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Imagining the actor's body on the early modern stage.

THIS essay is a prolegomenon to a larger study of the relationship between casting, dramaturgy, and theatrical rhetoric on the early modern stage. The last decade or so has seen an increased interest in the importance of the acting company (rather than the playwright) as the fundamental unit of the early modern theater. Theater historians such as Roslyn Knutson, Scott McMillin and Sally-Beth MacLean, Andrew Gurr, and Tiffany Stern have focused our attention on the relationship between the structures of repertory playing and the creation of theatrical meaning. (1) My goal is to build upon the methods and discoveries of these scholars and to combine them with more literary, formal analysis in order to develop a critical method that attempts to imagine the way early modern acting companies, and their playwrights, might have used actors' bodies as formal devices not distinct from dramaturgical elements such as verse style, subject matter, and staging habits. Such a critical method might, I suggest, help put early modern plays into vivid and as yet unfamiliar dialogue with one another.

Much of the work of such a project is and will remain necessarily speculative, and the first word of this essay's title is intended to insist upon the value of speculation. Caesar and Polonius were probably played by the same actor, as probably were Brutus and Hamlet. The grim joke Polonius and Hamlet share about Polonius playing the part of Caesar at University (3.2.101-2) is probably the first half of an intertextual rhyming couplet that is completed when Hamlet kills Polonius in 3.4. (2) We do not, of course, have anything like evidence to support the claim that this cross-casting actually occurred. Nor do we have evidence to support the idea that Shakespeare was writing for a company in which there were two particularly strong boy actors, of notably different height and temperament (it doesn't help that he often seems unable to decide which is which) as he created the wonderful pairs of female characters in the stretch of plays through the mid-1590s: Helena and Hermia, Rosalind and Celia, Portia and Nerissa, Beatrice and Hero, Mistress Page and Mistress Ford. Criticism at least since Gerald Bentley has been reluctant to pursue intertextual rhyming of this kind in large part because we cannot attach actors' names to roles (much less physical appearance or personalities to names). I think it is important not to be overly cautious about identifying particular bodies to the extent that we simply go on forgetting that some bodies did in fact inhabit these roles in the late sixteenth century. (3) Thinking about actual pairs of boy actors on Shakespeare's stage in the mid-1590s--whether the same or different pairs from play to play--creates a productive position from which to view the point of entry for particularly Shakespearean fantasies about love and language into literary and theatrical culture. A discussion, for example, of the convention of the witty but submissive woman from Hermia to Beatrice would be richly filled out by an attempt to imagine the way in which these roles might represent the career of a single actor (or even several different actors), and the way in which the ethics of the convention might have become tied to, and/or authorized in, an actor's body. (4)

I return to this point in more specific detail later in the essay. For the moment I want simply to say that the methodology I am trying to develop is not one of identifying likely role-rhyming or specific actors across plays and authors and companies; rather, it is one of imagining early modern characters as actors and actors as necessary agents of theatrical meaning--much as we might think of words or scenes or props--so that we can begin to think more specifically about the effects of acting on an early modern audience. In "Personations: The Taming of the Shrew and the Limits of Theoretical Criticism." (5) Paul Yachnin argues that "the semantic unit--the quantum of theatrical meaning-making in Shakespeare's playhouse--comprised the person.... [M]eaning was produced on the early modern stage through personation rather than by developing systems of ideas abstracted from the dramatic action" (7). Not theater history, but rather a critique of traditional theoretical approaches to theatrical problems such as the submission of Katherina in Shrew, Yachnin's article is concerned to demonstrate the way in which particularly literary critical models--materialist, rationalist, new historicist--anachronistically limit the possibilities for meaning that inhere in a theatrical text. In its insistence that the body of the actor in the theater allows a spectator to comprehend a wealth of complexity and contradiction (see 31), Yachnin's essay is a call for the development of a critical imagination that perceives the theater as a locus for the refraction of multiple systems of meaning through the prism of physical, speaking, thinking human bodies--and not only the bodies onstage, but those in the audience as well. A small polemical goal of my own essay, as it moves from a discussion of Shakespeare to a discussion of acting companies to a discussion of early modern drama "in general," is to suggest that theater history's disciplinary imperative to differentiate is occasionally in danger of limiting the possibilities for meaning that inhere in theatrical texts, and that a focus on playing companies and their different repertories and styles will only take us so far; given the state of the documentary evidence in the field, there is a point at which imagination must take over where evidence leaves off. (6)

In the particular and unique case of Shakespeare, the performance tradition and the critical tradition of performance studies allows us to see quite clearly the relationship between specific actors, audiences, and the reception and dissemination of a multiplicity of theatrical and interpretive conventions. It is easy to imagine how an influential company (like the Royal Shakespeare Company [RSC]) performing Hamlet and Coriolanus in the same season might draw out the echoes between Hamlet and Gertrude and Coriolanus and Volumnia, and might quite explicitly seek to frame those echoes within the critical tradition. (7) Companies frequently perform Measure for Measure and All's Well That Ends Well in repertory, using cross-cast actors to underscore the intertextual echoes between the Angelo-Isabella-Mariana triangle in the former and the Bertram-Helena-Diana triangle in the latter. Possibly, though certainly less frequently, one might be fortunate enough to see repertory performances of Pericles and Cymbeline, two plays (possibly written and performed in succession) in which an actor must emerge, surprising audience and characters alike, from a trunk. It is very unlikely that one might also get to see, at the same theater or even a different one, a production of the nearly contemporaneous Family of Love (Barry) and start to think about what might have been so interesting to acting companies about boy-sized trunks in the first decade of the seventeenth century. (8) As far as I know, no modern company has presented in the same season the three perverse and chaotic families that burst onto the Globe stage in the remarkable 1606-7 season: Lear, Cordelia, Goneril, and Regan; Vindice, Hippolito, Gratiana, Castiza; Volpone, Mosca, Dwarf, Eunuch, Fool. (9) My point here is that the methodology I am attempting to sketch out is valuable, and perhaps essential, for allowing ourselves to imagine more fully the relationships between Shakespeare and other playwrights, and between other playwrights and other playwrights. It is valuable and perhaps essential for developing a vocabulary with which to discuss the dramaturgy of a large number of obscure plays whose coexistence with the works of Shakespeare, Marlowe, and Jonson can all too frequently seem merely coincidental.

