Issue 2.2

On Burning: Pericles and Shakespeare’s Uncanny Fire

Chris Barrett

In Pericles, fire incinerates two pairs of villains:  Antiochus and Daughter are struck by “fire from heaven” in scene 8, and Cleon and Dionyza are burned in their palace in scene 22.1 The shocking events are welcome news for the play’s hero, though he need not have traveled as often nor as far to encounter such fire.  Shortly after the play’s probable date of composition, in late 1608, fire from heaven reportedly consumed the house in Flanders in which lived a woman who birthed three monsters.2 In 1613, fire from heaven burned John Hittchell of Southhampton, whose body smoldered for three days and nights before finally extinguishing itself.3  These startling combustions bear a striking resemblance to the deaths in Pericles, a play preoccupied by the elemental intersections of narrative and fire.  This essay considers, first, the strange ease with which something as familiar and dangerous as fire moves between the playhouse stage and the newssheet catastrophes of everyday life; and, second, how fire’s uncanny habitation in Pericles and others of Shakespeare’s plays link those texts in a conspiracy of intertextual flame.

Though fire performs spectacular works of justice in Pericles, fire in its as deadly but more banal appearances would have been familiar to anyone browsing the bookstalls.  The 1613 pamphlet describing Hitchell’s death also included an account of “the fearefull burning of the towne of Dorchester vpon friday the 6 of August,” and similar reports of fires occupied broadsheet ballads, newssheets, pamphlets, and volumes panting with news of scorched barns, destroyed markets, and deceased victims.  So numerous are these fiery texts that they might consistitute a genre of their own: pyroreportage, literature describing the daily reality of combustion in English life and imagination.  A quick survey of some pamphlets, broadsheets, and ballads memorializing these disasters shows how ruthless and resourceful fire proved to be in Renaissance England:  A doleful discourse and ruthfull reporte of the greate spoyle and lamentable losse, by fire, in the towne of East Dearham… (1581); A briefe sonet declaring the lamentation of Beckles, a market towne in Suffolke which was…pitifully burned with fire to the value by estimation of tweentie thousande pounds… (1586); A short, yet a true and faithfull narration of the fearefull fire that fell in the towne of Wooburne, in the countie of Bedford (1595); The True lamentable discourse of the burning of Teuerton in Deuon-shire…At what time there was consumed to ashes about the number of 400 houses…and fyftie persons burnt aliue through the vehemencie of the same fyer (1598); and The woefull and lamentable wast and spoile done by a suddaine fire in S. Edmonds-bury in Suffolke (1608).  And on July 9, 1614, Stratford-upon-Avon caught fire.  The town burned with a speed and ferocity that startled and stunned witnesses.  The “sodaine and terrible fire” incinerated, in less than two hours, more than 50 homes and numerous barnes, stables, offices, and other structures in the tinderish town that had already suffered other fires in the 20 years prior to this blaze. So extensive was the damage to the town, that the fire came to the attention of James I.  According to the broadsheet proclaiming the king’s sympathy and support, the fire drove the the town to “great hazard to be overthrowne and undone...”  Stratford was a town stinking of smoke, smothering in cinders, “ruinated & decayed.”4

Both the broadsheet fires and the fires in Shakespeare’s plays appear as the fire next time—a fire that is itself a quotation.  The fire of Pericles is a repetition on-stage of what happened in Flanders; the fire in off-stage Southhampton is a repetition of what happens in Pericles.  In plays as in pyroreportage, where sparks leap out to and absorb the cinders of other texts, fire tends to duplicate itself.5 Through processes of creative or destructive reduplication—repetition, allusion, quotation—texts present fire itself as a phenomenon as familiar and unsettling as uncanniness itself.  The same pamphlet reporting John Hittchell’s incineration, for example, includes an account of “the fearefull burning of the towne of Dorchester,” an account that concludes by likening the damage of the...

