early modern stage violence can be seen as following
a logic based upon patterned action that at times can supersede our sense of verisimilitude or
psychological realism, in chapter , The logic of stage violence, in Elizabethan Stage Conventions
( pp. ).

Theatrical Convention and Audience Response

No truly, sir. I am not he.
Yes villaine.
He drawes him in by the leg.
( lines )

This is perhaps an allusion to and echo of Faustus A .. ff., where the

Horse-courser pulls Faustuss leg in order to try to wake him and ends
up pulling it clean off. Both scenes are comic, Marlowes especially so
in that Mephistopheles arrests the Horse-courser and Faustus has his
leg again ( line ) almost immediately. The scene in Orlando Furioso,
especially when Orlando returns with the leg and uses it as a club to beat
those who try to calm him, is also perhaps a particularly vivid example of
what Scott McMillin and Sally-Beth Maclean call the anti-necromancy
theme in the Queens Mens plays and in their relationship to the plays
of Marlowe. There is no magic healing here, only surprisingly savage
violence. It is a particularly horrifying transition out of comedy which
requires the actor playing Orlando to use the physical hyperbole of the leg
in order to insist that the moment of comedy is past. This is of course
very difcult, and it is the tension between ridiculous laughter and simple
shock that must provide the energy for the scene.
The hyperbole of severed limbs sets in motion a series of complex interpretive processes with respect to the physical and psychological realism
of any scene. Mortimers head at the end of Edward II, or Macbeths at
the end of Macbeth, are necessary or at least unambiguous signs of one
kind of closure, but they do not do much to make Edward IIIs protestations of innocence or Malcolms promises of peace more compelling.
While Caratach ghts the Roman soldiers in Bonduca ., Judas tries to
avoid ghting little Hengo:
The boy speaks sword and buckler! Prythee, yield, boy;
Come, heres an apple, yield.
( lines )

Once the Romans are gone, Caratach praises Hengo for his bravery and
offers him a reward:

The Queens Men and their Plays, p. . Whether Orlando can be considered a Queens play is
of course open to some debate. It was performed by the Admirals Men at the Rose in ,
as an old play. The title pages of both Q and Q note that it was plaid before the
Queenes Maiestie, and Tetsumaro Hayashi, in his Textual Study of the play (Muncie, IN: Ball
State University Press, ) argues, based on allusions to the defeat of the Spanish Armada,
that it would have been performed by the Queens Men between and . This dating
makes an allusion or response to Faustus (if we accept a date of c. for that play) just possible.
McMillin and Maclean say that [e]ventually, Orlando Furioso should be studied with a view to
the Queens Men and/or the Admirals Men ( p. ), and the few sentences that provoked this
footnote can be seen as a small step in the direction of the former.

Disorder and convention

Thats my boy, my sweet boy!
Here, heres a Roman head for thee.

Good provision!
Before I starve, my sweet-faced gentleman, Ill try your favour.

( lines )

The offering of the head is comic and ridiculous, but because of its
gurative connection with the apple and with the talk of food, hunger, and
courage that saturates the scene ( Judas is a cowardly hungry courtier),
and because of its status as a prop a physical object designed to get a
theatrical point across Caratachs gesture comes to seem like the natural
or at least appropriate thing to do. The case is similar with the banquets
of limbs in Titus Andronicus, Antonios Revenge, and Golden Age scenes which
have the added ideational support of the story of Thyestes and the curse
of the house of Atreus. The phenomenon whereby hyperbole is assimilated is similar to what I have said above in the chapter on puns about
the relationship between gurative language and literal violence. And
it is an inverted version of what happens when Beechs body is assembled
on-stage at the end of Two Lamentable Tragedies: there a grim sense of the
reality of death is precariously balanced with an indulgence in spectacle
for its own sake, where it is neither clear nor clearly desirable that
one should exist without the other. Neighbor s satised and they
capture the ambiguity:
. . . let the eyes of euery passenger
Be satised, which may example be,
How they commit so dreadful wickedness.

Before we can sort out who is meant by they ( passengers? the Merries?
the bodies of Beech and his boy? murderers in general?), or how we are
to take satised, the citizens are focused on a new and more crucial
prop: the salt bag that contained the limbs, the mark on which will lead
them to the man who sold the bag and the killer he sold it to. The limbs
remain on the stage, silent and useless.
In The Revengers Tragedy the Junior Brothers head, to which Ambitioso
promises vengeance at the end of ., is a parody of the skull Vindice

See pp. .
As with the bodies of the princes in Edward IV, it is unclear when or how Beechs limbs and the
body of his boy are removed from the stage after their purpose has been served. In Elizabethan
Popular Theatre, Hattaway makes a similar point about the numbing theatricality of the limbs at
the end of Faustus: As these are so obviously property limbs the sight of these relics rouses neither
of the Aristotelian emotions of horror and pity: rather it reinforces the sense of the quickness of
Faustus end, the sudden extinction of life ( p. ).

Theatrical Convention and Audience Response

carries and talks to through much of the play and that skull is itself a
humorously macabre echo of Yoricks skull in Hamlet. Each of the latter two heads has one or two fairly easy to discern symbolic or thematic
meanings: in Revenger the skull is a symbol of revenge and a reminder of
the hollow bone beneath the nery of the court; in Hamlet it represents the
transience of the body in life and even in death (the gravedigger is, after
all, throwing out Yoricks bones to make room for someone elses). But
the ridiculousness of talking to a severed head is only really apparent in a
scene like Revenger ., when the physicality of that head oozes insistently,
in the form of blood, from a bag. Prop, symbol, and, simply, head, the
round object in the bag that the bad brothers peer into, stunned, is like
the rings the Duke, brothers, and ofcers exchange on the way to bringing the unwitting Junior Brother closer and closer to death: something
evasively, dangerously meaningful that you can hold in your hand.

No extant play in the period covered by this study uses as its central
plot an incestuous relationship. Lylys Mother Bombie and Middletons No
Wit, No Help Like a Womans, come closest to representing the hideousness
of incest in the theatrical way Fords Tis Pity Shes a Whore will in the
s. Between and , however, the subject is generally treated
with a uniform and unsettling casualness: even as incest seems essentially
unrepresentable, presumably because of its hideousness, it is constantly
joked about, leered at, half-represented, as though it were not hideous at
all. Further, playwrights go to striking lengths in creating plot contortions
and obtuseness of character in order to raise the specter of incest that
is inevitably to be suppressed again. Ultimately the problem is, and is
worked out as, a structural one. As Lois E. Beuler says,
however incest gures in the plays, its moral point is made primarily by its
structural point, which is this: since it prevents absolutely the reconciliation
of individual social desires toward which Renaissance drama always moves at
last, incest for so long as it exists literally prevents a play from coming to an
end . . . This is why unwitting lovers can be stopped in their tracks and the

Scott McMillin has pointed out to me that, because the two plays were performed by the same
company, the skull property probably would have been the same in each.
Usually the incontrovertible evidence of death, the severed head gets interesting treatment in
scene of The Travels of Three English Brothers by Day, Wilkins, and William Rowley. There the
Sophy pretends to have Sherley killed in order to test his nieces love for the Englishman and
a counterfeit head ( line s.d.) is brought out, which the niece weeps over and kisses before
Sherley himself is produced.

Disorder and convention

whole fabric of a plays relationships can be reknit at a word of revelation.

(The Structural Uses of Incest, p. )

Because of the need for unknitting, incest is frequently tied very closely to
the convention of exposition (No Wit, No Help Like a Womans being perhaps
the most obvious case), and thus to an audiences expectations about
developing events. The strain exerted on the credibility of developing
events by the ongoing imminence of the word of revelation is, as we see
most clearly in plays like Heywoods Four Prentices of London, considerable
and, as we see in the dramas continual returns to incest, vital.
At least partial exceptions to the casual presentation of incest are Lodge
and Greens A Looking Glass for London and Peeles David and Bethsabe.
In the former, Remilia and her brother Rasnis pride and impudence
are speedily rewarded with divine vengeance when, just before their
proposed wedding night, Remilia is struck by lightning and discovered
on-stage charred and black. In the latter, Absalon kills Ammon shortly
after he learns that Ammon forced himself on and then discarded their
sister Thamar. These scenes are quite striking in contrast to, for example,
the end of Heywoods Golden Age Act , where Jupiter, meeting his sister
Juno for the rst time, asks if he can exchange the name of sister with
you / And stile you by a neerer name of wife, and Saturn agrees to the
match without comment; or Middletons The Phoenix ., where Falso
attempts at some length to persuade his niece to sleep with him and,
when she refuses, gets out of the scene with a laugh: Very good! O
my troth my niece is valiant; shes made me richer by ve thousand
crowns, the price of her dowry. Are you so honest? I do not fear but I
shall have the conscience to keep you poor enough ( lines ). Falso
is punished in the end, but it is ultimately more a comic humiliation for
his general lechery than retribution for this specic sin. Even in Hamlet,
where Hamlet early on expresses dismay at his mothers hasty ight to
Claudiuss incestuous sheets (.. ), incest (or perceived incest) is
almost always mentioned as simply one more thing Claudius is guilty
of (see .. , .. , and .. ). This view of incest is taken
to its most insistent and ironic extreme inThe Revengers Tragedy, where
Vindices O hour of incest speech (.. ) and other diatribes on
the sinfulness of the court, have the effect of making lechery and excess of
any kind seem all the same. The philosophy behind this leveling effect is
shared by most of the characters in the play: Ambitioso nds that theres
nothing sure in mortality but mortality (.. ); Lussurioso sees his

The Structural Uses of Incest, Renaissance Drama (): .

Theatrical Convention and Audience Response

various thugs and bawds as but nails to drive out one another (.. );
and Spurio will call foul incest but a venial sin (.. ).
In comedy or tragicomedy, incest is almost always only potential rather
than actual. In Lylys Gallathea, Tityrus accuses Melebeus of having
affection more than fatherly for his daughter (.. ), and Melebeus
responds in a way that does little to convincingly counter the claim:
it was my wife. And if . . . [you] imagined it to be my child, not my
spouse, you must know that silver hairs delight in golden looks . . . and
frosty years must be thawed with youthful res ( lines ). The argument is dismissed by an on-looker (You both are too fond or too
froward) and the scene ends, the incestuous implications hanging irrelevantly in the air. Beaumont and Fletchers A King and No King, a
typically strange tragicomedy, puts incest in a tragic context initially
consumed with sudden and inexplicable lust, Arbaces imprisons his sister
and forbids her to marry Tigranes but deals with it comically in the end:
Arbaces turns out not to be Panthaeas brother, or even stepbrother. The
kind of undoing we see at the end of King and No King is similar to what happens in Lylys Mother Bombie and No Wit, No Help. In Lylys play, Maestius
and Serena, apparent siblings who feel passions more than brotherly
(.. ), are discovered to be unrelated, and the near-incestuous marriage of Accius and Silena is stopped just in time by Vicinas story of
switching her own children (Accius and Silena) with those of Memphio
(Maestius) and Stellio (Serena). Middletons play uses almost this exact
trick Lady Goldeneece tells of how the late Mistress Sunset switched
her child with Lady Twilights in order to give Grace a better chance in
life but gives the audience more titillation before the revelation. For all
of Act Philip Twilight and his mother and the audience actually believe
that Philip has married and slept with his sister and that there is nothing
to do now but pretend that it never happened. This creating and undoing
of an impossibly complex problem is a agrant use (or abuse) of dramas
privilege of expedience, but a very satisfying one with respect to the dramatic narrative. Panthaea does not want to marry was in fact only
being forced to marry Tigranes in the rst place; Maestius and Serena
are juxtaposed in their confused affection to the rather ugly plot wherein
Memphio and Stellio try surreptitiously to marry their half-witted children to one another; and Philip has done such a good job of tricking
his father into thinking that Grace is his sister that it seems a shame she
should actually turn out to be so. The abrupt introduction of incest causes

For a more detailed discussion of this moment in context, and of a similar moment in Beaumont
and Fletchers The Captain, see chapter pp. and .

Disorder and convention

the audience to imagine a complication of events that is incompatible

with most of the other signals the play is sending; to potentially come
near to seeing the incestuous relationship as favorable in order to offset
this incompatibility; and to get caught up enough in imagining the potential problems that the inevitably arbitrary denouement is surprising and
pleasing. The form of the drama, one based on carefully self-conscious
excess, effortlessly aunts as well as assimilates the taboo of incest.
Of course, this aunting and assimilating is not always entirely effortless. All four of Heywoods prentices of London attempt to woo their
disguised sister, and all fail because of her love for Tancred. In the end
Guy is able to dismiss the disturbing fact that none of them recognized
her, and the animosity that their love stirred up between the brothers, with
extreme ease: Make love unto my sister! tis most strange ( line ,).
The confusion that was the basis for all the conict of the preceding
acts is effaced. When that conict is going on, lines like Eustaces as he
and Charles begin to compete for their disguised sister are typical and
So blusht my sister: and this Out-lawe Thiefe
Hath a resemblance to my brother Charles:
But she in London lives a Virgine pure:
Hes in some huge Whales belly too too sure.

( lines )

No Wit, No Help is astonishingly agrant in making the audience imagine this complication: Grace
Twilight is pregnant. Savorwit says at .. that Sir Oliver has not noticed that your girl has
a round belly, so the fact must be evident enough to the audience to make the old man look all
the more a fool. Thus we still have a lot to think about even after the returned Lady Twilight
tells Philip and Grace to Go to thy chamber, pray, leave off, and win; / One hours repentance
cures a twelve-months sin (.. ).
Of this phenomenon Richard A. McCabe says, All too often, nominalist scepticism nds a
populist echo in cynical humor or emotional insecurity as the malleability of the tragicomic form
transmits itself to dramatic content. Prejudices rather than principles determine the outcome
of any given situation, and all comic resolutions are seen to be contrived (Incest, Drama and
Natures Law [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, ], p. ). McCabe also
discusses the similarities of Mother Bombie and No Wit, No Help, arguing that in Middletons play
foundling romance enters the cynical world of city comedy where kindness and cozenage go
hand in hand . . . Lyly presumes moral ideals, Middleton presumes moral compromises ( p. ).
Bruce Boehrer argues that the highly contrived plot of A King and No King symbolically defends
[the new Jacobean gentry] against the combined threats of female sovereignty, misdirected
inheritance, and endogamous sexual union. Alluding to Philip Finkelpearls complaint that
the plays resolution is incredible and outrageous . . . for nothing has been changed, Boehrer
says, That, in fact, would seem to be the whole point. Boehrers book, Monarchy and Incest in
Renaissance England (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, ), while of an entirely
different focus from the argument I am making here, provides excellent and pertinent discussions
of incest in The Atheists Tragedy, The Revengers Tragedy, A King and No King, and Middletons Women
Beware Women. The cited passages in this footnote are from pages and .

Theatrical Convention and Audience Response

The dramatic irony here is heightened to an absurd degree, so that ones

experience of it almost cannot be grounded in any interpretation: there
is no reason for these men to love or to not recognize this woman except
to keep the plot moving in a particular way. It is as though the play
attempts to channel the energy from the absurdity of the disguise plot
into the incest plot in order to give the disguise plot substance. I do not
think it quite works in this play, largely because the language tends to be
so bad, but the fact of the process demonstrates the way in which incest
plots reect and manipulate some of the dramatists and the audiences
own anxieties about the more benign devices of the drama devices such
as occur in disguise plots or plots involving twins. One way of thinking
about incest is as a refusal to acknowledge difference between, say,
ones sister and an unrelated woman. It can also be seen as a refusal
to recognize crucial sameness of blood or of parentage. The kinds of
confusions that ensue when Olivia cannot tell Viola from Sebastian, or
when Antonio and Bassanio do not recognize their disguised wives, are
grotesquely distorted, exaggerated, turned inside out by the incest plot.
After Remilia is struck by lightning in Looking Glass, Radagon tells
Rasni to cheer up: What maketh Rasni moodie? Losse of one? / As if
no more were left so fair as she? (Cr). He then counsels the king to
take the daughter of the king of Paphlagonia for his wife and, against
all objections, says, wife or not wife, what [Rasni] so likes is his. The
leveling effect of kingly power is evident too in the disconcerting shift in
Arbacess thinking from
I have lost
The only difference betwixt man, and beast,
My reason.
(King and No King .. )

everie Beast is free:
What is there that acknowledges a kindred
But wretched Man?
(.. )

Of course such logic is not limited to kings. Falso asks his niece whether
if your uncle be part of your own esh and blood, is it not then t your
own esh and blood should come nearest you? (The Phoenix .. ).
Serena in Mother Bombie nds it strange . . . in sense that because thou
art mine, therefore thou must not be mine (.. ). In Beaumont
and Fletchers The Captain, Lelia, trying to recover after realizing that
she has been seducing her father, asks whether if you have / An arrow

Disorder and convention

of the same tree with your bow, / Ist more unnaturall to shoot it there /
Then in another? ( lines ). Such an argument for the virtues of
sameness is obviously specious, but the seductiveness of its efcacy (Fords
Giovanni and Annabella will later nd it quite compelling) is reected in
the enthusiasm playwrights show for exploring the possibilities of incest
without exploring or needing to explore its consequences. Thus we might
see incest as both the darker side of and a powerful undercurrent pulling
against the efciency of theatrical device in a drama where being an
identical twin, or assuming the identity of someone else, generally means
being able to get whatever you want.

On stage, twins and disguises allow the achievement of the impossible.
Sir William Vergir in Armins The Two Maids of More-Clacke does not reject
Filbons suit for his daughter Tabithas hand, but makes its realization
You loue my yongest daughter
And will euer.
Pray ye doe: but when you are from yourselfe a woman, she
is yours in marriage.
Woman to woman ioyned twere wonderfull,
But in more maze of wonder I should be,
What I doe challenge to participate,
And for my selfe liue to deuide in other.
Faith not till such a wonder.

(scene , lines )

Filbons father, Sir Rafe, is indignant at being slighted thus with fantasies / Impossibilities ( lines ), but by the end of the play Filbon,
having disguised himself as a nurse, has found the theatrically logical way
around Vergirs strictures. Of course, the ludicrous thing about this plot
trajectory is that Vergir cannot actually be, but at some metadramatic
level is, aware of the disguise Filbons plot will ultimately concoct. The

Charles R. Forker, in A Little More Than Kin, and Less Than Kind: Incest, Intimacy,
Narcissism, and Identity in Elizabethan and Stuart Drama, Medieval and Renaissance Drama
in England (): , argues that in Renaissance poetry and drama, incest could contain the
double, even mutual possibility of self-immolation and self-renewal ( p. ). See also Boehrers
discussion of incest plots as one manifestation of anxiety about the Stuart monarchy, which
under James is so heavily committed to the dispersal of crown wealth, knighthoods, and titles
that the dynasty impoverishes itself and makes a laughingstock of the peerage . . . [ This dispersal
threatens to cause] the collapse of distinctions between family and strangers, heirs and interlopers,
the foreign and the familiar (Monarchy and Incest in Renaissance England, p. ).

Theatrical Convention and Audience Response

hyperbolic inherence of the device to the plot is what makes this and
other disguise plots similar to the incest examples I have just discussed.
Fitting two identities, even two sexes, in one character, as Filbon does, is
still somewhat less dazzling than splitting one character into two discrete
but indistinguishable identities. Toward the end of (anon.) Look About You,
the bafed Redcap nally meets on stage the two Hermits (Gloucester
and Skinke, disguised) who have been interacting with him separately
and at cross purposes. The exuberance of the moment carries over into
the stage business as a ght ensues and a trap-door is employed. In Fields
A Woman is a Weathercock, Neville, disguised as a parson as he was at the
beginning of the play, meets the real Parson before the assembled court
at the end, and reveals the sham of the original marriage of Bellafront to
Frederick. The shock of the moment is intensied by Nevilles revealing
beneath his parsons robes the robes of a devil, and only beneath those
robes his own clothes. The Family of Love, as discussed in chapter , allows
us to watch Lipsalve, disguised as Gerardine, woo Maria while the real
Gerardine is in Marias room. This trick is a variation on the structure of
common scenes like Look About You, scene , where Skinke, disguised as
John, talks with Faukenbridge, whose exit is followed immediately by the
entrance of Gloucester disguised as Faukenbridge. And when Skinkeas-John leaves, bafed by Faukenbridges inexplicable return, the real
Prince John enters. Marstons What You Will takes such scenes a step
further, leaving even the audience potentially in the dark: in . Andrea
and Randolfo disguise the perfumer Francisco as the presumed-dead
Albano and send him off to give the widow Celia a good scare for her
too hasty engagement to a Frenchman. The next scene brings on the real
Albano miraculously not dead, and railing, of course, about his wifes
amorousness. As Shakespeare does in Comedy of Errors Marston capitalizes
on the delightful absurdity that ensues when identical characters meet.
In all of the situations described here, the audiences pleasure in the
surfeit of stimulus and complexity is akin to the barely suppressed sexual
excitement Olivia expresses when Viola and Sebastian at last appear in
the same place: Most wonderful! (Twelfth Night .. ).
Disguises, twins, and the plots they tend to be involved in, probably
the most prevalent device in Elizabethan and Jacobean drama, perhaps
best epitomize the pleasures and perils of all the conventions I have
discussed to this point. The pleasure afforded by the complex situations
precipitated by disguise plots is such that playwrights are comfortable

See pp. .

Disorder and convention

sacricing clarity or plausibility of motivation in order to create them:

the ends justify the means. In Chettle, Dekker, and Haughtons Patient
Grissil, Patient Grissils husband the Marquess decides at the beginning
of the play to try his wifes patience by being as bad to her as possible;
and this obsession with observing anothers loyalty a preoccupation
of the drama in general is recapitulated in his ordering his attendant
Furio to take Grissils children away and then, unbeknownst to Furio,
accompanying him in disguise to try thy faith, and Grissils constancy
(.. ). This leads to yet another horrible scene exemplifying Grissils
patience in the face of the most extreme demands, just as Constantias
decision to disguise herself in the rst scene (and rst speech) of Ram
Alley leads to one scene after another in which she must witness, and
we must watch her witness, her love Boutchers caddish behavior. The
disguise, for characters and audience, creates a space where there is a
vast amount of things to see and a space from which to see them; and
for the audience as well as the characters, this is not always entirely
desirable. The Marquess uses his wifes patience as Shakespeare uses
Desdemonas abhor or Haughton uses the device of the disguise plot
itself: as a conduit for further signication of a particularly theatrical kind.
Knowing that Grissil and the Marquess, or Boutcher and Constantia, will
be reconciled in the end does not necessarily make watching the process
any more pleasurable, but there is a way in which the sheer volume of
signicance and effect that comes out of the theatrical situation, the levels
of perception, makes the process compelling to watch.
More common than plays like Ram Alley, Patient Grissil, Marstons
The Malcontent, or The Blind Beggar of Bednal Green, where the central disguised character is simply disguised, are plays where a disguised character is able to use his or her disguise to witness and control crucial events
because he or she is presumed dead. The apparent deaths of Antonio in
Antonio and Mellida, Petrucchio in The Womans Prize, James Humil in Two
Maids of More-Clacke, and Quomodo in Michaelmas Term allow the men
opportunities to see the true feelings of their wives and/or children. And
the similarly apparent deaths of Mrs. Arthur in How a Man May Choose,
Maria in The Night Walker, and even Hermione in Winters Tale (who ends
up disguised as a statue) give these women further opportunities to
demonstrate their constancy to their men. The anonymous A Knack to
Know an Honest Man, (anon.) The Trial of Chivalry, The Wisdom of Doctor
Dodypoll, and Chettle and Days The Blind Beggar of Bednal Green all involve
a similar situation where one or more characters, wounded in a ght,
is left for dead and then rescued by a hermit or hermit-like character

Theatrical Convention and Audience Response

(see Knack A-A, Trial E-Er, Doctor Dodypoll ., and Blind Beggar E).
The complicity of the hermit characters and the identities the presumeddead characters take on allow for the creation of a series of ever more
complicated situations that are based on the dead characters absence
and resolved by his or her surprising return. The kind of information
the disguised character is given access to must act cumulatively to justify the convolution of the complications as well as the neatness of their
resolution: Jamess double disguise in Two Maids of More-Clacke, rst as a
servant to Vergir and then as an apothecary hired to poison that servant
and also Lady Humil, allows him to make the discovery that Vergir is
a would-be murderer, a discovery that balances the absurdity of James
allowing Lady Humil to believe him dead in the rst place, simply so
that he could break up her over-hasty marriage to Vergir.
The problem with the plot of Two Maids of More-Clacke is pointed out
early on by Lady Humil herself after she recognizes her disguised former
husband and upbraids him for being
Baude to your owne misdeede,
Three quarters guiltie of this accident,
That might & would not stop the hazard.

(. )

It is a problem inherent in plays like Knack to Know an Honest Man or Blind

Beggar of Bednal Green, plays which are wholly motivated by an elaborately
unnecessary disguise; and a problem potential in all disguise-centered
plays. At some point, as is most evident in scenes like the child-taking
scene in Patient Grissil but also present in, for example, the later and
potentially tedious scenes of As You Like It or Merchant of Venice, the degradation of a character or situation by means of revelation brought forth
by or for a disguised character can outweigh the functionality of the
device. Plays that simultaneously most run this risk and most attempt
to avoid it are those in which a disguised character is not known to the
audience until the end. Examples of such plays are Epicoene, Chapmans
May Day, The Night Walker, and Middleton, Jonson, and Fletchers The
Widow. In each case the disguised character is closely involved in the
threat of or actual humiliation of another. The plot of Epicoene and the
systematic humiliation of Morose are quite familiar; Lucretio/Lucretia
in Chapmans play is sleeping when Lodovico comes to fondle her
and meaning to lay my ue nger vpon her Ace of hearts, vp start a
quite contrary card (.. ). The ght that ensues is all we see of the

Disorder and convention

incident and is the rst time we know of Lucretios true identity. Later,
Leonoro tells his page Lionello to dress up like a woman in order to make
a fool of Quintilliano, and in the nal scene it is revealed that Lionello
is a woman Lucretios true love Theagine. The explanation Lucretio
offers for his disguise is brief, vague, and garbled enough to make it clear
that it does not matter (.. ), and Theagine offers no explanation
for her disguise. The symmetry created by the discovered couple acts as
the necessary structural counterpart to the asymmetry created by their
earlier potential matches with partners of the wrong sex. The dangers
of sexual ambiguity inherent in disguise plots have been brought to the
surface and controlled by means of the ght at the end of Act and the
gulling of the fool Quintilliano.
The end of The Widow is similar as Martia, disguised as a boy page, as
she has been throughout the play, is then disguised as a girl by Philippa
in order to protect her from Brandino, whose clothes she has stolen
in an earlier part of the play. Francisco meets and falls in love with
the disguised Martia and proposes marriage; Philippa suggests that
as a joke Martia accept the proposal. The couple exits and Violetta
enters excitedly and laughing, telling everyone that they are now going
to see
a marriage, marriage, I cannot telt for laughing: ha, ha!
A marriage, doe you make that a laughing matter?
Ha: I, and youl make it so when you know all,
Here they come, here they come, one man married to an other.
How? man to man?
I, man to man yfaith;
Therel be good sport at night to bring em both to bed;
(.. )
Doe you see em now? ha, ha, ha.

Violettas extremely irritating laughter is a representation of the appropriate response to the situation she is describing, but because it is so
irritating it can create an anxiety about whether the appropriate response is appropriate. The uncertainty whether a joke is going too far,
an uncertainty that Violetta herself seems to be attempting to suppress
with her laughter, is smoothed over by the surprise ending: Martia is

At .. , the disguised Lucretio, having been asked about someone named Theagines s/he
always talks about, turns aside briey and says O my Theagine, not Theagines, / Thy loue hath
turnd me woman like thy selfe; / Shall thy sight neuer turne me man againe? The fact that this
is the rst we have heard of any Theagines, that gender is not clear from either Theagines
or Theagine, that this scene has entirely consisted of a conversation with Temperance about
the men who love Lucretia, and that Lucretio/a must continue talking to Temperance after the
brief aside, make these lines much more a puzzle than a clue.

Theatrical Convention and Audience Response

revealed to be a girl. Francisco has avoided the humiliation Morose in

Epicoene could not and the audience, in the meantime, has been played for
the fool, its anxieties brought to the surface and tweaked for a moment,
mocked by Violettas galling laughter. The potential humiliation involved
in The Night Walker is not quite as sexual, but the burden on the audience
is still heavier: Algripe, it is noted early on, jilted Lurchers sister, who
disappeared as a consequence. Midway through the play Lurcher and
his Boy give Algripe a sleeping potion (.) and then come to him as
Furies (.) and torment him into promising to marry Lurchers sister
and spend / My dayes to come religiously (.. ). At the end of
the play the Boy is revealed to have been Lurchers sister all along not
even, it would seem, known to Lurcher. Though it is never clear in the
play why anyone would want to marry Algripe, the trouble taken in the
disguise plot, and the humiliation Algripe must suffer, makes the marital
resolution seem, if not plausible, then at least necessary. Such last minute
revelations, even in Epicoene, are difcult to assimilate at best and clumsy
at worst. They provide a certain restoration of order to the dramatic
world which gives shape to the excessive or even sadistic piling on of plot
twists and turns that would otherwise have none; but they do little to
mediate its self-indulgence.
That the potential theatrical self-indulgence of disguise-driven plots
was evident to playwrights of the period, and something they expected
to be evident to their audiences, can be seen in the many moments
where clever-seeming disguise plots simply fail. In . of Beaumont
and Fletchers Loves Pilgrimage, Theodosia (disguised as a man) and
her brother Philippo meet a traveling party, amongst which is Leocadia
(daughter to Don Sanchio). Leocadia, like Theodosia, is a victim of MarkAntonios capricious lust and is also disguised as a man. The audience
knows of Theodosias disguise (as does Philippo), but not of Leocadias.
The exchange that follows once Leocadia attempts to introduce herself
is worth quoting at length.
Ye have said enough: may I be bold to ask ye,
What Province you were bred in? and of what parents?
Ye may Sir: I was born in Andoluzia,
My name Francisco, son to Don Henriques
De Cardinas.
Our noble neighbour.

Son to Don Henriques:

I know the gentleman: and by your leave Sir,
I know he has no son.

Disorder and convention

None of his own Sir,
Which makes him put that right upon his brother
Don Sanchios children: one of which I am,
And therefore do not much err.

Still ye do Sir,
For neither has Don Sanchio any son;
A daughter, and a rare one is his heire,
Which though I never was so blest to see,
Yet I have heard great good of.

Urge no further;
He is ashamed, and blushes.

If it might import you to conceal your self,
I ask your mercy, I have been so curious.
Alas! I must ask yours Sir: for these lies,
Yet they were usefull ones; for by the claiming
Such noble parents, I beleevd your bounties
Would shew more gracious: The plain truth is gentlemen,
I am Don Sanchios stewards son, a wild boy,
That for the fruits of his unhappinesse,
Is faigne to seek the wars.

This is a lie too,
If I have any ears.


Mark his language,
And ye shall nd it of too sweet a relish
For one of such a breed: ile pawn my hand,
This is no boy.
( lines )

The cheerful excess of contradiction with which Fletcher causes Leocadia

to be confronted seems almost to be the dramatists wish-fulllment: the
kind of reasonable interrogation anyone might wish would be given, just
once, to characters like Portia-as-lawyer in Merchant, or the Merchant-asVincentio in The Shrew .. Similar to Lady Humil in Two Maids of MoreClacke, Fletchers siblings cause the disguise convention to collapse, at least
partly, under its own weight. Fletcher, however, is more skillful in rebuilding on the foundation of the ruins. While Armin ends up making Vergir a
villain and thus retroactively undermining the credibility of Lady Humils
marriage to him in the rst place, Fletcher turns the ironies of . against
Theodosia. Since Theodosia gets Leocadia to confess her disguise while
keeping her own a secret, she ends up hearing Leocadias thoughts about
her Theodosia as a rival for Mark-Antonio (.). Having seen through
Leocadias disguise by seeing herself in Leocadia (that is, Theodosia

Theatrical Convention and Audience Response

recognizes the habits of a woman disguised as a man), Theodosia is

forced in . to see herself as another would see her. Here, disguise is impotent, much as it is for Leocadia later when she, still disguised as a man,
tells the wounded Mark-Antonio that he is going to die, hoping to prompt
him to confess his love for her. Mark-Antonio does make a confession,
but it is that he loved and married Theodosia rst, and that his loyalty
is to her. One cannot schematize the plays thinking about disguise it
is impossible to say that being in disguise is always good or always bad;
and it is this highly efcient unsettling of the efciency of disguise that
makes Loves Pilgrimage a particularly good embodiment of the tenuous
feasibility and efcaciousness of disguise that haunts all of the drama.
The tenuous feasibility of disguise, when it is exposed, sometimes
points to the incompetence of a character, or the wrongness of what he or
she is trying to achieve. Antonio in Beaumont and Fletchers The Coxcomb
is recognized three different times in two different disguises (.. ,
.. , .. ) as he works ardently to cuckold himself a goal his
wife ultimately decides to let him achieve. Lactantio arrives at his uncle
the Cardinals house in Middletons More Dissemblers Besides Women with
his pregnant mistress disguised as a boy page and his new lover Aurelia
disguised as a visitor from Rome. While the Cardinal, who cannot abide
even the presence of women in his house, is fooled, Aurelias father,
visiting the Cardinal, immediately recognizes his daughter and takes her
away. Only after Aurelia has, later in the play, successfully disguised
herself as a gypsy, does she forget about Lactantio and marry her true
love, Andrugio. Lactantio, of course, marries the page. The end of (anon.)
A Knack to Know a Knave, after Ethanwald has married Alfrida, the woman
King Edgar also loves, seems like it is heading by means of a disguise
plot toward a fairy-tale ending. Edgar is on his way to Ethanwalds home
for dinner and Ethanwald, fearing that the king will try to take his wife,
tells Alfrida to switch clothes with the kitchen-maid. All the elements
of a comically symmetrical ending, where the king falls in love with a
kitchen-maid, are in place. The maid does not disappoint in her rustic
bungling of the role of lady:
Now Jesus blesse your honourable Grace.
Come I pray, sit down, you are welcome by my troth,
As God save me heres neuer a napkin, e, e.
Come on, I pray eat some plums, they be sugar,
Heres good drinke by Ladie, why do you not eate?

