Give ear, I pray you, and mark it attentively, for you shall hear the tenor of a strange and tragical comedy.
Anthony Munday, Zelauto (1580)
Genre: what is it, what does it mean, and how does it organise our experiences in the theatre, in a book or in our scholarship? These are questions about stories, composition, performance and production decisions, performance and production reception, the printing process, the reading process, and later theatrical, antiquarian and scholarly reception processes. Genre is an enormous and often unacknowledged and unrealised interpretive precondition of engagements with stories, as they are first imagined, then executed and then experienced in the live moment of theatre or reading. Interpretive, but also refractive, deflective, even disfiguring: as I hope to show, assumptions about genre, in the period and in modern scholarship and theatremaking, alter a writer’s, performer’s, audience’s and reader’s understanding of story even without them realising.
Recent discussion around authorship and attribution has suggested that it might be useful to offer further questions about traditional fields of academic study from our project’s now eccentric view point of the earliest years of the playhouses (remembering that in the 1560s, ’70s and ’80s themselves, such a viewpoint was entirely centric).
As with that post, it seems worth setting out an overview of current scholarly consensus in order to think through what we have been consensual about. For the scholars who work on the half-century before the London playhouses, genre is rarely at the forefront of analysis; when genre does appear in such discussion, it is usually described as fluid, hybrid or experimental, with few set rules in tone, narrative structure or expectation. Once the playhouses opened, there seems to be broad agreement that the earliest surviving plays are extremely unfluid in relation to genre: someone like Marlowe predominantly writes tragedies, for example, and someone like Lyly predominantly writes comedies, with a bunch of random people doing something strange and new that may or may not be the history play. It is still possible to see contemporary scholars invoking the nineteenth-century paradigm viewing Marlowe and Lyly as John the Baptist figures clearing the way for that generic Jesus, William Shakespeare. Shakespeare, the scholarly consensus then seems to be, built on these relatively new traditions and conventions to write comedies, histories and tragedies, a consensus that seems to survive, even thrive on, disputes about which plays belong in which category or test out which generic borders. But at some point several years into the lives of the playhouses, genre ramifies, dissipates, mutates, subdivides or cross-fertilises, producing tragicomedies, domestic tragedies, city comedies, etc. And then, of course, Puritans stop play in 1642.
As with my previous post, I apologise for generalisations and misrepresentations, but a large-picture summary is useful because it allows us to see gaps, elisions, breaks in logic and governing principles, many of which coincide with disciplinary boundaries that mark the limits of conventional research interests (medieval/ early modern, playhouse/ non-playhouse, Shakespeare/ non-Shakespeare, pre-Shakespeare/ post-Shakespeare). The gaps in generic history, in other words, occur in the moments between conventional scholarly research interests. Since our project focus is on the playhouses’ earliest years, I’ll focus most on that period, but let me first note the continuing problem of Shakespeare’s relationship with genre and the spread of genre diversification in the work of his contemporaries as in need of further consideration, both in themselves and as issues in the better-known early modern corpus that subtly inflect the way we view the lesser-known earlier years of the playhouses. Our view is not just teleological but refracted: we backproject onto the earlier period developments distinctive to the 1590s and beyond. It goes without saying, too, that 1642 does not in reality mark an end point for these discussions, but because it is often allowed to seem to, these discussions of genre get frozen in time. Our discussion of early modern drama and genre would look very different if continuities between pre-1643 and post-1660 drama were more apparent, both historically and in current scholarly conversation. Indeed, part of the problems associated with our understanding of the transitional years of the 1560s and ’70s derive from a comparable combination of haziness of evidence and haziness of engagement with evidence in the period just before Shakespeare.
