Plays

The Devil is an Ass

Nick Hern Books
Type: Text

Ben Jonson's play The Devil is an Ass is a Jacobean comedy first performed in 1616 by the King's Men and first published in 1631.

The play opens in Hell, with a junior demon called Pug persuading his master Satan to let him spend a day in London doing the Devil's work of tempting men to evil. Satan thinks Pug isn't up to the job; the world has grown so sophisticated in its vices, especially in the moral cesspool of London, that a simple devil like Pug will be severely out of his depth. Pug pleads his case, however, and Satan sends him into the world, specifically to plague an eccentric and foolish gentleman named Fabian Fitzdottrel. Taking over the body of a recently hanged thief, Pug persuades Fitzdottrel to take him on as a servant. The squire doesn't believe that Pug is a devil, despite Pug's insistence that he is, but is happy that he asks no wages. Meanwhile, Fitzdottrel is the target of various conmen, who befriend him hoping to take advantage of his eccentric foolishness and to seduce his beautiful young wife. Pug, in looking for opportunities for villainy, is beaten, manipulated, and generally abused, and ends up in Newgate Prison, from where he is rescued by Satan, triumphant in his prediction that London was more than Pug could handle. Fitzdottrel, discovering that Pug was a devil after all, abandons his new friends, exposing them as the conmen they really are.

This edition of the text, edited by Peter Happé and introduced by Simon Trussler, was published in 1995 by Nick Hern Books in its Drama Classics series.

The Duchess of Malfi (ed. Gibbons)

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

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.

video The Duchess of Malfi (Globe on Screen 2)

Globe on Screen
Type: Video

First performed by the King’s Men – Shakespeare’s own company – ‘privately at the Blackfriars and publicly at the Globe’, The Duchess of Malfi is a thrilling combination of brilliant coups de théâtre, horrific set-pieces and vivid characters – notably the tragic Duchess and the subtly villainous Bosola – all lit by Webster’s obsessional imagination.

video The Duchess of Malfi (Stage on Screen)

Stage on Screen
Type: Video

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 Dutch Courtesan

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

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.

Eastward Ho!

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

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.

Epicoene or The Silent Woman

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

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.

Fuente Ovejuna

Nick Hern Books
Type: Text

Lope de Vega's play Fuente Ovejuna is a recognised masterpiece by a major writer of the Spanish Golden Age, depicting one of the most memorable acts of resistance in world drama. First published in Madrid in 1619, the play is believed to have been written between 1612 and 1614. It is based upon an actual historical incident that took place in the village of Fuente Ovejuna (now called Fuente Obejuna) in Castile in 1476.

This translation by Laurence Boswell was published by Nick Hern Books in its Drama Classics series in 2009.

The play's action follows the historical incident closely. A military Commander, Fernán Gómez de Guzmán, under the command of the Order of Calatrava, mistreats the villagers of Fuente Ovejuna, who revolt against their tyrannical overlord and murder him. When a magistrate sent by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella arrives at the village to investigate, the villagers, even under the pain of torture, respond only by saying 'Fuente Ovejuna did it'. In the face of this claim to collective responsibility, the village is pardoned and placed under the direct jurisdiction of the Crown.

audio Hamlet

LA Theatre Works
Type: Audio

Shakespeare’s timeless story of revenge, corruption, and murder is considered one of the greatest works in the English language. Prince Hamlet sets out to avenge his beloved father's death at the hand of his uncle Claudius — but Hamlet's spiral into grief and madness will have permanent and immutable consequences for the Kingdom of Denmark. Composed over 400 years ago, Hamlet remains one of the theater’s most studied and performed works, and is presented here in a stunning, sound-rich full-cast recording.

An L.A. Theatre Works full-cast performance featuring: Josh Stamberg as Hamlet Stephen Collins as King Claudius JoBeth Williams as Queen Gertrude Stacy Keach as Ghost Alan Mandell as Polonius Emily Swallow as Ophelia JD Cullum as Laertes Matthew Wolf as Horatio Mark Capri as Ambassador and others Josh Clark as Gravedigger, Voltemand and others Henri Lubatti as Rosencrantz and others Jon Matthews as Guildenstern and others Darren Richardson as Player Queen and others André Sogliuzzo as Reynaldo and others Directed by Martin Jarvis. Recorded at the Invisible Studios, West Hollywood in August, 2011.

Featuring: Mark Capri, Josh Clark, Stephen Collins, JD Cullum, Stacy Keach, Henri Lubatti, Alan Mandell, Jon Matthews, Darren Richardson, Andre Sogliuzzo, Josh Stamberg, Emily Swallow, JoBeth Williams, Matthew Wolf

video Hamlet (Globe on Screen 2)

Globe on Screen
Type: Video

Encompassing political intrigue and sexual obsession, philosophical reflection and violent action, tragic depth and wild humour, Hamlet is a colossus in the story of the English language and the fullest expression of Shakespeare's genius.

Learning of his father's death, Prince Hamlet comes home to find his uncle married to his mother and installed on the Danish throne. At night, the ghost of the old king demands that Hamlet avenge his 'foul and most unnatural murder'.