The Institution of Marriage in English Renaissance Drama

‘Marriage is a merri-age, and this world’s Paradise’ (Rachel Speght).

Catherine Richards notes in her essay, ‘Tragedy, family and household’(Cambridge Companion to English Renaissance Tragedy), there were two rulers to every household – the husband and wife – and although they were not equal (women always subservient to men) both parties were expected not only to work together for the benefit of the household but also to show mutual respect for each other.

As Richards also points out, the household was seen as the microcosm of the nation-state – the assumption being that to the extent individual households succeed, the nation-state does too. However the closeness of human relationships constrained by the physical shape of the household – a private yet familiar space – can and did lead to rather bizarre results especially when household loyalties break down.

Understanding the institution of marriage in this way, it becomes readily apparent that the romantic love that we in the 21st century so favour in relationships was not a key factor in the Renaissance equation. Hence it would appear that Ms Speght’s definition of marriage as ‘merri-age’ and ‘this world’s Paradise’ requires a wider interpretation than simply romance as no doubt she, herself a product of the Renaissance, would have understood.

At least in regards to tragedies of the period, romantic ‘love’ seems to have been a drawback. In Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy, the marriage of Bel-Imperia is very much a political game. When she decides to love Horatio, the son of the tragic protagonist, Hieronimo, rather than Balthazar, the choice of her brother, Lorenzo, and presumably also her father, the King of Spain, everrenaissance marriageything goes wrong; the result is that all the lovers must die. Likewise in Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi, the Duchess, a young widow is second-guessed by her jealous (and likely incestuous) twin brother, the choleric Ferdinand, on her choice of her household steward, Antonio, as a husband; again all lovers must die.

In The Changeling by Middleton and Rowley, there is some compromise in regards to romantic love. When Beatrice’s fiancée, Alonzo, chosen by her father, dies (murdered by Beatrice and her servant, Deflores), her choice of Alsemero (who took every opportunity to butter up Beatrice’s father) is accepted. Yet in this play ‘romance’ is still not straightforward, at least in the eyes of the tragic protagonist, Beatrice. Although she would say with her rational brain that she loves Alsemero, with her irrational unconscious she choses to become both emotionally and sexually entwined with her accomplice in murder, Deflores.

Yet because both women and slaves are considered exempt from (or incapable of) rational behaviour, the apparent requirement that both Beatrice and her lover must die here, remains to me, a bit of a mystery. I can only conclude that the breakdown of a household such as this was seen as such a political threat that it required death to bring such threat to an end.

In Renaissance comedy, the treatment of marriage is quite different. Usually one of the key ingredients of a comedy is that the play ends either in marriage (as does Shakespeare’s Midsummer’s Night Dream) or the promise of marriage. Unlike with tragedy, romance in our 21st century sense is more in evidence in comedy and it usually is rewarded as with Midsummer’s Night Dream where all the warring couples are at the end, happily united in matrimony. However unlike with the tragedies, the comedies do not usually probe the personal dynamics of a marriage as deeply as do the tragedies.

For example, in Jonson’s Volpone, the character Corvino is shown to be as unjustifiably jealous of his pretty wife, Celia, as is Leontes over his wife, Hermione, in Shakespeare’s tragi-comedy, The Winter’s Tale. Indeed the jealous husband is often a motif in Renaissance drama – perhaps reminding us again that all is not right when in a marriage, there is no mutual respect. The outcome of these comedies differ dramatically however with how the jealous husband reacts. With Corvino the slightest provocation (Celia only tossed her handkerchief out her window – she was hardly caught in bed with another man) sets him to berate his wife most unbecomingly – taking his sword he threatens to ‘strike this steel into thee’ and then promises to ‘lock’ her up and ‘keep thee backwards’ which has rather seedy implications of its own.

Whilst Corvino later appears to try to patch things up with his wife, it is only to lure her to Volpone’s house – where (unbeknownst to her) he has arranged lease her out as a whore. With this, Corvino has now gone much too far and we are not surprised when later the four magistrates punish him by taking away his wife and sending her home to her father. Like Corvino, Leontes also loses his wife – at least for a time – but he does finally see the error of his ways (in a way that we can imagine Corvino never could) and when he has suffered enough for his bad behaviour, his wife is (more or less magically) restored to him.

