‘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.Greek Chorus

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.

‘This dynamic…is the original dramatic phenomenon: to see oneself transformed before one’s eyes and now to act as if one really had entered another body, another character’ (Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy).

It is my understanding that with this quote Nietzsche was referring to classical Greek drama wherein dramatists seize upon a metaphor or image that when presented to the audience through mimesis or imitation, conveys a ‘seminal truth’ rather than a ‘cultural lie’. In other words, if a tragedy is to achieve ‘transformation’ in the sense to which Nietzsche was referring, then it must provide audiences with something more deeply meaningful than mere entertainment or political party line. For Nietzsche, transformation was not simply a matter suspending audience disbelief, but instead allowing the audience to actually enter the world of the Greek god Dionysus, in whose realm lies all primordial truths and with it, the tragic suffering inherent in comprehending these truths.images

If by action we are referring to stage performance (rather than theme or underlying plot), then to the extent audiences were encouraged to see such performance as mere entertainment, I would suggest that Renaissance tragedy more often than not misses Nietzsche’s mark. Bottom line, most Elizabethan and Jacobean playwrights were by necessity as interested (if not more) in making money than they were in imparting seminal truths. According to Mike Pincombe in his article ‘English Renaissance Tragedy: Theories and Antecedents’ in the Cambridge Companion to English Renaissance Tragedy, Elizabethan audiences were in tune with the idea that ‘tragedy’ required ‘the fall of a great man and a lot of shouting to go with it’. To the extent Renaissance dramatists played to that idea, then if most of the audience focus was more on the ‘shouting’ than the gathering of primordial truths, it would seem ‘transformation’ would not likely have often occurred.

For example in her introduction to the New Mermaids edition of the A-Text of Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, Ros King notes that the popularity of the play was due in large part to the audience’s interest in the special effects (the trip to the Vatican to annoy the pope must have been a feat). Even the side story of Rafe and Robin having ‘stolen one of Doctor Faustus’ conjuring books’ and playing at their own conjuring in order to obtain ‘the kitchen maid’ for ‘thy own use’ would seem for the most part although entertaining also distractive – not contributing in any meaningful way to the main plot of Faustus’ struggle regarding Christian redemption and most certainly not reflective of a primordial truth.

Rather than conveying a ‘seminal truth’, the trip to the Vatican to annoy the pope would seem to be more easily justified as an attempt to further a ‘cultural lie’ in the sense that although first printed in 1604, the play was most definitely written when the staunchly protestant Elizabeth I was still on the throne. The connection between Renaissance tragedy and the politics of the moment is also addressed by other Renaissance writers such as Sir Phillip Sidney in his The Defense of Posey, where he suggested tragedy ought to teach kings to avoid tyranny. In his article Tragedy and the nation state (Cambridge Companion to English Renaissance Tragedy) remarks that the relationship between English tragedy and the nation-state was ‘there from the start’.

This does not mean that because a tragedy conveys a ‘cultural lie’ such as political party line and is also entertaining (lots of ‘shouting’ going on) that it cannot also deliver that (Dionysian) ‘seminal truth’. Indeed in Kyd’s Spanish Tragedy, there was not only the fall and tragic suffering of Hieronomo, (albeit not really a ‘great man’) but also the seminal truth that justice is not able to be achieved even when the king is not a tyrant (this of course also likely another ‘cultural lie’ in the sense that if it had been otherwise the censors of the time would likely have refused for the play to be presented – or worse).

In summary, if Nietzsche’s conception of ‘transformation’ required tragedy to deliver seminal truths rather than cultural lies to the audience, then I would have to conclude that for the most part Renaissance tragedy likely most often failed to achieve it. Renaissance dramatists were for the most part economically dependent on having their plays well-received and if audiences had the notion that tragedy should include the fall of a (more or less) great man with a good deal of shouting going on then it only made sense that is what the dramatists delivered; focused on the ‘shouting’, it would have been hard to focus also on seminal truths. That is not to suggest that in many cases seminal truths were not available, as with Dr Faustus and The Spanish Tragedy. However I would suggest that such well-entertained Renaissance audiences most likely had to work harder to find them than classic Greek audiences might have done. Finally, as the connection between tragedy and nation-state was always present, it is unlikely that any seminal truths would have been conveyed undiluted by some very necessary ‘cultural lies’.

doctor-faustus-as-a-morality-play-5-638In his essay, Tradition and the Individual Talent, T.S. Eliot advises that ‘art never improves’ even if the ‘material of art’ is never quite the same. According to Eliot, to be accepted into the coveted literary canon an author treads a fine line between innovation and tradition and hence although we might expect some development over time (refinement and complication) it is likely to more to do with economics than anything else.

