Wednesday, January 18, 2012

The Devil Is An Ass

Okay, okay, okay, sometimes I like Ben Jonson. THIS PLAY is awesome. And really really weird.

Remember the way Marlowe's Dido begins on Mt. Olympus, among the gods? This play begins in hell. Pug, a junior devil, is asking Satan if he can be allowed to come to London to tempt people and cause mischief (classic Screwtape Letters scenario; if Wikipedia wasn't blacked out, I'd look it up to see if Lewis was inspired at all by this play). Satan says that Pug isn't ready for the kind of evil that London needs, but he eventually gives in and sends Pug to wait on Fitzdottrell, a squire of Norfolk.

So the first question is, what does the title mean? Is Pug an ass (an idiot) for thinking that he can do anything to London that London hasn't already done to itself and worse? Is Satan an ass (an idiot) for agreeing to Pug's proposition? Or is Satan an ass(hole) for allowing Pug to make a fool of himself?

Fitzdottrell's desire to see a devil is pretty funny. He's sort of obsessed with it and doesn't really tell us why, just tells us that he's been "run[ning] wild and call[ing] upon him thus in vain . . . these twelvemonth." Hilarious. What does that even mean? I imagine him out on the moors, naked, doing some sort of devil dances. And of course, he's so obsessed that he has to see the play The Devil is an Ass, which is mentioned in the play. So meta. (Also, Dick Robinson, an actor in the play, is mentioned as an actor who might do very well at playing a woman, one of the tricks that goes on in the play.)

Fitzdottrell is very gullible, though, and sells 15 minutes of conversation with his wife for a nice cloak. The wife is, understandably, outraged at this. She does not intend to cuckold him but she is dismayed by his lack of care for her and for their properties, which he is willing to sign away for any cockamamie plot to make money. As such, he is a gull, a target for "projectors" who try to sell him on such ideas. And, selling time but not bed-time, with his wife, he is a sort of wittol, too. When he sees (or suspects) signs of love for the young gentleman in his wife, he shuts her up.

This situation is a weird amalgam of testing and taming that I can't quite figure out yet. He trusts her enough to withstand being wooed, but not enough to talk back. And when she fails the test by having affection for her lover, she is punished and kept inside. Naturally, she seeks help but not by trading in her body; she persuades her lover, Wittipol, to give up his suit of her which dishonors them both, but to help her save her husband's money.

He does the right thing, and the con-men are conned, Fitzdottrell gets his wish to see a devil and realizes it is more terrifying than he thought, and the married couple are reconciled to each other, with a slight hope that Fitzdottrell will die early so that Wittipol and the wife might be married, a better match.

This play has a slight preoccupation with clothing, as some of Jonson's others have. Fitzdottrell makes sure to dress his wife in the height of finery. For himself, he is partial to fine clothing but cannot resist buying them secondhand, thinking he is getting quite a deal that way. The bit with the cloak is interesting; this cloak seems to be irresistible to Fitzdottrell, much to the amazement of everyone else. And Pug, the devil who has taken on the hanged-man's body, has stolen clothing; as a result of this theft, he is put back into the jail where the hanged-man was earlier executed. And at the end, the stolen clothes (and stolen body, clothing for Pug's spirit) is left behind.

There is also the preoccupation with women's makeup. Tailbush, Eitherside (extremely suggestive names for women), Lady Fitzdottrell, and the "Spanish woman" discuss "fucuses" for quite a while, in dizzying and disgusting detail. The Spanish woman uses a mish-mash of Spanish, French, Italian, and Latin to discuss these face-paints, interesting in light of today's lists of ingredients which might be equally obfuscated to the reader. As in Epicoene, one of the women is not a woman, but a man dressed as a woman, listening to feminine secrets.

And, at the end, Fitzdottrell has his own disguise, a madman who his wife has enchanted by devilry, by using soap to foam at the mouth.

Every Man in His Humour

Ugh. Do I like Jonson, or do I not like him? I'm just not sure! It's so hard to tell. I find him REALLY interesting, that's certain.

This play is often considered Ben Jonson's genre-defining moment. He writes a play about the humours and then everyone writes them. The introduction points out, though, that Jonson was not the first to write a play like this, that Jonson is not even that into the idea of the humours, and that, furthermore, this is not strictly a humours play, since only one character really embodies their humour.

Kitely, apparently, is the only character who is so totally defined by his personality; he is the "jealous husband". But we have other characters in this play who are defined by their theatrical type. The suspicious father (Knowell), the errant son (Edward), the wily servant (the awesomely named Brainworm), the braggart soldier (Bobadill), and the ignorant gull (Stephen). This comedy is very Plautine in nature, coming directly from Greek New Comedy through Roman. And the plot is lovely and tangled and everyone ends up going to to dinner after the marriage of Edward to Bridget, except for Matthew and Bobadill who are symbolically banished as the symbols of war and lovesick melancholy.

I think the correspondences critics have drawn between this play and the Henry IV plays are very interesting. Knowell becomes Henry IV, worried over his wayward son who eventually does him proud. Bobadill is a loud, bragging Falstaff, purely comic in nature, whose "banishment" we do not feel bad, but laugh, about.

Stephen is also funny, the country cousin who doesn't get that everyone, even the servant, is making fun of him. He is proud of his leg, like Andrew Aguecheek, and Brainworm says, "You have an excellent good leg, Master Stephen, but I cannot stay, to praise it longer now, and I am very sorry for't." Stephen fancies himself a poet but puts nonsensical references in his poems to "make up the meter"; he is also proud of his tendency towards melancholy.

A couple notes:

There is an interesting FBAFB correspondence in a reference to "Roger Bacon" and the Brazen Head just a page later.

Matthew, the bad poet, is reading a play (within this play) called "Go by, Hieronymo."

Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay

With a tentative composition date in 1589, this work by Robert Greene is one of the earliest plays I'm reading.

Like Romeo and Juliet, it begins with a lovesick young man being questioned by his companions as to his melancholy. Ned, the Prince of Wales is in love with Margaret of Fressingfield, a commoner, whose beauty he describes in glowing (but somewhat incongruous) terms involving Venus and cheese. His clever fool Rafe has an idea of how he will win Margaret to his bed (he doesn't want to marry her, and she will not give up her virginity for less than marriage). They disguise Lacy, one of Ned's noble friends, to become friends with Margaret and get her opinion of Ned, and then Ned goes to the famed Friar Bacon, a sorcerer, who will make Ned into a silk purse, which Margaret will put into her placket, and then hey-yo! He's in her skirt! Foolproof plan, no doubt. Lacy, of course, says that he will execute his charge "as if that Lacy were in love with her." Foreshadowing!

At the same time, Friar Bacon has this idea to make a brazen head that will "unfold strange doubts and aphorisms" and "compass England with a wall of brass." I think this is a magical item that will not only prophecy but will also protect England from invasion. Bacon makes a brave speech about his powers, much like the speech Prospero makes in The Tempest when he says he can "rift Jove's stout oak," etc. He makes people appear and disappear in a whirlwind like Faustus, and like Faustus, he seeks knowledge and to "strain out nigromancy to the deep."

