She is, as it were, the Pat Arrowsmith of the theatre world: she had an idea about something important, and instead of telling people that she had an idea she went out and did something about it and went on doing something about it until people really listened to her.
Consider the Stars » Consider the Stars
What she looked for was "not a finished, tidy, well-written play, but one with at least some spark of life in it from which something, somehow, might be developed"; and she compared this method with that of the old commedia dell'arte in which the actors used to improvise freely round a well-known theme. It would be easy to make other comparisons — to medieval miracle and morality plays, to the circus and the music-hall, to pantomime and even to classical Greek drama — the point always being that she sees the theatre as a social, even political, centre of thought and activity, rather than as a place where some people go to be entertained by other people: the communication should always be reciprocal.
This attitude colours all the work produced by the Theatre Royal when she was there, and makes it very difficult to know how good the dramatists whose plays she produced actually are. Behan is clearly a magnificent natural writer with the traditional Irish gift of the gab, as anyone can see in his autobiographical Borstal Boy, but it is impossible to say what sort of dramatist he is. He has never really equalled the promise and punch of The Quare Fella; The Hostage began as a short play in Gaelic, but when it came to the East End of London and later the West End, too it was turned into something more like a music-hall romp, and despite its undoubted appeal it seemed to have something of the old devil of Celtic whimsicality which ruins Under Milk Wood.
Let us hope that drink and this particular devil don't do for Behan what they did for Dylan Thomas, and that he turns out after all to be what he once looked like — the true successor of Synge and O'Casey, a new bearer of the priceless Irish gift of eloquence and warmth which has kept the British theatre alive before.
There is something Irish about Shelagh Delaney too, but she is really a different sort of writer altogether, though the Theatre Workshop style made her seem similar at first. Her real talent is for impressionism, for conveying atmosphere and the feel of a situation, not for social realism or romantic tragedy, as many left-wing critics imagined when they saw A Taste of Honey. A Lion in Love lacked the force of her first play because it lacked the single theme, but it still created a haunting atmosphere by the use of an impressionistic technique.
Whether Shelagh Delaney has a genuine dramatic talent on her own account is still an open question, but she seems to have been the ideal Theatre Workshop writer. None of the other dramatists whose work appeared at the Theatre Royal has had as much impact as these two. Wolf Mankowitz is a clever professional writer, but his weakness for "good business and sentiment" as a group of his semi-Yiddish short stories are called — or shekels and schmaltz in plain language — has ruined his later work.
Frank Norman's Fings Ain't Wot They Used t'Be was good dirty fun but not much more; Norman is clearly determined not to be saddled with the character part of the reformed crook, but it is still difficult for him to do anything else. Stephen Lewis and Henry Chapman have painted good impressionistic sketches of life in Stepney and on a building site, but show no particular signs of deeper talent Theatre Workshop seems to be a wonderful place to work and the Theatre Royal is certainly a wonderful place to go, but I think it would be a mistake to consider places like this and the Unity Theatre in Somers Town as well in the same terms as the familiar commercial theatre, or to consider writers like Delaney and Behan in the same terms as Osborne or Arden.
They were used as script-writers for a collective socially-committed entertainment. The trouble is that we aren't ready for such a theatre, and the proof of this is that the only way the Theatre Royal could keep going was by selling its best work to the West End and in fact by selling its star writers and its rude words to the gutter press.
This is the simple reason for Joan Littlewood's disgust. The remedy for this situation is hard to find. One possible way out is to let the demotic poetry rip, as in plays by two other East End dramatists, Bernard Kops and Henry Livings. Kops is a poetic fantasist, whose most striking plays were The Hamlet of Stepney Green and The Dream of Peter Mann because in them he let his fantasies loose. He clearly needs a firm hand as well as real encouragement. Taylor suggests that Joan Littlewood would do him a lot of good , and with them he might write something really fine — as, indeed, might Michael Hastings, whose Yes, and After had something of the same Jewish fantastic poetry about it.
Livings is also a poetic fantasist, whose genre is what might be called social farce, whose plays are genuinely playful. Five of them have appeared during the last couple of years, each of them full of fun and more than fun, and there is no sign of the supply running out, but there is the obvious danger of getting into a rut; certainly Livings doesn't seem to have developed at all, but perhaps this doesn't matter. Who knows? Arnold Wesker's answer is very different. Taylor includes him in the group of provincial dramatists because of his connection with the Belgrade Theatre in Coventry, but I think he should be taken in either the Royal Court or the East End group.
He is a real problem. He has been very highly praised, but, as Taylor says, "when we look beyond the broad picture, and examine in detail the claims to survival of Wesker's work after the fashionable enthusiasm of the moment has died down, a number of doubts intrude, along with the thought that Wesker's work is, after all, particularly apt to appeal on first acquaintance for quite other than strictly dramatic reasons. Among these are the confusion between personal and social difficulties as in Arthur Miller , the reliance on authentic detail which often isn't really authentic, the sudden changes of mood from extreme naturalism to extreme symbolism, and the use of sentimentality to disguise bad arguments.
More irritating are the excessive self-consciousness of both the author and his characters, so that nothing happens without its point being hammered home; the excessive tendency to preach, so that each point is hammered home in the most painful way; the excessive narrowness of vision, so that the other side is never given its say; and the excessive priggishness of the heroes, so that even the right side is never given its proper say.
Altogether Wesker is a most imperfect dramatist. And yet, and yet … and yet Wesker is also a most important dramatist, who may have sold his birthright for a pot of message but who is rightly certain that his message is an important one. At first it was so important that he had to write about it rather than about people, and when he had to write about people he chose his own friends and relatives; but then the message became so important that he couldn't just write about it any more — hence Centre There is a passage in Chips with Everything, his latest and worst play, which is addressed by a cardboard officer to the cardboard rebel but which might all too easily have been addressed to Wesker himself by his middle-class public:.
Look, we haven't stiffened, we aren't offended, no one is going to charge you or strike you. In fact we haven't really taken any notice. We listen to you, we let other people listen to you, but we show no offence. Rather, we applaud you, flatter you for your courage and idealism, but it goes right through us. We listen. To tolerate is to ignore. It is no longer good enough to say "If you don't care you'll die," to stand on your own two feet, to realise that the world is more than a kitchen, to talk about Jerusalem and do nothing about it. As the good old Bible says, "Faith without works is dead.
And so Wesker joined the Committee of and founded Centre 42; he has even announced that he has decided to stop writing. Now a cynic could easily say that he has already written about everything he has done and everything half his family have done and hasn't got anything else to write about, and this might easily be true. But the point is that this might just as easily be true of any other young dramatist who was too successful too soon, and it doesn't stop them writing. I find it difficult to make up my mind about Wesker.
His plays make me hot with embarrassment and then hot with envy and admiration; parts of I'm Talking about Jerusalem and Chips with Everything are the worst things I have seen on the stage, and parts of The Kitchen and Roots are the best; but all the time I can see what he is trying to do and I can see it is the right thing to try to do. Can he do it, either through plays or through trade unions? I don't know. I wish I did. If he can, people like Ann Jellicoe and John Arden wouldn't have to wonder if we're mad or they are, and people like Brendan Behan and Shelagh Delaney wouldn't have to walk in the gutter to get anywhere.