Goffman versus Hamlet: On the Theatrical Metaphor

Sharon O'Dair

Part One: Ghosts

If Stephen Greenblatt is to be believed, Shakespeare “staged ghosts . . . in a spirit of self-conscious theatricality.”  These are “figures in whom it is possible to believe precisely because they appear and speak only onstage.” 1 But even so, even onstage, it’s uncanny, frightening, when the dead speak. “Remember me,” cries the Ghost, and Hamlet, dutiful and horrified son, promises to do nothing but.  “I have sworn’t” (1.5. 91, 112). 2 Having wiped from “the book and volume of [his] brain” (103) all “trivial fond records, / All saws of books, all forms, all pressures past / That youth and observation copied there” (99-101), Hamlet knows his life is no longer his own:  “The time is out of joint. O cursed spite, / That ever I was born to set it right” (186-7). I say “no longer,” because for a Renaissance prince, Hamlet seems weirdly modern—I know, modern, yet again? Not again! Please!—in the way he disdains the requirements of his position, of family and state, by studying in Wittenberg and, especially, by courting Ophelia.  Laertes, one will recall, is scandalized she takes the prince’s professions of love seriously, reminding her “his will is not his own. / He may not, as unvalued persons do, / Carve for himself, for on his choice depends / The safety and health of this whole state” (1.3.17-20). Polonius is more caustic: “Lord Hamlet is a prince out of thy star. This must not be” (2.2. 138-39). It must not, but Hamlet chafes under the requirements of role.  Not theatrical role.  Social role.  O cursed spite.

In “The Interaction Order,” his Presidential Address to the American Sociological Association, held in 1982, Erving Goffman begins by alluding self-deprecatingly—or rather hostilely—to his charge, to his role as President, O cursed spite: 

A sociologist you have selected from a very short list takes to the center of this vasty Hilton field on a hobby horse of his own choosing. (One is reminded that the sociologically interesting thing about Hamlet is that every year no high school in the English-speaking world has trouble finding some clown to play him.) 3

But if the clown playing Hamlet is the sociologist selected from a very short list—and note this clown plays vasty Henry the Fifth, too—what does he do when confronted with the Ghost?  He one-ups the Ghost, becoming him. “Presidential address cancelled,” Randall Collins writes, “Goffman dying.” 4 Writes Goffman,

My expectation, then, was not to publish this talk but to limit it to the precincts in which it was delivered. But in fact, I wasn't there either. What I offer the reader then is vicarious participation in something that did not itself take place. A podium performance, but only readers in the seats. A dubious offering. (1)

Or perhaps not so dubious, thinks Collins, and perhaps the podium performance did take place, since it plays to its own uncanniness, with Goffman “speaking from beyond the grave, as if with a little pride he had created yet another form of discourse” (112). Ghosts exist vividly in theaters, Greenblatt says, and they exist vividly in the pages of the American Sociological Review, Collins says, with readers in the seats, believing.

 

Part Two: Cruelty

The Ghost appears to Hamlet once more, speaks to him once more, in the closet scene, his staging there creating a macabre family ensemble.  Hamlet has been summoned by his mother – he suspects an interrogation about his staging of “The Mousetrap” – and he offers a brief soliloquy about drinking hot blood and doing bitter business while focusing, however, on his mother, not Claudius: “Let me be cruel, not unnatural. I will speak daggers to her but use none” (3.2. 385-6).  Why?  Why?  This question haunts the ghost, too, who arrives on the scene, or in it, after Hamlet fails to kill Claudius by talking himself out of the deed; after he does speak daggers to his mother and then kills Polonius; and after the Prince berates his mother in unseemly fashion for forty lines or so.  “This visitation,” the Ghost tells Hamlet, no doubt wearily, “Is but to whet thy almost blunted purpose” (3.4.106-107), a purpose, one might recall, to be focused on Claudius: “howsomever thou pursues this act / Taint not thy mind nor let thy soul contrive / Against thy mother aught” (1.5.84-86). Hamlet swore to remember, but he forgot nonetheless.

A...

