Helena loves the arrogant Bertram, and when she cures the King of France of his sickness, she claims Bertram as her reward. But her brand-new husband, flying from Helena to join the wars, attaches two obstructive conditions to their marriage – conditions he is sure will never be met Stage director: John Dove. Screen director: Robin Lough. Featuring: Michael Bertenshaw, Sam Cox, Sam Crane, Naomi Cranston, John Cummins, Janie Dee, Ben Deery, Mary Doherty, Sophie Duval, Will Featherstone, James Garnon, Peter Hamilton Dyer, Colin Hurley, Ellie Piercy, Laura Darrall, Nicholas Delvalle, Luke McConnell.
Antony and Cleopatra rival Romeo and Juliet for the title of most famous lovers in Western drama. Shakespeare’s play, probably written around 1606-7 (though not appearing in print until the First Folio of 1623), reflects the popularity of the story in the early modern imagination. Shakespeare’s play is heavily indebted to Plutarch’s Parallel Lives of the Greeks and Romans, written in the first century AD, and translated into English by Sir Thomas North in 1579.
Marc Antony is one of three triumvirs ruling Rome following the assassination of Julius Caesar. Neglecting his political duties, he lingers in Egypt with Cleopatra, a queen who sees herself as a demigod, an embodied Isis. When unrest threatens Rome, Antony must leave Cleopatra in order to solidify his power against threats from Pompey and fellow triumvir Octavius Caesar. Despite marrying Octavia, the passive sister of Caesar, for the sake of peace, he soon longs for his ‘wrangling queen’ and returns to Egypt. The ensuing war between the lovers and Octavius Caesar engulfs the Roman world. The eponymous lovers are unable to reconcile their martial defeat and its consequent shame with their hyperbolic self-images, and commit two of the most memorable suicides in the Shakespearean canon.
From its earliest audiences, Antony and Cleopatra has received criticism. Post-Restoration critics knocked the play for the way it disregarded the classical unities of drama, which stated that a play should cover one idea, in one place, at one time. With its action historically spanning a decade, and its scenes ranging from Europe to Africa and back again, the play affronted those who desired a neater retelling of the famous love story. John Dryden took it upon himself to rewrite the tragedy in his play All for Love, first performed in 1677: covering only the last day of the lives of Antony and Cleopatra, the play reaches for a grander love affair, removed from the lust, jealousy and self-inflation of Shakespeare’s play. Scholarly criticism has dwelt upon the play’s use of opposites, the imagery of instability, and the performance of gender on the early modern stage (to which Cleopatra metatheatrically refers, when she fears boy actors will portray her ‘squeaking [. . .] i’th’posture of a whore’ [5.2.219-20].
The staging of the play has long been of special interest to critics and theatre-makers alike: the play calls for a sea-battle, and a colossal monument to Cleopatra up to which the dying Antony must be hoisted. Notable Antonys have included John Gielgud, Laurence Olivier and Patrick Stewart; notable Cleopatras Peggy Ashcroft, Vanessa Redgrave and Mark Rylance, in the 1999 all-male production at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, London.
A Chaste Maid in Cheapside is Middleton’s masterpiece of Jacobean city comedy, rich in irony and wordplay. Middleton welds together the themes of corruption, money and sex into a complex whole, in which comedy is mingled with disgust.
Moll Yellowhammer is in love with Touchwood Junior, but her avaricious parents have betrothed her to the rich knight Sir Walter Whorehound, just as they have set up their son Tim to marry a rich Welsh heiress. Sir Walter is conducting an open affair with Mrs Allwit, while her happily cuckolded husband congratulates himself on finding an adulterer to support his household. Meanwhile, Sir Oliver Kix and his wife hope to get their hands on some of Sir Walter’s property, but Lady Kix has been unable to conceive, so they employ the ceaselessly fertile Touchwood Senior (the brother of Moll’s lover) to make Lady Kix pregnant any way possible.
The play signals its ironic nature even in the humorously ironic title: Cheapside maids were not noted for their chastity. London’s busiest commercial area is shown to be a crucible of mercantile greed, where money is more important than either happiness or honour, the most coveted commodities to be bought with it are sex and social prestige, and even true lovers must trick their way to marriage.
The play was probably first performed in 1613 at the Swan theatre, possibly by the Lady Elizabeth’s Men and the Queen’s Revels together.