In 4.2 of Shakespeare's Cymbeline, Cloten's body becomes a prop. Dressed in Posthumus's garments and deprived of his head, Cloten has gone from animate to inanimate, from subject to object. Like all the best props he is an object whose history and meaning are open to multiple levels of interpretation. When Imogen comes upon him she misreads the forms of his body for those of her beloved Posthumus: "this is his hand," she says (309), and there is a sly echo here of what Cloten said earlier when he wrested from Pisanio the letter directing Imogen to Milford Haven: "It is Posthumus's hand" (3.5.108). Like a letter--or a bracelet or a ring or a bloody cloth--Cloten's body is a visible, tangible marker of the distance between stage and audience; it is, to borrow Fran Teague's phrase, a "speaking property," (10) an inanimate object lent by the stage a heightened capacity to signify.

Cloten had put on Posthumus's clothes because Imogen told him that Posthumus's "meanest garment" was worth more than Cloten's whole person. Raping and kidnapping Imogen while wearing her husband's clothes would, Cloten thought, have a certain satisfying irony. That irony never comes to fruition, but the "garments" do create the extravagant irony of Imogen mistaking Cloten for her husband. There is a close relationship here between language and staging: what starts as a purely rhetorical moment--"you're not worth his meanest garment"--turns into a moment where the garments and the body they adorn have an urgent physical significance on the stage. This process is analogous to the process whereby Posthumus's "hand"--his penmanship--in 3.5 leads to Imogen's misreading of Cloten's hand in 4.2. In Cymbeline Shakespeare pushes to their very limits the conventions of disguise comedy and theatrical romance: in 2.5, dramatic irony causes us to heap scorn upon Posthumus for his acceptance of Iachimo's description of the "mole cinque-spotted" as evidence against Imogen; that irony and that scorn are converted by the final scene into the generically motivated goodwill that allows us to accept the "sanguine star" on Guiderius's neck as proof of his royal identity. The headless, silent, but also extremely communicative body of Cloten is only the most vivid example of the way in which, in the world of Cymbeline, it is difficult to distinguish what is said about bodies from the bodies themselves.

The syntax of the first scene of Cymbeline is notoriously convoluted and one function of the convolution is to confuse, in a spectator's mind, Cloten and Posthumus. This is a habit of the play's: even once we have seen both characters, Posthumus's behavior goes only some little way to distinguish him from his belligerent rival. The culmination of the confusion is the scene of Cloten's decapitation. But Shakespeare's interest in blurring the lines between distinct bodies, or between bodies and language, is not exclusively thematic. Sometimes it tends, as Renaissance dramatic poetry and structure will, toward the merely ludic, toward a form of communication that does not signify so much as it creates unlikely unions. At the beginning of 2.2, Imogen is tired from reading. "To bed," she says, "Sleep hath seized me wholly" (4-7). She sleeps, at which point Iachimo rises out of the trunk he had put in her room. Much later, in 4.2, Lucius and some Roman soldiers come upon Imogen and Cloten's corpse. "Soft, ho, what trunk is here?" Lucius says. Then he notices Imogen: "How, a page? / Or dead or sleeping on him? But dead rather, / For nature doth abhor to make his bed / With the defunct or sleep upon the dead" (353-57, emphasis mine). Imogen is twice in the position of sleeping next to an importantly ambiguous trunk. Cloten's body has and resonates with multiple levels of meaning in a way we might more customarily think of as limited to words or images. Cloten's body is not only a prop. It is also a pun.

At the risk of stating the obvious I would like to suggest that one of the most important attractions of the theater for an early modern audience was the chance to see the bodies of actors on display, in motion, and in improbable positions. To put this another way, I want to argue that some of the most significant imaginative energy of the early modern repertory theater would have flowed from the way in which it allowed an actor's body to participate in the elaborate systems of punning and mirroring that we understand to be characteristic of early modern dramatic structure, language, and form. I suggest that if we allow ourselves to think of early modern play texts as inhabited by the bodies--even by many different bodies, and kinds of bodies--of early modern actors, we may find our way into a liberating and liberated imagining of the early modern theatrical world, where plays, familiar and unfamiliar alike, come unmoored from the categories to which we have confined them. In the pages that follow I will elaborate upon this proposition first with reference to the works of Shakespeare, and then with reference to a couple of lesser known works of his anonymous contemporaries.

