10 Early Modern Plays That You Should Read – Non Shakespeare

Usually, I avoid the whole top ten list format, but this is a topic that was suggested by one of my students and I thought, hey, why not?  Let’s make this fun.  The early modern period is fairly arcane, so most people don’t know where to start.  I know I thought that back in the day.  So, first off, start by reading all of Shakespeare.  I’m just going to assume that you have read all of Shakespeare.  If you haven’t, you should read it all now.  Go ahead.  I’ll wait.
You are done?  Even Timon of Athens?  C’mon, give it a chance.  It gets better, I swear!
Did you remember The Double Falsehood?  OK, yeah, there I am being pedantic, I admit it.  But there’s probably some Shakespeare in there somewhere, right?
Anyhow, now that you are done reading all of that, let’s look at some of the big plays from the period that you OUGHT to read.

#10 & 9

Tamburlaine, Part 1 (Marlowe)

Tamburlaine, Part 2 (Marlowe)

These plays are huge.  Huge in the sense of scope and huge in the sense of importance.  The first read through tends to be a bit misleading or confusing if only because these plays have a heavy focus on spectacle – battle scenes, grand entrances, coups de theatre.  If only because of those, you should stop every so often and ask yourself, how would this be done on an unlimited budget?
Now add about 100 000 angry swordsmen
Imagine if you could use CGI monsters like George Lucas in Star Wars and grand sweeps of the beautiful desert landscape like David Lean in Lawrence of Arabia while getting the grittiness of Stephen Spielberg in Saving Private Ryan… but all in the same production.  Then, add in the best poetry that the period had to offer and you have a beginning of what this would have been like.
The basic story is the history of the late medieval central Asian potentate, Timur the Lame, who began life as a humble shepherd until he realized that tending sheep for the rest of his life would be interminably boring, so he decided to conquer the world.  Seriously.  The whole world.  Tamburlaine is not just like your cousin Jeff who woke up one day with that great idea to declare his farm independent from the government.  Tamburlaine actually ascends from shepherd, to bandit, to general, to king, to hyper conquerer.
Now, add more blood.
Oh, and did I mention that the main character is a psychopath?  Like, a legit psycho who at the end of part two says that being a king of, like, Asia, isn’t good enough and launches an all out assault on God?  WHY HAS THIS NOT BEEN MADE INTO A MOVIE ALREADY?

Bartholomew Fair (Jonson)

When this play was first performed in the early modern period, it was a flop.  A tremendous flop.  If it were made today as a movie, it might compete with Gigli for worst moneyloser in history.  Why study it then?
Acted in the year 1614, but not again until the twentieth century.
For one, Ben Jonson is at the end of his height in Bartholomew Fair.  He’s still at the peak of his powers, but whereas in other plays he is obsessively sniping at other playwrights, or desperate to show how much Latin he has read while his audience was out drinking and whoring, here, he’s just happy to stick to the world of London itself.
The play itself lampoons the pretensions of the middle classes in London as it follows a motley cast of characters around the eponymous market fair.  The characters cheat each other, steal, whore, drink and eat too much, and generally act awfully.  For all of the satire though, Jonson (perhaps strangely for him) shows a real tenderness for some of the characters.  He actually seems to like some of the ne’er-do-wells and the buffoons.
Wrong period, but you get the sense of energy and movement.
I think the thing that really gets me about this play every time I read it, however, is the attention paid to the language of the citizen.  It is impossible to know what early modern Londoners sounded like as they were going about their business, but there’s something so terribly colloquial about Jonson’s prose.  If this isn’t what they sounded like, it must be at least very, very close to it.

Arden of Faversham (Anonymous)

People used to argue about who wrote Arden of Faversham, like somehow who wrote it mattered.  Shakespeare, some claimed.  Kyd, others.  I don’t care.  Fact is, here, you have the first “true crime” drama in English history, pre-dating Dragnet by 357 years.
The moral of the story?  Don’t play backgammon.
The play ostensibly sets out to show a moral tale of deceit and treachery – how Arden’s wife, Alice, sets about to kill him and is eventually caught.  Thing is, it is remarkably sophisticated in its presentation of Arden himself.  He’s not an innocent victim and in many ways the audience is invited to, if not sympathize then at least, understand the murderous actions of Alice.
So many tropes of crime and detective fiction/drama are set up here for the first time.  The morally compromised victim, the confession, the hired murderers, the almost farcical repeated attempts on Arden’s life – all can be seen in later dramas.
That said, I don’t see Veronica Lake as Alice Arden.
Thing that always gets me is that everyone in the audience would have known the story behind this play and thus how it ended.  The idea of novelty was never one that was chief in the minds of the early moderns, but here, they would have been expecting and anticipating the eventual ghastly murder.  Does this render them (and us) a little complicit?
This is the play that never ends.
This play was so popular throughout the period that you had revivals of it thirty, forty years later.  It was the early modern version of Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap.

The Roaring Girl (Middleton and Dekker)

Students often come into university with a progressive model of history – that, for instance, women have it better now than they ever have, and this has been achieved through increments that will continue to grow towards greater and greater equality.  Usually this is accompanied by the idea that anything before 1950 was a horrible time for women when they couldn’t do or say anything.
Which will kill faster, the pipe or the sword?
The Roaring Girl gives the lie to this vision of history, if nothing else.  It tells the story of Moll Cutpurse, a cross dressing woman who, over the course of the narrative, moves between the underworld and the legitimate middle classes of London to eventually ensure that a marriage plot is brought about.  A crazy story.  An unbelievable story.
A story based on a real woman.
I don’t know what is up with the bird… seriously, any ideas?
Moll Cutpurse was another name for the woman Mary Frith who, we know, attended the productions.  She was not only IN the audience, but she got up on stage and spoke TO the audience.  She was a smoker, a swearer, a woman who wore a sword, and (if the play is to be believed) could use the sword!  She was in every respect not what a woman was “supposed” to be in the period.
The play itself is fascinated with the liminal positions that can be occupied within the gender roles that were available at the time.  Moll could be a woman who acted like a man – a virago – and still be a heroic character.  Other viragos, such as Bonduca from the play of that name, were more roundly criticized.
It’s been done recently with increasing regularity and appears on university syllabi fairly commonly, but not nearly enough for my tastes!

