Plays

All For Love

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

All for Love, or The World Well Lost is John Dryden's epic adaptation of the tragedy of Antony and Cleopatra into a neo-classical quintet with supporting voices. The play, which the 1678 quarto titlepage claims is ‘Written in Imitation of Shakespeare’s Stile’, draws heavily on Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra; it does away, however, with the salaciousness of Shakespeare’s text, and reduces his temporal and geographical range to that of one time and place as per Aristotelian dramatic unities. The play was arguably intended to be seen in direct relation to the contemporary Antony and Cleopatra: A Tragedy (1677), written by politician and playwright Charles Sedley. Dryden’s application of neo-classical conventions and contemporary dramatic practice gives the classic love story a structural beauty and an austere power.

After Cleopatra’s desertion of Antony at the battle of Actium, not only his wife Octavia but also his general Ventidius and his friend Dolabella strive to win him over to their side. Antony, torn between the claims of duty, friendship, dignity and love, despairs when he hears the rumour of Cleopatra's death, which is not, as in Shakespeare’s version, spread by the queen herself but by her deceitful eunuch.

The first recorded performance was at the Theatre Royal, London by the King’s Company in 1677. The play’s political implications have perhaps been lost over time: absolute monarchy and the illicit love of a ruler were highly topical concerns in a post-Restoration Britain, when King Charles II’s extra-marital amours, most famously with the celebrated actress Nell Gwyn, were the subject of much anxiety.

Arms and the Man

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

Although Arms and the Man derives its title from a translation of Virgil’s phrase ‘arma virumque’ in the Aeneid, it does not reflect the subject or mood of the classical epic poem about mythic heroes waging war. Rather, the play is a light-hearted mixture of domestic and romantic comedy. Additionally, although the Serbo-Bulgarian war of 1885 provides a backdrop for the play, and military action is often discussed amongst the characters, it is never enacted.

The play predominantly deals with class conflict and twisted love affairs, detailing the illicit romance between Raina Petkoff and fugitive Swiss officer Captain Bluntschli, and the equally salacious relationship between Raina’s fiancé, Major Sergius Saranoff, and housemaid Louka. Despite the secrecy of these flirtations, there exist two very obvious tokens of the couples’ respective affection onstage – Saranoff’s coat that Raina gives to Bluntschli, and the bruise that Saranoff leaves on Louka’s arm. As such, George Bernard Shaw renders his somewhat commonplace plot line more interesting with a satirical self-awareness, imbuing the text with obvious theatricality, whimsy, and even burlesque. Rather than imparting a sense of realism, Shaw’s comedy is illusory, fictional, and overtly performative.

Arms and the Man debuted on the London stage in 1894.

Bartholmew Fair

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

Jonson’s exuberant comedy uses the carnival energy of Bartholmew Fair, an actual fair held in a disreputable suburb of London, to dramatize, satirize and celebrate the appetites and comic frailties of the human body.

The depiction of the Fair, teeming with sleazy but energetic life, is one of the great creations of English drama. There are crowds listening to a ballad-singer while a cutpurse plies his trade; sellers of toys and gingerbread raking in customers; drunken quarrels, arrests, and beatings. The climax is a puppet show in which a classic love story is reduced to raucous obscenity. At the centre is the gigantic pig-seller Ursla, whose tent, full of smoke, flame and frying carcasses, also doubles as a privy and a brothel.

There are also a number of respectable (and not so respectable) Londoners drawn to the Fair. Those who come to judge it end up in trouble. Those who come to enjoy it, and get something out of it, do not always get what they expect. Jonson’s gift for elaborate plotting draws all of his vivid characters together in a complex, beautifully structured mercantile cacophony.

Bartholmew Fair is said to have been first performed in 1613 at the Hope playhouse.