( lines ,)

Disorder and convention

But the king and his adviser Perin see through the disguise and jolt the
play back into the kind of play it began as the kind of play where fathers
demand the execution of their own sons for disobedience; and the kind
of play it will end as the kind of play where Honesty punishes cozeners
like Coneycatcher with sentences like this:
to stand at the Market crosse,
And haue thy cursed tongue pind to thy breast,
And there to stand for men to wonder at,
Til owles and night Rauens picke out thy cursed eies.

( lines ,)

Ethanwald is sentenced to death for his deceit, but is spared this fate
by means of a convoluted plot involving a diabolical doppelganger, summoned for the purpose by his uncle. Ethanwald gets his fairy-tale ending after all, but only after a moment where disguise becomes mere
ingenuity and unsettles the relationship between wish fulllment and
dramatic artice. There is very little dramatically satisfying, simply because it is so confusing and contrived, about the Devil who stands
in for Ethanwald and then disappears when Ethanwald is forgiven.
The causal relationship between the DevilEthanwalds appearance
and Ethanwalds forgiveness is suggested (why else would the episode
occur?) but not actual (Edgar believes himself simply to be acting
mercifully); and this is perhaps why the play must end somewhat uncomically, with Honesty mercilessly and logically meting out consequences.
Something similar and more disturbing happens in the second act
of The Wisdom of Doctor Dodypoll, when Lassingberghs painter disguise
is easily seen through and he is forced to exchange his covert sexual
relationship with Lucilia for an open, married one.
My Lord, it greeues me to be thus vnmaskt,
And made ridiculous in the stealth of loue:
But (for Lucilias honour) I protest,
(Not for the desperate vowe that Flores made)
She was my wife before she knew my loue
By secret promise, made in sight of heauen.
The marriage which he vrgeth, I accept,
But this compulsion and vnkinde disgrace,
Hath altered the condition of my loue,
And lde my heart with yrksome discontent. ( lines )

Theatrical Convention and Audience Response

As in Knack to Know a Knave it takes another kind of theatrical expediency

a magical sleep in Act , from which Lassingbergh awakes with a changed
mind to balance the failure of the rst one. The difference in Dodypoll
is that the playwright seems more acutely aware of the power of disguise
to feed illusions, or delusions even, or perhaps especially, those of the
disguised character.
While it is a generic marker of Renaissance comedy that it is able to
end happily and with conviction in spite of virtually any pressure applied
to something as fundamental as the disguise plot, a distinguishing mark
of tragedy is its willingness simply to apply pressure. Matthew Shore
recognizes the disguised Edward IV almost immediately when the king
comes to his shop to seduce Jane in Heywoods Edward IV. The loyalty
that is implicit in Shores recognition his ability simply to know the
king makes Edwards earlier double entendres on jewel ( Jane and
her husband keep a jewelry shop) seem lewd and ugly, and his disguised
toying with Hobs throughout the play childish. The kings world is one
where it is fun not to see things as they are a world Jane Shore is devastatingly shown to have become a part of later when she mistakes her
husband for just another suitor to the king (Kv-Kr). In the play that
bears his name, Edmund Ironside sees through Edricuss disguise immediately when the ambidexter comes to him on a mission of espionage
from Canutus in . ( lines , ). But when Edricus talketh with
Edmund secretly ( line s.d.) he is able to convince him of his honesty a mistake on Edmunds part that leads to another betrayal in .
and another misguided pardon. The ridiculous articiality of Edricuss
subterfuge in both cases a veluet patch on his face in ., a sling whose
falseness even Stitch the clown cannot abide in . and the ability to see
through it are something only fools put their trust in. Edricuss real power,
like so many ambidexter villains to come, is in his words, and that is what
makes tragedy so terrifying: it does not need the convoluted mechanics of
comedy to achieve situations of absurd complexity. It is perhaps for this
reason that Richard Duke of Cornwall gets caught up in such an inane
disguise plot in Alphonsus, Emperor of Germany. Dressed as a wood carrier for
the night of courtly revels, Richard is sent off by the Machiavel Alexander
to collect some wood, accompanied by some similarly dressed Dutch assassins. Richard catches on to their plot to kill him, kills them, and then
enlists Saxon and Palsgrave to dress themselves as the Dutchmen and
return with him to court in hopes of luring to them the man who ordered
the assassination. But even before Richard and his friends come back
on-stage, we see Alexander whispering to Alphonsus that

Disorder and convention

He lives and secretly hath brought with him,
The Palsgraue and the Duke of Saxonie,
Clad like two Bowrs, even in the same apparel
That Hans and Jerrick wore when they went out to murder him . . .

In the dinner scene that follows where the King of Bohemia is poisoned
and Alphonsus tries to make the disguised Palsgrave drink from the same
cup, the discovery of the disguises casts suspicion on the innocent men.
Even Bohemia is suspicious: Saxon and Palsgrave, this cannot be good
(F v); and Alphonsuss claim that This hath Prince Richard done t entrap
our lives is for the time being the nal word. Richards earlier talk of his
skill in policy (with strength and policy together, /. . . I escapd out of [the
Boers] treacherous snare; I make no doubt if we deal cunningly, / But
we shall nd the writer of this scrowl [ordering the killing] [Ev]) seems
nave in the face of the brutal, less inefciently theatrical commitment
to expediency that Alexander, like his later counterpart Iago, espouses
throughout the play.
Lelio, who is from the beginning of A Knack to Know an Honest Man considerably less lucky than his presumed-dead friend Sempronio, returns
from his banishment disguised as a collier. He manages to make it all
the way through town to his home only, at that point, to be seen and
recognized by the one person he should not be seen by Sempronios
greedy uncle Servio, who has Lelio arrested so that he, Servio, can collect the reward. Servio does not initially recognize Lelio, but rather the
fact that the collier is someone in disguise: How now, who walkes heere
in this disguise? / Lets see thy face? (Gr). This suggests that Lelio is
clumsily disguised, that he could have been recognized by anyone; and
this in turn emphasizes the transparent utilitarianism of the disguise: it
gets Lelio through the town so that he can be recognized by Servio so
that Servio can be punished when Sempronio, undisguised, returns. Like
Ermsbys joke about holy mutton in Friar Bacon, like young Luciuss
aside in Titus Andronicus, like the choruses of Four Prentices or Winters Tale,
Lelios foiled disguise moves us, perhaps superuously or imperfectly, but
inevitably and necessarily, between literal and gurative, practical and
theatrical ways of processing information.
It is hard to dene the nature of the line between superuity and
necessity, imperfection and inevitability, in cases like this. The blurriness
of this line is wonderfully illustrated by the courtier Balurdo in Marstons
Antonio and Mellida. Balurdo is an almost unmitigated fool, for whom

Theatrical Convention and Audience Response

lines such as I never wore socks since I sucked pap (..) are
typical. He is the character who is always talking but can never nd the
right word, who relishes bawdry and his own wit with the self-indulgent
theatricality of the most foolish gallants in Dekker, Middleton, or Jonson.
And yet it is Balurdo who in . immediately recognizes the disguised
Mellida recognizes her after a long scene in which Antonio almost
did not recognize her (.. ), and recognizes her after her father
looks directly at her and asks, Boy, didst thou see a young lady pass
this way? (.. ). Marston, harsher than Fletcher in Loves Pilgrimage,
seems happy to agree with the sneerers that you would have to be an
idiot not to recognize your own lover or your own child.
It is perhaps because Balurdo is more a denizen of the world of city
comedy than tragicomic romance that Marston even makes him think
to check whether the page is really a boy; and this is perhaps a version of
what we see happening in Alphonsus or Edmund Ironside, when conventions
of pastoral comedy are put to work in tragedy; or when the unmaskings
in Two Maids of More-Clacke or Doctor Dodypoll move us away from comedy
and dangerously close to domestic tragedy. The element of disguise, theatres most fundamental component, can be seen in Renaissance drama
to be working overtime: theatricality is brought in to solve the problems
that theatricality creates. The constant pressure on the convention of disguise frequently results, especially at moments where the convention does
not work as we expect it to, in weird shifts of genre or mode. These shifts
are the distinguishing marks of the kind of drama Renaissance drama
is: a drama where conventions and the narratives they order strain and
crack under the weight of plots that make utterly free use of these conventions as they move with relentless energy toward a state where everything
is merely theatrical; where language, character, action become, rather
than the subject of representation, sites for admiring the act of representation itself. Playwrights are so successful in casually acknowledging
to their audiences the potential absurdities of their favorite devices, even
as they use these devices to more and more hyperbolic ends, because
to a tremendous degree they share the audiences position: inside and
outside the theatrical space.

Introduction to Part II

In Part I have deliberately avoided putting very much emphasis on how

the function of conventions might be determined differently according
to genre. Instead, I have attempted to show that conventions tend to
work the same way irrespective of genre, and that what is strained when
the conventions of one genre enter the world of another is the audiences understanding of the genre, not the convention. Genre presents
an interpretive framework that denes the physical space of the stage;
the conventions I have discussed in Part make use of the physical elements of the stage in order to complement as well as to unsettle the
interpretive, theatrical space created by the genre. Puns and asides and
disguise are basically comic conventions, but they occur frequently and
with their comic nature intact in tragedy. The convention of complicating a romantic plot with the possibility of incest is fundamentally
tragic, but is just as frequently found as an important element of comic
plots. Even the convention of graphic mutilation or dismemberment,
which would seem to be obviously and exclusively tragic, can have,
as we see in Faustus, Orlando, Cymbeline, and Revengers Tragedy, an importantly dual function. The broad cross-genre use of the expository
speech or scene, the echo, and the dark scene illustrate above all the
exibility of these conventions. At virtually all points the conventions of
Elizabethan and Jacobean drama are employed to facilitate the passage
of theatrical information essential to particular moments in plays that
are happy to change entirely what is essential from one moment to the
While Part has of necessity presented a picture of Elizabethan and
Jacobean drama as consisting almost entirely of discrete moments, Part
will examine the larger structures into which these discrete moments t.
At the slight risk of over-simplication I will call these larger structures
comedy and tragedy. While the generic classication of history
was common on title pages of the Elizabethan era, and tragicomedy

Theatrical Convention and Audience Response

on those of the Jacobean (the latter even being dened by Fletcher in

his Address to the Reader of The Faithful Shepherdess), for the sake of
this study I refer to those genres only in terms of the expectations they
generate at any given moment with respect to the more general categories of comedy and tragedy. As I argued in chapter , Elizabethan and
Jacobean audiences enjoyed complex, multileveled plays that could nevertheless be easily classied as belonging to one genre or another. The
tendency of title pages or especially in tragedies titles themselves,
to classify the play is not simply a marketing tool, but indicative of a
way of thinking about genre. Comedy and tragedy are dened in the
period by their nal actions: tragedies end in death, comedies in marriage and/or reunion. (Too, the outcome of history plays is, by denition, certain, and the comedy part of tragicomedy generally denes the trajectory of those plays.) As with the smaller elements of the
plays, in the case of plots the ends frequently justify the means. An audiences experience of a disjointed, episodic narrative is, if not smoothed
over, at least governed by a knowledge of how the play is going to end.
Delight in the dramatic process, in the variety of episodes and the convoluted way they relate to each other, and delight in the completion
of the process, in seeing the play end, are two quite separate things.
One allows freedom from, while the other requires adherence to, absolute and absolutely predictable generic prerequisites. Occasionally,
as we will see in the case of Lylys Gallathea and Tourneurs Atheists
Tragedy, the positions of such freedom and adherence overlap or shift
and reveal quite explicitly the generic uidity that is present in every moment, if not in the larger narrative structures, of Renaissance
The two chapters of Part focus at length on six rather obscure plays:
the anonymous Soliman and Perseda, Marstons Sophonisba, and Tourneurs
Atheists Tragedy in the chapter on tragedy; Beaumont and Fletchers The
Captain, the anonymous How a Man May Choose a Good Wife from a Bad, and
Lylys Gallathea in the chapter on comedy. Each of these plays illustrates
particularly well one or two of the crucial issues at stake or problems
involved in dening genre and generic conventions in Elizabethan and
Jacobean drama. The basic rules for how plays work, in particular
the rules of how plays end, are well established long before Lyly or
Kyd; the dening characteristics of Elizabethan or Jacobean comedy
or tragedy are, like the dening characteristics of any Elizabethan or
Jacobean play, peculiarly of the moment. To speak of Elizabethan or

Introduction to Part II

Jacobean comedy or tragedy is mostly to speak of different kinds of

plots or episodes, different imagined physical spaces: the former deals
more with African and Asian locales, or with the English countryside, with battles waged and betrayals wrought on a grand scale, comic
reversals and resolutions achieved through a pastoral magic; the latter
turns more to the Italian court and the English city, the insidious intriguer replacing the besieging general, sex and money aunted as the
magical powers that break and repair comic relationships. But in spite
of the shift in social sensibility indicated by this shift in dramatic content,
because the actual physical nature of the stage does not really change,
the fundamental theatrical sensibility remains constant: this is the drive
to make an audience comfortable, even smug in its mastery of dramatic
signals and information, and then casually to go to the most extreme
lengths to shock it out of its complacency; it is the equal willingness to
embrace, to insist upon the importance of, and to utterly discard, the

Drama of disappointment: character and narrative

in Elizabethan and Jacobean tragedy

An idea I have repeatedly returned to in Part is the potential for failure:

the potential for conventions not to work efciently, for dramaturgy not
to be plausible, for theatrical information not to be conveyed clearly or
coherently. The success of Renaissance drama, I have suggested, especially in its most spectacular, hyperbolic, theatrical moments, is fueled
by this potential for failure. Dramatists and playing companies, writing
and performing under conditions of the most exacting and even limiting
kind, were unafraid to undertake any task of dramatic representation, no
matter how difcult. The awareness dramatists and their plays show of
their audiences, and the concessions they make to them, suggest that the
potential for failure could as often as not have been a reality; the joy of
the drama lies in the space for negotiation between success and failure,
a space made most wonderfully vivid in the anecdote of Fowler and his
dead men with which this book began.
In The Staging of Elizabethan Plays at the Red Bull, G. F. Reynolds says of
the nal scene of Heywoods Iron Age, in which nine people die, two
after having feigned death and risen to ght some more,
the rst impression of all this slaughter is distinctly ludicrous; one feigned dead
body may be tragic, but a whole stage full, with two conveniently coming to life
only to die again seems a little too much. Yet since there is no hint that such
scenes were in the least amusing to the Elizabethans, these successive deaths not
only at the Red Bull but also at the Globe and the Blackfriars were, I suspect,
high spots of tragical effectiveness. ( p. )

I think Reynolds is right, that such moments were high spots of tragical
effectiveness, but I also think that audiences used to plays like Titus
Andronicus and The Revengers Tragedy would have been perfectly willing
to nd something amusing in scenes of mass and rapid death. Such
scenes could be tragically effective precisely because the ludicrous element would have been inescapable. Heywoods play might be clumsier

Character and narrative in Elizabethan and Jacobean tragedy

than Titus Andronius or The Revengers Tragedy, but the effect it seeks is the
same: you might laugh as the bodies pile up, but there inevitably follows
a moment of stillness in the case of Iron Age it is Helens long speech
before she strangles herself where the laughter dies and is replaced
by an empty and breathless wonder, a kind of shock, at the number of
bodies or limbs, the amount of blood on the stage.
Renaissance tragedy asks audiences to bask in their own inability to
rise to the demands it makes. The most successful tragedies of the period
convey a sense of loss greater than we can comprehend, and make us feel
that that loss is never truly compensated for by the noises of closure and
resolution that are inevitably made in their nal scenes. In tragedy, characters and audience alike are put in a position of constantly feeling this
inadequacy by having constantly to revise and adapt modes of response
to series of events which, while perhaps unpredictable, always seem to
be logical and inexorable. This is very much a function of the particular form, characterized by compression, of Elizabethan and Jacobean
tragedy. Marlowes difculty in Edward II, as David Bevington says, is
to compress the events of thirty-three years into the framework of a
single drama, and in doing so to motivate the changes of character
indicated in his source. The case is similar in non-historical tragedies:
a series of extremely complicated events must be set in motion to bring
about the death or deaths of one or more characters, and the trick is to
squeeze this series into the space of a couple of hours. The result for the
dramaturgy of tragic plays is that the audiences experience of character
tends to be much more unstable than its experience of the developing
In this chapter I will look at the ways in which discontinuity of character affects and informs an audiences experience of Renaissance tragedy,
and how different kinds of failure and disappointment are central to this
experience. I have chosen to focus on Soliman and Perseda, Sophonisba, and
The Atheists Tragedy in part because they themselves have, in recent critical
estimation, fallen short: each lies in the shadow of a greater tragedy The
Spanish Tragedy, The Malcontent, Hamlet and each seems at crucial points
to stubbornly resist what we would expect of its author, its period, or its
genre. The arguments of this chapter will I hope show that the potential
failures of these plays are at least absolutely essential to the projects the
plays undertake, and at most characteristic of Elizabethan and Jacobean
tragedy as a whole.

From Mankind to Marlowe, p. .

Theatrical Convention and Audience Response


c .

Because Soliman and Perseda is an early play, the allegorical gures Love,
Fortune, and Death, who play a fairly major role, have generally been
written off, implicitly or explicitly, as simply derivative of morality drama.
In Themes and Conventions Muriel Bradbrook lumps together the anonymous plays Soliman, A Warning for Fair Women, and The True Tragedy of
Richard III, and Yaringtons Two Lamentable Tragedies in a footnote to the
observation that the debates between several allegorical personages was
a clear survival from the morality (p. ). In his Works of Thomas Kyd
Boas says that the introduction of a chorus consisting of the allegorical
gures, Fortune, Love, and Death, is not in itself very signicant; but it
is noteworthy that the two argue at the end of each Act, like the Ghost
of Andrea and Revenge in The Spanish Tragedy . . . (p. lvii). And Arthur
Freeman, whose Thomas Kyd: Facts and Problems contains an entire chapter
on Soliman, mentions the characters in a different chapter and only to
point out that Soliman belongs to a class of plays that have split-level
action established by the speakers in prologues and inductions. He
goes on to say that in Soliman three abstract deities discuss the action
on the stage, and quarrel about its control (p. ). The limited scope of
these remarks implies a few things: rst, that the use of allegorical gures
on stage was an antiquated practice by the s and thus simply notable
as a curiosity (except in the case of the innovative Spanish Tragedy); second,
that allegorical gures are not actually important to the main action of
the play in which they appear; and nally, that the allegorical gures, as
abstract deities, are not even really dramatic characters.
While it is clear that allegorical gures would have been recognized
by playwrights and audiences as part of an older dramatic tradition, it
is also clear from the number of plays in the period that include allegorical gures (besides those Bradbrook mentions there are Wilsons Lords
and Ladies plays of c. , the anonymous Knack to Know a Knave of
c. , and Dekkers Old Fortunatus, , to name a few) that the older
tradition was not simply drawn upon but put to varied and novel use
well into the s. In all of these plays the allegorical gures, while
often occupying a choric role, do much more than simply discuss

Oxford: Clarendon, . All citations of the play are from this edition.
Arthur Freeman, Thomas Kyd: Facts and Problems (Oxford: Clarendon, ), p. .
Bevingtons From Mankind to Marlowe has of course done much to eliminate the [c]ritical bias
against the medieval heritage in Elizabethan drama ( p. ), and his discussions of Marlowes plays
lay heavy and valuable emphasis on the interplay between moral structure and secular content
that . . . denes in all of them the fascination and yet the ambiguity of the message ( p. ).

Character and narrative in Elizabethan and Jacobean tragedy

and quarrel about the action on stage. They are actively involved not
only in shaping events but also in shaping the audiences interpretation
of these events. Still more important, they are seldom much differentiated in speech from the characters of the main action: they sound like
the other characters and are frequently caught up in the main action to
the same degree, if not in the same manner, as the other characters.
At the same time, however, audiences probably would have seen the
allegorical gures simultaneously as part of the main action and also
as separate from it in the way modern critics clearly do. The tension
created by the play between the allegorical gures as abstract and as
real dramatic personalities, as separate from and deeply involved in the
action, as archaic gures and as part of a contemporary tradition is, I will
argue, a vital, fundamental part of the experience Soliman seeks to create
for its audiences. And they are the tensions that get played out again and
again in Renaissance tragedy, even as it largely leaves explicit allegorical
gures behind.
Love, Fortune, and Death make it clear from the outset that they know
how the play ends. This foreknowledge establishes them as separate from
the main action and puts them in the expected position of interpreters
of that action. The main interpretive question is quite explicitly stated:
which gure was most responsible for the death of the plays protagonists?
[ ] Had I not beene, they had not dyed so soone.
Had I not beene, they had not dyed so soone.
Nay then, it seemes, you both doo misse the marke.
Did not I change long loue to sudden hate;
And then rechange their hatred into loue;
(.. )
And then from loue deliuer them to death?

It is worth noting that the question raised here should but does not
seem nonsensical. Of course Death is responsible for death: Love and
Fortune are helpers at best, less of a nal fact than Death. The fact that
Death is involved in this argument at all causes the audience on some level
to have to think of him as something more like Hate or Revenge
something less than Death. Because a dramatic narrative must unfold
from here, the audience must willingly imagine that Death is not death,
that the process of interpretation opened up by the argument between
these three will somehow effectively alter the outcome of events which
has already been foretold.

Even in The Spanish Tragedy, which is somewhat remarkable in that its sole allegorical gure,
Revenge, interacts only with the quasi-mortal Andrea, the speeches of Revenge are hardly more
elaborate or stylized than most of the language of the rest of the play.

Theatrical Convention and Audience Response

I must stress that the effect of this choric debate, and of making Death
seem to be separate from death, is to make the audience imagine that the
actual outcome of events, not simply the interpretation of the outcome
of events, can be changed. Not that audiences are nave and do not
know that the tragedy of the title, and the foreknowledge of the chorus
promises the death of the protagonists, only that the peculiar use of Death
in this chorus facilitates and enhances the phenomenon that occurs in
any narrative of suspense: one reacts to developing events as though one
were unsure of where they were going.
This way of thinking is helped along by the fact that the choric
characters begin to seem to share it with the audience. Almost
immediately, Love and Fortune, like Death, begin to become something
different from the separate, foreknowing beings their allegorical names
and physical position on stage would suggest they are: their attention,
like the audiences, turns to the development of the narrative. At the
end of Act , Love and Fortune have very little to say about death, not
even the deaths of Amurath and Haleb which occur in the scene immediately preceding the choruss entrance. Instead, they discuss the tournament for Persedas hand and argue over who most helped Erastus
to win Perseda. They completely ignore Deaths remark about how
Erastus will lose his life because he lost Persedas carcanet during the
tournament, going on to argue about something entirely irrelevant to
the action: who caused Basilisco to ght and to lose in the tournament
(.. ). Even Death gets somewhat distracted by this irrelevance,
chiming in that Basilisco by Death / Had been surprisd, if Fates had
giuen me leaue (lines ) as though Basilisco were now free of
death forever. The audience of course is not distracted by the irrelevance or the tautology, because it will not see the exchange as such: the
interpretive function of the chorus has now come to involve encouraging general thought on the role of Fortune and Love in all of the events
we see. Death now seems to occupy the role of something like Fate
(though in line he remains obviously and importantly separate from
it), but also remains marginal for most of this scene, insisting that we
Let the sequele prooue / Who is [the] greatest, Fortune, Death, or Loue
(lines ) dropping his direct promises of triumph to encourage
further attention to the developing events and not simply their inevitable
By the end of Act verb tenses begin to shift a bit and the audience begins to nd itself thinking of Fortune and Love as though these
characters did not know the fate of Erastus, Soliman, and Perseda.

Character and narrative in Elizabethan and Jacobean tragedy

Death claims responsibility, logically, for the death of Ferdinando and the
consequent banishment of Erastus, Parting him from his loue, in spight
of Loue (.. ). Such goading prompts Love and Fortune to respond this
But with my golden wings ile follow him,
And giue him aide and succour in distresse.
And doubt not to, but Fortune will be there,
And crosse him too, and sometimes atter him,
And lift him vp, and throw him downe again.

(.. )

The future tense in Fortune and Loves lines (ile follow, will be there)
shows them seeing the action as the audience sees it as unfolding rather
than already complete and the sense of urgency is one the audience
will share or is supposed to share in the face of Deaths own calm and
more logical use of the future tense:
And heere and there in ambush Death will stand,
To mar what Loue and Fortune takes in hand.

(lines )

At the end of Act , Love and Fortune will almost exclusively focus on
the things they have done for Erastus, while Death taunts them for
being unable to save Philippo nor his sonne, / Nor Guelpio, nor signior
Iulio, / Nor rescue Rhodes from out the hands of Death (.. ).
As the plot thickens and the audiences interest in the characters
increases, Death becomes more like himself while Love and Fortune
become more like the audience. The choric interludes become moments
for Love, Fortune, and us to salvage some kind of redemption or hope
from the ever more disastrous march of events toward the end we were
told from the outset we would always be approaching: death.
The sympathy between Love and Fortune and the audience increases
as the play goes on, as one is able to read the traits characteristic of
the gures allegorical status as actual character traits. As the plays
catastrophe becomes more imminent we see Love as willfully hopeful,
simultaneously condent and insecure, and wrapped up in the joys of
the moment (note in particular her positive spin, at .. , on the
ErastusSolimanBrusor relationship and on Basiliscos conversion to
Islam). Fortune, impetuous and haphazard, is willing to take credit for
virtually anything, even for lling Erastuss sails with wind to bring him
back to Rhodes between Acts and (.. ). Despite, or perhaps
because of the fact that they know the outcome of the events beforehand,

Theatrical Convention and Audience Response

they are engaged in the same kinds of frustration and bravado and murderous self-condence we see in characters like Erastus and Basilisco and
Thus even while, as allegorical gures, Love and Fortune necessarily
stand apart from the action, providing a predictable interpretive framework, the play presents the audience with a series of characters and
scenes that weaken that framework. More and more one gets the sense
that Death is the only chorus, and that Love and Fortune are just two
more actors. This is achieved in part by means of the abundant pairs in
the play that echo and are echoed by Love and Fortune: Amurath and
Haleb, Julio and Guelpio, Philippo and Cyprus, and the two Witnesses
at Erastuss execution. Each of these pairs dies, directly or indirectly, at
the hands of Soliman and after making some kind of stand. Amurath and
Haleb quarrel over their respective loyalties to Soliman, and Amurath
kills Haleb for accusing him of being a atterer; Soliman then kills him.
Philippo and Cyprus and then Julio and Guelpio refuse to turn Turk
and are, respectively, killed in battle and executed for their refusal.
And the two Witnesses make and swear to a false statement against
Erastus, and then invoke their loyalty to Soliman before he kills them
All of these characters share a powerful, tragic sense of duty as they
face their deaths. Thus in .:
Your Highnesse knowes I speake in dutious loue.
Your Highnesse knowes I spake at your command,
And to the purpose, far from attery.
Thinks thou I atter? Now I atter not.
Then he kills Haleb.
What dismall Planets guides this fatall hower.
Villaine, thy brothers grones do call for thee,
Then Soliman kils Amurath.
(lines )

and .:
Your Lord vsurps in all that he possesseth:
And that great God, which we do truly worship,
Shall strengthen vs against your insolence.
Now if thou plead for mercie, tis to late:
Come, fellow Souldiers; let vs to the breach
Thats made already on the other side.
Exeunt to the battel.
Phylippo and Cipris are both slaine.
(lines )

Character and narrative in Elizabethan and Jacobean tragedy

and .:
What say these prisoners? will they turne Turke or no?
First Iulio will die ten thousand deaths.
And Guelpio, rather than denie his Christ.
Then stab the slaues, and send their soules to hell.

( lines )

and .:
Foule death betide me, if I sweare not true.
And mischiefe light on me, if I sweare false.
[ ] So, let their treasons with their liues haue end.
Your selfe procured us.

Is this our hier?
( lines )

By no means are the four scenes the same, and certainly we are meant
to look upon the deaths of Philippo, Cyprus, Julio, and Guelpio as the
most noble and tragic of all. But in each scene we are presented with
irreconcilable absolutes: these characters stick to what they have said, and
then are killed for it. In each case death comes suddenly and arbitrarily,
with an apparent ease (Phylippo and Cipris are both slaine seems a striking
stage direction for a battle, especially since neither is given a death speech)
that makes the conviction of the dead characters last words seem all the
more ineffectual and hopelessly optimistic. It is in this that I think we
are to sense, if not necessarily see all at once, the parallel to Love and
Fortune. These two are always paired always speak rst and for several
lines before Death, always seem to be grasping at straws as they voice
familiar ideas about love and fortune, always seem somewhat too loud in
their protestations after Death has pointed out something (Ferdinandos
death, for example) that the audience knows to be a fact rather than an
The frustration of speaking without being heard or without any effect
is at the heart of the play. We see this early on when Erastus compliments
Perseda after she has seen Lucina with the carcanet, and he must suffer
uncomprehendingly her indignant tirade. He pleads with her to no avail:
Ah, stay, my sweete Perseda; heare me speake.
What are thy words but Syrens guilefull songs,
That please the eare but seeke to spoile the heart?

Except, perhaps, in their rst entrance.

Theatrical Convention and Audience Response

If words, nor teares, nor lookes may win remorse,
What then remaines? for my perplexed heart
Hath no interpreters but wordes, or teares, or lookes.
And they are all as false as thou thy selfe.

