Friday, April 24, 2009

Hypocritcal Puritans in Bartholomew Fair

Ben Jonson's Bartholomew Fair is an extensive work that deals very much with religion and the desires of humanity at the fair. It encompasses the food, the goods, and the types of people that find themselves at the grounds. In Jonson's world, the Puritans find sin everywhere; then they seem to find a way to indulge in sin that they can credit as not being sinful or nearly as sinful. Such is the case of Zeal-of-the-land-busy, who leads his little flock of Puritans through Bartholomew Fair enjoying and mocking constantly its contents, finally in the last act when confronted with a piece of theater, a simplifed version of what they are in themselves, Zeal-of-the-land-busy proves that he is not only a hypocrite when it comes to theater but something much less enlightened.

Women’s Struggle to Attain Power in Early Modern Drama

            All throughout history, women have struggled to maintain power and authority over the men around them and the situations they are in.  Their struggle is especially interesting in the early modern period, particularly in respect to the stage and performance.  The stage offered an interesting dynamic for women; a unique setting in which they may attain power, even if just for a moment.  However, the few plays of the period in which women were awarded power, such as “Knight of the Burning Pestle,” were almost always written by men, and often played by young boys—a  maneuver which is arguably means of undermining female authority and power.  The merchant’s wife in “Knight of the Burning Pestle” is one such character who is able to acquire a sort of power over the characters and situations surrounding her.  While female characters (and therefore, women) in early modern drama were able to attain power, this power was still removable because of the many ways in which it was easily undermined. 

Representation By Association

In Jacobean tragedies such as The Duchess of Malfi, the audience is presented with the character of the Duchess whose characteristics as a female in this type of tragedy differ greatly that that of women found in other genres, such as gothic novels. It is vey interesting to see the many comparisons that can be made with the two genres. Both gothic novels and Jacobean tragedies possess factors such as a love story, incest (if not carried out then implied, a scheming female character, and a faulty religious character. The main question that arises is why in two genres that are so closely related, the central female characters differ so greatly. In the noel entitled The Italian by Ann Radcliffe, the reader is presented with the character of Ellena, a fair Italian young lady with all of the desirable attributes of an English woman. The Duchess and Ellena are portrayed in two totally different lights. It is imperative to view how the two women react in their somewhat similar situations in order to understand why there is such a difference in character of the two women. Both are involved in a shceme brought on by love, but how they react to the situations define their characters. Although the genres have a small time gap between the two, it is important to note why women are represented so differently in a gothic novel as opposed to a Jacobean tragedy.

The Victory of Laughter and the Fair: Ben Johnson and Bakhtin

Carnival time has not vanished since the times of the Middle Ages. Remnants of the tradition may still be found frequently in certain parts of contemporary society. March Madness, the NCAA basketball championship tournament, for example, has many carnivalesque aspects. Little 500, a college party that lasts a whole week, is reminiscent of the fairs and feasts of the Middle Ages. During the week of Little 500 it is not uncommon to see people at the carnival dressed outrageously as clowns or fools, or to see people urinating on the side of a house, eating and drinking together. The same question can be asked for both the practice of the Carnival and the continued existence Little 500 at a place like a university, What is the benefit or the reason? The reason is that carnival culture is based upon more than mere merriment, but stems from deep philosophical origans and human condition. “The feast (every feast) is an important primary form of human culture. It cannot be explained merely by the practical conditions of the community’s work, and it would be even more superficial to attribute it to the phsysiological demand for periodic rest. The fest had always an essential, meaningful philosophical content…They [festivals] must be sanctioned not by the world of practical conditions but by the highest aims of human existence, that is, by the world of ideals” (Bakhtin, 198). Just what is so special about festivals, that is, what the value of the carnival exactly is, is what I will explain in the body of this essay. Furthermore, Ben Johnson’s Bartholomew Fair will be used as a lens with which to examine how a festival functions as a medium for social commentary and revolution. By studying the play we will see the carnival culture in action.