Dromio of Ephesus's girlfriend Nell never appears onstage in Comedy of Errors, but her enormous body is referred to repeatedly. First, there is the lengthy description of her by Dromio of Syracuse in 3.2. Then, at the end of 4.1, Dromio S., being sent away by the arrested Antipholus E. to get bail money says, "To Adriana--that is where we dined, / Where Dowsabel did claim me for her husband. / She is too big, I hope, for me, to compass. / Thither I must, although against my will" (108-11). And finally, at the end of 4.4 Antipholus S. and Dromio S. scare away the Ephesians with their swords and head for the ship that will bear them away from Ephesus. Dromio says, "Methinks they are such a gentle nation that, but for the mountain of mad flesh that claims marriage of me, I could find in my heart to stay here still, and turn witch" (155-57). I think the first of these instances probably creates the expectation that Nell is going to appear onstage and interrupt (perhaps violently) the comic routine Dromio and Antipholus are performing. That expectation is thwarted: Nell does not appear. I think that the second instance creates the expectation that when Dromio S. gets back to the house where he's been sent, the first person he will encounter will be Nell. That expectation is also thwarted--in 4.3 we see him come to the house, but he only interacts with Luciana and Adriana. In the third instance, I think we might be meant to expect that Dromio and Antipholus, having frightened away all whom they believe to be Ephesian witches, will now be spooked by the sudden entrance of Nell. But again this expectation, if it is there, is thwarted. There is a close parallel to this scene in 3.1 of Two Gentlemen of Verona, where Launce and Speed catalog the virtues and vices of Launce's unseen beloved--a milkmaid with no teeth, more hair than wit, and more faults than hairs. These scenes are both similar to the first half of Taming of the Shrew, 3.2, where Petruchio's fantastical wedding attire is described in great detail by Biondello in advance of the groom's arrival: in all cases a very specific, hyperbolical physicality is invoked to heighten the audience's desire to see. The scene in Shrew differs from the other two, of course, in that the described body does in fact appear onstage--and it is the actor's privilege and challenge at that point to exceed the expectations that have been created by the language. It is conjectural, but not I think implausible, to suggest that Shakespeare and his audience probably had in mind a specific physical body, a specific actor or actors, who could have played the part of Nell or of Launce's milkmaid--and that part of the pleasure of those thematically pertinent but extradiegetic comic routines derived from the audience's ability to imagine, as it could with Petruchio in Shrew, 3.2, the specific ways in which one actor or another might embody the hyperbole.

Disappointment is a vital element of theatrical experience, because it creates desire. What you don't see is as important as what you do. Biondello spends at least as much time describing Petruchio's horse as he does Petruchio himself, but it's unlikely that the horse ever appeared onstage. The vivid but absent horse has the effect of suggesting that what happens onstage is part of a world more extensive and populous than the stage can adequately represent, and this creates a satisfying verisimilitude. But there would be something satisfying about seeing the horse as well, just as there would be something satisfying about seeing the marriage of the lovers at the end of Love's Labour's Lost, or Viola turned back into a girl at the end of Twelfth Night. (11) If an audience can imagine the actor who might play Dromio's Nell--possibly even sees that actor playing another role in the play--and the play keeps presenting opportunities for that actor to appear as Nell, only to pass them up, the audience is caught in a delightfully sad place between imagination and the stage. The most elaborate traps of this kind Shakespeare laid for his audiences--and here we can be sure he and his audience had a specific actor in mind--had to do with Falstaff. Falstaff's ability to resurrect himself at the end of 1 Henry IV surely made audiences believe he could rebound from disgrace at the end of Part 2, and indeed all the signs point that way. Even the ruthless Lancaster is given some rather mawkish lines that seem intended to get the audience in the mood to applaud after the shock of Hal's rejection: "I like this fair proceeding of the king's. / He hath intent his wonted followers / Shall all be very well provided for, / But all are banished till their conversations / Appear more wise and modest to the world" (5.5. 97-101). (12) There is much virtue in till.

There seems to be no consensus on what to make of 2 Henry IV's epilogue, textually or as something to be performed, but the lines in which he describes himself as a debtor and the audience as his "gentle creditors" has always made me think that it was meant to be spoken by the Falstaff actor. Falstaff's tantalizing, offstage nonappearances in 2.1 and 2.3 of Henry V would have been all the more cruel, and all the more affecting, if that actor had given the epilogue to 2 Henry IV and in doing so given the audience the chance to right the wrong done by the new king himself. That seems, at least to me, to be the point of the epilogue's line "here I commit my body to your mercies." In anticipation of Volpone the protean prodigal relies on the conventions of the theater--applause after epilogue--to overturn the judgment against him. The 1598 audience, nothing "too much cloyed with fat meat" forgave the knight and was rewarded with the final image of him--actor and character at once--dancing till his legs were tired. It's a nicer view than that afforded Mistress Quickly. It is hard to imagine that the Lord Chamberlain's Men would have performed Henry V in 1599 without this obviously magnificent actor, but I like to think that he was simply given a day off. (13)

Falstaff's resurrection at the end of 1 Henry IV is a conventional trick of the early modern theater, of which Fletcher in particular would make frequent and extravagant use. The audience sees an actor fall down and thinks of the character as "dead." Then the actor, whom we always knew was alive, jumps up and the audience is put in the enjoyably ridiculous position of thinking "He's alive!" But Falstaff's resurrection is, I think, somewhat unusual for Shakespeare in that Falstaff is a male character. Resurrection, even if only temporary, tends to be a female phenomenon in Shakespeare's plays. When male actors fall down on the stage they tend to stay down: Romeo and Antony die more or less on the first try, while their wives, variously presumed dead, return long enough to witness the spectacle of their husbands' deaths. This is not to say it is always clear what we are meant to think when male actors play dead. Prince Arthur in King John, Enobarbus in Antony and Cleopatra, and even Lear at the end of King Lear are all characters whose deaths are either improbable or uncertain at the moment they occur. We might put Mercutio and Timon of Athens in this group as well. The case of Enobarbus makes most explicit Shakespeare's interest in exploiting the power of the theater to change an audience's perception of the physical body even in an instant. "O sovereign mistress of true melancholy, / The poisonous damp of night dispunge upon me, / That life, a very rebel to my will, / May hang no longer on me," says Enobarbus in 4.9. If we have read Plutarch, perhaps the invocation of night's poisonous damp makes us think of the ague that killed Domitius, the source-character for Enobarbus, but more probably this speech sounds rhetorical and hyperbolic. Eight lines later Enobarbus falls down and the three witnesses are no more certain than we are about what has happened to him: "He sleeps," says the second watchman; "Swoons rather," says the sentry, who a line or two later changes his mind: "The hand of death hath raught him." Second Watchman is not convinced: "Come on then. He may recover yet." And that's the last we see of Enobarbus. The actor's body in this scene works to mystify rhetorical, dramatic language: the uncertainty of how we are supposed to interpret the body being carried offstage--pretending to be sick? pretending to be dead? pretending to pretend to be dead?--imbues Enobarbus's self-curse with the kind of power tragic characters generally seem to hope language can have.