So Margaret falls in love with Lacy, not with Ned. Ned finds out about this, and retaliates, through Friar Bacon's magic. He eventually realizes that they really love each other and gives her up to marry his royal bride, Eleanor of Castile. The delegation from Castile has brought a magician with them who has a magician duel with Friar Bungay, a friend of Bacon's. He bests Bungay, and then Bacon bests him without even trying. Lacy leaves Margaret who takes holy orders but then goes back to Lacy when he returns, saying that he was just testing her love (what is with all this love-testing?). Bacon's brazen head falls to pieces when Bacon's servant, Miles, does not wake him up in time to respond to its first words. Bacon renounces magic, and Miles decides quite cheerfully to go down to hell and become a tapster for the devils. He rides away on a devil's back, cracking jokes all the way. And Margaret and Lacy, and Ned and Eleanor, are married.

The obvious comparisons are between this play, Faustus, and The Tempest. All three magicians use their magic to spy on others, to create tricks and illusions to entertain others, and to manipulate others. All three get sunk so deep in study that they forget what is good for the world and those around them. All three experience a "come to Jesus" moment when they are called to renounce magic (and two do). Prospero doesn't deal with devils and his immortal soul is not at stake, but he lays down his staff and drowns his book all the same.

The comedy in this play is similar to the comedy in Faustus--merry servants trying to take on some of their master's reputation for themselves and failing. Even though Caliban, Stephano, and Trinculo are funny lower-class characters, their comedy seems more funny and more sophisticated. Am I saying that because it's $hakespeare? I'm honestly not sure. Caliban himself seems a more interesting "servant" character than Rafe and Faustus's clowns, because he has such antipathy for his master, because the audience is allowed such sympathy for him, and because he's not entirely human. The clown scenes in FBAFB and Faustus seem driven by a dialogue of one-up-man-ship, each character making their line a punchline. I guess the struggle and conspiracy of the three clowns in The Tempest seems more motivated, more real, and that makes it funnier to me.

Friar Bacon has to duel another magician, Jacques Vandermast. Do Faustus and Prospero ever have to duel? Prospero sees the old witch Sycorax as his enemy but she is dead and we aren't sure they ever came into contact.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

The White Devil

I find that, the more plays I read, the more I'm able to focus in on what is important about that play--what makes it unique, what connects it to other stuff. Webster's The White Devil, though, is going to be hard. It's so like The Duchess of Malfi and yet not . . . I'm not sure yet what I think about it. Maybe writing will help.

Wordle: The White Devil

I made a Wordle of the play. It took a long time because, after I made it the first time, I realized that I had to take out speech prefixes and stuff like that. I could still benefit by taking out some stuff but I really liked how the "ha" is inside the "oh". And this disproves something I thought--that "wolf" would be among the most used words in the play. It still may be important, though--it's in the first scene when Lodovico describes Fortune, and it is one of the most quoted lines of the play as Brachiano rages at Vittoria, saying that "woman to man is either a god or a wolf," either worshipped or a devourer.

This play has a lot in common with the Duchess of Malfi--a tragic female brought down by her unsanctioned sexual desires who faces trial by her peers with defiance and death with bravery, whose brother takes a greater interest in her sex life than strictly necessary. A trio of brothers-in-law take her and Brachiano, her noble lover, down. And the survivor of the bloodshed, the innocent young son and heir, has the last word in the play.

I am interested in how this play constructs itself and its characters as theatrical. There is the Isabella's performance in front of her brothers, of course, as the vengeful wronged wife (again withholding sex!) from her husband, when in actuality he is the one who has spurned her and said that they will never sleep together again. There is the dumb-show in which we see the separate murders of Isabella and Camillo through spirits or sorcery, I'm not sure. But the trial is as consciously theatrical as this, and more interesting for the meaning of the play. Vittoria, knowing that she's "on show," demands to be questioned and sentenced in plain language, not in Latin. She wants those listening to be able to understand the proceedings, probably to gain their sympathy. It begins to work, too; the ambassadors believe that the cardinal is "too bitter" in his attack on her.

Vittoria also shows an acute awareness of the way theater and public shows work. She says that the names of "Whore and Murderess" proceed from those charging her, not from herself, and refuses to accept their projection. She has a projection of her own--that of the staunchly innocent wrongly-accused--but she knows that people on stage often are subjected to the ideas of others, so she fights this. When she is taken from the courtroom to the house of convertites, she cries out histrionically "A rape! A rape!" framing this moment on her own terms, rather than letting those watching interpret it as a criminal being brought to justice.

Of course, the murders are significant, too, and theatrical in their own ways. I'm indebted to my friend Victoria for this idea, that the spouses, in the moment of their murder, are enacting normative spousal roles--Isabella, the chaste and dutiful wife, is poisoned by kissing the picture of her husband before bed. Camillo, the husband whose masculinity is threatened by rumors of his wife cuckolding him, is killed supposedly in the act of jumping a hurdle with a horse, the self-consciously showy act of a manly man.

And then there's Flamineo. I do not know what to do with this guy. He's a malcontent, a very Bosola, in some ways--except not as likeable. He's sort of whiny--"I was never rich enough, and now that I'm trying to advance myself in the world, I get caught!"--and heartless. He doesn't really like his sister or Brachiano that much but he helps them because he wants to help himself. And when it doesn't work out, he just sort of fumes about it and keeps making terrible plans. I like his name--he sort of flares up and flames out like his name.

There are some really interesting Hamlet resonances in this play, too--a ghost, a skull, a grief-maddened female singing and strewing flowers about. But I don't really have time to think about them too much. Onto the next play! I hope I get to come back to this one, though; Webster is good (when he's not writing comedy.)

edit: After listening to Emma Smith's lecture on this play, I see more Duchess correspondences. The male relatives are angry/vengeful because of a slight on their house (the Duke's unfaithfulness to, and murder of, Isabella; some "strong-thighed bargeman" "leaping" their sister the Duchess). For both, there is a challenge to posterity. If the Duke is sleeping around on Isabella, might he not raise some bastard child above Giovanni? If the Duchess is having an adulterous relationship, might she not raise bastards to inherit in her line, tainting her house's name?

Also, both Bosola and Flamineo act sort of as spies or go-betweens. I'm not sure if this is that significant, but I thought I'd add it.

Anything for a Quiet Life

Another play that comments extensively on the woman question, this one written in 1621 by Middleton and Webster (of all people) borrows a lot from Dekker's The Patient Grissill and Middleton's A Chaste Maid in Cheapside. It centers around three couples where the wives want to teach the husbands a lesson.

