This post is part of a series on theatrical words. For an introduction to the series, see Performing words: introduction to a new thread on theatre and language.
How much do we think about stories when we read, perform, produce, watch or study early modern plays? How aware are we of the decisions being made by their first writers, performers and producers? Such decisions impact on pretty much every aspect of a play: cast demographics, speed, tone, props, costumes, setting, marketing and audience satisfaction.
Once we’ve noticed a play’s story as itself the product of creative decision, how often do we attend to the way a play deploys its story? Take As You Like It, for example, a play which seems to use up all its plot in the first act (oops). Give or take an unexpected and very offstage lion, the rest of the play is taken up with forest chat. Or take the two Henry IV plays, which seem to use up all their plot in the very first play (double oops). Some plays have fairly simple cause-and-effect structures, such as Romeo and Juliet or Macbeth, which move from 1) ‘shall we have sex and/or kill the king’ to 2) ‘yes we shall’ to 3) ‘oh no: wrong decision’. How does that compare to the relative plotlessness of As You Like It or Bartholomew Fair? They aren’t actually plotless, but they certainly dissipate their plots amongst a wide array of characters. Rather than focussing on the central decisions of protagonists in the manner of Romeo and Juliet or Macbeth, these plays enact plot at the level of a community, not an individual.
Meanwhile a play like The Duchess of Malfi has a story which invites cause-and-effect structure (an honour killing in response to clandestine marriage), but deploys that story in ways that mitigate cause-and-effect logic. It does so partly by embedding narrative repetition into its overall structure so as to produce myriad causes and effects, and partly by emphasising time delay. Shakespeareans often think Hamlet delays his revenge, but he has nothing on Malfi‘s Ferdinand. Ferdinand ends Act Two promising to ‘purge this choler’, ‘toss [his sister’s] palace ’bout her ears’, ‘Apply desperate physic’, ‘he[w] her to pieces’, spill her ‘whore’s blood’ and, above all, ‘kill her now’. Act Three then opens telling us that several years have passed and no one has died: the play’s structure deliberately upends its apparent narrative drive. So when Shakespeare’s Othello says ‘It is the cause, it is the cause’, he articulates only one way that early modern plots can work. Sometimes it is the cause; sometimes it isn’t.
I’m often struck by how the use of story in The Comedy of Errors can trip some theatre companies up. I’ve heard actors and directors say many times that their central role is to tell the story, and much of The Comedy of Errors certainly zips along in a here-comes-another-bit-of-story sort of way. But equally, The Comedy of Errors doesn’t always want to move on with the story. Sometimes it wants to stop and talk about Father Time, or grotesque women, or to deliver a lengthy bit of backstory. Those transitions from a pace associated with farce to a pace associated with a lecture hall can easily throw performers. Each of these plays has a different relationship with its own plot (in addition to the fact that each of their plots are themselves very different). What effect did and do these differences have on performers, theatre companies, audiences, marketing materials and readers?
And what about the stories that characters take onstage with them? When Henry V walked onstage in one of his many surviving and lost early modern plays (including The Shoemaker’s Holiday, for example), his writers and performers could rely on a range of advance audience knowledge, expectations and emotions. The same is true of other characters, especially if they regularly reoccur from play to play and within a single company’s repertory: take the four appearances of Cupid in Lyly plays or the four appearances of Queen Margaret in Henry VI and Richard III, for example. Other characters, meanwhile, do not bring narrative expectations onstage with them. When Lyly named his first play Campaspe, he rejected the opportunity to name it after its much more famous character, Alexander the Great. Indeed, not only is Campaspe herself a hugely obscure figure in the stories surrounding Alexander, Lyly even gets her name wrong: she is called Pancaspe in all previous traditions. When an actor walks onstage playing an obscure classical figure with an incomprehensible name, they not only embody but also encounter different narrative and emotional worlds compared to an actor walking onstage playing Cupid or Henry V. They brings onstage and then encounter very different kinds of story challenges.
So, what do we do with early modern story?