Something like the inverse of Enobarbus are Emilia and Desdemona--bodies that are quite clearly "dead" and that spring back to life at moments that are not merely opportune, but downright theatrical. "Sure he hath killed his wife" is Gratiano's diagnosis after Iago stabs Emilia, and he repeats himself before pursuing the villain: "He's gone, but his wife's killed." Othello is left onstage with the two dead women and wonders, "why should honor outlive honesty?" Half a line later Emilia rises with a question of her own: "What did thy song bode, lady?" and then she dies, like Desdemona's mother's maid, singing Willow. Some two-hundred lines earlier Desdemona, heretofore presumed smothered, finds her voice at the exact moment Othello discovers Cassio is still alive: "falsely, falsely murdered!" It is the theater's prerogative to resurrect the dead at weightily meaningful moments, and the effect is at once satisfying and disturbing: it plays our sympathy for the characters (on some level we want Desdemona to live) against understanding of generic form (Desdemona must die if this is to be a proper tragedy). In Othello's cousin-play, Winter's Tale, our understanding of generic form is perhaps never quite so certain as it is in Othello, and our sympathy for the character of Hermione is allowed to fade away or be redirected after we do not see her body for two acts. I imagine Shakespeare's audience would have been expecting that body to reappear--possibly in the form of the lost daughter, just as that audience might very possibly have seen the body of the stricken daughter of Antiochus reappear in the form of Marina a couple years earlier in Pericles. The longer the Hermione-actor stayed out of sight, the more intensely the audience might have looked forward to the role that allowed him to return. Winter's Tale, like its slightly later contemporary Henry VIII, is hugely self-conscious about not showing you things, and that is why both are able in the end to show you the last thing you could have hoped to see: the dead-now-living body of Hermione, the infant body of the great sovereign Elizabeth. The actor's body becomes a fetish and seeing is a privilege.

Theatrical time, Winter's Tale teaches us, is a great resurrecter: the longer you stare at a stone the more likely it is to come to life. The tremendous energy Shakespeare finds and unleashes in the actor's perfectly still body at the end of this late romance can be seen, still latent, in the daring death scenes of Hamlet and Julius Caesar ten or so years earlier, where Polonius and Caesar are required to lay onstage, bleeding and still, 192 and 223 lines, respectively, after their murders. I think that when you have to look at the motionless body of an actor for 200 lines, you start to envision the possibility that he's going to start moving again, no matter how much historical or narrative context tells you otherwise. And of course Caesar does get up again--in 4.2, when he haunts the wakeful Brutus. There is something theatrically exuberant about making live bodies seem extravagantly dead, and also about representing ghosts with indisputably corporeal actors: these were secrets Shakespeare discovered early in his career, as the examples of Titus Andronicus and Richard III show. The audience must quite consciously decide to see something other than it is seeing. We might see an inversion of Caesar in the character of, and actor for Hotspur: introduced unnecessarily and quietly in Richard II, he is allowed to emerge larger than life in 1 Henry IV, only to end up rather abruptly lying on the ground, a perverse mirror of Falstaff.

There is an analogous exuberance in theatrical doubling, but in a large-scale history-play project like the three Henry VI plays, it might have tended to take on a grim, fatalistic cast. I have always imagined, for example, that the same actor played the Duke of York and his son Clarence in 3 Henry VI. Clarence doesn't appear till after York is dead and York's early death in Part 3 suggests he would stick around to play another part. Clarence replays the reckless ingratitude, though without the competence or the sympathy, that characterized his father's revolt. (14) At the same time I think we can see the subversive, necromantic side of theatrical doubling at work in the Henry VI trilogy--Shakespeare's delighted indulgence in the particularly unnatural power of the theater, which raised such a sense of danger in the Puritan anti-theatricalists. In 1 Henry VI, 1.3, Joan of Arc, discussing the English power, says "Glory is like a circle in the water, / Which never ceaseth to enlarge itself / Till, by broad spreading, it disperse to nought" (112-14). I'm not sure if an audience would have remembered Joan, but I think she is there, in language and quite possibly body, in 2 Henry VI, 1.2, when Eleanor Cobham, discussing her desire for Henry's crown, says "gaze on, and grovel on thy face / Until thy head be circled with the same. / Put forth thy hand, reach at the glorious gold" (9-11, emphasis mine). Like Joan, Eleanor is apprehended for sorcery. And as with Joan, everything Eleanor has learned from her demons turns out to be true. The doubled role would be an embodiment of the irony whose significance is made visible by the machinery and the forms of the theater. The stage breeds witches and affirms what they say.