But the key questions about the earlier gaps in the history of genre as currently conceived are: 1) how do we get from a mid-century compositional, performative and receptive climate that does not think in terms of comedy and tragedy to a 1580s climate that organises such things in precisely those terms? 2) Is this a transition from one set of genres to another, or is our understanding of genre so grounded in the triad of comedies, histories and tragedies that we should understand this transition as one from genrelessness to genrelisation? 3) Or is this move from one climate to the other not an effect of historical time but of historiography? Does it happen, or have we been saying that it happens? Does such a transition take place?
With that in mind, here are some questions about the current state of knowledge of early modern genre, and the questions, methods and answers that we bring to it:
- What is the lived, live experience of genre? If an audience knows or thinks it knows the genre of a play, how does that inflect its experience of dramatic story in the live moment? If a character is near death, for example, does the play’s perceived generic identity predetermine audience response? Obviously this question will work differently for different audience members in different moments, but asked like this, as a generalisation, it seems to challenge scholarly preconceptions about how genre works as a live experience in the theatre.
- What is the effect of genre on scholarly understanding of these lived, live experiences? Scholars have a particular tendency to assume that comedy in the theatre involves a safe, controlled narrative receptive process, the audience’s emotive experience safetyblanketed by the redemptive knowledge of the play’s genre: it will all be alright in the end. Is this true? To give three brief examples, Lyly’s Sappho and Phao opens with Phao professing profound happiness and ends with him seeking exile and suicide. Influenced in part by the epilogue to the play, but also by Lyly’s reputation as a writer of comedies, scholars have described this as a happy ending, one that returns us to the point at which the play began, despite the clear transition from the play’s first to its last speech. To move to the theatre, I was lucky enough to be included in the Performance as Research Three Ladies of London conference, where one of the actors explained to me that they had struggled to find an appropriate way to kill the character Hospitality, given that the play is a comedy: in effect, scholarly confusions over genre meant that they were trying to kill Hospitality with kindness. But as I shall suggest later of uses of the word more generally, the title page reference to comedy may be a red herring: not only is Hospitality killed in shocking circumstances, but the play ends with its three title figures being sent to prison or Hell. Similarly, and as a third example, it’s possible to watch productions of early modern plays that do not end with successful courtship, in which actors nevertheless move into the conventional romantic positions that Shakespeare’s plays have lead them to expect. The actors’ bodies instinctively go into romance mode, even as their words refuse romantic endings. Have we allowed assumptions about genre to dictate the way we and others read these plays, even the choreography of their bodies onstage as they perform?
- How do plays with particular genres end, or have to end? What narrative expectations does genre set up? And does the narrative need to fulfil or play against such expectations? Shakespeare, in particular, seems to associate comic endings with marriage: why this recurrent theme, and how does it work alongside non-Shakespearean plays that we call comedies but do not share this apparent fixation on successful courtship? I’m thinking here, for example, of other kinds of comic conclusion, often involving very different kinds of sexual praxis: the queerness of Lyly’s endings (of which more later), the potential loss of the French King’s penis in A Humorous Day’s Mirth, the successful escape of criminals in The Alchemist, the revelation that puppets have no genitals in Bartholomew Fair. If we want to accept these plays as comedies, what does that do to our sense of the assumed ‘normality’ of Shakespeare’s endings? Since we tend to come to non-Shakespearean drama via Shakespeare’s precedent, might that blind us to the oddity of his fixation on heterosexual marriage?
- What is genre? Does it have a history during the time of the London playhouses? What are its longer histories? What are the connections and disconnections, for example, between Roman Republican comedy and English early Stuart comedy? How does Adelphoe help us understand The Alchemist, and vice versa?
- To move from the diachronic to the synchronic, what are the various effects of genre at a particular time? Does one genre depend on another for its existence? Did Antonio and Mellida need Antonio’s Revenge? Did Love’s Labour’s Lost need Love’s Labour’s Won? Do we understand The Comedy of Errors the better for having tragedies of errors, such as Romeo and Juliet or Othello, to which to compare it? What are the structural contexts of our judgements of the generic status of individual plays, and are those contexts themselves partial, the result of a haphazard or refractive reception process? (We might want to factor in our profession’s commitment to polarising Lyly’s comedies and Marlowe’s tragedies as key stages in ‘the development of Shakespearean drama’ here.)
