Banishment as a Romance Convention in Early English Drama (c. 1581-1591)

We’re very pleased to host this guest post from Alexander Thom exploring the trope of banishment in early commercial drama.


Regarding Shakespeare, James Joyce once wrote, “the note of banishment, banishment from the heart, banishment from home, sounds uninterruptedly”.[1] Certainly, Shakespeare’s plays are littered with conspicuous instances of banishment and a number of his plots turn on banishment’s implications—implications that are often, at once, both political and personal. But in this, at least, Shakespeare is not unique. Many playwrights of the period seem to have been preoccupied not only by banishment but also by the dramatic possibilities offered in response to banishment. We might well look to Webster’s famous opening to The White Devil or to Marston’s recursive engagement with insurgent victims of banishment (Antonio and Mellida, The Malcontent) to find other, similarly rich examples. This post primarily focuses on banishment’s treatment in the earliest extant corpus of English drama, particularly with regards to what I have described as a wilderness convention. However, this idea is also examined with a view toward better understanding banishment’s enduring popularity as a dramatic device.

This wider fascination with not only the causes but the effects of banishment perhaps relates to an interest in displacement and migration more generally. But, as Jane Kingsley-Smith has suggested, banishment in this period carries with it a set of distinctly continental, even specifically Petrarchan, connotations.[2] This in part reflects the fact that the English conception of banishment was not derived from their own historical legal practices but was rather a cultural construct amalgamated from continental literary and legal traditions. Yet, despite these romantic connotations, for many scholars today banishment is most strongly associated with either the late Elizabethan history plays (Edward II, Richard II, and so forth) or with even later Jacobean drama. However, the blossoming interest in the extant early corpus has helped to reveal that Marlowe, Shakespeare, Marston, and Webster were all recipients and adaptors of a variety of fully-fledged dramatic conventions, including those governing the depiction of banishment. In the case of banishment, many of these conventions were developed primarily in the staging of romance narratives, rather than in the more commonly studied examples of early historical drama.

During 2017’s marathon play reading, held at the Shakespeare Institute, I was struck by just how insubstantial (if not outright absent) banishment was in many of the earlier English history plays: The Troublesome Reign of King John, King Leir and His Three Daughters, The Famous Victories of Henry V, and so forth. Instead, many of the most dramatically effective instances were to be found in plays with romantic inflections. To note a few key examples: The Rare Triumphs of Love and Fortune (1582), Alphonsus, King of Aragon (1587), and Mucedorus (1591).[3] A possible exception to this is perhaps the Roman play, Thomas Lodge’s The Wounds of Civil War (1587-8), whose chiasmatic structure revolves around the alternating banishments and ascensions of Marius and Sulla. Yet, even in this instance, the Ancient Roman setting complicates, but does not entirely foreclose, some of the play’s romantic generic markers.

I’d like to try to add a little specificity to this idea by looking at one particular banishment convention in more detail: the wilderness. Two of the earliest extant plays deploy this convention in a very similar way; Love and Fortune and Alphonsus both depict a banished father and child who inhabit a cave. This stage trope channels a wide array of literary precedents. Yet it is also one that enthusiasts of early modern drama would probably be most likely to associate with plays from the romantic revival in Jacobean drama (perhaps with Cymbeline or The Tempest). The generic marker lies in their avoidance of the comforts of another city, civilisation or, indeed, even a building. Instead, these characters tend to reside as hermits or foresters in something like a state of nature, seeking shelter in caves or woods.

This cave convention offers poetic opportunities through the rich connotations, both positive and negative, surrounding those who dwell in the wilderness. These ‘figures of exclusion’, to repurpose Peter Kirwan’s suggestive phrase, hold an ambivalent position.[4] On the one hand, they suggest an ascetic holiness, stemming from Christ’s poverty and the monastic marginalisation of bodily comfort. On the other, they suggest the wild, animalistic life of the bandit.

