Comedy and Tragedy in Early Modern Drama

This evening, I’ll be conducting the Inside Plays lecture for The  Maid’s Tragedy, and I’ve decided to use it as an opportunity to discuss one of my favorite pet concepts: definitions of comedy and tragedy.'Maid's Tragedie'

This all stems from a class I had with Professor John Morreall back in undergrad. We spent half the semester breaking down what makes something comic or tragic, then the second half applying those concepts to various religious worldviews. What I find particularly interesting, though, is how those concepts apply to early modern theatre. Despite our tendency to break Shakespeare’s plays and those of his contemporaries up into neat boxes labeled “Comedy”, “Tragedy”, and “History”, very few plays fit comfortably into those slots. Hamlet has plenty of funny moments, and Much Ado about Nothing has some real heart-rending moments.

The dichotomy is particularly noticeable in Beaumont and Fletcher’s The Maid’s Tragedy. At a glance, this is definitely what it says on the tin: a tragic play. All the characters seem hellbent on drastic actions, the fate of a kingdom is at stake, and by the final scene, the stage is littered with bodies. And yet, when I saw the play on its opening night, there was laughter. A lot of it.

Laughter can come from different places, of course, and I’m sure plenty of those laughs were nervous or awkward, a helpless response to the heightened emotions displayed on the stage. But I think there are some genuinely comic moments in this play, whether for their bawdy humor or their sheer absurdity. It’s not just a rollercoaster for emotions — it’s more of a yo-yo.

When a play presents such extremes, I like to go back to the same checklist I used back in Professor Morreall’s class. This list breaks down the biggest differences in the tragic-comic binary — convergent vs divergent thinking, focus on the spirit vs focus on the body, order vs chaos, etc. Analyzing a play, a character, or even an individual moment through this lens helps me see the often complex interplay between genres in early modern plays. Are there some characters with comic worldviews trapped in a tragic play? Are some of them so tragic, in such overblown ways, that it strains our capacity to sympathize and instead renders them comic? What makes us laugh in those funny moments — and how fast does the situation bring us back down, and why? And, most importantly, how can actors use that dichotomy and its attendant expectations to generate a variety of audience responses?

‘Fair Em’: A Lost and Found Story

From the desk of Kim Newton

Every now and then, someone will ask me, “So, what do you do when you’re not at camp?”  As the ASC’s Director of College Prep Programs, I spend much of my summer at the helm of the ASC Theatre Camp, an intensive college-preparatory and performance program for teens.  When I am not at camp, I am preparing for camp; much of my preparation involves research for the upcoming summer sessions.  One of my ongoing tasks is to select plays that reflect clear artistic and academic goals for our campers.  Since 2007, the ASC Theatre Camp has produced at least one play each summer by a contemporary of Shakespeare in order to broaden our campers’ understanding of how early modern playwrights collaborated and of how Shakespeare found inspiration for his plays in the works of his colleagues and predecessors.

In 2013, we produced The Wild Goose Chase by John Fletcher and Volpone by Ben Jonson.  This year, I selected the anonymous play Fair Em to complement our other Session 1 play titles, Measure for Measure and The Tempest.  Session 2 will present All’s Well That Ends Well and Henry VI, Part Three. Fair Em might seem like the odd play out in this line-up.  Why would we choose to produce a relatively unknown play that has a dubious attribution to Shakespeare?  For starters, it seems that few people have given this delightful play a fair look in the last 400 years.  I venture to say that our camp production will be among the first public performances of Fair Em in the United States.  If that isn’t cool enough, then perhaps some exhilarating bibliographic details will spark a burning desire in you to check out this play for yourself:

FairEmTitlePageQ1An undated quarto title page notes that the Lord Strange’s Men performed Fair Em in London:

“A Pleasa[n]t Commodie, of faire Em th[e] Millers daughter of Manchester:With the loue of William the Conqueror: As it was sundrietimes publiquely acted in the honourable citie of London, by the righthonourable the Lord Strange his servants. Imprinted at London for T. N. and I. W. and are to be solde in S. Dunstones Church-yarde in Fleete-streete.”[1]

The plot derives in part from an Elizabethan ballad titled, “The Blind Beggar’s Daughter of Bednal-Green”.[2] Like many plays of the time, the title of Fair Em alludes to a popular subplot, that of the beautiful Em; however, William the Conqueror, the first Norman King of England, might claim the title as the play’s main protagonist.