The first couple, the Cressinghams, are newlyweds. Sir Cressingham is old, landed, and dabbles in alchemy. His wife, Lady Cressingham, is young, beautiful, and demanding. She browbeats him (withholding sex) into giving up alchemy, gaming, and an old family manor so that she can use the money to buy some new property in London which will give them more revenue with rents. She is a canny businesswoman and once the deal is done, treats her husband like a child and gives him an allowance. She is also a harsh and unloving stepmother to his children, sending the two young ones away and selling the land that is to be the eldest son's inheritance.

In the end, though, it is discovered that she has reverse-Patient Grisel'd this guy, pretending to be harsh and demanding to get him to give up his bad habits, but actually willing to be guided by him. He gets his lands back and they are reconciled. I have to wonder, though, how true her repentance can be. She's willing to be guided by him, but only after she's guided him away from all the bad stuff in his life? It seems more likely that the repentance is a ploy to continue to gain her husband's and step-son's favor in the future.

The second couple, the Camlets, are housing Cressingham's younger children. The wife, Rachel, is upset at this. She is a loud, complaining woman who is certain that their two wards are actually bastards of Camlet's. She leaves him, swears to never sleep with him again, and only comes back when Camlet's resourceful employee George tricks her into believing that Camlet is going to divorce her and marry a new woman (echoes of Grisel again!). She comes back, penitent, and agrees to many demands, one of which is that she keep her voice low and doesn't use harsh words like "rogue" or "rascal." She agrees, and this is the play's tamed wife--tamed not by the husband, though, but by the tricky servant.

The third couple, the Knavebees, are playing out (with a different ending) the wittol subplot of Chaste Maid. Sib Knavesbee is beautiful and intelligent; her husband, though, is a dolt, a lawyer who asks a nobleman for a promotion. The nobleman, Sir Beaufort, agrees on the condition that he gets to sleep with Sib. Knavesbee is excited at this prospect, agrees, and tries to trick Sib into it by telling her that he has been unfaithful to their marriage (thus motivating or condoning her unfaithfulness?). He says a bunch of hilarious stuff, like after this bit of sex with Beaufort, that their relationship will begin again, fresh and new, and it will be like a totally faithful marriage.

Sib doesn't agree or disagree to the plot; instead, she gets angry at her impending prostitution and decides to trick both men. She tells Beaufort that she will sleep with him if she also gets to sleep with his page. He is upset and leaves. She then tells Knavebee that she slept with Beaufort and now, having slept with a knight, she is no longer interested in her husband sexually. Both men are repaid for trying to prostitute her out and, after threatening to kill himself, she and Knavesbee are reconciled.

I think it's interesting that a bit of with-holding sex enters into each plot here (as in Lysistrata and The Tamer Tamed). It doesn't work out so well for Rachel Camlet; this is, after all, a play for the masses and we must have a shrew-taming somewhere, right? Keep those women in their place? And while we can't be certain about Lady Cressingham's motives, at the end she is restored to a normative position within her hierarchical marriage. It seems like the play dramatizes a spectrum of spouse-taming tactics and effectiveness. As long as the marriage bed is kept pure (Camlet and Knavesbee) and there is enough money to go around (Cressingham), women are content to stay within the cage (to use Julia's term from The Patient Grissill) of marriage, even if that means being (or seeming) dutiful and quiet or, in Sib's situation, staying with an idiot wittol of a husband. Which dramatizes another point that Moll Cutpurse makes in The Roaring Girl about the fact that sometimes women, who are the fish to men's fishermen, are actually the fish consuming the male bait from a gilded hook. Women gots to get fed, and whether they do it by staying an unsatisfactory marriage or by taking other measures, it's not entirely true that they are being completely controlled by the system.

Friday, January 13, 2012

The Patient Grissill

No bones about it--I really effing hate this play. It is the worst. THE WORST, I tell you.

It tells the old folk tale (retold by Chaucer) of a low-born woman named Grissel (or Grissill, or Griselda) who marries a nobleman. This guy loves her . . . ohhhh, he loves her soooo much . . . but he just can't shake the temptation to test her. So he tests her for obedience and loyalty. And boy, does she ever come through. He kicks her family back to their hovel, sends her there to join them, declares that he hates her, takes the children that she has borne him and tells her they're dead, and then 12 YEARS LATER tells her he's marrying again, a younger woman, and that she must be the new wife's bridesmaid. Only after Grissel comes through these tests with flying colors does the douch . . . sorry, the duke, ahem, finally tell her that he's only been testing her for over a decade, that the "new wife" is actually her daughter who is really alive, that he only loves Grissel, and that he's taking her back as his real wife, because she's proven that she's patient and obedient.

Now, up to the end, I can sort of get it. You get thrown out of your house, your all-powerful husband takes everything from you and you can't do anything about it, sure, there are SOME people in the world who would say, "What's the use complaining?", put on a happy/patient/constipated face, and keep gathering rocks or whatever it is you do for fun, when you're not doing your real job gathering dried cow turds for a living. And when he shows up 12 years later and says, "Hey, come do some demeaning work for me and my new wife because I like to humiliate you," you duck your head, say "Yes, gov'nuh" and get to scrubbing that new bidet or whatever, because honestly, he's a duke and will probably kill you and feed you to his prize hogs otherwise.

But THEN, when he says, "Just joking!" and "I really love you; let's be husband and wife again!" and you don't immediately paint your face like a Viking berserker and burn down his castle and then scrape up all the ashes and dump them in a slime-pit that you then use as a privy, you are just going too far. TOO FAR.

What made me doubly mad when reading this play was that somebody had written in it already, and had written stupid stuff like "good speech" and "nice plot" and even "Cinderella story." I started erasing this guy's (gotta be a guy) marginalia, which I never do because everyone deserves to have their experience of the book preserved, but after a while I stopped erasing it and started writing back. Under "Cinderella" I wrote, "Oh yes, she's so lucky," and under "duty" I wrote "dumbness." Whoever that reader was can go sit in the ashy slime-pit privy for a while.

And the detestable duke (actually the Marquis in this play) says that he "tride my Grissils patience when twas greene, like a young osier, and I moulded it like waxe to all impressions: married men that long to tame their wives must curbe them in, before they need a bridle, then they'll proove all Grissils full of patience, full of love." So he's even taking CREDIT for Grissel's patience, claiming that he moulded it.

There might be some counterpoint to the Grissel plot, however slight. The duke's sister, Julia, is very anti-marriage. Some gallants court her and she roundly rejects them all, citing marriage as a prison and Grissel's treatment in particular as loathsome. A comic Welsh character, Sir Owen ap Meredith, is courting a woman named Gwenthyan, who (rightly and Wife-of-Bath-ly) values honesty, virtue, love, and particularly having her own will in marriage. But in the end, Gwenthyan gives into Sir Owen, saying that she has only been testing him as the duke had tested Grissel, and that now "sir Owen shal be her head." Julia, who advises Sir Owen in his conduct with his wife to "weare a velvet hand, leaden eares, and no tongue" is advised by Gwenthyan (and urged by the gallants) to let go of her distaste for love and get married. The only capitulation is that Gwenthyan does end the speech saying "tis not fi[t] that poore womens should be kept alwaies under," though, and some nod is made towards Julia's life choices as well, as the duke says that Gwenthyan speaks for the "froward wives" and Julia for the "maides."