(.. )

At the end of the play, unable to understand the reason for his false trial
and execution, Erastus cries against his accusers, Heauens, heer you
this, and drops not vengeance on them? (.. ). And his nal lines
show the feeling that speech itself is futile.
I see this traine was plotted ere I came:
What bootes complaining wheres no remedy?
Alas how can he but be short, whose tongue
Is fast tide with galling sorrow.
Farewell, Perseda; no more but that for her:
Inconstant Soliman; no more but that for him.
Vnfortunate Erastus; no more but that for me:
Loe, this is all; and thus I leaue to speake.
Then they strangle him
(.. )

Erastuss death (it is appropriate that he is strangled) is the tragic culmination of the pattern of characters unable to control the actions that
their words bring about, or to use words to control what is happening to
them. When this occurs with Philippo and Cyprus, or Julio and Guelpio,
or Erastus, it conveys a sense of great nobility; with Amurath and Haleb
or the Witnesses, of great waste.
The frustration of these characters is paralleled in the frustration of
Love and Fortune, and in the audiences perception of Love and Fortune
with respect to events these characters should be able to control: it is
the frustration created by the slippage between the characters identity
as allegorical, abstract gures and their behavior as real theatrical,
mortal personalities. Even as we are able to think of them as the abstract
forces at work within the main action even forces that can or should
conquer death we literally see them as something much less powerful.
Thus we are able to see the events that happen on-stage as things that
both could be avoided and absolutely cannot. Fortune and Love seem
like they are outside of or above tragedy, because that is where the stage
puts them; but action and characterization clearly make them subject
to tragedys laws. In each of their scenes, Love attempts to suggest a
constancy, Fortune a ckleness, to the structure of events which Death is

Character and narrative in Elizabethan and Jacobean tragedy

able simply to laugh at. Love and Fortune exit the stage before Death at
the end of the play, each protesting her identity in a single line: I go, yet
Loue shall neuer yeeld to Death, says Love, and Fortune follows shortly,
promising to gouerne as she may (.. , ). As with their nal lines,
Fortune and Loves rst lines in . have a ring of hollow truth about
I gaue Erastus woe and miserie
Amidst his greatest ioy and iollitie.
But I, that haue power in earth and heauen aboue,
Stung them both with neuer failing loue.
( lines )

Fortune simply rehearses a truism about Fortune, something that was as

true in Act as it is now. The ambiguity of them both in Loves line
Erastus and Perseda? Erastus and Soliman? Soliman and Perseda? like
the unconvincing claim that love has not failed, suggests that what Love
can or cannot do no longer matters.
But the case is somewhat different for Death, who remains very much
more an abstract deity than the other two. Perhaps even more than
Love and Fortunes invocations of traditional ideas of love and fortune,
Deaths convincing power helps keep the allegorical part of the play
familiar, and thus useful as something the playwright can manipulate
and distort. As the allegorical embodiment of the fact of death, Death
acts as a foil to the involvement the audience is meant to feel in the
narrative. He is a reminder, at the most heightened moments of that
involvement, that worldly wealth, fortune, and affection are relatively
meaningless. However, because this kind of allegorical embodiment is
part of a somewhat archaic (which is not to say primitive or exhausted)
dramatic tradition, transplanted into a newer one whose concerns are
decidedly more with earthly rather than spiritual narrative, the audience
is free to get caught up in Love and Fortunes frustrations and to interpret
Death himself more like it would interpret Aaron the Moor or Iago
or Vindice as a plotter who, even while his nefarious ends are all
realized, ultimately gets his comeuppance. We can forget the omniscience
of these framing characters for the sake of the narrative and its suspense
because they act like they are a part of that narrative. The fact of deaths
inevitability is always before one, but the tragic force of events gains
power because the narrative frequently allows one to forget about this
The instability of the allegorical characters identities in the face of
the developing action and of the audiences desire to interpret that

Theatrical Convention and Audience Response

action in some other way than simply a march toward death comes most
powerfully into play with Death himself, and through the one character
who seems to slip, at least partly, through Deaths triumphant grip: the
braggart and coward and fool Basilisco. Arthur Freeman sees Basilisco
as a precursor to Falstaff, and the accuracy of this comparison is best
seen in ., after Perseda has ordered Basilisco to kill Lucina, and then
done it for him when he could not. Basilisco, now alone, ruminates.
. . . Death, which the poets
Faine to be pale and meager,
Hath depriued Erastus trunke from breathing vitalitie,
A braue Cauelere, but my aprooued foeman.
Let me see: where is Alcides, surnamed Hercules,
The onely Club man of his time? dead.
Where is the eldest sonne of Pryam,
That abraham-coloured Troian? dead.
Where is the leader of the Mirmidons,
That well knit Achilles? dead.
Where is that furious Aiax, the sonne of Telamon,
Or that fraudfull squire of Ithaca, iclipt Vlisses? dead.
Where is tipsie Alexander, that great cup conqueror,
Or Pompey that braue warrior? dead.
I am my selfe strong, but I confesse death to be stronger:
I loue Perseda, as one worthie;
But I loue Basilisco, as one I hould more worthy,
My fathers sonne, my mothers solace, my proper selfe.
Faith, he can doe little that cannot speake,
And he can doe lesse that cannot runne away:
Then sith mans life is as a glasse, and a phillip may cracke it,
Mine is no more, and a bullet may pearce it:
Therefore I will play least in sight.
( lines )

This speech, one of the longest in the play (Basilisco, like death, has
none of the problems other characters have with words), chiey provides
a balance to the rather surprising murder of Lucina by Perseda. Basilisco
presents an inversion of Persedas vengeful vow to kill Soliman and herself
so that she will live in infamie (line ): those who live in infamy,
Basilisco says, are still merely dead. Persedas act of desperation is made
more intelligible as such, as something of the moment, in contrast to
Basiliscos ability to take the long view and simply look out for himself
because he has no great stake in the action. The effect of Basiliscos
speech, as with Falstaff s honor speech in Henry IV, is to make one

Character and narrative in Elizabethan and Jacobean tragedy

feel that the foolish character is ultimately right, but that his perspective is
only available to those like the audience who stand outside the events
that make others die gloriously. One can feel that death itself has been
trumped, that when Basilisco dies (as he does shortly) it will not be tragic
because he has already come to terms with deaths true nality; but also
that the deaths of more important people, like Achilles or Alexander
or Perseda, have a permanent resonance that makes these deaths the
beginning rather than the end of signicance. Death seems for the space
of this speech simultaneously to be a nality that should not concern us
much (Basilisco is willing to die because everyone dies, and he will just
put it off as long as possible); a nality to which resignation is the most
noble response (Basilisco is noteworthy for dying without fanfare); and a
nality of great proportions and enduring signicance when it concerns
those who, ironically, cannot have the perspective Basilisco has (we can
never fully believe what Basilisco says if we are to experience the deaths
of Erastus, Soliman, and Perseda as tragic).
This picture of death is so complex because Basilisco is a comic character who has gained centrality in the plot largely by being one of the last
men standing. Thus it becomes still more complex when Death actually
echoes him. This is Deaths second to last speech:
And now to end our difference at last,
In this last act note but the deedes of Death.
Where is Erastus now, but in my triumph?
Where are the murtherers, but in my triumph?
Where Iudge and witnesses, but in my triumph?
Wheres falce Lucina, but in my triumph?
Wheres faire Perseda, but in my triumph?
Wheres Basilisco, but in my triumph?
Wheres faithfull Piston, but in my triumph?
Wheres valiant Brusor, but in my triumph?
And wheres great Soliman, but in my triumph?
Their loues and fortunes ended with their liues,
And they must wait vpon the Carre of Death.
Packe, Loue and Fortune, play in Commedies;
For powerfull Death best tteth Tragedies.

(.. )

An audience hearing the echoes might have begun to feel an undercurrent of parody beneath the anaphoric vaunting of Death, might have
begun to feel that this was a little much, that Death the character was
being abstracted into a mockery of such abstractions. At the same time,

Theatrical Convention and Audience Response

what Death says is true: everyone is dead. Here we have the same kind
of tension between mockery and awe of death that Basiliscos speech
created, but now it is occurring in the abstract realm of the play. This
collapsing together of a rigid conventional, largely moral structure
where Death is triumphant and terrible and nal with the parody
of it where Death is merely theatrical and even somewhat ridiculous
in that he has to chase down his victims seems to me to pregure
the aesthetic that will grow gradually more predominant in tragedies,
especially by the middle of the Jacobean period.
And I think this collapsing might have originally been suggested even
more powerfully than by the verbal echoes I have noted here. Perhaps
though it is purely speculative Death was played by the same actor
who played Basilisco. Deaths late entrances into the conversation of
each choric scene that follows a scene with Basilisco might indicate a
late entrance on stage as well, giving the actor just enough time usually
about fteen lines to change costume. This might be the perfect realization of what Freeman calls the plays ability to bring about, through
Basilisco, a true confrontation of comic and tragic themes (Thomas Kyd,
pp. ). A skilled actor might have brought just enough of Basilisco
to the character of Death, just enough of his early cowardice, his constant braggadocio, and his nal self-satisfaction, just enough of a sardonic
touch to the line Wheres Basilisco, but in my triumph? to make the parody less than obvious but more than hidden. Basilisco has mocked death
and now Death mocks itself, triumphant nevertheless. It is an ending
Vindice would have greatly admired.
Soliman and Perseda is an obvious choice for beginning a discussion of
Renaissance tragedy because its early date, its combination of two different dramatic traditions, and the overt concerns of three of its main characters with the generic components of tragedy itself make it in many ways
fundamental for all the plays that follow. The things at work in Soliman and
Perseda are also very much pertinent to, simply, the phenomenon of acting
and the experience of watching people act. An audiences relationship to
Love, Fortune, and Death is no different from an audiences relationship
to, say, Desdemona, Othello, and Iago except the names of the principles represented by the characters in the earlier play are clearly given
and dened. The characters of a play are always carefully constructed,
arbitrary and dramatic representations of certain principles (or ideas
about principles) of human behavior or existence; and even when an
audience has a clear idea of what these principles are with Iago they

Character and narrative in Elizabethan and Jacobean tragedy

are, say, envy and vengeance the complexity of dramatic action and of
the interpretive processes an audience brings to bear on it allow room
for these principles to change, to contradict themselves, to give way to
others. Because of the way Love and Fortune and Death are positioned
on the stage, it is easy to see the way in which they are simultaneously
detached from and invested in the action there; and it is somewhat easy
to see, at least analytically, how our relationship to them makes the tragic
on-stage action seem simultaneously avoidable and inevitable. But again,
the fact of their allegorical roles simply gives unusual clarity to what is
always happening in the theatre: an actor is both inside and outside of
the play he or she acts in; the audience is always invested in the action
but only to a point; a play is always both an earnest representation of a
certain view of reality and a great manipulation. The illusion of reality
a play must achieve in order to give its audience the illusion that it (the
audience) is seriously invested in what is happening on-stage depends on
removing the sense of calculation and manipulation that is always potential in any representation. The way Renaissance tragedy achieves this,
when it achieves it, is by allowing the relationship between the sharply
dened characters and the swiftly moving action to be as complex, as
idiosyncratic as possible: tragic characters must be made to seem at the
mercy of the action even when, as in the case of Death, they also seem
to be absolutely certain of its direction.

c .

It is essential for Renaissance tragedy, and Renaissance drama in general,

to maintain and convey an awareness of the tension between investment
in and detachment from dramatic action between the interpretive space
and the physical space of the theatre. This is done in Soliman in large part
through the use of the allegorical gures. Allegorical gures more or
less disappear from plays of the Jacobean and Caroline periods, but the
means of producing the tension is continued, somewhat metamorphosed
and to be found in both comedy and tragedy, in the tradition of characters
with names like Vindice, Subtle, Falselight, and Levidulcia. Characters
like these simultaneously convey an extra-dramatic, interpretive idea of
how one ought to see them, and help to create the theatrical energy
that arises from the impossibility of dramatic action ever conforming
exactly to the ideas the characters represent. Like Elizabethan tragedy,
Jacobean tragedy also draws on an older dramatic tradition something
whose signals the audience will easily and immediately recognize and

Theatrical Convention and Audience Response

which will give to the action both a feeling of inevitability and, because of
the variations, a feeling of being out of control. In Marstons Sophonisba,
a fascinating example because of how very un-Marstonian it is, the
older tradition is Elizabethan military tragedy. Here the author of The
Malcontent and Antonios Revenge does the inverse of the author of Soliman
and Perseda: he uses as his foundation a relatively archaic structure
the linear, tragic military play and bizarrely punctuates it with overt
signals of the more contemporary style of revenge tragedy. The result is
an astonishing example of the way in which the most powerful tragedies
put the audience as well as the characters at the mercy of the action.
It should be noted before I begin that Sophonisba is the only tragedy of
the three discussed in this chapter to be performed by boys. The performance by boys would seem to be a factor of some urgency in an argument
that will deal heavily with generic and conventional strangeness and the
mixture of tragic traditions, especially given Marstons note appended to
the quarto asking that my Reader not . . . taxe me, for the fashion of
the Entrances and Musique of this Tragidy, for know it is printed onely as it
was presented by youths & after the fashion of the private stage (emphasis added).
Marstons onely would seem to indicate some anxiety about the nature
of private-stage performance (as opposed, possibly, to public) would
seem to suggest a way that the overtly articial dramaturgy of boy companies (music, dumbshows, children playing adult characters) might not
bet the content of the tragedy. As a career writer for the boy companies,
however, Marston would presumably not be so worried about their inability to perform what he wrote for them; as well, the fact that Marstons

Editors and critics agree, and note almost immediately that Sophonisba betrays none of the parodic, burlesque, even melodramatic effects that all of Marstons earlier plays contain ( John Scott
Colley, in John Marstons Theatrical Drama [Salzburg: Salzburg Studies in English Literature, ],
p. ). Consequently it seems only to invite parody itself, as the seriousness seems uncharacteristic
of Marston. Keith Sturgess is perhaps the most emphatic, calling the play powerfully vulnerable
to parody and ridicule (The Malcontent and Other Plays [Oxford: Oxford University Press, ],
p. xi). What replaces the distinctive Marston tone in Sophonisba is a distinctive dramatic structure,
one of vividly drawn, conicting absolutes, and chiey the absolute good of Sophonisba and
the absolute evil of Syphax. John Colley likens this to English tragedies of some quarter century earlier . . . [with] long, heroic declamations, highly pitched emotional statements, and grand
sounding Senecan tags . . . It seems as if his tragedy represents a return to his earlier theatrical
dramaturgy ( John Marstons Theatrical Drama, pp. ). Michael Scott nds that Sophonisba is
more like Tamburlaine than early Marston (which seems more to the point of what Colley wants
to say), and says that both plays exemplify the linear tradition of dramatic construction ( John
Marstons Plays: Theme, Structure, and Performance [ London: Macmillan, ], p. ). T. F. Wharton
sees Marstons shift back to theatrical dramaturgy as a nal freeing step away from the bullying
literary inuence of Ben Jonson. Cowed and intimidated by Jonson, he was frightened away
from his true bent, but with Sophonisba the true John Marston reemerges in all his excess (The
Critical Fall and Rise of John Marston [Columbia, SC: Camden House, ], p. ).

Character and narrative in Elizabethan and Jacobean tragedy

earlier play The Malcontent was performed by children at the Blackfriars in

and then either stolen by or transferred to the Kings Men at the
Globe in would seem to indicate that the difference between private
and public theatre dramaturgy need not be over-emphasized. While I do
think that any strange articiality in the play would support the argument
I am making an argument about the discrepancy between the actions
we see and the actions we expect to see or think we see I also think,
as Genevieve Love has argued, that Marstons anxiety is more about the
translation from stage to print than from print to stage. Marston was
as concerned about signals being crossed between stage and page as he
was to cross the signals that moved from stage to audience.
The opening scene of Sophonisba is scrupulous about sending quite
specic conventional and generic signals, but they are specic to two
different kinds of tragedy and sent almost simultaneously. On one hand
we receive the signals of an Elizabethan military tragedy along the lines
of Tamburlaine or (anon.) The Wars of Cyrus or Soliman, complete with
long Asian names, African henchmen, and copious reference to Jove.
Syphax, in a rage about having lost Sophonisba to his rival Massinissa,
sounds alternately like Cosroe and Tamburlaine in Marlowes play. He
is made almost inarticulate by his frustration with the perils of greatness
(Syphax, Syphax, why wast thou cursd a King? / What angry God made
thee so great, so vile? [.. ]), but becomes eloquent in his promises
of retribution (O fall like thunder shaft / The winged vengeance of incensed Jove / Upon this Carthage, [ lines ]). The expedience and
also the perils of shifting military alliances that we see in and especially
Tamburlaine are brought out here in Syphaxs decision to join forces
with his former enemy Scipio: It had beene better they had changd
their faith, / Denide their Gods, then sleighted Syphax love / . . . / Ile
interleague with Scipio (lines ). At the same time, Syphax seems
concerned not with power or dominion so much as
Wert not for thee Syphax could beare this skorne
Not spouting up his gall among his bloud
In blacke vexations . . .
( lines )

In her essay, As from the waste of Sophonisba, or Whats Sexy about Stage Directions (forthcoming in Renaissance Drama), Love argues that Marston seems to aspire to record the performed
play in printed text rather than taking advantage of the radical discontinuity between these sites,
and that the text transcribes its performance as closely as possible, yet the transcription doesnt
work, making the possible continuity of presenting and printing into a liability.
That Syphaxs servant Vangue is African seems important for the play to establish, as Syphax
refers to him as both Dear Ethiopian negro and gentle negro within ten lines (lines , ).

Theatrical Convention and Audience Response

He is also not concerned with right:

To our deere wishes
Haste gentle Negro, that this heape may knowe
Me, and their wronge.

I, tho twere not, yet know while Kings are stronge
What theile but thinke and not what is, is wrong.
I am disgracd in, and by that which hath
No reason, Love, and Woman. My revenge
Shall therefore beare no argument of right;
Passion is reason when it speaks from Might. ( lines )

Vangues question, Wrong?, and Syphaxs willingness to respond to it

are the main signals, not incompatible but certainly at odds with what we
expect of a military tragedy. The focus is less on the agency of Syphaxs
might and more on the agency of his state of mind, which he will take the
trouble to explain every chance he gets; the play promises to show us how
Syphaxs obsession will drag down everything in its path. Tamburlaine,
like this play, opens with the villains, but they are portrayed as incompetent and squabbling, and the narrative that play prepares us for
is one where Tamburlaine has as many chances as possible to prove his
strength. Here, tests of might are promised, but the scale is different:
there is as much potential for victory by Machiavellian treachery as by
battleeld prowess.
And indeed the scale of conict is further reduced in the next scene
which, in contrast to the battleeld scene of Tamburlaine ., occurs in
Massinissas bedroom, and brings yet another disparate tragic convention into the mix. Massinissa is about to get into bed with Sophonisba
when the messenger Carthalon enters, his sword drawne, his body wounded,
his shield strucke full of darts (.. s.d.). Not only does Carthalon interrupt Massinissas wedding night, but he remains in the bedroom to tell
his lengthy story, and Massinissa remains there listening to him. The
potential absurdity of the tableau created by Carthalons entrance is
obvious. As well, his opening line is virtually incomprehensible and certainly somewhat amusing: To bold harts Fortune, be not you amazd. /
Carthage O Carthage: be not you amazed! (lines ). Amazement
is really the only possible reaction, and it is what the audience feels. The
moment of half-laughter, half-incomprehension is then channeled by

To bold harts Fortune means May bold hearts be fortunate, but context namely, Carthalons
drawn sword and the dart-stuck shield probably makes the syntactically strained sentence sound
like it should mean To arms or something similar.

Character and narrative in Elizabethan and Jacobean tragedy

Massinissa into an appropriate response: Jove made us not to feare; resolve, speake out; / The highest misery of man is doubt. / Speak, Carthalon!
(lines , italics original). This allows the focus of the scene to shift
completely from marital bliss to martial heroics. Carthalon, his wounded
body and long narrative presenting a stark contrast to the curtained wedding bed into which Massinissa was on the verge of entering, makes the
scene quite powerfully static that is, static in a way that emphasizes both
arrested and imminent action. As this happens Carthalon becomes the
Nuntius character of classical drama, and we begin to hear the voices of
Seneca and Kyd in the background. It is a moment parallel to the entry
of Love, Fortune, and Death in Soliman and Perseda, both in the fact that
it insists on the dramatic importance of a relatively archaic convention,
and in the fact that our reactions to the character who embodies this
convention must shift in a way that becomes an index of how the play
asks us to respond throughout.
Carthalons speech pushes the signals of tragedy in the classical style
to the same intensity that Syphaxs nal speech in . pushes the signals
of tragedy of intrigue and revenge. It seems to me that Marston is able
to pull this off, or think he can pull it off, because he knows his audience
is quite familiar with both dramatic traditions. The fact that Marston
had formerly parodied the older tradition would, I think, only make his
job easier in making the kind of rapid shift he makes between scenes
one and two. Carthalons arrival (and the compromising situation that
it interrupts) invites laughter, as do his rst words, and it seems likely
that Marstons audience would have laughed; that audience might have
thought that it was about to see the true, satirical Marston, and that
this was an appropriate moment for irony: having just seen the villain
Syphax gearing up for battle, we now see our warrior hero caught with
his pants down. But Marston clearly had faith in the actors ability:
Carthalons speech is very long (some fty lines, with a few interruptions
from the others present), and his only other appearance is for a similar
expository purpose at .. . The skill of this actor, like the skill of
the actor playing the messenger who narrates the nal events of Medea
or Antigone, must create through the speech a point at which the situation
is no longer absurd, but captivating. And part of the pleasure of being
captivated is tied up with the fact that one knows that what one is seeing

The physical limitations of the early modern stage play an important part in the argument I am
making about this scene. Once on stage, the bed is there until the end of the scene and, especially
in the tiny Pauls theatre, there would be nowhere for the characters to go on the stage that would
plausibly place them outside of the bedroom.

Theatrical Convention and Audience Response

was or is slightly absurd. Laughter at a speech like Carthalons comes

from an awareness of the artice of the theatre information about
the attack must be conveyed somehow but audiences are willing to
forgive and even enjoy this if what follows the initial moment of laughter
is good enough, for it allows them two simultaneous and contradictory
responses both ironic and credulous. Further, that Marston would have
wanted an at least partially ironic attitude associated with sex and the
bedroom seems clear from the two other, more overtly funny bed scenes
in the play: when Sophonisba escapes from Syphax and leaves Vangue
in her place (.), and when Erichtho tricks Syphax into sleeping with
her and mocks him afterwards (. .). One of the great tricks of the
play is to push the ironic attitude toward the audience before it entirely
knows what to think of Massinissa so that one might see him as Syphax
would and then to redirect the unused ironic energy (unused because
after . Massinissa is a hero) toward Syphax as he comes closer to his
But the downfall of Syphax is itself somewhat problematic because the
ironic energy never fully manifests itself in the kind of reversal we expect
for him. This is similar to the process in Soliman wherein we see Love
and Fortune for much of the play as Death sees them and Death as
something less than he is, but never fully realize the feeling of expectation
that Death will somehow not triumph. From fairly early on, the audience
will believe that Syphax is doomed to die; this is a logical consequence of
the plays juxtaposition of contrary absolutes. (Obviously, from the title,
Sophonisba herself will be seen as doomed to die as well, and audiences
probably expect something like the end of Hamlet, where good and bad
alike die.) In . the signals of revenge tragedy, classical tragedy, and
military tragedy converge to build the expectation of Syphaxs death.
A character called only Nuntius enters to tell Syphax that Full
ten thousand horse / Fresh and well rid strong Massinissa leades / As
wings to Roman legions that march swift, / Led by that man of conquest,
Scipio (lines ). Everything that Syphax has set up the murder of
Massinissa, an alliance with Scipio, a rebellion against Carthage is
now turning against him. In the battle Syphax and Massinissa meet in
a moment that resembles the end of Macbeth.

A good parallel example in a better-known play is the Player Kings speech in Hamlet.
This is signicant as a signal of classical tragedy only insofar as the speech heading shows that
a classical model was in Marstons mind; and the character who could easily be played by the
same actor who plays Carthalon performs what is recognizable as the function of a Nuntius.
Obviously, however, no one on stage calls him Nuntius.

Character and narrative in Elizabethan and Jacobean tragedy



Be twixt us too
Let single ght try all.

Well urgd.

Well graunted.
Of you my stars as I am worthy you,
I implore aide; and O, if angels waite
Upon good harts my Genius bee as strong
As I am just.

Kinges glory is their wrong.
He that may onely do just acts a slave.
My gods my arme, my life, my heaven, my grave
To me all end.
(.. )

Massinissa gets Syphax down and it looks as though the obsessed revenger character is now going to suffer the vengeance of another:
Massinissa unclasps Syphax caske and as reddy to kill him, speakes ( s.d.). But
at this moment, Syphax begs for mercy and Massinissa grants it. This
interruption, while of a piece with the other interruptions that form a
major pattern in the play (Massinissas wedding night, Giscos thwarted
poisoning of Massinissa, Syphaxs two interrupted attempts to rape
Sophonisba), is nevertheless rather frustrating, simply because it robs
the narrative (and the audience) of a climax. Of course, Syphax does
not die in the plays sources (Livy, among others), but I doubt that even
audience members who knew the source would be very much concerned
about this, given the many indications that the tide has turned against
Syphax, and the excitement of the single combat scene. The conict
between historical accuracy and the demands of dramatic narrative is
another tension that adds to the bizarre energy that erupts unpredictably
in the plays nal scenes.
Massinissa takes the moral high road, which he feels at liberty to do
since Sophonisba is still alive: Rise, rise, cease strife / Heare a most
deepe revenge, from us take life (lines ). This kind of gesture makes
sense in terms of the linear, Tamburlaine-like structure of the play, the
structure that makes us assume that Massinissas military victory and
power strengthens his moral victory, and makes us believe that he is
capable of dispensing life or death as he pleases. In plays like Tamburlaine,
when the conquering hero gives life, the conquered either become willing
subjects or human trophies. But this attitude is made to look rather silly
almost immediately as the conventions of revenge and intrigue tragedy
reassert themselves. Massinissa turns Syphax over to Scipio and leaves

Theatrical Convention and Audience Response

to nd Sophonisba. Syphax starts working on Scipio, telling him that

Sophonisbas unshakeable delity to Carthage ticd mee breake / All
faith with men (lines ) and that Massinissas breast / Hir handes
shall arme, and . . . / Shee can force him your foe as well as I (lines ).
In the face of this cunning, Scipios Romanness seems a foolish relic,
something out of an old play, as he sends a man to charge Massinissa
with no lesse waight than his dear vow,
Our love, all faith, that hee resigne her thee.
As hee shall aunswere Rome, will him give up
A Roman prisoner to the Senates doome.
She is a Carthaginian, now our lawes.
Wise men prevent not actions, but ever cause.

(lines )

The awkward parallelism of dear vow, / Our love, all faith, the strained
syntax of will him, the archaic doome, and the ridiculously forced
nal couplet complement the fact that Scipio is trying to present as
natural and easy what the audience already perceives, with Syphax, to
be impossible.
Syphaxs own couplet to end the scene conrms this unnecessarily of course, but the superuity is typical of the self-indulgent, selfaggrandizing revenger who derives much of his energy from developing
a relationship with the audience.
Good malice, so, as liberty so deere
Prove my revenge: what I cannot possesse
Another shall not: thats some happines.

(lines )

And now a very strange thing happens. The signals and conventions of
Jacobean revenge tragedy seem to have asserted themselves so strongly
perhaps as a means of showing the foolishness of the attitudes of the older
tradition that they continue to manifest themselves in a predictable fashion even though Syphaxs imprisonment makes the predictable ending
(where he would kill Massinissa or Sophonisba or both) impossible. The
intense debate about delity and honoring vows that Massinissa must

This couplet has had a difcult history. Kemp, whose edition I cite, follows Q. Bullen (Works
of John Marston, ed. A. H. Bullen, vol. [Boston: Houghton Mifin, ]) emends to She is
a Carthaginian. Now our laws / Wise men . . . and thus makes the second line a kind of
quotation: what our law is. He conjectures that the reading might be, She is a Carthaginian,
neath our laws. Sturgess emends to now our laws and glosses the meaning as, now within
the jurisdiction of Roman law, which Kemp would seem to agree with (though he provides no
note). In either case, the diction is hardly idiomatic.

Character and narrative in Elizabethan and Jacobean tragedy

have with himself after receiving Scipios order works to keep the play on
the level Scipio put it at the end of ., and the kind of ending we begin
to anticipate is one where Sophonisba makes the ultimate sacrice: My
death / Givs helpe to all she says (.. ). She does die of course,
but in a quite unexpected way.
Enter a Page with a bole of wine.
Thou darst not die, some wine, thou darst not die.
So. How neere was I unto the curse of man, Joye,
How like was I yet once to have been glad:
He that neere laught may with a constant face,
Contemne Joves frowne. Happinesse makes us base.
She takes a bole into which Massinissa puts poison
Behold me, Massinissa, like thy selfe,
A king and souldier; and I pree thee keepe
My last command.

Speake sweet.

Deere, doe not weepe.
With even disdainefull vigour I give up
An abhord life.
She drinks
You have been good to me,
And I doe thanke thee, heaven.
(lines )

I can nd no commentary anywhere on the fact that Massinissa and not

Sophonisba puts the poison in the bowl, which is unfortunate because
this act seems very surprising, especially after the line Thou darst not
die, but fortunate because it suggests that the conventional signals I am
about to discuss are so strong that the moment does not announce itself
as the strange moment that it is. I am not suggesting that Sophonisba
does not know she is being poisoned, but I am suggesting that if you have
a scene where Massinissa slips into a bowl of wine some poison he just
happens to have with him despite the cheerful nature of his visit (he does
not expect the messenger, and is simply there to reunite with his love)
which is the kind of scene the text suggests you have a scene that looks
like the end or even the middle of a revenge tragedy, a scene like .,
where Sophonisba drugs Vangues wine. If you want to try to avoid a
scene like this, you have to do a lot of difcult-to-understand work that
is not indicated by the text having Sophonisba give Massinissa a vial
of poison for him to put in the wine, for example. And even this might
not work. One possible justication for the surreptitiousness would be
that Massinissa and Sophonisba are trying to conceal their act from

Theatrical Convention and Audience Response

Laelius, the messenger from Scipio. The two modernized editions of

the play insert a stage direction for him to exit before Sophonisba and
Massinissa have their nal conversation, but there is no such direction
in the Quarto, so he might still be there. However, having a reason to
be sneaky about the poisoning does not make the scene look any less
like the surreptitious poisoning scenes of revenge tragedies, and I am
concerned with how the scene looks more than anything else. Suddenly
the audience is bombarded with the signals of a tragic ending entirely
different from the tragic ending that is occurring on stage.
The effect is similar to but more exaggerated than the effect
recognizing or hearing echoes of Basilisco in Death would have had
in Soliman and Perseda. In the earlier play, all the overt signals, especially
at the end, insist on Deaths allegorical signicance, both in terms of the
morality tradition and in the somewhat different world of Elizabethan
tragedy; but the presence of Basilisco or his words would undercut both
kinds of signicance somewhat, so that an audience might feel complicit
with Death, or not subject to the effects of death as it occurs in tragedy.
In Marstons play, it is almost as though the conict between Syphax
and Massinissa is worked out through Massinissa and Sophonisba. One
wants Sophonisba to die heroically, because that is where the play is
heading, but one gets this only by means of some potentially inexplicable furtiveness on Massinissas part. As with the unused potential irony
that gets redirected toward Syphax after ., there is the potential to feel
here that because Massinissa did not kill Syphax, he had to kill someone, and this makes Sophonisba almost the opposite kind of symbol she
would be in the heroic interpretation. She does not sacrice herself; she
is merely sacriced.
As in Soliman, there is probably some mockery of death going on
here. We are not meant to feel that Massinissa is triumphant or if we
are meant to I doubt we do. He has indeed kept all his vows, a virtue
with which the play is obsessively concerned, but he has gained nothing.
Rather, he has lost his lover and left his enemy alive; the irony could
not have been lost on Marston or his audience. Sophonisbas death is
certainly supposed to be seen as a kind of triumph for her, but this will be
mitigated somewhat both by the strangeness of the poisoning scene and
by the fact that in a very real way, Syphax is responsible for her death.
Nothing turns out as anyone expects there is almost no satisfying way to

Theatrical bombardment is the term Wharton uses for Marstons dramaturgy in Sophonisba
and his early plays for his immersion in his medium and his tendency to saturate his plays
with its effects (The Critical Rise and Fall of John Marston, p. ).