William the Conqueror falls in love with a Danish princess, Blanch, after seeing her portrait.  He disguises himself as a knight called Sir Robert of Windsor and travels to the Danish court, only to reject the princess in favor of Mariana, a captive of the Danish King Zweno. Mariana is already betrothed to William’s friend, the Marques of Lubeck.  The ladies conspire to switch places during a rendezvous with William, and he takes the wrong girl back to England.  Meanwhile, the subplot follows Em – the daughter of a banished lord, both forced into hiding as millers. Her suitors are fumbling gentlemen, but she remains faithful to her true love, Manville. Em wards off her unwelcome suitors by feigning deafness and blindness. Manville abandons Em for another girl when he believes that she has lost her sight and hearing. In the end, the ladies stand their ground against the men who wronged them. William accepts his princess, and Manville loses both of his marriage prospects.

The play re-imagines William the Conqueror as a romantic playboy; such historic figures were often the subjects of early modern plays that refashioned familiar legends into new entertainments.

The Trouble with Ascribing Authorship

Scholars, including E. K. Chambers and W. W. Greg, date this quarto to c.1590, a time during which the Lord Strange’s Men gained much popularity and performed at court six times.[3]  The second quarto of the play comes to print in 1631.

FairEmTitlePgBoth the undated and 1631 quartos of Fair Em lack a specific authorship attribution.  Scholars have attributed the play to Robert Wilson, Anthony Munday, and William Shakespeare.  E. K. Chambers relates the first ascription of the play to Shakespeare in The Elizabethan Stage [4]:

Fair Em has been included in the Shakespeare Apocrypha on the strength of a volume formerly in the collection of Charles II, and then in that of Garrick, in which it was bound up with Mucedorus and The Merry Devil of Edmonton and lettered ‘Shakespeare, vol. i’.”

More recent investigation by Peter Kirwan reveals that Shakespeare, Vol. I was a special collection in King Charles I’s library; the volume also contained no fewer than five additional plays attributed to Shakespeare, among them, The Puritan, Thomas Lord Cromwell, The London Prodigal, 1 Sir John Oldcastle, and Love’s Labor’s Lost.[5]  This volume, Kirwan argues, evidences an already unstable view of the Shakespearean canon emerging within a decade of the publication of the First Folio in 1623.

An entry in Henslowe’s Diary dated 4 January 1593 indicates that the Earl of Sussex’s Men performed a play titled, “william the conkerer“.[6]  The play is now lost.  William the Conqueror may be the Fair Em of Strange’s Men’s earlier repertory, played under the original subtitle.[7], 8  Roslyn Knutson posits that Fair Em traveled with the players from Sussex’s Men to the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, which may explain why Fair Em was bound with other plays from their repertory.[8]  Inevitably, the fact that playwrights often wrote for more than one company, and that plays, like actors, shifted ownership when companies disbanded and reformed under new patrons complicates attributions of authorship to Fair Em.

An Anecdote

Chambers notes a contemporary anecdote that also associates William Shakespeare with the character of William the Conqueror. John Manningham, a London barrister, recorded the following passage in 1601:

“Upon a time when Burbage played Richard III, there was a citizen grew so far in liking with him that before she went from the play she appointed him to come that night unto her by the name of Richard the Third. Shakespeare overhearing their conclusion went before, was entertained, and at his game ere Burbage came. Then message being brought that Richard the Third was at the door, Shakespeare caused return to be made that William the Conqueror was before Richard the Third.”[9]

The anecdote, apart from playing on William’s name, may also suggest that Shakespeare may have played a role in Fair Em some time before or concurrent with Richard Burbage’s appearance in Richard III, a fixture in the early repertory of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men.8

What do all of these historical tidbits add up to? We cannot know for certain whether or not Shakespeare had a hand, or a played a role, in the first appearance of Fair Em on the early modern English stage. We can, however, cite Fair Em as an example of the complexity of deciphering play authorship and of play ownership between theatrical playing companies.