Knight of the Burning Pestle (Beaumont)

There are a surprising number of comedies on this list.  Strange.
Anyhow, this comedy can be described as the early modern postmodern.  It plays with levels of narrative and self-referentiality more than Hamletmachine and does so with more of a sense of humour too!
In my day job, I sell oranges.
The basic storyline is that of a play company trying to put on a performance of a city comedy, yet being interrupted by a noisy and entitled grocer, who demands that his apprentice be put into the play.  Not only will the grocer not let the actors perform the play that they want to perform, but he insists that they perform a chivalric romance.  So at any given moment the play is generically a chivalric romance, a city comedy, a metatheatrical farce, and a satire on all three.
In many ways, Beaumont was well ahead of his time with this daring and, frankly, hilarious production.  It is one of the comedies from the period which will genuine make you laugh, not just smile wryly because you got one of the penis jokes.
Besides, how can you not like a play whose title is a pun about syphilis?

#4Duchess of Malfi (Webster)

Ahhh, back to the tragedies.
As if you didn’t know, it is a TRAGEDY!
Perhaps oddly for this play, The Duchess is never given a name.  She exists only as a title rather than as a human being.  I say oddly because it is her very human emotions of sexual desire and love that are the engine of the tragedy.
The story, in brief, is that the Duchess falls in love with her servant and marries him in secret.  They have a few happy years, even having several children together, before her brothers find out.  At that point, the shit hits the fan and the tragedy really begins.
Did I mention that one of her brothers is a clergyman?
Based on a real story, this story extends well beyond the true crime reportage of Arden of Faversham and moves into the near-mythic.  The cruelty of the brothers of the Duchess is unbelievable in its viciousness, while their near obsession with her sex life borders on the incestuous.
The play presents a complex female character, but one whose life, sadly, is doomed from the start.  Still, great reading!

#3The Shoemaker’s Holiday (Dekker)

The place: London.
This is the city.
The time: Now.
The hero: A shoemaker…
This play was the first (and some say the best) of the city comedies – a genre of play that arose in 1599 and lasted well into the first decades of the next century.  These plays were stories that showed the audience of the theatres back to themselves.
The middle class could be a subject of interest – not everything had to be about knights and kings.  Sometimes, you could tell a story about a tradesman who, by pluck and hard work, could rise up to become the Mayor of the city of London.
What?  No Crocs?
The play is a genuine “feel good” piece.  It reminds me of nothing so much as, say, Forest Gump, where simplicity and honest work come to rule the day.  Read this one when you are feeling low.

The Witch of Edmonton (Rowley, Dekker, Ford)

I used to live here… a long time ago.
No.  Not THAT Edmonton.
Edmonton is ALSO a village that existed north of the city of London, though now it is inside London itself, not far from Chingford and inside Enfield.  In the early modern period, the village had a reputation for the supernatural.
Here we have another case of drama following on the heels of a true crime of sorts.  In this case, the story is based on a pamphlet that described the trial and death of a woman who was accused of being a witch.  For the period, it showed a remarkable subtlety and compassion to Mother Sawyer, the witch character.
Sign #32 your life has turned for the worse: talking to dogs and having them talk back.
Ostracized from the village for being old and a bit odd, Mother Sawyer is effectively pushed into a pact with the devil by the villagers’ unrelenting cruelty.  Add to this a unconventional City Comedy plot involving a love triangle, a talking dog, and a morris dance or two and you’ve got yourself a play that you will remember, if nothing else.

Doctor Faustus (Marlowe)

I didn’t want to put any more than one play per playwright on this list (except in cases of multiple authorship), but Marlowe has got to be an exception.  As he starts the list, he’s got to end it.  Whereas Tamburlaine ends his career trying to take on God in a holy battle, Faustus begins his career utterly turning his back on his own salvation.
Semper ubi sub ubi
Damnation, miracles, madness, Helen of Troy – all in one play!  What more could you want?
Like many of the other entries on this list, Faustus is based on a “true” story.  Here, it is the story of a man who lived in Germany and whose pact with the devil gave him occult powers beyond mortal ken.  The thing is that this story has not only a keen sense of tone, swerving deftly between base comedy to high art, it is also a deeply philosophical work.
No matter what you are looking for, it is in Faustus, so long as what you are looking for is Hell.
I’ve always wanted to teach Faustus by starting off class drawing a magic circle and beginning the incantations to call up a demon.  My more sober minded friends have reminded me that even though I may not believe in the devil and his minions, it is probably better to wage with Pascal and not tempt fate.  Still…
Imagine him as the original George Clooney
There is the story that when Edward Alleyn was playing Faustus once upon a time, he was in the magic circle and counted the devils that he saw before him onstage.  There was one more devil onstage than there were actors in his company.  The devil himself stood before Alleyn.  Ever after that performance, Alleyn wore a gigantic cross on his chest when playing the role because, after all, the part was cursed.
That the devil helped bring people to the theatre couldn’t have hurt at all.


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