On the whole, though, this play is more rage-inducing than A Winter's Tale and that's saying something.

The Taming of the Shrew

I'm saving most of my $hakespeare for last, but I read this on Monday to prepare for a class I'll be teaching at the Young Actors' Theatre in Tallahassee. On Jan 30, I'll start teaching a weekly class to sophomores, juniors, and seniors who are studying $hakespeare on Broadway. The juniors and seniors are looking at Kiss Me, Kate so Taming is the natural pairing with that.

The play begins inside a frame story in which Christopher Sly, a drunken beggar, is brought off the streets and tricked to believe that he is a lord. He begins watching a play in bed, and the play he watches is the story of Katharina and Petruchio. The Christopher Sly story interrupts the play once as we discover how Sly is enjoying his entertainment, but it never finishes--we never even see him turn back into a beggar. So, in one sense, the play is an extended interlude to another story, presented (and meant to be taken as?) mere entertainment.

And an interest in acting, in transformation, in playing a part, marks both stories. In the frame story, Sly goes from speaking in prose to verse when he "discovers" that he is a lord. The young boy actor plays at wifeliness, tricking Sly into believing that "she" is his wife. In the play's main plot, Petruchio plays at all kinds of tricks--slovenliness, irrational anger, calling the sun the moon, etc., to trick Katharina into performing her role as good wife. Lucentio plays a tutor, and Tranio plays Lucentio, the servant the master now just as with Sly and his new lordship. And of course the big question about the play is: Is Katharina truly transformed from a shrew into an obedient wife, or is she just playing along, giving Petruchio what he wants in an effort to maintain real control in the marriage? It's all about who's in control, and most often who is in control has to do with "seeming," rather than "being."

In addition to being about role-playing, marriage is about money. Petruchio comes to find a rich wife, and doesn't care at all about her other qualities; and once he marries her, she is his "goods . . . chattels . . . house . . . field. . . barn." And Minola promises Bianca to whomever can provide the largest dowry, even if it is old Gremio, the pantaloon. He cannot really promise, as he does, that whoever "can assure my daughter greatest dower shall have my Bianca's love," though, any more than Petruchio can promise that, if the money is enough, no faults will be so large as to "remove . . . Affection's edge in [him]." What does money actually have to do with love or affection? But on the flip side, who could not feign affection if offered a large enough sum of money? But the men don't seem to learn this lesson, and they gamble on their wives' obedience and affection in the end.

And the play is about learning. "O this learning, what a thing it is!" Gremio says. The daughters are brought tutors; their education is important to their father and their suitors. And Katharina is "schooled," so to speak, in wifely duty; tamed, to use the rampant animal (horse, falcon, shrew) metaphor employed in this and other works. But Bianca spends her time with her tutors (who are disguised lovers) putting up with their romantic advances; we don't actually see her learn any Latin or music. And Katharina's schooling is effective on the surface . . . or maybe, as my students hope to do, she has just learned how to fool her teacher. So is learning good in this play? Or is it another tool of deception, a way to trick, a way to transform surface but not substance?

Blah blah blah, is this play feminist or not? It is definitely about taming, but does the taming "take"? It is certainly misogynist, but that doesn't mean it necessarily takes the part of the patriarchy in the woman debate, as Linda Woodbridge notes. I see it more on a spectrum, leaning towards the anti-woman side but with a few "Sly" winks towards the woman side, winks that Fletcher expands to bawdy and obscene hand gestures in his response, The Tamer Tamed. (I think that metaphor got away from me at the end.)

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Epicoene, or The Silent Woman

The third Jonson play I've read, Epicoene is hilarious. I actually laughed out loud a few times when reading it. It is also strangely hard to get into. If I stopped reading for a moment to answer the phone or ask the Internet a question, I returned to it and it seemed like a different language; I just had to beat my brain against it until it let me back in.

These two characteristics might be connected. The plot is pretty complex, there are a lot of (very talkative) characters, and it repeatedly makes reference to really specific cultural "inside jokes," like the references to the College of women, which I'm still not sure I get. The resulting banter is funny, but you look away for a second and you get lost.

And, somewhat unfortunately, most of the humor is woman-bashing. In this play, women are assumed (and ultimately, proven) to be loud, over-talkative, ignorant, lascivious, and false (in the sense that their hair is false, their teeth are false, their faces are painted, etc.). The play begins with a discourse between two men on women's toilette habits. One of the men, Clerimont, despises "pieced beauty," preferring simplicity in dress and adornment (and, presumably, makeup). Truewit loves "good dressing" and would rather, if a woman has some physical imperfection, that she take any steps necessary to hide it.

Truewit maintains that women's art of adornment should be kept private, however, to maintain the illusion (on both sides) that it is natural beauty. But the play is itself an "outing" of fashion and feminine adornment. It describes many ways in which women might make themselves more beautiful and appealing--wearing perukes (little wigs), getting false eyebrows and teeth, painting their face to hide their complexion, getting their nails done, hiding bad breath by not talking unless eating, using oil, birdlime, asses' milk, and other strange concoctions for cleaning and purifying the face, wearing clothes in the latest fashion (which can change fortnightly) so that she can "come forth varied like Nature." Even Morose, the misanthropic rich uncle, can describe ladies' fashion in minutest detail: "that bodice, those sleeves, those skirts, this cut, that stitch, this embroidery, that lace, this wire, those knots, that ruff, those roses, this girdle, that fan, the tother scarf, these glove."

This preoccupation with the artifice of feminine beauty makes for the funniest part of the play, in which Otter rails against wives, who are "nasty, sluttish animals . . . scurvy clogdogdo[s],. . . very foresaid bear-whelp[s]" and against his wife in particular. He says her hair piece is "like a pound of hemp made up in shoe-threads," that every piece of her was made somewhere in town, and that, at bedtime, she takes herself apart like a German clock, and puts the pieces into boxes. His wife, of course, hears him, begins to beat him, and just when we think that she is going to get proper revenge, Morose, the master of the house, comes down the steps brandishing a great sword at her, at which she runs away screaming.

Very funny stuff. But very misogynistic.

As is the main thrust of the play, which is about Morose, who cannot abide noise, marrying who he thinks is a silent woman. Epicoene ends up neither silent, nor a woman, but the fact that Morose must specify that his wife be silent, above all other things, indicates a deep-seated distaste for female talk. The other women in the play are over-talkative and loud; they come to the wedding and end up drawing Epicoene into their circle, making her just as brash, opinionated, and verbose as they are. Morose is devastated when he realizes that his wife is talkative; he gets visibly depressed, at which she exclaims "You are not well, sir! You look very ill! Something has distempered you." Morose says, "Would not one of these have served?" to which Truewit replies, "these are but notes of female kindness, sir." The fact that Epicoene repeats herself, babbling in supposed care of him, is kind but is also female. Women can't shut up and they don't say anything worth saying.