In the final section of this essay, I want to discuss two obscure, textually problematic, anonymous plays of the early 1590s: A Knack to Know a Knave, performed by Strange's Men in 1592, and A Knack to Know an Honest Man, performed by the Admiral's Men in 1594. My purpose here is to imagine these plays in performance and to imagine them being perceived in performance; my focus, as in the first part of this essay, is on the actor's body as a primary agent of theatrical meaning; and my desire is to make these plays seem less strange, and a more central part of the early modern theatrical landscape, than they have typically seemed.

A Knack to Know a Knave is a kind of morality play and/or estates satire. The legendary King Edgar of Britain travels throughout his land, accompanied by a fellow named Honesty who reveals the knavery of the four sons of the corrupt, then deceased Bailiff of Hexham: a farmer, a courtier, a cony-catcher, and a priest. There is a subplot in which Edgar sends one of his knights, Ethanwald, to woo a common woman on Edgar's behalf; Ethanwald ends up marrying the woman, Alfrida, himself, and must beg for Edgar's mercy. A Knack to Know an Honest Man is set in Venice, though it begins in something like an Arcadian forest on the outskirts of the city. There, the main character, Sempronio, seems to be killed by Lelio, who accuses Sempronio (rightly) of trying to seduce his wife. Sempronio does not die, but is nursed back to health by an old hermit and in the process has a conversion experience. He returns to Venice disguised as someone called Penitent Experience and sets about revealing the vices of the Duke's corrupt son and his hangers-on. Lelio, meanwhile, is on the run for the murder of Sempronio and only escapes execution in the final scene when Sempronio removes his disguise.

To the extent that scholarship has made any assumptions at all about the two Knack plays together, it has assumed that they are different--that the latter is divergent from or in opposition to the earlier. In the case of Louis Wright, who considers Knave a late morality play whose function is to make a specific kind of social commentary, the upshot is somewhat arbitrary and dismissive: "No effort at a really serious treatment of social conditions is evident in [Honest Man]." (15) In the case of David Bevington, who sees Knave as the seminal text for Puritan satire on the stage, the result is to figure Honest Man as an expression of the radical Puritan left and thus, by implicit extension, Knave as a forerunner to the conservative crypto-Catholicism of playwrights like Jonson and Chapman. (16)

That Honest Man was written with Knave in mind is indisputable, but the assumption that the goal was differentiation seems off the mark. Typical of the way in which Honest Man specifically invokes its predecessor is the following passage, which occurs in the scene where Fortunio has been brought before his father the Duke and charged with the attempted seduction of Lelio's daughter. He has confessed to his fault--and to being tempted by a flattering courtier--and the Duke forgives him. The disguised Sempronio says: "This likes me well, now growes the world to frame, / Fortunio now hath learnd to know a knaue: / And is expert to prooue an honest man" (G1v). Honest Man is concerned to remind the audience of the antecedent Knave, but the purpose doesn't seem to be parody or even commentary, merely allusion. Further, there is only the most slender distinction to be made between the knack to know a knave and the knack to know an honest man. As Sempronio says, one leads you to the other. The satisfying joke for the audience would probably have been that Edward Alleyn, the premiere actor in London, has both. I think Alleyn probably played the role of Honesty as well as Sempronio. He had moved from the Lord Admiral's company to the Lord Strange's in 1591, and was with them when they performed Knave at the Rose in June 1592 (Henslowe's diary shows Alleyn starting as one of Strange's players in February of that year). The Admiral's company, which Alleyn left in 1591, split apart, as did the Lord Strange's (now Derby's) when Alleyn left and their patron died in April 1594; Alleyn was then made a part of the newly reconstituted, newly powerful Admiral's Men. Henslowe records Honest Man at the Rose in October 1594.

It is unfortunate, bordering on tragic, that so much of the Admiral's repertoire has vanished, especially in the crucial years 1594-98 when Shakespeare was writing all those plays starring paired boy actors. It is impossible to say whether Alleyn's knack for exposing knaves and rewarding honest men was a frequent sight on the London stage during this period, but later Admiral's plays seem to provide a compelling clue: Chapman's Blind Beggar of Alexandria (1598), Dekker's Shoemaker's Holiday (1599), Chettle and Day's Blind Beggar of Bednal Green, and Chettle, Dekker, and Haughton's Patient Grissil (both 1601) all have a similar exposure-by-disguise structure. It might be unreasonable to make the claim that Alleyn played the lead in all of these, but it is not unreasonable to suggest that the pleasure of going to an Admiral's play at the end of the 1590s was closely bound up with watching your favorite actors become masters of disguise in order to tear away the vicious masks of human nature. (17)

Of course plays attributable to the Admiral's Men are not the only Renaissance plays concerned with the exposure of vice. Playwrights throughout the period are positively obsessed with it. The Knack plays are particularly interesting in this regard, however, because, as their titles make clear, the development of a mechanism for the exposure of vice is the linchpin on which the whole theatrical apparatus turns. Almost without exception, every episode in these very episodic plays is structured around the theatrical revelation of one or another character's viciousness. These plays make a particularly explicit, governing part of the structure of their action something that is a fundamental and pervasive preoccupation of early modern drama. While it might be productive to talk about this preoccupation in terms of the development of a convention, (18) I am interested in using the Knack plays to make some arguments about what is theatrically valuable about the exposure of vice for Renaissance drama broadly considered, (19) and to say something about the relationship between this preoccupation and the early modern acting company's (and playwright's) artistic use of the actor's body.