This would be Raymond Williams' "long revolution", and it would be a bloody big one too. Taylor misses most of the significance of Wesker's work, I think, because he concentrates too much on his strictly dramatic failures the theatre isn't after all strictly dramatic , and then goes on to other dramatists from the provinces.
Consider the Stars
He singles out in particular David Campton, James Saunders and David Perry, all of whom are fantasists of one kind or another who may well break through to proper public recognition. But he fails to emphasise the frightening disparity between London and the provinces — when you think how many of the new dramatists come from outside London and how little of the new drama is first played outside London, you can't help feeling that something is wrong, and it is something that the National Theatre, even with Laurence Olivier, will never be able to cure.
Instead Taylor is more interested in dramatists from radio and television, especially Alun Owen and Clive Exton from the latter. Their chief significance is their remarkable mastery of ordinary speech and their ability to breathe life and originality into relatively conventional situations. In this they are symptomatic of a general trend, and I think the influence of film technique is also important here. Another pair of highly skilful dramatists who began on the air are John Mortimer and Peter Shaffer.
Call Me a Liar and David and Broccoli , but Taylor is rightly severe about his later degeneration into a sadly conventional dramatist The Wrong Side of the Park and Two Stars for Comfort in which fantasy is nothing more than a theatrical gimmick. On the other hand Taylor is strangely full of praise for Shaffer's Five Finger Exercise, which I thought was a very ordinary and even rather silly piece of work.
He is also full of praise for Harold Pinter, who is at the moment the most overrated dramatist in the country the latest in the line running back through Wesker, Delaney and Behan to Osborne himself. Now Pinter has certainly written two excellent plays, The Caretaker and A Night Out, and many clever sketches for and fragments from other plays, but it remains to be seen whether he will be able to overcome his weakness for private obsessions and gratuitous mystification. Of course a dramatist shouldn't do all the work for his audience, but no talk about the "theatre of the absurd" can disguise a trick as crude as the deliberate contradiction or the deliberate omission of the vital clue for dramatic effect.
At his best Pinter writes brilliantly; at his worst he just doodles. No one seems to know what he will do next, himself least of all, and it is impossible to guess what success will do to him. But whatever happens he has done some important things for the British theatre, not because he thought of them, but because he succeeded in doing them and making them acceptable. He has made the ordinary speech of ordinary people familiar to the ordinary playgoer; he has shown man at the end of his short tether without raising his voice or dropping a splashy tear; and he has created an atmosphere of fear and despair as it were out of thin air.
Even if he doesn't "turn out to be the greatest of them all" among the other new dramatists, as Taylor suggests, he is certainly one of the cleverest. There is actually another dramatist whose gifts are similar to Pinter's, though he is also rather like John Mortimer. This is Giles Cooper, whose work has almost all appeared on the radio, where it was always highly effective; unfortunately his first theatre play, Everything in the Garden, seems to have followed the Mortimer line rather than the Pinter one. But he may do something really good one day. After dealing with Pinter, Taylor runs through a few more commercial dramatists — such as Willis Hall and Robert Bolt — much too quickly to say anything very valuable, and then comes abruptly to a conclusion.
He just prophesies that Osborne will get dull, Behan and Delaney will go to pieces, Arden and Campton will break through at last, and that "the long-term staying power will prove to be in the hands of Arden, Owen, Exton and Pinter. The theatre world is a complicated one, and it can't be discussed entirely in terms of its writers, any more than the television or cinema world could.
The real question is what sort of plays people who own and run theatres want to put on, because these will in the end be the sort of plays that get written — or rather the sort of plays that get written and then get produced and published, which is what matters in the end. What we need is a Richard Hoggart or a Raymond Williams of the theatre to discuss the whole problem of "anger and after". Of course the problem isn't just one of anger — anyone can be angry — but of communication — who wants to listen to him? And here the social composition of theatrical audiences, the prejudices of producers and critics, and all sorts of other apparently peripheral questions come in and demand to be answered.
What hope is there? First, there is the fact that it is much easier for a new play by a new author to be considered and even to be produced and properly discussed. Second, there is the fact that new plays in the last five or six years have been about important subjects. Third, commercial success has been far less important than for a very long time. What all this has amounted to is a very considerable degree of anarchy in the theatre world — in the sense that the people who work in theatres and the people who go to theatres have been much freer to do what they want. The old customs and formulas have been broken.
More people put songs in their plays and more people sit down during the National Anthem. As John Addington Symonds notes in his essay "Theatres, Playwrights, Actors, and Playgoers," "The voices of preachers and Puritan pamphleteers were daily raised against playhouses. The bubonic plague, or Black Death , which had begun in southern Europe, originally made its way to England around Although this was well before the Elizabethan era, the effects of the plague continued to be felt for centuries. Plague broke out frequently, and London was visited by the dreaded disease in , —, , —, and During the outbreak of , over 30, people died.
The plague was so deadly because of the overcrowded and unsanitary conditions in the city of London. Fleas carried by rats spread the plague, and the overcrowded conditions provided ample breeding grounds and hosts for the disease-carrying insects. These conditions also caused the disease to spread quickly once someone had been infected. The term "plague-sore," an insult that can be found in the drama of the time, is a reference to the visible sores that would cover people's bodies once they had contracted bubonic plague. Actors were subject to the same laws as vagrants and were in danger of arrest if they could not prove that they had a permanent residence.
In order to avoid persecution, they sought a noble patron to support and promote them. They became servants of the nobleman, thus providing him more prestige. In return, the nobleman would protect them if they got into trouble. He did not pay them regular wages or allowances, however. In , noble patronage became very significant because of a law that allowed only registered servants of a nobleman to go on tour.
Since touring was one of the main sources of income for theater troupes, it was necessary for the actors to gain patronage to survive financially. Niccolo Machiavelli , a sixteenth-century Italian philosopher, was famous for the political theories put forth in his book, The Prince.
Machiavelli believed in man's capacity for determining his. Today: Names are spelled consistently, and, for legal purposes, each person's signature is consistent as well. Today: Most plays are performed indoors in the evening. They are illuminated by electric lighting. Today: Thousands of sophisticated surgical techniques are available that have been proven safe and effective. Today: There are sophisticated urban sanitation systems that handle waste and purify water.
These systems maintain the cleanliness of cities and help to prevent the spread of disease. The Prince is considered by some to be a manual of tyrants, whereas others claim that Machiavelli was just describing the world as it is rather than teaching people how the world should be. Machiavelli's work was known throughout England, and his ideas inspired several Elizabethan playwrights.
Christopher Marlowe's The Jew of Malta has been described as a work of Machiavellian policy, and the ghost of Machiavelli actually appears at the opening of the play. She was a devout Catholic and gained the nickname "Bloody Mary" for her attempts to suppress Protestantism by executing many of its leading adherents. During Mary's reign, Elizabeth concealed the fact that she was Protestant, but when she ascended the throne, Elizabeth restored Protestantism to England.
She was not so vicious a queen as her half-sister had been, however. As Dick Riley and Pam McAllister relate in The Bedside, Bathtub and Armchair Companion to Shakespeare , "As queen, Elizabeth fined Catholics who refused to attend services of the official church, but there was no widespread persecution of those who clung to the old faith, and Elizabeth tried to ensure that services and prayers were conducted in a way that both Catholics and Protestants could in good conscience attend. Attending the theater was an extremely popular pastime during the Elizabethan era.