Whilst the Renaissance dramatists were probably not worrying about being admitted to any future literary canon, they were interested in having their plays performed. I can imagine that many were also interested, for economic reasons, in having as many plays performed as possible in the shortest period of time. Hence it only makes sense that for economic (and doubtless other reasons), tragedy developed by treading Eliot’s fine line between innovation and tradition – or if you will, current ideas and inherited form.

The form of English tragedy has most certain evolved over time – with Chaucer it was a ‘ditty’ about prosperity ending in wretchedness whist in later periods it had morphed into sad stories about a man’s fall as told by his ghost. By the 15th and early 16th century, we see the so-called ‘everyman (morality) plays’ – whereby on actor represents all of mankind with angels and the like tempting him to do evil with a view to investigating notions of Christian salvation.

At least in part, Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus (1594 or thereabouts) is a throwback to these earlier morality plays. Faustus follows roughly the same form as the earlier plays in the sense of featuring polarised figures of good and evil (in Faustus the Evil and Good angels are constantly quarrelling as to whether Faustus is capable of repenting and in the A text in reality there was little possibility). As were the earlier plays, Faustus is didactic in the sense it aims to teach about what it takes to be a Christian. However unlike with the earlier plays the temptations do not come from outside ( i.e. with players representing specific qualities such Lechery or Sloth). As the opening scene demonstrates, without any outside stimulation Faustus prevaricates on whether he should ‘settle his studies’ and follow the party line by being a physician and making a ‘heap of gold’ or instead to follow his own inclinations and learn about alchemy and sorcery. I suggest this change in focus from outer to inner temptation is in keeping with expanding ideas about the nature of personal freedom (no longer constrained by a limited choice such as amongst the proscribed professions) but now encompassing a full range self-chosen goals from which Faustus makes his choices.

Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy (1586) signals a revival of the tragedies by the Roman philosopher and dramatist Seneca doubtless in part because Seneca had fallen back into favour with the ruling monarchs, Henry VIII and Elizabeth I. The Spanish Tragedy focuses on revenge, a favourite Senecan theme, as the tragic protagonist Hieronimo struggles to obtain justice for the murder of his son, Horatio, and finally is forced to take revenge.

Kyd’s work also adopts Seneca’s five act structure and endorsement of Aristotle’s unities of action (no scene is a digression from contributing directly to the plot – as was the case with Faustus and the subplot with the two clowns, Robin and Rafe). But it fails to adopt unity of time which requires the action of the play to be compressed to usually to no more than a single day. Although there is no specific time period over which the action of The Spanish Tragedy takes place, it must have involved more than 24 hours for Hieronimo to learn the truth and decide on his course of action.

Interestingly The Spanish Tragedy also adopts the typically Stoic (again adopted by Seneca) idea that failure to remain unruffled in the face of difficult emotions such as Hieronimo faced after finding his murdered son (he rants and raves through several soliloquies about the injustice of it all) results in madness. Also of note is the use of Andrea’s ghost to frame the play as the ghost, like in those earlier English tragedies, tells the sad story about Andrea’s demise.

The Spanish Tragedy has been seen as a crude forerunner of Shakespeare’s later more complex and sophisticated tragedy, Hamlet – the two focusing on revenge, ghosts, and madness in fairly much the same ways. Yet although Hamlet may be a more complex character than Hieronomo (Hieronomo rails about the injustice of it all, whilst Hamlet takes this further and questions the very nature of man (‘what piece of work is man!’)), it is quite possible tthat Shakespeare made Hamlet too complex and sophisticated. In his essay entitled Hamlet and His Problems, T.S. Eliot concluded that as a play, Hamlet was an ‘artistic failure’ because Hamlet was so obsessed by emotions that he could not objectify, that there was nothing Shakespeare could do with the plot to express Hamlet who had worked himself to a point of inaction.

In summary, if we are to agree with the argument put forth by T.S. Eliot that art never improves even if the material of art changes, then it only makes sense that each new tragedy is a negotiation of inherited form and current ideas and fashions. This certainly seems to be the case as such famous tragedies such as Faustus, Hamlet, and The Spanish Tragedy – which clearly build not only upon older forms of English tragedy but also on classical forms such as that used by the Roman dramatist and philosopher, Seneca. Not only does the structure of these plays hark back to earlier times but also the tropes (ghosts and madness) and themes (revenge and Christian redemption).