In summary, during the English Renaissance, the institution of marriage was viewed as a partnership whereby both husband and wife had responsibilities to the household as a whole. Because the household was seen as a microcosm for the nation-state, the success/failure of the individual household had important political implications and hence romance, as we might understand it in the 21st century, was not usually a key ingredient. In the tragedies, romance was usually an impediment and always gave way to more important political goals. However in the comedies, romance was not necessarily seen as a problem and indeed many comedies end with a happy marriage, as with Midsummer’s Night Dream. However this was not always the case and in some comedies such as Volpone or tragi-comedies such as The Winter’s Tale, a marriage partnership that had become sufficiently unbalanced was either terminated or (painfully) repaired.

Structuralism and the ‘New Perspective’ on Literature

StructuralismStructuralism holds that a culture can be understood by means of the structure upon which its language, or structural linguistics, is modelled. This is because according to Saussure, the meanings assigned to words as well as the relationship between words (i.e. sentence structure) are maintained solely by convention. I have found this ‘new perspective’ of structuralism valuable in my study of literature because it provides enriched understanding about various cultural values and beliefs underlying the texts. It does however have its drawbacks which should be acknowledged if such value is not to be severely diminished.

For example, in 1.2 of Shakespeare’s play I Henry IV, when Hal proposes that when he becomes king, Falstaff should serve as his hangman, Falstaff responds that this ‘jumps with my humour’. Without placing the word ‘humour’ in its correct cultural context, I might be tempted to interpret this as an expression of Falstaff’s present mood. This would make it much more difficult to make meaningful connections with the lines that follow whereby Falstaff suggests he is as ‘melancholy’ as a ‘gib cat’ or ‘lugg’d bear’. However when I consider such comparisons to be signs of early modern cultural convention, values, and beliefs, I find myself addressing the complexities of Galenic humoralism which incorporates ideas about inborn temperaments relating to scarcity or excesses of bodily fluids – in the case of melancholy that of black bile. Hence Falstaff is not just feeling melancholy– he is melancholic. This has implications for his future because by nature of his humours, regardless of what he might wish to be otherwise, he is non-energetic, serious, solitary, suspicious, and mistrustful. Now the associations with animals (all mammals with blood were considered to be effect by the humours) start to make sense; the ‘gib cat’ or gelded (castrated) cat signals Falstaff is always ineffectual and the ‘lugg’d bear’ suggests that he realises he is being baited by Hal but is unable to do anything about it.

As a feminist looking at texts through structuralist eyes, I am also able to hone in on sex-inflected signifiers pointing to specific patriarchal cultural values I am keen to eliminate. For example in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Hamlet prematurely presumes his mother behind the death of his father – ‘frailty, thy name is woman’ – taking this as a signal of key cultural attitudes I am able to identify it as insidiously dangerous for women as is Virginia Woolf’s ‘Milton’s bogey’ (the depiction of Eve as inferior, alone responsible for mans’ eviction from the Garden or Eden in Paradise Lost). According to Gilbert and Gubar, such attitudes inherent in some of the most important works comprising the literary ‘canon’, cuts women from the ‘spaciousness of possibility’. Once such ‘signs’ of cultural attitudes as this are identified, they can be openly discussed and hopefully dispersed. But whilst they remain buried in the unconscious minds of readers, they continue to give weight to damaging cultural attitudes and beliefs.

Not only that but the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss expanded the tenets of structuralism to the interpretation of myths and stories and the identification of various motifs and themes repeating through cultures and history. Armed with such understanding, I come to Eliot’s poem, The Waste Land, ready to rely on, for example, the myths and legends surrounding the wounded Fisher King of Arthurian fame regarding the unfavourable consequences of a society’s sterility to help me understand the consequences of section about the bored typist and her equally disempowered clerk as they have sex without consequence or pleasure in The Fire Sermon of that poem.

However valuable structuralism are in focusing on valuable insight on other cultural believes, it has its drawbacks: for example it is impossible for me to neutralise the effect of my own cultural values and beliefs when I read about Falstaff and his melancholy. Although I can intellectually understand the significance of his humours for his future in terms of early modern ideals, I still cannot stop thinking if only he could get some psychological help (such as we are accustomed to request today), things would have turned out differently for him and such thoughts distract me from the realities of the story that Shakespeare wrote. Not only that, but in reaching so far into the cultural underpinnings of a text, I take my eyes further and further away from the text in its own right.