Because its priest character refers to himself and his brethren as "pure Precisians" (B2v), A Knack to Know a Knave has been pigeonholed in its project to expose vice as an anti-Puritan satire. (20) Indeed, a certain amount of theatrical mileage is got out of what Honesty calls the Priest's "mocking the diuine order of Ministery" (G3v), but ultimately the Priest is more similar to than different from the three other sons of the Bailiff of Hexham. All four sons are linked by their participation in what Honesty calls "vndoing ... the commen wealth" (G2v)--specifically their attempts to export vital commodities (corn, tin, hides, lead, wool) overseas (see D4v-E1r for the Farmer and Perin, G2v for the Priest). Three of the four sons (including the Priest) are ultimately executed for this crime. A Knack to Know a Knave is not concerned with satirizing a particular kind of vice--religious hypocrisy--nearly as much as it is with staging the exposure of vice in general.

When Cony-catcher is revealed to be a knave, it is in a kind of skit directed by Honesty. Honesty disguises the King as one farmer and Bishop Dunstan as another--the former is supposed to have bought the latter's farm. The King then sets up Cony-catcher:
 I bought a farme of one that dwels here by,
 And for an earnest gaue an hundred pound,
 The rest was to be paid as sixe weekes past,
 Now sir, I would haue you as witnesse,
 That at my house you saw me pay three hundred pound,
 And for your paines I will giue you a hundred pound.

The Courtier brother is brought in on the plot as well--disguised as the Judge who will adjudicate the dispute between the two "farmers." Cony-catcher swears as he's been paid to and, in the end, is confronted with the King's wrath. The superfluity of the disguisings is justified by the process of judgment they enable. Similar, but somewhat more bizarre, is the hypertheatrical working out of the Edgar-Ethanwald-Alfrida plot--a plot that criticism has tended to treat as completely separate, but that is as much concerned with the exposure of vice as any other episode in the play. (21) Ethanwald, sent early in the play to woo Alfrida on behalf of King Edgar (A4v-B1r), ends up marrying her himself and making the excuse that she was not fair enough to marry a king. The scene in which Ethanwald decides to "cosen [the King] of his choise" (D2v) structurally connects Ethanwald to the other cozeners in the play: it immediately follows the scene in which Honesty's disguise plot exposes Cony-catcher, and immediately precedes the scene in which the Farmer flouts the ancient laws of hospitality and refuses to invite a Knight, a Squire, and Honesty to dinner. The scene in which Ethanwald's own vice is revealed is a weird combination of the two earlier scenes between which his decision to lie is placed: when Edgar visits Alfrida and Ethanwald at home, Ethanwald instigates a rather extraneous disguise plot (Alfrida and the Kitchen Maid switch identities) that immediately fails, in large part because of the Maid's comically inept attempts to seem hospitable in a way that does not give away her station (F2v-F3r). Above all the Kitchen Maid disguise plot, like the method of Cony-catcher's exposure, is for the audience's sake more than the plot's: costumes, mimicry, and easy dramatic ironies are deployed perhaps unnecessarily and certainly expediently to give the morality of the characters a particularly theatrical form.

This is also true of the bizarre way in which the exposure of Ethanwald occurs. Ethanwald is Bishop Dunstan's nephew, which is why Dunstan pleads on his behalf after Edgar vows to kill him for his "subtiltie" (F3v). Edgar is impervious to the Bishop's pleas and so, once Edgar exits, Dunstan calls forth "Asmoroth," a devil whom he uses to charm Edgar into forgiving Ethanwald. The way in which the scene unfolds (G1r-G2r) is quite unclear in the 1592 text, and only marginally less so in the single widely available modern text of the play, Dodsley's. (22) Dunstan brings before the king "Alfrida disguised with the Deuil" (G1v)--a stage direction that Dodsley's edition augments by saying that the Devil is "disguised as Ethanwald." (23) Dodsley's guess is as good as any, but it still does not clarify what an audience is supposed to see when Dunstan says "Asmoroth away" (G1v) and when "Ethanwald," according to a speech-heading, thanks the King for his mercy. Perhaps the 1592 text leaves out a direction for Ethanwald to enter with Alfrida and the Devil, and what we are meant to see is Alfrida and Ethanwald kneeling before the King while the "Deuill," whom Dunstan has declared "inuisible," indicates that he is charming Edgar into having an abrupt change of heart. Or perhaps the 1592 text leaves out a direction for Ethanwald to enter in the Devil's place--a kind of comic switch that could also be effected while the King was supposedly charmed. Whatever an audience was meant to (or did) see at this moment, the play seems to go to rather unnecessary trouble to achieve it. The reason it goes to this trouble may be to echo another earlier, apparently unrelated moment in the play--the death of the Bailiff of Hexham. In that scene (B3r), the Bailiff's death speech is followed by the direction "Enter Deuil, and carie him away." The echoes are complex. In each scene a devil (possibly the same actor?) appears as one or more characters are exposed for their sins--in the earlier scene the Bailiff suddenly realizes that he is "damned to euer burning fyre" while in the later scene Edgar renounces his adulterous desires for Alfrida; in the earlier scene the Bailiff finds that his "heart is hardened, I cannot repent" (B3r, my emphasis), while in the later scene Ethanwald "layes his breast wide open to your Grace, / If so it please your Grace to pardon him" (G1v, my emphasis). The moral, formal, and verbal structures of the play are recapitulated, reiterated, metamorphosed as different bodies find themselves in similar situations, familiar situations manifest themselves in new bodies.