Coriolanus was first published in the First Folio of 1623; we have no recording of a first performance contemporary with Shakespeare. As a result, dating the play has proven to be a difficult task, with most modern critics placing the writing of the play in the second half of the 1610s.
Affording Coriolanus a genre is similarly tricky: it is ‘The Tragedy of Coriolanus’ in the First Folio, but it is deeply indebted to the sub-genre of ‘Roman plays’ that form a significant part of the Shakespearean oeuvre. As with Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra, Shakespeare draws on Thomas North’s 1579 translation of Plutarch’s Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans for both historical detail and literary tropes.
The exploration of the public voice and the body politic in Coriolanus is immediately displayed in the play’s opening, where Roman citizens are rising up against the mounting price of grain. (It has been argued that this is a contemporary reference to the Midland Revolt of 1607, where peasants in the Midlands of Britain rioted against the enclosure of common land.) Menenius, a wise old Roman generally respected by the people, recites a parable narrating the breakdown of the body when its individual parts are not in accord. For the body politic to function, the head (here, the General; in Shakespeare’s England, King James I) and the belly (the people) must support each other.
One of the play’s central explorations, that of the battle between public and private identity, and political and personal duty, is encapsulated in the figure of Coriolanus, much as it is in other Roman figures (e.g. Brutus in Julius Caesar and Mark Antony in Antony and Cleopatra). His identity is unfixed, and manipulated by the patricians and his ambitious mother, Volumnia.
Unlike other Shakespearean tragic heroes, Coriolanus only has one lengthy soliloquy, in which he laments the ‘dissension’ and ‘bitterest enmity’ to which ‘friends now fast sworn’ have turned. As his affinity shifts from Romans to Volscians, his own identity gets lost, until he cries at the end of Act IV that ‘only that name remains’ – the irony being that ‘Coriolanus’ is not the name he started off with at the beginning of the play (he was ‘Caius Martius’ until he was granted the toponym Coriolanus, after his defeat of the town of Corioles). He is murdered at the end of the play in a bloody attack perpetrated by conspirators, mirroring Caesar’s death in his eponymous Roman tragedy. The opacity of the play’s central figure has rendered theatrical and cinematic interpretations of Coriolanus manifold in the past century especially: Laurence Olivier (twice), Anthony Hopkins, Richard Burton, Ian McKellan and Ralph Fiennes have all portrayed the general.
The intricate plot of Cymbeline folds comic, romantic, tragic and historical modes into a bittersweet and experimental play. Though listed under the ‘Tragedies’ in its first appearance in the 1623 First Folio, the play’s diverse elements of murderous jealousy, Roman invasion, dark schemes of sexual assault, female transvestism, passionate love, court, country and fairy-tale are all harmoniously and peacefully reconciled in marriage. Thought to have been written around 1608-10, the playgoing doctor Simon Forman noted seeing the play at the Globe in April 1611. Some critics have wondered if Cymbeline, as other late Shakespeare plays, could be a collaboration; the play’s similarity to Beaumont and Fletcher’s Philaster (c.1608-10) has led to debate as to which may have borrowed from which. Sources for Cymbeline include Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae (c.1136), Boccaccio’s Decameron (1353), Holinshed’s Chronicles (1577-87), and the anonymous romantic drama The Rare Triumphs of Love and Fortune (1582).
Cymbeline, King of Britain is furious with his daughter Imogen for marrying Posthumus, because he wanted to marry her step-brother Cloten (son of Cymbeline’s second wife, the Queen). Posthumus is banished. In Rome, he meets Iachimo, who wagers that he will be able to sleep with Imogen.
Iachimo, failing to seduce Imogen, hides in a chest and is carried into her bedchamber. Once she is asleep he steals a bracelet given to her by Posthumus. Back in Rome, this convinces Posthumus of Imogen’s infidelity.
Cymbeline refuses to pay the tribute due to Augustus Caesar, and the Roman ambassador Lucius promises war. Posthumus writes to his servant Pisanio instructing him to kill Imogen; instead Pisanio advises Imogen to dress as a man and accompany Lucius to Rome. She goes as ‘Fidele’ to Milford-Haven to meet the departing Lucius. Cloten, believing that Posthumus will also be at Milford-Haven, wears Posthumus’ clothes and follows Imogen there. He intends to kill her husband and rape her.
On her way ‘Fidele’ meets Belarius and his two sons Guiderius and Arviragus – who are actually Cymbeline’s sons, stolen away in their infancy. Cloten arrives and Guiderius kills him.