Also, it is through structuralism that Roland Barthes developed his position regarding the relationship between author, text, and meaning. While I agree in some respects that the reader is at least a co-author of a text in the sense that he or she will necessarily interpret text in line with his or her own cultural beliefs (as I did with Falstaff and his melancholy), I cannot agree with Barthes that the ‘birth of the reader’ spells the ‘death of the author’. Although we can never be certain what Shakespeare was trying to achieve by having Hamlet make such an affront to women in his speech regarding frailty, we do know that he meant them there for some purpose and (given the 16th century culture of which he was a product) that such purpose is more than likely at odds at least in some respects with any meaning that I coming from a 21st century mind-set might make of them. Just realising this makes us aware of the implications of any meaning that we might chose to assign.

In summary, whilst considering a text through the framework of structuralism (in the sense that I acknowledge that each word or sentence on the page is a signal pointing toward some deeper underlying cultural perspectives), my reading and understanding of literature is expanded and enriched. Further, I am able to articulate certain words and phrases that signal cultural perspectives with which I wish to take issue – for example as a feminist I am interested in covert patriarchal textual jibes at women. However the structrualist approach does have drawbacks, not the least in respect to at least as a co-author of textual meaning, I am unable to neutralise the effect of my own cultural perspectives on a text and whilst trying to undercover all that underlies any text, I take my focus further away from that text.

New Historicism – the Relationship Between Literature and History

New HistoricismUnlike with other historicist approaches to literature, for a New Historicist history is not (or not just) a backdrop against which, for example, a play like Shakespeare’s King Lear was written; the connections between such a text and the historical (facts/events) conditions in which it was written are always more complex. This is because New Historicism refuses to prioritize a literary text. Instead it focuses on parallel readings of other literary and non-literary texts in order to frame the text in a politically-charged and fully-embodied ‘historical’ experience.

In his essay Shakespeare and the Exorcists, Stephen Greenblatt makes clear that whilst we acknowledge that Shakespeare used historical background material for King Lear (like a contemporary account of exorcisms written by one Samuel Harsnett that provided the names of the fiends like Flibbertigibbet that hounded Edgar, the disguised Poor Tom), we cannot assume that the borrowing of information was a one way street. Perhaps others borrowed as much from Shakespeare as he did from them? If so, then what might this mean for the ‘larger cultural text’?

The New Historicist reminds us that history itself is ‘written’ in the same way as is a literary text. More importantly, the history that we are most likely to read was written by the ‘winning’ side – i.e. those who successfully held and retained power. Rather like Michel Foucault, the New Historicist believes that words are power and that it is through words that we are ‘communicated’ into being. Those who would ‘normalise’ and ‘socialise’ us to their purposes will ‘write’ history to suit their purposes.

Hence Greenblatt examines the ‘institutional strategies’ in which both Lear and Harnsett’s account of exorcisms are embedded. He concludes that both are part of an ‘intense’ and sustained struggle’ to redefine societal values during the late 16th and early 17th centuries in regards to sacred institutions upon which of course the king’s ‘divine right’ to rule rested. It was all part of a politically inspired strategy to ‘reinscribe evil’ on the ‘professed enemies of evil’ – and if by his text Harnsett was trying to expose this ruse for what it was – performance/theatre (and apparently he was somewhat successful in this goal), then perhaps the message that Shakespeare meant to send along with his character Poor Tom (whether intentionally or not) was along the same lines?

We will never know for certain but by regularly asking questions such as this, New Historicists problematise the understanding of the relationship between literature and history. There are many who are happy reading the significance of Poor Tom and related references to Bedlam as a symbol of the madness into which the play is descending or as reflective of the way in which ‘mad’ people were treated during the period. After all Bedlam was a bricks and mortar place with a reputation and history which is well documented and to make too much more of Poor Tom and Bedlam than that, is not without it dangers.

While it is true that all texts, both literary and non-literary, carry history with them, it would seem all too easy (in hindsight) for the New Historicists to discover links and influences that simply were not present at the time; or if they were present then it is equally easy to under or estimate their effect; looking back in time, one is hardly likely to get the mix exactly right for not only are they dealing with contemporary 16th and 17th century interpretations of what was going on at the time but we are throwing in own 21st century gloss as well. Indeed this is part of the goal of Cultural Materialism – using present day materials (like a program from a recent production of King Lear) to examine cultural consistencies between then and now.

This brings up a whole new set of potential problems through trying to identify issues that are timeless – in the sense that they were topical both in the 16th/17th centuries and in the 21st century. Whilst in some regards history does repeat, it is again all too easy to look back in time and overlay contemporary concerns onto historical situations in a way that is at best inappropriate and at worst, rewriting history to suit New Historicist viewpoints in the same way that along with Foucault, they often accuse others. This is especially true as they move further and further away from the actual text in front of them as they conjecture how it is that language really works.