The theater was able to flourish during the sixteenth century partly because Queen Elizabeth herself was a supporter of the arts. She enjoyed attending theatrical entertainments and that legitimized the activity for the rest of the citizens. Most of the populace loved going to the theater, and as Jeffrey L. Singman notes in his book Daily Life in Elizabethan England , "There was a constant and insatiable demand for plays, and actors became very popular figures—the first 'stars. There were some who shunned it and others who actively campaigned against it.
The Puritans were particularly vocal in their opposition to the English playhouses, and numerous treatises and pamphlets were written, warning citizens of the evil and immorality that could be found festering in these amusements. This was followed by Stephen Gosson's School of Abuse in As Oscar Brockett comments, "Both works railed in the harshest terms against the theater as an instrument used by the Devil to encourage vice and to take people away from honest work and other useful pursuits.
Martha Kurtz, in examination of the history plays that were popular with audiences in the late Elizabethan Age, argues that the strong anti-feminist pattern of exclusion is only on the surface. Beneath the obvious is a strong feminine, domestic foundation, to which the men will return when and if they survive their political intrigues.
While Elizabethan audiences continued to enjoy theater, the philosophical battle continued to rage, and the Puritans finally succeeded in closing the theaters in Elizabethan drama did not disappear, however; the theaters were reopened in , and the works of these fine playwrights were once again brought to the stage. The reputation of the great works of Elizabethan Drama grew steadily in England and throughout the rest of the world.
They have consistently been performed and appreciated up to modern times; people in the twenty-first century look to this era as one that produced some of the finest drama in all of theater history. In attesting to the significance of Elizabethan drama, John Gassner writes, "No one with even the slightest interest in English literature needs to be told that its greatest period is the Elizabethan Age, and no one familiar with that period is likely to depart from the consensus that its major literary achievement is the drama.
Bald also weighs in with this superlative praise of the Elizabethan playwrights: "Even if Shakespeare had never lived, the last fifteen years of Queen Elizabeth's reign and the reign of King James I would still be the greatest period in the history of English drama. His works are considered timeless and universal, and they continue to resonate, more than four hundred years after his death.
In her book Life in the Elizabethan Theater , Diane Yancey notes, "The number of Shakespearean acting companies and theater productions that exist today also bears witness to the continuing importance of Elizabethan drama. Their work has influenced all succeeding generations of theater artists and audiences. Kattelman holds a Ph. In this essay, Kattelman discusses how Elizabethan plays can provide insight into that historical time period.
Works of theater are always a reflection of the society in which they are created. By studying plays, one can learn a wealth of information about the beliefs, lifestyle, and politics of the time in which they were written and produced. Such is the case with Elizabethan Drama. If one looks carefully at the works of Shakespeare, Marlowe, Jonson, and their fellow playwrights, many interesting and topical details come to light. Because the theater shows human interaction, thus revealing manners and thoughts, it can provide insight into the nuances of a time that may not come to light by just studying names, dates, and facts.
It can also shed light upon the important issues and topics of the day. It is a "barometer" of the times. Just as citizens of today might stand around the water cooler discussing last night's episode of a popular television show, so the Elizabethans would discuss the latest "hot" play by Heywood or Dekker. Just as future generations may learn something of the present day from current films and television programs, so too can historians learn a great deal about a time period by studying popular entertainments. One of the things that can be learned by studying Elizabethan Drama is the way people celebrated holidays and special occasions.
In Thomas Dekker's The Shoemaker's Holiday , for example, the following lines reveal that the day before Lent [Shrove-Tuesday] was a holiday that was celebrated with feasts featuring pancakes: "Besides, I have procur'd that upon every Shrove-Tuesday, at the sound of the pancake bell, my fine dapper Assyrian lads shall clap up their shop window and away. While it may take some further study to completely understand this reference, it is an interesting bit of information that can lead to a deeper understanding of this particular holiday. Plays also reveal a great deal about what took place at common ceremonies.
Thomas Heywood's A Woman Killed with Kindness opens with a wedding celebration where the guests, "With nosegays and bride-laces in their hats, dance all their country measures, rounds, and jigs. Of course, seeing the play staged with historical accuracy would provide even more insight into the occasion. References in theatrical dialogue also point to other plays and entertainments that were popular at the time. The following lines from The Shoemaker's Holiday indicate that Tamburlaine was a recognizable name for Elizabethan audiences, probably due to the popularity of Christopher Marlowe's tragedy Tamburlaine the Great a few years prior: "Sim Eyre knows how to speak to a Pope, to Sultan Soliman, to Tamburlaine, an he were here, and shall I melt, shall I droop before my sovereign.
In addition to details about ceremonies and entertainments, an enormous amount of information about societal protocol can be gleaned from the dialogue of Elizabethan plays. Take, for example, another line from The Shoemaker's Holiday. Here, the Lord Mayor discusses his daughter's possible betrothal with a man of the. He comments that it is not a good idea because his daughter is not of the same class as her would-be husband, "Too mean is my poor girl for his high birth; poor citizens must not with courtiers wed.
The Lord Mayor's comment shows that it was improper for one to marry someone who was not his or her social equal. This was a common theme in Elizabethan Drama. Another example occurs in A Woman Killed with Kindness when Sir Charles notes what a good match Anne and Sir Francis are due to their equal positioning on the social ladder: "You both adorn each other, and your hands methinks are matches. There's equality in this fair combination; You are both scholars, both young, both being descended nobly. People could relate to this topic and enjoyed the humorous complications that resulted from characters trying to overcome this hurdle.
Crime was also a popular topic with Elizabethan audiences, who loved to see plays based upon well-known criminal cases of the day. It seems that audiences have always been fascinated by accounts of macabre acts that they have heard about from their daily news sources, and Elizabethans were no different. They loved to see these cases acted out, often with much blood and gore. One of the most famous of this genre is a domestic tragedy published in by an anonymous author. Its full title is The lamentable and true tragedy of Master Arden of Feversham in Kent, who was most wickedly murdered by the means of his disloyal and wanton wife, who for the love she bare to one Mosbie, hired two desperate ruffians, Black Will and Shakebag, to kill him.
For the sake of simplicity, this title is usually shortened to Arden of Feversham ; the full title, however, gives a clue as to the draw these true crime stories had for an Elizabethan audience. By describing the story in a lengthy title, the author let Elizabethans know that they were going to see something exciting, sordid, and possibly somewhat gory. Because the story was based on an actual incident, the audience would not only see the events dramatized but would also find out what eventually happened to the criminals.
For example, in the epilogue to Arden of Feversham , the fate of each perpetrator is recounted:. Evidence suggests that plays based on actual crimes were common throughout the Elizabethan period. Many of the play texts are lost to us, but their titles are still available. As John Addington Symonds notes, "Plays founded on these subjects of contemporary crime were popular throughout the flourishing age of the Drama, is abundantly proved by their dates and titles, and preserved in several records. Some of our most popular and enduring films and characters are based upon books inspired by real criminals and their heinous deeds.