Issue 2.1

Performing Death and Desire in Othello

Paige Martin Reynolds

 

Performance mythologies associated with Othello—from the vehemence of audience reactions to the violence of actors playing Othello—make the final scene a daunting one for an actor playing Desdemona.  The enduring image she leaves with the audience (and critics) may have more to do with her post-murder posture than any other aspect of her performance, as reflected in Henry Jackson’s frequently cited observation that the Desdemona of a 1610 production moved the audience “more after she was dead, when, lying on her bed, she entreated the pity of the spectators by her very countenance.”1 In Othello and elsewhere, Shakespeare is one of the “many early modern dramatists” who “chose to blatantly showcase the female corpse.”2 Being an active (living) object of the audience’s gaze and being a passive (dead) one are, for both actor and character, different things.  For the actor, embodying a passive presence on stage frustrates the creative impulse to play action, to work toward objectives and to pursue goals (as actors are trained to do).  For the character, being “dead” means not only ending an on-stage life, but also losing the advocacy of the actor—that is, being embodied by a performer with no agency.   Partially drawing on my recent experience playing Desdemona in a professional Shakespeare festival production, I wish to investigate the implications of performing death and explore some ways in which its convergence with desire might be conceptualized (and complicated).3

The day that we blocked the murder scene was the first time I considered how long I was going to have to be dead onstage (in bed, in a nightie, in a spotlight).  As we discussed the difficulties of performing death, particularly for such a lengthy scene, the director shared a story of a drunken audience member on the front row during a performance of Hamlet of which he had been a part.  Moments after the death of Laertes, the man said, in a deeply southern   accent and an exaggerated whisper that reverberated throughout the house and stage, “La-er-tes!  La-er-tes!  I see you breathin’.  You ain’t dead.  I see you breathin’!”  Of course, whether this parallels the “blurring of boundaries between life and art” that Lois Potter observes in Othello’s performance history (1), or simply affirms Cassio’s assertion that when men “put an enemy in their mouths” it can “steal away their brains” is debatable.4 What it does emphasize is the impossibility—and the absurdity—of the job for the actor playing dead. 

But once she is dead, there must the “divine Desdemona” lie looking lovely.  The scene exemplifies Dympna Callaghan’s assertion that “female corpses are constructed as focal points for ocular inspection by other characters on stage and by the audience in a way that male bodies are not”—Desdemona’s (the actor’s) body is scrutinized, covered, uncovered, touched, groped, kissed, and sweated upon as the remainder of the plot unravels.5 In this way, playing Desdemona dead emblematizes many of the difficulties of playing Desdemona alive.  Victorian actress Ellen Terry acknowledged such challenges in an 1881 production that featured Henry Irving and Edwin Booth alternating the roles of Othello and Iago.  Working with two actors who approached the role of Othello differently alerted Terry to the constraints of her own role.  As Potter notes, “playing opposite two different Othellos in quick succession made her aware of the extent to which her performance depended on theirs” (55). Even with only one Othello, if the actor playing Desdemona is not matched with a director predominantly invested in her particular plight, her characterization can be as conditional as volitional.  Approaches to the role neatly worked out in the isolation of study cannot always be precisely materialized in the collaboration of rehearsal and performance. That is, despite her predetermined goals and tactics, the actor can only behave believably if she responds to what her Othello actually does—if he is “raving and stamping under her nose,” as Terry described Irving in the role, then she must react as a woman confronted with (and threatened by) such rage.6 In this way, the actor’s position mirrors the character’s when she says to Othello, “Whate’er you be, I am obedient” (3.3.89).  Whatever Othello...

“But I do it more naturally”: Falstaff’s “Original Clowning Practice” vs. Theatrical Naturalism

Robert Hornback

 

We still have much to learn from contemporary commentators about the original practices of Renaissance English stage clowns. A case in point is the colorful satire Virgidemiarum (1597; reprinted 1598 and 1599) by the Cambridge Calvinist and neoclassical critic Joseph Hall, who used the evocative term “self-resembled show” to describe the popular clown who “laughs, and grins, and frames his mimic face …. And show[s] his teeth in double rotten row, / For laughter at his self-resembled show” (ll. 34, 43-44). Hall’s term points to ways in which these modes of Renaissance performance sometimes clash with then-emergent and subsequent opposing notions of theatrical representation, particularly those associated with movements from neoclassicism through modern theatrical naturalism. As a neoclassicist, Hall of course viewed comic scenes as inherently low, and he necessarily rejected humorous violations of decorum in the mingling of clowns and kings, calling them “A Goodly hotch-potch! when vile Russetings / Are match’t with monarchs, and with mighty kings” (ll. 39-40). More importantly for this examination, however, he also could not abide the clown’s breaches of neoclassicism’s ideals of representation and verisimilitude. Hall’s aesthetic outrage is thus potentially quite useful in underscoring early clowning practices that have long been overlooked and therefore under-utilized. Indeed, what modern actors might learn from these references to a lost art, especially when performance is attentive to both theatre history and the conventions of “original practices” theatres, is the subject of this essay.