First, a personal confession: I am really bad at following stories in performance. I have very poor facial recognition, which plays havoc when watching plays or films (or attending academic conferences – sorry to the many colleagues I have introduced myself to many hundreds of times). So I am not putting myself forward as much of a narrative expert. But this problem with stories perhaps makes me more self-conscious about narrative than I might otherwise be, and certainly narrative often seems to be a blindspot in the way we understand early modern literature, not just for scholars but often for performers, directors, producers and audiences. This is partly an effect of the literary canon, I suspect: because we’re told that these plays are great, that can have the unexpected effect of making us take their compositional decisions for granted. Why is it, for example, that Shakespeare writes so many stories about dour, grumpy men? Hamlet, King Lear, Malvolio, Othello, Caesar, Cymbeline, Timon, Prospero, Oberon, Titus, Henry IV, King John, Richard II, Richard III, Bertram, Jacques, Ford, Petruchio, Leontes, absolutely anyone called Antonio or Antony and absolutely every high-status man in Much Ado. That’s a lot of grumpy men. Personally speaking, I would never want to spend much time with any of them, and it’s a mystery to me that so many people choose to hang out with them so often in the theatre. And what must it have been like having Shakespeare as a colleague? ‘Hey Will, what are you doing?’ ‘Oh, just writing a grumpy dour man play’. ‘What, another one?! Can’t you write something else?’ ‘Sure, I’m a versatile writer. Here comes my thirty-thousandth Sonnet’… Shakespeare is unusual, even eccentric in devoting so much fictional time and space to stories about these kinds of men. The decision to do so is a compositional choice, but it rarely gets read in this way, or at all. Why not?
The same is as true for decisions about plot as it is for individual characters. Take some of the more eccentric narrative choices of Shakespeare, for example. Why would you call a play Julius Caesar, but then basically not have him in it? Can we take a moment to feel sorry for the actor originally asked to play Caesar? The person in charge of the story says to you, hey, we’ve got this new play about Caesar in the works, and we want you to be him. Hooray, main part, I’ll never leave the stage! So I get to govern Spain, get kidnapped by pirates, conquer Gaul, pop across to Britain, write a lot of self-righteous prose, perform a hostile takeover of Rome, have quite a lot of sex, rewrite the calendar and then invent a salad and a method of delivering babies? No, sorry, you just get three scenes. You have an epileptic fit (but offstage, thanks very much), you say that you’re deaf, you get worked up over someone else’s dream and then you get assassinated. Three scenes only. Stop being so greedy, you tyrant. But in all seriousness, might we ask: what led to these decisions? It might simply be that the play is named after Caesar because he is in various different ways the highest profile person in it. But compare The Witch of Edmonton, another play that identifies its protagonist and then takes care to use her fairly sparingly through the story.
Or take Midsummer Night’s Dream. Can you imagine being at the meeting when they put that story together? This is one of Shakespeare’s few plays with no direct source, and whoever came up with the narrative must have been smoking something very strong. This time let’s put on a play about Theseus, but then basically not have him in it, but don’t worry because it will all hang together whilst a donkey-man date-rapes the queen of the fairies. And yes, this is Ancient Greece (because, Theseus), so let’s have those well-known Grecian deities Oberon and Titania coming to town, alongside Bottom, Flute and Starveling, who also have totally legit Greek names and jobs. Because scholarship doesn’t often take stock of narrative at a macro level, we don’t often ask what might lead to these sorts of decisions, not only in terms of narrative but also staging, casting, prop and costume needs, repertory or marketing.
So what sort of stories do early modern plays tell? And what words do they use to describe the process of storytelling? How often do they tell stories that audiences already know, and when they do this, are they more likely to tell that story faithfully or to introduce changes? Where changes are introduced, are such innovations intended to be subliminal or obvious and startling? How often do early modern plays tell stories that are completely new to their audience, either because they are based on little known texts, are bizarre hybrids of lots of texts or because their stories are entirely new and, to use a very non-early-modern expression, made up?
For examples of such situations, see Shakespeare’s As You Like It and The Winter’s Tale, both of which dramatise English prose fictions which were already very popular. But where As You Like It follows Thomas Lodge’s Rosalind fairly faithfully, The Winter’s Tale performs a radical rewrite of the ending to Robert Greene’s Pandosto. (Pandosto itself gets very worked up at its conclusion about the pressures of comedy and tragedy as story structures: see here for more). These are examples of Shakespeare sticking close to a particular text and, in the latter instance, then making an unexpected change that would be obvious and shocking to anyone who knows the source material (but also responds to cues about genre in Pandosto itself). At the other end of the spectrum, Shakespeare sometimes seems to proceed in the absence of a single source. Shakespeare’s The Tempest or Midsummer Night’s Dream both seem to be instances of plays fusing together lots of textual cues into something new and strange.