The Beaux' Stratagem

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

The Beaux’ Stratagem (1707) is George Farquhar’s last play: it premiered a month and a half before his untimely death aged 30, at the Queen’s Theatre in Haymarket, a new venue built by dramatist and architect John Vanbrugh on the Western fringes of the city of London. Seen as one of the most humane and democratic writers of the post-Restoration stage, Farquhar did not live to see the play become one of the most performed plays of the eighteenth century.

Farquhar’s last play is the story of two fortune-hunting beaux, Aimwell and Archer, who have journeyed from London to the provincial town of Lichfield. Their plan is to work their way through several towns, alternately pretending to be master and servant until one of them finds a rich heiress. But at the first hurdle, Aimwell falls sincerely in love with his prey, and begins to woo the beautiful Dorinda in earnest. Meanwhile his ‘footman’ Archer arouses the wistful interest of the unhappily married Mrs Sullen, the wife of a boorish squire. The play is further populated by a corrupt innkeeper, his lovely daughter, a highwayman, a disguised Irish priest, a country gentlewoman who believes she has healing powers, and a lowly servant who became one of the best-loved comic roles of the eighteenth century.

The Beaux’ Stratagem has been praised for the range, depth and naturalism of its characters: at a time when most comedies were written in, for and about London, Farquhar leaves behind the tendency to portray country folk as uncouth and laughable rustics. In addition, the play has been seen as broaching the gap between the sharp wit of Restoration comedy and its plots full of rakes and rascals, and the more genteel, sentimental comedy of the eighteenth century, whose focus falls not on sexual one-upmanship but on the realities of marital discord. The use of marriage as a way to improve social status had been long dramatized and satirized, but it is in his discussions of divorce that Farquhar reaches out to a humane understanding of the feasibility of marital harmony.

Feminist criticism has read into the play an early stirring of woman’s rights. In the previous century, plagued by the failings of patriarchal authority in kingship and commonwealth, questions had been raised about marriage being the best and/or only option for women, as it brought with it the possibility of unkind husbands and further loneliness. Farquhar’s comedy, ending with both marriage and divorce, highlighted the need for a reform of the divorce laws; this was a pertinent topic, as, despite the ills of marriage, only six divorces were granted by an Act of Parliament between 1660 and 1714.

The Beggar's Opera

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

Gay’s ‘ballad opera’ set in eighteenth-century London’s underworld is at once a vigorous satire on the moral and financial corruption of a fast-growing commercial society, and a groundbreaking piece of theatre. Combining spoken dialogue with popular songs, The Beggar’s Opera is in effect the first musical. Witty, barbed and fast-moving, the play was a theatrical sensation when it opened in 1728 at the Theatre Royal, London, with the romance between the feisty innocent Polly and the rogue Macheath seizing the popular imagination.

Polly Peachum, daughter of a fence and a thief-taker, has secretly married the notorious highwayman Macheath. Horrified at their daughter throwing herself a way on such a man, Mr and Mrs Peachum plot to extricate Polly from the marriage, as well as to profit by it, by turning in their son-in-law, collecting the reward for doing so, and seeing him hanged. The besotted Polly helps Macheath escape, but he is betrayed by a group of whores and taken to Newgate prison, where he is once again helped to escape, this time by Lucy Lockit, daughter of the prison-keeper, who is pregnant by and betrothed to him. Through their eternal love triangle, Gay explores the pleasures and dangers of romantic and social aspiration, while the double-dealing Mr Peachum embodies the ruthless self-interest of his age and the fine line between respectability and criminality.

A Chaste Maid in Cheapside

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

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.

The Country Wife

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

A satirical comedy focused on the vices and hypocrisies of Restoration London, The Country Wife has been admired as a farce, condemned as immoral or frivolous, and praised as a sharp and sophisticated drama.

Wycherley satirises female hypocrisy, true and false masculinity and human folly through three neatly linked plots. In the first, the rakish Horner pretends to be sexually impotent in order to trick his way into the intimate company of married ladies; he is confident that their fear of scandal is the only thing keeping them from debauchery.