Character and narrative in Elizabethan and Jacobean tragedy

end the play, and this is undoubtedly a large part of its non-performance
in the last years. But it seems to me that if you were to perform it
you would have to be aware of Marstons equal willingness to employ
the conventions of melodramatic, classically inected tragedy where a
woman dies to bring about a new political order as well as those of
Jacobean revenge drama where men devise more and more elaborate
ways to attack one another for the sake of a woman. Each is made
at different times to look both plausible and ridiculous, and a successful
performance would have to be equally committed to each of these moods
as each one took precedence over and then yielded it to the other.
This probably does not sound very satisfactory something like saying
a good performance has to be good and so I will end this section by
trying to explain how I think the play can be successful with an analogy
to something in the play which I have not talked about. This analogy
may not be any more convincing, but it might be usefully suggestive.
In ., Sophonisba has escaped from Syphaxs bedroom through an implausible tunnel, leaving the drugged Vangue in her place. Offering to
leape into bed, [Syphax]discovers Vangue ( s.d.) and cries Hah! Can any
woman turne to such a Divell? This is a funny moment, which almost
immediately turns brutal and unpleasant when Syphax summarily kills
his loyal servant. The bitterly ironic humor of the line, however, carries
through the play and resonates faintly, its structure now somewhat inverted, when Erichtho, a devil, turns herself into Sophonisba and seduces
Syphax in .. When Syphax speaks the line in ., it provides the humor
of a bed trick (Divell means ugly man, not the woman I expected to
rape) and then proves to be the antecedent to sudden murder (Divell
is a term of genuine hatred). When the events of . come to pass, the
line has moved from its original rhetorical level (Syphaxs humiliation is
expressed through surprise and anger) to a literal one (Syphax is actually
duped by a devil and the blindness of his lust). These shifts seem to me
to epitomize the kinds of shifts Marston demands of his audiences experience of his play as it thrusts characters into whatever genre or mode
best suits the dramatic needs of the moment.
One does not experience Massinissas inept transition into revenger
mode as discontinuous, just as one does not see Vangues murder as
entirely unexpected. Each is surprising, but each occurs as a result of
the demands of the moment, and has a vital wrongness about it: Syphax
is out of control; Massinissa, having failed as a powerful but merciful
military hero, turns to the only other option tragedy leaves open to him,
the role of revenger, and fails at that as well. Massinissas nal identity a

Theatrical Convention and Audience Response

conquering hero without a victory and Sophonisbas nal identity a

willing sacrice who is actually murdered are as vexed as the identity
of the veiled Erichtho in the shape of Sophonisba probably played
by the actor who played Sophonisba herself who hasteth in the bed
of Syphax (.. s.d.) and undoubtedly momentarily unsettles the
audiences view of Sophonisbas virtue. The morning after, when we
and Syphax learn Erichthos identity, we also learn that the matter was
out of Syphaxs control:
Know we Erichtho, with a thirsty womb
Have coveted full threescore Suns for bloud of kings,
We that can make inraged Neptune tosse
His huge curld lockes without one breath of wind:
We that can make Heaven slide from Atlas shoulder:
We in the pride and haight of covetous lust
Have wisht with womans grediness to ll
Our longing armes with Syphax well strong lims:
And dost thou think if Philters or Hels charmes
Could have inforcd thy use, we would hav daind
Braine sleights? No, no, now we are full
Of our deare wishes: thy proud heal well wasted
Hath made our lims grow young: our love farewell.
Know he that would force love, thus seekes his hell.
(.. )

Erictho is like the force of tragic events itself. In the face of something so
deep, so entangled, so unseen, Syphax, like Massinissa, like Sophonisba,
responds to the demands of the moment, sees only too late the irrevocable
forces that have made him act and react only in the way he should not,
stands both inside and outside the movement of the action. Only the
audience, with few exceptions actually aware of the forces at work but
susceptible nonetheless, is more powerless.
T H E A T H E I S T S T R A GE D Y ,

c .

The Atheists Tragedy is one of the truly innovative plays of the period,
and it seems to seek much more deliberately than Marstons play to render its audience powerless. Like Soliman and Sophonisba it positions itself
in relation to and against a particular and readily identiable theatrical tradition, but that tradition, revenge tragedy, is ongoing when the
play is rst performed. Further, it draws on a tradition that actually lies
outside its stated genre namely, the increasingly popular city comedy.

Character and narrative in Elizabethan and Jacobean tragedy

The Atheists Tragedy contains many elements of revenge tragedy and many
elements of satirical city comedy or Fletcherian tragicomedy, but it does
not in the end feel very much like any of these. It dees classication on
many levels and for this reason, among others, criticism of the play is
often openly bafed. A passage like the following from Brian Morris and
Roma Gills New Mermaids edition is a good example of the extremes
to which this bafement can go, but also of the kind of no-mans land of
response the play seems to create.
The Atheists Tragedy is tragic only in a loose sense. At the end there is no sense
of the sadness of great waste, nor is there regret at the inevitability of it all.
We have not watched a noble man fall from happiness to disaster, nor have we
traced the working-out of some vicious mole of nature in an otherwise heroic
protagonist. We have not seen a great act visited with disproportionate suffering
which issues in an ultimate wisdom. The play is not conceived on this scale.
In form it is a thesis play more commonly found in French drama than in
English. It presents the audience with a monstrous proposition (the denial of
Gods providence) in quite matter-of-fact terms, and works out the consequences
of misbelief with clear and ruthless logic. In content, it is a study of power, and
the limits of power. The blunt truth which the play proclaims is that no man can
defy the power of God, and live. Yet DAmville is neither Faustus nor Icarus, and
we can view his fall (and Charlemonts vindication) with a strangely academic
detachment. The abiding impression which The Atheists Tragedy leaves is of a
bold and important experiment which didnt quite come off.

Elsewhere the editors say that the plays opening is undramatic and
antitheatrical and makes no concessions to the art of the theatre
(p. xi); that one of the weakest parts of the play is that Charlemont
is not presented as a character torn by indecision and a prey to doubt
(p. xxii); that Tourneur does not attempt to explore the inner recesses of
any characters soul (p. xxiii); and that Tourneurs habitual style . . . is
not given to adjectival excess, nor does he strive after verbal paradox or
aphorism . . . [ His images] are not obtrusive; the reader is not conscious,
as he is when reading Webster, of a rich profusion which almost causes the
imagination to surfeit (p. xxxiv). One might well nd oneself wondering
at the end of this introduction why the editors have not spent their time
on other, more compelling plays.
One difculty of which this negative criticism is symptomatic is that
the play itself is about negation about not believing in God, not seeking
revenge, and choosing not to kill. The play sends many of the signals of a

The Atheists Tragedy, ed. Gill and Morris (London: Benn, ), pp. xxxvixxxvii. All citations of
the text of the play are from this edition.

Theatrical Convention and Audience Response

typical revenge tragedy but refuses to deliver on them, and it seems worth
supposing that its original audience might have felt as much frustration
as modern critics do, for audiences as much as critics tend to evaluate one
theatrical experience in terms of others. It also seems worth supposing
that Tourneur knew what he was doing, and that the plays departure
from the traditional expectations of the revenge tragedy whose shape
it partially assumes also has the potential to achieve valuable theatrical
effects along the lines of those we have seen in the generically vexed
moments of the other two plays effects that involve grappling with
surprising discontinuity within a familiar framework.
The problem of whether the play is a revenge tragedy, a tragedy, a
melodrama, or a tragicomedy is well attested to, again, by the introductions to the modern editions. Early on in the introduction to the Revels
edition, Irving Ribner says that the structure and meaning of The Atheists
Tragedy are very clear, and the rst sentence of his section on Theme
and Structure reafrms this sense of clarity: The Atheists Tragedy is built
upon a conict between two diametrically opposed conceptions of mans
position in the universe and between the ethical systems entailed by these
conceptions (p. xxxvii). These statements seem somewhat incompatible with (though not mutually exclusive of ) what he later says about the
play being a work of tremendous variety, probably unique in its age
for its manner of combining seemingly incongruous elements (p. lvi).
A similar contradiction occurs even more strikingly in Gill and Morriss
edition. At the beginning of a section called The Mixture of Styles,
the editors discuss the strange blend of tragic and farcical scenes, and
conclude that this mixture of comedy and tragedy, complicated by various forms of irony . . . creates a major problem of tone (p. xxx). Toward
the end of this same section, they argue that Tourneur uses language
always to mediate meaning, never to decorate it. The coolness, the intellectualism, the sense of detachment one senses in the conduct of the
plot, informs the language as well. The play is all of a piece throughout
(p. xxxv).
These editions talk about the sense of a clear, logical, coolly managed
structure and plot, as well as an unevenness of tone and a variety of
construction, implying in each case that the play is either all one or all
the other. As we see in Morris and Gills edition, the play is both tonally
problematic and all of a piece within the space of ve pages. Ribner
goes a little further to work this problem out, arguing that none of the
diverse elements of [the] play seem out of place . . . for all contribute to a

The Atheists Tragedy, ed. Ribner (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, ), p. xxxv.

Character and narrative in Elizabethan and Jacobean tragedy

remarkable unity of tone, constituting a dramatic world, at once real and

unreal, which is always credible (p. lvii). This seems true to a certain
extent, but it suggests a kind of coherence that Ribner himself almost
does not seem to believe, as when he says on the previous page that the
play is full of ludicrous and impossible incident, or in the lines just
preceding the passage quoted above, that the play ends with a stage
execution as bizarre and unusual as any performed upon the Jacobean
stage. I think the reason for this critical ambivalence chiey lies not
in Tourneurs air for variety, or his stylistic unevenness (though both
probably play an important part as well), but rather within the play itself
and the response it solicits from its audience, particularly in the farcical
scenes involving Levidulcia. That is, in a manner parallel to Solimans use
of the chorus, it is thematically, generically, and theatrically useful to the
play that one does not know how to feel about the farcical episodes that
one both wants to and cannot treat the seemingly comic plot involving
Levidulcia as though it is part of and important to the quasi-revenge
tragedy of the main action.
A somewhat extreme manifestation of just this frustrated desire is in
Richard Levins discussion of the play, where he works to show how both
the LevidulciaSebastian plot and the SnuffeSoquette plot contribute
to the formulation of the doctrine of the main plot, as a necessary consequence of their integration into the hierarchic structure of the work (The
Multiple Plot, p. ). Levins structural analysis is quite illuminating, but
it also has an unfortunate leveling effect, where the dominant notion of
hierarchic structure each subplot is both a reection and a degraded
version of the main plot distorts the nature of the audiences probably
more disjointed experience. While I think that an audience would pick
up on the parallels Levin sees between the LevidulciaSebastian plot and
the main plot (for example, that Sebastians good nature and Levidulcias
lust are attenuated forms of the absolute virtue and vice portrayed in
the main action, p. ), it seems to me that the play also frequently
encourages the opposite response encourages us to think of Levidulcia
as entirely external and unimportant to the moral and dramatic structure of the play. The resulting imbalance is similar to that achieved in
Soliman by the way in which the choric characters seem both in control
of and subject to the vicissitudes of events; and to that in Sophonisba by
Massinissas distance from but key involvement in the events that lead to
the death of Sophonisba.

In The Multiple Plot in English Renaissance Drama (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, ),
pp. .

Theatrical Convention and Audience Response

Levidulcias rst entrance is in ., as Charlemont takes leave of

Castabella. Languebeau Snuffe has been encouraging these two to kiss
(I salute you both with the spirit of copulation [line ]) and just as
they do, Levidulcia enters with Belforest.
O heres your daughter under her servants lips.
Madam, there is no cause you should mistrust
The kiss I gave; twas but a parting one.
A lusty blood! Now, by the lip of Love,
Were I to choose, your joining one for me.
(lines )

Levidulcias your daughter (she is the stepmother) to Belforest makes

it difcult even to know her relationship to Castabella. Her immediate
focus on sex and her insinuating remarks to Charlemont make her seem
like a typical, minor, licentious character, a humorous foil for the overtly
chaste love of the other two. As soon as Levidulcia has fullled this
function, she leaves. That she is outside the causal structure of the action
is clearly shown when Snuffe stays behind until Charlemont leaves, after
which he meets with DAmville and Borachio and is enlisted to persuade
Castabella to marry Rousard.
Rousard begins his suit in the next scene (.), and . opens with
Belforest telling Snuffe that he is intent on marrying Castabella to
Rousard. Levidulcias opinion is not mentioned one way or the other.
Further, when Castabella interrupts the conference of Snuffe and her
father she uses Levidulcia as the excuse to get Belforest out of the room
so that she may reprimand Snuffe for his change of allegiance.
Please it your lordship, my mother attends
I th gallery and desires your conference.
Exit Belforest
This means I used to bring me to your ear.
Time cuts off circumstance; I must be brief.
. . . if your grave advice assist me not,
I shall be forced to violate my faith.
(lines )

Obviously, Castabellas use of Levidulcia in this way does not preclude

Levidulcias involvement in or approval of the match (as we shall soon
see), but it does literally place her outside of the current action, and we
have no reason to think that Belforest has gone outside to plot something
with her.
As soon as the play has made it seem like everyone but Levidulcia
has some stake in Castabellas marriage, Levidulcia herself enters and

Character and narrative in Elizabethan and Jacobean tragedy

assumes a surprisingly, but only temporarily, important role. Initially

she is full of sexual innuendo, telling Snuffe you mistake the way into
a woman at line , and at lines reminding Castabella that she
has been raised with cost and tenderness / To full ability of body and
means. But then she breaks into a long and rather surprising discourse
about womens need for sex and the reasons Castabella should marry
Rousard instead of the absent Charlemont.
Preferest th affection of an absent love
Before the sweet possession of a man,
The barren mind before the fruitful body,
Where our creation has no reference
To man but in his body, being made
Only for generation which (unless
Our children can be gotten by conceit)
Must from the body come. If reason were
Our counselor, we would neglect the work
Of generation for the prodigal
Expense it draws us to of that which is
The wealth of life. Wise Nature, therefore, hath
Reserved for an inducement to our sense
Our greatest pleasure in that greatest work,
Which being offered thee, thy ignorance
Refuses for th imaginary joy
Of an unsatised affection to
(.. )
An absent man . . .

Both Richard Levin and Muriel Bradbrook have called attention to this
passage as an example of the similarity and difference between Levidulcia
and DAmville. Bradbrook says that both characters have a doctrine
of Nature, but Levidulcia is different in that she acts wholly upon
instinct and identies herself completely with the beasts (Themes and Conventions, p. ). Levin agrees: DAmville believes that while man does
not differ in kind from the beasts, he excels them by virtue of his natural
reason (The Multiple Plot, p. ). This interpretation of Levidulcia seems
correct, but much more should be made of Bradbrooks other point that
Levidulcias reasons are stated a little abstractly for one who believed
the passage lies not through her reason but her blood (Themes and Conventions, p. ): Levidulcia sounds like DAmville. Particularly striking is
the echo in the sentence that spans lines (If reason . . . ) of the
three consecutive if . . . then arguments for increasing earthly wealth

Themes and Conventions, p. .

Theatrical Convention and Audience Response

and pleasure that occur in Borachio and DAmvilles conversation at

.. . The play has established from its rst moments that it has
a strong didactic element, and that action proceeds from rational argument. DAmville is quite explicit about this: in my reason dwells the
providence / To add to life as much of happiness. / Let all men lose, so
I increase my gain (.. ). These lines are also the lines of an
intriguer or revenger: the kind of action we expect to follow from reason
is the intricate kind we are used to seeing in plays like Othello or The
Revengers Tragedy. Thus, because Levidulcia sounds didactic in ., I think
we are meant to feel that her speech, and she herself, has some effect
on the plot, that she has assumed the role of an intriguer. The speech
does not actually have any effect, but the illusion is convincing. A mere
ve lines after Levidulcia speaks it, Rousard enters with DAmville and
Belforest and calls Castabella Sweet wife! (line ). Shortly thereafter,
Belforest tells Castabella that her choice of mate has been made for her.
The licentiousness which formerly placed Levidulcia in the world of city
comedy or a satirical subplot has now been converted into the pervasive
and insidious energy of a sex-and-revenge intrigue tragedy something
along the lines of (anon.) The Second Maidens Tragedy.
Then, for the next act, Levidulcia takes a prominent place in the
action. She and Cataplasma begin the wedding night revelry in ., and
at the end of that scene Levidulcia encourages her son to have faith in
his sexual abilities. In ., she encourages both Rousard and Castabella
on their way to the bedroom and then arranges a meeting for herself
with Sebastian. In ., we see her exploits rst with Fresco, then with
Sebastian, and then with her husband. Levidulcias lust is not, in this
act, a mere undercurrent; it is where our attention is constantly directed.
That her reveling is placed next to the scenes where two drunken servants
unwittingly help bring about the murder of Monteferrers, and that she
is able to arrange an encounter with Sebastian, the one male character
who has seemed at all concerned about sexual virtue, makes Levidulcia
seem like the reason, or a symbol of the reason, for all that is happening.
At the same time, it is important that all of her appearances are funny
especially the boudoir hijinks of . and that her bawdy humor and the
difculties it creates for her provide a pleasurable contrast to the fairly
slow development of the rest of the action. The Levidulcia plot has all
the twists and turns, all the sexual irony, all the exuberant manipulation
that a Jacobean audience would expect from a play whose rst act ends
with a statement like Let all men lose so I increase my gain. / I have
no feeling of anothers pain. The strange thing is that this plot is not the

Character and narrative in Elizabethan and Jacobean tragedy

plot indicated in those lines. And that plot, DAmvilles, is perplexingly

clumsy: even the need for novelty cannot fully explain why Tourneur decides to have Monteferrers killed in such an unstageworthy way by being pushed into a ditch. As he will on a larger scale, by having Charlemont
get revenge without killing, Tourneur seems here to be deliberately playing against the structure of revenge tragedies: he lets the audience enjoy
the farce that Levidulcia brings onto the stage, lets it ignore for a time the
main action because it feels secure in the knowledge that Levidulcia is a
symbol of whats wrong with DAmvilles motivations in that action.
Then, just as suddenly as she attained prominence, Levidulcia
disappears for a good chunk of the play, resurfacing nally at the end of
Act , when she dies. In the intervening scenes, there is a series of failures: Charlemont fails to kill Sebastian; Borachio fails to kill Charlemont;
DAmville fails to rape Castabella. While these scenes heighten suspense,
they also stand in sharp contrast to the successes of Act , when Levidulcia
was center-stage: there, Monteferrers was killed, Castabella married to
Rousard, Levidulcia successful in dealing with three men in her bedroom at once without suffering any repercussions. And when, at the end
of ., Fresco tells Belforest about Levidulcia and Sebastian, a feeling of
both urgency and efciency returns: Belforest brings the watch to where
Levidulcia and Sebastian are, the men ght, and both are killed, all in
the space of about fty lines. Now we have revenge, but for something
quite separate from the main action. Then, quite suddenly and in a way
similar to her entrance in ., Levidulcia becomes a different character,
lamenting the deaths of her men and then killing herself.
O God! My husband! My Sebastian! Husband!
Neither can speak; yet both report my shame.
Is this the saving of my honour, when
Their blood runs out in rivers, and my lust
The fountain whence it ows? Dear husband, let
Not thy departed spirit be displeased
If with adulterate lips I kiss thy cheek.
Here I behold the hatefulness of lust,
Which brings me kneeling to embrace him dead,
Whose body living I did loathe to touch.
. . . O, in their wounds
I feel my honour wounded to the death.
Shall I outlive my honour? Must my life
Be made the worlds example? Since it must,
Then thus in detestation of my deed,

Theatrical Convention and Audience Response

To make th example move more forcibly
To virtue, thus I seal it with death
As full of horror as my life of sin.
Stabs herself

(.. )

William Gruber argues that the boy actor playing Levidulcia would have,
throughout the play, used the difference between his own sex and the
characters to free the character of the need to respond in character
to other characters on stage. Levidulcias presentation would take
the form of a histrionic mode of behavior that combines aggression
and self-aggrandizement with a generous measure of crowd-pleasing
(Building a Scene, p. ). This seems absolutely right, and powerful
support for the argument that Gruber makes (and that I am making)
that an audience is not meant to see Levidulcias identity as logically
consistent (p. ).
As with the beginning of Carthalons speech in Sophonisba ., there
is nothing to stop an audience from thinking it should not be taking
Levidulcia seriously. The Watch, having accompanied Belforest in his
pursuit of Fresco, is either on-stage or nearby, and Levidulcia might simply be putting on a performance, equivocating to clear herself of guilt.
(She might also be performing for Belforest, who is still staggering
[ line s.d.] as she enters, and who does not have a specic stage
direction to die, though he obviously must at some point.) Even if the
Watch is entirely absent and we are not thinking of him, the histrionic
aspect of Levidulcia can easily make it seem as though she is performing for us. Indeed, in lines and she seems more concerned
about the effect of the mens death on her honor than the fact that they
are dead. And there is something quite perverse about the continued
sexual slanders in lines . For at least the rst half of the speech,
I imagine the audience expects it to end in such a way that suggests
in no uncertain terms that Levidulcia will move on with her life, or
even that it will end with Belforest not dying. Whatever is in the audiences mind, the view it has had of Levidulcia throughout, and the

William Gruber, Building a Scene: The Text and its Representation in The Atheists Tragedy,
Comparative Drama . (): . The quotation is from page .
The ironic effect of watching a sinful character go through an unnecessary repentance, which she
or he is then in a position to recant, seems to become more and more attractive to playwrights
in the Jacobean period. Consider, for example, the end of Middletons The Witch, written several
years after Tourneurs play, in which a sinful wife has her husband killed, laments loudly over
his dead body, and then learns, as he rises, that he was not actually dead. He forgives her, but it
seems likely that a performance would leave open to question whether or not the wifes change
of heart will be permanent now that she can actually be held to it.

Character and narrative in Elizabethan and Jacobean tragedy

fact that she seems non-essential enough to the main action to disappear for long stretches, should make some kind of light resolution seem
likely; and the ever-present ironic undercurrent in her words and manner should suggest that we will never have to believe her repentance is
sincere, but that other characters will be able to. Levidulcia can triumph
But as the speech continues, and as Levidulcia kills herself, the potential for laughter simply vanishes and is replaced by a kind of weird
horror, expressed on-stage by the Watchs Hold, madam! Lord what a
strange night is this! (line ). It takes no more than the time of Snuffes
single intervening line for the audience to interpret the horror and agree
with the Watchs nal couplet, O with what virtue lust should be withstood, / Since tis a re quenched seldom without blood (lines ).
When I say agree with, I do not mean to suggest that the audience
nds this an adequate summation of its experience of Levidulcia and her
life, but that it is the only thing that makes sense if one is to accept the
new Levidulcia that emerges at the end of her speech as real, and not
simply a failure on Tourneurs part. And to accept this one has to think in
the way that, I believe, the ambivalent criticism of the play demonstrates
that people do think of her: as simultaneously hugely important and only
a trivial element of a larger structure. You have to feel she is worthy of
blame, that she would have brought her death upon herself indirectly if
she had not committed suicide, that her actions are directly responsible
for Sebastians and thus in part for DAmvilles downfall; but also
that her repentance and death is something of a prank, a send up in
Grubers words something to make the moral types feel better but not
anything to think about for very long since she was only a small part of
the play: the funny, bawdy part.
And if the play can harness an audiences potential laughter and
incredulity and make it think about Levidulcia in this way, it should have
no trouble presenting the tragic ridiculousness of the mad DAmville
knocking out his own brains with the axe he means to use on Charlemont
and Castabella. His nal lines are, much like Levidulcias, a boast and
also a repentance:

Gruber discusses the Watchs entrance and crucial cry, Hold, madam! a cry that would be
difcult to stage because it interrupts the ritualized suicide at the very moment of spectators
deepest involvement (Building a Scene, p. ). Grubers point is about the importance of this
moment for providing the audience with [c]hecked expectation not pathos or enthrallment
( p. ). I agree with this, and would argue, in a somewhat different register, that the checked
expectation at this moment makes the audience think that Levidulcia might drop her knife and
allow the comic side of the play to guide her toward repentance.

Theatrical Convention and Audience Response

Thou didst want discretion for
The sentence, but yond power that struck me knew
The judgment I deserved, and gave it. O,
The lust of death commits a rape upon me,
(.. )
As I would ha done Castabella.

This is both very ugly and very beautiful. At the moment you most need
to hate or to forgive DAmville, the play does not let you feel very secure
in doing either, and so Charlemonts Now I see / That patience is the
honest mans revenge (lines , italics original) is not so much stupid
as necessarily at. It is, like the Watchs line after Levidulcias suicide,
anticlimactic and inadequate, but it feels true, and its atness conveys the
sense of waste the play wants to get across. As with Levidulcias death, and
not unlike the end of Sophonisba, a character who should die has died, but
the relationship between the ostensible causes of death (lust, patience)
and the death itself is not satisfying. In Tourneurs play this parallels
the gap between the expectations of an audience of a revenge tragedy
(revenge by murder) and what actually happens in the play (revenge by
refusing to murder), and the gap between Levidulcias apparent effect
on the plot and her actual effect on it. We are constantly put in dramatic
situations where our expectations are both fully satised and not satised
at all, and this is essential in the world of tragedy, where characters like
Massinissa, or like Othello or even Vindice, demand our admiration yet
at the same time stumble through a series of more and more obviously
poor decisions; where, as we have seen in Soliman and Perseda, not even
omniscient characters can be what we expect them to be.
Elizabethan and Jacobean tragedy is by no means Aristotelian, but it
contains Aristotelian elements in that its dramatic imperative is to move
logically and inexorably toward catastrophe. The single-mindedness of
this action is represented by different characters throughout the period: we see it rst in Tamburlaine, then Hamlet or Vindice, and nally,
bizarrely enough, Charlemont and DAmville. This list is representative,
not denitive any play could add a character to it; the need for a unity

The Atheists Tragedy, ed. Gill and Morris, p. xxiv.

Ellis-Fermor says that another difcult, at line, In lifting up the axe, I think h has knocked / His
brains out (.. ), is necessary for an audience that could not otherwise realize what it
was required to imagine (The Jacobean Drama, p. n. ). She compares this to Malcolms
notoriously difcult line O, by whom? in Macbeth, a line that deates our expectations of
Malcolms character in ways similar to the deation and disappointment I have discussed here.
For more extensive discussion of Malcolm and Macbeth see Stephen Booth, King Lear, Macbeth,
Indenition, and Tragedy (New Haven: Yale University Press, ), pp. .

Character and narrative in Elizabethan and Jacobean tragedy

of action that draws all other actions into it is fundamental to tragedy.

Working against the urge for unity is the Elizabethan and Jacobean desire
to ll the stage with as many different kinds of incidents as possible and as
rapidly as possible: even the allegedly expurgated Tamburlaine contains
a clowning scene (.), and Tamburlaine is the clown. The clash between
these two fundamental impulses results in the tensions I have discussed
in this chapter: the tension between allegory and theatrical realism; between ostensible causes and actual causes; between conicting generic
signals; between investment and detachment on the part of the playwright, the play, the actors, the characters, the audience. These tensions
are augmented by those already fundamental to the Elizabethan and
Jacobean theatre, which I have discussed in Part : most generally, the
tension between the non-naturalistic physical space of the stage and the
extremely ambitious representational goals of the plays. The constant
activity of these tensions results in a buildup of energy which is in part
released by tragedys nal catastrophe, but also periodically and partially
over the course of any tragedy through its characters. We understand
these characters to be at the mercy of the developing action, but in order
to allow that action to develop, we must allow it to seem that they are
not; we must see them act as we would want them to act in order that
we can be terried, sad, disappointed, when they fail. Experiencing the
full effects of Elizabethan and Jacobean tragedy, the audience takes on
the role of Love and Fortune: we willfully forget how the play must end.

Laughter and narrative

in Elizabethan and Jacobean comedy

Characters in Elizabethan and Jacobean comedy are almost always what

we expect them to be. While the events of Elizabethan and Jacobean
comedy, the outcome of its scenes and plots, are frequently unpredictable,
the behavior of comic characters usually is not. Nominally unproblematic resolution is inevitable to the point that narrative is virtually free of
the demands of probability. No event is so consequential that its consequences cannot be undone; no loose end cannot be tied up. Acting as a
kind of foundation for this narrative freedom is the overt and widespread
reliance on stock, conventional, typical characters; the predictability of
their behavior provides an order and a system of rules that act as a kind
of balance to the disorderly, even lawless manner in which comic narratives develop. Whereas tragedy assimilates the problem of failure into its
narrative structures, comedy pushes it away: to fail in Elizabethan and
Jacobean comedy is to not get the joke, to be ostracized, to be outside
a world where anything is possible and where consequences are inconsequential. The tension that gives Elizabethan and Jacobean comedy
much of its vital energy is the tension that exists in the potential for the
audience to reject the implausible means by which comedy must move
toward its resolution and thus to be rejected from the world of comedy
itself. This kind of comedy, this kind of theatre, is terrically complicated, aggressively expedient, and frequently not altogether pleasant;
and I think it is most representative of the kind of theatre Elizabethan
and Jacobean theatre in general is.

, c.
I begin with Beaumont and Fletcher because I think they are more important for understanding Elizabethan and Jacobean comedy than anyone has yet given them credit for. Mysteriously, infuriatingly, Alexander

Laughter and narrative in Elizabethan and Jacobean comedy

Leggatts An Introduction to English Renaissance Comedy mentions these

playwrights exactly twice ( pp. , ); does not include one of their plays
in its survey of different periods, styles, and authors ( p. ) thus leaving a huge gap between Bartholomew Fair (chapter ) and The Lady of
Pleasure and A Jovial Crew (chapter ); and gives no explanation for the
omission. Beaumont and Fletcher have of course had a difcult time
critically in the twentieth century. Keith Sturgess notes that [e]ven now
a prevailing view maintains that [Fletcher] was a mere entertainer to a
bored, sensation-seeking audience. He goes on to discuss the dominance Fletcher held in the Jacobean and Caroline theatre, but also concludes that [s]eriousness . . . is a feature not generally associated with
Fletcher: the romance elements of his plays locate them often in a nevernever-land where the laws of probability are suspended ( Jacobean Private
Theatre, p. ).
The criterion of seriousness, which is of course closely associated with
the works of Shakespeare, is the perennial sticking point for Beaumont
and Fletcher criticism. Una Ellis-Fermor, while heaping praise on the
craftsmanship of the plays, manages to confer on them at the same time
the damning label of mere theatricality.
ever and again the characters fall into a striking, often an unexpected grouping;
the group dissolves and, as suddenly, another takes its place, pauses for the length
of a scene or half-scene and melts away again. A series of brilliant tableaux or
episodes remains; the interim, confusion and it may even be inconsequence.
There is no attempt at the presentation of a continuous growth of circumstance
or event like the inevitable growth of one of Shakespeares tragedies to its inevitable end, nor at the solid, articulated architecture of Ben Jonsons plots. At
its best it is more like the sequence of groupings in a ballet; even when the workmanship falters a little the splendid episodes emerge and impress themselves on
the memory.

This view, usually less positively phrased, has prevailed. We see it presented as an interpretation of the evolution (or devolution) of Elizabethan
and Jacobean drama in Madeline Dorans Endeavors of Art. In her chapter on tragicomedy ( pp. ) Doran repeatedly refers to the plays
of Beaumont and Fletcher as smooth, of great technical facility, but

Manchester: Manchester University Press.

One rather cynical explanation might be found in the books opening sentence: Though anyone
else is welcome to eavesdrop, this book is primarily for students. Students requiring an introduction to Renaissance comedy are perhaps less likely to notice the omission of the latter Jacobean
periods dominant playwrights, and to accept that the gentrication of comedy which they
effected ( p. ) was but a small step in the development of a genre largely developed by others.
The Jacobean Drama, pp. .
Jacobean Private Theatre, p. .

Theatrical Convention and Audience Response

somehow less interesting ( p. ) than earlier mixed-mode plays like

Antonio and Mellida, The Gentleman Usher, or Measure for Measure. Fletcherian
tragicomedy is both a puzzle and a game, where the completeness
of the reversal and the ingenuity with which it is brought about become
ends in themselves ( p. ). With this very last point, this chapter will
not take issue. What it will dispute is the pejorative twist given to terms
like smooth, puzzle, and game, especially as those terms are used
to convey a downward spiral in the quality and vitality of the drama as
it moved into the middle Jacobean period. That there was a change in
the character of the drama between and is unquestionable;
what I hope to show is that the kind of theatricality we see in Beaumont
and Fletcher epitomizes, and is often a startlingly perfect realization of
what comic playwrights as early as Lyly tried to achieve. I have chosen
to focus on The Captain because it usefully emphasizes the problems of
resolution and motivation I will discuss with respect to the other two
plays and Renaissance comedy in general. It does so in particular by
making problematic an issue at the heart of all comedy: laughter.
Like applause, laughter in the theatre is a physical response to what is
happening on the stage; and because laughter is at least partially involuntary, it is more powerful, more desirable evidence even than applause
of an audiences pleasure. What audiences tend most basically to laugh
at in comedy is the stubborn insistence of characters on acting predictably in unpredictable, constantly changing situations. Thus, while
tragedy develops by introducing types of situations that require characters to behave in a certain way, comedy tends more to introduce types
of characters that make certain types of situations imminent. Jacamo in
The Captain is a readily identiable, gruff miles gloriosus gure who has
no liking for women and who must be cajoled, taught, and humiliated
by his friends into realizing that he should. The action of the play takes
place in peacetime, and now that there are no wars, Jacamo says,
I have no vertue,
But downe right buffeting: what can my face
That is no better than a ragged Map now
Of where I have marcht and traveled prot me?

Lylys court audience has also been criticized for self-indulgence and boredom. In her essay, John
Lyly and the Language of Play (in Elizabethan Theatre [ New York: St. Martins, ]), Jocelyn
Powell argues that Lylys plays are games for the sense, and games for the mind ( pp. ), and
nds this to be an important part of their value and effects: Lyly . . . is a prime example of those
authors who have to be approached from without the pale of utilitarianism which bounds so much
literary criticism ( p. ). This useful assumption, while it will not be one that I argue explicitly,
informs my readings of plays in this chapter, and in fact throughout the book.

Laughter and narrative in Elizabethan and Jacobean comedy

Unless it be for Ladyes to abuse, and say

Twas spoild for want of a Bongrace when I was young,
And now twill make a true prognostication
( .. )
Of what man must be?