Here I want to invite considerations of what we might call “original clowning practices” by examining some of the early performance conventions and traditions employed by Elizabethan stage clowns. After all, on some level, clowns now should (as they once did) have their own unique manner of performing. I will therefore briefly consider critical responses to early clowning (including Hall’s, Hamlet’s, and Robert Weimann’s) as case studies for those practices traditionally engaged in by Renaissance English clowns and then contrast them to an extreme example of the very different, modern theatrical “method” that too often works against the dynamics of original clowning practice. Arguing that Hall was quite clearly thinking of Falstaff in his grotesque satirical description of the clown, I explore how this exemplary part can be studied for its encryption of original methods and modes of clowning. Above all, I call attention here to two of the most notable features of early clowns’ performance by attending to how Shakespeare’s writing of this iconic part repeatedly foregrounds and explicates what Hall called “self-resembled show” while it also records and summons the dynamics of orality characteristic of the once improvisational clowning tradition in this era. By contrast, the now still dominant modern tradition of “naturalism” in “method acting” training, with its emphasis on psychological depth of character and feeling, best exemplified in a famous/infamous performance by Anthony Quayle as Falstaff, often flouts the early clown practices inscribed in the part. Quayle’s performance of a desperately insecure and pitiably doddering, verbally halting Falstaff, more than any other, stands for a naturalistic tradition that, being still very much alive, offers a remarkable case study in the ways in which a pervasive mode of modern acting training can work, unwittingly, against the grain of this extraordinary part. That is, Quayle’s Falstaff’s supposed naturalistic details, based as they are in the expectations of literacy and a post-Stanislavskian mode of acting, paradoxically become strikingly unnatural with respect to the differing, opposed codes of the comic, oral culture originally voiced and practiced by Falstaff.   

Given Hall’s description in Virgidemiarum of a clown who “midst the silent rout, / Comes leaping in [as] a self-misformed lout, / And laughs, and grins, and frames his mimic face” (ll. 33-35), the Renaissance English stage clown was evidently a self-authorized and “self-misformed” (thus not fully “verisimilar”) figure who asserted his traditional right to “mis-form” any drama rather than aiming to be an exclusively representational actor. That is, the “self-resembled” comic actor was traditionally licensed, if not to abandon mimetic...

Issue 1.3

Strange Mimesis

Simon Palfrey

Shakespeare’s creation is often at odds to customary ideas of lives and worlds, which presume extension in time and space (her life, that world), a communally agreed physical presence (the life can be seen, the place can be entered), and a public name to accord with this essentially single entity (Juliet, Verona).1 There is more to life than this. Though it is true that everything in playworlds is spoken by named characters, there can be abundant life that is not possessed by or attributable to these characters. Think of how impoverished our sense of life must be, if we understood it only as human life, and then only as that element of human life that could be seen, now, like serried commuters at a bus-stop, and which could be downloaded in present time to a spectator who instantly understands everything. What would such a world be like? No memory, no confusion, no completing planes, nothing unfinishable; no birdsong, no moss, no germs or bones or smells. Just these more or less finished exemplar, telling us what they are for. The dead plays do pretty much this, the ones that only scholars bother with, for completeness sake. But not the living ones, the ones that remain possible, because they are alive, like any ecology is, with potentiality.

In Shakespeare, the named things are invariably patterned with variations and discontinuities, constituted by all kinds of parts and planes and vectors. Very often they exist in more than one place, and more than one time, even as they appear to be just where we can see them. Very often location is metaphysical, a thing of memory or projection, as well as physical. It is easy enough to think of a world as a potential concatenation of lives. But the converse is true: each life is a potential concatenation of worlds. Then there are worlds within worlds, and lives within lives. A world needn’t have its own geography or weather, just as a life need not have its own name. If such an artform is indeed mimetic, then it is not imitating anything that can be vouched for by the unanimous public eye:

Each substance of a greefe hath twenty shadows
Which shewes like greefe it selfe, but is not so:
For sorrowes eye, glazed with blinding teares,
Divides one thing intire, to many objects,
Like perspectives, which rightly gaz’d upon
Shew nothing but confusion, ey’d awry,
Distinguish form.   (Richard II, TLN 966-72)

This is Shakespearean mimesis, less a rectilinear mirror, more a faceted tear, dividing the single substance into swarming differentials, every one a kind of fate. Only the eye awry will distinguish form; look too head-on and you will miss it. We always need to be shifting our position, wielding a virtual mirror to see things right, or to see how one thing inverts or extends or reflects another. In Shakespeare, every space, however miniscule, is a plenum.

