1485 Bosworth Field

Today in 1485, the Battle of Bosworth Field saw the downfall of Richard III and the rise of the Tudor monarchy. Celebrate by hiding inside a car park all day.


1645 Death of Aemilia Lanier

Nicholas_Hilliard_010Aemilia Lanyer is exceptional for her period (honestly, she is exceptional for any period), so in that sense she doesn’t serve as a good example of “typical” output from the period.

Lanier was born Aemilia Bassano in 1569 to a musician of Elizabeth I’s court who was himself of Italian extraction. This meant that she was raised on the fringes of the royal court and throughout her life she maintained connections with those in the highest realms of power. She married Alfonso Lanyer (or Lanier), another court musician, after having had an affair with the Lord Chamberlain to Elizabeth, Henry Carey, Lord Hunsdon.

At some point in the later part of the first decade of the 1600s, though prior to 1611, she visited Margaret Clifford, Countess of Cumberland at her home at Cookham Dean. Clifford was an intensely pious woman who Lanier praised throughout her poems. The meeting seems to have resulted in a kind of spiritual awakening in Lanier, whose major work, Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum (Hail, God, King of the Jews), is both dedicated to Clifford and which ends with a the first “country house” poem published in English, “Description of Cooke-ham.” The Countess was a fervent reformist Anglican, who served as patron to a number of more Puritan minded preachers.

Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum was published in 1611 and was explicit about its engagement with literary and devotional coteries that were all-female groups. That is, this was not a text written for a “public,” where that public was understood to be gendered male. It was for women – literally. The dedications alone were given to the most powerful women in the land – the queen, the princess Elizabeth, “To all virutous ladies,” the Countess of Bedford, the Countess of Dorset, and finally the Countess of Cumberland. This was a statement for women, about women’s devotion, and a woman’s sense of God in the world. That said, it was a book published by two men (Valentine Simmes and Richard Bonnian) and sold at the heart of the London bookselling industry – St. Paul’s churchyard.

It is often claimed that Salve Deus… is the first example of a woman writing a book of poetry in English as a professional poet or someone who made money from their poetry. This is a bit contentious. The same kind of statement has also been made about Isabella Whitney, who in the late 1560s and early 1570s, put out a series of pamphlets and poetic texts from which she made money. One can even argue that the prayer books and devotional literature of Katherine Parr, the last of Henry VIII’s queens, were an example of poetic writing, though she was by no means a “professional poet” – whatever that means.

Now, you may have heard that Lanyer is one of the primary candidates for “The Dark Lady” of Shakespeare’s Sonnets. Indeed, it was only in 1993 that the whole of Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum was published on its own without any reference to the possibility of her being Shakespeare’s inspiration. You may even have heard some of the more obscure theories that she wrote Shakespeare. (Apparently everyone wrote Shakespeare but Shakespeare.) These rumours are, at best, rumours and, at worst, they seriously detract from the artistic value of her own work.  As Lorna Hutson puts it in Lanyer’s Oxford Dictionary of National Biography entry:

Although there is insufficient evidence to establish the identification it illustrates a tendency that, interestingly, her own poetry strives to overcome—that is, the tendency to read a woman’s emergence into the sphere of public discourse as a form of indecency, signalling promiscuity. The central poem of her volume, which celebrates the ‘worthy mind’ of her patron Margaret, dowager countess of Cumberland, is remarkable for managing to avoid identifying female virtue with chastity, articulating in its place a feminine mastery of those dialectical skills that constituted the humanist ideal of masculine virtue.

As Lanyer’s early life was relatively scandalous (an affair with Lord Hunsdon and a visit to a necromancer among other things), scholars even in a post-second wave feminist world tend to read her work in light of her relationship to chastity. I want you to question this tradition of interpretation and instead see her work in light of her reworking of the story of Eve. Rather than providing a psychodrama of Lanyer’s own life, which is far too easy to dismiss, I want you to think of the excerpt from your text as a philosophical or theological statement.

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.