Discovering Discovery Spaces: What’s Really Behind the Arras

The Wizard of Oz had a little curtain. Cyrano de Bergerac's was made of pen and paper. Where does this tradition of hiding oneself on stage come from? To uncover this, researchers must return to the beginnings of modern drama. Perhaps the most well-known usage today of the popular discovery space trope in drama of the English Renaissance is in Hamlet, when Polonius hides behind an arras to spy on Hamlet’s discussion with his mother Gertrude. What is frequently overlooked is just how frequently this plot device was really used in early modern English drama. In The Duchess of Malfi, A Woman Killed With Kindness, and even Bartholomew Fair, the discovery space is used to great effect, as it is in Hamlet and Othello. By examining how and under what circumstances the discovery space was used, it will be possible to understand why this device was so common, where it comes from and how the idea of the discovery space lives on in theater today.

Why all women secretly want a Y chromosome...

The mystification of women has resulted in an unspoken taboo pertaining to women’s secrets, both physical and mental. This mystification has also resulted in the obsessive scrutiny and fear of female thinking and knowledge. In John Lyly’s Galatea and Francis Beumont’s Knight of the Burning Pestle, women are shown as out of control of their own imagination, wreaking havoc onstage until they are once again controlled by male authority. The required intervention of men in the plays implies that the thoughts of women are ultimately dangerous when given free reign. What makes them so dangerous, according to the two plays, is the desire for women to have male authority, in essence, the desire to be a man.

The Body and Beyond: The Corporeal and the Supernatural in The Duchess of Malfi

John Webster’s tragedy The Duchess of Malfi is no doubt a play that is concerned with the corporeal and matters of the flesh.  This is reflected not only in the language, but also more overtly in the play’s imagery.  The beginning of the play is filled with images of conjoining hands and conjoining bodies; but as the play progresses, spiraling downward to death and madness, conjoined hands become severed hands and conjoined bodies become dismembered ones (recall the disinterred leg Ferdinand carries on in Act V).  These occurrences of dismemberment and disembodiment are linked hand in hand with supernatural phenomena and the discourse of the supernatural.  Ferdinand’s sudden propensity for digging up limbs from graveyards is attributed to a case of lycanthropy, a condition in which one takes on the form and characteristics of a wolf, often held as a sign of witchcraft or demonic possession.  When Ferdinand reveals the hand he has offered to the Duchess is not his own, but rather a hand severed from the presumably dead Antonio, the Duchess exclaims, “What witchcraft doth he practise that he hath left a dead man’s hand here?” (IV.1.54-55).  It seems that these disturbing matters of the flesh ultimately become an invitation for the supernatural, that these problematic issues of the body must be explained by matters beyond the body and beyond the flesh.

The Treachery of Images in The Duchess of Malfi

For thirty years people have been asking me how I reconcile X with Y! The truthful answer is that I don't. Everything about me is a contradiction and so is everything about everybody else. We are made out of oppositions; we live between two poles. There is a philistine and an aesthete in all of us, and a murderer and a saint. You don't reconcile the poles. You just recognize them. Orson Welles

Centuries before these words were uttered by Orson Welles, playwright John Webster seemed to understand this idea. Often cited as a ‘structurally defective’ and ‘frequently contradictory’ (Leech 66), Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi embodies this concept of a willful mass of contradictions. Few if any plays from the era create characters so vivid and real, yet so regularly remind the audience of the artificiality of this staged drama. Webster draws on clich├ęs, other plays, and the culture at large to add more jarring elements to this strange mix of high naturalism and cutting metatheatics. With this, Webster concocts a play that alternatively blurs and contrasts the border between what is real and what is only representation or an image of something else. By confusing the theatrical and the natural on stage, Webster emphasizes a greater relationship between the real and the unreal, the imagined and the depicted, while also pointedly illustrating the power representation and images have to affect reality.

The Choice to Starve in "A Woman Killed with Kindness"

I forgot to include "A Woman Killed with Kindness" in the last post title of my blog listed below.