For example, both Norman Bates of Psycho and Buffalo Bill of Silence of the Lambs were inspired by the serial killer Ed Gein and the gruesome acts he committed in a Wisconsin farmhouse in Plays can also illuminate the morality present during a particular time period.
Consider the Stars
Ethics and religious beliefs have always been an important part of society, and thus, they are also an important part of that society's entertainments. Morality is a very strong factor in Elizabethan Drama because theater was expected to teach the citizens a lesson in addition to entertaining them. The theaters became an important "school" for the Elizabethan people because citizens of all walks of life attended. It was one of the few activities that the nobility and the lower classes had in common.
In his book, Symonds describes the wide array of people that could be found at the theater: "the public to which these playwrights appealed was the English people from Elizabeth upon the throne down to the lowest ragamuffin of the streets; in the same wooden theaters met lords and ladies, citizens and prentices, common porters and working men, soldiers, sailors, pickpockets and country folk. Sometimes these lessons were taught in a subtle manner, by the outcome of the action; at other times they were delivered to the audience in a very direct manner.
An excellent example of this direct address occurs in A Woman Killed with Kindness. In the play, Anne has had an adulterous affair with one of her husband's friends. She has repented, however, and now deeply regrets her actions. She confesses her disgrace and shame and also warns the women in the audience with the following, very pointed lines:. The lesson here is clear: women stay faithful to your husbands! It is not surprising that the theater was expected to instruct as well as entertain during Elizabethan times.
The drama had descended from religious mystery and morality plays, so playwrights had a long history of including moral lessons in their texts. Tragedies were particularly blatant in putting forth a moral message. In fact, historian D. Palmer conjectures, in "Elizabethan Tragic Heroes," that this is one of the reasons Elizabethan tragedies are so complex and contain so many characters:. All Elizabethan tragedies in fact try to illustrate several lessons at once, by incorporating within their actions a whole series of tragic catastrophes, each with its own significance.
From this point of view, therefore, the most appropriate kind of tragic hero for the Elizabethan dramatist was the figure whose progress through the play would involve as many other characters as possible, so providing opportunities for emphasizing a maximum number of moral lessons. Tragedies also delivered some very pointed political messages as well. They were sometimes a rallying point for patriotism and served to remind the public that it was important to be loyal to the sovereign, as the following passage from Marlowe's Edward II indicates:.
Here, heads that "preach on poles" refers to the common practice of placing traitors' severed heads on pikes around the city, after their beheading. They served as gruesome reminders of what might happen if one angered the monarch. These are just a few examples of how dialogue in Elizabethan Drama can provide insight into that historical time. The plays educated the Elizabethan audience on proper morals, behavior, and customs, and they can also educate the modern reader. Plays are particularly fruitful places to find information about bygone eras because they recreate how people actually lived.
As Symonds observes,. At all periods of history the stage has been a mirror of the age and race in which it has arisen. Dramatic poets more than any other artists reproduce the life of men around them; exhibiting their aims, hopes, wishes, aspirations, passions, in an abstract more intensely coloured than the diffuse facts of daily experience. Elizabethan Drama provides a window into a wide spectrum of that society because it appealed to all walks of life, and the plays dealt with citizens of all walks of life. They were part of the essential fabric of the times.
Perhaps Laura K. Egendorf best sums it up in her introduction to Elizabethan Drama when she states, "Unlike modern times, when Shakespeare's plays are often considered high culture, the Elizabethans considered the theater to be essentially pop culture—the plays were the movies and television of the sixteenth century. In the following essay excerpt, Smith explores links between public punishment and drama in Elizabethan England.
The famous Triple Tree, the first permanent structure for public hangings, was erected at Tyburn in during the same decade which saw the construction of the first permanent structure for the performance of plays. At Tyburn seats were available for those who could pay and rooms could be hired in houses overlooking the scene; the majority of spectators stood in a semicircle around the event while hawkers sold fruits and pies and ballads and pamphlets detailing the various crimes committed by the man being hanged.
Other kinds of peripheral entertainment also occurred simultaneously. In short, hangings functioned as spectacles not unlike tragedies staged in the public theaters. The organization of spectators in these two arenas and the official localization of these. Evidence also suggests that theatre and public punishment provided entertainment to upper and lower classes and that both events were generally well attended. Contemporary letters abound in accounts of executions and hangings, details of which are interspersed amid court gossip and descriptions of Parliament sessions.
In a letter to Dudley Carleton, for example, John Chamberlain describes the hanging of four priests on Whitsun eve in , noting with mild surprise the large number of people, among them 'divers ladies and gentlemen' who had gathered to witness the event which took place early in the morning between six and seven.
I am not alone in suggesting links between these modes of popular public spectacle. Greenblatt argues for the implicit presence of the scaffold in certain kinds of theatre when he writes. Thus, for example, the denouement of Massinger's Roman Actor like that in The Spanish Tragedy turns upon the staging as a mode of theatre in which princes and nobles take part in plays in which the killing turns out to be real. It required no major act of imagination for a Renaissance audience to conceive of either of these alternatives to the conventions of the public playhouse: both were fully operative in the period itself, in the form of masques and courtly entertainments, on the one hand, and public maimings and executions on the other.
Presumably the relationship between theatre and the scaffold worked both ways: if dramatic deaths could suggest public maimings and executions, the latter could as easily and as vividly evoke their theatrical counterparts. Indeed contemporary narratives about public hangings and executions, whether fictional or documentary, frequently insist on the analogy. I would like to consider two such narratives, Dudley Carleton's documentary letter to John Chamberlain describing the near hangings of Cobham, Markham and Grey in and Thomas Nashe's fictional narrative about the execution of Cutwolf witnessed by Jack Wilton.
Carleton details in vividly theatrical terms the trial, hangings and near executions of several conspirators, including two priests, implicated in a plot to harm King James I shortly after his ascension to the throne in The letter moves from a casual narrative to a concentrated exposition of the drama as it unfolded.
Carleton begins his account with the hangings of two papist priests: 'The two priests that led the way to the execution were very bloodily handled; for they were cut down alive; and Clark to whom more favour was intended, had the worse luck; for he both strove to help himself, and spake after he was cut down. Their quarters were set on Winchester gates, and their heads on the first tower of the castle. Three others, Markham, Grey and Cobham, were scheduled to be executed on Friday; Carleton narrates the sequence of events as they occurred retaining information about their narrow escape from the gallows until the very end:.
A fouler day could hardly have been picked out, or fitter for such a tragedy. Markham being brought to the scaffold, was much dismayed, and complained much of his hard hap, to be deluded with hopes, and brought to that place unprepared. The sheriff in the mean time was secretly withdrawn by one John Gill, Scotch groom of the bedchamber. The sheriff, at his return, told him [Markham] that since he was so ill prepared, he should have two hours respite, so led him from the scaffold, without giving him any more comfort. Lord Grey's turn followed and he spent considerable time repenting for his crimes and praying to be forgiven, all of which, Carleton wryly remarks, 'held us in the rain more than half an hour'.
As in the case of Markham, the execution was halted, the prisoner being told only that the sequence of executions had been altered by express orders from the King and that Cobham would die before him.