- What physical effects does genre have on playhouse performance and its context? When do we first hear about playbill genre statements or black curtains, for example? Do we assume such things were the norm, or are they presented to us as new or irregular developments? Tiffany Stern’s work has been crucial in this regard, but might her work have helped our professional tendency to generalise that which was only occasional?
- Once we establish these diachronic and synchronic histories of genre during the most familiar years of the playhouses (c. 1590 to c. 1610), how does this affect our sense of genre in the playhouses’ less familiar years? As I’ve suggested, theatre historiography on the 1580s has traditionally seen pre-Shakespearean genre as dominated by Marlowe’s tragedy and Lyly’s comedy, with the idea of the medley tradition of the Queen’s Men recently introduced to this mix by Sally-Beth MacLean and Scott McMillin. The history of the history play is more obviously uncertain because this is a new Elizabethan dramatic genre: there is no Roman History in the theatrical sense. How might we understand these very different microhistories of the genres, and how does MacLean and McMillin’s identification of the medley tradition affect them?
- The Shakespeare First Folio is often claimed as one of the most influential books in Western culture. But the Shakespeare First Folio is not called The Shakespeare First Folio: it is called M[aster]r. William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories & Tragedies. What influence has this title had over scholarly perceptions and expectations of genre? Given that the contents of Shakespeare’s First Folio were and are themselves in fraught relationship with the book’s title and its promise of easy delineation between the genres, might we be wary of any such influence? To repeat a point I made in relation to attribution, the first sentence of Gary Taylor’s introduction to The Collected Works of Thomas Middleton celebrate Middleton’s composition of ‘masterpieces’ in the same genres that Shakespeare used. Why this valorisation of those genres? Would we repudiate the greatness of Homer, or Jane Austen, or Samuel Beckett, on the basis of their failure to write to these generic boundaries? Why is it any different to judge Shakespeare’s contemporaries in this way?
- Despite the unusual levels of scholarly certainty over genre in 1580s drama, models for generic identity in pre-’80s genre are defined by fluidity, instability or an ease with indetermination. The work of David Bevington and Alan Dessen, for example, has taught us to think of mid-century plays as complex, experimental, hybrid, prolix or heterogenous. And then, suddenly (the suddenness a product of extant evidence, not of historical time), we have Lyly’s comedy and Marlowe’s tragedy or, to avoid generalising about generalisations, we move from The Interlude of Youth and Tide Tarrieth No Man to Dr Faustus and Endymion, or to The Spanish Tragedy and The Comedy of Errors. How? What has happened? What continuities and discontinuities might we trace here?
- But in addition to asking what has happened, might we also ask how we have understood and might go on to understand that happening? Might we be reading The Spanish Tragedy and The Comedy of Errors via William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories and Tragedies? The Spanish Tragedy and The Comedy of Errors are the first extant plays to put apparent genre markers into their titles. Rather than take those titles for granted, might we instead be surprised by them? Do we understand what the words Tragedy and Comedy might have meant when they were first introduced to the fabric of a play’s title in this manner?
- Might we also ask how print has shaped our understanding of drama? We are told by the publisher of Marlowe’s two-part Tamburlaine, quite explicitly, that the plays’ comic elements have been excised. Does this decision tell us something about the different operations of genre on stage and in print? Or does it tell us something about how quickly generic conventions changed between the composition of Tamburlaine in the mid to late ’80s and the printing of the plays in 1590? (There are, of course, many other questions to be asked of the two parts of Tamburlaine, not least how the ending of the sequel affects our sense of the generic identity of the prequel.) Above all, it tells us that where we see generic stability in either one of the Tamburlaine plays, we are seeing an effect of print. Might this be true more generally? Are we sure that it is possible to see stage genre from the evidence of a book?
