From the Accession of James I to the Defenestration of Prague: March 1603 to May 1618
Changes and Continuities
Elizabeth I died on 24 March 1603, leaving a competent political administration, simplified and strengthened by the removal of the Earl of Essex. Her chief minister, Robert Cecil, had worked assiduously to ensure a peaceful transfer of the crown to James I, who since his infancy had reigned as King James VI of Scotland (albeit, initially, with a regent). James retained Cecil, creating him Earl of Salisbury in 1605, and till shortly before his death in 1612 he guided quite effectively the political fortunes of his new royal master. James inherited a country at war with Spain, but moved quickly to end hostilities. Throughout the period covered by this chapter, England was at peace, which gave its monarch great advantages in domestic politics. Although James would have liked subsidies, and sought them from the parliaments of 1604 and 1614, he could manage without them, as long as he eschewed military adventures.
His parliamentary experiences disclosed distinct differences between his perception of the English political system, which saw the king as an autocratic and divinely sanctioned patriarch, and a nascent parliamentary tradition already thinking in terms of an ’ancient constitution’, which invested citizens and their representatives with political and civil rights of a different order. However, James was clear that foreign policy remained wholly in the domain of his personal decision-making. As long as he avoided wars, the political process could be kept substantially away from the public domain.
When James came to England, he already had two sons, Henry and Charles, as potential heirs, and a daughter, Elizabeth, who in due course would possibly engage in an advantageous marriage contract with a foreign prince. James brought with him a Scottish entourage, some of whom he allowed to waste away, returning to Scotland without finding employment. But he largely governed through English ministers, pre-eminently Cecil, which did something to mitigate resentment and to ensure continuities. Though he adopted the style of ’King of Britain’, real unification, which would have required complex parliamentary legislation, remained elusive. England remained a separate kingdom, with its own distinctive literary culture, scarcely touched by Scottish influence. James continued as monarch of Scotland, ruling there through proxies, while governing his new kingdom from palaces in and around the Thames basin. The ’British’ project remained largely an unrealized aspiration, though one frequently celebrated among writers looking to James for patronage and preferment.
Ecclesiastical affairs seemed calmer in his early years than in the reign of Elizabeth. A major assassination attempt, the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, plainly signalled that some in the disadvantaged Catholic community retained treasonous intent. But reprisals were limited to participants and the attempt was not repeated. Since the 1580s James had sought ’to persuade Catholics, both in Elizabeth’s dominions and on the Continent, of … at least his leniency to the ancient faith’ (Lee 1990: 100). His queen, Anne of Denmark, was a convert to Catholicism. James’s own faith was Calvinist, though his preferences in church government were episcopal and English Presbyterianism received no encouragement. He watched carefully the disruption caused in the United Provinces by the Arminian schism, and his policy at the Synod of Dort was support for orthodox Calvinism against Arminian innovation. (On Arminianism and its consequences for literary culture, see below, chapters 3 and 4.)
Three principal disasters affected the literary history of these years. The plague of 1603, the worst for several years, brought with it, besides enormous loss of life, closure of London’s theatres, posing major problems for its acting companies (see below, ’Early Jacobean Theatre’), and its frequent recurrence was also disruptive. The death of Prince Henry in 1612 killed off a significant, though still developing, patronage system. The Carr-Overbury scandal, which broke in 1615, certainly shaped perception of the royal court among outsiders and perhaps stimulated an enthusiasm for the popular representation of courtly corruption.
The Making of the Royal Courts
On his accession, and in some cases even earlier, James had been courted as both a political and a cultural patron. His formal entry into the City of London, in March 1604, allowed the corporation to make its most public show of welcome by drawing on the talents of Ben Jonson and Thomas Dekker, both established dramatists, and the architect and builder Stephen Harrison. Each has left a printed account, primarily of his own contribution (Dekker 1604; Harrison 1604; Jonson 1604). Most striking is the sureness with which collectively the endeavour hit the principal themes of early Jacobean rule, the king’s role as peacemaker and his patriarchal view of government. Thus, at the last triumphal arch on the royal procession, Jonson’s script for the speaker, Genius Urbis (that is, tutelary deity of the City), hails James as one who has ’brought / Sweet peace to sit in that bright state shee ought’ (Jonson 1925—52: VII, 102). From the first arch to the last, London was styled the ’camera regia’ or royal chamber, with a powerful suggestion that it is the bridal chamber of James and his kingdom. The notion chimed well with James’s own words to his first parliament: ’I am the Husband, and the whole Isle is my lawfull Wife’ (James VI and I 1994: 136). England’s political and cultural elite thronged to tell the king what they believed he wished to hear.
But the court culture of the king himself took some while to assume a definitive shape. James was a competent poet and a confident political theorist. His True Lawe of Free Monarchies and Basilikon Doron, published in Edinburgh in 1598 and 1599, were reprinted in London in 1603. He also had a fair grasp of controversial theology, and to some extent he encouraged in his immediate circle respectful debate, though would respond quickly and implacably to insolence from outsiders, as theatre companies that attempted to ridicule the new regime soon discovered (see below, ’Early Jacobean Theatre’). Ben Jonson soon found a role as masque writer and in time emerged as James’s laureate poet and his pensioner, though at the start of the reign his play Sejanus attracted government attention (see below, ’Other Drama’). Inigo Jones became the favoured masque designer from early in the reign. Only later did he emerge as architect of significant royal buildings; prominent among his extant structures are the third and final Banqueting House at Whitehall (begun 1619, completed 1622) and the Queen’s House at Greenwich (begun 1617, though not completed till 1635). James retained a considerable musical ensemble, though less ambitious than Charles I’s.
James notoriously supported favourites, showering them with presents, titles and offices that were in his gift. Among those he most openly favoured in the early part of his reign was Robert Carr, a gentry-class Scot, who had entered England as his page but by 1611 was Viscount Rochester and a Knight of the Garter; in 1613 he was created Earl of Somerset. No obvious political talent or industry had secured his advancement. Quite why James rewarded him was a matter of salacious speculation then as now. Yet the king supported Carr’s marital ambitions. He allowed the annulment of the marriage of his lover, Frances Howard, from the third Earl of Essex on the grounds of non-consummation, which in turn made possible a highly advantageous marriage. Frances, however, had somewhat overreached herself, securing the poisoning, while he was in prison, of her husband’s erstwhile confidant Sir Thomas Overbury, who had tried to block the annulment and had been jailed for his pains. The scandal broke in all its gross complexity, compounded by James’s evident insistence that Frances and Carr should escape the capital penalties their agents suffered. As Maurice Lee observes, ’Worse still, he did not even disgrace them.’ Too many people outside the king’s circle knew, or thought they knew, about events within it, and ’the reputation of the court never recovered from this scandal’ (Lee 1990: 154). Carr’s eclipse coincided with the rise of George Villiers, the future Duke of Buckingham, whose influence is explored more fully in chapter 3. By the time of his advancement, popular opinion about the Jacobean court in particular, and perhaps royal courts generally, was decidedly negative. Anti-court sentiment, couched in moral and religious terms, emerged as a dominant perspective among those excluded from the court itself.
Other royal courts gradually developed alongside that of the king, each with its own potential for patronage of the arts. The queen, Anne of Denmark, rapidly assembled a household which retained her closest companions from her Scottish days and added English aristocratic luminaries, among them, perhaps most significantly in cultural terms, Lucy, Countess of Bedford, a patroness of both Ben Jonson and John Donne and a lady of the queen’s bedchamber. Anne certainly extended some patronage to English writers, though probably the only one to be closely dependent on her was the relatively minor figure of Samuel Daniel, a modestly accomplished poet, skilled lyricist (much of his shorter verse was set by his brother John) and occasional masque writer. Anne had masqued in Scotland, and her arrival helped to revive aristocratic entertainments in England (see below, ’Masques and Other Court Entertainments’). Anne’s cultural influence was felt more widely. She was an accomplished musician and kept a musical consort that was fairly large for a subsidiary royal household, and she also collected paintings, though her almost clandestine Catholicism excluded her from dispensing ecclesiastical patronage (DNB 2004). Visits were exchanged with Christian IV of Denmark, her brother, whose glittering court showed the Scots and English what patronage could achieve. After the decades of Elizabethan niggardliness, parochialism and isolation, Anne’s was an important part in the advancement of English court culture, which reached its apogee in the personal rule of Charles I.
Similar claims have been advanced for the court of Prince Henry. He was only 9 at the time of his father’s accession, and not until 1610 was he created Prince of Wales, receiving at the same time his own revenues, household and the palaces of Richmond and St James’s (Strong 1986: 11). The two years before his death saw a flurry of cultural activity as he generated around himself a militantly Protestant, austere and yet creative court, patronizing artists, architects and garden designers, and extending very direct patronage to a small number of writers who seem not to have secured his father’s favour, in particular Josuah Sylvester and Michael Drayton (see below, ’Non-dramatic Poetry’). Understandably, his sudden and untimely death in 1612 occasioned poetic lamentation, not least from those who depended on him, such as Sylvester’s Lachrimae Lachrimarum; or, The Distillation of Teares Shede for the Untimely Death of the Incomparable Prince Panaretus (1612). It went rapidly into three editions.
Henry participated energetically in aristocratic entertainments, particularly those of a martial kind (see below), and, as Sir Roy Strong (1986) and David Norbrook (1984, 2002) have argued, the old, anti-Spanish, anti-Catholic, pro-war factions of the Elizabethan regime looked to him as a potential leader for their cause. Sir Walter Raleigh, incarcerated in 1604 for well-substantiated if marginal involvement in a conspiracy against James’s accession, received his protection and support, for example.
It is difficult to assess the cultural impact of a royal adolescent who enjoyed a modest level of independence for only the last two years of his short life. For Strong, he ’takes his place as the final figure in a series of still-born renaissances’, particularly associated with Sir Philip Sidney and the second Earl of Essex (1986: 224). Yet perhaps we should see his contribution as simply a distinctive component within a larger revival associated with the dynastic change. The Scottish royalty that descended on England may have left behind a minor court, but it was one in touch with European expectations. The Scottish crown had longstanding links with France. James’s grandmother, Mary of Guise, was a French aristocrat. His mother had grown up in the French royal court. Anne was a sister of the Danish king and descended from the Hapsburgs. James was a poet and political theorist, who already felt comfortable in the company of poets and theologians. Henry’s own nascent style had begun to establish his own cultural space. But England finally achieved a court culture to match, at least in aspiration, those of the Hapsburgs and Bourbons in the reign of Charles I in the 1630s, although its ideology differed sharply from the court of his brother.
Masques and Other Court Entertainments
The arrival of the Stuarts reanimated the tradition of court entertainment in England. Queen Anne of Denmark, initially, played the key role. She was a veteran of court entertainments, pageants and processions both in her native Denmark and as Scotland’s queen. Between 1604 and 1611 she danced in six masques, which ’accounted for almost the entirety of the English Jacobean court’s female performance in the first two decades of the seventeenth century’ (McManus 2002: 3). In so doing, Barbara Lewalski claims, she ’affirmed the worth of women, and her court was perceived as a separate female community, marginalized yet powerful’ (1994: 43). Certainly, these activities rapidly established a significant patronage network. Samuel Daniel, who wrote scripts for two of her masques, remained a beneficiary, and, more important, she secured Ben Jonson for the other four, thus founding a long-standing, though eventually acrimonious, working relationship with her chosen designer, Inigo Jones. Two years after arriving from Scotland she had largely determined the future trajectory of an important component of early Stuart court culture.
Her most challenging performance was the first collaboration between Jones and Jonson, The Masque of Blackness, danced on Twelfth Night, 1605. The queen and her ladies appeared dressed and made up as ’blackamores’ (line 21; Orgel and Strong 1973: I, 90). Participants who had blacked up had featured in court entertainments in both Denmark and Scotland (McManus 2002: 76—7), but the English court was evidently bewildered by its strangeness and apparent ugliness. A contemporary correspondent observed: ’you cannot imagine a more ugly Sight, then a troop of lean-cheek’d Moors.’ He elsewhere remarked upon the indecorous sexual display of the aristocratic dancers’ costumes, which seemed ’too light and curtisan-like’ (Orgel and Strong 1973: I, 89). Plainly, Anne was prepared to push the limits of a genre that, over the early Stuart period, was characterized by a searching for spectacular and surprising innovation.
The Masque of Blackness was contemporaneously recognized as a particularly expensive production, perhaps costing more than £3,000 to put on. Modern criticism has sought to identify in it a defiance of monarchical patriarchy, its ’perhaps partly subconscious … gestures of resistance’ (Lewalski 1994: 43; see also McManus 2002: passim). But we should recognize, too, its clear surface significance. This is an overt celebration of the king’s wealth and power, acted out in a closed rite that celebrated, in the uniting of Anne with masquers drawn for the most part from the highest ranks of the English aristocracy, the security with which the new dynasty had been established. Moreover, the action and the text endorse James’s early enthusiasm for a real unification of Scotland and England. Thus, Jonson has Aethiopia remark: ’With that great name Britannia, this blessed isle / Hath won her ancient dignity and style’ (ll.224—5; Orgel and Strong 1973: I, 92). Such an explicit and stately compliment to the king characterizes this and most other masques danced by Anne.
Anne danced in three further masques by Jonson: The Masque of Beauty (1608), a companion piece to The Masque of Blackness; The Masque of Queens (1609); and Love Freed From Ignorance and Folly (1611). Tethys’ Festival (1610), her masque to celebrate the creation of her elder surviving son, Prince Henry, as Prince of Wales, marks a major transition in the cultural landscape of the royal courts. For the first time, Charles, Duke of York, the future Charles I, appeared significantly in a court entertainment, performing symbolic acts which confirm both James’s status as supreme monarch of the British kingdoms and Henry’s assumed role as the embodiment of English chivalry (Orgel and Strong 1973: I, 193).
Henry’s own entertainments emphasize his potential for military glory, but they carefully include acts of formal submission to his father. Thus, Oberon, The Fairy Prince, the 1611 Christmas masque scripted by Jonson, displays Henry and his company as gentle knights in the Arthurian tradition. But it is unequivocal about where power ultimately rests:
[These knights], for good they have deserved
Of yond’high throne, are come of rights to pay
Their annual vows; and all their glories lay
At his feet, and tender to this only great
True majesty …
(ll.258—62; Orgel and Strong 1973: I, 209)
Similarly, Prince Henry’s Barriers (1610), a chivalric and martial entertainment scripted by Jonson to commemorate Henry’s first bearing arms, concludes with a speech by Merlin which cautions the young prince to curb his militaristic impulses and observe the higher wisdom of James the peacemaker (Orgel and Strong 1973: I, 163).
The death of Henry in 1612, together with Anne’s retirement from performance, led to a brief hiatus in royal masquing, though aristocratic masques were sometimes presented (for example, on the occasion of the marriage of Princess Elizabeth), as were masques produced by the Inns of Court. The Vision of Delight, the Twelfth Night masque in 1617 scripted by Jonson, was led by the newly created Earl of Buckingham, George Villiers. It marked his rise in the king’s favour. His status was confirmed in 1618 when he danced again in another Jonson masque, Pleasure Reconciled to Virtue, for the first time led by Charles, Prince of Wales. It elicited the fullest surviving account of Jacobean masque, the report of Orazio Busino, chaplain to the Venetian Embassy and spectator at the event:
Then there was such a crowd; for though they claim to admit only those favoured with invitations, nevertheless every box was full, especially with most noble and richly dressed ladies, 600 and more in number … their clothes of such various styles and colours as to be indescribable…. At about the 6th hour of the night his majesty appeared with his court…. After his majesty had been seated under the canopy alone … he had the ambassadors sit on two stools, and the great officers and magistrates sat on benches…. [After the prince and his company had descended from the stage set and approached the king] They did all sorts of ballets and dances … the King, who is by nature choleric, grew impatient and shouted loudly, ’Why don’t they dance? What did you make me come here for? Devil take all of you, dance!’ At once the Marquis of Buckingham [Villiers had been promoted again], his majesty’s favourite minion, sprang forward, and danced a number of high and very tiny capers with such grace and lightness that he made everyone admire and love him, and also managed to calm the rage of his angry lord. … The Prince, however, surpassed them all in his bows, being very formal in doing his obeisance both to his majesty and to the lady with whom he was dancing. (Orgel and Strong 1973:I, 282—4)
Busino’s account points up key characteristics of early Stuart masque. It has an important role in the diplomatic process. This is a closed, caste rite, a display of wealth and power, to which ambassadors are admitted in order that they may be impressed as well as entertained. The monarch is central: he has the best seat, indeed, probably the only seat from which all the visual effects of Inigo Jones’s stage design appeared to work perfectly. The whole performance plays to and moves towards the king, though there is some doubt as to how entertaining its content would have seemed to the cerebral James, who did not himself masque in England. But Busino is alert, too, to how the masque discloses a significant shift of power within the royal circle. Buckingham’s eminence and his future progress are plainly recognized. He picks up, too, on the personal style of Prince Charles, already evident here: this is a restrained, careful youth, with a strongly developed sense of decorum.
Indeed, the principal theme of the masque, well represented in the title, points away from the simpler chivalry of Prince Henry’s entertainments and towards the court culture that emerged in the years of the personal rule (see below, chapter 4). However, Busino’s account ends with a description of the feast that followed the performance, at which the banquet spread out for the wealthy and powerful was plundered so greedily that the tables collapsed and glassware was smashed. By then James had already gone to bed. (The court of Charles brought a more restrained tone to feasting.) The text and design were adapted for subsequent performance as part of the celebration of Charles’s installation as Prince of Wales, now with a new antimasque of goats and funny Welshmen.
Early Jacobean Theatre
The economic, social and legal conditions for theatrical performance in the early Jacobean period were substantially similar to those that obtained in the final years of Elizabeth’s reign. Companies were composed either of boys or of a mixture of adult males and boys. There were still two principal kinds of performing space: ’public’ theatres, which were outdoor amphitheatres, with a capacity of about 3,000 spectators, many of whom stood in the courtyard around the stage; and ’private’ theatres in halls, where all the audience were seated. Since the cheapest admission charge for the latter was higher than for the former, it is usually assumed that some who habitually attended the public theatres would have been excluded by price from the private theatres. There is no reason to suppose that the audience for the private theatres did not also attend performances in the public theatres. Indeed, from 1609 onward one company, the King’s Men (formerly the Lord Chamberlain’s Men) performed in both a private and a public theatre, drawing on the same repertoire in both venues. Theatre historians contend that the rise of the private theatres led to a fragmentation of a market that formerly had been broadly inclusive and to the emergence of an elite-culture drama, which, stripped of an animating vigour drawn from that wide social base, looked towards the court, whereas a low-culture audience developed for cruder forms of entertainment. The argument certainly has some merit in the Caroline period (see below, chapter 4), but it is less tenable earlier, although boy companies, the earliest occupants of the private theatres, as we shall see, developed a distinctive and politically challenging repertoire in the earliest years of the new reign.
At the reopening of the theatres in April 1604, the two companies of boy actors active at the close of Elizabeth’s reign resumed at Blackfriars and St Paul’s, the former renamed as the Children of the Queen’s Revels under royal patent. The three adult companies which had survived more stringent controls formerly introduced were also revived. The Lord Chamberlain’s Men, again under royal patent, became the King’s Men, a privilege which probably acknowledged their status as the senior company in London and anticipated the special favour with which they would be held when players were commanded to perform at court. Shortly afterwards, also by royal patent, the Lord Admiral’s Men became Prince Henry’s, servants to the royal heir, and the Earl of Worcester’s Men were similarly attached to the household of Queen Anne (Wickham et al. 2000: 260, 120—2). These developments signalled the resolve to keep close control over the playing companies. But the patents also carried protection: to obstruct the players in their legitimate business was to thwart the royal family. The patent for the King’s Men, addressed to all magistrates and subjects alike, is unequivocal in:
Willing and commanding you, and every of you, as you tender our pleasure, not only to permit and suffer them herein without any your lets, hindrances or molestations during our said pleasure, but also to be aiding and assisting to them, if any wrong be to them offered. … what further favour you shall show to these Our Servants for Our sake We shall take kindly at your hands. (Quoted in Wickham et al. 2000: 123)
Although weakened, as the whole sector had been, by the long closure of 1603—4, the King’s Men now found themselves in a singularly strong position. The Globe gave them a major venue on the southern shore of the Thames, outside the control of the City but conveniently close to London Bridge (and to other leisure-industry activities). Through the Burbage family, the company had long had an interest in the private theatre at Blackfriars, which was only allowed to be used by a boys’ company, whose weekly performances seemed less offensive to powerful City interests. But when it fell vacant on the disbanding of the Children of the Queen’s Revels in 1608, Richard Burbage set up a new partnership that included six of the seven shareholders in the Globe, five of whom were members of the King’s Men, and, after an enforced interruption for plague, the company opened there late in 1609. For the first time an adult troupe regularly played in a private playhouse. From then until 1642 the King’s Men used both spaces, favouring the Globe in summer months (Wickham 2000: 502).
The move reflected the growing confidence the company had in its special relationship with the court and the protection that gave them. Indeed, from the opening of the reign they had performed very frequently at court, and the company contributed personnel to court masques. Its chief cause for assurance, however, and probably the key factor in its pre-eminence, was William Shakespeare’s exclusive work for the company. The Christmas entertainments for 1604 were virtually a Shakespeare festival, including not only the new or recent Othello and Measure for Measure and the late Elizabethan Merchant of Venice, but also ’a chance to catch up’ on his earlier work, ’going back as far as The Comedy of Errors and Love’s Labour’s Lost, and including also Merry Wives and Henry V’ (Duncan-Jones 2001: 170). Shakespeare’s relationship to the King’s Men was unprecedented hitherto in English theatre history. He was a major shareholder in the Globe (and subsequently in the Blackfriars theatre), which secured his services for the company, and in the process his personal prosperity. The creativity and the commercial dynamism of the undertaking were uniquely aligned.