Truewit himself later says that women "are governed by crude opinion, without reason or cause; they know not why they do anything; but as they are informed, believe, judge, praise, condemn, love, hate, and in emulation one of another, do all these things alike." Women are stupid.

It seems like the central thrust of all of this is containment, curbing something natural and undesired. The natural female form, with all its imperfections, must be hidden, painted over, pulled out, and corrected. The natural female voice should be (but, alas, cannot be) silenced, made still. Even though Morose, Jack Daw, La Foole, Otter, and even Truewit are the butt of jokes as often as the women, the jokes themselves seem to be about women and how naturally annoying they are, how much correction they need.

There is another passage that I find really fascinating--a discourse on courting women between the three principal gallants, Truewit, Dauphine, and Clerimont. Truewit is the true wit here; he knows how to court. He knows that a man must go where women are, must use force if necessary (rape? because women like it?), and must use various means to court various women. In other words, a man must seem to be something he is not, if it will please the woman he courts. Women want lies more than truth, I guess, to get them into bed.

In the end, Epicoene is not a woman but a young gentleman dressed up as a woman to gull Morose into making a bad marriage so that his nephew, Dauphine, can arrange to be his heir. I'm not sure yet what to make of this. I think, somehow, it ties into the falseness of femininity. A not-woman can pass as a woman if he takes part in all the false rituals of daily toilette, and of the falseness (to a man) of womanly speech. This play is very much about "seeming."

Monday, January 09, 2012

Theatre of the Book, 1480-1880

In this volume, subtitled "Print, Text, and Performance in Europe," Julie Stone Peters performs an admirable and outrageous task--attempting to look at the ways in which the rise of print affects the stage . . . in Europe . . . over 400 years. Yup. As has been noted by basically every reviewer, this topic can be and has been broken down into much smaller segments and treated more thoroughly by other scholars.

However, it's a good intro to the topic if, like me, you have to know about it and don't have time to read every other book. And she sets the scene well: "In the late fifteenth century, half-improvised farce, costumed civic festivals, biblical stories enacted on platforms, the songs of court poets, and the dancing of mummers were confronted by print--by a drama conceived in the fixed and silent forms of the text." The basic struggle she goes on to outline is that between the art of theater--dynamic, personal, sensual, improvisatory, diffuse--and the medium of text--static, impersonal, visual, fixed, and authoritative. As print became ubiquitous, the book became an authority, something that actors, theatre architects, set and costume designers, and even playwrights themselves would refer back to. "Did I get that line wrong? Let's look back at the text." "Is this scene set wrong? Let's look at the diagram." "How is my gesture of grief? Do I look like this illustration?" "Is this a comedy or a tragedy? It has to fit into a genre."

The theater, in some ways, rebels against this controlling force by appealing to a popular, largely-illiterate viewing-and-hearing audience, by continually creating new genres and breaking old rules like the unities, by allowing for improvisation and embodiment, and by not being completely controllable.

But the relationship isn't as tug-and-pull as this brief summary indicates. As Peters notes, the professional theatre and print grew up together. Without a rebirth of interest in classical drama, made possible by the printing press, would vernacular drama have become so popular as a literary (and experiential) drama? Without drawings and illustrations of classical theatres, would early modern theatres have been conceived? Without playbills and posters, would those theatres have any customers?

This is another of those books that I might have to read in-full or at least in large part later on in the process.

Saturday, January 07, 2012

Books (other than scholarly) I read in 2011

Sometimes I need to remember that I love to read.

Here, in recognition of that fact, are as many as I can remember of the (non-scholarly) books I read (for the first time) in 2011:

  • The Magicians; The Magician King, Lev Grossman: These two books might be the best fantasy I read all year. Narnia, Harry Potter, eat your heart out. This is adult fantasy (and not in the just-off-Highway-11 way, either)
  • Bluebeard, Kurt Vonnegut: Loved it, really weird and good and redemptive; the last few scenes were amazing. 
  • Slaughterhouse Five, Kurt Vonnegut: It was good, but I liked Bluebeard better, honestly.
  • Absurdistan, Gary Shteyngart: This book was hilarious and the main character pathetic, in all senses of that word.
  • The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald: I cannot believe I made it this far without reading this, but after reading it, I felt transcendent. This book deserves its place in the canon.
  • A Dance with Dragons, George R. R. Martin: Meh. It was okay. The Bran parts were my favorite. I sort of liked where Daenerys' story ended up, too. Obviously I was going to read it, but it wasn't awesome by any means, and in parts it was sort of a slog.
  • The Wise Man's Fear, Patrick Rothfuss: Great followup to his first novel. Right up there with Grossman for best fantasy read of the year.
  • Quicksilver, Neal Stephenson: Engrossing, informative, but a bit confusing. I got bogged down so I didn't finish the series, but I probably will someday, since Stephenson is a literary genius and he wrote my favorite book in the entire world (which I am now reading for the third time, thankyouverymuch.)
  • The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, Catherynne M. Valente: Super. Weird, satisfactory, a little twee but in a good way.
  • Deathless, Catherynne M. Valente: Darker than the other, but still good. I felt a real desire to go to Russia after reading this book. Also, I was hungry. (She writes about food a lot.)
  • My Antonia, Willa Cather: I miss Nebraska. This book was good. Not as much of a revelation as the Great Gatsby, though.
  • Barchester Towers, Anthony Trollope: Good, sort of a cross between Eliot and Dickens. Not as emotional as the former or as hilarious as the latter, though.
  • Good Omens, Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett: Oh yeah. Read it twice. Not sure how to put my finger on the nature of this collaboration . . . is it more Pratchett or Gaiman? . . . they do it so seamlessly and it works so very well. 
  • Thief of Time, Terry Pratchett: Very good, but this is one of those that doesn't stand alone as well as some others. I felt the need for more background. Oh well, time to Discworld in order, I guess!
  • Guards! Guards!, Terry Pratchett: The first Pratchett book I've read that I felt was too long (and I've read like 10+ of them). 
  • The Yiddish Policeman's Union, Michael Chabon: Hilarious and dark. A great alternative history. 
  • Anansi Boys, Neil Gaiman: Good but not as good as . . . 
  • American Gods, Neil Gaiman: Really well-crafted, dark, and doing something that I have felt for a long time needs to be done for America.
  • Monsters of Templeton, Lauren Groff: Holy cow, this book was great and a real surprise. A contemporary literary novel with a real monster in it, and such a tender, delicate monster!
  • Towers of Midnight, Brandon Sanderson and Robert Jordan: I like Sanderson better than Jordan. This, like GRRM, is just one of those I had to read because it's finishing a series I'm invested in. However, these books have less art and more annoyances than GRRM, by a long shot. Sanderson does a good job of toning those down while still staying true to Jordan's vision. Finally! Wheel of Time is coming to a close!
  • A Short History of Nearly Everything, Bill Bryson: Wow. I so enjoyed this book. I do not, however, remember much of what I read. Bryson provides so many facts, theories, and anecdotes that, while I'm sure I'm smarter after reading it, I'm not sure how to prove that.
As you can see, my reading breaks down roughly: 70% SF/F, 20% classic literature, 10% stuff my boyfriend recommends. I expect that, once prelims are over, I will get back on that SF/F train again with the brick of a book, REAMDE, by Neal Stephenson. My friend Scott has floated the idea of me doing a podcast about literature, so I think I'm going to do one on  sci-fi/fantasy where I undergo a (perhaps slightly less) rigorous reading schedule as if I'm reading for a SF/F prelims, reading both seminal primary and secondary works in the field, and then comment on what I've been reading in a weekly podcast.