WLU Early Modern Play Reading Group

I’m Dr Andrew Bretz and I’d like to try to put together a reading group for the Winter Semester.
My plan is simple: Let’s get together in Wilf’s around lunch once every month and read an early modern play together while having a pint.
This is not a requirement for any particular course; anyone can come, English student or not; there will be no attendance; you can come by late or leave early; it’s all just for the fun of reading a great play together! Funny voices and silly accents will be encouraged.
All texts will be provided on the date of the reading. You don’t have to read it ahead of time – in fact, I encourage you not to. It might spoil the joy of discovery.
If you want to just blow off some steam or if you want to read a play you probably won’t get a chance to read otherwise, then this is probably for you!
The schedule of events is below. Circle the dates in your calendar and I hope to see you there.

Reading club flyer

imageTamburlaine the Great

Author: Christopher Marlowe

Reading Date: 29 January @ Wilf’s


Tamburlaine the Great was Marlowe’s first great foray onto the public stage as a playwright and it is arguably his most influential play. It tells the true story of Timur the Lame, the shepherd who, through conquest, became the most powerful despot in central Asia since Genghis Khan. Over the top, full of bombast and stupendous arrogance, Tamburlaine is a larger than life character who influenced a whole generation of Elizabethan and Jacobean writers. This was, after all, the play that pioneered the use of blank verse on the stage and established the theatre as a site where great poetry could be performed.


Location: Wilf’s

Date: 2/26/2016


The barbarian queen who cowed the Romans into submission, only to be destroyed by those closest to her. The story of the flame-haired Celtic queen Bonduca revenging her daughters’ rapes by laying waste to the Roman occupying forces resonated in the years following Elizabeth’s death.


The Roaring GirlRoaring Girl

Location: Wilf’s

Date: 3/18/2016


She drinks, she smokes, she swears, she ROARS! Based on the actual historical figure, Moll Cutpurse, the main character in this City Comedy was a swaggering woman in breeches, fighting her way through a world that would really have rather much preferred if she would please put on a skirt… I mean, think of the children!

arden_pageArden of Faversham

Location: Wilf’s

Date: 4/8/2016


An Elizabethan era true crime story! The murder of the middle class Thomas Arden by his wife and her lover was not merely a cautionary tale for the period – it was a salacious scandal that rocked the nation!


Who to contact:

Andrew Bretz

abretz@wlu.ca  OR  andrew.bretz@gmail.com

Bodies in The Second Shepherds’ Play


So, the social world echoed the cosmic world echoed the domestic world echoed the internal world of the individual. This is an example of what can be called allegorical or analogical reasoning.


The medieval and early modern periods understood the world (and of course this is a generalization but it is a justifiable one) in terms of analogy.  The best minds of the day understood the world not necessarily in terms of discrete bits of matter and/or energy interacting but as composed of mutually sympathetic materials that echoed each others states.  That is, if you are a Scorpio, like me, and Mars (which rules Scorpio) is in the House of Cancer (which is a domestic sign, but also a water sign), then today might be a good idea to take on some plumbing tasks around the house.  The sympathy between my birth sign, the element of water, the association of domesticity all come together to create an auspicious relation for the early modern mind.  Because they understood the world in terms of analogy, relations between the cosmos and the individual, the astronomical and the microscopic, the domestic and the international were fundamentally aligned in ways that we might not recognize today.


In this play, the representation of the body, and in particular of Mak’s body, is informed by an interpretive system that saw any particular body as being an analogy to the cosmic or transcendent body of Christ. That is, given the immense importance of the body of Christ within medieval culture and within the Feast of Corpus Christi specifically, we really have to pay attention to how bodies are shown in this play. What happens to them? What can bodies do? How do bodies act?


When we ask these questions, we start to see how Mak/Mak’s body as the representation of all that is wrong with the fallen world,  and the body of the sheep, as symbolic of Christ as sacrificial figure, are almost grotesque or cartoonish figures of the need for redemption in the world.