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.

Tradition and Form in Renaissance Tragedy

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).

The Significance of Humoural Theory in Early Modern Drama

UnknownWhen Rosencrantz and Guildenstern arrive at Court in Shakespeare’s play Hamlet, the character Hamlet comments (in regards to the theatrical entertainments to be performed) that ‘the Humorous Man shall end his part in peace’ (2.2, 320). By ‘humorous’ Hamlet cannot mean ‘amusing’, ‘comic’, or ‘funny’ (OED A 4) ) for according to the OED that meaning came first into use in 1652, approximately fifty years after Hamlet was written. Instead Hamlet is referring to humoural theory which was in keeping with ancient and medieval physiology and medicine (OED A 1) as expounded by Empedocles, Hippocrates, and Galen – four building blocks or ‘roots’ of the material world with shared qualities resulting in certain physiological and psychological manifestations called humours and temperaments (Greenbaum, 7-18) found in all warm-blooded animals (Paster, 115):

Fire Hot/dry Yellow Bile Choleric
Earth Cold/dry Black Bile Melancholic
Water Cold/wet Phlegm Phlegmatic
Air Hot/wet Blood Sanguine

The idea is not so much that, for example, black bile causes melancholy but that in some way it resides in it; in this sense ‘melancholy’ is not just a passing mood (as we might use the word today) but more or less a way of being in the world (Paster, 116-117). Humoural theory ascribed certain characteristic proclivities to the various temperaments as follows (taken from The Regimen of Health by John Harington, 1607, reproduced in Greenbaum, Appendix E and Nicholas Culpeper’s Descriptions of Temperament, reproduced in Greenbaum Appendix D)):

Choleric Violent, fierce, ambitious, proud, oft malicious, courageous, quick-witted, bold, given to jesting, mocking and lying.
Melancholic Studious, solitary, pensive, musing, suspicious, avoids sport, harbours anger and hate, covetous, cowardly, envious, obstinate, spiteful and squeamish.
Phlegmatic Inclining to be fat, slothful, deadened spirit, dulled senses, little growth, dreamy (of great rains and drowning), sleepy, forgetful, shamefaced and sober.
Sanguine Loves women, wine, and all recreation (especially cards), merciful, courteous, enjoys pleasantries and music, not apt to take offence or be ireful, inclined to weep easily but little affected by grief.

In telling us that it is the ‘humorous’ character who will ‘end his part in peace -Hamlet hints that the theme of finding balance is one of the key significances of humoural theory for early modern drama. In his play Cynthia’s Revels, Ben Jonson expounds on this idea; ‘a creature of most perfect and divine temper’ is ‘one, in whom the Humours and Elements are peaceably met’ (i.e. balanced); whether this requires balance of all four humours or just two or three remains unclear and hence for purposes of this essay I will assume that balance is achieved when there remains no ‘emulation of Precedencie’. Jonson notes that should a man wish, to ensure his Humours and Elements are ‘peaceably met’, he must ‘strive’ through both his ‘discourse’ and ‘behaviour’ to be ‘Judicious’ (i.e. sensible in all matters’ (OED ad A 1). In other words, if the required effort is made and humoural balance is achieved such that no single temperament dominates, then according to Jonson ‘Fortune could never break’ a man (excerpt from Cynthia’s Revels is reproduced by Greenbaum, 38).humoral theory

Naturally no person could consist of a single temperament – as far back as Galan in the 2nd century it has been accepted that such ‘pure’ states are not possible in nature (Greenbaum, 14). Because the four temperaments share certain qualities, combinations are to be expected; in his translation of Galen’s Art of Physick (reproduced by Greenbaum in Appendix F), Nicholas Culpeper helpfully includes descriptions of certain ‘compound’ temperaments – for example a Choleric/Melancholic (sharing dryness) not only dreams of ‘Murders’ and ‘Hurts’ proceeding from ‘fire, fighting, or anger’ but is also ‘quick Witted’ and ‘studious’; he is however more ‘suspicious’, ‘fretful’, and ‘solitary’ than Choleric men. Not only that but in regards to men (but not to women) the transition from hot/dry (during adulthood all men are presumed to be hot/dry) to cold/dry occurs naturally with age (aging lowers body temperature).