His truly is a strange form of mimesis. It is Hamlet who says that a play holds a mirror up to nature. The thought perhaps seems straightforward. But there are various kinds of mirror; and as for nature, who knows where it begins or ends?  Here is another take on the theme:

But man, proud man,
Drest in a little briefe authoritie,
Most ignorant of what he’s most assur’d,
(His glassie Essence) like an angry Ape
Plaies such phantastique tricks before high heaven,
As makes the Angels weepe: who with our spleens,
Would all themselves laugh mortall.
(Measure for Measure, TLN 874-80)

Isabella is railing here against Angelo, the “pelting petty Officer” who has condemned her brother Claudio to death. Her theme is the inordinate exercise of power. But as her temper heightens, the speech moves somewhat beyond its immediate rhetorical purpose (to dissuade Angelo from executing sentence) into this embracing indictment of humankind. It is a multi-pleated allegory, its swift movement between apes and angels tightly tuned to the playworld’s unstable ethics and permeable ontologies. Isabella’s speech is self-evidently risky, even reckless. But this isn’t only because of her perilous situation as helpless suitor to an autocrat. Her speech conjures a kind of phylogenetic obscenity: man stripped naked, bent before a mirror, exposed as an ape before the weeping eyes of angels. The risk is partly in the imputation of some kind of...

Auto-Allusion

Stephen Guy-Bray

I want to talk about what I call auto-allusion. I use this term to refer to the moment at which a writer quotes his or her own earlier work. The resulting allusion is a return to an earlier self and an earlier text, and the return is done in such a way as to demonstrate both repetition (or sameness) and repetition with a difference. As Paul Ricoeur remarks, “Only a discourse other than itself … is suited to the metacategory of otherness, under penalty of otherness suppressing itself in becoming the same as itself.”1 The auto-allusion could be seen as an illustration of Ricoeur’s “discourse other than itself,” and its otherness from itself cannot be separated from its sameness with itself: the textual sameness or similarity is inextricably connected to the textual difference, since the context will have changed. My example here will be Shakespeare’s recycling of a phrase from King Lear in The Two Noble Kinsmen, and I will look at repetition through the lens of difference and sameness.2

The original line from King Lear is “O, the difference of man and man!” (4.2. 27). The line is spoken by Goneril as she compares her lover Edmond, who has just left, and her husband Albany, who is just about to enter. This line is explicitly about difference, but it also raises the question of difference in other ways than in its wording. For those who read one of the new editions of King Lear which reproduces both the Quarto and the Folio versions, for instance, difference is already present as one of the most important things to know about the text(s): there are two King Lears. For us now, King Lear has become an example—perhaps even the example—of the text (or, we could say, the textual self) that is no longer the same as itself. The line only appears in the Folio. What is more, as the quarrel between Goneril and Albany is much shorter in the Folio than in the Quarto, I would argue that the line is further emphasized. For these reasons, a reader switching from version to version will apprehend this line about difference as a concrete example of the textual difference that has become such a prominent aspect of discussions of Renaissance drama in general and of King Lear (but also of Hamlet and of Doctor Faustus and of other plays) in particular.