Outside the work of Shakespeare, early modern plays can depict recent news stories: The Late Lancashire Witches promises hot-off-the-press topicality in its very title (that’s what the word ‘Late’ means here). The first two words of the prologue explain that the play has been written because ‘Corrantoes [are] failing’, ‘corrantoes’ being an early form of current affairs newspaper: we’re putting on this play in lieu of other news outlets. The play dramatises events that were not only recent but were now the subject of a London trial in the same summer that the play was staged: these are not only recent events but a controversy playing out in the very weeks that the playwrights wrote and the actors performed their play. Currency indeed. At the opposite end of the spectrum, some early modern plays seem to have had no source at all, and to be the result of an author’s invention. Please do correct me if I’m wrong on this, but a number of the earliest playhouse plays, especially those by Robert Wilson and John Lyly, seem to fit this model: The Three Ladies of London and its sequel The Three Lords and Three Ladies of London; The Woman in the Moon; Love’s Metamorphosis; Galatea. Despite its name, the latter takes no obvious narrative cue from the mythical figure, though she has obvious important thematic connections to the play.
I’ve asked fairly big, open questions thus far, and I’m afraid I’m mostly going to leave them hanging for now in favour of a scrutiny of one kind of story representation in the earliest plays performed in the London playhouses. For the rest of this post, I’ll be asking how audience addresses – prologues and epilogues in particular – talk about plot. I’ll confine my investigation to the earliest printed plays, going up to 1592, but despite this focus on printed plays I won’t be looking at the kinds of prefatory material you find in books but wouldn’t have heard in the theatre (such as title page descriptions or prefatory letters). Though I work in the chronological order of publication, I’m interested here only in what these printed texts might tell us about the way stories were discussed onstage.
In 1584, no less than four playhouse plays are published, the first of their kind to go into print: The Three Ladies of London, Campaspe, Sappho and Phao and The Arraignment of Paris (the Lyly spokesman in me feels duty bound to point out that the two Lyly plays go into multiple editions in this first year of playhouse play publication). The prologue to The Three Ladies of London begins by saying, at some length, what the play is not about: there will be no ‘rolling rocks’, ‘glimmering glance’, ‘Pluto’s pensive pit’ or ‘Limbo lake’. There will also be no ‘warlike fight’, ‘powers divine’ or ‘furious sprites’; no ‘high hills to climb’ or ‘love’s delights’; nor will the play feature ‘the milkmaid with her pail’, ‘hedger with his bill’, a ‘husbandman to lop and top’, gardeners or any other kind of ‘country toil’. Clearly this play is not Hell Boy, The Sound of Music or God’s Own Country. Personally I’d be asking for my money back at this point. But then the prologue not unreasonably forecasts the audience’s response:
You marvel then what stuff we have to furnish out our show.
Your patience yet we crave awhile, till we have trimmed our stall.
This is quite a bit more complex than it first appears, I think. First the prologue refuses to spell out the content of the story or its demographic makeup, which feels like quite a bold move after so many lines and so much detail on what the play is not about. But it also seems to represent the story or its representation as a work in progress, something the company are still working on to make happen. I might be wrong about this, and I welcome readers’ thoughts, but the lines above appear to be promising ‘to furnish out our show’ only after ‘we have trimmed our stall’. Those look like two separate actions to me, the latter initiating the story, the former completing it. If I’m wrong about that, the two phrases instead describe the same action (ie, of making the story happen by performing it). Either way, these are fascinating ways of theorising or imagining the act of stage storytelling as a kind of market commodity. As the prologue puts it, the company has ‘trimmed out our stall’ using something it twice calls ‘our wares’.
There are several audience addresses in Campaspe and Sappho and Phao, printed in multiple editions in 1584, but strikingly they do not speak about narrative. Instead, they theorise the plays in fascinating ways. The one exception is the epilogue to Sappho and Phao: although it doesn’t discuss the plot itself, it describes the effect of the plot on its audience. I’ve discussed this epilogue and the plot of this play elsewhere, but the salient point is that the epilogue imagines the plot making its audience sick with giddiness and lost in bewilderment. That’s a pretty bold thing for a theatre company to say about its own play.
Also published in 1584, The Arraignment of Paris opens with a prologue or induction in which the Fury Ate seems to bring the play’s fictional setting and story onstage with her:
Behold, I come in place, and bring beside
The bane of Troy: behold the fatal fruit […]
And Priam’s younger son [ie, the protagonist Paris […].
Imposing silence for your task, I end,
Till just assembly of the goddesses
Make me begin the tragedy of Troy.
I don’t know what to make of it, but I’m fascinated by the idea that the play is a ‘task’ set for the audience, especially after the threatening nature of the Sappho and Phao epilogue. What work does a play and its plot demand from its audience?