Other adult companies fared quite well in the early Jacobean period. In 1600 the company that became Prince Henry’s Men, under the entrepreneurial leadership of Philip Henslowe and the actor Edward Alleyn, had shifted from proximity to the Globe to the Fortune, a substantial new theatre north of the river, northwest of the City boundary, where it continued to prosper once the theatres reopened (Wickham et al. 2000: 532). The Queen’s Men used several venues before settling in another new theatre, the Red Bull, in the northern suburb of Clerkenwell, where it continued till the late 1610s. The latter especially became associated with rather populist entertainment, and theatre historians recount how, in the longer term, they were ’increasingly seen as in an unfashionable part of the City and lacking in the refinement of the private playhouses’ (Wickham et al. 2000: 566). Yet at its creative peak, the Red Bull included in its repertoire the work of the competent Thomas Heywood and Thomas Dekker and saw the premiere of at least one work of genius: John Webster’s The White Devil. Perhaps significantly, Webster’s other masterpiece, The Duchess of Malfi, was performed by the King’s Men, a surer platform for a testing, avant-gardist work.
The boys’ companies, too, attracted writers of distinction. Ben Jonson and George Chapman wrote for the Children of the Queen’s Revels, Thomas Middleton for the Children of St Paul’s, Beaumont and perhaps Fletcher for both. John Marston, the writer probably most significant in the development of a smart, hard-edged dramatic idiom among the boys’ companies, migrated from the latter to the former, although his finest play, The Malcontent, was soon taken over by the King’s Men (see below). The boys’ troupes continued to enjoy the privilege of playing within the City with relatively little interference from the corporation. However, they incited a very significant intervention from the court, which led to their discontinuation. The legislative framework for stage control continued little changed from the Elizabethan period. Ultimate responsibility rested with the Lord Chamberlain, but everyday control fell to the Master of the Revels. Edmund Tilney continued in this office, though Sir George Buc, his eventual successor (in 1610), played an increasing part as deputy through the early Jacobean years. However well disposed the new regime evidently was towards the professional stage, it was not to be mocked, and the power of the state was soon asserted. At least four plays caused royal offence: Eastward Ho! (1605), The Isle of Gulls (1606), Chapman’s The Conspiracy and Tragedy of Charles, Duke of Biron (1608) and ’a lost play about an ill-fated silver mining enterprise in Scotland’ (1608). The third broke a taboo by commenting on recent history and attracted a protest from the French ambassador. The others were altogether too free in their glances at Scots in general and the king’s court in particular. The silver mine was a royal enterprise. The Children of the Queen’s Revels lost royal patronage and in 1608 were closed down by the Lord Chamberlain: ’his grace [the king] had vowed that they should never play more, but should first beg their bread’ (Wickham et al. 2000: 126, 515). Several children were imprisoned for a while, though the group was later reconstituted after a fashion.
The lesson of 1608 was well learnt by all the companies of London. A theatre acceptable to the court had much to gain from the court; once it became transgressive, it had little to protect it. Not till the 1620s did a new spirit of oppositionalism and of simple curiosity about the processes of government stimulate a renewed and sustained critique on the London stage of a royal court that had become less monolithic ideologically and less sure of its own priorities and agenda (see below, chapter 3).
By the final years of Elizabeth’s reign, Shakespeare’s distinctive idiom was complete. Of course, even his earliest plays had shown, sometimes rather intermittently, an accomplishment as dramatic poet that altogether transcended that of his precursors. The Two Gentlemen of Verona, perhaps his first play, already showed a mastery of comic prose. (Dating the oeuvre remains notoriously controversial; this account adopts the dates postulated by Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor — see Shakespeare 1989.) Parts of the Henry VI plays and most of Richard III reached levels of expressive excellence rarely touched even by Christopher Marlowe at his most ambitious (in the final scene of Dr Faustus, for example).
But it was in the very late 1590s and early 1600s that Shakespeare achieved complete technical maturity. Henry V (1599) showed him picking open the nature of kingship and the limitations of incipient English nationalism with an attention to complexities and contradictions that makes earlier dramatization of political processes — even his own — seem naively unequivocal. In Julius Caesar (1599), for the first time, he offered in the reconstruction of Roman political life a fully realized world at sufficient cultural distance from his own to allow an exploration of those political processes uninhibited by the exigencies of observing the primitive orthodoxies of Tudor state ideology. Brutus’s role as reluctant assassin illuminates the paradox of a conservative revolution and criminal conspiracy in defence of an ancient constitution. Again, Shakespeare used the freedom afforded by a setting remote in time and distance to juxtapose the public and private faces of political action. Thus, Antony, whose ’heart is in the coffin there with Caesar’ (III.ii.108; Shakespeare 1989: 615), joins Octavius in a backroom conclave to decide ’who should be pricked to die / In our black sentence and proscription’ (IV.i.16—17; Shakespeare 1989: 617).
Both plays showed a new quality in the representation of human personality, thought and feeling. Character study has long been driven from the forefront of critical approaches to Shakespeare. Yet the kinds of characterization he so brilliantly accomplished are central to the perennial appeal of his oeuvre. In the theatre, his plays — especially those from 1599 onwards — remain star vehicles because they challenge the actors that perform the leading roles in ways unparalleled in early modern drama in English. In a curious process of empathy, modern audiences seem to care about the apparent experiences of his heroes and heroines. Arguably, there are limitations in a critical tendency that excludes such affectiveness from recognition and consideration.
Shakespeare’s distinctive characterization rested in the unprecedented interiority of the depictions and his exploration of the relationship between interior processes and external action. Of course, his characters are imaginative constructs within dramatic genres which were marked by a mature system of constraints and conventions, issues explored so effectively in M. C. Bradbrook’s classic studies (1935, 1955). Yet Shakespeare vividly shows his characters feeling and thinking, expressing recognizable representations of ordinary human responses to the kinds of extraordinary circumstances which sometimes mark the crises of human life. He shows them balancing alternatives and identifying conflicts of interest and of values. Thus, Brutus ponders the horror of murder and the responsibilities of patrician republicanism in a long and meditative scene of interrupted soliloquy, which expresses a heightened state of agitated introversion: ’Between the acting of the dreadful thing / And the first motion, all the interim is / Like a phantasma or a hideous dream’ (I.iii.63—5; Shakespeare 1989: 606). Mature Shakespeare was often drawn to depicting that interim.
Again, in a multilayered mimesis, Shakespeare has his actors playing characters who then both play roles and comment on the distinction between those roles and a depicted interiority that conflicts with them. Thus, before the battle of Agincourt, Henry V moves in disguise among the English common soldiery, defending his actions, before in soliloquy exposing a human frailty that defines the limitations of royal status: ’O be sick, great greatness, / And bid thy ceremony give thee cure’ (IV.i.248—9; Shakespeare 1989: 586). Then he once more assumes a role, this time of the hero-king: ’We few, we happy few, we band of brothers’ (IV.iii.60; Shakespeare 1989: 588). Shakespeare’s representation of the king’s role-playing is framed in turn by the speeches of the Chorus and his reiterated insistence that we are witnessing a representation of events, not events themselves, ’Minding true things by what their mock’ries be’ (IV.0.53; Shakespeare 1989: 584). Uniquely among his contemporaries, Shakespeare placed questions about the nature of dramatic illusion and its relationship to external reality at the heart of his theatre. (For a classic account, see Righter 1962). It became a potent component in his critique of the integrity of the self.
Pre-Jacobean development culminated in Hamlet (1600) and Troilus and Cressida (?1601). The former offers Shakespeare’s longest meditation on that interim before a ’dreadful thing’. In the latter, a distant mythic setting allowed him, as in Julius Caesar, to analyse the political animal in isolation from circumambient and facile state propaganda. In the process, he makes explicit a vein of cynicism latent in the earlier play.
Like other playwrights, Shakespeare had no work performed during the closure of the theatres that followed Elizabeth’s death and a singularly savage visitation of the plague. He re-emerged as still the chief dramatist of London’s best company, though now under the protection and patronage of James I. Thereafter followed an astonishing sequence of plays, among the finest dramatic texts in the western tradition: Measure for Measure (1604), Othello (1604), All’s Well That Ends Well (dating problematic, but certainly early Jacobean), King Lear (first version before 1608), Macbeth (1606), Antony and Cleopatra (1606), Coriolanus (1608), The Winter’s Tale (1609/10), Cymbeline (1610/11), The Tempest (1610/11), together with some works that were probably or certainly collaborations, Timon of Athens (?1604), Pericles (?1607), All is True (Henry VIII) (1613), and The Two Noble Kinsmen (1613). Much critical effort has been invested in a spurious taxonomic endeavour to cluster them into generally unhelpful categories — ’romances’, ’the great tragedies’, ’late plays’, ’problem plays’, ’tragi-comedies’, and so on. I shall argue instead for seeing them as individual experiments at the edge of what was dramatically possible, each remarkable and distinctive in its own right, though sharing not only some community of themes and perspectives but also a grounding in the dramatic techniques and subtlety of representation mastered in the closing years of Elizabeth.
This approach is further informed by arguments drawn from Alastair Fowler’s extended essay on realism in early modern literature and art:
Shakespeare’s realism is probably a good deal closer to Spenser’s than is supposed within the world of Shakespearean criticism. … Renaissance comedy tends to combine illusionistic representation with allegory. And it is full of multiple narrative; the unified structure of a single, fully developed plot is hardly to be found. … Nowadays, novelistically minded directors tend to iron out Shakespeare’s interwoven structures into a single, rationalized sequence, with at most a ’main plot’ and ’subplot’. (Fowler 2003: 100)
As we shall see, the argument may be extended to Shakespeare’s Jacobean tragedies, though Fowler himself hesitates: ’But the tragedies, it might be argued, are more naturalistic, and more unified. In Othello (1604) and Macbeth (1606) all plots are tributaries of the main stream: ’’causes are all contained’’’ (ibid., p. 101, quoting Kastan 1982: 26). Yet what of the narrative of Fleance and his dynastic destiny, interrupted in Macbeth III.iii and resumed in proleptic vision in IV.i? The tale of Brabanzio, left bereft of his daughter, is picked up with the report of his death — ’pure grief / Shore his old thread in twain’ (V.ii.212—13; Shakespeare 1989: 851). His story seems more like an ox-bow lake, left behind by the mighty river of Othello’s tragedy, than a tributary stream.
My approach to the multiple plots recognizes the intricacies of the coexistence in early modern cultural practices of literal and symbolic modes. To adapt Fowler’s complex thesis (and to extend, though at the risk of vulgarizing it, an important concept latent in his account), I turn to the more tractable domain of portraiture. A painting may appear as a recognizable representation of the sitter. That image, necessarily, is to a degree life-like — there is no point in a portrait that is unrecognizable. However, it may well be idealized, cleaned up, purged of unwelcome elements evident in the sitter, whose warts may go unrecorded. Again, the posture that is struck may connote status, as may the associated accoutrements. These may reflect the sitter’s habitual practice, though they are as likely to require symbolic reading.
Thus, like many early modern portraits, a familiar image of Elizabeth may be decoded through the simultaneous application of multiple and very different interpretative strategies. Consider the so-called ’Ditchley’ portrait by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger (c.1592) (National Portrait Gallery, London; conveniently reproduced in Duncan-Jones 2001: plate 1). We find at once a recognizable simulacrum and an idealized image of the queen, whose waist appears improbably thin, her breasts improbably high, her body improbably elongated. Her dress connotes wealth and power, but it also carries heraldic escutcheons. She wears a pink flower, which may reflect habitual or particular practice, but certainly invites identification as the Tudor rose and as such symbolizes her dynastic connections. The background, part stormy, part under blue skies, carries a Latin motto of explication, while her stance, on a globe displaying England, plainly allegorizes her regal status. In a more fine-grained explication, Katherine Duncan-Jones points out, ’her right toe point[s] to Ditchley Park, in Oxfordshire, the seat of her loyal Champion (and perhaps half-brother) Sir Henry Lee, while her heel rests on the adjacent county of Warwickshire. … This posture symbolically declares her especially proud ownership of the English Midlands’ (2001: 1).
Shakespeare’s Jacobean plays demand a similar juxtaposition and coexistence of interpretative strategies, though the challenge is compounded by the dramatic coherence and a depth of characterization which is overwhelmingly rooted in a realistic depiction of personality. The characters are low mimetic, representations of ordinary people such as live in the everyday world, although the circumstances in which Shakespeare places them are often symbolic.
In All’s Well, Shakespeare depicts with a considerable and realistic interiority two aspects of adolescent longing. On the one hand, we have the sexual desire of Helen for Bertram, the socially unapproachable son of her patroness; on the other, his youthful dreams of martial and masculine comradeship. But Helen’s story assumes a folkloric quality as she stakes her life to regenerate an old and ailing king (and, by implication, an ailing state in a senescent world). Shakespeare marks the shift to a symbolic and indeed mystical mode by adding an almost incantatory quality to his dramatic verse:
KING Art thou so confident? Within what space
Hop’st thou my cure?
HELEN The great’st grace lending grace,
Ere twice the horses of the sun shall bring
Their fiery coacher his diurnal ring,
Ere twice in murk and occidental damp
Moist Hesperus hath quenched her sleepy lamp,
Of four-and-twenty times the pilot’s glass
Hath told the thievish minutes how they pass,
What is infirm from your sound parts shall fly,
Health shall live free, and sickness freely die.
(II.ii.159—68; Shakespeare 1989: 863)
Note the rhythmic regularity, the endstopping of the lines and the insistent rhyming. This poetic idiom returns in the concluding scene where Helen’s disclosure to the other characters of what the audience already knows, that she has engineered the consummation of her marriage to Bertram, liberates him from disgrace and punishment.
In between, however, the joint protagonists behave like real people trapped in a fairytale world. Once she has revived the king, Helen claims the wish he has granted her. There follows a highly symmetrical scene of a kind frequent in Jacobean Shakespeare (although he had developed it earlier in The Merchant of Venice). She considers and rejects four lords who would accept her before choosing Bertram, who rejects her partly on social grounds and partly because of his conflicting desire to join the wars. Both react as ordinary people in the real world would react. Helen, as if waking from a dream, is startled by the absurdity of the process. What, after all, has her curing the king to do with Bertram’s choice of career or sexual partner? Thus, she comments: ’That you [the king] are well restored, my lord, I’m glad. Let the rest go.’ Bertram feigns compliance while simply asserting: ’I cannot love her, nor will strive to do’t’ (II.iii.148—50, 146; Shakespeare 1989: 865). In so doing, he declines the role assigned him by the symbolic structure of the play.
He recovers it through Helen’s next excursion into a non-mimetic mode, the so-called ’bed-trick’, in which she substitutes herself for Diana, whom Bertram believes he has seduced. I suppose such events are possible in external reality in the dimly lit interiors of early modern England, though audiences and readers over recent centuries have found the ethical and aesthetic issues disconcerting. Bertram’s sexual amorality is inconsistent with his heroic role. Why would Helen still want to marry such a scoundrel? But Bertram is tricked in turn and his rights are abused. If he behaved to a woman as Helen behaves to him, it would constitute sexual violation. Above all, there is a question of taste. Here are characters who show interior processes of longing, frustration, regret and ambition. Yet their stories intersect in a sexual act we are invited to imagine, an act so impersonal, so perfunctory, so devoid of affection that the male does not recognize the woman he is deflowering. Jacobean Shakespeare often poses his audience with such challenges to response and interpretation. In All’s Well, the plot turns implausibly on a comedic device, the gift of a ring (as in two of the love stories in The Merchant of Venice). Bertram’s conduct once more closely reflects ordinary human behaviour in embarrassing and disconcerting circumstances.
Even in the minor story line, the disgrace of Paroles, Shakespeare takes an ancient theatrical stock character, the miles gloriosus or braggart soldier, established in the western theatrical tradition at least since the time of Plautus. His showing up is again depicted in a highly symmetrical scene (IV.iii), in which, kidnapped and hooded, he methodically betrays and demeans his comrades, who stand around him. Despite the formal theatricality of the scene, he nevertheless responds with a realistic assessment of his loss of status, concluding in a powerfully resonant phrase: ’Simply the thing I am / Shall make me live’ (ll.334—5; Shakespeare 1989: 877).
The ’France’ of All’s Well is a moral testing ground, strikingly ahistorical and atopical. It is obviously constructed to provide a platform for a challenging theatrical experiment, not a depiction of a real place at a specific time. So, too, is the Vienna of Measure for Measure, though this is a world not of senescence revived through the sexual vigour of youth, but of dysfunctional and pervasive sexuality and its corrupting power.
Uniquely within the Shakespeare oeuvre, the play develops from a biblical text: ’For with what iudgement ye iudge, ye shal be iudged, and with what measure ye mette, it shal be measured to you againe’ (Matthew 7:2; see also Mark 4:42, Luke 6:38; Geneva Bible 1560 edition). As Isabella explains to Angelo, justice and mercy are at the heart of the doctrine of the atonement:
Why, all the souls that were were forfeit once,
And He that might the vantage best have took
Found out the remedy. How would you be
If He which is the top of judgement should
But judge you as you are? O, think on that,
And mercy then will breathe within your lips,
Like man new made.
(II.ii.75—81; Shakespeare 1989: 797—8)
Sinfulness is the common inheritance of humankind. The Duke, as he returns undisguised, enters into the seat of judgement in an imitatio Christi, anticipating Christ’s role at Doomsday. The switch to a symbolic mode is signalled by blasts from trumpets and by the bewilderment of Escalus and Angelo at the extraordinary form the Duke has decreed for his entry (IV.iv). But the shift is sustained only briefly and the Duke soon seems less like a Christ-figure than a stage detective, disclosing a complex plot for the benefit of dim characters and the slower members of the audience.
That plot draws on challengingly disparate elements. At its centre lies another bed trick: the substitution of the presumably inert and silent body of Mariana for that of the novice nun whom Angelo desires. Once more, there are aesthetic and ethical problems. Again, the resolution hurtles towards the familiar Shakespearian closure of multiple marriages. But these are characters of a different kind from those that populate As You Like It or Midsummer Night’s Dream. They have too much interiority for such a conclusion. We have seen too much of their anguish. Modern audiences or readers cannot feel comfortable with the Duke’s sudden proposal of marriage to Isabella. We know too much about both of them to accept their incorporation into the dramatic symmetries of a well-worn comedic resolution.
Indeed, how much we know disconcerts us throughout. Angelo behaves disgracefully, yet he has an almost tragic potential. Isabella needs to be militantly celibate for the plot to work, but sexual repression emerges as a perverse masochism:
were I under the terms of death,
Th’impression of keen whips I’d wear as rubies,
And strip myself to death as to a bed
That longing have been sick for, ere I’d yield
My body up to shame.
(II.iv.100—4: Shakespeare 1989: 800)
Claudio is invited to play the heroic victim, but the role disintegrates into a vividly depicted terror that, transhistorically, seems frighteningly real:
Ay, but to die, and go we know not where;
To lie in cold obstruction, and to rot;
This sensible warm motion to become
A kneaded clod
The weariest and most loathed worldly life
That age, ache, penury, and imprisonment
Can lay on nature is a paradise
To what we fear of death.
ISABELLA Alas, alas!
CLAUDIO Sweet sister, let me live.
(III.i.118—21, 129—34; Shakespeare 1989: 802)
Nor does the Duke’s disguised presence really underpin expectations of comedic resolution. This is no Oberon, dispatching Puck to control the lives of mortals, nor, to anticipate, a Prospero drawing on the supernatural capabilities of Ariel. The Duke’s motivation originates in an admission of his fallibility as a ruler (I.iii) and his control of the plots slips when he underestimates Angelo’s criminality. He is surprised when his deputy confirms the sentence on Claudio (IV. ii).
Measure for Measure redefined Shakespearian comedy for a new age. Othello marked a different kind of departure and played a part in establishing domestic tragedy as a major subgenre of early Stuart theatre. Uniquely in his tragic oeuvre, it deals with characters below regal status. Only here does Shakespeare locate his characters’ motivation in sexual anxiety divorced from political aspirations.
He sets the scene with careful precision. Here indeed there is a strong sense of place. Venice has a mature political system, different from Jacobean England’s, but at least as functional. The Duke and senators are depicted making a difficult choice between unattractive alternatives. Either they must support the claim of Brabanzio and thus lose Othello’s participation in the intended defence of Cyprus, or they have to allow the marriage to be lawful. Mindful of what is most expedient for the state, they are easily persuaded and move on to the next business (I.iii). Urgency comes from a real and familiar historical process, the Ottomans’ persistent threats to Venetian control of Cyprus. The island fell finally in 1571, though Othello depicts an earlier and abortive assault. The Venetian Duke and senators talk of a Turkish feint towards Rhodes, which fell in 1526. But the Ottoman threat to Christendom was well known and carefully followed in England. In the 1600s, the thrust had switched to the Slavic underbelly of Europe, while the remaining possessions in Venice’s eastern empire remained in danger.
The plot incorporates two stock narratives. Desdemona’s story is premised on the motif of defying an interdictive father and eloping with a lover, familiar from several of Shakespeare’s comedies of the 1590s and one to which he turns again in Cymbeline. Here, of course, the outcome proves tragic for both father and daughter. Again, the interpretation of events which Iago persuades Othello to adopt, as Catherine Bates observes, resembles ’a hackneyed city play whose plot is just waiting to happen: ’’the knave [Cassio] is handsome, young, and hath all those requisites in him that folly and green minds look after. A pestilent complete knave; and the woman hath found him already’’’ (Bates 2002: 190—1, quoting Iago). But this is also the basis of a traditional and much older storyline, available to Shakespeare from Chaucer, among others, for example in The Merchant’s Tale or The Franklin’s Tale. A tragic, not comic, outcome ensues.