The Choice to Starve in

Adultery shatters the sacramental bond of marriage, and generally, results in separation of romantic partners. In contrast, however, Thomas Heywood reports in Gunaikeion or, Nine Books of Various History, “By Solons Lawes, a man was permitted to kill them both in the act, that he found them” (433). Heywood’s collection evaluates different types of women, such as goddesses, wantons, chaste and virtuous wives, incestuous women, and adulterous wives. His account on the treatment and punishment of these women was published in 1624, and nevertheless, contains some criteria that would not be tolerated by society and authorities in the twenty-first century. Several years before Gunaikeion or, Nine Books of Various History was published, Heywood’s “best play,” as agreed upon by critics, was performed and first published in 1607 (Bryan 9). Heywood utilizes the sinful act of adultery in his domestic tragedy A Woman Killed with Kindness, but instead of exercising the punishment he reports in Gunaikeion or, Nine Books of Various History, Anne Frankford is killed with kindness (Heywood 400). Frankford did not consult “ecclestical justice” about his wife’s adultery, as critic Jennifer Panek suggests a husband of the early seventeenth century would be inclined to do, but does, however, alienate Anne from his household (357). In retaliation to Frankford’s punishment, Anne chooses to starve herself. In this climatic moment of A Woman Killed with Kindness, critics have analyzed and made bold effort to explain Anne’s decision to self-starve, but it is Heywood who offers the most convincing evidence as to how audiences would have understood and perceived her choice.

Beyond a Nosebleed

A nosebleed.  It may seem like an occurrence of little significance, but in John Webster's Early Modern play, The Duchess of Malfi, this exit of bodily fluid onstage surprisingly provides insight into the way the body was perceived in performance at this time.  Antonio's nosebleed is presented as a bad omen and occurs just before all hell breaks loose for his family.  The idea of seeing a nosebleed as a manifestation of superstition is not surprising, when considering the fact that little was understood about this biological phenomenon in Early Modern England.  The body was seen far differently in Webster's time than it is in our own.  Given that biological knowledge was so limited when Duchess was first produced, the body took on a much more mysterious and perhaps even spiritual essence than it does today.  Observing a bodily omen such as a nosebleed onstage would have done more than simply provide foreshadowing, it would have provided an audience with insight into who a character was internally as well as how he fit into the grand scheme of the play's world.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Everyone Has a Disguise: Jonson's Journey to the Center of the Fair

Ben Jonson’s “Bartholomew Fair” is a play packed to the brim with lies, betrayal, and most of all, disguise. Nearly every character affects a false identity, either physical or metaphorical, in order to achieve their own personal goals; an undertaking that fails both catastrophically and (near) universally. Peter Hyland sees the failure of disguise as the moral heart of “Bartholomew Fair,” as “Folly and crime arise from a lack of self-knowledge, from rejection or loss of identity, usually manifested through play-acting or actual disguise” (127). While such an argument has weight, especially in respect to individual characterization, it neglects the broader implications that the disguises of “Bartholomew Fair’s” denizens have on the culture at large. For a play so wrapped up in the meaning and function of tangible cultural objects and sensory stimulus, it seems important to question what meanings the individual disguises themselves possess beyond simply the characters who adopt them. When viewed through this lens, aspects of disguise such as the enormous power afforded to mad men (whether genuine or ersatz), or ways in which the puppet show (Jonson’s own “disguise” for the actual early modern stage) ultimately seems undermine its own argument, point to a more nuanced and perhaps troubling view of “Bartholomew Fair’s” moral center: that there isn’t one. This is not to say that Jonson has abandoned morality or accepted the “enormities” of his characters; rather that, in attempting to show the contemporary Smithfield in a naturalistic light, he has seen through its disguise and found it neither moral nor immoral, but something much more chaotic in between. In the face of such amorality, Jonson finds only one recourse: to laugh.

Defining Death or Defined by It?

Throughout history mankind has embraced the idea that we define ourselves by the way in which we live our lives. The pursuit of wealth, power, discipline, and religion are only a few of areas which people use to mold their persona. Sixteenth century Britain provided prime examples of these pursuits, which are reflected in the plays produced during this period. Whatever the pursuit, each person’s individual definition was understood to end with a common punctuation: death. Whatever the person’s status or achievements, their mortality was unavoidable. Although these concepts were clearly evident, a different thought began to make itself apparent. Plays like The Duchess of Malfi and A Woman Killed in Kindness began to shed a new light on the subject of death. Instead of a permanent end, death began to be seen as a gateway to immortality. This new concept of immortality was not the same immortality strictly defined in the religious sense, but a fusion of this religious ideology and the Humanistic views beginning to make their impression on society. This immortality defines itself in the notion that one’s fate is decided by the way in which they die; suggesting it is death that provides an individual with an opportunity to achieve true life.