The prologue to Fedele and Fortunio (printed the next year, 1585) seems to concern literary style rather than narrative: the author ‘used no thundering words of state/ But clipped his wings to keep a meaner gait’. In other words, he avoided impressive terminology and political matters and attempted a purposely everyday, quotidian, more modest or limited style (‘meaner gait’). But this is a play about middle-class young people falling in love with one another: might the ‘meaner gate’ also refer to the play’s subject matter?
It’s then another five years before playhouse plays are printed with audience addresses, one for each Tamburlaine play (printed in a single volume in 1590). In the prologue to the first play, the focus again seems to slide back and forth between literary style and narrative choices:
From jigging veins of rhyming mother wits
And such conceits as clownage keeps in pay
We’ll lead you to the stately tent of war
Where you shall hear the Scythian Tamburlaine
Threatening the world with high astounding terms
And scourging kingdoms with his conquering sword.
There is a lot packed in here: stylistic choices (‘rhyming’, ‘high astounding terms’), dance or gesture (‘jigging’), authorial personae and literary games (‘wits’, ‘conceits’), casting implications (‘clownage’ as opposed to Scythian warriors), a fictional setting indicating an imagined or realised stage set (‘the stately tent of war’, ‘kingdoms’), and props (‘conquering sword’).
The prologue to 2 Tamburlaine is the first printed playhouse play to contain plot spoilers: in this ‘second part’, ‘death cuts off the progress of [Tamburlaine’s] pomp’. This might suggest that early modern theatregoers went to the theatre in order to see how a story happened, rather than to learn what happened within it (an argument often made by early modern scholars). Indeed, this prologue contains a plot teaser (‘But what became of fair Zenocrate[?]’) only to be met by a plot spoiler two lines later: Tamburlaine ‘celebrated her sad [‘said’ in the 1590 edition] funeral’. What became of fair Zenocrate? Oh, she dies. It’s not exactly Hitchcockian suspense, and this tells us quite a bit about how early modern audiences experienced narrative.
In The Three Lords and Three Ladies of London (1590), the prologue is delivered by an allegorical representation of London itself, and she mostly ignores the story to come. She does, however, refer to ‘the sports you come to see’ (ie, the play) and explains how this new play will differ from its prequel, The Three Ladies of London:
My former fruits were lovely ladies three,
Now of three lords to talk is London’s glee.
Am I alone in thinking that it’s pretty interesting that the writer or company felt the need to spell that information out? Assuming that the titles that we have for these plays reflect the titles used in performance and in any marketing information disseminated before it (not always a safe assumption to make), it is striking that this prologue is so careful to identify the three new title characters. And in so doing, of course, the prologue effaces the three characters who appear in both plays’ titles: if you didn’t know the second play’s title, it would be perfectly possible to read the second line in this prologue and assume that the three lords had replaced the three ladies rather than joined their fictional universe. In other words, this prologue both repeats information from the title and leaves open the potential for confusion.
In 1591, Lyly’s Endymion: The Man in the Moon was published, with a prologue quite a bit shorter than those written for his earlier printed plays (but about the same length as Galatea‘s, which was onstage earlier but printed later). Endymion‘s prologue is extremely interested in its own narrative, which it mentions by repeating its own subtitle no less than four times in a little over 100 words, which I quote in full here:
Most high and happy princess [Queen Elizabeth], we must tell you a tale of the Man in the Moon, which, if it seem ridiculous for the method, or superfluous for the matter, or for the means incredible, for three faults we can make but one excuse: it is a tale of the Man in the Moon.
It was forbidden in old time to dispute of chimera [an exciting classical monster], because it was a fiction [ie, a myth]. We hope in our times none will apply pastimes, beause they are fancies – for there liveth none under the sun that know what to make of the Man in the Moon. We present neither comedy, nor tragedy, nor story, nor anything, but that whosoever may say this, ‘Why, here is a tale of the Man in the Moon’.
This is the shortest prologue for a play performed in a London playhouse to be printed thus far, but it is also, paradoxically, the most sustained prologue discussion of plot. And of course, it still manages to say almost nothing. It is a tale of the Man in the Moon.
For all his reputation as a royalist sycophant, when I read Lyly’s plays I often have Basil Fawlty in my head, who is at his most polite when he is at his rudest. ‘Thank you so much’, Fawlty will say as he steals from, hits or otherwise abuses his hotel guests. Similarly, Lyly seems to default to his audience at the same time that he lectures them on what they can and cannot think. Don’t apply pastimes; don’t fancy or fantasise; do not dispute or argue back. I tell you for the fourth time: this is just a tale of the Man in the Moon.