Although Chambers and other scholars reject Shakespeare as the author of Fair Em, several of Shakespeare’s known works, including The Tempest, Measure for Measure, and All’s Well That Ends Well, share common plot elements with the play: the story of a father and daughter in exile, the inappropriate exploits of a ruler in disguise, and a lover’s abandonment of his betrothed. While Shakespeare may not have written Fair Em, the play may have influenced his writing later in his career.  Despite its rarity and received criticism, Fair Em offers a delightful glimpse into the early repertory of the Lord Strange’s Men and possibly to Shakespeare’s earliest connections with the London playing companies.

Please join us for the ASC Theatre Camp play festivals at the Blackfriars Playhouse this summer.  Session 1 presents Measure for Measure, The Tempest, and Fair Em on July 13. Come back on August 10 to see the Session 2 productions of All’s Well That Ends Well and Henry VI, Part 3.

–Kim


  • [1] STC (2nd ed.), 7675.
  • [2] Mannel, George. “The Source of the Immediate Plot of Faire Em”. Modern Language Notes, Vol. 28, No. 3 (Mar., 1913), pp. 80-82. John Hopkins University Press.
  • [3] Gurr, Andrew. The Shakespearian Playing Companies. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996.
  • [4] Chambers, E. K., The Elizabethan Stage. 4 Volumes, Oxford: Clarendon, 1923.
  • [5] Kirwan, Peter. “The First Collected “Shakespeare Apocrypha” Shakespeare Quarterly 62.4 (2011): 594-601. JSTOR. Web. Published by Folger Shakespeare Library in association with George Washington University.
  • [6] Foakes, R. A., ed. Henslowe’s Diary. Cambridge [etc.: Cambridge University Press, 2002.
  • [7] Greg, W. W., ed. Henslowe’s Diary. London: A. H. Bullen, 1908.
  • [8] Knutson, Roslyn L., The Repertory of Shakespeare’s Company, 1594-1613. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas, 1991.
  • [9] Chambers, E. K. William Shakespeare: A Study of Facts and Problems. Vol. 2. Oxford: Clarendon, 1930.

“Look, how he makes to Caesar” — Staging Caesar’s assassination with cue scripts

It simply wouldn’t be mid-March if I weren’t blogging about Julius Caesar. In past years, I’ve discussed the rhetoric, the blood, and the enduring legacy. Today, I want to talk about how one scene in the play — Caesar’s assassination — exemplifies Shakespeare’s mastery of early modern technology.

In the past couple of years, 3.1 of Julius Caesar has become my favorite scene to work through with cue scripts — scripts where an actor has only her own lines, plus the few words immediate preceding as a cue, rather than a full text. At first glance, I would guess most people could not imagine why. To be honest, I had my doubts when I first decided to dive into it as an experiment. The scene looks like a nightmare. Twelve speaking parts and two non-speaking roles make for rather a crowded stage (or classroom). Some of the characters speak at length; others hardly speak at all. Entrances and exits are muddied and uncertain. And somehow you have to organize everyone so that several of the characters can stab Caesar and bathe their hands in his blood. Who in her right mind would look at that and decide it’s the perfect introduction to cue scripts?

It works like a charm.

I first worked this scene with high school students in Kansas, and since then I’ve used it in workshops at the Blackfriars Playhouse, at local Virginia schools, with teachers in our seminars, and with professionals in our leadership programs. Every time, I re-discover just how good Shakespeare is at what he does.

Because a scene with fourteen actors is chaos. But it’s chaos that Shakespeare carefully orchestrates through embedded stage directions for both action and emotion. With such a crowded stage, Shakespeare ensures that his actors have to listen carefully to each other. Take a look at the cue script for Popillius Lena:

CaesarCue1

That’s it, for the entire scene. Looks simple enough, right? But there are hidden challenges. Popillius is talking to Cassius, but sometimes, depending on how students arrange the entrance, he’s nowhere near Cassius at this time. Students generally have no trouble figuring out that, no, Popillius really shouldn’t be shouting that remark over the crowd (and over Caesar’s head), so then we have to go back and figure out how to get Popillius close to Cassius. Does he enter near him? Is there a time when he can cross the stage? There’s no right answer, so it’s a moment for discussion and negotiation. Then, we find out that Brutus can’t be near enough to hear what he says to Cassius, since immediately afterwards, he asks “What says Popillius Lena?” Sometimes this requires another adjustment to where everyone’s standing and moving.

