‘Cut is the branch that might have grown full straight’ (Dr Faustus).
Are the endings of Renaissance plays implicit in their beginnings? Often this is the case, at least in those Renaissance tragedies where the classical Greek chorus was in whole or part adopted. However the audience may have to work rather harder than might be expected in order to unravel these implications as the above quote taken from the ending chorus in Marlowe’s Dr Faustus suggests.
In that play the chorus performs one of the most important roles of the Greek chorus by preparing the audience for key moments in the storyline. The chorus in Dr Faustus tells us that this play is neither about love nor war nor ‘audacious deeds’. Instead it is about a man born of parents, ‘base of stock’ – and hence signals something akin to the so-called ‘everyman’ plays wherein the protagonist will receive instruction on how as a Christian, he should lead his life and hence save his soul.
But at the same time this chorus also references the classical myth of Icarus, whose waxen wings melted when he foolishly flew to close to the sun. In classical terms the fate or ‘fortunes’ (as the referenced by the chorus) of one such as Icarus depended more on ‘ignorance’ rather than on the ‘wickedness’ with which the Christian audience would be faced. There would appear little suggestion that the character Faustus is ignorant of his situation; although in the first scene he importantly neglects to finish his quotation from the First Letter of John regarding the effect of confessing one’s sins and hence receiving God’s forgiveness, we have the sense that such omission is more strategic (to justify his chosen position) than ill-informed. Hence quite how the reference to Icarus and his ‘melting heavens’ that ‘conspired his overthrow’ are meant infer how Faustus’ ‘wickedness’ contributed to his sad end is something that audience were perhaps meant to ponder a bit.
Further, this quote taken from conclusion of Dr Faustus seems to suggest that Faustus actually had a choice as whether his ‘branch might have grown full straight’. This raises the importance of the Calvinist doctrine of predestination; those in the audience who adhered to this view would have wondered at such a suggestion for in their view Faustus is clearly damned from the beginning and hence there was nothing he could ever have done – no choice he could ever have taken – for his branch to have ‘grown full straight’.
In Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy, clearly influenced by the Roman dramatist Seneca, the ‘chorus’ in the form of the interchange between the ghost of Andrea and Revenge, works slightly differently. Although it does imply the ending in the general sense that justice will be done – i.e. Balthazar, the Portuguese prince who killed Andrea, will get his just-deserts at the hands of Andrea’s old girlfriend, Bel-Imperia – it does not prepare the audience for key moments in the story line. Instead it rather long-windedly sets the scene of the pagan underworld in which none of the play actually takes place. Naturally the audience is meant to hang on the final words of Revenge in that opening chorus – ‘here we sit down to see the mystery’ but they remain none the wiser as to nature of that ‘mystery’ – indeed they do not even yet know who will be the tragic protagonist. At least they can take heart in that unlike with the chorus in Dr Faustus, they are not being deliberately misled except perhaps to the extent they might expect the play to unfold in that so carefully described underworld.
The ‘Argument’ and ‘Prologue’ in Jonson’s Renaissance comedy, Volpone, likewise works similarly to the Greek chorus – the ‘Argument’ preparing the audience for key moments to come by summarising the plot and, as did the ghostly chorus in Kyd, implying that justice will be done when at the end ‘all are sold’. The Prologue adds to this by suggesting that ‘our play’ will be a ‘hit’ as the result of the dramatists’ salty ink – with which he intends to ‘rub your cheeks’ till ‘red with laughter’. This is a clear signal that the play is not tragedy but comedy and satire.
In those Renaissance plays without a chorus or prologue, the ending is sometimes suggested with the opening lines – as for example, in Middleton and Rowley’s The Changeling. Here Alsemero hints at the play will be a tragedy with words like ‘omen’ and ‘fate’. But at the same time he suggests that it may be a comedy with words of love and matrimony. Clearly the audience will need to work to unravel that. However with Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi, there is neither chorus nor prologue nor argument and rather like a 21st century novel, the opening lines jump straight into the action as the (soon-to-be) husband of the Duchess chats amiably with his friend, Delio, implying very little of what is to follow except perhaps that it is meant to ‘instruct princes what they ought to do’.
In summary, in those Renaissance plays that adopt a Greek-style chorus, the ending is more or less implicit in the beginning in the sense that the audience is being prepared for key moments in the storyline. Often however the audience will need to work hard to unravel the various clues given because often enough they are (deliberately or not) misleading. Renaissance plays with prologues and arguments work in a similar fashion often summarising the plot as with Volpone and making clear whether what is to come is meant to be tragedy or comedy. However in those plays with neither a chorus nor prologue nor argument, the opening lines may still give a hint what is to come although not nearly in so much detail.
Leave a Reply