Sexual anxiety drives the motivation. Iago appears fascinated and awed by the Moor’s alleged potency. He is ’an old black ram’ and ’a Barbary horse’ (I.i.88, 113; Shakespeare 1989: 821, 822). Iago also dreads that Othello has cuckolded him or at least that his reputation has been damaged by such a rumour (II.i). Othello’s anxiety is in part generational. Passing comments disclose a concern that he is significantly older than his wife. But the most powerful factor is his sense that he is an outsider to Venetian society.
The issue crystallizes around the plot detail of Desdemona’s handkerchief, which is planted in Cassio’s lodging. For Iago, it functions much as any spuriously introduced evidence would in a low mimetic account: ’Trifles light as air / Are to the jealous confirmations strong / As proofs of holy writ’ (III.iii.326—8; Shakespeare 1989: 837). Certainly for Othello the ’trifle’ works as it was intended. But he slips into a different mode, in effect into a different symbolic universe, in the process:
OTHELLO … That handkerchief
Did an Egyptian to my mother give.
She was a charmer, and could almost read
The thoughts of people. She told her, while she kept it
’Twould make her amiable, and subdue my father
Entirely to her love; but if she lost it,
Or made a gift of it, my father’s eye
Should hold her loathed, and his spirits should hunt
After new fancies. She, dying, gave it me,
And bid me, when my fate would have me wived,
To give it her. I did so, and take heed on’t.
Make it a darling, like your precious eye.
To lose’t or give’t away were such perdition
As nothing else could match.
DESDEMONA Is’t possible?
OTHELLO ’Tis true. There’s magic in the web of it.
A sybil that had numbered in the world
The sun to course two hundred compasses
In her prophetic fury sewed the work.
The worms were hallowed that did breed the silk,
And it was dyed in mummy, which the skilful
Conserved of maidens’ hearts.
(III.iv.55—74: Shakespeare 1989: 839—40)
Desdemona, obliged to find a magical hankie, responds with a rational incredulity: ’I’faith, is’t true?’ (line 75). But Othello’s attribution of a different kind of signified to the trivial and arbitrary signifier — Iago evidently was unconcerned what piece of evidence he fabricated — defines his cultural difference. Here is a way of perceiving that is mystical and spiritual. It contrasts sharply with the fierce and material rationalism, established by the Venetian senators’ dismissal of Brabanzio’s suit, and manifest again in Desdemona’s bewilderment.
Iago has already persuaded Othello of what is plainly the case, that he knows little of the Venetian world. Specifically, he affirms that ’In Venice they [married women] do let God see the pranks / They dare not show their husbands’ (III.iii.206—7; Shakespeare 1989: 836). However inapplicable to the case of Desdemona, this is a generalization about the lax morals of Venice to which many of Shakespeare’s contemporaries would probably have subscribed.
The nightmare of the closing scenes ends with the intervention of Lodovico and Graziano, whose exchanges with Othello again both point up cultural difference and indeed modal distinctions. The Venetians ask questions, form judgements and make decisions. Othello occupies instead a universe of demons, of heroic recollection and of an honour code that has served him badly.
Othello remained Shakespeare’s most intimate and domestic tragedy, his most detailed exploration of sexuality and its discontents, and his most continuous in its naturalistic realism. It contrasts sharply with Timon of Athens, where motivation is generally depicted in starkly simple terms and where the sense of place and period is very tentatively established. This play is set in Athens, but it is Athens in name only. Its iconic buildings and institutions are scarcely alluded to. The historical figure of the politician and general Alcibiades (c.450—404 BC) troops across the stage and fragments of his remarkable career are woven into the plot. His treatment by an ungrateful state parallels Timon’s experience, though his martial response provides a contrast to Timon’s retreat into the wilderness. But this, emphatically, is Timon’s play, and he is based on a semi-mythical figure found in an anecdote in Plutarch’s life of Mark Antony. The play has a highly schematic structure. The first half shows Timon in a giving mood; the second matches this with his misanthropism after his financial ruin and the desertion of his friends.
For a long time, the critical and editorial tradition was uncertain how to treat the play. Variously, it has been seen as an incomplete work, a work printed from an early draft and a work of collaboration. A consensus has now emerged that Shakespeare wrote the play with the young Thomas Middleton. (The issues are valuably considered in Vickers 2002: ch. 4.) We should beware of the implicit devaluation of a play as a work of collaboration, as though it were a great pity that Shakespeare, for whatever reason, didn’t write it all himself. Collaborative working had a very significant place in late Tudor and early Stuart theatre and, in the rather special form of revisions and reworkings of earlier plays, it contributed vitally to the repertoire of the Restoration stage. Without Middleton, the play would not exist, and his engagement with the senior dramatist has produced a work of distinction within Shakespeare’s oeuvre (and Middleton’s).
It fuses a starkness of structure and characterization with vivid diatribes that anticipate the idiom of King Lear. Unusually among Shakespeare’s plays, most of the characters have no name and are simply designated by their roles — ’first Lord’, ’Poet’, ’Painter’, and so on. Even the Steward, perhaps the only straightforwardly decent character in the play, and a figure who rises to choric status, has no name. Yet out of this undetailed background emerge passages of astonishing power, like Timon’s speech to Alcibiades and the camp-followers who accompany him:
I know thee too, and more than that I know thee
I desire not to know. Follow thy drum.
With man’s blood paint the ground gules, gules.
Religious canons, civil laws, are cruel;
Then what should war be? This fell whore of thine
Hath in her more destruction than thy sword,
For all her cherubin look.
(IV.iii.57—63; Shakespeare 1989: 899)
The systematic social satire that is central to the conception of the play thus supports passages of disconcerting vividness in the mature Shakespearian fashion.
The play probably seems simpler to modern audiences than it would have done to Shakespeare’s contemporaries. Timon appears to respond understandably to the ingratitude of those he has formerly befriended. But, seen in a Jacobean context, his behaviour is less straightforward. In elite social circles and among those who looked to such echelons for advancement, giving was regulated by the conventions of patronage (see above, chapter 1). The client gave services, presents, loyalty and support; the patron gave the client his patronage, in the form of protection or perhaps an office or living that was ’in his gift’. The system made for a kind of reciprocity and was for the most part sustainable. What Timon does is outside the structure of reciprocity and is not sustainable. As the Steward realizes all along, he is depleting his estate, his patrimony, to give presents to friends who recognize no social obligation to reciprocate. In so doing, he violates another social taboo, the responsibility of an heir to maintain and pass on the estate he has inherited. When a critical point is reached, Timon’s actions are judged rather differently. His ruling-class status, while it lasts, exempts him from financial scrutiny. Once his credit worthiness wobbles, however, he is evaluated against the criteria by which the mercantile classes were judged — whether he can meet debts — and the catastrophe then comes quickly. (On the ethics of credit in early modern England, see Sullivan 2002: chs 1—4.)
King Lear sits curiously among the mature tragedies, in that its plot mechanisms include elements more customary in drama with a comedic resolution. Disguise plays an important part. Lear’s faithful companion, the Earl of Kent, dismissed for opposing his bizarre behaviour in the opening scene, returns to his service as a much humbler retainer, unrecognized by Lear. As if anxious about plausibility, Shakespeare gives him a short soliloquy explaining how he is borrowing ’other accents … / That can my speech diffuse’ (I.iv.1—2; Shakespeare 1989: 949). When Gloucester’s spurned son, Edgar, assumes the role of Poor Tom, a Bedlam beggar, Shakespeare again offers a soliloquy which describes in some detail the method and rationale for his disguise.
The play opens with a fairytale ritual marked by the kinds of symmetry we have noted elsewhere in Jacobean Shakespeare. Its vehicle is a symbolic action. Using a map of his kingdom, Lear divides his lands among his daughters and their partners. The scene, in Jacobean terms, is deeply shocking. Lear is what James aspired to be, King of Britain (rather than King of England and King of Scotland, which was James’s actual constitutional position). In the late twentieth century the United Kingdom moved with little difficulty to substantial levels of devolution for Wales and Scotland. But integrity of the realm was a high priority for early modern monarchs and especially for the early Stuarts. When Charles I commissioned Rubens to decorate the Banqueting House at Whitehall, the wholly misleading celebration of the union of England and Scotland was given prominence. We may recall Elizabeth’s Ditchley portrait, considered above. Yet Lear, far from controlling his realm and protecting its integrity, tears up the political map and thus abdicates, not merely from power, but from the responsibilities that power brings.
Cordelia, rather like Bertram, declines to participate in the fairytale Lear would construct. Here the gift of territory rewards protestations of filial love: ’Unhappy that I am, I cannot heave / My heart into my mouth’ (I.i.91—2; Shakespeare 1989: 945). Her insistence on responding in a way that suggests an emotional interiority inappropriate to a non-naturalistic mode diverts the narrative into a tragic trajectory, though the role of her ’wicked sisters’ suggests vestigial elements from a folktale.
Shakespeare shows his audience a great deal of the inner workings of the innocent victims in the play, from Cordelia’s asides in the opening scenes, through Gloucester’s agony on what he mistakes for the cliffs of Dover, to Lear’s lamentation over the corpse of Cordelia. Audiences care about what happens to them, and Shakespeare tests their response to an unprecedented — and perhaps unrepeated — degree. Of course, in Titus Andronicus we see Lavinia with ’her hands cut off and her tongue cut out, and ravished’, while Chiron and Demetrius make a final appearance ’baked in this pie, / Whereof their mother directly hath fed’ (II.iv. s.d.; V.iii.59—60; Shakespeare 1989: 136, 150). But that play, with its breathless sensationalism and glittering exuberance, cannot be mistaken for a mimesis of life as we know it. In Lear, characters of a palpable decency with a plausible interiority are pushed into comparable horrors. Gloucester’s blinding is unflinchingly portrayed: ’Out, vile jelly!’ (III.vii.81; Shakespeare 1989: 963). His absurd attempt at suicide makes even greater demands: ’Is wretchedness deprived that benefit / To end itself by death?’ (IV.iv.61—2; Shakespeare 1989: 966).
Indeed, we have some good evidence that at least in the later seventeenth century audiences found the final tragedy, Lear’s death while grieving over the corpse of Cordelia, unbearable. When Nahum Tate reworked the play in 1681 he changed the end. His Lear retires with Kent to some happy monastic cell to contemplate the golden realm under the rule of Edgar and Cordelia. As Dr Johnson noted, audiences preferred that resolution: ’In the present case the publick has decided’ (Clark 1997: 371—2, lxv; see below, chapter 6). Jacobean Shakespeare made sterner demands of his audience.
Macbeth offers a more comforting resolution. Macbeth and his wife have an obvious culpability and their end is represented by the new King of Scotland in simple terms: they are ’this dead butcher and his fiend-like queen’ (V.xi.35; Shakespeare 1989: 999), a tenable if incomplete summary. Certainly, the innocent suffer in the course of the play, but they are minor characters: Banquo (albeit the progenitor of the Stuart dynasty), Macduff’s family and the vague, passive figure of Duncan. The deaths of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth both come as a kind of relief, from their own evident turmoil, to which we are intimately privy, and from the malaise that blights Scotland. At the end, the realm, now governed legitimately by Duncan’s son and nominated heir, seems unequivocally secure in a way that Britain at the end of King Lear does not. Macduff leads all those still standing in a unanimous cry of ’Hail, King of Scotland’ (V.xi.24—5; Shakespeare 1989: 999).
Unlike Ben Jonson, Shakespeare contributed nothing to the celebration of James’s accession to the English throne. Macbeth makes amends for the omission. It is premised on a credulity about witchcraft, a crime which James was known to find particularly fascinating. He had published his own treatise, Daemonologie, in 1587, and his Scottish reign was marked by an evident enthusiasm for witch-hunting. The coup that overthrows Macbeth endorses James’s unrealized vision of the union of England and Scotland, in that it shows the legitimate governments of both working harmoniously to achieve moral and political success. Moreover, Macbeth explicitly celebrates James’s lineage in Act IV, scene 1 (Shakespeare 1989: 975), where a series of apparitions conclude in ’a show of eight kings’, presided over by Banquo: ’eight Stuart kings were said to have preceded James’. The theme may seem to a modern reader somewhat marginal. However, in the early modern theatre it could have been performed as a stately and even splendid pageant. It marks a shift towards a symbolic mode and incorporates in its silent grandeur a kind of staging more appropriate to court masque. It constitutes in some ways the real climax of the play as Macbeth recognizes in it the termination of his own dynastic ambitions: ’Let this pernicious hour / Stand aye accursed in the calendar’ (IV.i.149—50; Shakespeare 1989: 992). History, destiny and stagecraft are nudging Macbeth aside.
Yet Jacobean Shakespeare is never so straightforward. Against the grand narrative of Stuart achievement, he pitches an extraordinary exploration of abnormal psychopathology. The guilt-ridden Lady Macbeth, delusionally and obsessionally washing Duncan’s blood from her hands, has even given her name to a modern clinical syndrome. For Hamlet, the status of his father’s ghost is problematic: is he an authentic revenant or a demonic imposter? In the case of Macbeth, paranormal manifestations are much more like delusions externalizing his inner turmoil. Before he kills Duncan, he sees and clutches at ’a dagger of the mind’, ’a false creation / Proceeding from the heat-oppressed brain’ (II.i.38—9; Shakespeare 1989: 982). Shakespeare carefully establishes that, when the dead Banquo turns up at the banquet, only Macbeth can see him (III.iv).
In the characterization of Macbeth, Shakespeare achieves the kind of interiority established in the role of Hamlet, though more succinctly. Once more, he models the ’phantasma or a hideous dream’ that precedes action. Thus, Macbeth vividly rehearses the cogent arguments against killing Duncan: ’He’s here in double trust’; ’his virtues / Will plead like angels … against / The deep damnation of his taking-off’; ’If we should fail?’ (I.vii.12, 18—20, 58; Shakespeare 1989: 981). Yet still he does it.
The world of Macbeth roughly resembles that of King Lear, a rather indeterminate period of British history in a landscape of almost unrelieved gloom. Scenes on bleak moors blasted by foul weather alternate with gory events acted out in grim castles. Only the hapless Duncan mistakes Macbeth’s stronghold for a pleasant place (I.vi). The plot jumbles the chronicle narrative of two quite separate Scottish reigns into a generalized depiction of an early medieval dark age. In Antony and Cleopatra, Shakespeare ends his play at a precise and crucial point in western history, the establishment of the Roman empire under Octavius Caesar, the future Augustus. Shakespeare syncopates events, but their epochal significance is not compromised. However, he represents more than just the closing years of republican Rome. Rather, he produces a studied contrast between two discrete societies at this time of crisis and transformation. Thus, he depicts the austere world of Roman realpolitik and the sensual incompetence of late Ptolemaic Egypt. In doing this, he makes great technical demands of its performers and directors, requiring more than 40 scene changes and frequent doubling of parts.
The play shows Antony’s vacillation between the two worlds, before he opts, disastrously, for Egypt. Shakespeare represents this as a choice between a harsh realism and irrational emotion, culminating at Actium, where he quits the battle to follow the fleeing Cleopatra. Yet, ingeniously, a second set of binary opposites shapes the drama. Throughout, a contrast is established between the images of Antony and Cleopatra believed in and expressed by themselves and their supporters and their often disgraceful behaviour, their duplicity, their cowardice and their disloyalty. It is as though there are Platonic ideals of the protagonists, whose presence and conduct in the world contrast with their essential selves.
Thus Antony is described in the opening lines of the play as one whose ’good eyes / … o’er the files and musters of the war / Have glowed like plated Mars’ (I.i.2—4; Shakespeare 1989: 1003), though clearly he falls off from that Roman ideal. His subsequent conduct opens further the distance between repute and reality. His rehabilitation begins dubiously, with a bungled suicide attempt which recalls the theatrical embarrassment of Gloucester’s. ’I will be / A bridegroom in my death’ is followed by the bewildered ’How, not dead? Not dead?’ (IV.xv.99—100, 103; Shakespeare 1989: 1029). Yet the poignancy of his death effects a transformation approaching apotheosis. In Cleopatra’s recollection, ’His legs bestrid the ocean; his reared arm / Crested the world’ (V.ii.81—2; Shakespeare 1989: 1032).
Cleopatra manifests a similar distinction between how she is spoken of and how she behaves. The semi-choric figure, Enobarbus, in one of the great anthology pieces of Shakespearian dramatic verse, lengthily celebrates her playful sensuality and ’infinite variety’ (II.v). Yet her cowardice causes the catastrophe at the battle of Actium and thereafter — even in her death scene — Shakespeare shows her in negotiation with Caesar. But her own suicide unites the mortal Cleopatra with the essential Cleopatra established in the consciousness of her admirers:
Give me my robe. Put on my crown. I have
Immortal longings in me. Now no more
The juice of Egypt’s grape shall moist this lip.
(V.ii.275—7; Shakespeare 1989: 1034)
In terms of the dramatic conventions relating to characterization, Shakespeare is attempting a very bold experiment, juxtaposing the depiction of conduct and the commentary of others on the legendary status of his joint protagonists. He places in jeopardy that most un-controversial of dramatic unities, the requirement that the characters of tragedy ’should be consistent’ (Aristotle et al. 1965: 51), although in the conclusion essence and existence triumphantly merge.
Pericles resembles Timon of Athens in that a consensus has emerged that it is a work of collaboration, though dissenting voices remain. (For a review of the issues, see Vickers 2002; the editors of Shakespeare 1998 argue strongly for Shakespeare’s single authorship.) The likeliest collaborator is George Wilkins, ’a hack-writer of small account, whose work and career are rendered of interest by professional association with greater writers of the day’ (DNB: 1975). He worked on other projects for the King’s Men in the early Jacobean period. There are other similarities with Timon. The cast list is long — at least 48 characters, which must have tested the King’s Men’s skills at doubling and trebling up. But once more, many are undeveloped and anonymous roles played out in scenes of marked dramatic symmetry. Even among named characters, motivation is little explored. Antiochus simply is cruel, libidinous, incestuous and corrupt. Thaliart simply is a villain. Cleon simply is weak and incompetent. Dioniza simply is cruel and vindictive.
Nor is motivation explored more deeply in the good characters. Helicanus of Tyre replicates the honest loyalty of Timon’s Steward. Marina has an aura of inviolable chastity that can discourage successive whoremongers from deflowering her. As the Bawd observes, ’she is able to freeze the god Priapus and undo the whole of generation’ (sc. 18, ll.11—12; Shakespeare 1989: 1058). Pericles himself merely responds honourably and practically to the contrasting circumstances in which his largely random peregrinations place him. Unusually for a play from Shakespeare’s hand, several pivotal scenes are depicted in dumbshow. In these we do not hear what the characters say, let alone overhear in soliloquy their verbalized thoughts. The issue of shallow characterization is most acute in the case of Lysimachus. The audience is required to accept his transformation from a corrupt statesman, who frequents brothels on the look out for sex slaves to deflower, into a fit husband for Marina.
Technically, however, the play takes on a number of challenges. This is highly polyphonic storytelling, as Thaisa, Marina and Pericles are separated to experience their disparate adventures across the eastern Mediterranean. What ties the stories together is the choric figure of the fourteenth-century poet John Gower, from whose Confessio Amantis the tale in part derives. In a fascinating experiment, Gower speaks in a poetic idiom generally alien to Jacobean theatre. Several of his speeches are in the eight-syllabled couplets used in the Confessio Amantis. Moreover, his idiolect is marked by archaisms, as in ’Now sleep y-slacked hath the rout’ (sc. 10, l.1; Shakespeare 1989: 1051), as though further to distance the world of the play from Jacobean England. External reality as the audience knows it is scarcely engaged. This is a fantastic tale set in fantastic lands, mediated through an ancient and remote narrator.
Coriolanus constitutes Shakespeare’s most detailed representation of class struggle. Like Julius Caesar or Antony and Cleopatra it depicts an epochal shift in Roman history, though from an earlier period. Early in the fifth century BC Roman government developed from an aristocratic oligarchy to a more complex constitution in which the plebeians had their spokesmen.
Coriolanus champions the extreme wing of the patricians, a position on the edge of extinction. The plebeians are no more sympathetically represented than in Julius Caesar. Yet Coriolanus’s abrasive dismissal of them appears impolitic and counter-productive, as wiser figures among the patricians appreciate. Early in the play, Shakespeare establishes Menenius as representative of what may be misperceived as a rational middle way between unruly proletarians and uncompromising aristocrats. He is certainly rational, but ’middle way’ scarcely describes his political philosophy, which is wholly patrician in its assumptions. He offers a lengthy parable of the belly (the senators) and the limbs (the proletariat), a lucid image of a Rome where classes are mutually dependent.
Coriolanus’s tragedy is that of a primitive warrior incompetent in a politically complex and dynamic state. Menenius maintains a dialogue with the proletarians’ tribunes; Coriolanus cannot. For all his talk of honour, he behaves disgracefully. He commits what is, unequivocally, treason against the Roman republic. Then he betrays the martial Brüderschaft he establishes with Aufidius. At no point does he seem aware of his own limitations and culpability. His volte-face outside Rome, prompted by his mother’s pleading, contains no word of apology or self-reproach. His is a kind of monolithic simplicity, a terminal naivety in a politic world. He discloses no partially hidden interiority because nothing intervenes between his emotions and the articulation of those emotions. Once more, Shakespeare is experimenting with characterization. Here we have a hero who is palpably simpler and dimmer than both the audience and the other characters with whom he is juxtaposed.