Still it is not unusual to display a dominant temperament – for example Hamlet’s tendency to melancholy is more than evident when Rosencrantz and Guildenstern arrive. Not only does he tell them that he has ‘lost all my mirth’ but also that he has ‘forgone all custom of exercises’ (2.2, 294-5). Later in the same scene he actually names his complaint – ‘my melancholy’; (2.2 590). But regardless of how many times Rosencrantz reminds Hamlet of his ‘ambitions’ (2.2, 250-260) – suggesting that Hamlet’s friend sees him as Choleric/Melancholic and hence having ambitions – Hamlet refuses (whether consciously or unconsciously) to engage with the full range of his temperaments – he does not ‘strive’ to be ‘judicious’ but instead allows himself to wallow in melancholy’s ‘foul and pestilent congregation of vapours’ (2.2, 300-301). In his essay Hamlet and His Problems, TS Eliot (81-87) concludes that such refusal leaves Hamlet ‘dominated by an emotion’ which ‘is inexpressible’ – he can neither ‘understand’ nor ‘objectify’ it – and if a key character such as Hamlet remains inexpressible on stage, then as Eliot suggests the play is an ‘artistic failure’.

This is not to suggest that all such exaggerations of type result in artistic failure. Compare Hamlet with Shakespeare’s I Henry IV – where in the opening conversation between Prince Hal and Falstaff (1.2, 69-70) the latter declares himself ‘as melancholy as a gib cat’ (cats by nature, are melancholy, Paster, 119). When Hal goes on to compare Falstaff with ‘an old lion’ or ‘a lover’s lute’ – again associated with melancholy (Paster, 115) – Falstaff plays along until Hal invokes the ‘melancholy of Moorditch’ (1.2, 73-74) at which point – with this implication of fetid stagnancy – Falstaff begs off the game (‘thou has the most unsavoury similes’, 1.2, 76). Although obviously aware of his humoural difficulties, like Hamlet, Falstaff fails (perhaps due to age) to balance his melancholy. Yet to my knowledge no one (including TS Eliot) has suggested that Henry IV is an artistic failure and this may be at least in part because by the end of 2 Henry IV the Choleric Hal (he has ambitions as he tells us from the start – ‘Yet herein will I imitate the sun, I.2, 186) and the Melancholic Falstaff cancel each other out. As Eliot (95) notes, in Shakespeare’s successful works his characters act upon each other in a way that is always fitting to their characteristic proclivities; there seems little doubt that Hal heightens his own fortunes at the expense of Falstaff’s.

Shakespeare’s use of humoural theory in Henry IV is in sharp contrast to that of Jonson. TS Eliot (89) suggests that in order to appreciate Jonson’s work, we must not look at the ‘emotional tone’ in a ‘single verse’, but instead at the ‘design of the whole’ work. This is because the success of Jonson’s comedies (but not his tragedies) is not because the characters have an effect on each other (as is the case with Shakespeare) but instead because of the effect of their combination as a whole (Eliot, 94).

Jonson’s work is satire and satire levels criticism against the real world. Thus it should thus come as no surprise that Jonson does not depict humours as balanced – but exactly the reverse – fortune breaks those who allow their characteristic proclivities to slide too far out of balance. Jonson himself has said in the Prologue to Every Man and His Humour that his intention is to ‘sport with human follies’ and ‘laugh at them’ because ‘they deserve no less’. Yet that is not to say that Jonson is more interested in the generation of laughter than in obtaining humoural balance; in his next sentence he qualifies that having seen his play ‘there’s hope left’ that once ‘you, that have so graced monsters’, may learn what it means to be men.

volp2If we are to learn from Jonson, then as TS Eliot suggests (89) we must look to the ‘design of the whole’ work. Like Hamlet, Jonson’s characters are exaggerations of type. Unlike Falstaff and Prince Hal, they fail to balance each other. However they become balanced as the result of the actions of outside forces. For example in Volpone balance is delivered through punishments imposed by the Avocatori, or four Magistrates; with Every Man in His Humour balance comes through the judgements of Justice Clement, also a magistrate. I further suggest that each character’s punishment/ judgement is in keeping with something that triggers a balancing shift in dominant temperament.

For example, in Volpone, the majority of the major players – Volpone, Mosca, Voltore, Corbaccio, and Corvino for the most part display a single domimant temperament as the gulls obsequiously line up to secure their anticipated booty when the ‘childless, rich’ hoaxter Volpone ‘feigns sick’ and ‘offers his state to hopes of several heirs’ (The Argument, 1- 7): they receive balancing punishments as follows:

Volpone Choleric – hot/dry – quick-witted, bold, given to jesting, mocking and lying.


Along with his servant, Mosca, he plots the hoax on the others because he glories ‘more in the cunning purchase of my wealth’ than it its ‘possession (I i, 30-33).