‘Fidele’ is ill, and drinks a potion given to her by Pisanio, thinking it is a remedy. The Queen thought it was poison and intended it for Posthumus, but the potion creates the only the appearance of death. Her brothers, believing ‘Fidele’ to be dead, place her next to Cloten’s body - still in Posthumus’ clothes. Imogen wakes to what appears to be her husband’s headless corpse. She is found by Lucius and taken into his service.
The returned Posthumus, disguised as a peasant, fights against the Roman invaders. Belarius, Guiderius and Arviragus also fight, saving Cymbeline. Posthumus re-disguises as a Roman, hoping for death; in prison he has an apparition of ghosts and Jupiter. The characters gather in front of Cymbeline. The Queen has died and her trick with the poison is exposed, as is Iachimo’s deception. Posthumus and Imogen are reunited, the identity of Belarius and Cymbeline’s sons is revealed, and Cymbeline makes peace with Rome.
One of the most haunting tragedies written in the Jacobean period, The Duchess of Malfi is a violent and macabre story of lust, madness, cruelty and revenge. First performed c. 1613-4 by the King’s Men, probably at the indoor Blackfriars theatre and later at the outdoor Globe playhouse, this text is based on the only authoritative extant edition, the first quarto of 1623.
Webster adapts the true story of a noble Italian widow, the eponymous Duchess, who secretly marries her steward, Antonio, and bears his children. Her two corrupt brothers, Ferdinand, Duke of Calabria, and the Cardinal, enraged by this act of female self-determination across class boundaries, begin to spy on the family in a conspiracy against her happiness that ends in psychological torture, mutilation and murder.
While following many of the conventions of revenge tragedy (like Shakespeare’s Hamlet, it employs a courtly setting, surveillance, a malcontent), The Duchess of Malfi affords its protagonists a psychological depth that has prompted discussions, amongst others, of incest and lycanthropy. Nevertheless, it also contains some of the most memorable props of the early modern stage, including the waxwork ‘bodies’ of the Duchess’ family, and a poisoned Bible.
Unlike his sources, Webster does not condemn the Duchess for lasciviousness – she remains one of the most fascinating and complex female characters of the early modern stage. She exercises power politically and domestically, and is sexually autonomous: she takes the active role in her wooing of Antonio, refusing to bow down to her brothers’ prescriptive demands of her heart and body. She has been regarded as an archetypal Protestant martyr against the tyranny of Catholic Europe, such as was celebrated in John Foxe’s Book of Martyrs (1563).
The Duchess of Malfi is one of the major tragedies of the period and continues to prompt both new adaptations and critical interpretations. It has had a long and successful stage history, and was played by candlelight as the inaugural production at the Sam Wanamaker playhouse at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, London (2014), an indoor playing space designed to replicate the early seventeenth-century Blackfriars theatre, a little way across the river from where the Globe now stands.
The Duchess of Malfi is a popular choice as a set text, despite (or perhaps because of) the violence and horror of its later scenes. Generally considered to be the masterpiece of Jacobean playwright John Webster, it was first produced in around 1613. It’s a macabre tragedy, based on actual events, and tends to be either loved or hated by critics – while consistently captivating audiences across the centuries.
Set in Italy in the early fifteenth century, it starts out as a love story, with the Duchess marrying beneath her class. However, her two brothers, one cool and corrupt, the other secretly violent and warped, have other ideas. With incredible plot twists along the way, the play ends as an utter tragedy, as the brothers take revenge on her, destroying themselves in the process.
Dark, complex…and feminist?
The main themes of The Duchess of Malfi include revenge and corruption. It also looks at the status of women in society - Webster’s use of a strong, virtuous woman as the central character was rare for the time.
The play was originally written for and performed by The King’s Men, the same company which Shakespeare belonged to. Indeed, this Jacobean classic makes an interesting text to study in comparison to many of Shakespeare’s works.
The language is poetic, and subtle at times, but infinitely rewarding. Its complex characters are also rewarding to watch, as the play develops towards the highly dramatic climax.
Director: Elizabeth Freestone.
Featuring: Peter Bankolé, Edmund Kingsley, Tim Treloar, Mark Hadfield, Tim Steed, Richard Bremmer, Conrad Westmaas, James Wallace, Aislín McGuckin, Harvey Virdi, Brigid Zengeni, Maxwell Hutcheon.
The eponymous Dutch courtesan Franceschina, passionate and vengeful, is at the centre of Marston’s volatile morally complex play about irrepressible lust.