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Grey was also led to Prince Arthur's Hall and asked to await his turn with Markham. Lord Cobham then arrived on the scaffold but unlike the other two, came 'with good assurance and contempt of death'. The sheriff halted this execution as well, telling Cobham only that he had to first face a few other prisoners.
Carleton then describes the arrival of Grey and Markham and the bewildered looks on the three prisoners who 'nothing acquainted with what had passed, no more than the lookers on with what should follow looked strange one upon another, like men beheaded, and met again in the other world'. The last-minute pardon, always a possibility in executions, arrive in time to save at least three of the conspirators.
Carleton concludes his account by noting that this happy play had very nearly been marred 'for the letter was closed, and delivered him unsigned; which the King remembered, and called for him back again. And at Winchester there was another cross adventure: for John Gill could not go so near the scaffold that he could speak to the sheriff,. The initial hangings of the priests and George Brooke and the last-minute pardons to Cobham, Markham and Grey are invoked by the sheriff as examples of the 'justice and mercy' of the monarch.
But Carleton's narrative, despite its support of this view, hints at the possibility of reading the King's final sentence as indecision rather than a calculated balancing of justice and mercy. The King resolved this issue 'without man's help, and no man can rob him of the praise of yesterday's action', Carleton tells us, but goes on to explain that. To save Grey, who was of a proud, insolent nature, and execute Cobham, who had shown great tokens of humility and repentance, were as great a solecism; and so went on with Plutarch's comparisons in the rest, till travelling in contrarieties, but holding the conclusion in so indifferent balance that the lords knew not what to look for till the end came out, 'and therefore I have saved them all.
Strikingly absent from the King's reasoning is any consideration of Markham, who we remember 'almost lost his neck' and who we have been told earlier was expressly ordered to go first to his death by the King. Did the manner of the last-minute pardon deliberately arrange for the possibility that if any hanging took place, Markham, who seemed in the king's disfavour, would be the only one to lose his neck?
Remarkably Carleton himself mimics the power of abeyance in his method of narration, retaining the surprise of the outcome until the very end and keeping his reader confused even as the court had been. The extended theatrical metaphor used by Carleton emerges also in Thomas Nashe's The Unfortunate Traveller, or the Life of Jack Wilton which concludes with Jack Wilton's narration of his experiences in Bologna where he witnesses the execution of Cutwolf, a notorious murderer.
The promised account of Cutwolf's wrack upon the wheel proves to be tortuous and we are led to it through yet another narrative, this time by Cutwolf himself who, before he dies, provides an 'authentic' account of the villainy that has led him to the wheel. Jack reproduces Cutwolf's 'insulting narration' as he terms it because of its punitive value:. Prepare your ears and your tears, for never, till this thrust I any tragical matter upon you. Strange and wonderful are God's judgements; here shine they in their glory.
Murder is wide-mouthed, and will not let God rest till he grant revenge. Guiltless souls that live every hour subject to violence, and with your despairing fears do much impair God's providence, fasten your eyes on this spectacle that will add to your faith.
Several points in this exhortation are worth noting. Not by accident, this dramatic narrative has been reserved for the conclusion of the work. Jack here invites the reader to witness the spectacle of the execution, and as we shall see, the reader's role, initially analogous to Jack's, gradually merges with that of the crowd; that is, his role as witness gradually transforms into a more ambiguous one, somewhere between spectator of and participant in the torture.
The incident, we are told, exemplifies God's glory and though we know that Jack refers here to the idea of divine retribution, the words suggest that he might be referring also to the nature of the execution itself as it dwells on torture rather than quick death. Jack insists that 'guiltless souls' who have not yet experienced violence but who live in constant fear of it can hope to strengthen their faith in the Almighty from this vision.
In other words, this spectacle of torture should produce effects such as might follow a divine vision. Most importantly, the event on which we are expected to 'fasten' our eyes provides, according to Jack, a supreme example of the enactment of divine revenge. Like Carleton's narrative which purported to illustrate monarchical power even while it exposed its arbitrariness, Jack's account, despite its claim about illustrating divine authority, emphasizes instead its precarious similarity to mortal vengeance.
Cutwolf follows this dense exhortation with a long-winded narrative of the murder of Esdras of Granado. He prefaces his story with a strange assertion of his dignity: 'My body is little but my mind is as great as a giant's. The soul which is in me is the very soul of Julius Caesar by reversion. My name is Cutwolf, neither better nor worse by occupation than a poor cobbler of Verona—cobblers are men, and kings are no more.
But while they serve to dignify the speaker, they work in reverse as well: Cutwolf's insistence on the manhood of kings and his reminder about the public death of Julius Caesar suggest not a fantastic and unreal substitution of important figures for common villains, but a very possible replacement, whose reality would have been apparent to the spectators and to contemporary readers of this narrative indeed, only some years earlier in , Mary Queen of Scots had been beheaded on English soil.
And as visitors to London such as Thomas Platter note, the heads of several traitors from noble families graced London Bridge and provided a constant source of tourist attraction. The thirty to thirty-five heads on display at any given time intended to provide a grim warning to those entering the city but descendants of the 'traitors' frequently regarded the heads of their forbears as trophies of past glories.
The thin line that divided royalty from traitors who nearly managed to seize the throne was evident daily to travellers and residents in the city and Cutwolf's highly suggestive substitution of royal bodies for criminal ones was, as I hope to show, implicit in all executions, especially narrated or dramatized ones like that being described here by Nashe.
Cutwolf's mesmerizing narrative follows this bold preface detailing similarities between his death and that of royal traitors. Cutwolf tells the crowd that to revenge the murder of his elder brother he had hunted Esdras for twenty months across Europe. He describes his joy at finally chancing upon him on the streets of Bologna: 'O, so I was tickled in the spleen with that word; my heart hopped and danced, my elbows itched, my fingers frisked, I wist not what should become of my feet nor knew what I did for joy.
Cutwolf then describes how he visited Esdras at his lodgings the next morning and confronted him with the murder of his brother. Faced with Cutwolf's determination to bury a bullet in his breast, Esdras eloquently tries several arguments to stay Cutwolf's revenge. He first promises money, then eternal service, and proceeds to request that his arms and legs be cut off and he himself left to live a year in prayer and repentance. When this fails, he requests that he might be tortured: 'To dispatch me presently is no revenge; it will soon be forgotten.
Let me die a lingering death—it will be remembered a great deal longer.
Or is he suggesting his inevitable power as a lingering example for the future, as one who through this double narration will remain forever in memory and in print? After all, pamphlets and ballads enumerating various atrocities committed by criminals circulated during such executions and popularized the figures thus condemned. The ambiguous nature of the condemned man, both powerful and powerless, both mesmerizing the crowds and used by them as part of their festivity, seems to have been an inherent element of execution rituals.
A similar ambivalence becomes a central ingredient also in Charles's execution performed more than half a century later, an event treated in detail in Chapter 6. Esdras continues to reason with Cutwolf, alternating between promises and pleas, but his murderer remains undeterred. Cutwolf relishes the moment to the fullest and seems to be offering Esdras what he asked for earlier, a lingering mental torture. He even presents himself as a divine avenger:. There is no heaven but revenge. Divine revenge, of which as of the joys above there is no fullness or satiety!
Look how my feet are blistered with following thee from place to place. I have riven my throat with overstraining it to curse thee.