Sanguine – hot/wet – not apt to take offence and little affected by grief.

Although he looses all wealth and sent to prison – he addresses the audience at end of the play indicating that for him ‘no suffering is due’ if the audience praises him – ‘clap your hands’ (Epilogue, 1-6)

Mosca Choleric – hot/dry – quick-witted, bold, given to jesting, mocking and lying.

Along with his master, he plots the hoax but turns on him in the end – refusing to acknowledge the hoax hoping to ‘inherit’ Volpone’s money himself.

Melancholic – cold/dry – harbours anger and hate, spiteful.

Sentenced to be whipped and sent to the galleys as a slave, he hisses to his accomplice in crime, ‘Bane to thy wolfish nature (V xii. 115)


Voltore Melancholic – cold/dry – covetous, cowardly, envious.


Although a lawyer, he perjures himself to ensure he gets the ‘inheritance’ – Volpone realises this and plays Voltore further – ‘unscrew my advocate upon new hopes’ (V Xi, 20).

Phlegmatic – Cold/wet – shamefaced and sober.

After disbarred – V xiii, 126-128, we imagine he is shamefaced to have so scandalized the worthy men of his profession.

Corbaccio Melancholic – cold/dry – covetous, cowardly, envious.


In order to secure he is Volpone’s sole heir he disinherits is own son.

‘And disinherit my son? (I iv,95-96) and ‘Tis done, ‘tis done, I go’ (I iv, 132).


Phlegmatic – Cold/wet – shamefaced and sober.

Upon losing all his worldly goods & being sent to a monastery to ‘die well’ at V xiii, 1129-1330 we can imagine his spirit will be deadened.

Corvino Sanguine – hot/wet – Loves women.

It is his prize, his beautiful wife, that he offers up in order to secure his ‘inheritance’. “The party, you wot of, Shall be min own wife (II vi, 80-81).

Choleric – hot/dry – quick-witted, quick to anger.

Sentenced to public humiliation and losing his wife at V xiii, 134-139 –he reacts angrily but cleverly – ‘I shall not see my shame, yet’.

In summary, the significance of humoural theory in Early Modern Drama is to be found in a character’s success or failure in ending ‘his part in peace’ in the sense that by the end of the play, his ‘Humours and Elements are peaceably met’ – or balanced. This can occur either through (1) striving to judiciously ensure no one temperament dominates to the end as Hamlet failed to do or (2) balancing dominate temperaments with other characters as did Prince Hal and his friend, Falstaff. Additionally Jonson has demonstrated that a character’s unbalanced humoural temperaments can achieve balance through the ‘design of the whole work’ by having balance imposed from the outside.





Jonson, Ben. Five Plays. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.

Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.

Shakespeare, William. 1 Henry IV. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.

Eliot, T.S. The Sacred Wood: Essays on Poetry and Criticism. London: Faber and Faber, 1997.

Greenbaum, Dorian Gieseler. Temperament – Astrology’s Forgotten Key. Bournemouth: The Wessex Astrologer Ltd, 2005.

Paster, Gail Kern. ‘Melancholy Cats, Lugged Bears, and Early Modern Cosmology: Reading Shakespeare’s Psychological Materialism Across the Species Barrier’ (113-129). Reading the Modern Early Passions – Essays in the Cultural History of Emotion, ed. Gail Kern Paster, Katherine Rose, and Mary Floyd-Wilson. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004.

The Fatness of Falstaff & the politics of redemption

Word on the street is that Wonga, the controversial Internet payday lender, is preparing for an IPO (Initial Public Offering). This anticipated share flotation could yield its owners in excess of £100 million.

But first, after having been publically disgraced for charging interest rates in excess of 5,000% (APR) and using fake law firms to harass its hapless borrowers, Woimagesnga must redeem its ‘bad-boy’ public image.

In October 2013 Wonga reported £1.2 billion in lending (an increase of 68%) and pre-tax profits of £34.5 million (an increase of 35% on the previous year). In October 2014, following government intervention, Wonga is writing off £220 million in customer receivables and revising its lending practices. Some market-savvy commentators suggest such redemption is strategic for that anticipated IPO. I can only imagine how right they are in that.

