Beginnings and Endings in Renaissance Drama

‘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.

Disguise as a Device in Renaissance Drama

VOLPONE: I ne’er was in dislike with my disguise

Till this fled moment.

(BEN JONSON, Volpone)

VolponeWith these lines Volpone indicates that he is becoming tired with pretending to be sick and wants to give up the con game (give me some wine to ‘fright’ this ‘humour’). Although not a disguise per se which necessitates change in identity but instead a change in condition, his feigning illness is still a deception perpetrated to further plot development.

However it is my contention that such change in condition as Volpone’s is not as helpful as it might be in understanding the significance of the device of disguise in Renaissance drama. This is because unlike with disguise, a mere change in someone’s condition (such as illness) does not allow him/her to leave his/her entire past behind him and become someone else altogether. If as postmodern philosophers like Foucault have suggested, the ‘self’ is narrated into existence by the stories that we and others tell us about us, then this ability to be someone else allows the disguised character to disconnect with his/her story and play an entirely different one to great effect.

For example, with Shakespeare’s King Lear, Edgar who is himself the victim of deceit, is able to dismiss all boundaries of wealth and class when he disguises himself as a poor (and slightly mad) beggar named Poor Tom. Lear himself sympathizes with Edgar’s situation (as Poor Tom) in a way that we can imagine would have been impossible had Poor Tom still been the Edgar that Lear had always known (or even a mad version of Edgar). In the process of this interchange with Poor Tom, however Lear learns something very important about his own situation (‘unaccommodated man’ is no more than an ‘animal’).

In Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy, Bel-Imperia’s servant, Pedringano, uses disguise to perpetrate his deceit in exposing his mistress and Horatio as lovers to her brother, Lorenzo and would-be lover Balthazar. If in the garden with her lover, Bel-Imperia had realised that is Pedringano accompanying Lorenzo and Balthazar, the game would have been given up much earlier and the play’s plot much changed; for example Hieronomo would have more quickly and easily identified his son’s murderers and audience would not have witnessed nearly so much of his agonizing prevarication, the very painful explorations of the nature of revenge that Kyd achieved would have fallen by the wayside.

In Middleton’s The Changeling, the substitution of Beatrice’s maid for Beatrice in consummating the latter’s marriage to Alsemero is also perpetrated by disguise. Beatrice cannot allow her husband to realise that she is not a virgin. Not only does this result in the maid’s death which furthers the plot (toward Alsemero’s understanding of what has been going on behind his back) but it furthers one of the primary themes of the play – that of changelings and explorations of what happens when a person or thing is (surreptitiously) exchanged for another.

But in this play disguise also operates at much more sophisticated level. Keeping in mind Foucault and the narrated ‘self’, we can see that even without a disguise Beatrice plays two roles/stories living up to at least two different ways that she is perceived; Alsemero’s ideal of womanly perfection and also DeFlores’s ideal of ugliness. At the end of the play when Alsemero is discussing with Beatrice’s father, Vermandero, the identity of Alonzo’s murderers, he even uses the term ‘disguise’ – (I have ‘two other’ that were more ‘close disguised’) in reference to the real perpetrators, Beatrice and DeFlores. Clearly the realisation that Beatrice had played such two different roles triggers an even greater epiphany for Alsemero than had Poor Tom’s disguise triggered for Lear – for at the very end of the play Alsemero willingly admits that although previously he had been a ‘little ass’ he now considers himself to be a ‘great fool’.

In summary, a mere change in condition (illness) such as that demonstrated by Volpone is not as useful as it might be in considering the significance of disguise in Renaissance drama. Even though Volpone suggests that he had almost become the sick man whose role he had been playing (‘fore God, my leg ‘gan to actually ‘have a cramp’) he is still not seen by others as a different person. This prevents furtherance of scenarios that actual disguise allows such as great epiphanies as with Lear and Poor Tom- or clandestine operations like with Bel-Imperia’s servant, Pedringano – both of which further plot by either clarification or confusion. In the case of Beatrice in The Changeling, disguise operates at several levels – in my view the most important being in demonstrating how one person can in effect be two persons because we define ‘self’ or personage in regards to the stories we and others tell about ourselves. If she had merely been feigning illness like Volpone, such differences would be been anticipated hence taking much of the sting away from Alsemero’s final realisation.