Princely Women: The Power of the Female Body

Feminine desire has been mocked, oppressed, and silenced in almost every literary genre and era. However, Early Modern Drama represented the power of the female body as a complicated dichotomy between what is imaginary and what is real. During the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, men had the power to completely realize their dreams and to live their lives freely; women, on the other hand, were subject to male dominance. From sermons to conduct books, women were told what they could and could not do, what made and did not make them womanly, and what was and was not acceptable behavior. Although women were bound by the confines of the patriarchal society, the theater gave voice to their desires, their autonomy, and their independence. As such, the question of to what extent did the plays mock as well as venerate feminine desire becomes a prominent component when analyzing the lives of women during the Early Modern period. Webster’s Duchess of Malfi uses the depiction of a tragic heroine to enhance this idea of mockery and veneration on stage. She contains autonomy and dependency, a voice and a silence, an authority and a submissiveness. Thus, the depiction of women in Early Modern Drama mocked the imaginative and lucrative desires of their female audiences while simultaneously promulgating and honoring them.

Friday, April 10, 2009

“The Changeling” is full of instances where characters happen to be at the right place at the right time.  However, I find Scene III, Act iii to be particularly interesting.  In the asylum, Isabella is looking at the different madmen.  When she is left alone with Antonio, he reveals himself to be faking his craziness, and he professes love to and kisses Isabella.  While she doesn’t seem entirely supportive of the actions, she doesn’t do much to fight him, either.  During this entire scenario, Lollio was watching from above.  He escorts Antonio away and when he returns, he is in a position of power over Isabella because of what he witnessed.  Even though this play is “consumed with changeability” there are still moments where location and timing are critical, and this moment is one of them.  Because of what Lollio saw, he is now in a position to take advantage of Isabella in nearly any way he sees fit (and, at that moment, does attempt to kiss her, and calls her a prostitute).  Isabella is married, and of course should not be fooling around with anyone (especially her husband’s patients)—which Lollio knows and will take full advantage of.

Fate vs Free Will

De Flores seems to make it clear in Act II scene 2 that he has once been much better off than he is now and his hard fate thrust him into servitude, also saying that yes, he looks ugly but others worse looking then him have better fates (pp 54-55).  Perhaps this implies randomness and irony of fate but perhaps Beatrice and other people in his life are the ones making the decisions that make his life horrible, because next he says "she turns her blessed eye upon me now,/and I'll endure all storms before I part with't" (l. 50-51).  Other people are the ones making De Flores's life hard and I don't think that he would say that it is fate that makes Beatrice not like him or else he would turn from her and not try to convince her or not try to pursue her.

I see these characters in a world supposedly ruled by a random wheel of fate but yet to me it seems impossible to believe that with some of the things humans do, that we would believe that it is solely up to fate that another person interacts with us in a certain way.  So in this way there is talk of free will and fate and examples of free will because that is the only thing that can be seen.  The fate business is pushed upon unpleasant situations where one would rather not put blame on someone else or one's self.  Perhaps De Flores fall from grace is his own, which would be typical of tragedy and perhaps Beatrice has it within her to make a change in his life without being induced by Lady Fate.

If you're gonna do it...don't do it in front of a church.

The inconstancy of Beatrice in the play points to an unavoidable bad end for the woman. Beatrice begins early in the play by questioning her own ‘eyes’ after she catches a glimpse of Alsemero outside of the church. She asks herself if her own eyes lied about her desire for Piracquo since they seem to be telling her the same about Alsemero. De Flores ‘entrance marks another comment about Beatrice’s eyes and their issues of perception, she views De Flores as a sort of Basilisk, but instead of turning her to stone, his looks turn her into a nasty and mean person. De Flores is referred to as a poison by Beatrice that, “Which to a thousand other tastes were wholesome.”, this too could be seen as foreshadowing since her nastiness is also observed in the shadow of the church. Alsemero himself alludes to his own undoing within the shadows of the church when he notes that “The temple’s vane to turn full in my face; I know ‘tis against me.” (1.1.19-20) I find it appropriate that Beatrice then leaves the church and spies Alsemero. Both Beatrice and Alsemero seem to commit their first acts of inconstancy right in the church yard, in essence inviting the wrath of god to judge them both.