The story the play prepares us for is one where the soldier will learn to
trade the sword for the bed. The question is not whether this will happen,
but when, and our endurance of the episodic narrative in which Jacamo
is mocked and humiliated depends on our awareness of this. While the
episodes of this plot and its subplots proceed in a jerky, often implausible
fashion, they do so with the implicit assurance that each character will
ultimately fall neatly into the role sympathetic, unsympathetic, humiliated, redeemed which we recognize he or she is bound for from the
Scenes involving Jacamo tend to insist on making the audience selfconscious about laughter. The rst time he meets Frank, his entrance
is preceded by a great deal of laughter from the amusing but not very
likable Clora.
Ha, ha, ha, pray let me laugh extreamly.
Why? prethee why? hast thou such cause?
Yes faith, my brother wil be here straightway,

The other party: ha, ha, ha.
What party? Wench thou art not drunke?

No, faith.
Faith thou hast been among the bottles Clora.
Faith but I have not, Franke: Prethee be handsom,
The Captaine comes along too, wench.
( .. )

Cloras mockery works Jacamo into anger over the course of the scene,
and he ends up leaving in this way:
Well; I shall live to see your husbands beate you,
And hisse em on like ban-dogs.

Ha, ha, ha.
Green sicknesses and serving-men light on ye
With greasy Codpieces, and woollen stockings,
The Devill (if he dare deal with two women)
Be of your counsels: Farewell Plaisterers Exit Jacamo.
( lines )

In ., when Fabritio takes Jacamos sword, his laughter begins to sound

like his sisters:

Theatrical Convention and Audience Response

O God, for any thing that had an edge?
Ha, ha, ha.

Fye, what a shame it is,
To have a lubber shew his teeth?
Ha, ha.
Why dost thou laugh at me, thou wretched fellow?

I shall dye with laughing.

( lines )

Again, the result of this taunting is an explosion on Jacomos part, though

because Fabritio is his friend this outburst is tinged with sadness:
Faith this is somewhat
Too much Fabritio, to your friend that loves you;
Me thinkes your goodness, rather should invent
A way to make my follies lesse, than breed em;
I should have been more moderate to you,
But I see ye despise me.
( lines )

And in ., the drunk scene, Jacamos kissing of Frederick precipitates

many more ha ha has.
Pray be not coy sweet woman, for Ile kiss ye;
I am blunt but you must pardon me.
O God, my sides.
Ha, ha, ha, ha.

Why ha, ha, ha? why laugh?
Why all this noyse sweet Ladyes?

Where were thine eyes
To take me for a woman, ha, ha, ha.
( lines )

Only a few lines later, Jacamo has a violent outburst, and the scene takes
an unexpected (though only momentary) tragic turn of which more in
a moment.
The writing out of ha ha ha is a relatively rare occurrence in
Renaissance drama, and seems generally to be reserved for extraordinary situations that emphasize the inappropriateness of laughter: think
of Titus Andronicuss laugh after he has been delivered the heads of
his two sons. While laughter must certainly occur frequently on-stage in
comedy, comedys assumption must be that the most important kind of
laughter will originate in the audience; such laughter bridges the distance
between the stage and the audience, shows the audience to be happily
complicit with whatever is going on on-stage. But the ha ha ha of

Laughter and narrative in Elizabethan and Jacobean comedy

The Captain, laughter that pointedly originates on the stage, demands

rather than allows complicity, and is always juxtaposed to an outburst
by Jacamo, such as to suggest that at a certain point we are meant to
stop laughing. At that point the physical space of the stage a site for
laughter becomes more obviously an interpretive space a site for seeing something real and deeper in the characters and their relationships.
It seems to me that audiences of comedies most trust their reactions to
things they know they are not meant to laugh at, because moving beyond
the genres default response involves being aware of its potential cruelty,
seeming to see more deeply into the meaning of the events on stage.
In The Captain we come to trust our responses around Jacamo because,
while he is from the outset a gure of fun, he is constantly put in positions
where he is the focus of laughter, and where laughter itself becomes a dramatic focus, and something that seems tedious and difcult to respond to.
Yet, paradoxically, the response Jacamo ultimately leads us toward is one
of laughter and forgetting: no matter how passionate his outbursts his
friends stop humiliating him when and only when he changes his ways.
This is why it is essential that Jacamo delivers the nal reactions to the
events of the play, and that his plot, though only about one third of the
action, gives the play its name. We are encouraged to react to the rest of
the play in a way analogous to our reactions to Jacamo, and from him
we learn that it is just as important to forget about things once they have
happened as it is to react to them while they are happening.
Thus the audience must be humiliated as well, and this happens in the
plays crucial scene of humiliation, the drunk scene of .. In . Piso
talks to a tavern host about making Jacamo particularly drunk, for he
thinks theres no man can give him drink enough ( lines ). In .
Jacamo does get monstrous drunk. His entrance to Clora, Frank, and
Frederick is preceded by Clora mocking Frank for her love, and then this
Heers Raw-head come againe; Lord how he lookes?
Pray God we scape with broken pates.

Were I hee,
Thou shouldst not want thy wish, he has been drinking
Has he not Fredrick?

Yes but do not nde it.
( lines )

Cloras shrill and incessant mockery makes it impossible to forget that

what we are about to see is supposed to be funny. Jacamo does not

Theatrical Convention and Audience Response

disappoint, stumbling in and, after kissing Frank and Clora, moving on

to kiss Frederick, whom he takes in his drunkenness to be a woman.
The audiences laughter is nuanced by Franks sympathy for the captain,
so that it stands in opposition to, or on a different register from, Cloras
laughter. It is Frank we are laughing with through the next exchange, and
it is an affectionate laughter, as though Jacamos inevitable conversion
had already occurred.
[to Fredrick] Sweete Lady now to you.

For loves sake kisse him.
I shall not keep my countenance.

Trye, prethee.
Pray be not coy sweet woman, for Ile kisse ye;
I am blunt but you must pardon me.
[Kisses him.]
O God my sides.
Ha, ha, ha, ha.
( lines )

Jacamo, however, grows angry at Frederick and the laughter; Frank

attempts to calm him; Jacamo thrusts her aside (I despise thee
woman, / And Fredrick shall be beaten) and attacks Frederick, who seems
to fall dead.
As with all scenes in which a character seems to be dead but is not, the
most pressing question is whether the audience is supposed to know that
the character is alive. And as with most such scenes it seems to me that
the text here suggests that the audience is not. Everyone else on stage
believes Frederick to be dead. Clora might be thought to exaggerate
deliberately, but Frank has no reason to lie, and she is probably holding
Fredericks body as she says,
O my unhappy Brother, Fredrick,
Looke but upon me, do not part so from me;
Set him a little higher, he is dead.

( lines )

Fabritios entrance, and his extremely sharp speech with Jacamo when
the latter seems to entreat for help, makes the reality of Fredericks death
still more convincing.
Never entreat me, for I will not know thee,
Nor utter one word for thee, unlesse it be
To have thee hangd; for God sake bee more temperate.

( lines )

The two characters who are most sympathetic to Jacamo are just as
stunned and furious as Clora. Jacamo is taken off by servants and we

Laughter and narrative in Elizabethan and Jacobean comedy

now seem to be in a very different kind of play the kind of play where
characters have the potential to behave in a way we cannot predict or
fully understand, and where actions have irrevocable consequences; a
tragedy. Then, of course, Frederick springs up literally the moment
after Jacamo has gone.
Nere wonder, I am living yet, and well,
I thanke you sister for your grief, pray keepe it
Till I am tter for it.
( lines )

Though Frank is obviously shaken the conversation quickly turns to how

funny it will be to see how much of this Jacamo will remember in the
morning. Clora returns to mocking the captains manner and Frank to
defending him. We are back in the world of comedy.
One might argue that the extremely swift transition from apparent
tragedy to simple comedy at this point would necessitate a less serious
death scene than I have argued for that one would have to be aware
of Fredericks trick as he played it in order genuinely to believe in its
efcacy. That is, the audience might have a point of view privileged
above even Clora and Frank and Fabritio: Fredericks trick would seem
plausible because the audience was not fooled by it. This is certainly at
least partly true audiences might very well feel cheated if they are
fooled by so ostentatious a stage trick. But Fletcher and Beaumont seem
to be aiming, here as elsewhere, for the positive potential of such cheats:
namely, that the truly comic effect of Fredericks trick will be enhanced
by its contrast to the sudden, quite apparently somber turn of events.
The moment Frederick rises, essentially, from the dead, the audience,
having taken that death seriously, is reminded of the kind of comedy it
is watching: the kind of comedy where emotions and words and even
actions matter only for the space of time in which they occur; and the
kind of comedy whose exhilarating effect depends on the cumulative
force of such discrete spaces of time, moving us between the extremes of
our capacity to respond.
In this way the audience, like Jacamo, is mocked: mocked for failing
to keep up (this is exactly the kind of stunt Frederick would pull), and for
failing to remember that character in this kind of comedy cannot change
nearly as rapidly as events ( Jacamo could never kill an innocent man).
In order to move on as the play wishes us to, we have to adopt the good
humor Jacamo commits to after this episode the willingness to forget
which we see most clearly in him in the nal scene when, covered in the
contents of a piss-pot, he calms his rage at those who have once again
gulled him and promises to love and be good to Frank. The trick for this

Theatrical Convention and Audience Response

kind of comedy is to make a virtue of humiliation of a character or of

the audience and The Captain bolsters its success in this project with
Jacamo by means of a parallel, but less difcult to respond to situation
in the subplot the episodes involving Lelia.
There is nothing good about Lelia, a notoriously wanton widow as
we learn in the rst scene of the play when the foolish gallants Lodowick
and Piso mistake her virtuous Father for her bawd. Lelias badness is
further driven home in . when she kicks her Father out of her house
after he tells her to reform her life. I fear thy end / Will be a strange
example the Father says as he leaves (lines ), and we know it at
that moment to be inevitable. This inevitability is in part signaled by
Lelias unrepentant claim that my desires and ends /Are all the kindred
I have, all the friends (.. ), but more strongly by the abruptness
of the plot device her Father gets involved in. In ., the Father stumbles
upon Jacamo and Fabritio and, for reasons that are difcult to discern,
pretends to be an old soldier. The story of wars which he tells prompts
Jacamo to love him and to take him to buy new clothing. In this new
attire the Father is, of course, unrecognizable to those who know him,
and uses his disguise to get revenge on Piso and Lodowick and also his
daughter. The disguise is largely a matter of convenience, and it comes
about in language vague enough to suggest motivation without actually
needing to supply it.
They [ Jacamo and Fabritio] are strangers both
To me, as I to them I hope: I would not have
Me and my shame together known by any,
Ile rather lye my selfe unto another.
( .. )

By means of this expedience he is able both to pretend to be the bawd

that Piso and Lodowick took him for in ., and to be seen as a rich sexual
target by his own daughter. The moment of near-incest that this precipitates is central to the play. The events leading up to it are episodic and
somewhat arbitrary. In . Julio makes a suit to Lelia, and his intentions
seem primarily sexual: when she, after initially rejecting him, suggests
that they get married, he leaves. We see Julio again in ., lled with
self-loathing about his lust for a wanton woman, talking with Angelo
and convincing himself that he must go back to see her again in order
to afrm his hatred. In . the friends go to Lelia, and Julio is almost
conquered again by his lust. Angelo persuades him that shes a witch
(line ) and must be forsaken, but only because he has fallen in love

Laughter and narrative in Elizabethan and Jacobean comedy

with her himself. This gives him a reason to come back in ., where
he bribes a maid to let him stand somewhere unseen in Lelias chamber,
and then is witness to Lelia trying to seduce her disguised Father.
The complications of the plot are to a great extent merely complications,
and Fletcher does not seem concerned to present them as anything more.
The scenes with Julio and Lelia are self-consciously tortuous, and each
time build to a point where Lelia is left in the worst position possible. Her
power to make men simultaneously crave and loathe sex is her dening
quality. At the same time, Julio and Angelo, much like Frederick and
Fabritio in the Jacamo plot, are not exactly exemplary in their behavior.
Julios lines at the beginning of . bespeak a certain fatuousness:
I will but see her once more Angilo
That I may hate her more, and then I am
My self again.

And Angelos protestations that his friend should not tempt lust ring
hollow as soon as he himself sees Lelias face. Because most of the tension and suspense is generated simply by the various reversals of all
lovers involved, and because . and . end so abruptly as to make
Lelias disappointment slightly funny and the mens ckleness somewhat
infuriating, we cannot be certain whether the point of this subplot is to
make Lelia a parallel to Jacamo that is, capable of a conversion or his
antithesis. The scene where this becomes clear, where the tensions underlying our perception of Lelia and her men and our experience of comic
complexity without a clear direction is . a scene that is an obvious
structural parallel to the drunk scene that comes immediately before it.
As Frederick in . pretends to be dead long enough to make Jacamo feel
that what he has done is irrevocable and thus forsake his drunken ways,
so in ., Lelias Father gives Lelia every possible opportunity to reveal
the ugliness of her schemes and then to prove the audiences ambivalent
response to Julio and Angelo well-founded; that is, to prove that she has,
somehow, been virtuous all along. But Lelia, once caught, attempts to
recover not, as we expect, by saying that she did not recognize her father,
or that she did and was only testing his virtue, but rather by saying that
she knew him all along, and that she had been moved to lust for him
because of his innitely patient bearing of her abuse earlier in the play
when he had tried to correct her wanton ways. Lelia proceeds to justify
her lust in a quite bizarre way.
You are deceivd Sir, tis not against nature
For us to lye together; if you have

Theatrical Convention and Audience Response

An arrow of the same tree with your bow,
Ist more unnaturall to shoot it there
Then in another? Tis our general nature
To procreate, as res is to consume,
And it will trouble you to nd a sticke
The re will turne from. If t be natures will
We should not mixe, she will discover to us
Some most apparant crossness, as our organs
Will not be t; which, if we do perceive,
Weel leave, and thinke it is her pleasure
That we should deale with others.

( lines )

Instead of becoming the wanton character who creates and capitalizes

on comic reversals, Lelia proves herself merely to be the character we
have been told she is the wanton character who is merely, thoroughly
wanton. While the humiliation of Jacamo gives the audience a sense of
seeing through one layer the miles gloriosus exterior in order to see
another we always knew to be there the gruff but tamable gentleman
the humiliation of Lelia reveals that there are no layers: she is as depraved
as the play and its characters have implied throughout.
The implausibility of the Fathers disguise and of Angelo and Julios
reversals of affection has resulted in a scene where Lelia acts in an utterly implausible way which nevertheless must immediately be seen as
fundamental to her identity. As it does when we forget that Frederick
is a prankster, the play here chastises us for attempting to forget, based
on an idea of comic action and reversals, that Lelia is wanton. While
an actor might make an audience feel sorry for Lelia, the play refuses
to, and anyone who pauses to consider how circumstance might have
forced Lelia into this position is left behind by the action: the interpretive
space opened up by Lelias speech is severely limited by the lling of the
physical space with activity. The Father draws his sword. Angelo discovers himself. The Father, and probably the audience as well, assumes
that Angelo is there to rescue Lelia, and the two men ght. But even the
avenue of sympathy opened up by Angelos discovery is closed off when
both men turn on Lelia, berating her for her lust and dragging her off
in order to force repentance upon her. The uniting of the Father and
Angelo, and thus the convergence of two subplots, gives to the scene a
feeling of narrative coherence and drive. This drive will ultimately help
it make sense though not necessarily any less uncomfortable that the
Father simply uses Lelia as a pawn in his game of revenge against Piso

Laughter and narrative in Elizabethan and Jacobean comedy

and Lodowick: he promises Lodowick the hand in marriage of a woman

who looks exactly like Lelia; he then tricks Lodowick out of this marriage
and gives the woman to Piso. This enrages Lodowick, until the woman
is revealed to be Lelia herself and Piso is shamed for marrying a reputed
This series of events is the darker side of the process by which Jacamo
is redeemed through Fredericks faked death. The ease with which the
specter of incest facilitates a denouement undercuts the seriousness of
that specter itself. We are certainly not meant to think much about .
by the time we see Lelia, married, in .. Her equivocal penultimate
lines, I have a heart / As pure as any womans and I meane / To keep it
so for ever (.. ) demonstrate that, like Jacamo, she has not been
changed, only contained. To whatever extent her potentially sardonic,
still-wanton tone might empower her at this point, it also is another
way in which she proves herself to be wanton. Jacamo, however, has
beneted in that he has become like Fabritio and Frederick in his attitude
toward events and consequences he will no longer act in a way that
precipitates moments of strained laughter. In the nal scene, when Piso
and Lodowick quickly become bitter enemies over the Lelia matter, Julio
asks, Shall we not make Piso, and Lodwick friends? and Jacamo says,
Hang em they dare not be Enemies, or if they be, / The danger is not
greate (.. ). The very next moment, Frederick enters with the
lines, First joy unto you all; and next I think / We shall have warres
(lines ). To this Jacamo says, Give me some wine, Ile drink to
that (line ). Jacamo is, perhaps, a likable enough character that his
function of persuading the audience once and for all to the point of
view that there is no action, once done, that cannot be undone will
balance out the way in which the play beats the point of view into
the audience just as Angelo and the Father have tried to beat it into
It is as though the very terribleness of ., like the potential terribleness
of Fredericks death, requires that one trivialize it: it is a moment of
such depravity, real and imagined, on the part of all characters, that it
cannot but be followed by a pat reconciliation, or else it could move our
experience outside the realm of comedy. Comedy triumphs by forcing
us, through consistency of character and absurdity of action, to push a
concern with depravity and seriousness outside ourselves. The fact that
. provides some narrative justication for that pat reconciliation that
is, it brings characters from different levels of the play together in the way
typical of logically determined action helps keep the comedy plausible

Theatrical Convention and Audience Response

in the way that Elizabethan and Jacobean comedies are: that is, just
plausible enough.

, c .
As logical inexorability is a generic marker of tragic action, so is sudden
implausibility of comic action. The energy created by the excitement and
possibly frustration of an audience as a series of events turns in an entirely
different direction is frequently channeled into elaborate scenes of comic
humiliation: the difculty of scenes like the incest scene or the drunk scene
is given release by scenes like the piss-pot scene in The Captain scenes
where the stage is lled with activity and the characters most subject to the
vicissitudes of implausible action learn to take them in stride. Whereas the
ostensibly tightly regulated action on the tragic stage gives rise, through
eruptions in it, to complexly reverberating interpretive possibilities, the
frenetic nature of comic action serves to open up and then deny the
possibility of complex interpretation. Tragedies end with hollow notes
of resolution sounded over a pile of dead bodies; comedies bring all of
their characters onto the stage at the end, alive and smiling. It is the still
submerged energy of the possibility of dissonance in comedy that gives
those smiles a vehemence that is as ephemeral as it is triumphant.
Because their effects are so intricately bound up with bringing an
audience around to an impossible point of view, comedies, as we have
seen in The Captain and will now in the anonymous How a Man May
Choose a Good Wife from a Bad, tend to be built on narratives of conversion.
In How a Man May Choose, Young Master Arthur, who from the beginning

There has been no edition of this play since , in which year were published both a modern
edition (ed. A. E. H. Swaen [ London: David Nutt]) and a Tudor Facsimile text. All citations in this
essay are from Swaens text, which is an old-spelling reprint of Q and is not divided into acts
and scenes. There has not been, as far as I can tell, any critical work done on the play at all since
Swaen. Thomas Heywood and How a Man May Choose a Good Wife from a Bad, by J. Q. Adams
appeared in Englische Studien, ( pp. ). This article argues for Heywoods authorship based
on stylistic similarities between his known works and this play. Three years before this, C. R.
Baskervill published Sources and Analogues of How a Man May Choose a Good Wife from a Bad
in PMLA ( pp. ), which traces the plays possible inuence on subsequent plays such as
The Fair Maid of Bristow and Blurt, Master-Constable. Other than these articles, an undergraduate
thesis from the University of Oregon, written in , is the only work I could nd on the play.
This thesis, written by Norman Anderson, is part of a collection of theses titled Studies in the
Elizabethan Domestic Tragedies, . Other essays in this collection discuss Elizabethan
domestic tragedy: Arden of Feversham, Warning for Fair Women, and A Woman Killed with Kindness.
It is attributed on the Q title page to Ioshua Cooke, who has been equated with John Cooke,
author of Greenes Tu Quoque. This attribution is generally questioned, and the most popular
conjecture is that the author was Heywood.

Laughter and narrative in Elizabethan and Jacobean comedy

hates and mistreats his virtuous and faithful wife, learns to love her and
to be a good husband. Still more than The Captain the earlier play is full
of problems of motivation and, in typical Elizabethan fashion, the play
draws attention to the fact almost immediately.
But on what reason ground you this hate?
My reason is my mind, my ground my wil;
I will not loue her: If you ask me why,
I cannot loue her, let that answere you.

( lines )

Self-consciousness allows the playwright and audience a way out of a

difculty necessitated by the plot. One might argue, of course, that since
this is the beginning of the play, no such difculty has yet been created: it
would not be much of a stretch for the playwright to supply Arthur with
two or three lines of concrete motivation. The effect of his not doing so is
generically important: it signals to the audience that this is a comedy in
which motivation should not be of very much concern, that the audience
must be prepared to take certain things as they are simply because they
are that way, and that this must be so because the point of the comedy is
the complexity of the situation, not its beginnings.
What little modern criticism there is of this play is much concerned
with the problem of motivation. Swaen nds it to be a weak point . . . that
Arthurs behaviour towards his wife is altogether unmotivated (How a
Man May Choose, p. xlii), and Norman Anderson says that Arthurs coolness and lack of emotion renders his lack of motivation not convincing

A good example of a similarly self-conscious moment can be found in Mundays The Death of
Robert, Earl of Huntingdon, a play that, like its rst part, The Downfall of Robert, Earl of Huntingdon,
is often all too willing to acknowledge the articiality of theatre. Early on in Death, the villains
Doncaster and the Prior have this discussion:
. . . But tell mee Prior,
Wherefore so deadly dost thou hate thy cosin?
Shall I be plaine? Because if he were deade,
I should be made the Earle of Huntington.
A prettie cause: but thou a churchman art.
Tut man, if that would fall,
Ile haue a dispensation, and turne temporall.
But tell mee Doncaster, why dost thou hate him?
By the Masse, I cannot tel. O yes, now I hat.
( B-Bv, lines )

It seems not unlikely that at line Doncaster, like Skelton / Friar Tuck elsewhere, breaks out
of character and then remembers he is supposed to be giving the audience vital information; the
twenty or so lines of carefully crafted invective that follow then make the forgetting look rather
silly. This kind of play with the audiences need for, and the simultaneous superuity of, real
motivation occurs constantly in Elizabethan and Jacobean drama.

Theatrical Convention and Audience Response

(Studies in the Elizabethan Domestic Tragedies, p. ). Elizabethan

and Jacobean audiences, however, were expected to be acutely aware of
problems of motivation: Hamlets speech about the player king, and such
theatrical and metatheatrical tricks as we see at the beginning of How a
Man May Choose, the end of The Captain, and elsewhere provide ample
evidence of this. What seems most to provide balance to the potential
problems an audience will have with the lack of motivation is the elaborate system of miniature narratives, parallels, and symmetries that the
central narrative, once it has been set in motion, allows to be created.
It is crucial that these miniature narratives, parallels, and symmetries
be well executed and obviously comic because, as with many central
moments in The Captain, the main plot of How a Man May Choose is not
actually very funny and involves two characters who are either unlikable
or implausible.
Arthur is almost impossibly insensitive and his wife is hardly more
compelling in her reasons for loving her husband than he is in his for
hating her. For example:
Wil you diuorce whom God hath tied together?
Or breake that knot the sacred hand of heauen
Made fast betwixt vs? Haue you neuer read,
What a great curse was laid vpon his head
That breakes the holy band of mariage,
Diuorsing husbands from their chosen wiues?
Father, I will not leave my Arther so;
Not all my friends can make me proue his foe.
( lines )

As the play progresses, Mistress Arthurs justications get more strained:

she responds to Anselms story about Arthur frequenting a bawdy house
by saying that he doth it but in zeale to bring the house / By his good
counsell from that course of sinne (lines ,). Finding out that
Arthur is already married to Mistress Mary, she says, Pray God, she may

In the nal scene, Julio enters married to Clora quite a surprise, considering the Lelia situation.
Angelo has this to say:
If a marriage should be thus slubberd up in a play, ere almost
any body had taken notice you were in love, the Spectators
( lines )
would take it to be but ridiculous.

The implausibility of Mistress Arthur would be partly balanced by her resonance with a familiar,
conventional character of the drama: the long-suffering and infuriatingly optimistic wife we see
in (anon.) A Warning for Fair Women, the Queen who forgives both her husband and Jane Shore in
. of Heywoods Edward IV, or the innitely patient Grissil in Dekker, Haughton, and Chettles
Patient Grissil.

Laughter and narrative in Elizabethan and Jacobean comedy

content him better farre / Then I haue done ( lines ,). Anselms
cry at line ,, Was euer woman guld so palpably! is in danger of
becoming a very real and too-pressing concern for an audience that
should want to see Mistress Arthur as someone actually worthy of the
love she is not receiving.
Much of the energy for caring, for seeing that the play is a comedy that
should end like comedies do, comes from the fact that the play is overtly,
insistently balanced. Most characters come in pairs: Old Arthur and Old
Lusam are always together, as are Anselm and Fuller, and Mistress Mary
and Mistress Splay. Young Arthur and Young Lusam are usually together.
Mistress Arthur and her servant Pipkin are mirrored by Mistress Mary
and her servant Brabo as well as Justice Reason and his servant Hugh.
Two women, Mistress Mary and Mistress Arthur, attract different kinds
of love from the different men in the play. Both Arthur and Aminadab
love Mistress Mary. For the most part, each character is given a specic,
immediately notable, permanent trait which is brought out either in the
character him- or herself, or in relation to his or her counterpart. Young
Arthur is hot-headed and impulsive, and provides a foil for Young Lusam,
who constantly tries to make his friend see reason. Old Lusam is a yesman, agreeing with literally anything anyone says ever, even when, as in
his conversations with Old Arthur, others openly contradict themselves
in order to mock him. Mistress Arthur is, of course, long-suffering, and
her servant Pipkin is loyal, meek, and sweet. Mistress Mary is a ferocious
bawd, and her servant Brabo is an ill-tempered, brawling henchman.
Anselm is a self-involved, incompetent lover; Fuller is world-weary and
experienced, and attempts to coach his friend in the ways of love largely
by telling lengthy, bawdy, rhymed jests. Justice Reason is a phenomenal
dolt, entirely lacking, of course, in reason. Aminadab is a typically highstrung pedant, full of Latin and melancholy.
This is a drama of types, the appeal of which is certainly similar to
the morality drama or the drama of humors: one is meant to enjoy
the sharply individualized characters and their more or less predictable
actions. The most spectacular and rewarding results of such drama come
about when as many of the different types as possible are put on stage at
the same time when, as we have seen in The Captain, the stage can be

I should also note briey here the fact that Young Lusam is not the son of Old Lusam or the
sister of Mistress Arthur. The playwright probably intended there to be a familial connection,
and when this became inconvenient or he forgot about it, kept the name because it had some
of the symmetry the two fatherson pairs would have. As well, it seems not unlikely, and not
particularly problematic in terms of the plot, that audiences did and would see Young Lusam as
Old Lusams son regardless.

Theatrical Convention and Audience Response

lled with comic activity to give the action a sense of purpose and drive;
and playwrights will understandably go out of their way to make this
happen even when, as in the banquet scene of How a Man May Choose (lines
,,), the plot does not require it. In this scene Mistress Mary
has been invited to dinner at Arthurs house on the night when Arthur
plans to poison his wife with a potion (actually just a sleeping potion)
he got from Aminadab. (Aminadab got it from Anselm and Fuller who,
for a joke, gave it to him after overhearing him talk of suicide.) All the
characters in the play except Splay and Brabo are present. The banquet
is, of course, not necessary to Arthurs poison plot. In fact, it makes
it somewhat more ridiculous, since the fear of getting caught should
but never does enter his mind, and this is probably part of the point. But
the playwright does not seem interested in the poison nearly so much
as in everything that comes before it. Most of the characters are given a
brilliantly theatrical moment or two to show off. Mistress Arthur is more
sympathetic and poignantly funny than at any other time in the play:
. . . . Mayd, take this Apron,
And bring me one of Linnen: quickly, Mayd.
I goe, forsooth.
(Exit Mayd )
. There was a curtsie, let me seet again;
I, that was well. I fear my guests will come
Ere we be ready.
( lines ,)

Pipkin and Hugh are given fteen or so lines to themselves, to give some
impression of their closeness:
M. Hue as welcome as heart can tell, or tongue can think
I thank you, M. Pipkin, I have got many a good
dish of broth by your meanes.
( lines ,)

Aminadab gives a verbose and unintentionally bawdy blessing ( lines

,,) and then quizzes Pipkin on his Latin. And the main event

A common way of thinking about typical drama is that it reected the practice of type-casting,
a detailed argument for which was perhaps most inuentially made by T. W. Baldwin in The
Organization and Personnel of the Shakespearean Company (Princeton: Princeton University Press, ).
Chapters and of Bevingtons From Mankind to Marlowe do a good job of refuting this view,
stressing instead the versatility of actors (see esp. pp. ) and noting that the assumption of
type-casting remains unproved even in the s and s when the heavy doubling characteristic of Elizabethan drama was out of fashion. Gurrs discussion of the repertory system in The
Shakespearean Stage ( pp. ) takes a moderate view: Consistent type-casting of the major roles
is the easiest way to cope with the demands of any repertory system, but it could not have been
an invariable practice ( p. ). A vital tension, parallel to the tension I am discussing between
the continuity of stock characters and the discontinuity of comic action, might be created by this
drama absolutely bound to typical characters but performed by actors who were for the most
part bound to none of the types.

Laughter and narrative in Elizabethan and Jacobean comedy

of the banquet is Fullers long, rhyming dirty joke about a Puritan

woman, the capper for which is the fact that Old Arthur and Old Lusam
miss the punchline entirely and then laugh hysterically when it is explained to them, and Justice Reason either does not get it or does not
like it but must, for fashions sake / Say as they say (lines ,).
After this lengthy preamble, the poisoning scene is the anticlimax it
cannot choose but be. Arthur makes a toast, promising reconciliation
with his wife, she says something unintentionally ironic (Were this wine
poyson . . . / The honey sweet condition of your draught, / Would make
it drinke like Nectar, [ lines , ]), and the guests almost immediately leave. Mistress Arthur does not seem to sicken on-stage, and she
dies off-stage, her death announced by Pipkin.
Pipkins reaction is intense (O Hue, o Mistris, o Mistris, o Hue!),
and I think we are meant to feel that he feels her death very deeply. At
the same time, unlike with the faked death in The Captain, there can be
little tension in the moment for the audience. We have known that this
was going to happen, and, while this would normally heighten rather
than diminish suspense, we also know that the poison is not poison.
We are already looking ahead to the moment where Pipkins sorrow
will turn to disbelieving joy. This is a less fraught version of the aftermath of Fredericks death in The Captain. The various pieces of the
plot have fallen into place just as the various comic possibilities of each
characters behavior had earlier fallen into place around the dinner table and the punchline to Fullers joke. The difference is that Fullers
joke, like Fredericks resurrection, is more unexpected and more theatrically satisfying. What the plot would have us focus on in the poisoning
scene is the petty irony of Arthurs toast and his wifes response, and the
fact that Arthur is only further setting himself up for a fall. But this is
rather limited fare compared to the colorful interaction of the others before and during the banquet. Those are moments of comic excitement,
where inconsequential matters are falling into place in the most elegant
way; the poisoning is articial and necessary, a demand of the narrative
which has little value as a plot action since we know it is soon to be
I do not want to seem to suggest that narrative is unpleasant quite
the contrary. Rather, the strange relationship between narrative and

Surprisingly, we never do see this. Pipkin does not seem to appear on stage in the nal scene
perhaps because he is needed to play the part of one of the ofcers who brings Arthur in to the
trial. His absence in any case is another example of something his sorrow being a matter
purely of the moment in which it occurs rather than a narrative necessity.