One early play, Mucedorus, explores these contrasts to great effect. The central action juxtaposes the titular prince (in disguise as a hermit) and a cannibalistic wild-man. These two adversaries compete for the affections of the lost princess Amadine and for control of the woodland cave in which all three reside. The implicit conflict between contemplative poverty and bestial survival is accentuated by Mucedorus’ attempts to persuade the wild-man of the benefits of civilisation—attempts that come to an abrupt conclusion when Mucedorus batters the cannibal’s brains out.

Lodge’s Wounds offers an interesting variation on this theme by complicating the banished character’s relationship with the landscape. The proscribed Marius enters for his post-banishment soliloquy with the stage direction: “Enter Marius solus from the Numidian mountaines” (1189-90).[5] The soliloquy itself works to paint forth the desolate landscape that Marius is faced with:

Like to these stretching mountaines clad with snow,
No sun-shine of content my thoughts approcheth:
High spyre their tops, my hopes no height do know
But mount so high as time their tract reprocheth:
They finde their spring, where winter wrongs my minde:
They weepe their brookes, I wast my cheekes with teares. (1195-1200)

This emphatic depiction of the wilderness — “[h]unger in these Numidian mountaines dwells” (1206) — intensifies as the soliloquy continues. The descriptive stress placed on the terrain certainly works to evoke the loss of the physical comforts of civilisation. This deprivation might well return us to the complex theological dichotomy between contemplative poverty and animalistic survival that I described before. But, for Marius, his physical distress seems always secondary to his isolation: “Thou that hast walkt with troops of flocking frends, / Now wandrest midst the laborynth of woes” (1191-92). (As Callan Davies pointed out to me, the stage entrances of this play are typically very busy, with additional captains and soldiers frequently being called for in the stage directions. The entrance of Marius, as the SD specifies, “solus” (alone) therefore also represents a striking dramaturgical shift that foregrounds his isolation.) The soliloquy culminates in a curious Echo sequence, in which Marius’ words are rebounded from “yond neighbring mountaine” as a momentary relief to his loneliness: “[o]h pleasing folly to a pensiue man” (1242). Here, despite the physical hardship it causes, the inhospitable landscape also unexpectedly offers Marius an opportunity for respite, albeit illusory, from the emotional cost of his enforced solitude.

What ultimately unites these banished figures are their transformations. Each one reverses their position, moving from poverty to sovereignty. Hermione (in Love and Fortune) and Mucedorus both successfully marry into the line of succession, Alphonsus seizes the throne of Aragon, and Marius is (re-)made consul. Alphonsus and Marius reclaim their position through military prowess and political capital respectively (Alphonsus perhaps here reflecting the outstanding commercial success of Tamburlaine earlier in 1587). Hermione and his father, on the other hand, are redeemed via the already slightly old-fashioned deus ex machina. Nevertheless, what is crucial for all four of these plays is the contrast between the “pit of pilgrimes pouertie”, as Greene’s Venus describes it, and the “the toppe of friendly Fortunes wheele” (377-379). This contrast offers a dramatist opportunities for character development and for a climactic conclusion, whether triumphant—in the cases of Love and Fortune, Mucedorus, and Alphonsus—or tragic—in the case of Wounds.

Yet like so many great artistic themes, the most intriguing depictions of banishment are fundamentally, as Greene’s Venus makes explicit, about transformation itself. The inventive exploration of this idea across so many plays speaks to the intellectual richness of this early corpus. However, it also suggests an important shortcoming in our scholarly perspective, which has habitually prioritised those plays identified as source-texts for more prominent, later playwrights. Our scholarship of English drama can only be strengthened through a more active engagement with the wider body of early plays, within which there are many works that are significant, exemplary, and innovative in their own right.

Alexander Thom

Works Cited

[1] James Joyce, Ulysses, London: Penguin, 1977, 211-2.

[2] Jane Kingsley-Smith, Shakespeare’s Drama of Exile, Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003, 4, 34-8.

[3] All dates are sourced from M. Wiggins, British Drama 1533-1642: A Catalogue.

[4] Peter Kirwan, Shakespeare and the Idea of Apocrypha: Negotiating the Boundaries of the Dramatic Canon, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015, 101-102.

[5] All line citations refer to Malone Society editions.

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