The Winter’s Tale, like Measure for Measure, depicts the kinds of passionate interiority more characteristic of Shakespeare’s Jacobean tragedies. Leontes’ pathological jealousy, more sudden and even more puzzling than Othello’s, has the destructive potential of Angelo’s lust. In terms of the Shakespeare oeuvre, the play looks backwards thematically, while technically it innovates, anticipating features more fully realised in Cymbeline and The Tempest. Its larger symbolic structure shows the reanimation of an aging and repressive court by a pastoral sojourn in a landscape peopled by young lovers. Analogies with As You Like It and A Midsummer Night’s Dream are obvious. The theme appears again as a minor motif in Cymbeline, where the problems engendered in the court scenes are resolved in the healing wilderness of wild Wales. It shapes more fully the process of reconciliation in The Tempest.
Technically, the play is challenging. The 16-year gap between the winter world of acts one, two and three and the springtime of acts four and five is actually helpful to modern productions, the perfect place for an interval. But there is nothing to suggest that theatrical custom in Shakespeare’s age allowed for a protracted intermission, although musical interludes were sometimes introduced. Indeed, Shakespeare feels constrained to introduce ’Time, a Chorus’ (IV.i), to soften the surprise and ease comprehension: ’I turn my glass, and give my scene such growing / As you had slept between’ (ll.16—17; Shakespeare 1989: 1116). The usual continuities of Jacobean drama, where scene follows scene with an assumption of causality and close sequence, are violently fractured.
As in All’s Well and Measure for Measure, a modal shift ushers in the resolution, though here the movement to a mythic and symbolic mode is spectacular. Hermione, who seemingly died 16 years earlier, reappears as a statue, lifelike but showing the aging process. As music plays, it comes to life. Paulina, widow of the courtier Antigonus, evidently organizes events, though she and Shakespeare are evasive about quite how the apparent miracle has been effected: ’you’ll think — / Which I protest against — I am assisted by wicked powers’ (V.iii.89—91; Shakespeare 1989: 1130). But Shakespeare leaves a bitter-sweet edge to the story. The lost years cannot be recovered. Antigonus, mauled by a bear while leaving Perdita in Bohemia, cannot be revived. Florizel’s arrival reminds Leontes of his own dead son, Mamillius. Reconciliation may be the dominant note of the closing scene, but the wastefulness of pathologically misdirected emotion is scarcely mitigated.
Cymbeline shares with Lear a vaguer kind of historicity. Shakespeare draws on the legendary early history of Britain. In that it celebrates the British achievement of independence from Roman dominion, it is both patriotic and an endorsement of James’s British aspiration. Yet Cymbeline, the king of Britain, is not represented wholly sympathetically. He emerges as an overbearing father with poor judgement in the people he favours. Indeed, there are possibilities for reading this character as a critique of James’s own performance. Yet the play antedates the Overbury scandal, and the most nearly contemporary royal marriage was that of his daughter to the apparently unexceptional Elector Palatine, early in 1613. The concluding scene has a ’Soothsayer’ celebrate the universal peace that has been established, in a ringing endorsement that echoes that of court entertainments, where figures of authority yet again praise James as a peacemaker. For example, the Soothsayer’s praise of ’the radiant Cymbeline, / Which shines here in the west’ (V.vi.476—7; Shakespeare 1989: 1165) chimes with Merlin’s reconciliation of Prince Henry’s youthful bellicosity to James’s irenic wisdom at the end of Prince Henry’s Barriers (1610), written by Ben Jonson:
Nay, stay your valour; ’tis a wisdom high
In princes to use fortune reverently.
He that in deeds of arms obeys his blood
Doth often tempt his destiny beyond good.
Look on this throne, and in his temper view
The light of all that must have grace in you:
His equal justice, upright fortitude
And settled prudence, with that peace endued
Of face, as mind, always himself and even.
(ll.396—404; Orgel and Strong 1973: 163; see above)
War has its place in the history of nations, but peace is the good for which wise monarchs strive. Shakespeare endorses in the figure of Cymbeline James’s values and hopes while — unlike the masque-writer — accepting that kings, too, may err.
As in Lear, a folkloric element initiates much of the plot. The lover’s reckless boast of his mistress’s fidelity has a long pedigree in western narrative, in which a tale from Boccacccio’s Decamaron is key. This plot element culminates in probably the most erotically charged scene in Shakespeare as the Italian Giacomo emerges from concealment to view the naked Innogen, asleep in her bed. (This account, following Shakespeare 1989, uses the form ’Innogen’; ’Imogen’ is found only in the Folio edition, where it ’appears to be a misprint’ — Shakespeare 1989: 1131.) In a 40-line soliloquy, Giacomo recalls Lucrece, the victim of an earlier analogue to Posthumus’s boast: ’Our Tarquin thus / Did softly press the rushes ere he wakened / The chastity he wounded’ (II.ii.12—14; Shakespeare 1989: 1140). Innogen herself had been reading the tale of Philomela, a mythological rape victim whose fate closely parallels Lavinia’s in Titus Andronicus. Giacomo listens to her breathing, he smells her, he slips off her bracelet as a trophy, he bares and scrutinizes her body, fixing his gaze on ’On her left breast / A mole, cinque-spotted, like the crimson drops / I’th’ bottom of cowslip’ (ll. 37—9).
’Our Tarquin’: presumably he says this because, Tarquin, like himself, was Italian. Yet the scene plays disturbingly with the sensibilities of the audience, for Giacomo is our surrogate. In a way he responds for us, reporting his sensations and reflections — the rapist’s stealth, what he hears, smells and sees. Somewhat uncomfortably, we experience the victim through his agency. We are voyeurs, watching an act of voyeurism.
Elsewhere, in its juxtaposition of horror, pathos and absurdity, the play poses challenges to its audience’s reception that are analogous to those in Lear. Consider the funeral rites for Cloten and Innogen (IV.ii), the one a would-be rapist, the other his intended victim. Over her body, Guiderius and Arviragus sing ’perhaps the most exquisite lyric in the language … , whose serene beauty has brought consolation to many a real-life funeral’ (Shakespeare 1997: 1):
Fear no more the heat o’th’ sun,
Nor the furious winter’s rages.
Thou thy wordly task hast done,
Home art gone and ta’en thy wages.
Golden lads and girls all must,
As chimney-sweepers, come to dust.
(IV.ii.259—64; Shakespeare 1989: 1154)
Even for readers, the effect is stunning; as a theatrical moment, amid the chaos that surrounds the characters of the play, it is extraordinary. It challenges any easy moralizing. One of the singers has murdered Cloten, who deserved his fate, as he plotted murder and rape. Yet Cloten is laid alongside an intended victim, both seemingly reconciled by that great leveller, death. But Innogen is not dead. She revives to embrace the headless corpse, believing it to be her husband’s, smearing her face with his blood after a poignant and intimate soliloquy: ’I know the shape of ’s leg; this is his hand … ’ (IV.ii.311; p. 1155). But we know, though her grief is in earnest, she is mistaken. She bathes in the blood of a man who would have raped her, rendering grotesque a moment of unbearable tenderness. As Roger Warren observes, the scene, ’combining the extremes of lyrical beauty and psychological and physical horror, presents the technique of the play in its most dramatic form’ (Shakespeare 1997: 1).
Cymbeline is a spectacular play. Like The Winter’s Tale, it has an extraordinary coup de théâtre, as ’Jupiter descends in thunder and lightning, sitting upon an eagle. He throws a thunderbolt’ (V.v. s.d.; Shakespeare 1989: 1159). His appearance ends a ritualized dream sequence and anticipates the scene of reconciliation, with which the play ends. Its masque-like quality has often been remarked on and is sometimes associated with the King’s Men’s earliest years in their second venue, the indoor Blackfriars theatre. Yet the play in repertory probably appeared also at the Globe and was certainly performed at court. Warren notes that, contemporaneously, a deus ex machina device was used at the outdoor Red Bull theatre.
The Tempest was almost certainly the last play Shakespeare wrote unaided. Thematically, it draws on the concerns present elsewhere in his Jacobean comedies — a general celebration of reconciliation and forgiveness, together with the mythical power of youth, sexual love and a pastoral setting to revive a senescent and corrupt society. But he adds a pervasive tone of valediction. Prospero abjures his extraordinary powers, through which ’graves … / Have waked their sleepers, oped, and let ’em forth’ (V.i.48—9). Shakespeare, too, has raised the dead in the form of the English kings and Roman statesmen he has animated to strut his stage. The critical tradition has long been drawn to the equation of Prospero and Shakespeare. The actor playing Prospero, in the kind of epilogue Shakespeare wrote only infrequently, appears to crave release: ’As you from crimes would pardoned be, / Let your indulgence set me free’ (Epilogue, 19—20; Shakespeare 1989: 1189). Yet this is no mere retirement speech. Shakespeare has had Prospero set his exit in a context of universal mutability:
Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits, and
Are melted into air, into thin air;
And like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve;
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.
(IV.i.148—58; Shakespeare 1989: 1184)
Inevitably, ’the globe’ seems an allusion to the King’s Men’s theatre, the venue where at least sometimes The Tempest would have played.
Jacobean Shakespeare plainly felt uneasy with doing over what he had achieved before, and The Tempest marks some of his boldest theatrical experiments. If The Winter’s Tale had challenged notions of dramatic unity with its binary structure and Antony and Cleopatra with its frantic multiplicity of scenes and locations, The Tempest takes on the challenge of the classical unities, depicting the events of just a few hours in a single location. He meets with consummate mastery the technical problem of nesting a complex back story in the developing dramatic exposition. The obsession with the passing of time, most strongly expressed in Ariel’s frequent reminders that soon he, too, will be released, lends an urgency to the imminent closure.
Masque-like elements appeared in the living statuary of The Winter’s Tale and the deus ex machina in Cymbeline. The Tempest contains a fully realized hymeneal masque (IV.i), evidently using stage machinery and culminating in ’a graceful dance’ (s.d.; Shakespeare 1989: 1184). Ariel and other spirits fly and the opening storm scene requires elaborate stage effects. Thus this is the most spectacular of his plays.
But Shakespeare did not retire. The oeuvre concludes with two works of collaboration with John Fletcher: All is True (or Henry VIII, as the First Folio terms it) and The Two Noble Kinsmen. Neither stands comparison with the Jacobean plays Shakespeare wrote alone, and, compared with Pericles and Timon, they seem curiously backward-looking.
All is True completes the great arc of English political history which Shakespeare had dramatized for the Elizabethan stage, bringing events up to the eve of the English reformation, celebrating the birth of the future Elizabeth I and anticipating the happy reign of James I. Cranmer prophesies:
Peace, plenty, love, truth, terror,
That were the servants to this chosen infant,
Shall then be his, and, like a vine, grow to him.
Wherever the bright sun of heaven shall shine,
His honour and the greatness of his name
Shall be, and make new nations.
(V.iv.47—52; Shakespeare 1989: 1223)
The speech constitutes the most explicitly royal panegyric in the Shakespearean oeuvre. How curious that it should have appeared so long after the accession and so late into his own career.
The dramatic exposition is reminiscent, perhaps, of that in Richard III. Political action is part of a world of intrigue in which powerful figures pursue, often ineptly, their own ends, in scenes of dramatic irony, where the audience and some of the characters know what is really happening, but the doomed do not. But in common with his other late plays, this too is spectacular, with a dream vision, court masque and ceremonial, and, at one point, the discharge of a cannon. This, in June 1613, signalled the end of the greatest phase of English drama: it caused the thatched roof of the Globe to catch fire, and the whole structure rapidly burned. The King’s Men still had their Black-friars venue, and the Globe was soon rebuilt, but Shakespeare was no longer a shareholder (Duncan-Jones 2001: 254).
The Two Noble Kinsmen shares some of its characters with A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The setting again is the realm of Theseus and Hippolyta, though here the play adheres more closely to its source in Chaucer’s Knight’s Tale. It even has an inset entertainment by comic proletarians, roughly equivalent to Bottom’s amateur dramatics, in the form of a morris dance of countrymen and women under the direction of a comic schoolmaster (III.v). The play is organized around a simple opposition of two rival lovers, with little to distinguish them and not much by way of psychological interiority. Nevertheless, the play has a final experimental component: one of the youthful heroes actually dies: not a false death like Hermione or Innogen, but a final expiration on stage. A bland epilogue follows, though with a perfect curtain line for the most remarkable writing career in the English literary tradition: ’Gentlemen, good night’ (l.18; Shakespeare 1989: 1256).
John Marston’s early contribution to the Elizabethan and Jacobean stage was primarily for the children’s companies. He had been educated in the Middle Temple and ’resided there, off and on … throughout his dramatic career’ (Marston 1999: xix), and he brings to his plays the kinds of youthful cynicism associated with that milieu. His best-known play, The Malcontent, reflects and confirms a significant development in the characteristic repertoire of the King’s Men, manifest both in the Jacobean plays of Shakespeare and in the increasingly prominent role of Ben Jonson as a writer for that company.
As is often the case in the history of the early modern stage, much of the detail has not been recovered. However, The Malcontent evidently began in performance at the Blackfriars Theatre, home of the Children of the Chapel Royal, who became after 1604 the Children of the Queen’s Revels (see above). Its premiere was probably no earlier than 1602, though 1603 or 1604 are likelier dates. Shortly afterwards it was acquired by the King’s Men, perhaps through theft, perhaps through purchase, and performed with a new and ingenious induction, which acknowledges that the play had its origins elsewhere and preemptively makes light of it. An actor in the role of a theatre-goer addresses members of the cast, appearing as themselves, about the reasons for the transfer. Henry Condell, actor, shareholder and future editor of Shakespeare’s First Folio (see below, chapter 3), responds: ’the [prompt-] book was lost; and because ’twas pity so good a play should be lost, we found it, and play it’ (’Induction’, ll.74—5; Marston 1999: 13). Whatever the events that prompted the transfer, the King’s Men now had something of a keynote drama.
Marston, much as Shakespeare does in his Jacobean plays, situates his actions in a foreign location so remote from England and from actuality as to be almost hypothetical. Here, we have the depiction of three dukes of Genoa, though, as his epistle acknowledges, Genoa had no duke, and the family names he attributes to them belong to the ruling elites of other Italian city-states. His rejoinder claims: ’it was my care to write so far from reasonable offence that even strangers in whose state I laid my scene should not from thence draw any disgrace to any, dead or living’ (’To the Reader’, ll.9—12; p. 4).
The plot has often been compared with that of Measure for Measure, in that a duke, Altofronto, disguised as the eponymous malcontent, in this case deposed, haunts his former court unrecognized, observing sourly the conduct of the courtiers. Marston nudges this world a further step from a plausible representation of actuality by having his successor, deposed in turn, join him in disguise. He anticipates some of the more spectacular dramatic effects of late Shakespeare, in that the resolution, a counter coup, takes place under the pretence of a court masque. Thematically, its concerns are more uniformly satirical than Shakespeare’s. Marston had written verse satire in the late Elizabethan period, and his targets are familiar ones from that genre. Indeed, they recur in the Jacobean epigrams of Ben Jonson and in the character tradition. Braggarts, voluptuaries and time-serving courtiers people the stage and play the lackey to successive dukes. Under the guidance of Maquerelle (a French term for a bawd, borrowed already into English; see OED s.v. ’Mackerel’2), Emilia and Bianca, the Duchess Aurelia’s ladies in waiting, develop strongly into the role of what Jonson, in a later epigram, would term ’court pucelle’, more courtesan than courtier. Though the anti-court sentiment is almost unrelenting, it is systemic, rather than particularized. In timely fashion, though, its primary concern is with the responses to regime change. When Bilioso, ’an old choleric marshal’, is asked what he would do if Altofronto were restored — ’What religion will you be of now?’ — he replies, ’Of the Duke’s religion, when I know what it is’ (IV.v.93—4; p. 125). Perhaps the facility with which James assumed power in England was not so surprising.
Marston’s career as a dramatist in a significant respect followed a pattern which was to become more frequent as the century progressed, whereby rich men’s sons wrote for the stage in their bohemian youth before retiring to respectability. Marston’s father was a successful lawyer and the dramatist himself flirted, evidently half-heartedly, with a legal training while creating his plays. About 1608 he took holy orders and spent the rest of his life as a moderately successful provincial clergyman. ’His only activity connected with his former literary career was to lobby … to have his name removed from the title-page of the 1633 collected edition of his plays’ (DNB 2004).
Ben Jonson’s best and currently most studied plays date from the first part of the Jacobean period: Sejanus (1603), Volpone (1606), Epicoene (1609), The Alchemist (1610), Catiline (1611), Bartholomew Fair (1614) and The Devil is an Ass (1616). Although at the same time he had established himself as the principal writer of court masque, his plays are markedly less spectacular than Shakespeare’s, rarely using theatrical effects, dance and music in a major way. His is a very verbal drama, of great speeches marked by high rhetoric and of dialogue shaped into distinctive idioms to differentiate character, class and cultural background. At its best, his plotting is intricate and precise. He brings to the stage a display of learning and indeed scholarship remarkable in any age.
At the outset, Jonson did not write exclusively for the King’s Men. The ill-judged collaborative work, Eastward Ho!, had been performed by the Children of the Queen’s Revels. Sejanus, however, was staged by the King’s Men at the Globe. (Shakespeare, it is often observed, probably played the role of Tiberius.) Yet it fared badly in the theatre. In the epistle affixed to the printed version in which Jonson dedicates it to his currently most important patron Lord Aubigny, he remarks, ’It is a poeme that (if I well remember) in your Lo[rdship]’s sight, suffer’d no lesse violence from our people here, then the subject of it did from the rage of the people of Rome’ (Jonson 1925—52: IV, 349). The play Sejanus was torn to pieces by the mob. An amphitheatre performing space, with its large audience in close proximity, must have been a terrifying place if a play went seriously wrong.
Whereas Shakespeare based his own plays about classical history on single sources available in translation, Jonson drew on Tacitus, Suetonius and Dio Cassius, together with ’multitudes of scattered passages in other writers’, and he provided extensive marginal notes in the first printed version, making this ’probably the first time that a work of imaginative literature had come forth buttressed with all the apparatus of critical scholarship’ (Jonson 1965: 7—8). But annotation is irrelevant in performance.
The play itself lacks the depiction of action. Following the conventions of classical theatre, Jonson relegates the many blood-curdling events to reportage, restricting the play to an exchange of speeches, some of which are unrewardingly long. Nor does he accomplish the psychological interiority that Shakespeare had brought to the stage. Sejanus neither develops as a character nor really explains his motivation beyond a ruthless and remorseless individualism. The catastrophe comes in a meeting of the senate, where a letter from the emperor, indicting Sejanus, is simply read. His supporters fall off, he is arrested, and sentenced, scarcely speaking a word in his own defence. Jonson shies away from dramatic conflict, almost disdaining the established and current aesthetic of the genre within which he was writing. Yet the play had some topicality for his contemporaries. The Privy Council, jittery in a period of dynastic transition, evidently thought some aspects of the play treasonable, perhaps seeing in the fall of an over-ambitious favourite some allusion to the disastrous rebellion of the Earl of Essex a couple of years before. For a man hungry for preferment, Jonson sometimes showed an imperfect grasp of the nature of power and the rules of patronage.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Jonson did not risk another Roman history till 1611. Catiline depicts another crisis, the failed insurrection of a patrician faction late in the history of republican Rome. This is a play with a hero, Cicero, currently consul, and there is genuine dramatic tension in his personal struggle against Catiline. Jonson opposes the former’s intelligence, learning, civility and culture to the latter’s reactionary and primitive assertion of the privileges of his birth. Catiline’s conspirators kill a slave and swear their treasonous oath in his blood. Cicero asserts his difference clearly and challengingly, as a ’new man’, not a patrician. This is the voice of a new age and a new political culture, though we recognize, too, its attraction for Jonson, the bricklayer’s stepson and autodidact, taking on a world dominated by inherited wealth and power.
Once more, however, he declined to fulfil the genre expectations of his audience. The speeches are long and sometimes heavily rhetorical. Cicero is given orations in the Ciceronian manner. Catiline may indeed die ’A brave bad death’ (v.688; Jonson 1925—52: IV, 548), but it is offstage and merely reported. The King’s Men, no doubt, tried their best. Yet once again Jonson had failed to carry an audience with him. His epistle dedicatory to another patron, William Herbert, third Earl of Pembroke, attributes the failure to populist taste among theatre audiences. It marked his last attempt at non-comic drama.
The comedies constitute unequivocal testimony that Jonson could indeed craft a play well, despite the untheatrical nature of his Roman excursions. Volpone is a bold experiment that worked. Written for the King’s Men, it allowed them access to the kinds of unsentimental and satirical comedy more typical of the repertoire of the boys’ companies (Bevington 2000: 73). At the same time, he organizes his drama around an informing motif in the idiom of Aesopian animal fable: Volpone (the fox), aided by Mosca (the flesh-fly), feigns terminal illness to attract to him carrion eaters Corbaccio and Corvino (crows) and Voltore (the vulture), so he can prey on them. They bring him gifts in expectation of becoming his heir; but he’s not dying. Allusions to the animal equivalents of the characters recur throughout, holding the plot quite tightly together. A parallel plot, concerning the humiliation of Sir Politic Wouldbe, an English knight abroad, aligns a different kind of metamorphosis as, in a ritual humiliation, he hides himself in a large tortoise shell, ’Creeping, with house, on backe’ (V.iv.88; Jonson 1925—52: V, 121).