How to read Mak’s body is put front and centre in the play when he arrives on the scene as Mak initially tries to pass himself off as one of the functionaries of a landowner or yeoman of the kind that the first shepherd talked about in his opening monologue. Mak speaks with a “southren tooth” (215); that is, at this time in England the accent in the south, around London, used “ich” for “I” and used “-eth” endings for what are now “-es” endings. When Mak appears around line 200, he is misrepresenting himself as a southerner.


What! Ich be a yeoman, I tell you, of the king;

That self and the some, sent from a great lording,

Und sich,

Fie on you! Goeth hence!

Out of My presence!

I must have reverence.

Why, who be Ich? (201-207)


The shepherds are immediately able to read Mak’s body and identify him as the local ne’er-do-well, Mak, but that sequence centres our attention on bodies and how they signify in this play. Mak, rather than being a rich southerner, is in fact a poor man. The fact that the shepherds share a meal immediately before Mak’s entrance suggests that Mak, perhaps, is unable to afford to join them in their meal. That is, Mak is hungry and poor, yet tries to present himself as a nobleman. He tries to make his body signify in ways contrary to its “natural” signification, though the shepherds see through his subterfuge.


Later, when Mak has stolen the sheep and Gill is pretending it is their child, the shepherds still see through Mak and Gill’s attempt to re-coordinate the signification of the body of the sheep. The implicit comparison between Mak and Gill’s sheep-baby is with the reality of the coming Christ within the Nativity sequence, of which this scene was a part. The sheep Mak stole is a stand in or an uncanny double of the coming Christ, who was called the Lamb of God. Both the stolen sheep and the newborn Jesus in the play are called “little day-star” (577 and  727). Even the suggestion Gill makes about eating the sheep-child is an oblique reference to the ceremony of the Eucharist where Christians were expected to eat the literal body of their saviour.


In other words, the body of the sheep, like the body of Mak, is presented as a complex signifier. Whereas Mak’s body is subject to punishment (like Jesus), this is a world where the punishment doesn’t take the form of crucifixion, but tossing Mak around in a blanket, like a carnival game. Whereas the sheep is explicitly and implicitly compared to Jesus as the Lamb of God, in this world, the sin of the theft of the sheep is righted by the coming presence of God. The presence of God, which could be felt for every Christian in the Eucharistic wafer that was at the heart of the Corpus Christi feast.

Moderate Calvinism

Time by George Herbert


Meeting with Time, slack thing, said I,
Thy sithe is dull; whet it for shame.
No marvell Sir, he did replie,
If it at length deserve some blame:
But where one man would have me grinde it,
Twentie for one too sharp do finde it.

Perhaps some such of old did passe,
Who above all things lov’d this life:
To whom thy sithe a hatchet was,
Which now is but a pruning knife. 
 Christs coming hath made man thy debter, 
 Since by thy cutting he grows better. 

And in his blessing thou art blest:
For where thou onely wert before
An executioner at best;
Thou art a gard’ner now, and more, 
 An usher to convey our souls 
 Beyond the utmost starres and poles. 

And this is that makes life so long,
While it detains us from our God.
Ev’n pleasures here increase the wrong,
And length of dayes lengthen the rod. 
 Who wants the place, where God doth dwell, 
 Partakes already half of hell. 

Of what strange length must that needs be,
Which ev’n eternitie excludes!
Thus farre Time heard me patiently:
Then chafing said, This man deludes: 
 What do I here before his doore? 
 He doth not crave lesse time, but more.


Discipline by George Herbert

Throw away thy rod,
Throw away thy wrath:
O my God,
Take the gentle path.
For my heart’s desire
Unto thine is bent:
I aspire
To a full consent.
Not a word or look
I affect to own,
But by book,
And thy book alone.
Though I fail, I weep:
Though I halt in pace,
Yet I creep
To the throne of grace.
Then let wrath remove;
Love will do the deed:
For with love
Stony hearts will bleed.
Love is swift of foot;
Love’s a man of war,
And can shoot,
And can hit from far.
Who can ’scape his bow?
That which wrought on thee,
Brought thee low,
Needs must work on me.
Throw away thy rod;
Though man frailties hath,
Thou art God:
Throw away thy wrath.