- How have we used contemporary voices to theorise genre? Philip Sidney has often been used by historians of genre to demonstrate how early modern genre worked, but in fact Sidney’s purpose was to demonstrate how early modern genre did not work. Of contemporary performance practitioners, Sidney wrote: ‘all their plays be neither right tragedies nor right comedies’, referring to them instead as ‘their mongrel tragi-comedy’. Exactly ten years later, Lyly, that supposed exemplar of early modern comedy, tells us the same thing as Sidney, this time from the practitioner’s perspective: ‘We present neither comedy, nor tragedy’, a statement scholars seem stubbornly disinclined to hear. Genre is evidently in play in audience expectations, Lyly makes clear, because ‘soldiers call for tragedies […], courtiers for comedies […], [and] countrymen for pastorals’ (Lyly’s comments also remind us that in 1588-9 history was not the obvious third partner to tragedy and comedy). But these competing receptive pressures, Lyly tells us, mean that ‘we present a mingle-mangle’. Lyly’s first play, only the third surviving play from the London playhouses, is published in one edition as a tragicomedy, and only once, in a publisher’s letter, are Lyly’s plays called comedies in their earliest editions. These are very different kinds of evidence – Sidney as cultural commentator, Lyly as practitioner, bibliographical paratext – but they all point in the same direction: genre continued to be in flux in the 1580s as it had been in the 1550s, ’60s and ’70s. Might our current sense of pre-Shakespearean generic tradition itself be a backprojection from later developments? And might this possible backprojection mean that we are missing a greater sensitivity to and self-consciousness about genre in the 1590s, not least in the work of Shakespeare himself, and in his reception (think of Meres, for example)? Have Jonson’s comments about Shakespeare’s lack of classical languages blinded us to the unusually classical sensibility of Shakespeare’s work? Might the development of Shakespeare’s own compositional habits in relation to genre be grounded in his very distinctive understanding of classical genre? When a character in Love’s Labour’s Lost observes that the play ends ‘not […] like an old play’, might they really mean the word ‘old’? Scholars tend to assume this line is about recent tradition, but where and how often in the extant recent tradition do plays end with marriage? The answer to this question may surprise many scholars.
- Might the language of genre itself be tripping us up? Comedy seems a self-evidently generic word, but is it and was it? Like the word history, comedy could simply mean ‘story’ or ‘narrative’, as anyone working in early modern non-dramatic literature knows. But in the field of drama, too, the word had this meaning. Witness the title pages of John Bale’s A brefe comedy or enterlude of Johan Baptystes preachynge and A brefe comedy or enterlude concernynge the temptacyon of our Lords and Saver Jesus Christ. Say what you like about John the Baptist and Jesus Christ, and I know you will, but neither man was principally known for their comedy in the generic sense. LOLS and marriage are not vital parts of their stories. In early modern English, comedy could mean story, as it continues to do in modern Spanish. That is why a character in The Taming of the Shrew, asked to define comedy, explains that ‘It is a kind of history’. The two words are commensurate, rather than distinct and discrete, as they would be on the Shakespeare Folio title page. Taming of the Shrew is included in that Folio, and its disruptive heckling of the title page’s list of discrete entities testifies to how quickly the semantics and compositional practices of the playhouses had changed.
- Where the word comedy appears without reference to other generic markers, then, might we be best to proceed by treating it as a non-generic term, or at least keep in mind its potential non-generic meaning? Take the full title of Nathaniel Woodes’ play, printed in 1581: An excellent new Commedie, Intituled: The Conflict of Conscience. CONTAYNINGE, The most lamentable example, of the dole-full desperation of a miserable world-linge, termed, by the name of PHILOLOGVS, who forsooke the trueth of Gods Gospel, for feare of the losse of lyfe, & worldly goods. Likewise, Tamburlaine, Doctor Faustus and The Spanish Tragedy were all described as comedies at some point by contemporaries. In the sixteenth century, might tragedy be a subset of comedy, rather than its opposite, just as comedy is ‘a kind of history’ in Taming of the Shrew? Might it be possible to write, as the quotation at the top of this blog implies, tragical comedy? Might comedy mean ‘story’ or ‘play’ as its default sixteenth-century meaning, and especially in the absence of other genetic markers and qualifications?