Yet, for all its apparent formalism, Jonson’s play overflows with vivid vitality. Volpone himself develops into an almost Marlovian overreacher. His opening lines sound like a lover in a Donne poem, though the subject of the aubade is his wealth, not his mistress: ’Good morning to the day; and, next, my gold: / Open the shrine, that I may see my saint’ (I.i.1—2; Jonson 1925—52: V, 24). Nor does he stay on mission. Once he sees Celia, he conceives a sexual desire at least as strong as his lust for gold. Left alone with her by her husband Corvino, he tries, after a brief and unsuccessful seduction attempt, to rape her: ’Thou, like EUROPA, and I like IOVE. … Yeeld, or Ile force thee’ (III.vii.222. 266; Jonson 1925—52: V, 84—5).
Celia’s role is one of solitary, abandoned victimhood, a frequent one for heroines in early Stuart drama, from which she is saved by Bonario’s heroic intervention. Yet Volpone’s attempted violation is surpassed in its violence by the threats of her husband. When he suspects her of looking favourably on Volpone as he appears in disguise beneath her window, Corvino manifests a pathological jealousy that outstrips Othello’s or Leontes’. He threatens to ’make [her] an anatomie’ (II.v.70; Jonson 1925—52: V, 62). When Mosca persuades him that Volpone would find it a tonic if she would sleep in his bed, he bullies her to the task with a similar vehemence:
I will drag thee hence, home, by the haire;
Cry thee a strumpet, through the streets; rip up
Thy mouth, unto thine eares; and slit thy nose,
Like a raw rotchet.
(III.vii.96—9; Jonson 1925—52: V, 80)
The rochet (or rotchet), the red gurnard, is a spiny fish, well liked in early modern cuisine, though obviously one that needs careful filleting in the preparation (OED; see cited examples of the word). Corvino proposes to give his wife’s face the same treatment. The image and the vile threat it embodies shock modern audiences and perhaps Jacobean ones too, though it has some of the unflinching precision they would have found, a little earlier, in the prose of Thomas Nashe. Jonson himself had come close to judicial mutilation in the form of ear-cropping and nose-slitting for his part in writing Eastward Ho! (Riggs 1989: 126).
Volpone is a metropolitan play, though its setting is Venice, which both resembles London and differs from it. No doubt its larger theme, that greed and legacy-hunting corrode traditional family ties of husband to wife and father to son, may be applied to his view of London life, but the foreign setting allows the secondary satire on the Englishman abroad. Again, by placing it in Italy, Jonson may depict a venal judicial system without risking the wrath of the judicial system under which he lived and had already suffered. His remaining early Jacobean comedies more straightforwardly have a London setting.
Volpone plainly achieved some success. The King’s Men toured the universities of Oxford and Cambridge with it. Yet Jonson still refused his audience an easy gratification. He could easily have married Celia off to Bonario. Instead, he grants her a divorce and returns her to her father’s house with her dowry reimbursed threefold.
Epicoene, or The Silent Woman marked a return to writing for a boys’ company, the Children of the Queen’s Revels. Though the basis of the action, a young man securing his inheritance from an ageing but whimsical relative, is ancient, the play emphatically anticipates major developments in English drama after the Restoration. John Dryden fittingly told his contemporaries its depiction of ’the conversation of Gentlemen’ was exemplary (Essay in Dramatic Poetry, quoted and discussed by Riggs 1989: 160). Indeed, were one unaware of its provenance, the opening scene could as easily be ascribed to William Wycherley (see below, chapter 6). It gained immediate popularity once the theatres reopened, four performances taking place in 1660, and more in 1661 (Clark 2001: 288).
It depicts generational conflict — an old and eccentric dupe (Morose) and a cluster of wealthy young toughs. Among the young, there is a further distinction of a kind dear to the Restoration stage between those who are young and witty (Dauphine, Clerimont and, above all, Truewit) and those who are young and either affected, stupid or both (John Daw, Amorous La Foole). A delicacy of wit characterizes the plan to have Morose marry a ’silent woman’ and then give part of his fortune and pledge the rest to his nephew in return for an annulment — unnecessary in the event, since the ’woman’ is actually a boy. Of course, this is an affectionless world, without pity for the defeated, but the skilful plotting, observing unities of time and place, and the facility of the bantering dialogue, all noted and praised by Dryden, carry it pleasingly through.
It shares some of its spirit with The Alchemist, though that is a far richer play thematically and in its characterization and the stagecraft shows Jonson at his most accomplished. As in Volpone, a pair of rogues, Subtle and Face, expose the cupidity of an array of gulls. This time they are aided by Dol Common, their ’stale’, or prostitute, used to lure and entrap the victims of crime. The part calls for good timing, for precise stagecraft and for versatility in assuming a number of guises; so much so that the earliest Restoration actresses shied away from it as being too demanding technically (Clark 2001: 288). Subtle sets up as an alchemist in a house that Lovewit has quit for the duration of the plague, leaving it in care of Face, an evidently dishonest housekeeper. Through the door in search of quick rewards comes a succession of types and characters, marked each by their own styles of speaking. Thus, Sir Epicure Mammon soars into wildly overreaching erotic fantasies of how he will live once Subtle’s alchemy has made his fortune:
I’le have of perfume, vapor’d ’bout the roome,
To loose our selves in; and my baths, like pits
To fall into: from whence, we will come forth,
And rowle us drie in gossamour, and roses.
(II.ii.48—52; Jonson 1925—52: V, 319)
Kastril, ’the Angry Boy’, has his own brutal idiom: ’Gods lid, you shall love him, or Ile kick you’, he cautions his sister (IV.iv.34; Jonson 1925—52: V, 373). And so on, through an aspirational tradesman, a would-be man-about-town and a ’gamester’ appropriately named Surley. Meanwhile, at every turn, Face and Subtle keep up a constant babble of alchemical jargon to delude the gulls:
SUB[TLE] Looke well to the register,
And let your heat, still, lessen by degrees.
To the Aludels.
FAC[E] Yes, sir.
SUB[TLE] Did you looke
O’the Bolts-head yet?
FAC[E] Which, on D. sir?
What’s the complexion?
SUB[TLE] Infuse vinegar,
To draw his volatile substance, and his tincture …
(II.iii.33—8; Jonson 1925—52: V, 322)
Of course, there are no bolt-heads or aludels. But note the flavour of the language. ’Aludel’ looks like what it is, an Arabic loanword, carrying associations of the recondite and exotic. ’Bolt-head’ is first recorded here in this sense; a new word for a new technology and baffling to the inexpert. Surley, the only character not really taken in, remarks with some justice, ’What a brave language here is? next to canting?’ (line 42).
Besides his familiar concern — the exposure of the pervasive and corrosive effects of greed on metropolitan life in early modern England — Jonson develops in The Alchemist a potent satire on Puritanism in his picture of Tribulation, a pastor of Amsterdam, and Ananias, his deacon. Professional writers had been used to attack Puritanism since the late 1580s, when John Lyly, Thomas Nashe and Robert Greene were enlisted to counter the effective satirical prose of the pseudonymous Martin Marprelate (see Milward 1977: ch. 4). A complex, hostile stereotype had developed, on which Jonson freely draws. He ridicules the Puritans’ preposterous linguistic affectations, particularly the absorption of biblical phrases into their ways of perceiving and discussing the world they live in, and their endless celebration of their own ’zeal’, which Jonson equates with fanaticism: ’In pure zeale, I doe not like the man [Subtle]: He is a heathen. / And speakes the language of Canaan … ’ (III.i.4—6; Jonson 1925—52: V, 340—1). Jonson picks up on other elements of the stereotype: these are relatively uneducated men; they are from outside the classes that traditionally supplied the clergy; they are hypocrites; and they are as grasping as the other dupes. Most significantly, they are subversive. Their grand plan is to finance the overthrow of the state. Jonson, by this time a lapsed Catholic convert reconciled to the Church of England, carefully places them at the outer extremity of the spectrum of Puritan opinion. They are ’brethren of the separation’, believers who have withdrawn from the national church and gone into exile, rather than the more moderate Puritans seeking a new reformation from within the church. Thus, they are a safe target, and one which the Jacobean establishment would have been happy to see ridiculed. Of course, what Jonson has to say about extremists serves to taint the mainstream of moderate Puritan opinion. But that game is an old one in reactionary polemic.
Bartholomew Fair was written, not for the King’s Men, but for Princess Elizabeth’s Men, a rival troupe also performing in a Bankside amphitheatre, the Hope. It appeared while the Globe was under reconstruction and may have been a clever piece of opportunism by the proprietors of the Hope, though the advantage was soon lost. No other major works were premiered there, leaving this as ’the Hope’s one brush with literary fame’, and its alternative use, as a bear-and bull-baiting arena, largely took over (Wickham et al. 2000: 596).
The play teems with London life. The annual fair brought rogues and twisters together with citizens and visiting provincials across generational, ideological and social divides in a vaguely carnivalesque atmosphere. Jonson adapts several plot mechanisms already familiar in Jacobean comedy. The rivalry among suitors seeking marriage with a wealthy heiress recurs frequently in city comedy (see below). He uses, too, a disguised magistrate, who, like the Duke in Measure for Measure, develops, undercover, a better understanding of the corruptions under his jurisdiction. Appropriately in the spirit of carnivalesque inversion, the magistrate spends some of the play in the stocks. It ends with a ’play within the play’, rather closer in tone and purpose to ’Pyramus and Thisbe’ in A Midsummer Night’s Dream than ’The Mousetrap’ in Hamlet, though with an added twist: this is performed by puppets.
Once more Jonson offers a satirical caricature of a rabid Puritan in the person of Zeal-of-the-Land Busy. The familiar components are present: Busy is a hypocrite, fiercely critical of indulgence by others while himself a glutton, a seemingly upright figure but an embezzler. His idiom, a limited pastiche of biblical phrases often of a prophetic kind, discloses an insistent transformation of the world as it is into the world as his preconceptions require it to be — the scene of a constant struggle between zealous purity and a Babylonian corruption. Yet he uses this idiom casuistically. Asked to find good reason for going to the fair and eating its delicacy, roast pork, he abandons his original view (that the pig is idolatrous since its nomenclature as a ’Bartholomew-pig’ popishly commemorates a saint). He argues instead that ’we may be religious in midst of the prophane, so it be eaten with a reformed mouth, with sobriety, and humblenesse’ (I.vi.72—4; Jonson 1925—52: VI, 38).
Jonson uses him, too, to ridicule Puritan opposition to the stage, a minor anxiety for the profession in the early Jacobean period, though one that grows through the early Stuart period. He bursts in on the puppet show in a whirlwind of iconoclastic self-righteousness: ’Downe with Dagon, downe with Dagon; ’tis I, will no longer endure your prophanations’ (V.v.1—2; Jonson 1925—52: VI, 133). But he makes the irretrievable tactical error of debating the morality of theatrical representation with one of the puppets — and losing. Cross-dressing, inevitable in an all-male theatrical profession, is at the centre of Busy’s case against the stage: ’my maine argument against you, is, that you are an abomination: for the Male, among you, putteth on the apparel of the Female, and the Female of the Male’ (ll.98—100; p. 135). He is easily confuted as the puppet pulls up its garment to disclose its sexless body. Of course, a boy actor in drag could scarcely have used this response. Busy concedes the case, but, significantly, he remains with the rest of the company to watch the show, a surprisingly genial and inclusive ending to the play.
Jonson’s last play before his temporary retirement from the theatre, The Devil is an Ass, marked a return to the King’s Men. In some ways a play on a more modest scale, it develops through a clever and, for Jonson, rare excursion into the supernatural. Pug, a minor devil, persuades Satan to allow him a day on earth to prove his capacity for evil. But he finds London life already so appetitive and corrupt that he is marginalized and ineffectual. As Satan chides him, ’whom thou hast dealt with, / Woman or man, this day, but have out-done thee / Some way, and most have prov’d the better fiendes?’ (V.vi.60—3; Jonson 1925—52: VI, 261—2).
Jonson’s fascinated and vivid perception of metropolitan life retained a clear-eyed and unflinching recognition that virtue was often not rewarded, that the good did not always prosper, and that the unwary were at risk from the cunning and ruthless. The city is a place of danger and disease. The Alchemist, performed shortly after the theatres reopened following a major visitation of the plague, takes as its premise the flight of the rich from the city at such times.
Jonson stands adjacent to the mainstream of low-mimetic Jacobean comedy depicting city life, usually termed ’city comedies’. The progenitor of the form was Thomas Dekker’s late Elizabethan play, The Shoemakers Holiday. That differs, however, from the favoured premises of its Jacobean successors in that it celebrates a relatively unprestigious manufacturing guild, rather than the goldsmiths and merchant adventurers, whose breathtaking wealth motivates most characters. Dekker’s play is retrospective. Set in the late Middle Ages, it shows the origins of London’s institutions and celebrates the ancient loyalism of citizens to the crown.
More typically, city comedies are set in the present. Often they have a love story or perhaps parallel and contrasting love stories, in which heiresses are competed for. The worthy make good marriages; the greedy and idle tend to get what they deserve. Sometimes the ancient love triangles of aged husband, young wife and lustful gallant are explored. As civic hostility towards the theatres eased in the early Stuart period, a drama that was more sympathetic to mercantile value systems seems to have emerged, although the companies of boy actors fostered a dramatic idiom that was coolly cynical towards the institutions of city and of state. Indeed, in Eastward Ho! the authors took the reckless step of tying their depiction of London society very closely to immediately contemporary circumstances. Their London shows the usual cast of goldsmiths, apprentices, citizens and their wives, heiresses and their suitors. But the figure of Sir Petronel Flash, ’a new-made knight’, hits at James’s policy of creating and selling many such honours, and the encounter with a Scottish ’gentleman’ on the Isle of Dogs, opposite the palace of Greenwich, where James and his entourage were contemporaneously living, was injudicious impudence that provoked ’his Majesty’s high displeasure’ and a punitive response for both the company and the dramatists (IV.i; Jonson et al. 1973: 74 and appendix 3; see above, ’Early Jacobean Theatre’).
The authorities’ response to Eastward Ho! set limits to what city comedies could do in reflecting London life. Yet at their best, they retain something of the clear-eyed moral judgement of Jonson’s own oeuvre. Thomas Middleton, Shakespeare’s collaborator in Timon of Athens and arguably the most accomplished dramatist of the 1620s, wrote for the boy actors in the earliest years of the Jacobean period. Among several plays of his staged by the Children of St Paul’s, A Mad World, My Masters (?1604—6) well illustrates his controlled and rather jaundiced perspective on London life. One plot explores the ancient storyline of the young and profligate heir, seeking premature access to the wealth of a relative of inconvenient longevity. The other principal story has the old triangle of citizen / young wife / gallant. Nobody behaves well. Duplicity characterizes all relationships, and tricksters are themselves duped. Yet, curiously, Middleton admits the possibility of moral reformation. In an excursion into the paranormal unusual in this genre, he confronts Master Penitent Brothel, the lecherous gallant, with a succubus that has assumed the form of Mistress Harebrain, the woman he would debauch. But by the time she appears, he has begun a process of spiritual meditation which already points towards his regeneration (IV.1.1—29; Middleton 1965: 63), and he goes on both to redeem the woman he covets from her own lascivious impulses and to effect a reconciliation with her husband. In the other storyline, the would-be heir, Follywit, is duped into marrying the courtesan of his grandsire, Sir Bounteous Progress, though the latter compensates him with a wedding gift in celebration of the trickster being tricked. Thus one plot ends in spiritual regeneration and the other in a genial reconciliation of sorts. Jonson rarely has his characters escape so well the consequences of their folly.
A jaundiced perspective and moralizing conclusion recur in Middleton’s later city comedy, A Chaste Maid in Cheapside (?1613). It was performed by the adult actors of a company under the patronage of the Princess Elizabeth, the king’s daughter, which occupied the Swan for a while in the early 1610s. With a neater symmetry than often characterized the genre, the good daughter of Yellowhammer, a goldsmith, and his stupid son enter into marriages that are appropriate to their moral status. The son’s is to a Welsh whore he has mistaken for a gentlewoman. The daughter’s is to an honourable suitor, Touchwood, who triumphs boldly over his inappropriate and corrupt rival, Sir Walter Whorehound. Again, corruption is widespread. Even Yellowhammer, by the end a judicious figure, has kept a whore, and he contemplates marrying his daughter to Sir Walter, whose depraved sexual life has become known to him. But the play ends by observing a kind of poetic justice and with a double wedding of the contrasting couples. Virtue is rewarded in a decidedly unJonsonian way. No wonder Jonson’s comedies figured, as Middleton’s did not, on the Restoration stage
City comedy generated the most sustained and successful literary joke of the early Stuart period, The Knight of the Burning Pestle (?1607), written by Francis Beaumont, perhaps with John Fletcher, for the Children of the Queen’s Revels. The play shows extraordinary dramaturgical ingenuity. London citizens George, a grocer, and Nell, his wife, flushed with the confidence and aspirations — and cultural limitations — of their class, attend a performance of a city comedy with their apprentice Rafe. The play within the play, ’The London Merchant’, broadly accords with the kind of drama the boys’ company would perform, though George and Nell persistently interrupt, misunderstanding its plot, criticizing its values and comparing it disadvantageously with more naive and populist dramas staged elsewhere. The problem is further compounded by their insistence on Rafe’s participation in the play as a grocer’s boy suddenly transformed into the ’Right Courteous and Valiant Knight of the Burning Pestle’ (I.273—4; Beaumont 1967: 24). George and Nell require his role to introduce an incoherent romance component into a radically different dramatic discourse:
[GEORGE] Let Rafe come in an fight with Jaspar [the apprentice role in The London Merchant].
[NELL] Ay, and beat him well; he’s an unhappy boy.
BOY Sir, you must pardon us. The plot of our play lies contrary, and ’twill hazard the spoiling of our play.
[GEORGE] Plot me no plots. I’ll ha’ Rafe come out.
(II.263—7; p. 42)
Ingeniously, The London Merchant and Rafe’s improvised chivalric romp run side by side until their complex resolution in a scene of reconciliation (in the former) and heroic death (in the latter): ’I die; fly, fly, my soul, to Grocers’ Hall. / O, O, O, &c.’ (V.332—3; p. 108).
But the play is not only a wonderfully sustained burlesque and a technical tour de force. It maps important terrain within the contemporary cultural landscape. Nell and George are seasoned theatre-goers, but this is not their theatre; they are bees in the wrong hive. The boys’ company at Blackfriars offers something alien to their values and expectations. Though they leave well pleased with what they have seen, Nell’s final words, as she invites the gentlemen of the audience back to her house for a pipe of tobacco, disclose a gaucheness that defines her social distance from the target audience of the boys’ companies.
The revenge play, ’that relatively low form of tragedy’ (Fowler 1985: 276), and variants on it substantially followed Elizabethan conventions. The society depicted in such plays is despotic. The acts requiring revenge are perpetrated by those in or close to supreme authority and no recourse to law is possible. (Necessarily, since England had a developed judicial system and a strong tradition that asserted the independence of legal process from government, the setting was generally foreign.) But whatever the circumstance, revenge requires the sin of murder. Christian patience always offers a better alternative. Moreover, since it sets the individual against the state, it disturbs the civic polity.
The Revenger’s Tragedy (?1605—6) is probably the most accomplished and purest example of the genre in the early Jacobean period. Formerly attributed to Cyril Tourneur, currently it is thought most likely to be work of the astonishingly versatile Thomas Middleton. It was first performed by the King’s Men, a company used to playing Shakespeare’s tragedies and thus better suited for this sombre though pacy drama than the boy actors for whom Middleton was writing comedies at this time. Time and place are only vaguely indicated; the play seems to be set somewhere in Italy, in a ducal state dominated by a vicious and ruthless ruling family. Vindice and his grudge dominate the play from beginning to end. The first scene has him watching a ducal procession while holding the skull of his late girlfriend, poisoned by the Duke because she would not accede to ’his palsy-lust’ (I.i.34; Tourneur [attrib.] 1966: 4). Vindice and his brother Hippolito, with wit and guile, work their way through the ducal family, killing them with various degrees of cruelty and ingenuity. The death’s head, that grim emblem, reappears as a useful prop in killing the Duke. Vindice dresses the skull with wig and mask and presumably attaches it to something that could be mistaken for a body, and puts poison on its boney lips, which the Duke duly kisses. Hippolito warmly approves: ’I do applaud thy constant vengeance, / The quaintness of thy malice’ (III.v.108—9; p. 73). The Duke not only endures agonies before expiring but also lives long enough to witness how his own bastard son, Spurio, cuckolds him with his duchess. The spirit of Grand Guignol continues to the final resolution, a ’masque of revengers’ followed by a scene of absolute carnage in which all remaining members of the ducal family are put to the sword. A new order emerges, and Vindice and Hippolito resign themselves to the legal process: ’are we not reveng’d? / Is there one enemy left alive amongst those? / ’Tis time to die, when we are ourselves our foes’ (V.iii.108—10; p. 128). The play ends with order restored, crime revenged and the disruptive process of revenge itself punished and eliminated, after an exhilarating but ultimately normative sequence of events.
The sensational murder, a feature of The Revenger’s Tragedy, finds perfect expression in the work of John Webster. In The White Devil (?1612), first performed to little acclaim in the populist theatre of the Red Bull at Clerkenwell, Webster offers a lurid account of infidelity, murder and judicial malpractice. Much of his repertoire is on display. He offers in the character of Vittoria Corombona the frisson of an isolated woman surrounded by powerful men who may treat her much as they wish. He offers, too, deaths of an ingenious and sometimes prolonged kind. Most spectacularly, Bracciano, the male lead, is afflicted by poison placed inside his tournament helmet. Despite his agony, he survives through almost 200 lines, before he is strangled, though not before he has received the last rites from his assassins, who disclose themselves to be no priests and thus gloat over his probable damnation (V.iii; Webster 1972: 141—4).