Theatrical Convention and Audience Response

audience as it develops in How a Man May Choose illuminates, I think,

the way in which narrative is in Elizabethan and Jacobean comedy often merely a convenient foundation on which to build more enigmatic
structures. Fredericks death in The Captain is similar in its arbitrary
placement to Mistress Arthurs in How a Man May Choose. The difference
between the two is in where the dramatic irony lies, but the effects are
largely similar. In both plays ones focus is thrown backward and forward
onto individual episodes that advance the narrative simply by occurring
and being completed. One might argue that I am simply valorizing
sloppy dramatic construction, and this might be true by some standards,
but such sloppiness seems to be the rule more than the exception in
Renaissance drama, and it is emphasized or exploited by dramatists of
considerable skill for the sake of creating a theatrical experience that
audiences perceive to be valuably, pleasurably complex.
Consider, for example, the plays title, How a Man May Choose a Good
Wife from a Bad, and the narrative expectations it generates. It suggests
that the play involves a situation in which the difference between a good
wife and a bad is in some doubt. This is the impression the play seems
to assume one has had by the time one hears Arthurs nal speech,
which begins, he that will chuse / A good wife from a bad, come learne
of me (lines ,). But the only person, on-stage or off, for whom
the difference ever even might be unclear is Arthur himself. The play
actually assumes that the qualities of a good wife are self-evident to the
audience. The audiences pleasure is bound up in watching what Arthur
must go through to see what the audience already knows. This is similar
to accepting the need for Jacamos repeated humiliations because we
know he will ultimately see how he has deserved them. What is most
pleasurable about this process in How a Man May Choose is the variety
of characterization it allows, the way it provides a structure for comic
activity. The latent energy of an apparently unresolvable conict (Arthur
simply cannot, even by the end, reconcile with his wife without it seeming
or potentially seeming contrived) is funneled off into subplots involving
a colorful array of characters, each of whom works somewhat at crosspurposes to others with respect to a common or similar problem. Here,
Aminadab acts as a kind of pivotal gure, unintentionally instrumental
in providing the means for Mistress Arthurs death and, in doing so,
becoming a parody of the various kinds of obsessive love in the play. For
those who do not pick up on the parallel, Fuller makes it quite explicit to
Anselm as they overhear the pedant threatening suicide: That mishapt

Laughter and narrative in Elizabethan and Jacobean comedy

loue thou wouldst condemne in him, / I see in thee (lines ,).

This makes still more active the potential for us to see Aminadab as a
grotesque parody of Mistress Arthur herself, and also of Arthur (with
respect to Mistress Mary). The result is a feeling of complexity and
convergence, where the plot advanced at this point with the sale of the
poison gives the various levels of parody purpose and direction; this
is similar to the way in which the actual poisoning will later provide an
occasion for everyone to gather round and listen to Fullers dirty joke.
What happens in How a Man May Choose perhaps sheds some light on why
the action of The Captain is almost equally divided among three discrete
but intertwined plots: no single plot could alone achieve the sense of
purpose it is given by its relationship to the other two.
The nal trial scene in How a Man May Choose, like the banquet
scene, works toward two different kinds of punchline one that is theatrically effective and somewhat unpredictable (the return of Mistress
Arthur) and one that is anticlimactic but essential in terms of the narrative (the reunion of Mistress Arthur and her husband). In this scene
we see all the characters again; we know there will have to be a reconciliation, but again most of the playwrights energy is focused on
bringing together the ensemble cast around the revelation of the various plot twists. Old Lusam demands the death of Young Arthur, which
leads to a quarrel with Old Arthur, who calls Old Lusam a dotard,
only to have Old Lusam completely agree with him. Mistress Mary,
Mistress Splay, Brabo, and ofcers bring Arthur in, and he counters
accusations of murder by telling Justice Reason that Aminadab gave
him the poison. Aminadab is brought in, and reveals Fuller as his supplier. All three are on the verge of being tried for the same murder
when Mistress Arthur enters at last. As always with comedy the surprise of the scene revolves not around a question of interpretation (will
Mistress Arthur come?), but of appropriate action (when will Mistress
Arthur come?). When Mistress Arthur enters, the confusion exhibited
by Mary and Splay (How can it be the poyson tooke no force? / She liues with that which wold have kild a horse!, [ lines ,]) completes
the structural echo of this scene with the jest-scene at the banquet.
Like Justice Reason, Mistress Splay most obviously remains outside
of what the audience more fully understands, and gives the cue so
that the full comic effect of convergence can be felt. This convergence, based on the logically predictable behavior of the ensemble
characters, makes the necessarily strained reunion of Arthur and his wife

Theatrical Convention and Audience Response

seem less articial, or at least plausibly articial in the way that comic
reunions are.
Arthur now delivers the moral of the play.
My rst wife, stand you here: my second there,
And in the midst my selfe; he that will chuse
A good wife from a bad, come learne of me,
That haue tried both, in wealth and misery.
A good wife will be carefull of her fame,
Her husbands credit, and her own good name;
And such art thou. A bad wife will respect
Her pride, her lust, and her good name neglect;
And such art thou.
( lines ,)

This goes on for several more lines. Of course, the moral is somewhat
nonsensical. Arthur only knows the difference between good wives and
bad after marrying one of each; the issue of choosing would seem to have
more to do with desiring to marry. But the audience expects to hear
a moral, or a summing-up and, above all, to hear Arthur give voice
to what has been clear all along: that his wife is good. Arthurs moral
gives the audience a way to think of Arthurs hateful myopia as an educative process. The nal scene makes it sound as though the plays
project has been to make us compare Mistress Arthur and Mistress
Mary, not Mistress Arthur and her husband. The on-stage presence
of Mary, Brabo, and Splay, lamenting just about forty lines before that
neither Arthur nor his wife is dead, casts them as the villains. Arthurs
arbitrary hatred is left behind; it is not something we can forget, but
something we know we are supposed to forget. And it is easy to go
along with the plays demand that we do forget it because one has been
able to experience the pleasures that spring from the arbitrary hatred
at its center the intricacies of plot which have allowed it to be obscured.
, c .
The work of Elizabethan and Jacobean comedy is to push undesirable
elements out of itself. A resolution involving reconciliation and inclusion is inevitable at the end of a comedy, but the inclusion is never
complete: it is the presence of characters who stand outside of the
resolution Lelia, Mistress Mary, Shylock (of whom more later) that
makes that resolution meaningful. This is of course not a phenomenon
limited to comedy: the nal scenes of tragedies expel the villains, and

Laughter and narrative in Elizabethan and Jacobean comedy

the work of all the conventions discussed in Part , whether in comedy or tragedy, might be said very generally to be to set the standards
for determining who in the plays, in their audiences is up to the
demands the plays make and who is not. But comedy, whose exclusion takes the form of humiliation, and where there is little opportunity for the terrifying but also desirable individualism of an Iago or a
Vindice, makes most clear the lines that the drama draws to indicate
what it can contain and what it must reject. Instinctively one might think
Beaumont and Fletcher to be most challenging in this regard: more explicitly than most other playwrights they tend simultaneously to insist
upon and to trivialize the unacceptable. But while plays like The Captain
may be more spectacularly successful in forcing audiences to rise, illogically, even unwillingly, to their demands, their deliberate lack of subtlety
is in many ways less astonishing than the radical experiment Lyly undertakes in Gallathea, where he demands that his audience discard one
of the most fundamental desires of any audience of any play: the desire
for an ending.
Lylys play is perhaps the ultimate conversion narrative, in that the
romance that is its central plot changes the sex of one of the lovers. And
in that it does not show this transformation or its aftermath on-stage, and
in that we do not see which of the lovers undergoes it, Lylys play is even
more audacious in its use of theatrical expedience to solve a narrative
complication than almost any Beaumont and Fletcher play. But what
makes Gallathea seem so much more controlled than Fletchers, or other
later plays, is that, even more than How a Man May Choose, it is overtly,
insistently balanced. Gallatheas sense of balance goes still deeper than
paired characters and parallel situations, manifesting itself persistently
in the very language in Lylys famous euphuistic style. The balanced
clarity of the language, coupled with the simplicity of the action, seems
to permit, as Lyly criticism demonstrates, elegant and simple interpretation. Taking off from the euphuistic predilection for antithesis, critics

For an argument similar to mine but in a slightly different register, see Kent Cartwright, The
Confusions of Gallathea: John Lyly as Popular Dramatist, Comparative Drama . (): .
Cartwright wants to break down the prevailing paradigm of [criticism of ] sixteenth-century
drama: that humanist plays differ from popular ones in that the former are intellectual, arid,
and aristocratic while the latter are visceral, imaginatively arousing, and plebeian ( p. ).
Cartwright concludes that Lylys dramatic structure in Gallathea is based on deferring certainty,
and that the pervading uncertainty makes deferrals into a spectatorial pleasure ( p. ). The
play causes a desire or longing in spectators for what seems just to elude ones grasp, and this
reects the developing market economy of the theatre in that Lylys achievement is to convince
the audience to embrace objects as if they were different when they are essentially the same
( p. ).

Theatrical Convention and Audience Response

discuss how Lyly continually sets up and see-saws between opposing

ideas. For Anne Lancashire, the extraordinary toughness and depth of
Lylys plays, beneath their articial surfaces, lies in [their] ironic complexity, [the] tension of balanced opposites, which is Lylys view of human
reality (Gallathea, p. xxvii). G. K. Hunter nds that in Gallathea, the tension [ between mortals and gods] is conveyed by means of a whole series
of interrelated episodes which illustrate and make general their points
by their very variousness and not by their capacity to be brought to bear
on a single situation. Of the same play, Leah Scragg says that antithetical balancing and insistent ambivalence . . . are characteristic of the
drama as a whole. And Carter Daniel accounts for the articiality of
euphuistic prose by pointing out that euphuism serves throughout Lylys
works as a built-in protection against ridicule: we cannot ridicule what
we were never permitted to take seriously from the start. The kind
of critical move Daniel makes, recuperating articiality to a thematic,
anti-articial end, is a typical and useful way of dealing with high stylism
of the kind we nd in Lyly. Thus Scragg analyzes a passage in Campaspe
(.. ) and comes to the conclusion that the see-saw motion of
the syntax is now enacted between speakers, while the exchange destabilizes the meaning of the terms that the two parties employ (Campaspe,
pp. xivxv). Similarly, Lancashire is able to arrive at her assessment of
Lylys subtle irony in spite of her earlier claim that in his plays characters are important not as human individuals but as xed representations
of different moral points of view . . . and plots are articially designed to
place these points of view in a balanced tension, one against another
(Gallathea, p. xxiv).
The largeness and exibility of Lylys style makes critics and audiences feel like all bases are covered: seriousness and ridicule, artice and
reality, xed representations and irony all exist in a vital tension whose
ambivalent nature is a reection of life itself. It is Lylys ability to convey
this kind of comprehensive vision, perhaps, that has caused critics more
or less to gloss over the fact that Gallathea is quite surprising in its lack
of resolution, in the way that its complicated plot builds and builds to a
strangely unsatisfying close. Editors and critics give the appearance of
seeing nothing strange in the fact that no judgment is given on which
maid is the fairest in the land, the fact that the monster Agar is never
seen, the fact that we do not know whether Gallathea or Phyllida will

John Lyly: The Humanist as Courtier (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, ), p. .
In John Lyly: Selected Prose and Dramatic Work, ed. Scragg (Manchester: Carcanet, ), p. xvii.
The Plays of John Lyly (Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press, ), p. .

Laughter and narrative in Elizabethan and Jacobean comedy

be changed into a boy, and the fact that we do not witness the marriage
G. K. Hunter responds to the charge that Lylys choice of ending may
be seen as marking a decline in Lylys dramatic art by arguing that this
mode of denouement coincides with this adoption of the whole mode of
play construction [which Hunter calls] harmonious variety . . . [ T]he
cast is grouped in such a way that there is a state of permanent unbalance,
keeping the action in movement; balance can be restored at the end only
by some at from outside ( John Lyly, p. ). Carter Daniel holds that the
articulation of the plots, the control of tone, and the blend of laughter
with lyricism are so effective that they make one overlook the deus ex
machina ending. In a lesser play it would seem a blemish to have an unresolvable and potentially serious problem suddenly and happily solved
by the gods, especially when the audience isnt ever allowed to know the
solution (The Plays of John Lyly, p. ). These sentences provide more
than enough negative evidence for the possibility that someone even
Daniel himself might nd Lylys denouement a blemish, however
ne the play. Michael Pincombe simply construes the ending as conventional, saying that the play ends . . . with the typically comical wedding
ceremonies about to take place presently. Only glancing at the plays
nal scene, Leah Scragg nds it to invite the audience to delight with
the dramatist in the endless possibilities of an unstable world (Campaspe,
p. xxii). Scraggs interpretive move, based on assumptions about the
value of mimesis is made by Anne Lancashire as well, and she also introduces implicitly the notion of convention we see in Daniel and Pincombe:
[The] arbitrary happy ending is Lylys nal ironic comment on love, selfdeception, and reality . . . The synthesis of reason and passion, head and heart,
reality and dream, represented in . iii by the coming together of all plot strands,
is elusive indeed, and to be achieved only by luck, and only momentarily, in life
as in the plays wedding feast (which we do not see). (Gallathea, p. xxvi)

We are not dissatised by an elusive synthesis because life itself is full

of them, and because the conventional signals of a comic ending are
strong enough that we can imagine a nal resolution off-stage. As Kent
Cartwright says, the friction between immediate emotional effects and
cumulative contemplative effects gives Gallathea an afterlife, a stimulus to
rumination after the spectator departs the event.

In The Plays of John Lyly: Eros and Eliza (Manchester: Manchester University Press, ), p. .
Cartwright, The Confusions of Gallathea, p. . It is difcult to nd any Lyly criticism that is
not satised with the ending of Gallathea. Susan C. Kempers Dramaturgical Design in Lylys

Theatrical Convention and Audience Response

Such resounding agreement that the ending is not so strange seems

good evidence that audiences familiar with the conventions in which
the play works could be happy with its ending. But the success of the
ending is a kind of shell game: the potential for theatrical and interpretive
dissatisfaction is, as at the end of The Captain and How a Man May Choose,
great; but it also, as in those other plays, remains only a potential by
virtue of the pleasurable symmetry and rigid control of the preceding
action. And it is this suppressed potential for dissatisfaction at the end
that makes the play so alive with comic energy, and which is a nal
manifestation of similar potential dissatisfaction that, as we will now see,
exists throughout the play.
Until Act , Gallathea is openly, efciently conventional. Lyly draws,
as is well-noted in Lancashires edition and Pincombes essay, on Ovids
story of Iphis and Ianthe (Metamorphoses ix. ), and on classical
and Italian pastoral literature and drama. The conventions of crossdressed lovers, a forest in which they wander, and the closely parallel
plots are so efciently deployed that they become fundamental for most
subsequent comedy. The inuence of Lylys play on, for example, As
You Like It and A Midsummer Nights Dream, has been well noted. The
complications that occur by the end of Act are also conventional:
Neptune, by standing behind and unobserved, knows of Cupids plot
to make Dianas maids into lovers; Gallathea and Phyllida, by means
of a series of asides, make it clear that each knows the other is a girl
disguised as a boy; and Diana catches Cupid in his schemes, preparing
us for the inevitable confrontation with Venus (chastity and eros will
nally collide literally, as they have metaphorically throughout the play).
All of these complications are resolved at the end of the play, and this is
why an assessment of the nal scene as a conventional, tied-off ending is
correct and important. The rst three-fths of the play are so organized
and logical that we can almost predict which way the nal two-fths will
Gallathea (Thoth . []: ) says that the simultaneous resolution and continued suspense
of the plays end both reveals the futility of attempts to deceive destiny and points up the
fact that the events of destiny operate on quite another level than do those of human concerns
( pp. ). Peter Berek, in Artice and Realism in Lyly, Nashe, and Loves Labors Lost (Studies
in English Literature . []: ) says that Lylyss play is heavy on pattern and weak on
character, and that this is why the ending is acceptable: were we emotionally involved with
Gallathea or Phillida we could hardly bear with equanimity the prospect that one of them will
undergo a sexual alteration ( p. ). Phyllis Rackin says that Gallathea, written to be performed
at Court, addressed an audience for whom, as for the gods within the play, all things were
possible, and for whom life, like the play itself, was a kind of elaborate, articial spectacle. In
Androgyny, Mimesis, and the Marriage of the Boy Heroine on the English Renaissance Stage,
PMLA . (): . The quotation is from p. . She also argues that neither we nor
the characters know or care which of Lylys girls will be transformed ( p. ).

Laughter and narrative in Elizabethan and Jacobean comedy

go: one can be led to hear and see what one expects rather than what is
actually there.
But the experience en route to the nal scene is not all smooth, and I
doubt anyone expects the conversation between Melebeus and Tityrus
at the beginning of Act . Augur announces that the fairest maid in
the land must now be sacriced, and then goes to make preparations.
Melebeus and Tityrus each accuse the other of having and hiding the
fairest daughter. Melebeus says his daughter is dead, and Tityrus makes
this reply:
O Melebeus, dissemble you may with men, deceive the gods you cannot. Did
not I see, and very lately see, your daughter in your arms, whenas you gave her
innite kisses with affection I fear me more than fatherly? You have conveyed
her away that you might cast us all away, bereaving her of her beauty and
us the benet, preferring a common inconvenience before a private mischief.
(.. )

Tityruss remark about incest might be taken as a joke at rst as a sign

that the argument is degenerating into something that will ultimately
make both angry men look foolish. But the way Melebeus refutes Tityrus
is strange.
Did you ever see me kiss my daughter? You are deceived, it was my wife. And if
you thought so young a piece unt for so old a person, and therefore imagined
it to be my child, not my spouse, you must know that silver hairs delight in
golden locks, and frosty years must be thawed by youthful res. But this matter
set aside, you have a fair daughter, Tityrus, and it is pity you are so fond a father.
(lines )

Context probably demands that we understand Melebeus to be lying

that we think he was kissing his daughter rather than his wife; his justications in the long, subordinate clause-laden second sentence seem
comically drawn out to indicate as much. So too does his turning the
accusation of incest against Tityrus. In this case, his discussion of silver
hairs and golden locks seems bizarre. The play all but forces us to think
about an incestuous or near-incestuous relationship between Melebeus
and Phyllida, but does so only to refuse to let us think about it much:
Populus and Populus bring the scene to a rather rapid close, and incest
is never brought up again. This moment is, of course, similar to the incestrelated moment in The Captain; but it is also importantly different in that
it conrms no suspicions we might have had about Melebeus, and brings
about no decisive judgment that opposes one protagonist to the other.
The function of this moment might be to make us think that Phyllida

Theatrical Convention and Audience Response

will be sacriced, as a kind of punishment for her lascivious father. It also

might be to resonate in some way with what Michael Pincombe calls the
unstaged tragedy of rape that is at the center of the plays plot: with a
character named Augur on stage and some discussion of the potential
violation of a fair young woman, this scene, with the later Hebe scene,
may be the closest thing we get to the appearance of the dread monster Agar. A performance might use these lines to inform Melebeuss
conduct with his daughter when they are on stage together, but while
this would make the lines in . make sense, it would not itself make a
lot of sense in terms of the play. The play has no room for an incest plot,
and it does not pursue one. And it is always possible, even necessary,
to see Melebeus and Tityrus simply as blustering old men, versions of
the conventional senex character. Barreling along on the tracks of a plot
involving fatherly love, sexual violation, and the loss of innocence, the
play derails momentarily, taking us into a thorny world of unspoken lust
and incest; and then, almost as quickly, conventional and generic signals set us back in the right direction. Comic activity lls an ambiguous
interpretive space.
Thus, similar to the nal moments of . in The Captain, Gallathea after
. redoubles its sense of imminent conclusion in the next three scenes.
Cupid is brought before Diana, and the song the nymphs sing at the
beginning of . possibly resonates with what is supposed to happen
to Gallathea and Phyllida: if any maid / Whom lering cupid has
betrayd / . . . / . . . would in madness now see torn / The boy in pieces,
let her come /Hither, and lay on him her doom (.. , emphasis
added). The next scene shows us Neptune promising to show as great
cruelty as [the fathers and daughters] have done craft, and well shall they
know that Neptune should have been entreated, not cozened (.. ).
Driving home the point, . shows Gallathea and Phyllida desperately
trying to maintain their disguises, and moving into the woods to await
the outcome of the sacrice. I agree with the claim of most critics that
Lylys light-hearted tone persists throughout, but I also think the play is
sending signals somewhat incompatible with light comedy. What seems
to me most likely is that we are being led to expect either Gallathea or
Phyllida to be prepared to the sacrice, and for the deus ex machina
ending to be centered around her rescue.

Pincombe nds a connection between the unstaged, or deferred rape with the phallus that
Venus will give one of the girls (The Plays of John Lyly, p. ).
Pleasantly ingenious as this punning connection is, it is also important to note that Augurs name
is never spoken aloud on stage it is merely a speech heading.

Laughter and narrative in Elizabethan and Jacobean comedy

What we get instead, in ., is the appearance of Hebe, a completely

new character, who is put into the position we are expecting for Gallathea
or Phyllida. Lyly seems deliberately to manipulate the audiences expectations as he brings on Augur rst to say Bring forth the virgin,
the fairest virgin, if you mean to appease Neptune and preserve your
country (.. ). Now we will see whether Gallathea or Phyllida
is the fairest. The scene is parallel to ., with the capture of Cupid,
only here an irrelevant character is introduced into the crucial situation.
Hebe, like Shakespeares Thane of Cawdor, seems to have spent her entire life preparing for the leaving of it, and the excess of her death speech,
culminating most hilariously in I am fair, I am a virgin, I am ready
( .. ) is clearly intended for an actor to relish. Like the specter
of incest in ., Hebe appears at a crucial moment and then is gone,
not to be heard from again. The overt theatricality of her death speech
and the comedy involved in waiting for a monster that does not appear
makes Agar too seem like one of these phantoms something serious
that can nevertheless be joked about because it will never really assert its
power over the events of the play. In this scene Lyly is like the author
of How a Man May Choose in the banquet scene: he is more interested
in creating a set piece than in dealing with the logical progression of
events. Hebe is created to ll the scene which, if it contained Gallathea
or Phyllida, would end the play. The anticlimactic end of the scene, like
the end of the banquet scene in How a Man May Choose, allows the playwright to continue pursuing the seemingly innite dramatic possibilities
at his disposal. The problem with Gallathea, in contrast to How a Man May
Choose, is that, while in the later play we know Mistress Arthur is not dead
and thus have a sense of where the innite possibilities are leading, in
Lylys play we do not know to what extent Augurs claim that Neptunes
rage will now be both innite and intolerable (lines ) is true, or
indeed what will happen to Gallathea and Phyllida.
Neptune steps in to ll this gap: in ., Phyllida and Gallathea talk
about having just seen the virgin to be offered for sacrice, and then run
off again into the woods. Neptune appears, still more indignant:
And do men begin to be equal with gods, seeing by craft to overreach them that
by power oversee them? Do they dote so much on their daughters that they

See also Cartwrights discussion of the comic pauses in Hebes farewell speech: The Confusions
of Gallathea, pp. .
The stylized, possibly campy way in which a boy actor might deal with the character of Hebe
makes this scene an interesting parallel to Levidulcias death scene in The Atheists Tragedy (see
above, pp. ).

Theatrical Convention and Audience Response

stick not to dally with our deities? Well shall the inhabitants see that destiny cannot be prevented by craft, nor my anger be appeased by submission. I will make havoc of Dianas nymphs, my temple shall be dyed with
maidens blood, and there shall be nothing more vile than to be a virgin. To
be young and fair shall be accounted shame and punishment, insomuch as it
shall be thought as dishonorable to be honest as fortunate to be deformed.
(lines )

This is the third such speech Neptune makes. The rst is in ., after
he overhears Cupids plans and promises he will go into these woods
and mark all, and in the end will mar all ( lines ); the second is
in ., discussed above. The actor playing Neptune will have to convey
the importance of this pattern to an audience, and the most likely way
of doing so would seem to be to make Neptune a blustering character
who is all talk and no action. Constantly asserting that Neptune cannot be overreached by swains (.. ); that Gallathea and Phyllidas
sleights may blear men, deceive me they cannot (.. ); and that
destiny cannot be prevented by craft, nor my anger be appeased by submission, Neptune is nevertheless thwarted at every turn. Immediately
after his promises of bloodshed and sorrow in ., he must mediate the
conict between Diana and Venus, and in doing so he gives up the yearly
virgin sacrice with little argument: he seems more interested simply in
not being in the middle of the ght between Diana and the sex goddess
who shall at all times be at [his] command ( line ). When Melebeus
and Tityrus return with their daughters to beg forgiveness of the god,
he tries only half-heartedly to maintain the illusion of his power as he
gives anticlimactic doom: Well, your deserts have not gotten pardon,
but these goddesses jars (lines ). When he hears that Gallathea
and Phyllida love each other, he sees it as a joke, and expects that Venus
will as well.
An idle choice, strange and foolish, for one virgin to dote on another, and to
imagine a constant faith where there can be no cause for affection. How like
you this, Venus? (lines )

Venus, of course, takes the contrary position, and makes the quite
unexpected promise that both [shall] be possessed of their wishes
(lines ). Except for one line, Neptune is silent for the remainder
of the play.

For a contrary and, it seems to me, quite inaccurate view of Neptune as an image of patriarchal
and monarchical authority which the play works to legitimate, see Christopher Wixson,
Cross-Dressing and John Lylys Gallathea, Studies in English Literature . (): . The
quotation is from page .

Laughter and narrative in Elizabethan and Jacobean comedy

How say you, Tityrus, shall we refer it to Venus?

I am content, because she is a goddess.
Neptune, you will not dislike it?
( lines )
Not I.

Clearly, it does not matter what Neptune thinks, and the audience knows
this as well as Venus, and Neptune himself.
The not-entirely-resolved ending works, and feels to a certain extent
resolved, in part because the second half of the play has accustomed
us to dealing with unresolved events: as with the incest jokes, and the
strangely comic non-sacrice of Hebe, we are limited in what we can
take away from the promise of marriage, and attempting to go beyond the
limits feels superuous and over-serious because the play seems to have
moved on without any trouble. More importantly, the clear defeat of
Neptune works to make the end something we can be happy with. While
it seems to me an exaggeration to say that the unresolved nal scene is
a general celebration of ambiguity and innite possibility (the outcome
is hardly ambiguous there will be a marriage and the possibilities
are clearly limited to one or the other of the girls becoming a boy) it is
certainly a celebration of freedom from the rigid adherence to laws
of nature, fate, and courtship espoused by Neptune. And this, as we
see from the treatment of later characters like Malvolio or Shylock, is
commonly the kind of freedom Elizabethan and Jacobean comedy nds
worth celebrating. At the same time, we cannot forget the potential for
disappointment and dissatisfaction in a lack of resolution, and it seems
to me that the way these moments make audiences think like Neptune
(or Malvolio or Shylock) is equally important to the comic experience.
The faint but denite residual desire simply to see which maid becomes
a man and to have the visible closure of a wedding ceremony is Neptunelike in its need for logical conclusion, for seeing things through; for similar
reasons we feel that Shylock has been ill-treated or that Malvolio should
be revenged on the whole pack; that Mistress Arthur could do better,
or that Frank and Jacamo would be more happily married if there were
not new wars. These desires must be, and are, easily suppressed if one
is to be satised with what one expects comedy to expect one to expect:
laughter. And this is when comedy is most successful: when it makes us
believe we have seen the necessity and the good in expelling that part of

Something like what I am describing is discussed by Hunter in his essay on this play: the development of the action, he says, is a process of agglomeration, by which similar experiences are
continually being added to produce new and piquant situations ( John Lyly, p. ).

Theatrical Convention and Audience Response

ourselves which does not conform to its demands. No one wants to be

like Neptune.
It might be useful at this point, by way of brief summation, to return
explicitly to the spatial metaphors that I have used throughout this book.
Elizabethan and Jacobean comedy makes audiences feel that they are at
last on the inside, aware of and superior to those who are not. Tragedy
makes audiences feel that they are struggling to remain on the outside
and, generally, failing. The conventions that structure, order, and punctuate the messy experiences of these plays constantly manipulate and play
upon the distinction, and the lack of distinction, between investment
in and detachment from dramatic events. The aim of this manipulation
and play is to provoke a response, and throughout this study the response
I have found myself returning to repeatedly in one way or another, irrespective of genre or the nature of the convention, is laughter: puns
solicit laughter, asides direct laughter, exposition can be so frustratingly
complex or long-winded as to cause laughter, echo scenes and on-stage
violence can be ridiculous, dark scenes are frequently elaborately comic,
incest can be dismissed with a laugh, disguise conventions can laugh at
themselves, tragedies must harness the power of laughter to move beyond
it, and comedies must problematize the very response they depend on
in order to remain comic. Involuntary and contagious, laughter can kill
a tragedy or make a comedy, and in an audience it cannot be ignored; a
sign of both approval and dismissal, mirth and scorn, laughter lurks just
inside the space between the bare stage and the imagination, ready to
burst forth with equal willingness when the one fails to connect with the
other, and when it succeeds.

Epilogue: Jonson and Shakespeare

Whether or not Jonson and Shakespeare deserve a chapter of their own

is, I hope, a question this book has at least raised. I do not want by any
means at this point to put Shakespeare and Jonson above the rest of their
contemporaries, but it is true that thinking about these two playwrights
has governed and does govern most of our thought about the drama of
the English Renaissance. It is in the interest of explicitly putting some of
that thinking within the context of this study, and thereby making some
gestures toward new directions in Shakespeare and Jonson criticism,
that I undertake the following discussion.
Insofar as Ben Jonsons comedies are, as Alan Dessen argues, moral
comedies, in which Jonson has . . . involved his audience in the moral
and ethical issues of the play in such a way that their laughter now
turns back upon themselves; and insofar as they are acts of theatrical
imperialism, in which Jonson systematically subsumes the more conventional plays of his competitors, forcing them to work for his exaltation, they are perhaps the clearest example because they are so
deliberate of how Renaissance comedy in general, like its individual
plots, works by a process of exclusion. Jonsons comedies are highly selfcontained, and the audience is taught to laugh to scorn anything that
exists outside of them. The events of these comedies frequently would
seem to demand a response that would put the audience outside of them,
and that response must be effaced if the audience is to avoid being the
subject of its own and the playwrights scornful laughter. Jonson
facilitates this effacement by means of an extremely efcient manipulation of conventional devices. The applause that follows Faces epilogue to The Alchemist involves the manipulation of one convention the

Jonsons Moral Comedy (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, ), p. .

Robert N. Watson, Ben Jonsons Parodic Strategy (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press,
), p. .

Theatrical Convention and Audience Response

epilogue combined with the transformation of another the Vice

from the morality in order to make the audience condone, in Dessens
words, the blindness of the truth, the absence of absolute standards,
and the failure of social conscience ( Jonsons Moral Comedy, p. ) that
have allowed Face to succeed. The predictability of form both forces and
allows a confrontation with the unpredictable: the audience is coerced
into accepting a way of thinking it normally would not accept, and for
the moment instinctively expels from itself the possibility of rejecting that
way of thinking.
As we have seen in Gallathea, How a Man May Choose, and The Captain,
this process of expulsion is characteristic of the formal qualities of early
modern comedy at virtually every level. Early modern comedy moves
rapidly and with a highly arbitrary unpredictability. The arbitrariness
comes, paradoxically, from the very predictability of the complete resolution with which the play must end. The movement toward this resolution
is structured around moments of humiliation and expulsion. In Jonson
this expulsion repeatedly takes a physical form, and does so in a way that
is importantly related to the theatrical pleasures early modern comedy
provides and expects its audiences to seek. It is not necessary to detail the
extent to which Jonson criticism is preoccupied with physical and theatrical metaphors and modes of expression: corporeality and theatrical
self-consciousness are the obsessive concerns of Jonsons plays. They are
also, as I have argued from the beginning, vital concerns of early modern
playwrights, and crucial to understanding the relationship of the drama
to its audience. With this parallel in mind, I want to look briey at the
way in which the experience of the potential inefciency of one of
Jonsons plots the Sir Politic Would-be plot of Volpone is one manifestation of the superuous but vital theatrical and physical pleasures that
early modern comedy embodies.
Given the multileveled, frequently jumbled nature of the plots of the
vast majority of early modern comedies, it is remarkable how much critical energy has been expended on explaining the relevance, function,
and value of the Would-be subplot in Volpone. In Jonas Barish wrote
that, For more than two centuries literary critics have been satised to
discuss the subplot of Volpone as irrelevant and discordant. Barish cites
a number of examples of this, including the inuential editors Hereford
and Simpson who, in Volume of their edition of Jonson, say that
the subplot would be funny if its absurd contortions had any bearing

The Double Plot in Volpone, Modern Philology (): .