Shakespeare In Print

This is one of those books, like those by Taylor, Greenblatt, Dollimore, et al., that I will have to read in full later on, after I've finished the plays. Andrew Murphy here provides as concise a history as possible of both editing and publishing history of $hakespeare. He does not focus solely on editing or publishing because, as he said, some editions did not sell very well but still had a huge impact on the way we think about editing/$hakespeare; and some texts were not very well edited or unique in their approach, but sold so well and so ubiquitously that they made a huge dent in the history of $hakespeare as a saleable (and readable) commodity.

From what I can tell, Murphy breaks these processes down chronologically into broad-brush phases.

Phase One: Make $hakespeare famous. These editors/collectors, like Heminge and Condell, the collectors of the First Folio, were invested in getting the words of the bard out there, in increasing his fame as a great (the greatest?) English poet/playwright.

Phase Two: Make $hakespeare beautiful. His words are so inspiring, so let's highlight the good ones and emend the bad ones, as Alexander Pope did. Let's also make him elite, a property of the higher classes, the best educated.

Phase Three: Make $hakespeare accessible and popular. These editions were put out in cheaper form without much emendation or critical intervention. The job here is to bring the plays to the people. Everyone should be able to afford and own their own copy of a play, or all the plays, of the most famous (at this point)  English writer.

Phase Four: Make $hakespeare understandable. As he gets more popular and less educated people read him, and as we travel in time away from his era, we need annotations, line numbering, act breaks, dramatis personae lists, to help the average reader make their way through the play.

Phase Five: Make $hakespeare scholarly. Here we need to add as many notes as possible to his works, drawing connections between his works and historical events, possible sources, other works of the time, critical viewpoints. Do we have an edition that includes all known versions yet? No? Let's make one.

Phase Six: Make $hakespeare original. Here the New Bibliographers are gaining/creating a sense of the historical process of writing/publishing, and terms like "foul papers" "promptbook" "quarto/Folio" are gaining credence. The idea here is to dig back through the layers of scribal/publisher/editorial intervention and get to the original text, the work in its purest, least adulterated form.

Phase Seven: Make $hakespeare dead. This is a joke, in the tradition of Barthes idea of the death of the author. In this schema, foul papers and bad quartos and prompter revisions are each a part of the process. There is no ideal or original work and $hakespeare himself is contigent upon the work of others and the process of production (theatrical and literary).

Phase Eight: Make $hakespeare digital. Not sure what this is about yet.

So, that's my broad-brush understanding of the book. As I read it in full, I will come back and emend this hastily drawn up blog, much as $hakespeare and other people in the process emended, revised, and changed the plays that have become a worldwide institution.

The Alchemist

Ben Jonson does it again! Writes a play as strange and unique as anything I've read . . . well, okay, maybe not as ANYTHING I've read. Really, Bartholomew Fair was pretty weird. But this was still pretty different.

Three tricksters live in a house that's not theirs, conning people out of money and goods for alchemical and sexual services. Eventually, they are caught when the owner of the house comes back. Two run away, and one makes good by staying behind to help the owner with one last con that sets them both up pretty nicely.

This play really satirizes that old monkey, greed, with a healthy dose of Puritan satire and alchemical parody thrown in. The intro I read said that every victim of the conmen gets his or her moment of pity except for the two Puritans who are greedy, judgmental, and self-righteous to boot. There is some very funny business between Subtle and Ananias, as Ananias cannot resist correcting and chastising Subtle, who takes offense and threatens to undo the alchemical work at hand.

I worked on another alchemical parody once, Chaucer's "Canon's Yeoman's Tale" in which the Canon and his Yeoman attempt to pull alchemical cons, making people believe that they can make precious metals out of base, and failing. In that story, the canon possibly gets conned by another canon, and also runs away when he worries that the yeoman is going to turn him in and expose their tricks (which the yeoman does). The yeoman is the one who gets to stay behind and keep going on the pilgrimage with everyone, sort of the way Jeremy/Face gets to keep his position at the house instead of running away in shame like Subtle and Doll Common. I really enjoyed the way Jonson used alchemical terms in his play; the short dialogues between Subtle and Face as they were pretending to ready their "projection" were really great and convincing because they were so full of jargon that they sounded (as Surly notes) like "canting."

I guess if I had to compare this to anything else, it might be Volpone, which revolves around two tricksters and their greedy victims, all of whom get their comeuppance. That one seems less joyful, though, since this one has a sort of happy (and possibly redemptive) ending. Jeremy helps his employer and makes his apologies to the audience, while Volpone and Mosca never repent.

Bartholomew Fair

This play by Jonson is straight-up bizarre. It starts off reading like Pirandello--the stage manager comes out and addresses the audience, telling them what to expect. "The play's not that bad, but the stupid author didn't take my advice . . ." and then a book-seller and a scrivener come in, interrupt the stage-manager and send him packing, and read mock-legal "Articles of Agreement" between the audience and the playwright, basically stating that if the audience does not like the play, they have bought the right to criticize it in proportion to how much they paid for their ticket.

After that, it gets more typical. And by more typical, I just mean, not completely avant-garde but still pretty unique from other plays of the period. It is set, largely, at a London fair. I wasn't sure how much of my fair experience to transpose onto the scenery, but I came in assuming it's dirty and chaotic, with a cast of dubious characters on the margins of society, food on the ground, lots of things to look at, people yelling about their wares/services, and crowds pushing past each other.

And I was right. The fair-people are weird, dirty, ugly, with their own language and mini-society. Food does play a large role in the play--it's the reason the Littlewit family goes to the fair, and Ursula the pig-seller is a "large" character, whose pig-stand becomes the scene of a lot of the action. People are excited about the fair for more than just the food, though, and Cokes can't stop looking around at (and buying) all the things people are selling. We hear hawkers pushing their wares and some petty violence occurs, too--pick-pocketing, and a shoving match that ends up scalding Ursula's leg. I haven't seen another play set in a fair, so this is an interesting window into a microcosm of London life that other plays don't show us, and it's kind of cool that it still matches up with fairs today.