A Pendulum of Fate

It is somewhat difficult to determine whether being in the right place at the right time is a result of one’s resolve or chance. There is much support to be found in the first three acts for both arguments causing me to believe it is a combination of both. In Act 1 De Flores states, “Here’s a favor come, with a mischief!  Now I know/ She had rather wear my pelt tanned in a pair/ Of dancing pumps than I should thrust my fingers/ Into her sockets here, I know she hates me,/ Yet cannot choose but love her./ No matter; if but to vex her, I’ll haunt her still./ Though I get nothing else, I have my will.”(1.1.233-239) This line seems to be a reflection of how the rest of the play seems to try and find a balance between happenstance and the actual drive of the characters in determining their fates. In this line, De Flores speaks concerning the occasion where he returns Beatrice’s glove and his feelings on the matter. There is some controversy on whether or not Beatrice drops her glove on accident or on purpose to lure De Flores into helping her. Here we see question of chance reiterated. If Beatrice had dropped the glove accidentally, De Flores resolve concerning his relationship with her would have been strengthened by a random occurrence. On the other hand, had she dropped the glove on purpose, his resolve would have been strengthened by her doing making his actions a result of her conscious effort. De Flores goes on to explain how he cannot help but love her, which gives the idea that we are slave to fate. He goes on to claim that he will have his will, coming back to the idea that the characters are in control of what happens. We see this pendulum swing back and forth between chance and character resolve throughout the entirety of the play. Perhaps we are meant to understand that while the characters seem to have their own choices, they are still part of a “master” plan (the plot of the play) that cannot be denied. 

Little too late...

One very intersting factor that comes up very early in the play s the idea of being at "the right place at the right time". For this scene in particular, the character's timing is off and unfortunately creates a problem for those involved. In Act I is where we see Alsemero confessing his love to Beatrice, which seems very hasty and forward. Alsemero says "But I am further, lady; YESTERDAY was mine eyes' employment, and hither now they brought my judgement, where are both agreed"(Act I.i).
When Beatrice replies, she says "Oh, there's one above me, sir."(speaking of her father and his right/duty to marry his daughter off to a well-suited man). In her aside she states "For five days past to be recalled! Sure, mine eyes were mistaken; This was the man was meant me. That he should come so near his time, and miss it!"(ll84-87). Beatrice is speaking of the fact that Alsemero was just five days too late of confessing his love. She has already promised to marry another, and is now faced with a complex because she believes that she has not only made the wrong decision, but Alsemero s the only one for her. The way she speaks about this horrible misfortune makes it obvious that her and Alsemero are destined to be together-and she will find a way to scheme out of the current marriage proposal. It is so interesting that Alsemero was so close to being able to have Beatrice without any sort of conflict-had he just come a few days sooner. However, this very scene sets the stage for the fulfillment of destiny which will take place through the fight to be together.

Fickle Fate

As has been covered, "The Changeling" is full of instances in which the main characters, believing themselves to be blessed by fate, are in fact undone by it. Beatrice's chance meeting with Alsemero, De Flores' glimpse of their loving conversation, the remarkable ease with which Antonio's plan progresses, all of these seemingly positive occurrences ultimately cause their undoing. The "right place, right time" phenomena is soundly disproven by the main cast of the changeling, the initial boon rendered poisonous over time. But, if chance spells the doom of the protagonists, it does it by aiding the supporting cast, often by exposing the crimes of the former. Take this instance, when Jasperino informs Alsemero of Beatrice and De Flores' relationship: "Twas Diaphanta's leave me in a back part of the house...She was no sooner gone but instantly I heard your bride's voice in the next room to me and, lending more attention, found De Flores' louder than she (IV.ii. 90-97)." Chance is explicitly invoked (specifically "Diaphanta's chance") as the cause of Jasperino's startling discovery. Another example comes in the form of Tomazo's exasperated decision to leave to chance his search for his brother's killer. "I must think all men villains, and the next I meet, whoe'er he be, the murderer of my most worthy brother," he says, only to immediately run into De Flores, the true murderer, which fills De Flores with overwhelming guilt (V.ii. 6-10).
The constant presence of chance within the play, and its mutable benefit for a host of characters, lends a new meaning to the title. In a play so caught up with notions of disguise and treason, could it be that luck is the ultimate changeling? Middleton shows chance to be a force that can appear to you as pure benefit, give you all you desire, and then stab you in the back. Sometimes literally.