The King’s Men performed The Duchess of Malfi (1614) at the Blackfriars and the second Globe. Like The White Devil, it depicts in extreme form the vulnerability of an isolated woman deprived of the male support so important in a patriarchal society, a recurrent theme in many early Stuart plays. Once more, deaths are cruel and unusual. The Duchess herself dies after a prolonged and macabre episode of psychological torture, tormented by madmen and subjected to a harrowing encounter apparently with the bodies of her husband and children, though these subsequently are identified as mere waxwork simulacra. She dies by strangulation, though not without making, somewhat improbably, a brief recovery. The remaining characters of the play, or at least those who have any significant culpability, die in an exchange of stabbings. Motivation for the crimes against the Duchess is perverse. Her brothers have some material advantage in her remaining unmarried, but Ferdinand’s fascination with imagining her sex life more than hints at an incestuous impulse. That, however, cannot explain the curiously gothic development in his depiction as he acts out the role of werewolf.
Cyril Tourneur wrote The Atheist’s Tragedy (?1611) for the King’s Men, who evidently played it with some success, taking it twice to court in the early 1610s and retaining it in their repertoire for 30 years (Tourneur 1964: xx). Generically, it resembles Hamlet; it is a providential variant on the conventions of the revenge play. The hero and heroine, Charlemont and Castabella, are certainly much sinned against: a father murdered, a forced marriage to an unsavoury child of the villain D’Amville, a rape attempt and a fraudulent trial leading to a capital sentence. Yet, though the state is unrelentingly hostile, Charlemont piously eschews revenge, preferring instead the patience of Christian fortitude. He and Castabella are rewarded for their suffering by an extraordinary sequence of providential acts, culminating in their trial and escape from execution. D’Amville, the eponymous atheist, asserts there is no force above nature and seeks to counter their piety by insisting on executing them himself. In the event, ’As he raises up the axe [he] strikes out his own brains, [and then] staggers off the scaffold’ (Tourneur 1964: 116, s.d.). He survives long enough to expatiate on the significance of the outcome and his recognition of his own error:
D’AM What murderer was he
That lifted up my hand against my head?
1 JUDGE None but yourself, my lord.
D’AM I thought he was
A murderer that did it.
1 JUDGE God forbid.
D’AM Forbid? You lie, judge; he commanded it
To tell thee that man’s wisdom is a fool.
(V.ii.243—7; Tourneur 1964: 116).
Of course, on the printed page and to a modern reader this concluding scene probably seems more than a little ridiculous. Yet, like the mainstream of revenge tragedy, it is theatrically arresting, a moment of great peril to the good characters suddenly and violently reversed.
Revenge tragedy and its variants plainly retained popularity. But they constitute an undemanding kind of entertainment. Certainly, they present a vision of continental, often Italianate, corruption and cruelty, and offer a frisson of outlandish deviousness and cruelty. Death and suffering are often protracted, sensational and exotic. Ultimately, however, this is a conservative art form. Even in The Atheist’s Tragedy its assumptions pass unchallenged. Order is restored to the commonwealth, and the guilty, including those who have taken the law into their own hands, are duly punished. Larger questions, about the appropriate relationship between government and the governed and between the law and the state, implicit in their typical plots, are not addressed. Nor, indeed, are the plays innovative in terms of dramatic technique, though certainly they often allow a great deal of noisy action on stage. In their lack of ambition they throw into sharp relief the accomplishment of Jonson and, more especially, Shakespeare in the challenges they posed to their audiences. Jacobean drama was a component of high literary culture in the sense that social elites (as well as the middling sort) had access to it and evidently valued it. But without Jonson and Shakespeare its achievements would appear modest.
Outside the conventions of the professional stage, Elizabeth Cary wrote The Tragedy of Mariam, a closet drama depicting events among the highest circles in the court of King Herod. It is usually regarded as the first English play by a woman to have appeared in print (in 1613). Cary, wife of the first Viscount Falkland and mother of Lucius Cary, the second Viscount and patron of many writers and thinkers in the Caroline period, had nothing to gain from the publication of her work, and so its appearance in print is the more remarkable, given the compounding factors of her sex and class. Formally, this is both a history play and a careful simulation of the conventions of Senecan drama, drawing on a late Elizabethan translation of Josephus’s History of the Jewish People, and producing a play which, though lacking in spectacle and dramatic tension, supports lengthy and psychologically complex speeches, for the most part in alternately rhymed pentameter. But it is its themes, particularly about gender politics, that have stimulated most critical debate. Its heroine, the second wife of the tyrannical Herod, attempts to negotiate a modus vivendi that would allow her to speak the truth on her own behalf while satisfying the demands for subordination made by a patriarchal society. Yet she is a victim not only of the caprice of Herod but also of the duplicity of Salome, his sister, and of the implacable resentment of Doris, his first wife. Her final encounter on her way to execution is with Doris, whose parting curse extends to the next generation: ’I do hope this boy of mine, / Shall one day come to be the death of thine’ (ll.1836—7; Purkiss 1994: 62). Herod is a monarchical as well as a domestic tyrant, and the play engages, however tangentially, with those old but still pertinent questions of how subjects should respond to unjust government and what resistance is permissible. Herod himself, though, takes so firm a grip on his regime that real resistance, as opposed to verbal opposition, scarcely appears an option.
In a letter possibly addressed to Henry Wotton and tentatively dated 1600 John Donne warned its recipient thus:
Yet, Sir, though I know their low price, except I receive by your next letter an assurance upon the religion of your friendship that no copy shall be taken for any respect of these or any other my compositions sent to you, I shall sin against my conscience if I send you any more. I speak that in plainness which becomes (methinks) our honesties, and therefore call not this a distrustful but a free spirit. I mean to acquaint you with all mine, and to my Satires there belongs some fear, and to some Elegies, and these, perhaps, shame. Against both which affections although I be tough enough, yet I have a riddling disposition to be ashamed of fear and afraid of shame. Therefore I am desirous to hide them, without any over-reckoning of them or their maker. (Donne 1990: 65)
Donne’s late Elizabethan career constituted an almost perfect essay in ambition (Carey 1990: passim). He had a legal training, which equipped him well for the role of civil servant or aide to a powerful magnate. He had changed his religion, giving up Catholicism, in the cause of which both his maternal uncle and his younger brother had died. He had served with the Earl of Essex as a gentleman volunteer on the successful Cadiz expedition and the rather less successful attempt to intercept the Spanish treasure fleet in the Azores. He had moved nimbly to widen his base of patronage. By the time of Essex’s eclipse he was well established as secretary to Sir Thomas Egerton, a privy councillor and senior law officer, who had the queen’s confidence. In 1603 an injudicious and clandestine marriage to Egerton’s niece occasioned Donne’s dismissal and relative impoverishment. Through most of the period till his ordination in 1615 Donne with intermittent success sought new patrons to help him to a public or private office lucrative enough to repair his fortunes. The letter makes clear how little a wide readership meant to a creative writer of Donne’s class and aspirations. Professional writers, including Shakespeare, had vouchsafed poetry to the press in the late Elizabethan period, as they would in the Jacobean. Donne sees no advantage even in wide circulation in manuscript. His is an art to be enjoyed by the closest of coteries (although inevitably, despite his efforts, poems leaked into wider circulation and were to be found in numerous manuscript anthologies). After all, in late Elizabethan England satirists attracted official censure of a kind he could not risk, and his early erotic verse scarcely fashioned the image of a serious man of business.
The letter also shows how Donne perceived his previous literary achievement. He writes about his elegies and his satires as if he regarded them (wholly appropriately) as complete, substantial and generically distinct bodies of work. He knows they will be valued by contemporaries who have privileged access to them.
The satires are the more conventional. They rehearse familiar complaints against rather generalized and threadbare targets such as Puritans, courtiers, corrupt politicians and lecherous, promiscuous women. Juvenal and Horace hover in the background, but affinities are closer with English satirists of the late 1590s. The elegies, in a neo-Ovidian fashion that widely characterized Elizabethan literature, manifest a cool, libertine, sometimes cynical persona combined with an eye for erotic detail and a telling turn of phrase. Ovidian situations are sometimes rehearsed. In ’Elegy 6: The Perfume’, the lover dodges a father’s watchfulness and a ’grim eight-foot-high iron-bound serving-man’, only to be betrayed by his ’loud perfume, which at my entrance cried / Even at thy father’s nose’ (ll. 31, 41—2; Donne 1990: 20—1).
The most vivid elegy, ’Elegy 2: To his Mistress Going to Bed’ (Donne 1990: 12—13), plainly poses difficulties for a modern sensibility. It appears voyeuristic, intrusive to the point of morbid scopophilia. Its equation of sexual ’conquest’ and colonial exploitation readily invites political readings. There is some evidence that its indelicate libertinism, with its witty wordplay about tumescence, shocked at least some contemporaries. It was omitted when his poems were first published in 1633. Yet it shows, too, a principal strength of Donne’s mature verse, an extraordinary capacity to write as if within the moment the poem describes. The lyric voice speaks with immediacy: he is aroused, his mistress undresses, he urges her to admit his fumbling fingers and to present herself ’as to a midwife’, while, presumably in the course of the speech act which the poem simulates, the speaker himself undresses.
The dating of Donne’s mature poetry for the most part remains highly uncertain. No evidence places the composition of the ’Songs and Sonnets’ earlier than 1602 (Donne 1990: 88). The terminus ad quem is open to dispute. The argument that he must have finished them before entering holy orders lacks substance. Robert Herrick’s Hesperides (considered in chapter 4) demonstrates that one could be a clergyman of the Church of England, celebrant in devotional verse of its values and practices, and simultaneously a libertine and highly erotic poet.
The collective title was not given, nor were the poems assembled as a group, till the second edition of Donne’s poems (1635). The 53 poems (or 54 if ’The Dream’, originally printed as an elegy, is included) are thematically and emotionally disparate, even contradictory, though technically they share some common ground. They are atopical and anonymous. The mistresses are never named, a deviation from a convention that stretched from Elizabethan lyricists, most influentially Sidney, through to Richard Lovelace and Abraham Cowley. The only place specially identified is the eponymous Twickenham Garden, from 1607 in the possession of Lucy, Countess of Bedford, one of Donne’s patrons, though nothing suggests that the poem is about her. Contemporary references are very rare. ’The Sun Rising’ alludes to James I’s enthusiasm for hunting (l.8; Donne 1990: 93). Sometimes the mise en scène is a bedchamber, a graveside, a saint’s vigil, but usually it is unspecified.
The lyrical ’I’s are disconcertingly diverse. Sometimes the speaker expresses the tenderness of confidently reciprocated affection:
Sweetest love, I do not go,
For weariness of thee,
Nor in hope the world can show
A fitter love for me …
But think that we
Are but turned aside to sleep;
They who one another keep
Alive, ne’er parted be.
(’Song’, ll.1—4, 37—40; Donne 1990: 99)
Sometimes there is an anxiety that the relationship is transient, as in ’A Valediction: of my Name in the Window’ (Donne 1990: 103—5), where all that may remain may be a name shallowly etched in the glass of a bedroom window. Elsewhere, the lover speaks with a warm, languidly post-coital voice, as in ’The Good Morrow’ and ’The Sun Rising’ (Donne 1990: 89—90, 92—3). (After sex, Donne’s lovers, contrary to the received Lucretian wisdom, usually seem quite pleased with themselves and the world around them.) But sometimes sexual contact, in hindsight, seems repulsive, as in ’Love’s Alchemy’ (Donne 1990: 113—24). Even the implied intelligence of the lover changes, from the sportive logicality of ’The Flea’ or ’Air and Angels’ (Donne 1990: 89, 101), to the vituperative incoherence of ’The Apparition’ (Donne 1990: 118—19), where he imagines himself as a revenant slain by a mistress who won’t sleep with him but who is, after his death, sexually insatiable. In human terms, his resolve not to say while living what he will say once dead makes no sense. Elsewhere the gender of the speaker is unstable. ’Break of Day’ (Donne 1990: 102) certainly has a woman speaking. So, perhaps, does ’Woman’s Constancy’ (Donne 1990: 91).
Of course, modern readers, like readers of the 1635 edition, see the poems as a whole in a way in which, most probably, very few readers did in Donne’s lifetime. We seek a coherence when what he offers us is a myriad of voices in a myriad of circumstances, articulating a range of values, affections and assumptions. Yet collectively they constitute an anatomy of heterosexual relations in early modern England — and perhaps beyond. These are poems largely detached from social context. We have little sense of the relative status of the lovers. What distinguishes Jacobean sexual mores from those of our own age is substantially missing. These poems are silent about the risks of unwanted pregnancy in an age without reliable contraception, of sexually transmitted diseases in an age before antibiotics, and of social disgrace and danger at a time when chastity was valued in unmarried women and fidelity after marriage. What remains at the core of the work is probably transhistorical and cross-cultural in human desire and affection.
Collectively, too, the poems constitute a technical tour de force. They frequently exhibit the immediacy of ’Elegy 2’. Readers are seemingly overhearing bedroom conversations, seduction routines and acts of valediction. Imaginatively, they are invited to project future scenes of dying, of post-mortem examination, of exhumation, of ghostly visitation, and of the resurrection of the dead. The poems pose some of the stiffest challenges to interpretation (and even comprehension) to be found in high literary culture across the century. Working out what a poem like ’Air and Angels’ means is a tricky brain-teaser for an experienced and elite reader. The poems exude an encyclopedic knowledge (although the encyclopedia was shorter then, and better known). For example, ’The Good Morrow’ (Donne 1990: 89—90) bounces through a witty appropriation of Platonism into a testing analogy between love and cartography and ends with an allusion to Galenic medicine.
But the challenge Donne poses is profounder still, testing to near breaking point readers’ tolerance for the polymorphous sensibility implied, especially in the imagery of the poems. Sex persistently is associated with death, with decomposition, with dissection and with torture, and poems teeter on the brink of blasphemy. Twice a lover ponders how a bracelet of braided hair would be perceived by people handling his corpse. In ’The Funeral’ (Donne 1990: 127), where the lover speaks to those who will come to lay out his body, the love token is an enigmatic sign, an ineffective talisman and a fragment from an unobtainable object of desire to be carried to the grave. ’The Relic’ relocates the conceit to an exhumation in a distant age, when gravediggers, looking to accommodate another corpse, break open his grave and notice ’A bracelet of bright hair about the bone’ (l.6; Donne 1990: 130), which is at once a resonant phrase and a gruesome image. The poet has them wonder whether the keepsake was a ruse to secure a short meeting at the last judgement, since the mistress, to be resurrected whole, would need to collect the lock from him, which makes the relationship seem singularly fragile and delicate, an embrace beneath the towering finality of last things. But the poem plays for a frisson of blasphemy. If the exhumation takes place in a superstitious age, perhaps the gravediggers will think the bracelet to be a relic of Mary Magdalen, whose iconography traditionally depicts her with long blonde hair. If the bracelet is from her, who does that make the lover? The poem is studiedly and playfully evasive: the lover is ’A something else thereby’ (l.130). Perhaps a former client from her days as a prostitute. But perhaps her legendary lover, Jesus Christ — although Christ, of course, is not physically present in any tomb. But then Donne sets the fancy in an age of ’mis-devotion’ (l.13).
The associations are sometimes more appalling. In ’Love’s Alchemy’ the speaker likens a woman who has been ’possessed’ to ’mummy’, a vile medicament made from grinding to paste the embalmed bodies of ancient Egyptians (or else some presumably inferior substitute), typically taken orally. Again, ’Love’s Exchange’ ends:
… Love is enraged with me,
Yet kills not. If I must example be
To future rebels; if th’unborn
Must learn, by my being cut up, and torn:
Kill, and dissect me, Love; for this
Torture against thine own end is,
Racked carcases make ill anatomies.
(ll.36—42; Donne 1990: 110—11)
The principal image is macabre enough, but the conclusion has a gruesome precision. I suppose heavy racking may reduce the usefulness of a cadaver for anatomical purposes since the articulation of the spine and perhaps the shoulders would be damaged.
Donne’s most important religious poems are the ’Holy Sonnets’. Careful study of the extant manuscripts has established that these form less coherent a cluster than their appearance together since the early editions would seem to suggest (Donne 1978: xxxvi—liii). However, the primary and secondary groups, sonnets 1—6 and 7—16, offer series of meditations on salvation (and damnation) by a speaker who variously appears anxious, guilt-ridden or triumphantly aware of his own justification. The other three are more difficult to incorporate in that schema. Sonnet 17 is an elegy for a loved one, perhaps his wife. Sonnet 18 is evidently late and makes allusion to the Thirty Years War. Sonnet 19, with its conclusion, ’Those are my best days, when I shake with fear’ (Donne 1990: 289), fits more easily with the rest.
Theologically, the poems are in the Protestant tradition. On the nascent division within the Church of England between Calvinist and Arminian theories of salvation, they seem disengaged and evasive. The last rites of Catholicism have no place. Yet, as a long critical tradition recognizes, they take from the Counter-Reformation some of the intensity of the meditational practices it encouraged. The speaker projects himself into pivotal moments, to the point of death, to the very moment of Christ’s second coming:
Oh my black soul! now thou art summoned …
This is my play’s last scene …
What if this present were the world’s last night?
(first lines, sonnets 2, 3, 9; Donne 1990: 174, 177)
The poems often share the immediacy of the ’Songs and Sonnets’. The reader seemingly overhears the interior monologue of a believer animated by a heightened sense of his own mortality and of the imminence of judgement. Though generally simpler, the poems sometimes pose intellectual challenges, as in ’At the round earth’s imagined corners, blow / Your trumpets, angels’ (sonnet 4, ll.1—2; Donne 1990: 175). The ’imagined corners’ recollects Revelation 7:1: ’I saw four angels standing on the four corners of the earth. … ’ But Donne knows the earth is round and in cartographical terms best represented as a globe, not a map. He points up the contradiction, leaving it only partially resolved (why would the holy ghost or Saint John the Divine want to imagine the world erroneously as rectangular?), before hurling the reader into contemplating the resurrection of the dead:
… and arise, arise
From death, you numberless infinities
Of souls, and to your scattered bodies go …
(sonnet 4, ll.2—4)
’Numberless infinities’: again a game, a brain-teaser — can infinities be plural? does ’numberless’ mean there are so many infinities they can’t be counted or that each infinity defies computation? But the logical, indeed mathematical, conundrum is swept aside in contemplation of that far greater mystery, as vast multitudes of souls reunite with their long decayed bodies, which are physically resurrected and rejuvenated.
As in the ’Songs and Sonnets’, though more straightforwardly, given the rather different subject matter, images of death and decay proliferate. The poems share, too, that disturbing sensibility. Sometimes it seems sado-masochistic, as when the speaker urges, ’Spit in my face you Jews, and pierce my side, / Buffet, and scoff, scourge, and crucify me’ (sonnet 7, ll.1—2; Donne 1990: 176). Sonnet 10 represents the speaker as a woman en prise, like the heroine of a Webster tragedy, there to be taken. It moves to a remarkable conclusion:
But [I] am betrothed unto your enemy,
Divorce me, untie, or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I
Except you enthral me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.
(ll.10—14; Donne 1990: 178)
’Ravish’ could mean no more than ’seize’, though its paradoxical juxtaposition with the word ’chaste’ surely excludes all but its narrowest, sexual meaning.
Many of Donne’s remaining poems are verse epistles to friends and potential patrons, together with occasional poems arising out of those relationships. Two projects, however, stand out from these, ’Good Friday, 1613. Riding Westward’ and the Anniversaries, the only book of verse to be published in his lifetime. The former is an astonishing poem. Its title fixes it more precisely in time and space than Donne’s other devotional poetry, and we know from external evidence that it grew out of a social context, the journey from one friend and patron, Sir Henry Goodyer, to another, Sir Edward Herbert. Both the day and the direction are central to the poem, but this is work of interiority, of meditation while in transit. Like much of his best poetry, it has a sort of immediacy, as though we are overhearing a process and expression of thought in real time. In this case a surviving manuscript copy indicates that it may well have been completed and sent back to Goodyer before his journey’s end (Carey 1990: 106). It starts with an intellectual challenge, a familiar kind of brain-teaser, sounding like an algebraic proposition: ’Let man’s soul be a sphere’ (l.1; Donne 1990: 241). An elaborate analogy is then worked through to a simple conclusion: Donne is constrained to move westward physically while meditationally he inclines eastward, to where Christ was crucified and where, at this point of the liturgical year, he symbolically is crucified again. Christ rises as a towering figure, equated with the sun, which also rises. Suddenly the stark simplicity of that image is incorporated into the cosmic conceit with which the poem started. In the western Christian tradition Christ is identified as the person of the godhead who effected creation: ’Could I behold those hands which span the poles, / And tune all spheres at once, pierced with those holes?’ (ll.21—2; Donne 1990: 242) The paradox of power and suffering is affectingly developed till the poem concludes, rather like the more violent of the ’Holy Sonnets’ but with a further reiteration of the journey westward as an informing symbol:
O Saviour, as thou hang’st upon the tree;
I turn my back to thee, but to receive
Corrections, till thy mercies bid thee leave.
O think me worth thine anger, punish me,
Burn off my rusts, and my deformity,
Restore thine image, so much, by thy grace.
That thou mayst know me, and I’ll turn my face.
(ll.36—42; Donne 1990: 242)
John Carey observes, correctly, that the landscape through which Donne passes is excluded from the poem, which is peopled by just two figures: the poet and the crucified Christ (Carey 1990: 106—7). But the purpose of meditation is as much to exclude what is not relevant as to focus on what is. Donne takes from the context two vital givens, date and direction, and excludes the rest, in what is a triumph of devotional intensity.