What seems to be of consequence in the scenes where the Devil enters, or the disguising scenes involving Cony-catcher and the Kitchen Maid, is not only the educative power of a satire in which vice is exposed, but also the particularly physical, visual possibilities that satire of this kind provides. Analogous moments in comparable plays might be the hanging of Sordido in Every Man Out of his Humour, the vanishing banquet and harpy Ariel in the Tempest, the fight between Lucio and the Duke at the end of Measure for Measure, possibly even the seduction of Cressida in Troilus and Cressida. A final analogy, to return to Edward Alleyn, would be the apparent death of Sempronio at the beginning of A Knack to Know an Honest Man, his Enobarbus-like exit with the Hermit, and his reappearance a scene later--perhaps not immediately recognized by the audience--as the old man, Penitent Experience. One thing that seems to make the trope of the exposure of vice a vital and enduring theatrical commodity is the opportunity it provides for spectacle--not simply spectacle in the narrow sense of exciting things to look at, not simply the spectacle of penance and punishment (as in Knave) or of punishment and shame (as frequently in Jonson), but the spectacle of the theater passing judgment. A Knack to Know a Knave and A Knack to Know an Honest Man are concerned with religious fraud, agricultural fraud, and the subversion of royal prerogative, but the element that links these things--as we see in the devils, the disguise plots, and the highly stagy final scenes--is their identification of the theater as the locus for the knack that Honesty, or Sempronio, has. Perhaps the most productive way of discussing A Knack to Know a Knave's anti-Puritanism then is to say that it is anti-Puritan in the way virtually all Renaissance drama is: judgments on virtue and vice legitimize and are legitimized by the body of the actor, the machinery of the theater.


I am grateful to Holger Syme, Christopher Warley, Carolyn Sale, and Elizabeth Pentland for their comments on an earlier version of this essay. The earliest version was presented as a talk at the University of Toronto in 2005; I am grateful to my colleagues in the Department of English for their questions and comments, which have shaped my thinking considerably in the process of revision. My mentor and friend, the late Scott McMillin, read and provided invaluable commentary on this essay in draft form, and the debt I owe to his scholarship and his advice is evident on every page; this essay is dedicated to his memory.

1. I am thinking in particular of Knutson, The Repertory of Shakespeare's Company (Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1991) and Playing Companies and Commerce in Shakespeare's Time (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), as well as her many articles on the early modern repertory; McMillin and MacLean, The Queen's Men and their Plays (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998); McMillin, The Elizabethan Theatre and the Book of Sir Thomas More (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1987) and "Shakespeare and the Chamberlain's Men in 1598," Medieval and Renaissance Drama in England 17 (2005) 205-15; Gurr, The Shakespeare Company, 1594-1642 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004) and The Shakespearian Playing Companies (Oxford: Clarendon, 1996); and Stern, Rehearsal from Shakespeare to Sheridan (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000). See also Lawrence Manley, "Playing with Fire: Immolation in the Repertory of Strange's Men," Early Theatre Journal 4 (2001): 115-29 (an essay, along with one by Knutson on Pembroke's Men and Mark Bayer on the Cockpit, which appears in the "Issues in Review" section, introduced by Scott McMillin, of this journal, 111-48); Mary Bly, Queer Virgins and Virgin Queans on the Early Modern Stage (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000)--a detailed study of the repertory of the Whitefriars children's company; and Lucy Munro, The Children of the Queen's Revels (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005). The spirit of the latter two are particularly close to my own goals, though Bly's focus is verbal and Munro's generic while mine might be called something more like structural or scenographic. For a review of acting company scholarship, see Paul Whitfield White, "Playing Companies and the Drama of the 1580s: A New Direction in Theatre History?" in Shakespeare Studies 28 (2000): 265-84.

2. All references to Shakespeare are from the Complete Pelican Shakespeare, ed. Stephen Orgel and A. R. Braunmuller (New York: Penguin, 2002).

3. The work of theater historians such as John Astington, William Ingram, and David Kathman (among others) is invaluable in reminding us that actual persons inhabited the theatrical world of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Scott McMillin has an essay, "The Sharer and his Boy: Rehearsing Shakespeare's Women," in From Script to Stage in Early Modern England, ed. Peter Holland and Stephen Orgel, 231-51 (New York: Palgrave, 2005), in which he gives an accounting of Shakespeare's boy actors. The approach is to study the cue-lines of boy actors to see how closely they are tied to one or two master actors, to whom they would have been apprenticed. This piece draws in part on another recent piece that is also important for the study I am proposing here--David Kathman's article in Shakespeare Quarterly 55.1 (2004) on freemen and apprentices in the Elizabethan theater. It is nevertheless, and unfortunately, true that there remains virtually no evidence for which of these real persons played which character in any particular play or group of plays. Bentley and the cautious tradition that has followed him was, of course, reacting to T. W. Baldwin, whose methods can still be seen in contemporary scholarship, such as David Grote's The Best Actors in the World (Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2002). I think (hope) the differences between the approach I am advocating and that of Baldwin and Grote (who are, ultimately, interested in presenting productive speculation in evidentiary terms) will be fairly evident.

4. For analysis along these lines, see McMillin, "The Sharer and his Boy."

5. Early Modern Literary Studies 2.1 (1996).

6. Roslyn Knutson's current ongoing work on the lost plays seems to me a good example of the kind of productive imagining that is necessary to perceive more fully and richly the world of early modern repertory theater.

7. Both plays appeared, for example, in 1953-54 at the Old Vic, both starring Richard Burton, Fay Compton, and Claire Bloom. Toby Stephens was in an RSC production of Coriolanus in 1994 and ten years later opened that company's season as Hamlet. The reviews of these latter productions were strikingly similar--a relatively weak star performance in an overall strong production--and possibly say something about the RSC's dramaturgical goals and problems over the course of a decade. Surprisingly, modern theater reviews generally do not deal with this subject in any detail. Extended critiques, such as Richard Paul Knowles's essay on the 1993 Stratford, Ontario Shakespeare Festival (Shakespeare Quarterly 45.2) and Gary Taylor's essay on the 1998 Stratford, Ontario Shakespeare Festival (Shakespeare Quarterly 50.3) are particularly sophisticated theoretical examples of a methodology that could be applied quite readily to even the most basically descriptive reviews of a single Shakespeare festival's or theater's season.