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I have ground my teeth to powder with grating and grinding them together for anger when any hath named thee. My tongue with vain threats is bollen and waxen too big for my mouth. My eyes have broken their strings with staring and looking ghastly as I stood devising how to frame or set my countenance when I met thee. I have near spent my strength in imaginary acting on stone walls what I determined to execute on thee.
Cutwolf thus presents himself as the frightening figure of death himself, one who has rehearsed the drama of this encounter again and again. Esdras continues to plead for time, claiming that bodily torture would delay his death and provide him with an opportunity to save his soul. His assailant, however, determines to extend his power beyond the grave: 'My thoughts travel'd in quest of some notable new Italianism whose murderous platform might not only extend on his body, but his soul also.
The reader thus perceives a seemingly bewildering set of relationships: Esdras has requested that he be tortured rather than killed in order that he might have time to save his soul; Cutwolf, as if in response to this request, orders Esdras to give his soul to the devil and forswear all hope of salvation; and Esdras, in direct opposition to his earlier request and hoping to be saved from death, seizes the opportunity and gives Cutwolf more than he had hoped for by renouncing God and salvation completely.
Does Cutwolf's request function as a test of the victim's authenticity in professing a desire to save his soul? At any rate Esdras's response actually takes Cutwolf by surprise:. Scarce had I propounded these articles unto him but he was beginning his blasphemous abjurations. I wonder the earth opened not and swallowed us both, hearing the bold terms he blasted forth in contempt of Christianity.
My joints trembled and quaked with attending them; my hair stood upright, and my heart was turned wholly to fire. The vein in his left hand that is derived from the heart, with no faint blow he pierced, and with the full blood that flowed from it writ a full obligation of his soul to the Devil. Having thus forsworn salvation, Esdras expects to be spared. Thus when his assailant asks him to open his mouth and gape wide, he does so without demur. The entire event, described by Cutwolf as the enactment of a ceremony, parodies Catholic communion rites and Esdras seems to regard Cutwolf's request as another stage in this enactment.
Cutwolf's description of what follows, Edsdras's murder, is significant in its choice of words: 'therewith made I no more ado, but shot him full into the throat with my pistol. No more spake he, so did I shoot him that he might never speak after ,or repent him' emphasis added. The revenge directs itself specifically against the spoken word for it alone, as the narrative strives to show throughout, retains the supreme power to create reality.
To Cutwolf at least, not Esdras's actions but his sworn allegiance to the devil, which he has no time to retract, damns him to hell. His murderer in a final paean to revenge allies himself clearly with God and heaven: 'Revenge is whatsoever we call law or justice. The farther we wade in revenge the nearer come we to the throne of the Almighty. To His scepter it is properly ascribed, His scepter he lends unto man when He lets one man scourge another.
Executioner, torture him, tear him, or we will tear thee in pieces if thou spare him. We arrive thus to the centrepiece of Jack's story, the torture of Cutwolf, a festive communal celebration which both fascinates and unsettles Jack; presumably the reader too would find the culinary metaphors used to describe the occasion both fascinating and horrifying. I quote the passage in full:. At the first chop with his wood-knife would he fish for a man's heart and fetch it out as easily as a plum from the bottom of a porridge pot. He would crack necks as fast as a cook cracks eggs.
A fiddler cannot turn his pin so soon as he would turn a man off the ladder. Bravely did he drum on this Cutwolf's bones, not breaking them outright but, like a saddler knocking in of tacks, jarring on them quaveringly with his hammer a great while together. No joint about him but with a hatchet he had for the bones he disjointed half, and then with boiling lead soldered up the wounds from bleeding.
His tongue he pulled out, lest he should blaspheme in his torment. Venomous stinging worms he thrust into his ears to keep his head ravingly occupied. With cankers scruzed to pieces he rubbed his mouth and his gums. No limb of his but was lingeringly splinter'd in shivers. The analogies comparing the executioner to a fisherman, a cook, a fiddler, a drummer and a saddler present Jack's fascination with the scene, shared also by the crowd who have instigated the tortures. Contrary to being a sharp contrast to England, the Italy of Jack's narrative provides an exaggerated version of events such as public executions witnessed around London.
This 'trucu-lent tragedy' might easily provide a narrative of staged public punishments in England, and the reaction of the crowds, though it disgusts Jack, differs hardly at all from similar reactions by English crowds to the deaths of personalities such as the Earl of Strafford and Archbishop Laud in the seventeenth century.
Jack's disgust does, nevertheless, underscore the stance of many literary figures as they both exploit and criticize London's fascination with the spectacle of death. The author's ambivalent stance combining horror and fascination may be treated as typical of many Elizabethan depictions of punishment whether in popular narratives of travel or on the public stage. These accounts of public punishment exploit the reader's fascination with the spectacle of death but, by evoking horror and revulsion, they mock his reliance on spectacles of torment for entertainment.
As Jonathan Bate describes it, the 'structure of the [Nashe's] story leaves the reader with more than a sneaking sympathy for what has been said on the scaffold, especially as the act of execution has a clinical cruelty which makes it in effect no different from the act for which it is a punishment. The narrative has made us discover the Italian within all of us. A series of questions may be raised about these documents, especially Nashe's detailed narrative.
Is Cutwolf the devil's emissary who deceives Esdras into damning himself or a divine agent avenging an unjust murder? Is the executioner a victim of the people's desire to see some sport or an agent of vengeance? Does the text negate or authorize the power of the word? Do the events constitute 'a truculent tragedy' as Jack claims or do they enact a festive communal ritual? Some of these ambiguities and paradoxes, especially the ambivalent positions of the victim, the crowd and the executioner, so clearly dramatized in Nashe's fictional account, were inherent to the ritual of execution itself and occurred also at actual executions in the Elizabethan and Stuart periods.
Nashe's account also provides a prose analogy to numerous tragedies of revenge enacted on the Elizabethan and early Stuart stage; it incorporates many ingredients that have been identified with this dramatic genre: obsessive revenge pursued by a melancholy revenger who physically and mentally degenerates through his pursuit of the victim, inordinate delay characteristic of this pursuit, the ambivalent tension between revenge and justice that remains unresolved, the viciously circular nature of revenge that destroys many in its course, and the public death of the revenger himself often performed in the midst of communal celebration and festivity.
Nashe's theatrical account incorporates all the major ingredients of the Elizabethan revenge tragedy. This alliance between theatre and public punishment evident in Carleton's and Nashe's narratives and throughout the early modern period could be extended even farther: the masked and hooded dramatist, both present and absent from his production, invites comparison with the hangman.
Like the hangman, the dramatist created spectacles and functioned as an entertainer whose efficiency was subject to the strictest scrutiny and criticism. Even his precarious position, as servant both to the Crown which sanctioned his activity and the populace who viewed his spectacle, compares with the hangman's. The hangman functioned as the most important instrument of the law; dramatists also repeatedly envisaged themselves as holding an analogous position.
Thomas Heywood, for example, in The Apology for Actors insists on the moral efficacy of stage plays which could incite confessions from villains by the mere spectacle of horror and villainy. He cites three instances where spectators, moved by the dramatic events they witnessed, confessed to previous crimes and were thus brought to justice. One of his examples, a woman who at the end of a performance confessed to having poisoned her husband seven years earlier, also provides a remarkable instance of what Hamlet seems to expect from Claudius and less directly from Gertrude after the staging of The Murder of Gonzago when he tells us.