Patronage provides the context for his Anniversaries. In 1610 he wrote a funeral elegy for Elizabeth Drury, the daughter of Sir Robert Drury, who had died at the age of 14. Sir Robert was to take Donne into his entourage on his European travels in 1611—12, and on their return he provided Donne and his family with a London house gratis. Besides a funeral elegy, Donne wrote two long and ambitious poems. The elegy and the first of these were published in 1611; and then reissued with the second in 1612. Donne evidently felt uneasy about this, and a letter of 1612 shows him remorseful that he ’descended to print anything in verse … and do not pardon myself’ (quoted and discussed in Beal 2002: 122). The poems are problematic and a little embarrassing for modern readers, too, who find perplexing the disparity between the hyperbolic celebration and the diminutive achievements of the person celebrated. Yet taken together, the poems share some common ground with other major funeral elegies of the early Stuart period. Like Jonson’s Cary-Morison ode (see below, chapter 3) and Milton’s ’Lycidas’ (see below, chapter 4), the untimeliness of the death of a young person provides the platform for a much larger exploration of the human condition and the imperfection and fragility of the world:
She, after whom, what form soe’er we see,
Is discord, and rude incongruity;
She, she is dead, she’s dead; when thou know’st this
Thou know’st how ugly a monster this world is …
(’The First Anniversary’, l.322—6; Donne 1990: 214—15)
Carey remarks on the ’dizzy cadenzas of praise’ which make up these poems (1990: 89), but a brutal precision and a darker sensibility intermittently intrude:
… as sometimes in a beheaded man,
Though at those two red seas, which freely ran,
One from the trunk, another from the head,
His soul be sailed, to her eternal bed,
His eyes will twinkle, and his tongue will roll,
As though he beckoned, and called back his soul,
He grasps his hands, and he pulls up his feet,
And seems to reach, and to step forth to meet
His soul …
So struggles this dead world now she is gone …
(ll.9—17, 22; Donne 1990: 218—19)
When the poem is over, I suspect most readers remember the twitching decollated cadaver and forget the idealized girl.
How widely read and how influential was this poet who, for the most part, eschewed print and fretted about limiting the circulation of his work in manuscript? Peter Beal is unequivocal: ’the sheer quantity of manuscript copies of poems by him which still survive (4,000-odd texts in upwards of 260 manuscripts) — and which must be only a fraction of the number once in existence — indicates beyond doubt that Donne was the most popular English poet from the 1590s until at least the middle of the seventeenth century’ (2002: 122). A substantial collection of early musical settings has recently been rediscovered (Alberge 2005). In terms of literary taste, the success, despite an absence of printed collections, points to an elite audience, unsqueamish, intelligent and ready for the challenges his verse so often poses. He substantially redefines English love poetry, moving past classical and Petrarchan models. Yet when Caroline love poets like Carew and Herrick follow him, they take the situations, the assumptions, the occasional playfulness and the libertine toughness, though they restrain the demands they make on their readers’ interpretative skills, and they lack his emotional intensity. His influence is more decisively evident on religious verse. Single-handedly he revived devotional and meditational poetry in English, which had languished since the days of the late Middle English lyric. George Herbert, whose mother and brother were among his patrons and friends, takes his intensity and at times his obscurity, and Vaughan and Crashaw perhaps follow, the former aspiring to that cosmic view we noted in ’Good Friday, 1613’, the latter not flinching to challenge his readers’ responses with images approaching the grotesque.
Ben Jonson knew Donne and read his poetry in manuscript. They shared some patrons and moved in overlapping social circles. Jonson, however, depended on his writing for his status and income. We have considered above his texts for court masques and entertainments and his early Jacobean drama, for which, of course, he was paid. He was readier than most to commit his plays to print publication, though he seems to have been aware that some were better than others and that they could be revised as he prepared them for the press. We know this because he was selective about including play texts in his collected works of 1616, and comparison with quarto versions, where they exist, show he evidently continued to work on them in varying degrees since their performance and earliest printing (Riggs 1989: 222—4). That collection also includes the earliest substantial publication of his nondramatic verse.
The Workes of Beniamin Jonson (Jonson 1616) is rightly regarded as a landmark volume in the history of English literary culture in general and more specifically in the history of the book. It is a lavish folio publication of just over 1,000 pages, mostly with generous margins, which sometimes carry learned annotations by the author, and a fine engraved titlepage, depicting a façade of Corinthian columns, niches, allegorical statuary and a picture of a Roman theatre, which proclaims the neoclassical ambitions of the contents (see plate 1). Harold Love and Arthur Marotti not unfairly term the work ’self-advertising’ (Love and Marotti 2002: 67). It marks, too, Jonson’s new status; shortly before, James I had granted him an annual pension of 100 marks. The ’catalogue’ to the Workes lists not only the contents but also the people to whom the works are dedicated. It includes the inns of court, the universities, Lady Wroth, the most creative Sidney of her generation, William, third Earl of Pembroke, Lord Aubigny, a cousin of the king and Jonson’s most generous patron, in whose house he lived for much of the early Jacobean period, and the antiquarian, William Camden, among the finest early modern scholars. The list makes impressive reading, connecting Jonson with the seats of learning and, more significantly perhaps, suggesting the protection he may enjoy from people very close to the royal seat of power. It strikes a blow for the status of the profession of creative writing and print culture. Moreover, the juxtaposition of play texts and poetry addresses head-on the low status of the former in contemporary cultural ideology. Jonson himself was to rail against the lamentable taste of theatre audiences (see below, chapter 3), a theme adumbrated even here in the dedicatory material to Sejanus and Catiline. But to treat plays as ’works’ meriting collection, revision and luxury publication certainly struck some contemporaries as at least provocative and perhaps affected and silly (Jonson 1976: Introduction). Again, the presence of the poems both distinguishes his perspective on the so-called stigma of print from that of the anxious Donne and declared his claims to be regarded as a poet and a playwright. The collection was also a finely accomplished publishing project. In a context where play texts could still be pirated and were often quite fiercely guarded by the companies that owned them and where publishers found it difficult to acquire manuscripts of the work of living, elite-culture poets, Jonson and his printer William Stansby, scored an extraordinary victory. In so doing, they pushed open the door for two other significant publications, the first and second folios of the collected plays of Beaumont and Fletcher and, seen in a longer perspective, the single most important book in the English literary tradition, the first folio of Shakespeare (1623; see below, chapter 3).
Plate 1 Ben Jonson, The Workes of Beniamin Jonson (1616), portrait frontispiece and title page. Reproduced by permission of the British Library G.11630.
The poems fall into two sections, the epigrams and the ’forest’. The former formally share common ground, for example, with Donne’s own epigrams, though Jonson seems more frequently than Donne to invite recollection of classical precursors, above all the poetry of Martial. The latter, which translates the Latin ’silva’, the usual word for ’wood’, also invokes classical models and a classical genre. The original silvae were ’occasional pieces, rapid effusions … in a great variety of forms’, and neoclassical writers across western Europe who adopted the term, both for neo-Latin and vernacular writing, retained the criteria of multifariousness and of apparent spontaneity (Fowler 1985: 220—1). Jonson, in selecting the term and anglicizing it, invites comparison with Statius and other Latin writers of such miscellanies.
The epigrams themselves are strikingly diverse. The hostile, satirical ones deal with ’types’ rather than individuals, although the editorial and critical traditions have in some cases attempted identification. Figures on the periphery of court society are frequent, such as ’Courtling’ or ’Court-Parrot’ or ’Mill, My Lady’s Woman’ or ’English Monsieur’ (Jonson 1985: 246, 251—3). We meet the bawds, lechers, gulls, cheats and swaggerers that people his city comedies, like ’Cashiered Captain Surly’, whose whore ’keeps him’, or Captain Hazard the Cheater, or Captain Hungry, a braggart (ibid., pp. 250—1, 263—4).
The poems of compliment fall into two categories. Those to patrons are straightforward and sometimes rather vague panegyric. For example, ’To William, Earl of Pembroke’ opens declamatorily with ’I do but name thee, Pembroke, and I find / It is an epigram on all mankind’ and ends ’they that hope to see / The commonwealth still safe must study thee’ (ll.1—2, 19—20; pp. 260—1). ’To Mary, Lady Wroth’ concludes, ’My praise is plain, and wheresoe’er professed / Becomes none more than you, who need it least’ (ll.13—14; p. 261).
The poems of praise rehearse the virtues of the patronage circles he courted and include those aristocrats cited in the ’catalogue’. Several poems address the king himself, the great prize for patronage-hunters. In the first, ’To King James’, the ’best of kings’ is also celebrated as ’best of poets’ (ibid., p. 223). Yet what are we to make of ’To the Ghost of Martial’?
Martial, thou gav’st far nobler epigrams
To thy Domitian, than I can my James;
But in my royal subject I pass thee:
Thou flattered’st thine, mine cannot flattered be.
(Ibid., p. 233)
The superiority of Martial over Jonson has a pleasing modesty; but James exceeds Domitian so emphatically that he cannot be flattered; the wildest of Jonson’s panegyric merely reflects accurately his astonishing virtues. The poem, self-reflectively, lays on the flattery by denying that flattery is possible. In conjuring the ghost of Martial, he has raised, too, that of Domitian, whose reign ended in a seven-year orgy of terror, fuelled by the extensive use of informers, before assassins killed him. It seems a hazardous kind of praise to place James in comparison with a Roman tyrant, but Jonson, even at his most obsequious, remains a risk taker.
Martial’s spirit flits through many poems, his topoi recur and his phrasing is echoed. Ideologically, the effect is destabilizing. Yet Jonson genuinely does share a problem with Martial: both are moralists, strict satirists, unflinching observers of a corrupt and corrupting society, but at the same time they are panegyrists of the authoritarian rulers ultimately responsible for that world. The issues even emerge in so engaging a poem as ’Inviting a Friend to Supper’ — indeed, rather more strikingly in Jonson than in the three Martial analogues it invokes and in the longer tradition that stand behind them (Jonson 1985: 660—1). The poem develops a powerful image of a warm, secure intimacy, lubricated by ’rich Canary wine, / Which is the Mermaid’s now, but shall be mine’, enlivened by readings from the classics, frankly discussed. The bounty of farms, fields and foreshores provides the feast. Yet explicitly this is a temporary and private space in a threatening world:
And we shall have no Poley or Parrot by;
Nor shall our cups make any guilty men,
But at our parting we will be as when
We innocently met. No simple word
That shall be uttered at our mirthful board
Shall make us sad next morning, or affright
The liberty that we’ll enjoy tonight.
(ll.29—30, 36—42; p. 260)
Poley and Parrot are spies feeding information to the government. In their absence, Jonson and his friend enjoy ’liberty’, a word that had then more or less its current semantic range; but for tonight only.
The 15 items of the silvae, ’The Forest’, show an extraordinary technical range across a miscellany of subgenres. There are songs, including two recycled from Volpone, evidently in Jonson’s view untainted by that association. (Volpone sang them as part of his attempt on the virtue of Celia.) The best, ’To Celia’, seemingly embodies a quintessential Englishness of simple, sincere expression:
Drink to me only with thine eyes,
And I will pledge with mine;
Or leave kiss but in the cup,
And I’ll not look for wine.
(ll.1—4; p. 293)
Syntactically simple, the opening sentence apparently offers a plain, predominately monosyllabic, expression of affection. Yet Jonson is rarely plain or simple. The informing metaphor is, on reflection, quite challenging: how may one exchange drinking pledges with one’s eyes? or leave a kiss in a cup? Behind the poem, as the commentary tradition has long recognized, stand close echoes of the Epistles of Philostratus, a shadowy, late Greek author. This work serves as a particularly good example of much that characterizes Jonson’s poetry. The vocabulary, direct, English, straightforward, articulates an intellectually complex idea; it demonstrates that in some sense classical models may be matched by vernacular poets; and beneath its surface lies a world of erudite cultural reference.
The same qualities mark ’To Penshurst’, ’the seminal early estate poem, and easily the most discussed example of the genre’. Epigrams by Martial, praising the villas and estates of his circle, are discernible influences, as too is Virgil’s Georgics (Fowler 1994: 58). But this remains an English poem about an English estate, reflecting contemporary and very personal social anxieties. The panegyric strategy of the country house poem, taken up in a series of fine exemplars that extend through Carew’s ’To Saxham’ (see below, chapter 4) and Marvell’s ’Upon Appleton House’ (see below, chapter 5), is here already established. Jonson praises the house owner and his family by praising his house and its estate. Penshurst was owned by Robert Sidney, Viscount Lisle, younger brother of Sir Philip Sidney and a patron of Jonson’s. Penshurst emerges as the embodiment of moderation and responsibility. Unlike prodigy houses contemporaneously favoured by aristocratic grandees, this is not ’built to envious show’ (l.1; p. 282). Indeed, Jonson may be a neoclassicist in literary culture, but here Penhurst’s exemplification of a native architectural tradition is celebrated as a physical manifestation of its owner’s avoidance of expensive rebuilding on Palladian lines. Instead, this estate honours its role as the centre of a mutually supportive social structure. The ’farmer and the clown’ bring in their wholesome rural gifts, and are hospitably received (ll.48—60; pp. 283—4).
At the equivalent point in ’To Saxham’, Carew rehearses the charity topos: the household offers succour to the rural poor in hard times. Jonson prefers to celebrate his own reception, and he does so in a socially insecure manner. He contrasts his treatment here with how other grandees receive those who, whatever their merits, are their social inferiors. Here he may eat the same food as Lisle and the servants don’t begrudge him food and drink. As it happens, the house rules at Penshurst forbade servants to eat from the poor tub. They know they have sufficient provision without relying on the leftovers from the hall table. Telling how he is treated at Penshurst becomes, in effect, a lament for how he is treated elsewhere.
The poem offers detailed celebration of Lisle, noting the family’s commitment to innovations in orchard management and commemorating the only occasion that James I and Prince Henry visited the house. Other poems in ’The Forest’ similarly tie Jonson very publicly to his multiple patronage networks. There is a long poem to Sir Robert Wroth, Lisle’s son-in-law and husband of the writer Lady Mary. Verse epistles address the Countess of Rutland and Lady Aubigny, wife of his currently most valuable patron, and there is a birthday ode to Sir William Sidney, Lisle’s son.
The only printed poetry collection to rival Jonson’s in accomplishment in the early Stuart period is as riddlingly bereft of circumstantiality as Jonson’s is suffused with it. Shake-Speares Sonnets. Never before Imprinted appeared in 1609. Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece, published in the 1590s, went into numerous early editions. No second edition of the sonnets appeared until 1640. Love sonnet cycles were commoner in the late Elizabethan period, and by 1609 the project had a decidedly retrospective feel to it, perhaps surprisingly in the context of the constant innovation which characterized Shakespeare’s Jacobean drama. The volume, like Spenser’s Amoretti and Epithalamion published in 1595, concludes with a longer poem in a different genre, in this case A Lover’s Complaint, a rather leisurely pastoral dialogue, the Shakespearean provenance of which has been questioned (Shakespeare 2002: 138—9).
Dating the composition of these poems has proved difficult and controversial. Some were circulating in manuscript and two appeared in print in the 1590s. Colin Burrow, drawing on recent stylometry, postulates a division of the sonnets over a period extending from about 1591 to perhaps 1604, though ’there are many grey areas in these approximate findings … there is not certainty when Shakespeare began to write sonnets, and there is no certainty that his revisions and rewritings continued beyond about 1604—5’ (Shakespeare 2002: 105), though some evidence suggests a later date for A Lover’s Complaint.
However backward-looking the volume may be formally, its relationship to the Petrarchan tradition that predominated among Elizabethan sonneteers shows very significant differences. Many of the poems seemingly address a young man, whose physical beauty is explored in a subtle appropriation of the Petrarchan idiom. Thus, sonnet 18, ’Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?’, picks open a delicate conceit in which the loved one emerges favourably in the comparison, before the poem modulates into a delicate and self-referential exploration of the power of art to resist mutability: ’So long as men can breathe or eyes can see, / So long lives this, and this gives life to thee’ (ll.1, 13—14; Shakespeare 1989: 753). Nothing indicates the gender of the ’thou’. Elsewhere the implied relationship does emerge more clearly, as in the sequence of sonnets urging a young man to wed and breed. There are remarkable nuances: the poet is older, wiser, yet not only less physically attractive but also socially inferior. It is inherently curious to read poems seemingly urging the loved one to sleep with someone else. Nor does Shakespeare work towards the sort of fashionable homoerotic frisson that Marlowe carried off so brilliantly in sections of Hero and Leander, first printed in 1598, or indeed he himself produced in Venus and Adonis. Indeed, one of the most playful of the sonnets, ’A woman’s face with nature’s own hand painted’, ends with double entendres that mix sexual uncertainty with a show of paradoxical resolution:
… nature as she wrought thee fell a-doting,
And by addition me of thee defeated
By adding one thing to my purpose nothing.
But since she pricked thee out for women’s pleasure,
Mine be thy love and thy love’s use their treasure.
(sonnet 20, ll.10—14; p. 753)
The indecorous quibbles work in Jacobean English much as they do today: ’prick’ and ’thing’, then as now, meant genitalia, and they are unstably juxtaposed with the declamatory decorousness of the last line. The clash of registers signals a suppressed unease or regret at an uneasy resignation, which acknowledges that the loved one will mate with women, that the speaker apparently excludes the alternatives of homosexual congress, and that this relationship is imperfect in that it lacks the consummation that is the usual objective of erotic desire.
A smaller number of sonnets are addressed to or are about the so-called Dark Lady. In the simplest, Shakespeare takes the commonplace compliments of Petrarchanism and inverts or subverts them, as in the blason, sonnet 130, ’My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun’. For 12 lines the physical characteristics of the woman are differentiated from those of the stereotypical and idealized mistress of the tradition. The final couplet, as often in Shakespeare’s sonnets, cuts against the grain of what has gone before: ’And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare / As any she belied with false compare’ (ll.13—14; p. 767). Burlesquing the blason has Elizabethan, pre-Shakespearean precedents (Fowler 1985: 176). However, we should search in vain for poems that anticipate sonnets like 129, ’Th’expense of spirit in a waste of shame’, as challenging reflections on the sexual act in human relationships:
Enjoyed no sooner but despised straight,
Past reason hunted, and no sooner had
Past reason hated as a swallowed bait
On purpose laid to make the taker mad;
Mad in pursuit and in possession so,
Had, having, and in quest to have, extreme;
A bliss in proof and proved, a very woe;
Before, a joy proposed; behind, a dream.
(ll.5—12; p. 767)
There is a depth and subtlety here that stands outside the crudity of the western misogynistic tradition. This is a hatred not of women but of an irrational, irresistible impulse that brings people level with other animals and sets at nothing social costs and health risks for a momentary bliss, a joy in prospect and in retrospect a dream. Donne, as we saw, developed the English sonnet as a fit medium for intense religious meditation; later in the century, Milton uses it for two-edged political comment and praise (see below, chapter 5). Shakespeare, however, pursues a different and even more ambitious direction.
Aemilia Lanyer has been associated very closely with Shakespeare. A. L. Rowse, in an argument that finds no support among more recent biographers, identified her as the original ’Dark Lady’ of Shakespeare’s sonnets (Rowse 1974, 1978; for responses, see, for example, Lewalski 1994: 213—15; Purkiss 1994: xxx—xl; Woods 2002; DNB 2004). The principal connection between them is likely to have been much more tangential: Lanyer was for a while mistress to Henry Cary, Lord Hunsdon, the Lord Chamberlain who patronized and protected Shakespeare’s acting company, the future King’s Men. In purely literary terms, there are more points of comparison and connection with the work of Donne and Jonson.
Lanyer’s solitary publication is her only extant work, Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum, published in 1611 (as others have noted, the same year that Donne published his first Anniversary). Like Donne’s poem (above), it is a sustained exercise in panegyric directed to a patron whose sole claim to modern fame is the patronage extended to or at least sought by the poet. Lanyer arguably belonged to a lower social class than Donne, though she moved on the fringes of court circles, both as a grandee’s mistress and as the daughter and wife of court musicians. (A contemporary account, frequently cited, suggests Hunsdon passed her on to Alfonso Lanyer once she was pregnant.) At the time of publication, her primary source of patronage was Margaret Clifford, the Dowager Duchess of Cumberland, whose companion she was. Though print publication by women was relatively rare, Lanyer’s family status, among those who entertain for remuneration, perhaps precluded the kind of squeamishness Donne chose to manifest. Like Jonson and Shakespeare, her principal milieu was among those who were paid to amuse.
The volume is a curious one, more so, perhaps, in modern editions than in the original. In the former, about a third of it is taken up with front matter in the form of dedicatory epistles, mostly in verse. Strikingly, all the dedicatory poems are addressed to women, which points to what is perhaps most remarkable about the volume, Lanyer’s assembly of what Barbara Lewalski calls ’a defense and celebration of the enduring community of good women that reaches from Eve to contemporary Jacobean patronesses’ (1994: 213). The core text is a verse retelling of a Bible story, a genre that becomes increasingly popular in the following decades. In this case, the narrative depicts the passion and resurrection of Christ, in a broadly Protestant theological idiom. But Lanyer ties the poem closely to the praise of virtuous women with which the volume opened. Repeatedly, she turns from contemplation of the suffering of Christ to the celebration of the piety of the Duchess of Cumberland. Indeed, at times within the poem Lanyer seems to debate with herself about who is the real subject. Thus, in an aside to the Duchess, she urges:
Pardon (good madam) though I have digressed
From what I do intend to write of thee,
To set his glory forth whom thou lov’st best,
Whose wondrous works no mortal eye can see …
(ll.145—8; Purkiss 1994: 275)
Furthermore, her narrative selects and emphasizes feminine responses to the events. An ’apology’ from Eve counters the facile misogyny of a long western tradition. Other digressions, which are listed on the title page as if they were separate poems, articulate the sufferings of the mother of Christ and the lamentations of the women of Jerusalem. Thus, they confirm the feminine — indeed, feminist — orientation of the account.