8. Your Five Gallants, also from this period, brings a trunk onstage in the first scene, but it's filled with apparel, not a boy.

9. Barnabe Barnes's Devil's Charter, another play about a spectacularly dysfunctional family, also probably appeared around the same time as Volpone, Lear, and Revenger's Tragedy. Its casting does not break down into the same pattern evident in the others, but considering it alongside them, imagining the same group of actors inhabiting the world of Lear and his daughters and the world of the Borgias, certainly gives one a firmer handle on Barnes's hyperbolical theatricality.

10. Fran Teague, Shakespeare's Speaking Properties (Lewisburg, PA: Bucknell University Press, 1991).

11. Perhaps an even better example here would be the postponed double-metamorphosis at the end of Lyly's Gallathea.

12. There is an interesting, similarly clunky-sounding parallel to this speech at the end of Richard II, and its purpose is also to prepare the audience for the introduction of an important character in a subsequent play. Significantly, this character is also one who must be redeemed. At 5.3.1-3 Bolingbroke says: "Can no man tell me of my unthrifty son? / 'Tis full three months since I did see him last. / If any plague hang over us, 'tis he." Hearing from Harry Percy that Hal has been seen going "unto the stews," Bolingbroke says, "As dissolute as desperate! Yet through both / I see some sparks of better hope, which elder years / May happily bring forth" (16-18). The contemporary audience would have known how that story turned out.

13. David Wiles, in Shakespeare's Clown (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987) identifies the Falstaff actor as Will Kemp and suggests that the decision to excise Falstaff from Henry V might have played a part in Kemp's departing for Worcester's in 1599, or vice versa. Wiles's book (Cambridge, 1987) is a study very close in spirit to (though narrower in scope than) the one proposed in this essay. It focuses on three major clowns: Tarlton, Kemp, and Armin, identifies some of their roles, and creates taxonomies of the conventions that defined those roles. For Tarlton, "the comedian's skill lies in convincing the audience that he has been outwitted and humiliated. He then judges the timing of his reply carefully, offering a throwaway insult in place of cleverness. He crushes his victim with mimicry, yet continues to present himself as one so stupid that anybody ought to outwit him ... Tarlton's physical ugliness is essential to a comic persona that invites mockery from the audience" (17). Roles for Tarlton include Derrick in Famous Victories, which Wiles sees as a role elaborately reworked by Kemp as Falstaff in the Henry IV plays. Kemp speaks "in the idiom of the 'plain man'" (101), "constructs his audience as a community of peers" (103), and is "adept at extracting comedy from inactivity" (105). This is in contrast to Armin, who "pretends that his utterances are syntactically tight" (101), "does not engage in an implied dialogue with the audience as equals" (103), and "personalizes his slapstick ... the projection of multiple identities is the staple of Armin's clowning" (139). Roles for Kemp include or may include Peter in Romeo and Juliet, Bottom, Dogberry, Pipkin in How a Man May Choose a Good Wife from a Bad, Jenkin in Woman Killed with Kindness. Roles for Armin include or may include Touchstone, Feste, Lavatch in All's Well, Thersites, and Lear's Fool.

14. A similar resurrection and doubling is suggested by Stephen Booth in his discussion of Macbeth: Fleance might return to life briefly in the form of the actor playing the "cream-faced loon" who brings Macbeth news of Birnam wood come to Dunsinane. See King Lear, Macbeth, Indefinition, and Tragedy (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1983), 140.

15. "Social Aspects of Some Belated Moralities," Anglia 54 (1930): 107-48. The quotation is from 144.

16. Tudor Drama and Politics (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1968) 227-29.

17. There were, of course, other pleasures as well. The list of titles for 1594-98 provided in Harbage's Annals indicates that the Admiral's Men were heavily involved in probably quite ambitious history plays of all kinds (legendary, biblical, classical, European, English, etc.)--e.g., 1 and 2 Hercules (1595), Nebuchadnezzer (1596), Uther Pendragon (1597), and 1, 2, and 3 Civil Wars of France (1598).

18. This is the work of David Houser's article, "Purging the Commonwealth: Marston's Disguised Dukes and A Knack to Know a Knave," PMLA 89.5 (1974): 993-1006.

19. I should note here the debt this section of the essay owes to Alan Dessen's "The 'Estates' Morality Play," Studies in Philology 62 (1965): 121-36.

20. See Mary Grace Muse Adkins, "The Genesis of Dramatic Satire Against the Puritan, as Illustrated in A Knack to Know a Knave," RES 22.86 (April 1946): 81-95; E. N. S. Thompson, The Controversy between the Puritans and the Stage (New York: Henry Holt, 1903); Wright, "Social Aspects"; Houser, "Purging the Commonwealth"; and Bevington, Tudor Drama and Politics.

21. Wright, "Social Aspects," says that Knave is "a tri-partite performance [which] has, along with a love-intrigue plot and a clown skit by Will Kemp, a morality play in which Honesty seeks out the knaves in the kingdom and exposes them to the king" (141).

22. Paul E. Bennett edited the play as a University of Pennsylvania doctoral dissertation in 1952.

23. Dodsley 7:583. Bennet suggests that the 1592 text is imperfect at this point and that the Devil is in fact disguised as Alfrida (52-54).
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Author:Lopez, Jeremy
Publication:Medieval and Renaissance Drama in England
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2007
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