The young gentleman Freevill has been intimately involved with Franceschina, but as his marriage to the respectable Beatrice, the daughter of Sir Hubert Subboys, approaches, he resolves to cast the courtesan aside. Goaded into visiting the same courtesan by Freevill’s taunts about his sexual abstinence, the puritanical Malheureux finds himself irresistibly drawn to the enchanting prostitute, despite the promptings of his conscience.
As the two young men scheme to help Malheureux sleep with Franceschina, the courtesan herself plots her revenge upon Freevill, whom she loved sincerely (to the frustration of Mary Faugh, her bawd). Though the play reaches a neatly comic conclusion, there is no room in it for the fiery, controversial Franceschina.
Marston mixes rhetorical debate and furious passion to create a morally turbulent discussion of human desire.
This text is based on the 1605 Quarto.
A collaboration between Jonson, Chapman and Marston, Eastward Ho! is a masterpiece of city comedy. Unique among the ‘coterie’ city comedies written for boy players, Eastward Ho! gives all classes a full satiric treatment simultaneously didactic, ironic, and triumphantly comic.
Touchstone is an upright London citizen, a goldsmith. He has one modest and one ambitious daughter, and one righteous and one disreputable apprentice. He marries his respectable daughter to his respectable apprentice, but his wilful daughter is determined to become a lady and marries herself off to a lord of doubtful finances, while his other mercurial apprentice casts aside his indentures in order to climb the social ladder. A series of chaotic accidents ensures that virtue is rewarded, and ruthlessness comes to grief – receiving a drenching in the muddy Thames.
Eastward Ho! was performed at the Blackfriars playhouse in 1605. The play may well have been provoked by Dekker and Webster’s Westward Ho!, produced by Paul’s Boys in 1604; Eastward Ho! parodies the earlier play’s form.
Jonson’s buzzing satire on gender and language enjoyed enormous prestige for more than a century after its first performance. The central figure is Morose, who hates noise yet lives in the centre of London, and who, because of his decision to marry a woman only because he is duped into believing she is silent, exposes himself to a fantastic cacophony of voices, male, female and – epicene.
The title signals Jonson’s satiric and complex concern with gender and performance: the play interrogates sexual decorum and the performance of gender, asking how men and women should behave both as fit examples of their sexes and to one another. The characters – knights, barbers, female collegiate and tricksters – present a cross-section of wrong answers, enabling Jonson to create riotous entertainment out of lack, loss and disharmony. Jonson is fascinated by the denigration of language into empty chatter or furious abuse: it is teeming with idiomatic vitality.
Epicoene was first performed in 1609 or 1610 by a children’s company. This text is based on the only authoritative text, from the 1616 folio Works.
The English theatre during the reign of James I (1603–25) was known as Jacobean theatre. Although Shakespeare was still writing major works until around 1611, the leading dramatist of the era was Ben Jonson. Other noted Jacobean playwrights included John Marston, Thomas Middleton, Thomas Heywood, John Ford, Thomas Dekker (c. 1570–1632), Cyril Tourneur (c. 1575–1626), and Samuel Rowley (c. 1575–1624).
In comedy, the Elizabethan concerns with characterization and romantic love began to give way to a vogue for harsh satire and increased realism from about 1610. Jacobean tragedy shows a similar obsession with the idea of moral corruption; examples include Webster’s The White Devil (1612) and The Duchess of Malfi (1619), as well as Beaumont and Fletcher’s The Maid’s Tragedy (1610). The plays, which are often horrifically violent, display a generally cynical and pessimistic outlook on life. From 1605 Jonson collaborated with Inigo Jones to create the extravagant and scholarly court masques beloved by James I and his queen.
Although James was an enthusiast for the theatre, he imposed strict regulations on companies, specifying in which theatres they could play. One effect of this was to bring public performances into the cities of London and Westminster; before 1608 all theatres had to be outside the municipal boundaries. The leading troupe of the day, the Chamberlain’s Men, became the King’s Men on James’s accession. Similarly the Blackfriars Boy Company became the Children of the Revels of the Queen, although the popularity of child actors came to an end during the Jacobean era. Other features of the period include the growing influence of neoclassical theories from the Continent, increasingly violent opposition to the theatre from the Puritans, and a general decline in audience numbers.
from Jonathan Law ed., The Methuen Drama Dictionary of the Theatre (London, 2011).