In the second plot, Mr and Mrs Pinchwife come to London from the country; Mrs Pinchwife wants to enjoy all the pleasures of the town, including being loved by Horner, and her husband’s covetousness plays right into her hands. In the third plot, Horner’s friend Harcourt successfully woos Pinchwife’s sister, Alithea, away from her proposed husband Sparkish.

Wycherley’s racy prose dialogue creates an energetic and complex comedy of sex that combines cynicism, satire and farce. The Country Wife was first performed in 1675 by the King’s Company at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane.

The Critic

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

The Critic: or, a Tragedy Rehearsed is a political and literary satire, following in the vein of George Villiers’ The Rehearsal (1671), which takes jovial aim at the vanities of authors and politicians and at the foibles of the theatre itself. It was first performed at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane (which Sheridan owned and managed) in 1779.

The play is Sheridan's response to the threat of a Franco–Spanish invasion in the summer of 1779. In 1778, France had acknowledged US independence and subsequently declared war on Britain. In 1779, Spain followed suit, and by August of that year, both countries’ fleets were in the English Channel. Britain’s military preparations may have been somewhat excessive, but they did encourage an ‘Armada spirit’ of nationalism. In June 1779, the theatre at Sadler’s Wells had put on an ‘Armada piece’, Thomas King’s The Prophecy; or, Queen Elizabeth at Tilbury. Sheridan’s play caricatures this trend to rouse patriotism by highlighting glorious moments of past English victory, through his portrayal of a fictional ‘tragedy’, The Spanish Armada, penned by the amateur Mr. Puff. The play-within-the-play, needless to say, is more akin to farce than tragedy.

Sheridan’s first act introduces several figures who embody all that is reprehensible about the theatre. Mr Dangle is an amateur theatre critic, delighted to have his house filled every morning with declaiming aspirant players and warbling opera singers all seeking advancement from him. Mr Sneer is a fellow critic famed for his acerbic pen. Sir Fretful Plagiary is a playwright of doubtful quality. Sneer and Dangle visit the final rehearsal of Puff’s play to offer their valued opinions on the ‘Art of Puffing’, peppering the long-suffering actors with comments, suggestions and protestations in a hilarious theatrical parody. Puff’s work culminates in a bombastic spectacular set to ‘Rule Britannia’, bringing the play to a laughably patriotic close.

Doctor Faustus

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

Doctor Faustus is a play about desire: for the best in life, for knowledge, power, material comfort, and influence. Faustus sells his soul to the devil hoping to learn the secrets of the universe, but is fobbed off with explanations which he knows to be inadequate. He is obsessed with fame, but his achievement as a devil-assisted celebrity magician is less substantial than it was previously as a scholar.

Marlowe's most famous play is a tragedy, but also extremely funny. It involves hideous representations of the Seven Deadly Sins, and of Helen of Troy, the world's most beautiful woman. With its fireworks and special effects, it was one of the most spectacular and popular on the Elizabethan stage. Yet, ever since Marlowe's death, it has been regularly rewritten. Its mix of fantastical story, slapstick, and raw human emotion still arouses conflicting interpretations, and presents us with endlessly fascinating problems.

This student edition is based on the earlier so-called A-text of the play, with the B-text scenes included in an appendix. It contains a lengthy Introduction with interpretation of the play in its historical and cultural context, stage history, discussion of the complex textual problems, and background on the author, date and sources.

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.

New Mermaids is a series of over fifty modernised and fully annotated classic plays spanning the medieval period to the nineteenth century and featuring many of the most studied and performed works. Each book is aimed at students of English Literature and Theatre Studies, as well as actors and theatre-goers.

A detailed introduction considers the author’s life and times, provides a plot summary and discusses the themes, language, sources and stage history of the work. In addition, a list of further reading, line numbering and on-page annotations all assist readers in their study and appreciation of the work.

General Editors: Brian Gibbons, University of Münster, Germany; William C. Carroll, Boston University, USA; and Tiffany Stern, The Shakespeare Institute, University of Birmingham, UK.