The power of theatre to provoke transformation had become commonplace in the period and receives ironic treatment in a later tragedy, The Roman Actor , where Caesar tries to cure avarice in Philargus by staging a play. Renaissance familiarity with the concept that theatre could provoke transformation may be gauged by the recurrence of this idea on the stage, whether it is invoked seriously as in Hamlet or treated ironically as in The Roman Actor.
Depictions of evil and tragedy on the stage, as Heywood argues, performed both punitive and psychological functions. And like tragedies in general, public executions and hangings served both as a negative example and a reminder that past villainies would not remain undiscovered or unpunished forever.
The sentiment expressed by Samuel Johnson in the late eighteenth century, that there was no point in hanging a man if it was not going to be done in public, certainly prevailed in the earlier period and provided philosophical justification for the staging of both real and spectacle dismemberment, actual and theatrical tragedy, in early modern England.
I do not intend to collapse these modes of spectacle completely but to suggest that the close connection between these forms of popular public entertainment may be worth exploring in detail. The theatre and the scaffold provided occasions for communal festivities whose format and ends emerge as remarkably similar.
More specifically, I would like to use the erection of the Triple Tree and the public execution of Charles I as events which frame a period remarkable for its vibrant, intense and highly competitive dramatic creativity. Both forms of festivity underwent radical scrutiny in later years, though the removal of hangings and executions from the public arena occurred only considerably later. Despite their divergent histories in later years, theatre and the scaffold merged in January to provide an unique and unprecedented spectacle of public tragedy and apparent political liberation.
I trace the influence of the scaffold on the development of theatre in the late sixteenth century and the contribution of theatre to the staged political drama of the mid-seventeenth century. The close alliance between these popular entertainments emerges most vividly in plays of the late sixteenth century such as Kyd's The Spanish Tragedy and Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus.
But even plays such as Shakespeare's Macbeth and King Lear , Jonson's Sejanus and Webster's The Duchess of Malfi which do not stage hangings and executions invoke the format of public punishments, frequently to undermine the state's efficacy in staging deaths as a deterrent to further crimes and sometimes to mock the audience's reliance on the value of death as entertainment.
Kyd's tragedy, which simultaneously invokes the spectacle of death and threatens to destroy the frame that separates theatre from the scaffold, more than any other early play insists on the precarious distance that separates staged dramas of death from public punitive events such as hangings. Traditional criticism regards Kyd's Spanish Tragedy as important primarily for its historical position at the head of the revenge tradition.
Its violence has frequently been attributed to Senecan models and its dramatic deaths, including the spectacular coup de theatre in the closing scene, analysed primarily for their influence on Shakespeare's dramaturgy. And yet, though the Senecan influence has been well documented, critics have only recently drawn attention to contemporary cultural practices such as public hangings at Tyburn to explain the play's particular fascination with the hanged man and the mutilated and dismembered corpse.
No other play of the Renaissance stage dwells on the spectacle of hanging as Kyd's does and the Senecan influence will not in itself account for the spectacular on-stage hangings and near-hangings in the play. During Elizabeth's reign victims were hanged at Tyburn and though this represents a somewhat smaller figure than those hanged during Henry VIII 's reign, Elizabethans were certainly quite familiar with the spectacle of the hanged body and the disembowelled and quartered corpse. In Kyd's treatment of the body as spectacle, we witness most vividly the earliest coalescence of the theatrical and punitive modes in Elizabethan England.
Kyd also heightens the ambivalence inherent in the public hanging as spectacle and deliberately weakens the frames that separated spectators from the spectacle. In the following essay excerpt, Hunter explores the roots of Elizabethan drama, arguing that "it was the perception of the individual voice as justified" that had the most impact on the fledgling movement.
A standard assumption of literary history is that a group of young men, born of "middle-class" parentage in the s and s and graduating from Oxford or Cambridge between Lyly and Nashe created between them the normal forms of Elizabethan Drama, casting behind them the primitive techniques and attitudes of preceding generations, designated "Tudor Drama," "Late Medieval Drama," or whatever other diminishing title distaste elects to supply. I call this assumption "standard" not because I seek to denigrate it in the recurrent modern mode ; there is much evidence that these young men perceived themselves, and were perceived by contemporaries, as constituting what would nowadays be called a radical movement and that the movement marked the beginning of something genuinely new.
But the very obviousness of the general point leaves a number of supplementary questions unanswered because not asked. In particular I wish to ask the question how this group came to achieve their effect on drama. The question is a purely instrumental one that does not seek to go beyond the evidence generally available in the words they wrote.
This leaves, of course, the further issue of the status we give to these words. If we are to understand what the "University Wits" say as a simple description of the facts of the case, then we must suppose that it was expertise in classical culture that led to the creation of the new drama. But this connection seems to be part of the rhetoric of their social situation rather than expressive of any vital link that joins university culture to popular drama. I shall argue that the link can be seen more clearly in terms of the central issue of Elizabethan intellectual life— the theological debate about the relation of individual conscience to the established hierarchies of the world.
I shall argue that it was the perception of the individual voice as justified in all senses of that word , even when socially isolated, that released the more obvious formal and literary powers we easily recognize. That the University Wits despised the popular theatre they found when they came to London can hardly be disputed.
The university milieu which had given them their claim to importance had anchored their sense of identity in the Humanist learning they had acquired there, their fluent command of a battery of Greco-Roman names, historical and fictional stories, self-conscious logical and rhetorical devices, tags and quotations, which provided the lingua franca of Humanist-educated Europe.
In Francesco's Fortunes we hear that Francesco the Greene alternate "fell in amongst a company of players, who persuaded him to try his wit in writing of comedies, tragedies, or pastorals, and if he could perform anything worthy of the stage, then they would largely reward him for his pains. Roberto the same hero, with another name has come to an impasse in the Bohemian life he had thought to lead. He has been out-smarted and made penniless by the prostitute he planned to control. He is thrust out of doors, and sitting against a hedge he vents his wrath in English and Latin verses.
On the other side of the hedge there happens to be a player, who now approaches Roberto:. Gentleman, quoth he for so you seem , I have by chance heard you discourse some part of your grief. Roberto, wondering to hear such good words. Why easily, quoth he, and greatly to your benefit; for men of my profession get by scholars their whole living. What is your profession, said Roberto. Truly sir, said he, I am a player. A player, quoth Roberto, I took you rather for a gentleman of great living, for if by outward habit men should be censured, I tell you you would be taken for a substantial man.
So am I where I dwell quoth the player reputed able at my proper cost to build a windmill. The player goes on to indicate that he has greatly prospered by penning and playing folk-tales and moralities. Roberto, perceiving no remedy, thought best to respect of his present necessity to try his wit and went with him willingly; who lodged him at the town's end [in a brothel].
Roberto, now famoused for an arch-playmaking poet, his purse like the sea sometime swelled, anon like the same sea fell to a low ebb; yet seldom he wanted, his labors were so well esteemed. His new profession earns him the much-needed money, but money earned under these circumstances is seen to be incapable of securing moral stability. Roberto so despises those from whom he earns his money that he can only define his difference from them by cheating them: "It becomes me, saith he, to be contrary to the world, for commonly when vulgar men receive earnest they do perform; when I am paid anything afore-hand I break my promise".