- Given the apparently agreed existence of problem comedies, at least in Shakespeare’s canon, what are no-problem comedies?
- What is the history of romantic comedy, a genre often seen as distinctly pre-Shakespearean? As I suggested above, the supposed comedies of Lyly are queer in various senses. Firstly, they almost uniformly end with the failure of their central heterosexual courtships; the only exception is the three sets of couples in Love’s Metamorphosis, whose respective women are in an especially extreme form of forced marriage that the they make clear will result in mutual marital unhappiness. The only successful central courtship in Lyly’s work is in Galatea, where the audience spend the play watching two girls in love with one another who leave the stage still in love and intending to get married. Sappho, meanwhile, already named after a queer poet, ends her play happily single, in a same-sex environment, and in control of love, promising to make it ‘a toy for ladies’, kept ‘only for ladies’. Her last line commands that the gate is closed on heterosocial society. Lyly’s other plays explore and seem to celebrate queer forms of heterosexuality: Protea in Love’s Metamorphosis is still on speaking terms with the male god with whom she had premarital sex, whilst The Woman in the Moon asks us to delight in an enthusiastically adulterous woman, ending with her apotheosis in the stars, her husband in a position of divinely-approved perpetual subjugation. If scholarship thinks these are the epitome of romantic comedy, something has either gone very wrong or very right. Why are Lyly’s plays now called romantic comedies when they so clearly trace the failure of heterosexual courtship and valorise queer forms of love? And once we remove Lyly from the world of pre-Shakespearean romantic comedy, what’s left?
- How, when and why does the history genre materialise? Is The Famous Victories of Henry V our first agreed extant playhouse history play, and if so, why doesn’t it get more attention? Is Campaspe and its story about Alexander the Great a history play? Is Tamburlaine? How about Suleiman and Perseda, The Wounds of Civil War, The Battle of Alcazar, The Wars of Cyrus, A Looking-Glass for London and England, James IV, John a Kent and John a Cumber, The Love of King David and Fair Bathseba, Locrine, The Massacre at Paris? How might we factor these plays into or around our histories of history?
- Is the history play an extension of the morality play? Does it offer exemplarity, a kind of practice-as-research moral philosophy workshop grounded on real or mythologised events of the past? Does it, as Callan Davies has suggested to me, ‘provide some form of cache, imply some moral efficacy’?
- Why does tragedy appear relatively late in the extant plays of early period? The Spanish Tragedy is notoriously hard to date (it’s one of a number of plays dated c. 1585-1592), but as well as being the first playhouse play to embrace the term ‘tragedy’ in its title, it may also be the first extant playhouse tragedy (Gorboduc and Jocasta are earlier, non-playhouse precedents that continue to have uncertain roles in current histories of history plays). Given the dominance of this genre in theatre historiography, might we think harder about the comparatively late emergence of extant witnesses of this form? Does this suggest tragedy itself took a while to take off? Or that tragedy is especially inimical or unattractive to print or to print readers?
In light of these questions, what does genre look like from the point of view of the early playhouses? Rare Triumphs is the second surviving play likely to have been performed in the playhouses, and Shakespeare’s Globe will be staging it with Dolphin’s Back and the Before Shakespeare project at the Globe on 14th May 2017. This play stages genre in its very structure: Love and Fortune are Venus and Fortuna, goddesses respectively of love, lust and longing and of fate, disaster and comeuppances. In the early modern equivalent of a hip hop street dance, each takes control of a couple of acts of the play, exercising dominion over the loves and fates of the human characters in order to demonstrate her mastery. The play dramatises genre, or perhaps more accurately, dramatises generic instability and incompatibility. I am not suggesting, then, that genre as a concept did not exist in this period. I am suggesting, instead, that 1) it existed in multiple, sometimes contradictory concepts; 2) it did not yet have an established relationship with authorial form or practice; and 3) that its semantic history disrupts conventional scholarly narratives of genre. What would the history of early modern genre look like if it was modelled from The Rare Triumphs of Love and Fortune, rather than from Mr. William Shakespeareas Comedies, Histories & Tragedies?