In his first soliloquy of Shakespeare’s 1 Henry IV (1.2. 185-204), Hal (the future Henry V) plots his own ‘redemption’. Like Wonga, he will shed his ‘bad-boy’ image being ‘like a bright metal on a sullen ground’ – a light that will ‘attract more eyes’ than if it had ‘no foil to set it off’. By referencing the ‘base contagious clouds’ and ‘foul and ugly mists’ the ‘vapours’ of which ‘did seem to strangle him’, Hal announces his foil to be none other than ‘fat-guts’ (2.2.29) Falstaff – and friends – that charismatic, largeUnknownr-than-life, ‘oily rascal’ –(2.4.507-508) with whom he has chosen to spend so much time.

There have been as many theories about why Falstaff is fat as there are those who have pondered the question; a parody of puritan ethics (Bulman, 160), signature of the opacity of character (Bulman 161), symbol of Vice as in Morality plays (Bulman, 162).

At first I had concluded that the question of Falstaff’s fatness need not be more complicated than as a proper foil for Hal – ‘a starveling,’ an ‘eel-skin’ a ‘bull’s pizzle’ and a ‘stockfish’ (2.4.237-238) – Falstaff had to be fat – really fat – larger than life, fat. Indeed he must be fat as life itself – ‘banish plump Jack, and banish all the world’ (2.4.461-462). The more obvious is the difference between Hal and Falstaff, the better. Contrast of colour or quality to set something off to advantage is what being a ‘foil’ is all about (OED n 6).

This is the easy option. This is the most obvious, most moral answer. This the solution to which, at least modern audiences, are most attuned. I mean with the words ‘I banish thee’ as ‘I have done the rest of my misleaders’ (2 Henry IV 5.5.62-64) who wouldn’t want to believe that Hal was nothing more than an ordinary adolescent under pressure to put his youthful rebellion and associated friends behind him?

Yet the more I considered the question, the more I became convinced there was more to it than that. After all if according to Desmond Barrit (143), who played the role of Falstaff in an RSC production, Falstaff was the most complex part he has ever played then as Falstaff’s counterpart, Hal must be equally as complex.

According to Adrian Lester (148) who played the role of Hal in an RSC production of Henry V, in that first soliloquy (1 Henry IV.1.2. 185-204) with its image of the clouds hiding the sun, Hal reveals the kind of ego necessary to fill the role of king to which he was born. Not only that, but Lester suggests that by introducing the notion that he should be ‘wondered at’ (1.2.199), Hal is signalling that we should never be too certain that we know or understand him.

So why had Hal ordered Peto to search Falstaff’s pockets while he was asleep (1 Henry IV .2.4. 510-530)? Why had Hal allowed Falstaff to falsely claim he had killed Percy – especially after having told his father that he would ‘redeem himself’ on Percy’s head’ (3.2.132)? If Hal is so quick to comply with Falstaff’s deception – ‘(I)f a lie may do thee grace/I’ll gild it with the happiest terms I have’ (5.5.152-153), then what other deceptions might he be willing to perpetrate?

In that first soliloquy, Hal reveals all – by paying ‘the debt I never promised’, he plans not only to ‘redeem time’ (redemption implies the ‘discharge or paying off a debt or obligation’, (OED, n 6b) but also to ‘falsify men’s hopes’.

It is possible that debt to which he is referring is the repayment of the money Falstaff plans to steal from the pilgrims at Gad’s Hill. Yet it is difficult to imagine that if, as he said himself – he was neither a thief (1.2.130) nor did he intend to involved in this caper (except to the degree he agreed with Poins to return the money to its rightful owners – 1.2.136) why Hal would believe this to be his debt to repay. It is even harder to imagine that by returning something to its rightful owners Hal would ‘falsify’ the ‘hopes’ of anyone.

Whose hopes, then, does Hal intend to ‘falsify’? The obvious answer is Falstaff’s. That those hopes might have been unrealistic from the start does not alter the fact that Hal has constantly sent Falstaff mixed messages in regards to how far he might push their relationship – one moment Hal playfully suggests he will renounce Falstaff (2.4.463) and the next he allows Falstaff the glory of having been responsible for Percy’s death (5.5.152-153).

To whose ‘debt’, then, is Hal referring? This answer is not so obvious although I suggest that it was that of his father, incurred in usurping the throne of Richard II. There is little doubt that some believed that Henry IV had incurred such an obligation – Hotspur says as much (1.3.185) when he urges his kinsmen to obtain ‘revenge’ from this ‘proud king’ to ‘answer all the debt he owes.”

Likewise there is little doubt that said debt weighed heavily on Hals’ father’s mind. Indeed Shakespeare chose to commence the play with Henry IV’s ruminations on the ‘bitterness’ of the ‘civil butchery’ that ensued from his actions (1.1.13). Bulman (158) suggests this was why Hal chose to idle away his time in a tavern rather than at his father’s court.