Goneril’s statement about difference appears in a context in which our attention has already been directed to difference, as she has just referred to her lover as “Gloucester,” a title to which he has no right and which confuses him with his father. King Lear as a whole directs our attention to sameness, since it gives us numerous situations in which a character is (at least partially) doubled, and therefore repeated: Gloucester and Kent; Gloucester and Lear; Edgar and Edmond; Goneril and Regan; Albany and Cornwall. In some of these cases we could say that sameness prevails: Gloucester and Lear both die and are, I would say, equally blameworthy and pitiable; Goneril and Regan both die, divided by their adultery but united by their wickedness. In others, however, difference prevails: unlike Gloucester, Kent is always right (not that it does him much good); Edgar is the good brother; Albany is the better of the two sons-in-law, if hardly inspiringly so. Behind all these individuals is the play’s primary motor for repetition, which is the family itself. Our family members are perhaps the most obvious example (and certainly the first one) of people who are simultaneously the same as ourselves and different from ourselves. The actions of the play demonstrate that in this context either difference or sameness may be either good or bad and that it is generally difficult to know in advance which will be the case.

 When Goneril says “O, the difference of man and man,” then, she taps into King Lear’s central concerns; in her confidence in her ability to recognise and properly evaluate the important differences between one person and another she appears to be the same as many of the play’s other characters—in particular, she appears the same as her father and (the dead) Gloucester. To her, however, she is fundamentally different from either. To her it is clear that Edmond and Albany are very different and that Edmond is the right one to pick. To the audience, it is more likely that Edmond will appear worse than either of the men in relation to whom he is somewhat the...

Issue 1.2

The Erotic Life of Objects: "Venus and Adonis" in the Puppet Theater

Edward J. Geisweidt

Famously, in the climactic moment of the puppet play within Ben Jonson’s Bartholmew Fair, the puppet Dionysius hikes up his skirt to reveal his lack of genitalia, proving by “plain demonstration” (5. 5. 96) a verity of his fellow performing objects: “we have neither male nor female amongst us” (93-4).1 Thus the Puritans’ “old stale argument against the players”—that their cross-dressing makes abominations of them—is answered (92). Playing to a Puritan assumption of continuity between biological sex and gender, Dionysius appeals to his essential sexlessness to exculpate himself from the charge of gender transgression. Laura Levine argues that, in addition to casting doubt on assumptions about sex and gender, Dionysius’s anatomical incorrectness entails a foreclosure of erotic experience: “The puppet presents a world devoid not only of sexual difference but of the very possibility of erotic experience itself.”2 She makes explicit a presumed continuity between genitally determined sex and erotic acts and gestures: “The puppet cannot be implicated in the world of sexuality, not because he is superior to it but simply because he lacks the equipment. He stands outside the world of erotic desire not because he is able to resist its temptations but simply because he lacks the capacity to perform its actions” (emphases mine, 100).3 The too easy conflation of the erotic and sexual here implies that copulative consummation is the orbit of erotic experience. Far from confirming such a notion, the puppet theater opens up possibilities of erotic experience that not only do not require genital gratification, but also do not proceed from a sexed body. The puppet—or performing object (as current discourse calls it), or motion (as the Renaissance called it)—offers an alternative conception of eroticism free from anatomic and copulative sex. Lacking the equipment does not mean the puppet lacks the capacity. As one puppet performance of a Shakespearean text has demonstrated, the very lack of bodily equipment can contribute to a puppet’s performance of erotic action.

Although the motions at Bartholmew Fair intend to perform a vulgarized version of Christopher Marlowe’s erotic epyllion Hero and Leander, their farcical descent into pugilism denies their audience the chance to witness the erotic possibilities of performing objects in motion. In the Fall of 2004, however, the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) and Little Angel Theater gave serious attention to performing objects with the staging of another erotic epyllion, Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis. Director Greg Doran staged the poem with various forms of puppetry, but his eponymous characters were inspired by Japanese bunraku, in which one or more puppeteers directly manipulate the life-like objects without the mediation of strings. A tabletop provided the main playing space, backed by a diorama-like woodland setting, the frame of which surprisingly would become a performing object itself. The five puppeteers, dressed in black with black hats, often showed in their faces the emotions of the puppets they operated. They contributed sighs, neighs, and halloos, but as with traditional bunraku, the Venus and Adonis puppeteers tended to disappear, or become subsumed by the life of the puppet they operated. The performing objects moved with such a lightness and grace that they seemed to initiate movement in the puppeteers, not the other way around, as they floated through the stanzas of Shakespeare’s poem, narrated by Michael Pennington. Guitarist Steve Russell, a Westernized version of the Japanese samisen-player, accompanied the reading musically. Venus and Adonis previewed in October, 2004, at Little Angel Theatre in Islington before moving to The Other Place in Stratford-upon-Avon in November.4 The show was revived in 2007. The production offers insight into how sexless objects can be shaped for erotic experience, and how puppets question the genitally-governed teleology of eroticism.