The book concludes with ’The Description of Cooke-ham’, a poem that is often said to be the first country house or estate poem in the English tradition, a claim formerly advanced for Ben Jonson’s ’To Penshurst’ (see above). It remains uncertain which was composed first, though certainly Lanyer’s was the first to appear in print. There is no evidence that one may have influenced the other, though they share a common ancestry in the classical literary tradition. Lanyer’s poem has less than Jonson’s to say about the house and the estate on which it stands. Cookeham, rather, figures as a symbol for a lost happiness, when Lanyer enjoyed a closer proximity to Margaret Clifford, who is the primary subject for praise within the poem. It functions as a kind of paradise lost, where once the poet experienced a subordinate but intimate involvement in what is represented as an exclusively female social group. The Duchess herself walks the grounds in communion with God, much as Eve may have done in the original garden. The house itself goes undescribed, while the landscape features mainly as part of an extended poetic conceit, mirroring, in its love at the Duchess’s presence and grief at her imminent departure, the feelings of the poet. But the compliment is elaborately and delicately turned:
The trees with leaves, with fruits, with flowers clad,
Embraced each other, seeming to be glad,
Turning themselves to beauteous canopies
To shade the sun from your brighter eyes.
(ll.22—5; Purkiss 1994: 327)
Lanyer’s own perspective matches the deferential tone of the front matter with which the book opens, pulling a seemingly very disparate assembly of diverse genres into a kind of unity.
Michael Drayton, among the most rewarding of the second-rank poets of the early Jacobean period, justifiably described his major work, Poly-Olbion (1612, 1622), as a ’Herculean labour’ (Drayton 1931—41: IV, 391). Over the two parts, he offers a tour of England and Wales, describing the topography, freely mythologizing about the landscape of rivers and hills, and tying an occasionally fanciful historical narrative to a precisely realized sense of place (see plates 2 and 3). En route, he incorporates a great amount of serious history and politics. He had intended a third part, a description of Scotland, though that never appeared in print and nothing of it survives in manuscript, if indeed he wrote any of it.
Superficially, Drayton’s seems a thoroughly Jacobean project, a celebration of the Britain over which James claimed sovereignty. Indeed, Drayton had early sought the patronage of the king, but he soon became alienated, and gravitated to the circle of Prince Henry, in whose household he was employed (Norbrook 1984: 197; DNB 2004), and to whom the first part was dedicated. A full-length portrait of the young prince, engaged in a martial exercise, is among its front matter. Henry’s death and the loss of that patronage left Drayton unprotected. The dedication of the second part to Henry’s younger brother, Charles, Prince of Wales, the future Charles I, seeks an ideological continuity that never emerged.
From the epistle to the second part it is evident that the first part sold poorly, though it is an attractive book, with a splendid engraved title page, allegorical maps drawn to fit each ’song’, and notes by John Selden, the most learned Englishman of his generation. Yet the reasons may lie in the fundamental concept of the project. The England and Wales he celebrates are overwhelmingly rural; cities, where mentioned, are much more briefly treated than the rivers that run through them. Even his account of London has more to say about the Lee and the Thames than about the city itself. English culture in the early modern period was overwhelmingly metropolitan. By implication, Drayton turns his back on the court and the city, the ’Marchants long train’d up in Gayn’s deceitfull schoole’ (song XVI, l.354; IV, 322). He addresses the England (and Wales) of the counties and their gentry-class hierarchies. This in part may explain its commercial failure, since there is little to interest the Londoner, while regionalism tends to fragment the potential readership. Even now, the passages that treat the landscape each modern reader is familiar with are surely more fascinating than the rest.
Plate 2 Michael Drayton, Poly-Olbion (1612), title page and facing text. Reproduced by permission of The Huntington Library, San Marino, California 59144.
Plate 3 Michael Drayton, Poly-Olbion (1612), map of ’Carnarvanshire’. Reproduced by permission of The Huntington Library, San Marino, California 59144.
William Browne’s two volumes of Britannia’s Pastorals (1613, 1616) are often regarded as companion pieces to Poly-Olbion. Browne and Drayton moved in some of the same circles, and the project evidently owed much to him in its conception. Like Poly-Olbion it celebrates ’Britain’, though once more it is scarcely a panegyric to James’s grand design. In this view, the allegorical figure of ’Famine’ intermittently terrorizes the land. There are, moreover, other anticourt sentiments developed with various levels of obliqueness, as in the digression on ’Delayes, the stones that waiting Suiters grinde, / By whom at Court the poore mans cause is signed’ (Browne 1616: 105). An Inner Templar, Browne anticipates the sharper critique of royal policy that develops, particularly among writers associated with the Inns of Court, in the years following the inception of the Thirty Years War (below, chapter 3). More immediately, Browne had shared Drayton’s enthusiasm for the more militant Protestantism associated with Prince Henry’s entourage. His first published poem had been a funeral elegy for the prince, and he incorporated it into the last song of the first volume (Browne 1613: 89—93).
The two volumes of Britannia’s Pastorals are represented by Drayton as defiantly old-fashioned: ’Drive forth thy Flocke, you Pastor, to that Plaine, / Where our old Shepheards wont their flocks to feed’ (’To his Friend the AUTHOR’; Browne 1613: sig. A4v). Ideologically, neo-Spenserianism signalled a return to the militantly anti-Catholic Protestantism of Elizabethan England, ’given that the new regime had rejected the Elizabethan ideals of Protestant chivalry’ (Norbrook 2002: 177). Yet Browne’s work is innovative, and anticipates (and influences) the new interest in Caroline verse in the pastoral mode. It draws actively on Poly-Olbion, peopling the landscape with those quasi-allegorical figures, nymphs, shepherds and river gods, which Drayton attributes to topographical features and which recur alluringly in the maps that accompany each song. At times Browne draws so closely on Drayton that he cross-references his own annotation with Selden’s notes to Poly-Olbion (Browne 1616: 67, marginal note). Though there are some excursions — the first song of the second volume has an outing to Anglesey, for example — the strongest sense of place relates to the Tavy, the river of his native Tavistock, and to south Devon more generally. While Browne’s current connections were metropolitan, he nevertheless articulates a provincial perspective and country values. Culturally, although allusions to and echoes of classical pastoral abound, he roots his work in English soil. Technically the two volumes show a high competence, a facility in the ten-syllable couplets in which most of the poetry is written, and he incorporates into it elegies, lyric pieces, pastoral dialogues, epigrams and one singularly ornate poem in the shape of a love-knot (Browne 1613: 61). In his later career, he became closely dependent on the Herbert family, writing elegies for family members, most of which ’appear to have had a very limited circulation, and may have been confined to the family itself’ (DNB 2004).
Browne had probably aspired to join the coterie around the court of Prince Henry, and Drayton received direct patronage from the prince, a pension of £10 per annum (DNB 2004); so, too, did Josuah Sylvester, author of the most popular and influential long poem of the early Jacobean period, completed in 1608 as Bartas his Devine Weekes and Workes. Guillaume de Salluste, sieur du Bartas, a French Protestant, had published two works ’that brought him national and international attention’ (Sylvester 1979: I, 1), La Semaine ou Création du monde (1578) and La Seconde Semaine (1584). Du Bartas was a devout Protestant and rapidly acquired a wide Protestant readership. Sir Philip Sidney apparently translated at least part, though the work is not extant. Six other writers, of minor status, had published sections by 1604. Perhaps most significantly for Sylvester’s own aspirations, James I had made verse translations of three parts, two of which had appeared in print in his Poeticall Exercises at Vacant Houres published in Edinburgh in 1591. Sylvester’s own involvement with Du Bartas was of long standing. He had published instalments of his translation since 1590, and had for long sought out wealthy patronage to allow him to leave his profession of ’merchant adventurer’, a cloth trader privileged by membership of an elite mercantile guild, and to concentrate on the massive task of translating a poem twice as long as Paradise Lost. He had courted the Earl of Essex before his fall, and, though wooing the king proved unprofitable, from 1608 he was a pensioner (at twice Drayton’s rate) of Prince Henry. His personal fortunes never recovered from the devastating impact of the prince’s death. By the time of his own death in 1617 he had returned to his old trade, working as Secretary of the Merchant Adventurers at Middelburg in Zeeland (Sylvester 1979: I, 70—1, 4—32; DNB 2004).
Du Bartas had produced an ambitious work that, in its first ’divine week’, relates the events of the week of creation and, in the second, events from the Old Testament from the fall to the Babylonian captivity of Zedekiah, before his efforts were interrupted by his death. Sylvester worked patiently through du Bartas’s text, though he added about 2,000 lines of his own, usually putting this material in italics (Sylvester 1979: I, 55, 102). Protestant poetics had agitated for a doctrinally and culturally appropriate literature, at least since the age of Sidney. Sylvester offered that with some accomplishment. His generally competent couplets are often assembled into a swelling verse of controlled power. Compare his description of the creation of the globe with the analogous passage from Milton’s Paradise Lost:
This was not then the World, ’twas but the matter,
The Nurcerie, whence it should issue after:
Or rather th’Embryon that within a Weeke
Was to be borne: for that huge lumpe was like
The shape-lesse burthen in the Mothers wombe,
Which yet in Time doth into fashion come:
Eyes, eares, and nose, mouth, fingers, hand, and feete,
And every member in proportion meete;
Round, large, and long, there of it selfe it thrives,
And (Little-World) into the World arrives.
But that becomes (by Natures set direction)
From foule and dead, to beauty, life, perfection
But this dull Heape of undigested stuffe,
Had doubtlesse never come to shape or proofe,
Had not th’Almighty with his quick’ning breath
Blowne life and spirit into this Lump of death.
(Sylvester 1979: I, 119)
The earth was formed, but in the womb as yet
Of waters, embryon immature involved,
Appeared not: over all the face of earth
Main ocean flowed, not idle, but with warm
Prolific humour softening all her globe,
Fermented the great mother to conceive,
Satiate with genial moisture …
(Paradise Lost VII.277—82; Milton 1999: 406)
Milton’s, of course, is a much richer account, and it modulates to invoke resonances of Neoplatonic cosmology (Milton 1999: 406, n. to 279—82) and probably alchemical process (Abraham 1998: s.v. ’prima materia’ and ’womb’). Again, his lexical felicity is of a different order from that of the earlier work. But the principal image is already there in Du Bartas-Sylvester. Certainly, it is developed in leisurely fashion — do we really need the list of the embryonic parts? — yet a vivid antithesis emerges between the life processes at work and ’this Lump of death’.
Sylvester’s work was valued highly in his life time and in the decades that followed. Substantial sections were printed intermittently through the late Elizabethan and early Jacobean periods. After the first publication of the complete translation in quarto in 1608, further quarto printings appeared in 1611 and 1613, followed by a lavish posthumous folio of his complete works in 1621, which was in turn reprinted in 1633 and 1641. His influence on the next generations of devotional poets in the English Protestant tradition is easily demonstrated. References to parallels and echoes of Sylvester abound in any scholarly edition of Paradise Lost. Lucy Hutchinson’s modern editor rightly observes that, in terms of structure and content, in Order and Disorder she approaches much closer to Du Bartas-Sylvester than to Milton (Hutchinson 2001: xxv). The influence is plainly evident in the biblical narrative poems of Francis Quarles (see below, chapter 3).
Yet Bartas his Devine Weekes and Workes has all but disappeared from the corpus of seventeenth-century texts which are read today, and it is rarely anthologized. Fowler (1991) prints fewer than 80 lines; it is not represented in Abrams et al. (2000) or Cummings (2000). Sylvester’s decline in popularity was rapid and complete. By 1681 John Dryden could observe: ’I remember, when I was a boy, I thought inimitable Spenser a mean poet, in comparison of Sylvester’s Dubartas, and was rapt into an ecstasy when I read these lines. … I am much deceived if this be not abominable fustian’ (quoted in Sylvester 1979: I, 72). Possibly it would have retained some place as the most substantial poem of English Protestantism were it not for the astonishing achievement of Paradise Lost, a poem it had helped in some measure to shape. Milton does everything that Sylvester does, but much more briskly. He brings, too, character, narrative skill, an ear for rhetoric as a function of oratory rather than syntactical patterning, prosodic innovation, brilliant imagery, learning, an engagement with the longer literary tradition of western Europe, almost a manifesto for neoclassical cultural ideology, political and theological nuance, extraordinary stylistic genius, and more. England may well have needed a serious poem to be appreciated by the predominant faith community, but Milton displaced Sylvester as surely as Dr Johnson’s dictionary replaced Nathan Bailey’s or Homo sapiens nudged aside Neanderthal man.
Francis Bacon had established a limited literary reputation with the first edition of his Essays, published in 1597. (For subsequent extended editions, see below, chapter 3.) But his principal ambitions lay elsewhere, in seeking preferment in the legal profession, though publication no doubt functioned also to advance these aspirations. The late Elizabethan period proved singularly trying for him in that he was a protégé and client of the second Earl of Essex, and indeed his brother, Anthony, probably remained associated with the earl until catastrophe befell him. After the abortive coup Anthony was perhaps lucky to escape prosecution alongside others of the earl’s supporters and retainers (Jardine and Stewart 1998: 252—53). Francis had already repositioned himself within the political factions of the Elizabethan court, and he shone as a prosecuting council at the earl’s trial for treason, after which he produced for the press an official version of the proceedings.
To some contemporaries, Bacon’s conduct in the last years of Elizabeth and the opening years of James’s reign seemed at the least unedifying, and perhaps it seems so still. Certainly, shortly after James’s accession he felt constrained to write and send to press his Apology, In certain imputations concerning the late earl of Essex (1604), perhaps prompted by recollection that ’James himself had had a soft spot for Essex’ (Jardine and Stewart 1998: 265). On several fronts he plainly strove assiduously to elbow his way into the king’s notice and favour.
His Twoo Bookes of the Proficience and Advancement of Learning (1605), the first great prose work of the Stuart age, may be mistaken as little more than part of his campaign for personal advancement. Certainly, it is addressed to the king and opens with a long passage of sustained panegyric, praising ’The largenesse of your capacitie, the faithfulnesse of your memorie, the swiftnesse of your apprehension, the penetration of your Judgement, and the facility and order of your elocution’ (Bacon 1605: sig. A2v). But he soon settles to his real task, which is a broad and challenging one.
James was bright, learned, and intellectually confident. Bacon offers him a strikingly comprehensive review of the state of learning in England, of its institutional and philosophical basis, its deficiencies and its scope for improvement and advancement. While plainly demonstrating his own astonishing range and brilliance, he presents to the king a sort of uncommissioned report on how patronage could be extended in ways that would stimulate academic endeavour. In the process, he writes a manifesto for secular, rational enquiry that is to prove deeply influential in English philosophical and scientific circles through the mid-century and into the Restoration.
Bacon concedes some role for intellectual enquiry in theology, but, in an argument which anticipates the core proposition of Sir Thomas Browne’s Religio Medici (1642, 1643) (see below, chapter 5), faith and reason on his account are opposed: ’The prerogative of God extendeth as well to the reason as to the will of Man; So that as we are to obey his law though we finde a reluctance in our will, So we are to believe his word, though we finde a reluctance in our reason’ (book II, 108). Issues of church government, already divisive within English Protestantism, are carefully evaded. Thinking deeply about the material world without making persistent reference to divine first causes was probably the most crucial development in the history of ideas across the century in England. On it depended the political philosophy of Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, and the scientific movements which culminated in the founding of the Royal Society.
Bacon’s dependence on the longer humanist tradition has often been demonstrated. His principal targets include Ciceronian copiousness in prose style; the shortcomings of established educational provision; scholastic philosophy, with its obsessive emphasis on refining the Aristotelian legacy; pseudo-sciences that depend on magic and deception, like alchemy; and unquestioning deference to the authority of earlier thinkers. These had been attacked in the previous century by influential humanist thinkers, pre-eminently Desiderius Erasmus.
His achievements in the philosophy of science are limited by his commitment to the method of induction, rather than the experimental process of observation, hypothesis and testing which subsequently dominated the physical sciences. Induction on the Baconian model require the assembling of ’histories’, observations of the characteristics of phenomena from which more general propositions may be derived. Bacon thus invested heavily in what turned out to be a minor tradition in the history of western science. Bertrand Russell concludes his inductive method is flawed through this insufficient emphasis on hypothesis: ’He hoped that mere orderly arrangement of data would make the right hypothesis obvious, but this is seldom the case’ (Russell 1946: 566).
Yet, despite these devaluative comments, Bacon brought a new excitement to the philosophy of science and the advancement of learning. His indictment of old thinking is unrelenting in its forensic genius, and often a vivid simile clinches the argument. Thus, the project of the Schoolmen, laboriously annotating Aristotle ’their Dictator’, was hopelessly sterile because:
the wit and mind of man, if it work upon matter, which is the contemplation of the creatures of God, worketh according to the stuffe, and is limited thereby; but if it worke upon it selfe, as the Spider worketh his webbe, then it is endless, and brings forth indeed Copwebs [sic; a common variant spelling] of learning, admirable for the finesse of thread and worke, but of no substance and profite. (Book I, fol. 20r)
Consider how many points are made in this passage. He offers a view of sound intellectual process as an engagement with external reality which is shaped by that external reality, the stuff the mind works on. External reality is the proper matter for such engagement. Otherwise, like the spider, the unsound thinker merely generates worthless analysis from within himself, however nuanced that product may be.
In contrast with the morbid images of introspection, vital, organic imagery masses around the new philosophy, as though its inception marks a springtime for western civilization. For example, Bacon engages with great insight the issue of how learning should be communicated, and, in an acute discussion that anticipates the pedagogic theory of our own day, he attacks the ’Contract of Errour, betweene the Deliverer, and the Receiver: for he that delivereth knowledge, desireth rather present satisfaction, than expectant Enquirie, & so rather not to doubt, than not to erre: glorie making the Author not to lay open his weaknesse, and sloth making the Disciple not to knowe his strength’. The argument, as so often in his Essays begins in a shrewd understanding of human frailties, but he sums it up in a vivid simile of fertile georgic endeavour:
For it is in Knowledges, as it is in Plantes; if you mean to use the Plant, it is no matter for the Rootes: But if you meane to remoove it to growe, then it is more assured to rest uppon rootes, than Slippes [that is, hardwood cuttings]: So the deliverie of Knowledges (as it is nowe used) is as of faire bodies of Trees without the Rootes: good for the carpenter, but not for the Planter: But if you will have Sciences growe; it is lesse matter for the shafte, or bodie of the Tree, so you looke well to the takinge up of the Rootes. (Book II, fol. 62r and v)
Instinctively, I suppose, we side with the planter against the carpenter. Bacon probably thought more deeply about English style and the purposes of writing than any English writer before him. No doubt he was aware of the paradox of employing persuasive eloquence in defence of transparency, functional simplicity and openness.
Character-writing, a minor but popular genre throughout the early Stuart period, shared some ground with the essay as developed by Bacon. Formally, characters, too, were short, smartly written and acutely observed, often with a certain worldly scepticism. They sought to generalize about the behaviour of the human animal by depicting supposed types of character or behaviour or profession. Their most significant precursor, however, was much more ancient, the classical Greek writer Theophrastus, a friend and pupil of Aristotle. His 30 sketches depicted deviations from a highly socialized model of normal behaviour. They contain witty observations of contemporary life. The boorish man ’sits down with his cloak hitched up above his knee, thereby revealing his nakedness’ (character 4; Theophrastus 2002: 61). The man with bad timing, ’When a slave is being beaten … stands watching and tells the story of how a slave of his once hanged himself after being beaten in just this way’ (character 12; p. 89).
Theophrastus offered an interesting model to satirical sensibilities frustrated by the state discouragement of verse satire, and his first and most influential imitator in English was Joseph Hall, whose own verse satires had been burnt in the Bishops’ Ban of 1599 (see above, chapter 1). Hall’s Virgidemiarum appeared in 1597 and 1598 and the parts were reprinted in 1599. Like Theophrastus he turns a sceptical and observant eye on society around him, producing brilliant vignettes of contemporary behaviour.
By far the most successful collection of characters started life in 1614 as a makeweight to Sir Thomas Overbury’s poem, Sir Thomas Overbury his Wife, a dull account of the purposes of marriage and how ideally they can be realized. No doubt its immediate impact owed much to Overbury’s central role in the most prominent sexual scandal of the Jacobean period (see above). The poem itself is traditionally interpreted as part of Overbury’s attempt to dissuade his patron, the Earl of Somerset, from marrying Frances Howard. But the characters plainly proved extremely popular. More were added by several hands and editions proliferated as the volume expanded. The sixteenth edition appeared in 1638. What had been a succès de scandal had plainly hit the taste of a considerable proportion of the book-buying population.
Writers like John Webster and Thomas Dekker, highly skilled professionals, are among those who swelled the contents of Overbury’s posthumous volumes. Yet, read through, the collection is singularly dispiriting. Here, of course, is crude stereotyping almost at the inception of those cultural constructs which pollute the English literary tradition over the century and in some ways for longer. Thus, we find them: commonplace ones like the inns of court man, the would-be courtier, the bawd; then the embodiments of class prejudice in portraits of the tailor, the serving man, the ostler, the pedant, the chamber maid; the slanderous representations of Puritanism and Catholicism; and the racial stereotypes of the Frenchman, the Dutchman and the ’Braggadochio Welshman’ who ’accounts none well descended, that call him not cousin’ (Overbury 1890: 68). More dispiriting still is the reflection that this material found such an eager readership.