Then I ask the student playing Popillius Lena what he thinks he should do after saying “Fare you well”. Since that’s just saying “Bye,” almost always our Popillius wants to leave the stage. There’s no explicit exit direction, but that’s not necessarily an indication that he can’t leave — so I let him, since he’s made a valid choice based on the information available to him. But then we discover that this happens in Brutus’s cue script:

CaesarCue2

We find out not only that Popillius does not leave the stage, but that he goes to Caesar, and that he’s smiling. None of these clues are in Popillius’s script, so that actor has to be paying careful attention during rehearsal in order to adjust accordingly. This then brings up other questions later on — does Popillius stay on-stage during the assassination? If so, how does he react? If not, when can he leave? Some groups decide to have him wander off with Trebonius and Antony, just to get him out of the way. Others decide to let him stay and react — either in admiration and approval of the conspirators, if he really knew what “the enterprise” was, or in shock and horror, if he was talking about something else. The ambiguity opens up a lot of room for exploration — all in a character who only has two lines in the entire play.

Popillius is just one example, but the scene provides us with many others. Trebonius’s cue script has two entrances without an exit. Publius has a line but no entrance. Antony has no lines, yet has to listen for several embedded stage directions. The Soothsayer and Artemidorus only speak at the top of the scene and have no exit line — what do we do with them? Send them off, or let them also observe as witnesses? And then there are all the beautiful embedded directions that lead the conspirators to surround Caesar before they kill him. Casca has to be the first to stab, and students generally figure out from Caesar’s famous line that Brutus is the last, but in what order do the others perform their lethal punctures?

It looks like chaos — yet it always works out. Students of all ages figure out how to negotiate the demands of the scene with the space available to them. As a result, they not only enjoy the scene, find out that they can understand it perfectly well, and learn a little about blocking, they also see how good Shakespeare is at using the tools available to him. They can easily imagine the Chamberlain’s Men doing just as they did, working through a complex scene bit by bit, listening carefully to each other for clues, until it all comes together. That’s why I’ve come to love exploring this scene in workshops: it showcases not just Shakespeare’s verbal genius, but his technical aptitude and wonderful stagecraft.

Winter-Spring 2014 Playhouse Insider Now On Sale

The Winter-Spring 2014 issue of the Playhouse Insider, celebrating the shows in the Actors’ Renaissance Season and the World’s Mine Oyster Tour, is on-sale now in the Box Office and will soon be available for purchase through our online shop. CoverWith this magazine, we hope not only to introduce readers to the fascinating shows in these seasons, but also to provide a spectrum of viewpoints from the wonderful scholars, artists, and audience members who love these plays as much as we do.

In this issue:

  • Frequent ASC patron and blogger Adrian Whicker discusses his love for the Actors’ Renaissance Season and chronicles his reviews on the Mid-Atlantic Traveler.
  • Amanda Trombley, Director of Education at the Southwest Shakespeare Company and MBC MFA graduate, delves deep into her experience playing the role of Evadne in a 2011 production of The Maid’s Tragedy.
  • Jade Eaton, ASC patron and No Kidding Shakespeare Camp participant, compares Carlo Goldoni’s The Servant of Two Masters with Richard Bean’s adaptation One Man, Two Guvnors and tells us why she’s so excited to see The Servant of Two Masters at the Blackfriars Playhouse.
  • Eliza Hofman of Chicago’s Two Pence Theatre, another MBC MFA grad, shares her insights on the role of Celia in As You Like It from the 2009 MFA production directed by Ralph Alan Cohen.
  • University of Delaware Professor Emeritus Lois Potter analyzes the performance history of Othello, with special attention to how the central roles have developed over time.
  • ASC actors René Thornton Jr. and Benjamin Curns talk about playing Othello and Iago with an MLitt class in a conversation recorded by Kim Newton, ASC Director of College Prep Programs.
  • A Dramaturg’s Corner features five things you might like to know about Henry IV, Part 1, including a family tree to help you keep all of those dukes and descendants straight.
  • Former ASC actor Daniel Kennedy relates his discoveries and experiments in directing Richard II for the 2013 ASC Theatre Camp.