Venus and Adonis is among the most erotically charged poetry of the canon, despite (or perhaps because of) Venus’s failure to engage Adonis sexually.5 While critics have noted the poem’s eroticism and near-pornography,6 copulation is not the highest or most urgently pursued erotic expression in the poem. Rather, the kiss governs erotic acts, abounding in various forms: kisses “sweet” (84), kisses “long...

The Failed Performance of Dekker's "The Whore of Babylon"

Peter Hyland

At some time in 1606 Prince Henry’s Men staged Thomas Dekker’s play The Whore of Babylon at the Fortune playhouse. It was apparently performed only once, and if we are to believe the author’s own account of it, the performance was a failure, something that Dekker clearly felt the need to explain away, for in the following year he published a quarto edition of his play with a preface, “Lectori,” in which he laid out what his intentions had been and what he thought had gone wrong. In fact “Lectori” is the sole source of information about this failure, and Dekker places the blame for it firmly at the door of the players. The “deformity” of the performance, he says, was the result of “bad handling” (39) by the players: “let the Poet set the note of his Nombers, even to Apollo’s owne lyre, the Player will have his own Crotchets, and sing false notes, in dispite of all the rules of Musick” (30-32). So insistent was he on blaming the players that he found two other metaphors to define their inadequacy: bad tailors ruining good cloth (32-3) and “ill nurses” spoiling newborn children (35).1

It needs to be noted that there are problems with accepting Dekker’s account of the shortcomings of the performance, for it appears that he was not present: “mine eare stood not within reach of their Larums” (27), he says. It is reasonable to ask why he did not attend what was obviously an important occasion for him, and (setting aside the possibility that he was ill) the most obvious explanation would seem to be that he had misgivings about the play even before it was staged. After all, his conception of the play was highly ambitious and he must have had a great deal of his own vanity vested in it, so the problem might well have been not so much that the performance was a failure, as that it disappointed him because it did not live up to his hopes. Even before the play was staged he seems to have felt some anxiety about the potential for the audience to fail to understand it, for in his Prologue, presumably written for the origin al staging, since it introduces the opening dumb show, he says:

wee present Matter above the vulgar Argument:
Yet drawne so lively, that the weakest eye,
Through those thin vailes we hang betweene your sight
And this our peice, may reach the mystery. (3-7)

It is all so well done, he insists, that even the dullest spectator will understand; but perhaps he was trying to deflect any potential objection to the opacity of his play by insisting on its clarity precisely because he had reservations about it.

Without question Dekker knew his way around a playhouse, and by 1606 he had had a long association with Henslowe’s companies and theaters. Henslowe bought a play from him for the Admiral’s Men as early as 1598, but in that year Francis Meres was already able to include him amongst those he considered “our best for tragedy.” Although he wrote a number of plays of which he was sole author, he collaborated with most of the major dramatists of the time, and Henslowe’s papers indicate that he had a hand in more than forty plays between 1598 and 1602. So the tradition that Dekker was a hack, possibly originating in Jonson’s characterization of him in Poetaster (1601) as a “dresser of plays about town,” is unfair. In fact, Dekker was a skilled writer with a seasoned professional’s understanding of how plays worked. It is worth asking, therefore what it was that he thought he was giving to the players in this particular case.

The Whore of Babylon is a glorification of Elizabeth I through a comprehensive account of the many Catholic plots against her during her reign and the apocalyptical defeat of Rome represented by the defeat of the Spanish Armada, and Dekker clearly intended it to be his masterpiece. It merges his position as a militant Protestant with his profound admiration of Elizabeth. In “Lectori” he describes it as a “Drammaticall Poem” (1), though this is a post-facto definition and might have occurred to him only in his self- exoneration; however the tension between the two elements of the phrase points to one potential source of its failure. His main “dramatical” model was the allegorical moral interlude, long obsolete (but understood to be associated with native ideological concerns), which gave him characters like Truth and Time and also precedents for the satirical voice of Plain Dealing. His main poetic model was The Faerie Queene...