As with our previous discussion of authorship and attribution, it might help to introduce other kinds of media to some of these questions. As with attribution, the fixation on plays and drama can blind us to developments and discussions of the issues we study taking place during the time period that we study, but outside of our preferred media range. For this reason, this blog is bookended by quotations from prose fiction, one from 1580, the other from 1588.
As so often, prose fiction writers address directly issues that are often only implicit in drama. Indeed, given that scholars often express disappointment at the lack of self-reflective commentary from playwrights, it’s very odd that they don’t look to prose fiction, where these very issues can be seen being discussed, often by the same writers of, or about the same stories in, early modern plays. (I’ve written elsewhere about the untapped history of attribution available in prose fiction narratives, especially in their paratexts.) These quotations demonstrate, I think, how quickly things change across the period: in 1580, comedy could be tragical; in 1588, in the long final sentence to Pandosto, comical events are closed up with tragical strategems. Pandosto hardly suggests generic stability (quite the opposite), but it does suggest greater self-consciousness, that self-conscioudness rooted in a sudden polarisation of comedy and tragedy. Zelauto is written by a future playwright, Pandosto by someone in the process of becoming a playwright, perhaps suggesting further reasons for the differences between the texts. Shakespeare, of course, responded to Greene’s generic collision in The Winter’s Tale twenty years later. Scholarly obsessions over the relationship between Shakespeare and Greene mean that we have missed the productive relationship between the two texts, not least in how the one responds to the other’s generic challenges.
Might we think, too, about the kinds of playhouse drama we often miss by refusing to name them? There is a lively tradition of English playhouse farce, for example (Woman in the Moon, Comedy of Errors, The Alchemist, The Chances), though we rarely seem to use that word. This is a pity, given farce’s interest in the subjectivity of subjugation to plot, peril and pranks.
I guess at heart this post is asking whether we understand the stories we tell about stories to ourselves, each other and those dependent on our profession, such as performers. That question is ethical as well as intellectual, because it concerns the fictional worlds and emotive experiences we acknowledge, read, write about and stage. Our often very generic responses to genre limit the possibilities of representation offered to us by the extraordinary plays written for the London playhouses.
Genre, confusingly, is rarely generic, and can lead us into errors of comedy, history and tragedy. Christopher Sly in Taming of the Shrew asks what comedy is. This strikes me as an excellent question. Over to Robert Greene.
Which done, providing a sufficient navy to receive him and his retinue, accompanied with Dorastus, Fawnia and the Sicilian ambassadors, he sailed towards Sicilia, where he was most princely entertained by Egistus, who hearing this comical event, rejoiced greatly at his son’s good hap, and without delay, to the perpetual joy of the two young lovers, celebrated the marriage, which was no sooner ended but Pandosto, calling to mind how first he betrayed his friend Egistus, how his jealousy was the cause of Bellaria’s death, that contrary to the law of nature he had lusted after his own daughter, moved with these desperate thoughts he fell in a melancholy fit and, to close up the comedy with a tragical stratagem, he slew himself, whose death being many days bewailed of Fawnia, Dorastus and his dear friend Egistus, Dorastus, taking his leave of his father, went with his wife and the dead corpse into Bohemia, where after they were sumptuously entombed, Dorastus ended his days in con- tented quiet.
Robert Greene, Pandosto (1588)
The title of this blog is taken, with thanks, from a remark made by Laurie Maguire at the 2016 SAA seminar on the 1580s.