Would you like to write for an upcoming issue of the Playhouse Insider? Email Cass Morris to find out more.

“…mark me for his friend”

I met someone.

It came about, like these things often do, through a friend connecting us.  Soon, we were sending letters — the good, old-fashioned, hand-written kind. Then we started talking on the phone, and. he sent me photos, and a book of poetry.  And, on a fateful day in November, eight banker’s boxes arrived from California.

Six of the eight boxes we received in November.

Six of the eight boxes we received in November.

My penpal was William A. Riley, who sent his beloved late wife’s world of research on Timon of Athens to the American Shakespeare Center archives. I was delighted, and I found the timing of this gift almost magical. Lois Folger Riley* wrote her dissertation on the play that would complete the ASC’s first go at Shakespeare’s canon.  Her lifework, our company work, intersected.  One, perhaps, feeding the other.

We often receive gifts from supporters who contact us to find out if we can use the items. Last week, I took in a collection of books on 18th Century acting in England.  Earlier this year, we received costumes — party frocks and army gear (from two different donors), but this is the first time we had made a friend and been the recipient of a collection of research materials that, as best I could tell, had never been published anywhere else.

After their arrival, we let the boxes sit next to Kimberly Newton’s desk for a long while, contemplating what we could do with them.  Should they go into our archives at Washington & Lee?  That would mean cataloguing every piece of paper, or, at a minimum, each file folder.

One of the eight boxes of research that arrived in Novenmber

One box of files

Our archival area at the ASC administrative office is just big enough to hold the five years of materials we keep on site, so we couldn’t really keep all of Riley’s materials here.  Finally, I stopped letting the boxes haunt me each time I walked by Kimberly’s desk and decided that if I tackled a box or two a week, clearing away anything that was clearly detritus — boxes of carbon copy paper, stacks of typing paper, devoid of type — we would get somewhere. While I did that task, I also noted how the boxes were organized.  Some were the neat files pictured above, usually divided into research on chapters.  Others contained amazingly detailed pieces relating to research — down to the requests Ms. Riley sent to the librarians at the British Library for books she wanted to study.  There was a list of good places to eat in Louisiana, used went she went to visit her dissertation adviser.  There were also envelopes full of what we, at the office, have come to call “early modern word processing,” duplicates of sentences that she would tape into paragraphs in varying arrangements as she organized her thoughts.  A week or so ago, having done an initial assessment and seeing what we had to work with, I began the process of examination in earnest and developed a rough plan for moving forward.

This is the collection of each chapter we will be working with.

Each of the items in this stack is one chapter

Over the next few months, I will share that plan with you and will show you what we come up with.  We don’t know yet if we will be able to preserve this work for future generations.  We’ve yet to dive into the prose, or grapple with the premise, but we look forward to finding out what is there when we take that next step. We want to evaluate this research and see how it relates to what we do, possibly open up discussions — between students, teachers, professors, scholars, actors — and ask what they see, at long last, in Ms. Lois Riley’s The Meaning of Timon.

As we undertake this journey, I expect we will find out things about women writing their dissertations in the mid-20th Century, about the process of getting words to paper and research in that period vs today (see the “word-processing” example above), and, most of all, about Timon.  As for Bill’s wishes, when he sent the materials, he asked that we use them as we are able.  He shared many things with me about the woman he clearly loved, telling me things like “I used to say ‘she is the smartest woman I know,’ but now I say ‘she was the smartest person.'”  He told me, too, about her family — she is related to both the founder of the Folger Shakespeare Library and Starbucks coffee. I can’t think of a better pairing–if anyone could use some coffee, it is the people working hard at that regal institution.  He’s filled me in on their travels and has sent some photos with extensive captions written in his hand.

A collection of photos of Bill and Lois Riley, 1975-79. Bill's daughter stands next to him in the photo on the upper right.

A collection of photos of Bill and Lois Riley, 1975-79. Bill’s daughter stands next to him in the photo on the upper right.

I am looking forward to discovering more about this rarely staged play and about the scholar who created enough material to fill eight banker’s boxes with it.  I hope you will join me on this journey.

The journey begins.

The journey begins.

*She wrote under the names Lois Starbuck (a collection of poems called Journey Through Sun and Shadow) and Lois D. Pizer (dissertation).