Epilogue: Jonson and Shakespeare

upon, or inner relation to, the main theme. Barish goes on to argue that the relative harmlessness of Sir Pols downfall serves to differentiate his folly from the viciousness of the Venetians, but the many
parallels between his catastrophe and theirs warn us that his kind of
folly is sufciently virulent after all . . . and . . . must ultimately fall under
the same condemnation (The Double Plot in Volpone, p. ). This
article produced a kind of critical revolution: it was followed by Judd
Arnolds The Double Plot in Volpone: A Note on Jonsonian Dramatic
Structure; by Dorothy E. Litts Unity of Theme in Volpone; and
by a host of modern editions in which it has become conventional
to devote a section in the introduction to the subplot. It seems surprising that the relationship between the two plots was not elaborated
until the middle of the twentieth century, but I think this bespeaks not
merely the critical bias of the previous centuries (the subplot is not
serious enough) so much as the standard of efciency and coherence that Jonsons plays maintain with respect to his contemporaries,
and the very real way in which the Would-be plot can potentially seem
(and could have seemed to its original audience) to violate this standard.
The effect of the subplot is certainly, as Bevington and Parker say,
rhythmic . . . as well as thematic, but its action is nevertheless in no way
necessary to the plot: the play can work on-stage without it. The thematic function does not necessarily justify the excess of action. Discussing
Volpones loquacious attempted seduction of Celia (.. ),
Stephen Greenblatt says that instead of the emotion of multitude we
have precisely the avoidance of depth in a vertiginous swirl of words.
Volpones speech, like the actions he generates, must ow on without
pause, for in the silence lurks the hidden meaning of [and anxiety in]
his words. The superuity of the subplot works in a similar way to
counter potential anxiety about the excess of the plays action as a whole.
If one notices the thematic connection sees a comic parallel between
Sir Pol and Volpones gulls, and between Peregrine and Volpone it

Works of Ben Jonson, ed. C. H. Hereford and Percy Simpson, vol. (Oxford: Clarendon, ), p. .
Seventeenth-Century News (): .
Bulletin of the New York Public Library (): .
See, for example, Philip Brockbanks New Mermaids edition (London: Benn, ), pp. xviixix;
R. B. Parkers Revels edition (Manchester: Manchester University Press, ), pp. ; and
Brian Parker and David Bevingtons Revels Student Edition (Manchester: Manchester University
Press, ), pp. (which is a condensed version of Parkers earlier discussion in the Revels
Stephen Greenblatt, The False Ending of Volpone, Journal of English and Germanic Philology .
(): . The quotation is from p. .

Theatrical Convention and Audience Response

might mitigate the intensity of the satire: such malicious scheming as

Volpones occurs at every level of social life, and so the play is not so
much a view of one mans hideous obsession as a general satire of greed
and folly. But if one does not see the thematic connection and most
of the critical tradition suggests that one might not the subplot must
either seem like an excessive variation on the theme of Volpones sadism
or it must act as an almost extra-dramatic manifestation of the pleasures
involved in that sadism. As is probably predictable by this point, I think
the subplot performs the latter function and picks up vital energy in
doing so from the ever-present possibility of the former.
The pleasure the Sir Politic Would-be plot provides lies in its allowing
the audience to imagine its own active, physical participation in the
cruelest and most delightful kind of mere theatricality. Sir Pols rst
entrance is marked by a moment of metatheatre. Sir Peregrine says of
Oh, the knight
(Were he well known) would be a precious thing
To t our stage; he that should write
But such a fellow, should be thought to feign
Extremely, if not maliciously.
(.. )

John Sweeney says of this moment that Jonson causes us to see Sir Pol
in the evolution of both Jonsons career and the history of the English
stage. Peregrines aside is not just a joke about the fact that Sir Pol is a
character in someones play, but a joke about Sir Pol being an anachronism in this Jonson play. Thus the pleasure involved in laughing at
Peregrines aside is not only the pleasure of being a sophisticated English
person recognizing English folly, but also the pleasure of putting oneself
in the position of an actor in one kind of play mocking the action of an
actor in another kind of play.
The conventions of which Peregrine is not a part are again called
attention to when Lady Would-be mistakes Peregrine for a woman disguised as a man, or, as it would occur on the early modern stage, a
boy playing a woman disguised as a man. The entirely superuous
and entirely unexpected revenge plot that comes out of this mistake
involves the replacement of one kind of self-consciously theatrical acting
(the kind we see in Twelfth Night) with another (the kind we see in Volpones
schemes): Peregrine disguises himself as a merchant, is careful that the

John Sweeney, Volpone and the Theatre of Self-Interest, English Literary Renaissance . ():
. The quotation is from p. .

Epilogue: Jonson and Shakespeare

audience knows he is disguised (Am I enough disguised? .. ), and

employs a small band of actors to help him humiliate Sir Pol. Similar
to the moments where Mosca applies ointment to Volpones eyes, or
where Volpone tells Mosca to open that chest, and reach / Forth one
of those [wills] that has the blanks (.. ), the action of the Sir Pol
plot presents and asks the audience to participate in a splendid show.
Sir Pol provides a delirious prop for this show: the entirely superuous
and unexpected tortoise shell, an object which has undoubtedly been
serving on-stage throughout the play as an example of Volpones extensive and eclectic wealth. Employing the most fantastic resources available
on the stage, Sir Pol becomes a symbol of his own absurdity and is now
at the physical mercy of the more expert actors in the scene. Ordered
to creep, threatened with pricking in his guts (line ), anatomized
(Well see his legs, [line ]), and possibly jumped on (line ), his
perfectly staged humiliation gives direction and purpose, a kind of tangibility, to what seemed unnecessary and vaguely motivated at the end
of .. The superuity of the action coupled with Sir Pols benign nature
relative to the other gulls (and Peregrines relative to Volpone), makes the
experience of this scene more theatrical than thematic or moral. Sir Pol
may or may not be getting punished appropriately or excessively, but the
audiences delight chiey lies in being put in a position to imagine itself
performing something so ridiculous, so well staged, and so physically
satisfying as the action the actors playing Peregrine and Sir Pol get to
Greenblatt says that Jonsons plays direct the audience . . . to reject
the theatrical principles of displacement, mask, and metamorphosis
(The False Ending of Volpone, p. ). Howard Marchitell notes that
Jonsons plays are replete with an over-determined, multivalent sadistic
pleasure and says that in the case of Volpone such pleasures become
hopelessly self-reexive. Volpones is the will to dominate . . . even if
such control can last only for an instant, and even if it must lead to his
punishment. Richmond Barbour argues that the commercial stage for
which Jonson wrote affords no rite of bodily coupling between ctive
and actual worlds. Instead, as the characters regress to players, they offer
to repeat themselves: And well strive to please you every day. The
implication of this kind of criticism is that audiences are meant to nd

Howard Marchitell, Desire and Domination in Volpone, Studies in English Literature . ():
. The quotations are from pp. , .
Richmond Barbour, When I Acted Young Antinous: Boy Actors and the Erotics of Jonsonian
Theatre, PMLA . (): ,. The quotation is from p. ,.

Theatrical Convention and Audience Response

acting dangerous and, at some level undesirable: characters regress to

players when the theatre becomes too self-reexive, or when the plays
articiality is emphasized by its ending; Volpones histrionics may be
enormously vital and attractive, but as this play bitterly insists, you
cannot stay in the theatre forever. While the dangers of acting are
evident and exploited in virtually all live theatre, the idea that Jonsons
plays ask the audience to reject acting, and the audience might desire to
do so seems, simply, wrong. The Sir Pol subplot is in the play because it
lets actors act and because audiences enjoy for its own sake the movement
of bodies and properties around a stage. From the point of view of the
audience, the actor need not leave the theatre at the end of the play. The
audience wants to be the actor.
The value of implausibility in early modern comedy lies in the way in
which it allows the audience to enjoy imagining itself participating in
actions that do not have any moral consequences or even, as in the
case of the Sir Pol subplot, any theatrical consequences that extend beyond the moment in which they occur. Elizabethan and Jacobean comic
dramatists are always striving for moments like the banquet scene in
How a Man May Choose or the foiled incest scene of The Captain: moments
where the movement of the action is so powerful that any illusion of
plausibility of character or motivation can be forsaken, allowing the
characters to become simply components in a dramatic machine. This is
also the nature of the experience the nal scenes of most comedies seek
to provide: Lelia equivocate and smiles, Mistress Arthur smiles and shuts
up, Jupiter shrugs and goes along with Venuss plan. Playwrights take
no pains to make these characters plausible in these moments, because
to do so would be incompatible with the movement, or the conclusion,
of the action. Does this apply to Shakespeare as well? I am tempted
to say that it does, but I also think it might be more interesting to think
of Shakespeare, if only in the realm of comedy, as failing to achieve
what other playwrights achieve so well. Whether or not this is a happy
failure, I will not attempt to say, but I have always in my perhaps peculiar way found the comedies of Middleton, Jonson, and Beaumont and

Greenblatt, False Ending, p. .

Even the end of Volpone, oddly enough, can be seen to be working this way. I think the chief
response of an audience to that plays nal scene is surprise surprise that neither Volpone
nor Mosca gets away with all the goods. Rather than following the signals it has been sending
throughout and conveying the theatrically plausible and satisfying idea that the wily and selfinterested will remain above moral consequences (if not judgment), Jonson follows his own
implausible logic to its most extreme conclusion: everyone is punished according to his sin.

Epilogue: Jonson and Shakespeare

Fletcher much more satisfying than those of Shakespeare. Perhaps it is

Shakespeares willingness at crucial moments to allow his audiences to
think of comic characters as existing independently of the improbable
and implausible demands of the genre that deprives his comedies of some
of the raw energy we see in Jonson, Middleton, Beaumont and Fletcher,
and others. In this light it will be useful to look briey at the end of The
Merchant of Venice, a play which Shakespeare seems uncertain how to end,
and which he does end partly by emphasizing the plausibility of the one
character, Shylock, who has always been on the verge of moving beyond
his control and simply, implausibly, serving the movement of the action.
Like Lelia or Hebe, or like Young Arthurs arbitrary hatred of his
wife, Shylock is the part of his play that juts out and is potentially irreconcilable with its other elements. He rst appears in . after we
have been introduced to both halves of the love plot Bassanio in .
and Portia in .. Structurally he is an interruption in the conventional
development of the love story, a function he will serve, albeit more conventionally, in Act , when he begins to come between his daughter and
Lorenzo. Shylock talks differently from the other characters: he freely
alternates between prose and verse, he tends to repeat the words of his
interlocutors, and he is able to break the rhythm of a scene as we see
best in ., with his prolonged aside upon Antonios entrance (How like
a fawning publican he looks [lines ]), which must be interrupted
by Bassanio: Shylock, do you hear? (line ). Shylocks speech is heavy
with proverbs, riddles, and enigmatic anecdotes: his discussion of ships
and rats at .. ; the story of Jacob and Labans sheep in .; his
dream of money-bags (.. ); and his bizarre list of madmen in the
trial scene (.. ). In the trial scene he shifts from being a proud
and mocking victor (By my soul I swear / There is no power in the
tongue of man / To alter me. I stay here on my bond, ) to a sick,
weak old man (I am not well. Send the deed after me / And I will sign
it, ). The uneasiness of this shift is accentuated by the vacuum
of motivation around which it must turn: So can I give no reason, nor
I will not, / More than a lodged hate and a certain loathing / I bear
Antonio, that I follow thus / A losing suit against him (lines ).
But the abruptness of the shift in . is driven by the narrative and is
therefore more intelligible than the series of changes Shylock undergoes
in ., where his short, clipped lines (She is damnd for it [line ];
What, what, what? ill luck, ill luck? [line ]) stand in stark contrast
to his two long and passionate speeches (each of which is passionate in a
very different way); where he rapidly shifts between acting the part of the

Theatrical Convention and Audience Response

resentful father, the martyr-like anti-hero, the gloating usurer, and the
sentimental widower; and where he succeeds in being, as I have discussed
above, the only character in the play who is able to silence Solanio and
Salerio. In ., as C. L. Barber says in Festive Comedy, Shylock is
a puppet in whom motives have become the mechanisms that usurp lifes selfdetermining prerogative. Some critics have left the rhythm of the scene behind
to dwell on the pathos of the ring he had from Leah when he was a bachelor.
It is like Shakespeare once to show Shylock putting a gently sentimental value
on something, to match the savage sentimental value he puts on revenge. There
is pathos; but it is being fed into the comic mill and makes the laughter all the
more hilarious. ( pp. )

The bizarre shifts in tone and mode that characterize . are given a
sort of coherence by the fact that Shylock is a stage Jew and as such can
be interpreted, even in moments of unsettling passion, as hyperbolical
or ridiculous. Shylocks puppet-like behavior persists somewhat through
., but Shakespeare abandons it once Portia gures out how to defeat
the Jew: Shylocks tone becomes more and more despondent as the scene
draws to a close.
Beaumont and Fletcher seem happy to put Lelia on-stage with the
more unproblematically reconciled characters at the end of The Captain;
Mistress Mary stands next to Arthur so that he can point her out as the
bad wife at the end of How a Man May Choose; and Neptune accompanies
the rest of the characters off-stage to see the metamorphosis and wedding
feast that will make everything right. The very completeness of the resolutions of these plays is emphasized by their making visible the fact that
the contrary characters have been subdued. Shakespeare seems less
comfortable with this. Malvolio, like Shylock, leaves the stage before the
real resolution takes place; similarly Jaques at the end of As You Like It
goes to live in his abandoned cave before the Duke speaks the plays
nal two lines and gives way to Rosalinds epilogue; and Caliban is sent
off-stage before Prospero invites Alonso and the rest in for dinner. These
characters do not remain as evidence of the successful resolution on the
stage. Their absence is a reminder of the fact that the comedy has not
entirely neatly tied up its loose ends. Shakespeare seems to emphasize

Chapter , pp. .
Lylys play also presents a weird inversion of this kind of all-inclusive resolution: though all the
characters are happily on-stage together at the end, the most powerful sense of closure might
come from the faith the play demands of the audience that everything will be fully taken care of
off-stage. Also emphasizing, on-stage, the inevitable drive toward resolution is the sudden (within
twenty lines of the end) appearance and incorporation into the wedding party of the subplot
characters Rafe, Robin, and Dick.

Epilogue: Jonson and Shakespeare

the anticlimactic nature of expelling the undesirable force; and while this
may result in more complex dissonances than we see at the end of, say,
The Captain, it also results in a certain amount of comic failure: it makes
the play less funny.
So wrapped up in the Shylock plot is The Merchant of Venice that, were it
not for the disguises of Portia and Nerissa, the play would seem content to
end in Act . The revelation of identities in a trial scene was certainly commonplace, and the persistence Portia shows in pursuing the ring plot for
some lines after the exit of Shylock and the Duke is weirdly excessive.
That one of Shakespeares probable sources, Ser Giovanni Fiorentinos
Il Pecorone () contains both the bond and ring plots is but small justication Shakespeare was happy to discard and alter source material as it
suited him. What seems to be happening in the nal act of Merchant is that
Shakespeare is piling on after the fact the trappings of comic resolution
that one would generally expect to have occurred in the trial scene. The
result, in ., is a long and insistently comic scene which, in contrast to
the nales of the three plays discussed in chapter , is strangely joyless.
Interrupting the bizarrely mean-spirited love banter of Jessica and
Lorenzo in . is a new character, Stephano (the play is careful to name
him, insisting on an importance he does not actually have), announcing
the arrival of Portia; immediately following Stephano is the hollering
Launcelot (Sola, sola! wo ha, ho! sola, sola!), announcing the imminent
arrival of Antonio. A convergence, notably comic in contrast to the
already achieved convergence of ., is set in motion. Lorenzo now calls
in some musicians, and the play is full of music as Portia arrives at line
and Antonio at line . Portias puns on light (lines ) give way
to a series of potential puns on ring, and the escalating quarrel over
the rings gives way to the virtuosic verse performances of lines ,
the tedious ironies of which are mostly disguised by their unmistakably
comic sound the sound that insists they, and the play, are driving toward
a punchline. Some fty lines later the disguise plot is at last revealed and
the play ends leeringly with a joke about Nerissas ring. Along the way,
Nerissa mentions that Jessica and Lorenzo will receive after Shylocks
death all he dies possessd of (line ), but the fact that Nerissa and not
Portia says this seems to indicate that Shakespeare assumed the judgment
was by now a foregone conclusion. With surprising celerity the play
has moved from a moment of potential ambivalence and anticlimax
the punishment of Shylock to a scene replete with the markers of
triumphant comic resolution. That these markers are merely markers
seems to be indicated by the fact that what audiences and critics have

Theatrical Convention and Audience Response

ultimately found worth focusing on in the play is Shylock, and this is why
the play has probably failed as a comedy in the long run; but the hollow
urgency of the comedy in . makes fairly clear that what the play wants
(but perhaps does not quite allow) one to experience in its nal moments
is comic detachment of the purest kind detachment that, while often
arbitrary, shallow, and cruel, is utterly pleasurable.
Shylock is, like the comic characters described in chapter , a stock
character who reacts more or less consistently and predictably to the
twists of the comic plot. This is most clearly seen in his fervent pursuit
of the fulllment of the bond in ., even when he is offered three times
the principal. Where Merchant might be said to fail as a comedy is in its
tacit acknowledgment, by banishing him from the stage at the end, that
Shylock cannot be dealt with by the world of comedy, that the possibility
of his restricting its freedom remains, even after the trial scene, very
real. Citing again the nal moments of Twelfth Night, As You Like It, and
The Tempest, I would make the generalization that the interest these plays
show in the extra-comic possibilities of characters like Jaques or Malvolio
or Caliban is what makes Shakespeares comedies feel heavier, less comic
than the plays of his contemporaries. When Sir Pol leaves the stage at the
end of his nal scene inVolpone, he is still the highly theatrical embodiment
of his own ridiculousness:
And I, to shun this place and clime for ever;
Creeping, with house, on back: and think it well
To shrink my poor head in my politic shell.
(.. )

Shylock, a predictable character put in a similar situation, brings to the

trial scene a note of exhaustion and defeat: I am not well; send the deed
after me, / And I will sign it. At this moment the play asks us to think
of Shylock as (at the risk of sounding facile) a real person asks us to
see that comic acting cannot represent the nature of his humiliation.
In Merchant there is no relationship between the experience of Shylocks

Compare also the defeat and nal lines of Marlowes Barabas in The Jew of Malta:
And had I but escaped this stratagem,
I would have brought confusion on you all,
Damned Christians, dogs, and Turkish indels;
But now begins the extremity of heat
To pinch me with intolerable pangs:
Die life, y soul, tongue curse thy ll and die!
(.. )

Epilogue: Jonson and Shakespeare

defeat and that provided by the comic machinery that actually ends the
If my argument is doing what I want it to be doing, the picture I
have drawn of Shylock should resemble, in reverse, the picture I drew of
Levidulcia in The Atheists Tragedy at the end of chapter . That is, Shylock
should seem to an audience symbolic of the ugly covetousness which we
see to a certain extent in all of Portias comic, conventional suitors; but
it should also seem that his unsettling power or passion is merely the
blustering of a comic, conventional villain, and can therefore easily be
dismissed. Like Levidulcia, Shylock brings a certain impropriety to the
world of his play, and the dissonances that this creates, left to hang in
the air longer than Fletcher, Lyly, or others allow them to, are less at
home in comedy as it seems to exist in the Elizabethan and Jacobean
period. That said, if I am to be true to the project I have set out to
accomplish in this book, which is to discuss the plays of the period for
what they are rather than for what they are not, it seems correct to say that
Shakespeare excels at creating characters like Levidulcia and Shylock,
characters whose bizarrely wrong energy is allowed to pervade the play
to the point where they have an interpretive effect disproportionate to
what the genre would seem to require of them. Shakespeare puts such
characters into both comedy and tragedy with equal vigor: that is why
his tragedies are so good and his comedies so odd.
With this in mind I would like to talk briey about Shakespearean
tragedy and end where I began, with Hamlet. One of the best discussions
of the character of Polonius is in Bert O. Statess Hamlet and the Concept of
Character. Here, States argues that Polonius is both a double of Claudius
and a shadow of Hamlet, on one hand allowing in Hamlet the release of
energy that cannot be directed toward Claudius (p. ), and on the
other releasing, by means of his compulsive sleuthing (which mirrors
Hamlets compulsive malice), the mayhem that unblocks the plot and
allows everyone to die the deaths they have coming (p. ). Polonius is
a gure, like Levidulcia, like Massinissa, like the allegorical characters in
Soliman, who seems simultaneously to unleash and to be at the mercy of
the uncontrollable forces that are at the heart of the tragedy. Much more
so than Massinissas conveniently produced vial of poison, Poloniuss
actions dene the bizarre experience of the tragedy by presenting the
audience with the opportunity to blame him for something for which it
literally does not make sense to blame him: his own death. Poloniuss

Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, , pp. .

Theatrical Convention and Audience Response

death is the key to the plays counter-narrative, the narrative wherein

Hamlet is seen from Laertess point of view seen as, in the words of
David Lucking, the killer of an innocent old man and the destroyer of
a young girls sanity. Because this counter-narrative is entirely incompatible with the plays desired effect, the play, and the audience, must
trivialize Polonius. Because Polonius is conventional in so many ways
the foolish senex character, the busy politician, the impediment to the
love plot and because he dies halfway through the play, the task of
trivializing him is not a difcult one. The miracle of the plays success
lies in what happens to the energy that results when the trivial view of
Polonius collides with the brief but extremely signicant symbolic view
we have of him in the scene where he is killed.
Schuckings discussion of the discontinuity of Poloniuss character has
been fundamental for subsequent approaches to Hamlet. Critics, editors,
and directors who take seriously the And these few precepts speech of
., nevertheless nd it uncharacteristic of Poloniuss usual style, his
leisurely and self-complacent manner. Schucking uses Polonius to
demonstrate Shakespeares willingness to break the unity of character
(Character Problems in Shakespeares Plays, p. ) for the sake of specic
effects in specic episodes: the single passage no longer has an absolute, but only
a relative value for the characteristics of any particular person (p. , emphasis
original). This seems correct, and it is in line with the arguments I have
made throughout this book. Elsewhere Schucking cautions that Polonius
is not to be seen simply as an immoral fool: he is the representative of
the Court in the play and we are meant to take seriously the Kings
remark that he is faithful and humble, and the fact that the people
are clamoring over good Poloniuss death (see pp. ). But what is
difcult for Schucking is giving a satisfactory explanation of the function
of the speech in .. He argues that Shakespeare, satisfying the demand
of the time that tragedy should be sententious, simply puts words and
ideas into Polonius mouth which proceed immediately from the poets
own personality (p. ).
Less intent on (or overt in) bringing in Shakespeares personality,
Philip Edwards in his Cambridge edition of Hamlet nevertheless takes

David Lucking, Each word made true and good: Narrativity in Hamlet, Dalhousie Review .
(): .
Levin L. Schucking, Character Problems in Shakespeares Plays (London: George G. Harrap, ),
p. .
The technical term Schucking gives for this is episodic intensication. Generally he nds this
to be characteristic of the general methods of dramatic composition at the time, but only a
tendency on Shakespeares part. See ibid., pp. .
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, .

Epilogue: Jonson and Shakespeare

a similar approach, providing a footnote to the line to thine own self be

true that reads as follows:
Such an injunction, of dubious value for Polonius and Laertes, touches the
centre of Hamlets predicament. To thine own self be true! But to which self ?
He cannot reach the self to which he must be true.

For Edwards, the speech is meaningless in Poloniuss mouth because

Polonius is not even really a character he is simply an amalgamation
of windy proverbs, some of which happen to pertain to Hamlets plight.
Neither Schucking nor Edwards gives enough attention to the importance of this speech as an initial interpretation of Polonius with respect
to how that interpretation will change. We rst hear from Polonius at ..
, where he is expressing briey and in a proud fatherly manner his
reluctance to let Laertes go to France. It is the proud but slightly wistful
father of those lines that we see in .. , where the length of the
speech is balanced by the genuineness of its sentiment, and seems more
a product of not wanting to let Laertes go just yet than of self-indulgent
pleasure in his own words. This genuineness, I think, is to govern our experience of the conversation with Ophelia after Laertes leaves. Ophelia
is young and confused (I do not know my lord what I should think
[line ]) and Polonius, already in the fatherly advice-giving vein, is
eager to give her guidance as he has Laertes. An actor could of course
(and usually does) bring to this scene some of the ofciousness and tediousness we later come to see in Polonius, but this is precisely the wrong
approach. Like most characters of early modern tragedy, Polonius must
simply behave according to the constantly changing demands of the
action. Here it is necessary for him to underscore Ophelias youth and
confusion; later it will be necessary for him to be a fool. The mistake is
to assume that early modern tragic dramaturgy, even Shakespeares, is
based on a notion of character that demands the kind of interpretation
by audience or actor wherein earlier actions can be explained by later
ones. Plays and playwrights are as willing as audiences must be to forget
from one moment to the next what a character is like. The movement
of the action absolutely requires it.
What happens after . is that Polonius becomes more and more
involved in the affairs of Hamlet rather than those of his children, and
neither Hamlet, nor the play, nor the audience can forgive him for it.
Poloniuss paying Reynaldo to spy on Laertes in . is a signicant departure from the fatherly advice of ., and this will affect our view of
the advice given to Ophelia later in .. Poloniuss desire to know everything and his tendency to jump to conclusions are quickly and denitely

Theatrical Convention and Audience Response

established so that when Ophelia describes Hamlets bizarre and certainly alarming actions (and Ophelia has no reason to lie) at lines ,
we focus more on the inadequacy of Poloniuss response, This is the very
ecstasy of love (line ). We know that Hamlet has more disturbing
things on his mind than a bad crush; we have seen him see a ghost and
heard him hear of his fathers murder. Once Polonius has decided that
Ophelias returning Hamlets letters and denying him access has made
Hamlet mad (line ), his own language turns against him: the contorted verbosity of .. , , and is inconsistent with
what we know of Polonius from . and ., but because the dramatic
irony insists on his obtuseness, we understand the new way he talks to
be a constant of his character. Now Polonius becomes the character we
remember him to be: the character, as States says, known principally
for two things, spying and long-windedness, and in his practice they are
aspects of a single addiction. For spying, in his own denition, is a way of
nding directions out by indirection (Hamlet and the Concept of Character,
p. ). Now Polonius becomes the minion of Claudius, the blundering
wit who is no match for Hamlets opaque irony, and the kind of person
who, outmatched by such opacity, resorts to hiding behind arrases.
While one might fault Polonius for not entering sooner in the Get
thee to a nunnery scene, he seems to hope to make amends for this in
., calling out What ho! Help! when he (and Gertrude) thinks that
Gertrude is going to be murdered. And it is at this point, of course, that
Polonius is unexpectedly and unceremoniously killed. Critical discussion
of this moment is strange: while critics tend to see Poloniuss death
(correctly) as a catalyst for the nal action of the play, they also tend to
put the blame for the death on Polonius himself. Edwardss introduction
says that Poloniuss proclivity for spying which leads to his own violent
death is shown in the grotesque commission to Reynaldo to keep an
eye on Laertes in Paris and then in his schemes to nd out whats wrong
with Hamlet (Hamlet, ed. Edwards, p. ). G. R. Hibbards introduction
to the Oxford edition is remarkably terse about the scene: Early in
. Hamlet inadvertently kills the eavesdropping Polonius ( p. ), and
he leaves the scene a saner and more mature man than he was when
he entered it (p. ). Harold Jenkins, in his Arden edition, does not
mention the scene (which omission itself indicates a certain indifference
to Polonius), but provides this footnote to Hamlets How now? A rat! at
.. : Rats proverbially cause their own deaths by drawing attention

Oxford: Clarendon Press, .

London: Routledge, .

Epilogue: Jonson and Shakespeare

to themselves. States, in a passage already quoted above, nds Polonius

responsible for releasing the mayhem that causes the deaths at the end
of the play.
Hibbards inadvertently, Edwardss parenthetical which leads to
his own . . . death, or Statess spying and long-windedness seem true
to what an audience thinks of Hamlets killing Polonius and of the kind
of character Polonius is. I think that audiences do not remember that
Polonius was killed so much as they remember that he got himself into
a position to be killed and that on some level he deserved it. We, like
Hamlet, are all too happy that Hamlet should not be held responsible for
Hamlets actions we are in fact convinced that he cannot act: consider
Bert Statess claim that Hamlet directs toward Polonius the energy
that cannot be directed toward Claudius. The way the play allows us
to continue thinking of Hamlet this way at the rst moment he does act
is by suddenly making Polonius more important to us than we have yet
allowed him to be. For the one moment Polonius absolutely demands our
attention when his heaving, bloody body must be dragged off-stage,
he must come to seem like a symbol of what is wrong with Claudius
insofar as he is a bad father and with the Court in which Hamlet
lives because he is duplicitous rather than a victim, like his daughter,
of Hamlets thoughtless, self-absorbed behavior. This symbolic function
exhausted, he returns to just being a rat. In Hamlet . the audience
avoids feeling one kind of disappointment in the fact that the signals
of revenge tragedy that have been glaringly obvious from the plays rst
scene have still not been delivered on by delighting in the consequences
of another the fact that Polonius does not, as every audience member
believes he or she does, understand Hamlet. It feels good to kill Polonius.
Hamlet is a character we believe we know, mostly because we see
and hear everything he sees and hears; his insistently introspective
approach to things makes him the representative of the deeper truths
in the play, to which Poloniuss inadequate worldly wisdom stands in
contrast. We are much less willing to be disappointed by Hamlet,
especially if the choice is between him and Polonius, and so we construe
Hamlets (self-) destructive impulse as a result of Poloniuss calculation
and subterfuge. Hamlet is an astonishing play because it takes the gure

In On the Value of Hamlet, Stephen Booth notes that Except for brief periods near the
end of the play, the audience never has insight or knowledge superior to Hamlets or, indeed,
different from Hamlets. In Reinterpretations of Elizabethan Drama, ed. Norman Rabkin (New York:
Columbia University Press, ), pp. . The quotation is from page .
Edward Hubler, in his introduction to the Signet edition (New York: Signet, ), p. xx.

Theatrical Convention and Audience Response

of the tragic hero to an almost parodic extreme it is unforgiving in its

portrayal of Hamlet, but puts him within a conventional framework so
familiar and inevitable-seeming that we can do nothing but forgive him.
Polonius, like Shylock, threatens the generically predictable movement
of the play. In order for either play to succeed, it must incorporate the
wrong energy of these characters into its resolution. Hamlet succeeds
because it makes the audience see a largely illusory causal link between
Poloniuss actions and the plays catastrophe; Merchant of Venice fails, at
least on one level, because the machinery which ends the play functions
as though Shylock were never there in the rst place.
Something like seeing the deception scene in Othello, or the end of
Sophonisba or of How a Man May Choose, something like seeing a scene
that takes place in the dark, something like hearing a pun, in Hamlet .
we see what we want to see, or what the play wants us to see, and it is
different from what we are actually seeing. Like all spectacular effects of
Elizabethan and Jacobean drama, what Shakespeare does with Hamlet
and Polonius involves a vital tension and the potential for failure: the
tension between Hamlet seen as hero and Hamlet seen as monster, the
potential for the audience to dislike the character it above all needs to
like, the potential for the theatre to be seen as merely a stage. And like all
such effects, what Shakespeare does with Hamlet and Polonius is a trick,
a sleight of hand, performed with a casual deftness that is breathtaking
and magnicent.

Plays and editions cited

Note: Plays are arranged by author, and chronologically by earliest probable performance date under each author heading. Plays written collaboratively are listed under each authors heading.

A Warning for Fair Women, ed. Charles Dale Cannon ( The Hague:
Mouton), .
King Leir, ed. Donald M. Michie (New York: Garland), .
Selimus, ed. Daniel Vitkus, in Three Turk Plays from Early Modern
England (Columbia: Columbia University Press), .
The Wars of Cyrus, Tudor Facsimile Texts, .
Arden of Feversham, ed. M. L. Wine (London: Methuen), .
Edmund Ironside, ed. E. B. Everitt, in Six Early Plays Related to the
Shakespeare Canon (Copenhagen: Rosenkilde and Bagger), .
The Life and Death of Jack Straw, Tudor Facsimile Texts, .
Soliman and Perseda, ed. Frederick S. Boas, in The Works of Thomas Kyd
(Oxford: Clarendon), .
Locrine, ed. Jane Lytton Gooch (New York: Garland), .
The Troublesome Raigne of John, King of England, ed. J. W. Sider (New
York: Garland), .
A Knack to Know a Knave, Malone Society Reprints (Oxford: Oxford
University Press), .
The Taming of a Shrew, ed. Stephen Roy Miller (Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press), .
Alphonsus, Emperor of Germany, facsimile prepared by Herbert F.
Schwarz (New York: Putnam), .
A Knack to Know an Honest Man, Tudor Facsimile Texts, .
Mucedorus, ed. Arvin H. Jupin (New York: Garland), .
Look About You, ed. Richard M. Hirsch (New York: Garland), .