Let’s face it – Wonga is not writing off £220 million in customer receivables to be nice guys. By repaying a ‘debt’ that ‘he never promised’ to pay, Hal is not being a nice guy either. Bulman (158) reminds us that Elizabethan audiences were aware of the importance of public self-fashioning. Being publically seen to redeem oneself could not have been any less politically astute in Elizabethan times than it is today and if we know anything about Hal, it is that he is politically astute.

I suggest that if we believe that it was only with Percy’s head that Hal planned to redeem himself, we would be wrong. Elsewise he could never have so easily have given that distinction to Falstaff. In truth, Hal needs something much more than Percy’s head to ensure the success of his own IPO (Initial Public Offering) and that something is to secure a legitimate alternative to divine right to the throne via redemption of his father’s debt.

Bottom line then is that however much Hal might have genuinely cared for Falstaff, he had planned from the start to use him up like a Kleenex – because in order to complete his redemption, the prodigal son must consume the ‘fatted calf’.

By comparing himself to the well-appreciated sun coming out after being obscured by those ‘base contagious clouds’ (1.2.180-190), Hal clarifies his understanding that those who redeem themselves are more revered than those who remain steadfast. He also clarifies that he intends to use this to his advantage – ‘I’ll so offend to make offence a skill,’ (1.2.204). Finally (1.2.183) he clarifies that it was for such purposes that he never intended to remain long with Falstaff and friends – ‘I know you all, and will awhile uphold (emphasis added). He even hints that Falstaff will become the sacrificial ‘fatted calf’ – while play-acting with Falstaff, Hal refers to him as a ‘roast manningree ox with pudding in his belly’ (2.4.336) who ‘run and roared as ever I heard bull-calf’ (2.4.252).

That Falstaff is sacrificed every bit as is the ‘fatted calf’ is undeniable. In the final scene of 2 Henry IV (5.5.46-47) Hal tells Falstaff ‘I know thee not, old man’ and then leaves the Lord Chief Justice leave to toss Falstaff and friends in jail (5.5.88-89).

Bulman (173) suggests that if Falstaff had not been so presumptuous as to publically claim Hal as his own ‘sweet boy’ (5.5.39) in the midst of his coronation, Hal would not have so callously denounced Falstaff. That might or might not be true. But I suggest that if Hal knows anything about Falstaff, he knows that that Falstaff loves him like a father and that such treatment will be the death of his fat friend.

bad boysAt the end of the day it is not Wonga’s owners (nor their equity investors) who will pay for its redemption but those two million customers who have already paid interest rates in excess of 5,000% (APR). Likewise, at the end of the day it is not Hal (nor his family) who will pay for his redemption but Falstaff. Such is the politics of redemption – success requires sacrifice and this is best accomplished through the sacrifice of someone else.

In summary, (1) both Hal and Wonga need to redeem their ‘bad boy’ imagesimages-2 and t (2) such redemptions are best funded at the expense of someone else. It remains to be seen whether Wonga’s redemption pays off for its founders but we already know that Hal’s most certainly did. As the Bishop of Ely replies in in answer to the Archbishop of Canterbury’s marvelling over Hal’s ‘reformation’, ‘we are blessed in the change’ (Henry V. 1.1.76).




Bevington, David, ed. Henry IV Part One. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.

Taylor, Gary, ed. Henry V. Oxford; Oxford University Press, 1982.

Weis, Rene, ed. Henry IV Part Two. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Barrit, Desmond. ‘Falstaff in Parts I and 2 of Henry IV’ (128-144). Players of Shakespeare 6. ed. Smallwood, Robert. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

Bulman, James. C. ‘Henry IV, Parts I and 2’ (158- 176). The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare’s History Plays. ed. Michael Hattaway. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

Dollimore, J. and Sinfield, A. eds. Political Shakespeare. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1994.

Greenblatt, Stephen. ‘Invisible bullets: Renaissance authority and its subversion, Henry IV and Henry V’, (pp. 18-47), ed. Jonathan Dollimore and Alan Sinfield. Political Shakespeare: Essays in cultural materialism, (Ithaca), Cornell University Press, 1994.

Harriss, GL ed., Henry V: The Practice of Kingship. Stroud: Alan Sutton Publishing Ltd., 1993.

Lester, Adrian. “King Henry V” (145-162). Players of Shakespeare 6. ed. Smallwood, Robert. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004.