His money is spent among criminals and debauchees to support a way of life which produces execution for some and repentance before death for Roberto. It is at this point that Greene can proceed to warn "those gentlemen his quondam acquaintance that spend their wits in making plays" Marlowe, Peele, [? The story as thus told is a powerful one.
But as far as the history of Elizabethan drama is concerned, the details leave much to be desired. There is no evidence that Greene's dramatic talents had the electrifying effect he describes. And we should note that he tells much the same story about his prose romances of love.
In The Repentance of Robert Greene we hear not only that the "penning of plays" turned him into a swearer and a blasphemer, but that. These vanities [plays] and other trifling pamphlets I penned of love and vain fantasies were my chiefest stay of living, and for those my vain discourses I was beloved of the vainer sort of people who, being my continual companions, came still to my lodgings, and there would continue quaffing, carousing and surfeiting with me all the day long.
Greene is much clearer about the status he is losing than about the skills he is acquiring. He implies that all he has to do to succeed is to turn his university-trained cleverness toward the writing of popular literature and lo! In their multitudes of characters, their wide range across space and time, their carelessness of plot consistency, their interest in romantic love, their reluctance to stay inside the boundaries of genre, their tendency to heavy moralizing, such plays fit almost exactly the terms of neoclassical scorn with which Sir Philip Sidney had greeted the English plays of the early s.
What, then, did the university contribute toward a new theatrical creation that was not provided by a professional knowledge of the stage? The evidence that contemporary comment provides is extraordinarily evasive. In the second part of the Cambridge play The Return from Parnassus —03 the graduates Philomusus and Studioso seek to follow along the Greene path and try to secure employment as actors and scriptwriters from the leading actors of Shakespeare's company, Burbage and Kemp.
The brush-off they receive indicates some of the impediments that still lay, even in the next decade, in the path of those who sought to travel from a Humanist education to a career in the popular theatre. Kemp tells the graduates: "Few of the university men plays well; they smell too much of that writer Ovid and that writer Metamorphosis and talk too much of Proserpina and Jupiter.
Kemp's entirely plausible expression of what we can recognize as the recurrent tension between the stage and the academy seems to be confirmed on the other side of the same coin by the rhetoric of self-definition that the Wits themselves indulge in. Nashe, for example, relies entirely on attainments in the classical languages to make his distinction between authentic and merely imitative playwrights.
In his preface to Greene's Menaphon entitled "To the gentlemen students of both universities" Nashe tries to draw an impassible line between authentically learned men and those hangers-on or pretenders that he refers to ironically as "deep read school-men or grammarians," students, that is, who have never passed from the grammar school to the university. These will, he assumes, display the superficialities of a classical education; but it will be easy to detect them as outsiders masquerading as insiders, for they are "at the mercy of their mother tongue , that feed on naught but the crumbs that fall from the translator's trencher.
Nashe's attack on lower-class pretenders to learning becomes more specific in the famous following passage in which he deals with the kinds of plays that such grammar-school authors are capable of writing. Again, the central issue is ignorance of Latin: such men can "scarcely Latinize their neck-verse if they should have need"; they are the "famished followers" of "English Seneca" often thought to refer to Thomas Newton's collection of Seneca's plays , because they are incapable of reading the original; and yet they "busy themselves with the endeavors of art"—where "art" has the sense of specialized knowledge that is found in such phrases as "Master of Arts.
The obvious objection to such identification is that The Spanish Tragedy has few if any of the characteristics specified; indeed it is unusually full of Latin verse, some of it, apparently, of Kyd's own composition, and if the play within the play was actually performed in "sundry languages" then it also contained considerable dialogue in French, Italian, and Greek as well. Such evidence, however, tells us little about the intention that prompted Nashe's words.
If a Kyd had not existed, Nashe would have had to invent him as, in the passage in question he very nearly did. If Thomas Kyd was in fact merely a famished follower of authentic graduate playwrights, then it is a great gap in nature that we do not know who these men were or what they wrote; there are not even plausible candidates.
It seems more rational to suppose that there were no such model playwrights; and this probability is reinforced by the parallel case of Shakespeare. Greene's famous attack on Shakespeare as yet another despicable outsider, jumped-up actor, and jack-of-all-trades "Johannes fac totum" , pranking himself in the "feathers" he has stolen from the graduates, has no more detail of evidence to support it than appears in the case of The Spanish Tragedy.
Titus Andronicus and Richard III are indeed plays that draw on a considerable, even if only grammar-school, acquaintance with the classics. If this derived from new work in drama by the University Wits, then once again one must note that the lines of filiation have disappeared. But it is more probable that the whole issue of "authentic" and "imitative" dram-aturgy is only the fantasy of a socially insecure group of graduates, anxious to destabilize the opposition.
To deny the accuracy of such polemical rhetoric is not, however, to deny altogether the creative importance of this generation of University Wits in the history of Elizabethan drama, though it is certainly to deny their claim to tell the whole story in their own terms. One fact remains, which must not be underplayed or denied: the success of Marlowe's First Part of Tamburlaine usually dated completely fulfilled the self-confidence of the group of graduates to which he belonged.
Here at last we have a work of popular entertainment which openly claims classic status, whose presence visibly altered the landscape in which it appeared and charged its environment with new meanings. Of course, given the general lack of information, it is impossible to say that there were no popular plays like Tamburlaine written before Tamburlaine; but the self-consciousness of innovation which pervades its language, the comments of contemporaries, the immediate appearance of imitations, all combine to tell us that this was seen as an originating event, even if it was so only because it was so seen.
The originality of Tamburlaine was not noted primarily, however, in terms of dramaturgy. His contemporaries spoke of Marlowe as above all a poet, and the Prologue to Tamburlaine shows that Marlowe agreed with them. But the point being made is not only about versification, narrowly conceived; it is rather a point about the spirit that speaks through a poetry which is as Michael Drayton was later to remark "all air and fire" or to quote Marlowe himself "Like his desire, lift upward and divine. For the theatrical function of a poetry as distinctive and powerful as that of Tamburlaine is to require of the auditor that he follow the action inside a particular given focus.
In crude terms one can say that in Tamburlaine Marlowe presented the history of the outsider, the man of talents rather than of background, not in the traditional terms of social marginality but locked into a system of values where energy and desire are everything and need the great outside only to secure the greatest resonance "like the fa-burden of Bow bell," as Greene remarked. Set against the hero's unfettered expression of individual will, the "insiders" of Tamburlaine are seen as passive, conformist, hesitant, as if only waiting to be taken over or destroyed by the individual whose force comes from believing in himself more than in anything outside.
It is time to ask the question how far the Marlovian vision and the Marlovian verse that conveys it are the product of a particular kind of education or representative of what we understand to have been the aspirations of the group of University Wits. Certainly there is little, if anything, in it that can be charged against imitation of classical authors read at university.
But it is a mistake as I have suggested above to think that the focus of university education in this period was literary. The excitement of intellectual life in the sixteenth century came less from classical poetry than from the controversies of theology and from the techniques by which these could be conducted see Kearney.