But the play starts out feeling more like The Roaring Girl. It begins in the home of a citizen who dotes on his wife who is smarter than him; the Littlewits remind me of the Gallipots in that sense. Various other characters enter the scene, introduced (usually) one by one--a couple of gallants, a wealthy young gentleman and his betrothed . . . so far, very much the cast of characters we expect from a Middleton comedy.

But these characters are so strange. Bartholomew Cokes is a gentleman idiot, a character I'm more used to seeing in Restoration comedy. Wasp is a hilarious ball of anger, whose favorite saying is "Turd i' your teeth" and who is compared, in the introduction, to Donald Duck and other silent film comedians. Zeal-of-the-Land Busy is typically Puritan, down to his rhythmic and repetitious diction: "Now pig, it is a meat, and a meat that is nourishing . . . and so consequently eaten; it may be eaten; very exceedingly well eaten: but . . . as a Bartholomew pig, it cannot be eaten." He reminds me here of Falstaff (another character with a possible Puritan past), always spinning off of that last idea into the heights of rhetoric.

And Ursula--who is like Ursula? Is Moll Cutpurse like her? They are both large women, intimidating to men, with sharp and witty tongues, in touch with a sort of underworld. But Ursula is more obviously fat than Moll--or maybe her fatness is more grotesque than Moll's. She is angrier than Moll, too; Moll is capable of winning a battle of insults but she doesn't usually start it. She doesn't boss people around or threaten them the way Ursula threatens Mooncalf. And while Moll knows the thieves and pickpockets of London and can speak their jargon, she herself does not participate in criminal activity, which Ursula plainly does.

At the end, the two gallants get new wives, but I feel a little cheated. I didn't see it coming, really--didn't expect the gallants to be the protagonists who win out in the end and whose weddings we celebrate. My heart belongs to Littlewit and Bartholomew.

Friday, January 06, 2012

Dido, Queen of Carthage

This play by Christopher Marlowe starts with the Olympian gods, which is something I had not seen yet in Elizabethan/Jacobean drama. Oh, Prospero has some goddesses traipsing around stage but they aren't really goddesses--they're spirits, tricked out like Iris, Ceres, and Juno. Oberon and Titania might be thought of as folk or nature deities, but they aren't gods in the proper sense, either; who sacrifices to Oberon? So here we have real gods and goddesses represented on stage.

We also have a very open and frank homosexual relationship between Jupiter and Ganymede. The Oberon/changeling boy relationship comes to mind except this is even more open. No beating around the bush or double entendres necessary--Jupiter and Ganymede are both dudes (although Ganymede is, in Venus's words, a "female wanton boy") who are into each other. Sexually. Is this okay because this is a mythological given, that Jupiter was hot for Ganymede? Was this transgressive in any way?

The play goes on very much as The Aeneid does, with Marlowe even using some of the same imagery to get his point across. It is easy to imagine a young Marlowe, still in school, writing this play as a scholarly exercise to show how good he is at Latin. The introduction I have says that his source is clearly the Latin, not any English translations. Marlowe's verse in this play is characterized by 10-syllable lines with end-stops, with very few run-on lines or feminine endings. He does occasionally throw in a 9-syllable line, though, and uses pauses for effect. The play also employs rhyme and alliteration: "and they so wrack'd and welter'd by the waves . . . Are ballassed with billows' watery weight."

The one new plot device that Marlowe throws into the story is the enlarged character of Iarbus, whose rivalry for Dido's love leads him to help Aeneas to leave Carthage, and whose crazed love of Dido leads him to kill himself. As in Midsummer and Romeo and Juliet, I see here another exposition on the theme of the madness and arbitrary nature of love. Dido falls for Aeneas because a goddess or two engineers it; it is not inherent to their characters or even fated, inasmuch as Fate differs from the handiwork of a deity. Her love leads her to such extremes as to kill herself. Iarbus' love, indiscriminate as Helena, Hermia, and Juliet, leads him to kill himself instead of choosing the equally-appropriate Anna as his love. And then, of course, Anna kills herself.

Connections to $hakespeare:

  • Shipwrecked people thrown up on a foreign shore, separated from each other, as in The Tempest. 
  • A description of the sack of Troy, specifically the death of Priam and of Hecuba's rage/sadness, as the Player performs in Hamlet (some critics wonder if that speech was a "burlesque" of this speech).
  • Some confusion in Dido's first rejection of Iarbus that is reminiscent of Midsummer (and quite hilarious). She is under Cupid's spell and keeps vacillating about whether or not she wants Iarbus to come back. 
  • There is also a description of a serpent "harbour'd in my bosom" that reminds me of Hermia's line in Midsummer when she wakes and Lysander is gone.
  • I'm not sure about specific Antony and Cleopatra connections but this story has always reminded me of that other story . . . both classical in origin, about a pair of dynamic, powerful lovers whose love overtakes everything, suicide ending. Cleopatra is very manipulative and Dido, near the end, becomes controlling and manipulative of Aeneas, taking his sail and tackle and hiding (who she thought was) his son from him. Also, both involve ships. Deep thoughts.

Connections to other Marlowe work:

  • A few echoes, usually directed towards Ascanius, of the song of the Passionate Shepherd, wherein older women (Venus, the Nurse) are trying to entice Ascanius to come along with them by promising him all kinds of good things.
  • There aren't a lot of powerful women in Marlowe's other famous work. Faustus has none (but does reference Helen of Troy); Tamburlaine has Zabina, the wife of Bajazeth, who bravely defies Tamburlaine and kills herself after her husband; and The Jew of Malta has his daughter who exerts power over her own life but not over the lives of others. This play has 3 really powerful, vengeful, individuated women. Favorite line is Venus talking to Juno: "But I will tear thy eyes fro forth they head, / and feast the birds with their blood-shotten balls" (3.2.35).
  • Now that I think about it, it seems like there is a tradition of women in Marlowe's work committing suicide . . . Zabina, Dido, and Anna, of course, but Barabas's daughter, Abigail, goes to a nunnery, killing her both her Jewish and her sexual identity. 

Thursday, January 05, 2012

A Midsummer Night's Dream

I read this play for about the seventh time and realized that I have nothing to say about this play because it doesn't surprise me anymore. Or maybe I have too much to say about it and don't know how to filter it down to what's important.

So I'll go ahead and compare it with Romeo and Juliet, a play written around the same time as Midsummer. Both seem to be "about" the madness of love, as it were; Midsummer has a comic resolution, and R&J a tragic. But in both plays the illogic of the lovers' choices and/or actions is made clear. Romeo is hasty and desperate; Juliet has no discretion, choosing Romeo over Paris. The lovers in Midsummer act hastily, escaping from Athens into the woods at night; and we have two male lovers who, for all intents and purposes, are the same person--the moody, dreaming lover.