Plays and editions cited

The Maids Metamorphosis, Tudor Reprinted Texts, .
The Merry Devil of Edmonton, ed. William Amos Abrams (Durham,
NC: Duke University Press), .
Thomas Lord Cromwell, Tudor Facsimile Texts, .
The Trial of Chivalry, Tudor Facsimile Texts, .
The Weakest Goeth to the Wall, ed. Jill Levinson (New York: Garland),
The Wisdom of Doctor Dodypoll, ed. M. N. Matson (New York:
Garland), .
How a Man May Choose a Good Wife from a Bad, ed. A. E. H. Swaen
(London: David Nutt), .
A Yorkshire Tragedy, ed. A. C. Cawley and Barry Gaines (Manchester:
Manchester University Press), .
The Revengers Tragedy, ed. Brian Gibbons (London: A.&C. Black),
The Second Maidens Tragedy, ed. Anne Lancashire (Manchester:
Manchester University Press), .


The Two Maids of More-Clacke, ed. Alexander S. Liddie (New York:

Garland), .


The Devils Charter, ed. Jim C. Pogue (New York: Garland), .


The Family of Love, ed. Andrew Dillon, New York University

Dissertation, .
Ram Alley, Tutor Facsimile Texts, .

Beaumont and Fletcher

The Woman Hater, ed. Fredson Bowers, in The Dramatic Works in the
Beaumont and Fletcher Canon, vol. (Cambridge: Cambridge University
Press), .
The Coxcomb, ed. Fredson Bowers, in The Dramatic Works in the
Beaumont and Fletcher Canon, vol. (Cambridge: Cambridge University
Press), .

Plays and editions cited

Philaster, ed. Fredson Bowers, in The Dramatic Works in the Beaumont

and Fletcher Canon, vol. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press),
A King and No King, ed. Fredson Bowers, in The Dramatic Works in the
Beaumont and Fletcher Canon, vol. (Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press), .
The Maids Tragedy, ed. Fredson Bowers, in The Dramatic Works in the
Beaumont and Fletcher Canon, vol. (Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press), .
The Captain, ed. Fredson Bowers, in The Dramatic Works in the Beaumont
and Fletcher Canon, vol. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press),
The Faithful Friends, Malone Society Reprints (Oxford: Oxford
University Press ), .
The Scornful Lady, ed. Fredson Bowers, in The Dramatic Works in the
Beaumont and Fletcher Canon, vol. (Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press), .
Loves Pilgrimage, ed. Fredson Bowers, in The Dramatic Works in the
Beaumont and Fletcher Canon, vol. (Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press), .


The Blind Beggar of Alexandria, ed. Lloyd E. Berry, in The Plays of George
Chapman: The Comedies, general editor Allan Holaday (Urbana:
University of Illinois Press), .
An Humorous Days Mirth, ed. Allan Holaday, in The Plays of George
Chapman: The Comedies, general editor Allan Holaday (Urbana:
University of Illinois Press), .
May Day, ed. Robert F. Welsh, in The Plays of George Chapman: The
Comedies, general editor Allan Holaday (Urbana: University of
Illinois Press), .
The Gentleman Usher, ed. John Hazel Smith (Lincoln: University of
Nebraska Press), .


The Downfall of Robert, Earl of Huntingdon and The Death of Robert,

Earl of Huntingdon, ed. John Carney Meagher (New York: Garland),

Plays and editions cited

The Blind Beggar of Bednal Green, Old English Drama, Students
Facsimile Edition, .
Patient Grissil, ed. Fredson Bowers, in The Dramatic Works of
Thomas Dekker, vol. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press),


A Christian Turned Turk, ed. Daniel Vitkus, in Three Turk Plays from
Early Modern England (New York: Columbia University Press),


The Blind Beggar of Bednal Green, Old English Drama, Students

Facsimile Edition, .
The Travels of Three English Brothers, ed. Anthony Parr, in Three
Renaissance Travel Plays (Manchester: Manchester University Press),


Old Fortunatus, ed. Fredson Bowers, in The Dramatic Works of

Thomas Dekker, vol. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press),
Patient Grissil, ed. Fredson Bowers, in The Dramatic Works of
Thomas Dekker, vol. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press),
Blurt, Master-Constable, ed. Thomas Leland Berger (Salzburg:
University of Salzburg), .
Sir Thomas Wyatt, ed. Fredson Bowers, in The Dramatic Works of
Thomas Dekker, vol. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press),
The Roaring Girl, ed. Paul A. Mulholland (Manchester: Manchester
University Press), .
If this be not a Good Play the Devil is In It, ed. Fredson Bowers, in The
Dramatic Works of Thomas Dekker, vol. (Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press), .

Plays and editions cited


Sir John Oldcastle, ed. Jonathan Rittenhouse ( New York: Garland),



A Woman is a Weathercock, in Dodsleys Old English Plays, vol. , .

Amends for Ladies, in Dodsleys Old English Plays, vol. , .


The Womans Prize, ed. Fredson Bowers, in The Dramatic Works in the
Beaumont and Fletcher Canon, vol. (Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press), .
The Faithful Shepherdess, ed. Fredson Bowers, in The Dramatic Works in
the Beaumont and Fletcher Canon, vol. (Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press) .
Bonduca, ed. Fredson Bowers, in The Dramatic Works in the Beaumont and
Fletcher Canon, vol. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press),
The Night Walker, ed. Fredson Bowers, in The Dramatic Works in the
Beaumont and Fletcher Canon, vol. (Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press), .
The Widow, ed. Robert Trager Levine (Salzburg: University of
Salzburg), .


Alphonsus, King of Aragon, Malone Society Reprints (Oxford: Oxford

University Press), .
A Looking Glass for London and England, ed. George Alan Clugston (New
York: Garland), .
The Wounds of Civil War, ed. Joseph W. Houppert (Lincoln: University
of Nebraska Press), .
Orlando Furioso, ed. Tetsumaro Hayashi (Muncie, IN: Ball State
University Monographs), .
Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay, ed. J. A. Lavin (London: Benn), .

Plays and editions cited


Sir John Oldcastle, ed. Jonathan Rittenhouse (New York: Garland),



Englishmen for my Money, Tudor Facsimile Texts, .

Patient Grissil, ed. Fredson Bowers, in The Dramatic Works of
Thomas Dekker, vol. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press),
Grim the Collier of Croyden, Tudor Facsimile Texts, .


and Edward IV, Facsimile (Philadelphia: The Rosenbach Co.),

The Four Prentices of London, ed. Mary Ann Weber Gasior (New York:
Garland), .
The Fair Maid of the Exchange, ed. Karl E. Snyder (New York:
Garland), .
A Woman Killed with Kindness, ed. R. W. Van Fossen (Cambridge, MA:
Harvard University Press), .
If You Know Not Me, You Know Nobody, in The Dramatic Works of Thomas
Heywood, vol. (London: John Pearson), .
The Rape of Lucrece, ed. Allan Holaday, in Illinois Studies in Language and
Literature . ().
The Golden Age, in The Dramatic Works of Thomas Heywood, vol.
(London: John Pearson), .
Fair Maid of the West, ed. Brownell Salomon (Salzburg: University of
Salzburg), .
The Silver Age, in The Dramatic Works of Thomas Heywood, vol.
(London: John Pearson), .
The Iron Age, in The Dramatic Works of Thomas Heywood, vol.
(London: John Pearson), .


Cynthias Revels, ed. G. A. Wilkes, in The Complete Plays of Ben Jonson,

vol. (Oxford: Oxford University Press), .

Plays and editions cited

Poetaster, ed. G. A. Wilkes, in The Complete Plays of Ben Jonson, vol.

(Oxford: Oxford University Press), .
Sejanus, ed. G. A. Wilkes, in The Complete Plays of Ben Jonson, vol.
(Oxford: Oxford University Press), .
Volpone, ed. G. A. Wilkes, in The Complete Plays of Ben Jonson, vol.
(Oxford: Oxford University Press), .
Epicoene, ed. G. A. Wilkes, in The Complete Plays of Ben Jonson, vol.
(Oxford: Oxford University Press), .
The Alchemist, ed. G. A. Wilkes, in The Complete Plays of Ben Jonson,
vol. (Oxford: Oxford University Press), .
Catiline, ed. G. A. Wilkes, in The Complete Plays of Ben Jonson, vol.
(Oxford: Oxford University Press), .
Bartholomew Fair, ed. G. A. Wilkes, in The Complete Plays of Ben Jonson,
vol. (Oxford: Oxford University Press), .
The Devil is an Ass, ed. G. A. Wilkes, in The Complete Plays of Ben Jonson,
vol. (Oxford: Oxford University Press), .
The Widow, ed. Robert Trager Levine (Salzburg: University of
Salzburg), .
The New Inn, ed. G. A. Wilkes, in The Complete Plays of Ben Jonson,
vol. (Oxford: Oxford University Press), .


A Looking Glass for London and England, ed. George Alan Clugston (New
York: Garland), .
The Wounds of Civil War, ed. Joseph W. Houppert (Lincoln: University
of Nebraska Press), .


Campaspe, ed. Leah Scragg, in John Lyly: Selected Prose and Dramatic
Work ( Manchester: Carcanet), .
Gallathea, ed. Anne Begor Lancashire (Manchester: Manchester
University Press), .
Mother Bombie, ed. A. Harriette Andreadis (Salzburg: University of
Salzburg), .
Midas, ed. Anne Begor Lancashire (Manchester: Manchester
University Press), .

Plays and editions cited


The Spanish Tragedy, ed. J. R. Mulryne (London: A.&C. Black), .


The Dumb Knight, in A Select Collection of Old English Plays, vol. , ed.
Robert Dodsley, rev. W. Carew Hazlitt (London: Reeves and
Turner), .


The Dumb Knight, in A Select Collection of Old English Plays, vol. , ed.
Robert Dodsley, rev. W. Carew Hazlitt (London: Reeves and
Turner), .


Tamburlaine the Great, ed. J. W. Harper (London: A.&C. Black), .

Doctor Faustus, ed. David Bevington and Eric Rasmussen
(Manchester: Manchester University Press), .
Edward II, ed. Charles R. Forker (Manchester: Manchester
University Press), .
The Jew of Malta, ed. James R. Siemon (London: A.&C. Black), .


Antonio and Mellida, ed. W. Reavely Gair (Manchester: Manchester

University Press), .
Antonios Revenge, ed. W. Reavely Gair (Manchester: Manchester
University Press), .
What You Will, ed. M. R. Woodhead (Nottingham: Nottingham
University Press), .
The Malcontent, ed. M. L. Wine (Lincoln: University of Nebraska
Press), .
Sophonisba, ed. William Kemp (New York: Garland), .
The Insatiate Countess, ed. Giorgio Melchiori (Manchester: Manchester
University Press), .

Plays and editions cited


The Turk, ed. Fernand Lagarde (Salzburg: University of Salzburg),



The Phoenix, ed. John Bradbury Brooks (New York: Garland), .

A Mad World, My Masters, ed. Standish Henning (Lincoln: University
of Nebraska Press), .
Michaelmas Term, ed. Richard Levin (Lincoln: University of Nebraska
Press), .
The Family of Love, ed. Andrew Dillon, New York University
Dissertation, .
Your Five Gallants, ed. C. Lee Colegrove (New York: Garland),
No Wit, No Help Like a Womans, ed. Lowell E. Johnson (Lincoln:
University of Nebraska Press), .
The Roaring Girl, ed. Paul A. Mulholland ( Manchester: Manchester
University Press), .
A Fair Quarrel, ed. George R. Price (Lincoln: University of Nebraska
Press), .
The Witch, ed. Elizabeth Schafer (London: A.&C. Black), .
The Widow, ed. Robert Trager Levine (Salzburg: University of
Salzburg), .


The Downfall of Robert, Earl of Huntingdon and The Death of Robert, Earl
of Huntingdon, ed. John Carney Meagher (New York: Garland),
Sir John Oldcastle, ed. Jonathan Rittenhouse (New York: Garland),


The Old Wives Tale, ed. Frank S. Hook, in The Dramatic Works of George
Peele, vol. (New Haven: Yale University Press), .
David and Bethsabe, ed. Elmer Blistein, in The Dramatic Works of George
Peele, vol. (New Haven: Yale University Press), .

Plays and editions cited


The Two Angry Women of Abington, ed. Marianne Brish Evett (New
York: Garland), .

Rowley (William)

The Travels of Three English Brothers, ed. Anthony Parr, in Three

Renaissance Travel Plays (Manchester: Manchester University Press),
A Fair Quarrel, ed. George R. Price (Lincoln: University of Nebraska
Press), .


The Comedy of Errors, ed. T. S. Dorsch (Cambridge: Cambridge

University Press), .
The Taming of the Shrew, ed. Ann Thompson (Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press), .
Richard III, ed. Janis Lull (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press),
Loves Labours Lost, ed. Richard David (London: Methuen), .
Titus Andronicus, ed. Alan Hughs (Cambridge: Cambridge University
Press), .
A Midsummer Nights Dream, ed. R. A. Foakes (Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press), .
The Merchant of Venice, ed. M. M. Mahood (Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press), .
Romeo and Juliet, ed. G. Blakemore Evans (Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press), .
Henry IV, ed. Herbert Weil and Judith Weil (Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press), .
Much Ado about Nothing, ed. F. H. Mares (Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press), .
As You Like It, ed. Michael Hattaway (Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press), .
Henry V, ed. Andrew Gurr (Cambridge: Cambridge University
Press), .
Hamlet, ed. Harold Jenkins (London: Methuen), .
Twelfth Night, ed. Elizabeth Story Donno (Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press),.

Plays and editions cited

Othello, ed. Norman Sanders (Cambridge: Cambridge University

Press), .
Measure for Measure, ed. Brian Gibbons (Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press), .
Macbeth, ed. A. R. Braunmuller (Cambridge: Cambridge University
Press), .
Antony and Cleopatra, ed. David Bevington (Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press), .
Pericles, ed. Doreen DelVelcchio and Antony Hammond
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), .
Timon of Athens, ed. Karl Klein (Cambridge: Cambridge University
Press), .
Cymbeline, ed. J. M. Nosworthy (London: Methuen), .
The Winters Tale, ed. J. H. P. Pafford (London: Methuen), .
The Tempest, ed. Frank Kermode (London: Methuen), .


Hog Hath Lost His Pearl, in Dodsleys Old English Plays, vol. , .


The Atheists Tragedy, ed. Roma Gill and Brian Morris (London: Benn),


The White Devil, ed. Christina Luckyj (London: Benn), .

The Duchess of Mal, ed. Elizabeth M. Brennan (London: Benn),


The Travels of Three English Brothers, ed. Anthony Parr, in Three

Renaissance Travel Plays (Manchester: Manchester University Press),
Pericles, ed. F. D. Hoeniger ( London: Routledge), .

Plays and editions cited


The Three Ladies of London, ed. H. S. D. Mithal (New York: Garland),

The Cobblers Prophecy, Tudor Facsimile Texts, .
Sir John Oldcastle, ed. Jonathan Rittenhouse (New York: Garland),


Two Lamentable Tragedies, Tudor Facsimile Texts, .

Works cited

Anon., Daiphantus, ed. Alexander B. Grossart (Manchester: Charles Simms),

Anon., An Excellent Actor, in The Conceited Newes Of Sir Thomas Overbury
And His Friends: A Facsimile Reproduction of the Ninth Impression of of
Sir Thomas Overbury His Wife, ed. James E. Savage (Gainesville, FL:
Scholars Facsimiles & Reprints, .
Anon., A Short Treatise of Stage Plays, London, .
Anon., A Treatise of Miraclis Pleyinge, ed. Clifford Davidson (Kalamazoo: Western
Michigan University Press, .
Adams, J. Q., Thomas Heywood and How a Man May Choose a Good Wife from
a Bad, Englische Studien (): .
Anderson, Norman, Studies in the Elizabethan Domestic Tragedies,
, University of Oregon, .
Arnold, Judd, The Double Plot in Volpone: A Note on Jonsonian Dramatic
Structure, Seventeenth-Century News (): .
Aristophanes, Women at the Thesmophoria, trans. Jeffrey Henderson, in Three Plays
by Aristophanes (New York: Routledge), .
Baldwin, T. W., The Organization and Personnel of the Shakespearean Company
(Princeton: Princeton University Press), .
Barber, C. L., Shakespeares Festive Comedy (Princeton: Princeton University Press),
Barbour, Richmond, When I Acted Young Antinous: Boy Actors and the
Erotics of Jonsonian Theater, PMLA . (): ,.
Barish, Jonas, The Double Plot in Volpone, Modern Philology ():
The Antitheatrical Prejudice (Berkeley: University of California Press), .
Baskervill, C. R., Sources and Analogues of How a Man may Choose a Good Wife
from a Bad, PMLA (): .
Bednarz, Shakespeare and the Poets War (New York: Columbia University Press),
Bentley, G. E., The Jacobean and Caroline Stage (Oxford: Clarendon), .
Berek, Peter, Artice and Realism in Lyly, Nashe, and Loves Labors Lost, Studies
in English Literature . (): .

Works cited

Berger, Harry, Jr., Imaginary Audition: Shakespeare on Stage and Page (Berkeley:
University of California Press), .
Bevington, David, From Mankind to Marlowe (Cambridge, MA: Harvard
University Press), .
Bly, Mary, Bawdy Puns and Lustful Virgins: The Legacy of Juliets Desire in
Comedies of the Early s, Shakespeare Survey (): .
Queer Virgins and Virgin Queans on the Early Modern Stage (Oxford: Oxford
University Press), .
Boehrer, Bruce, Monarchy and Incest in Renaissance England (Philadelphia: University
of Pennsylvania Press), .
Booth, Stephen, On the Value of Hamlet, in Reinterpretations of Elizabethan Drama,
ed. Norman Rabkin (New York: Columbia University Press), .
King Lear, Macbeth, Indenition, and Tragedy (New Haven: Yale University Press),
Close Readings Without Readings, in Shakespeare Reread: The Texts in New
Contexts, ed. Russ McDonald (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press),
Syntax as Rhetoric in Richard II, Mosaic . (): .
Precious Nonsense: The Gettysburg Address, Ben Jonsons Epitaphs on his Children, and
Twelfth Night (Berkeley: University of California Press), .
Bowden, William R., The Bed Trick, : Its Mechanics, Ethics, and
Effects, Shakespeare Studies (): .
Bradbrook, Muriel, Themes and Conventions of Elizabethan Tragedy (Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press), .
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Adams, J. Q. n
Admirals Men n
Alchemist, The , n, , ,
Alley, William
Alphonsus, Emperor of Germany n, , ,
, ,
Alphonsus, King of Aragon ,
Amends for Ladies n,
Anderson, Norman n
An Excellent Actor
antitheatrical tracts
denitions of genre in
dialogue or dramatic form of
food metaphors in
lists in
repetition in
rhetorical methods of
view of playgoers in ,
Antonio and Mellida , , , , ,
Antonios Revenge , , , , ,
Antony and Cleopatra ,
Arden of Feversham , , , , n,
Women at the Thesmophoria
Armin, Robert , , , ,
Arnold, Judd
and audience response , ,
comic vs. tragic ,
and editors , ,
and equivocation
and genre
As You Like It , , , , ,
Atheists Tragedy, The , , , , n, ,
, , n, ,
and editors
audiences, early modern
dual consciousness of , , ,
different kinds

modern audiences, compared to

as playgoing public
study of, traditions in ,
Baldwin, T. W. n
Barber, C. L. , n,
Barbour, Richmond
Barish, Jonas , ,
Barnes, Barnabe , ,
Barry, Lording , ,
Bartholomew Fair , ,
Baskerville, C. R. n
Bate, Jonathan
Beaumont, Francis , , n, , , , n,
, , , n, , , ,
, , , , , ,
, , , , , ,
bed-trick n
Berek, Peter n
Berger, Harry, Jr.
Beuler, Lois E.
Bevington, David n, , ,
Blackfriars playhouse , , ,
Blind Beggar of Alexandria, The n,
Blind Beggar of Bednal Green, The ,
Blurt, Master-Constable , n,
Bly, Mary , n, n
Boas, Frederick S.
Boehrer, Bruce n, n
Bonduca , ,
Booth, Stephen , n, n, , , , ,
, n, n, n
Bowden, William R. n
boy actors
in The Atheists Tragedy
dramaturgy of boy companies
in Sophonisba
Bradbrook, Muriel , , ,
Brennan, Elizabeth
Brome, Richard

Brooks, Harold n
Bullen, A. H.
edition of The Family of Love
edition of Sophonisba n
Butler, Samuel
Campaspe ,
Captain, The , n, n, , , ,
, , , , ,
, , , ,
Cartwright, Kent n, , n
Catiline , ,
Chapman, George n, n, , n, ,
, , , ,
Chettle, Henry , n,
Christian Turned Turk, A ,
Cobblers Prophecy, The n,
Colley, John Scott n
conversion narratives in ,
humiliation in ,
motivation in
resolution in , , ,
typical characters in
Comedy of Errors, The ,
Cook, Ann Jennalie ,
Cooke, John n
Coxcomb, The ,
Craik, T. W.
Curtain theatre n
Cymbeline , , , , ,
Cynthias Revels ,
Daborne, Robert ,
Daniel, Carter
darkness on stage
in tragedy vs. comedy ,
and use of stage
David and Bethsabe ,
Day, John n, ,
Death of Robert, Earl of Huntingdon, The n,

Dekker, Thomas , , , , ,
, , , , n,
Desens, Marliss C. n
Dessen, Alan , n, n, n,
Devil is an Ass, The , ,
Devils Charter, The , ,
and asides
and genre
potential ridiculousness of
Doctor Faustus , , , , ,

B-text ,
date of n
Dollimore, Jonathan
Doran, Madeline ,
Downfall of Robert, Earl of Huntingdon, The n,
dramaturgy, early modern
character in
differences from modern n
doubling , ,
public vs. private theatres
self-reexivity of ,
Drayton, Michael ,
Duchess of Mal, The , n, n, , , ,
Dumb Knight, The , n,
Dyce, Alexander
edition of The Family of Love
echo scenes
and genre
potential clumsiness of
as wish-fulllment in plays
Edmund Ironside , , ,
Edward II , ,
Edward IV, Part One ,
Edward IV, Part Two , , n, n,
Edwards, Philip ,
Ellis, Herbert A.
Ellis-Fermor, Una , n, n, , , n,

Englishmen for My Money , , n, ,

Epicoene n, n, , , ,
and audience response
as beginning
in death of battle scenes
dialogue vs. soliloquy
and editors ,
and genre
and minor characters
failure, potential for ,
and asides , , ,
in comedy , , ,
and disguise plots
and exposition ,
and theatrical success
in tragedy


Fair Maid of Bristow, The n

Fair Maid of the Exchange, The n,
Fair Maid of the West, The, Part One ,
Fair Quarrel, A , , ,
Faithful Friends, The n,
Faithful Shepherdess, The , ,
Family of Love, The , , , ,
authorship n
Famous History of Friar Bacon, The
(prose source for Greene) n
Field, Nathaniel ,
Finkelpearl, Philip n
Fiorentino, Ser Giovanni
Il Pecorone (source for Merchant of Venice)
Fletcher, John , , , n, , , n,
n, , , , , , , ,
n, , , , , , ,
, , , , , , ,
, , , , , ,
, , ,
Ford, John ,
Forker, Charles R. n
Fortune theatre n
Four Prentices of London, The , , , ,

Fowler, Richard
Freeman, Arthur, , ,
Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay n, , ,
, , ,
Fried, Debra , ,
Gair, W. Reavely n, n, n
Gallathea , , , , , ,
and editors
Game at Chess, A
genre ,
audience experience of ,
city comedy , ,
and convention
Gentleman Usher, The , n, , ,
Gill, Roma
Globe theatre , , ,
Golden Age, The , , ,
Gosson, Stephen ,
Plays Confuted in Five Actions
Schoole of Abuse, The , , , ,
Greenblatt, Stephen ,
Greene, Robert n, , , , , ,
, , , , , , , ,

Greenes Tu Quoque n

Grim, the Collier of Croyden n,

Gruber, William
Gurr, Andrew , , , n, , n, n,
Hamlet , , , , , , , ,
, , , , , ,
Harbage, Alfred , ,
Hardy, Thomas
Human Shows; Far Phantasies n
Hathaway, Richard ,
Hattaway, Michael n, n
Haughton, William , n, , n, ,
, n,
Hayashi, Tetsumaro n
Henke, James T. n
Henry IV, Part One , ,
Henry V n,
Henslowe, Philip
Diary , n, n
Hereford, C. H.
Heywood, Thomas , , n, , , ,
, , , , , , , ,
, , n,
Apologie for Actors ,
Hibbard, G. R.
Hoeniger, F. D. n
Hog Hath Lost His Pearl , , ,
How a Man may Choose a Good Wife from a Bad ,
, , n, , , , , ,
, , , , , , ,

authorship n
Hubler, Edward n
Humorous Days Mirth, An ,
Hunter, G. K. ,
If this be not a Good Play, the Devil is Int ,
If You Know Not Me, You Know Nobody, Part Two
, ,
I. G.
Refutation of the Apologie for Actors , , ,

in The Captain
in comedy or tragicomedy
and disguise plots
and exposition
function in dramatic narratives
in Gallathea ,
and genre
as structural problem
Insatiate Countess, The , , , n, ,
, ,
Iron Age, The, Part Two , , ,

Jackson, MacDonald P. n
Jenkins, Harold
Jew of Malta, The n,
Johnson, Lowell n
Johnson, Samuel
Jonson, Ben , , n, , , , ,
, , , , , ,
, ,
food metaphors in n
hostility toward audiences
inuence on Marston n
Joseph, B. L.
Jovial Crew, A
Kemp, William n
Kemper, Susan C. n
King and No King, A , n, ,
King Lear ,
King Leir , n,
Kings Men
Knack to Know an Honest Man, A , ,
Knack to Know a Knave, A , , ,
Kyd, Thomas , , , , , , ,
n, ,
Lady of Pleasure, The
Lake, David n
Lancashire, Anne ,
and asides
and audience response ,
in The Captain
in Jonson
and puns
Leggatt, Alexander n,
Levin, Richard ,
Life and Death of Jack Straw, The ,
Lily, William
Brevissima Institutio
Litt, Dorothy E.
source for Sophonisba
Locrine n, ,
Lodge, Thomas , , , , , ,

Reply to Stephen Gossons Schoole of Abuse

Look About You ,
Looking Glass for London and England, A , ,
, ,
Love, Genevieve
Loves Labours Lost , n,
Loves Pilgrimage , , ,
Lucas, F. L. n,
Lucking, David

Lyly, John , , , , , ,
, , n, ,
Macbeth , , , , n, ,
Machin, Lewis , n,
MacIntyre, Jean n, n
Maclean, Sally-Beth n,
Mad World, My Masters, A , ,
Maids Metamorphosis, The n, ,
Maids Tragedy, The , ,
Malcontent, The , , , ,
Marchitell, Howard
Markham, Gervase , n,
Marlowe, Christopher , , n, ,
, , , , , , , ,

Marston, John , , , , n, , ,
, , , , , , ,
, , , , , ,
anxiety about print
and boy actors
Mason, John n,
Maxwell, J. C.
May Day ,
McCabe, Richard A. n
McMillin, Scott n, , n
Measure for Measure , ,
Merchant of Venice, The , , , ,
, , ,
Meres, Francis
Palladis Tamia
Merry Devil of Edmonton, The , ,
Michaelmas Term , n, ,
Midas ,
Middleton, Thomas , , , , , n,
, , , , , , , ,
n, , , , , , ,
n, ,
Midsummer Nights Dream, A , , , ,
More Dissemblers Besides Women
Morris, Brian
Mother Bombie , ,
Mucedorus , ,
Much Ado about Nothing n,
Mulholland, Paul n
Munday, Anthony , n,
New Inn, The n, n,
Night Walker, The , , , , ,
Northbrooke, John
Treatise against Dicing, dauncing, Plays, and
Interludes , , , , , ,
Nosworthy, J. M. n,
No Wit, No Help Like a Womans , , n,
, , , ,

Old Fortunatus , , ,
Old Wives Tale, The , ,
Orlando Furioso , ,
Othello , , , , , , ,
, , , ,
Metamorphoses (source for Gallathea)
Parker, Patricia , n,
Parker, R. B.
Partridge, Eric n
Patient Grissil , n, ,
Pauls playhouse n, n, n
Peele, George , , ,
Pericles , ,
Philaster ,
Phoenix, The , , ,
physical space
and asides , ,
and comedy
and echo scenes
and exposition ,
imagined, different kinds
and tragedy ,
Pincombe, Michael , ,
Poetaster ,
Porter, Henry n, , , , ,

Powell, Jocelyn
Prince Charless Men n
Prynne, William
Histrio-Mastix , , , , , ,
puns and wordplay
and audience response ,
and genre
hidden or potential ,
surface-level or overt
Queens Men
Rackin, Phyllis n
Ram Alley , ,
Rape of Lucrece (Heywood) ,
Red Bull theatre ,
Redfern, Walter
repertory system
Revengers Tragedy, The n, , , , ,
n, , , , , n, ,
, , , , ,
Reynolds, George Fullmer n, n, n,
Ribner, Irving n,
Richard III ,

Roaring Girl, The , , , n, , , ,

Roberts, Josephine A. n
Romeo and Juliet n, ,
Rowley, William , n, n,
Schucking, Levin L.
Scornful Lady, The , ,
Scott, Michael n
Scott, Reginald
Discoverie of Witchcraft n
Scragg, Leah
Second Maidens Tragedy, The n, ,
Sejanus , , ,
Selimus ,
Shakespeare, William , , , , , ,
, , n, , , , , ,
, , , , , , n, ,
, n , , , , , , ,
, , , , , , , ,
, , , , , , , ,
, , , , , ,

Shirley, James
Short Treatise of Stage Plays, A ,
Sidney, Sir Philip
Defence of Poetry n,
Astrophil and Stella n
Silver Age, The , ,
Simpson, Percy
Sir John Oldcastle, Part One , , , ,

Sir Thomas Wyatt ,

Soliman and Perseda , , , , ,
, , , , , , , ,

Sophonisba , , , , , , ,
, ,
Spanish Tragedy, The , , , , , ,
, , , n,
stage violence
hyperbole of
logic of n
and stage technology
in tragedy
and use of props
States, Bert , , ,
Stubbes, Philip
Anatomie of Abuses , , , ,
Sturgess, Keith , n, n,
Sweeney, John

Tailor, Robert , , ,
Tamburlaine the Great, Part One , , ,
, , ,
in Henslowes Diary n
Tamburlaine the Great, Part Two ,
Taming of A Shrew, The , n,
Taming of the Shrew, The , , n, n,
Tatham, John
Knavery in all Trades n
Taylor, Gary , n
Tempest, The , , ,
theatrical space
and asides , ,
and comedy
and echo scenes
and exposition ,
and puns ,
and tragedy
Thomas Lord Cromwell , , ,
Thompson, Elbert N. S. ,
Thomson, Leslie n
Three Ladies of London, The n, ,
Three Lords of London, The
Timon of Athens ,
Tis Pity Shes a Whore ,
Titus Andronicus , , , , , ,
, , ,
Tourneur, Cyril , , , , n, ,
, , n, ,
and acting
allegorical gures in
and audience response , , ,
and morality drama ,
Travels of Three English Brothers, The n, ,
Treatise of Miraclis Pleyinge, A ,
Trial of Chivalry, The ,
Troilus and Cressida ,
Troublesome Reign of John, King of England, The
True Tragedy of Richard III, The
Turk, The n,
Twelfth Night , , , , , , ,

Two Angry Women of Abington, The n, , ,

, , , ,
Two Lamentable Tragedies , , , ,
Two Maids of More-Clacke, The , ,
, ,
Volpone , ,
Warner, Deborah
production of Titus Andronicus
Warning for Fair Women, A , n, , ,
, ,
Wars of Cyrus, The ,
Watson, Robert N. n
Weakest Goeth to the Wall, The n, ,
Webster, John , n, , , , ,
hostility toward audiences
Weimann, Robert , n, ,
Wharton, T. F. n, n
What You Will ,
White Devil, The , , n,
Whitefriars playhouse , n, n
Widow, The , , , , ,
Wilkins, George , n,
Williams, Gordon n
Wilson, Robert n, , n, ,
Winters Tale, The , , , , , ,

Wisdom of Doctor Dodypoll, The , n, ,

, ,
Witch, The n, n,
Wixson, Christopher n
Woman Hater, The ,
Woman is a Weathercock, A ,
Woman Killed with Kindness, A , , , , ,
Womans Prize, The n, n, n, ,
Women Beware Women n
Wounds of Civil War, The , , ,
Yarington, Robert , n, n, , ,
Yorkshire Tragedy, A ,
Your Five Gallants ,