In both plays there are themes of parental choice vs. personal choice in love. Romeo and Juliet cannot marry because of their feuding families; Juliet's father forces her to accept Paris, whom she does not love. Hermia and Lysander are forbidden to marry, because Egeus has already given his daughter's hand to Demetrius. In the play-within-a-play, Pyramus and Thisbe face almost the same problem as Romeo and Juliet, with similarly tragic consequences.

But both plays also seem to highlight the idea that accidents, or fate, can be just as powerful as human choice. In R&J, the lovers make Plan A, Plan B, and Plan C, scrapping each plan as new circumstances take shape. But despite all their planning (and all their conspirators helping them along the way), accidents line up so that they each needlessly commit suicide. In Midsummer, the lovers make their choices and swear up and down that they will have none other than their chosen love--and then fate, in the form of fairy king Oberon and his servant Puck, show how arbitrary and circumstantial those choices are as they trick Lysander and Demetrius into falling in love with the "other" woman (cf. Daileader). Titania undergoes an even more embarrassing magical transformation, falling in love with someone not only arbitrary but embarrassing.

It seems like the theme seems to be, in both plays, that love makes fools of us all. And love is a force of danger. Not only Romeo and Juliet, but also Paris, die for love in R&J; in Midsummer, tragic events are barely forestalled because Lysander and Demetrius definitely want to kill each other and Helena and Hermia fight it out as well. Hermia herself is under sentence of death from the beginning of the play as Athenian law stipulates that if she does not comply with her father's wish, she can be killed. And let's not forget the violence inherent in the relationship between Theseus and Hippolyta: "I wooed thee with my sword and won thy love doing thee injuries" indeed! And when love goes wrong, as it has between Titania and Oberon, seasons, crops, weather patterns are affected--the entire natural world is under siege.

But in each play, love is also a restorative force. After Romeo and Juliet's deaths, the Capulets and the Montagues stop their vicious fighting. After the love-spells have worn off, each lover is with his or her appropriate beloved. Three nuptials are celebrated and a fourth, the reconciled Titania and Oberon, crown them all with fairy blessing that restores everything to the natural order. And this paradoxical nature of love--its destructive AND restorative powers--are referenced in both plays.

The fairy presence is also an interesting through-line. I'm not sure I really "get" Mercutio's entire Queen Mab speech. I see why it's interesting and I understand what he's saying, but I don't really know why it's there (unless as a way for good ol' $hakespeare to show off his versifying). But I heard some really cool Mab resonances in the description of Puck that is given; he is also known for creating mischief and illusions, for playing tricks on people.

Midsummer is a typical comedy in its multiplicity of plots, whereas R&J follows one plot. There is more low-class humor in Midsummer as well; the only lower-class citizen in R&J who seems fully integrated into the plot is the Nurse. She and Bottom have a lot in common, though; both garrulous story-tellers who are, in some ways, the "heart" of the play.

Finally, both plays employ lush love poetry and lots of rhyming dialogue. I'm partial to the poetry of Midsummer, though, because it is so full of flowers and plants and the moon. It is just lovely!

The Maltese Jew

I'm not done with my secondary works yet; I have probably 10 or so more to go. But I am going to start working on the plays. And since I know Shakespeare best, Middleton second-best, and the others hardly at all, I'm starting with playwrights whose works I haven't read, so that when I need to speed through Lear again, I can.

Today I read The Jew of Malta by Christopher Marlowe. Marlowe's Jew, Barabas, is much more central to the plot than Shylock, Shakespeare's famous Jew. The introduction said that Barabas is more sympathetic, too, but I'm not sure I agree. Barabas has a lot of Shylockian characteristics, only drawn more extreme. He loves his daughter more than Shylock loves Jessica; she is his partner in crime and in one scene, they have a sort of balcony-moment. He is yelling up to her to throw down the bags and there is a similar conflation of daughter/ducats in his line "Oh my girle, my gold, my fortune, my felicity" and later in "O girle, oh gold, oh beauty, oh my blisse." But at the same time he calls her "the Loadstarre of my life" which is pretty romantic-sounding.

But after she becomes a nun, Barabas not only wishes her dead, as Shylock wishes Jessica, but actually kills her with a poison. Barabas is more vengeful, more greedy, more conniving, more everything than Shylock. Here indeed is the Marlovian hero and even though he's a terrible person whose life goal is to thwart and hurt Christians, I find myself hoping that his shenanigans will work out--that he will be able to trick both the Governor and Calymath out of the ownership of Malta and that he'll spend the rest of his days diving, Scrooge McDuck-like, into giant piles of money--"infinite riches in a little roome." But more sympathetic than the beaten, wounded Shylock, forced to convert, whose lamentations for his daughter and his ducats are pitiful? I don't think so. Barabas scorns your sympathy; he goes down into the pit cursing everyone and assuring you that, even now, he doesn't regret a single thing.

Barabas's Jewishness is troubling. Although he later converts (is forced to), Shylock seems to have more loyalty to his tribe than Barabas. Barabas is always saying things like, "Some Jewes are wicked . . . am I to be tried for their transgression?" and screwing over his fellow Jews with false promises of help and protection. He seems to distance himself from Jewishness at the same time as he wears it as a badge "Rather had I a Jew be hated thus / than pittied in Christian poverty." I think he just really likes being disliked by people, so he takes on any identity that increases disdain and hatred.

If Barabas is a Marlovian hero, is he more like Faustus or Tamburlaine? It's hard for me to say, since I haven't read the end of Tamburlaine and I don't know how he dies. Barabas's death is a literal drop-into-hell (hell as the lower part of the theater under the trapdoor) and the analogue to Faustus is clear; on the other hand, Faustus wrestled with his conscience (and his fear) so openly and palpably, which feelings Barabas seems not to have.

Connections to Merchant of Venice:
Barabas, like Antonio, is a merchant whose fortune depends on trade and who waits for  his vessels to come in laden with riches.
In the scene where Barabas loses his fortune, the Governor gives him a chance to lose only half of it, and when Barabas refuses and then recants, the Governor pulls the same sort of petty second-grade move that Portia does: "No, you already said you didn't want it, so you have to take the worst penalty now."

Connections to other Marlowe work:
Ithimore tells the Courtezan to "live with me and be my love."

Connections to other Renaissance literature:
The "Chorus" figure is named Machiavel, and although he does not appear again in the play, it would be interesting to figure out who usually played him and how this role was double-cast. Is it Ithimore, who seems to be as conniving as Barabas? Could it be Pilia-Borza? Also, it would be interesting to compare this play with other plays about more typical Machiavellian leaders, such as Henry V. Is Barabas really a Machiavel, or is he more of a malcontent like Bosola?

Who is this Pilia-Borza chap? What's his deal? He seems pretty weird. Is he the Courtezan's pimp? Is he a dandy, or a ragged fellow? I can't tell, from descriptions of him, what he looks like or what kind of person he is (other than a thief).