But without wanting to get too stuck into the plot of Lyly’s Endymion, it is striking that the play is emphatically not the tale of the Man in the Moon. Endymion is a man on earth, in love with some sort of strange hybrid between moon, moon deity and earthly queen. At no point in the play is he ‘in’ the moon, either astronomically or anatomically. The whole point of this play is that Endymion never achieves his desire of owning, marrying or having sex with the queen. And if the prologue is right and the apparent plot is wrong, then that means that Endymion very much does have sex with the queen. I can’t see any other way for this play to be a tale of the man in the moon. The play itself hints at this exactly once, when fairies sing a song claiming that Endymion and the moon-queen are alone together: there may be multiple stories at work in this play, some of them more politically dangerous than others.
There is still more to unpack in this prologue. I won’t discuss its extraordinary claims about genre, since I’ve discussed those elsewhere, but I am fascinated to see this prologue claim that it does not present a ‘story’, particularly in light of its four claims to ‘tell you a tale’. How exactly do you tell a tale without telling a story? And the prologue gives us three different ways to think about the content and execution of narrative: this tale may be ‘ridiculous for the method’, ‘superfluous for the matter, or for the means incredible’. According to this prologue, early modern plays had tales which had methods, matters and means, but not stories. What does that do to our understanding of play plotting, narrative structures and choices and the way companies decided what subject matter to stage? What does it do to our understanding of early modern understanding of these things? And if these tales had methods, matters and means, then how did they manage to avoid having stories? I’m not sure I understand what all of these words mean here, and I’m not sure early modern scholarship is yet in a place to tell us.
In 1592, two plays were published which lack formal prologues but do provide us with reflections on their narrative in the form of audience address. The Spanish Tragedy opens with two supernatural characters, a ghost and the allegorical figure of Revenge, and the text seems to be encouraging the actor playing the ghost to deliver his long opening speech to the audience rather than (or as well as) to Revenge. These figures appear to remain onstage throughout the play, and they repeatedly comment on its action: ‘Here sit we down to see the mystery’; ‘The end is crown of every work well done’; ‘Ay, now my hopes have end in their effects, […] Ay, these were spectacles to please my soul’.
Revenge also talks about the phenomenological experience of narrative, particularly the agonising wait for what you hope will happen, and fear may not happen: ‘The sickle comes not till the corn be ripe’. The ghost is tormented by the long duration of the story he watches, but eventually tells Revenge, ‘Rest thee for I will sit to see the rest’. We see here an early modern play thinking aloud about (and staging) the impact of narrative upon an invested viewer.
Also printed in 1592, Arden of Faversham ends with a character, Franklin, re-entering the stage after the final scene and delivering a speech which functions as an epilogue:
Thus have you seen the truth of Arden’s death […].
Gentlemen, we hope you’ll pardon this naked tragedy,
Wherein no filed points are foisted in
To make it gracious to the ear or eye.
For simple truth is gracious enough
And needs no other points of glosing stuff.
I quote here the opening and closing lines of the speech. In between, the epilogue summarises the future lives of its various protagonists (something similar happens in the final speech of The Spanish Tragedy, though there Revenge spells out the future deaths of its various protagonists, and especially their torments in Hell). Arden of Faversham‘s epilogue looks remarkably like Endymion‘s prologue, in that both insist on the necessity of their own subject matter: we’re just telling a tale, we’re just telling the truth. But whereas Endymion thinks aloud about the nuts and bolts of storytelling as process (method, matter and means), Arden renounces ‘filed points’ that ‘are foisted in’ and ‘points of glosing stuff’. This play really doesn’t like points, a word it uses here twice but is not easy to parse. It perhaps means the kind of additive, self-reflective axioms that would later characterise John Webster’s White Devil and The Duchess of Malfi: something ‘filed’ (self-consciously written?) and ‘glosing’ (offering additional interpretation). Endymion is happy to say out loud that some of its play may be ‘superfluous’; Arden flatly rejects the superfluous and the explanatory. It also rejects ‘stuff’, the play’s final word. As The Three Ladies of London prologue put it, ‘You marvel then what stuff we have to furnish out our show’. Indeed.
Finally, one play printed in 1592 does think aloud about narrative in its prologue. Lyly’s Midas says that audiences have become so ‘nice’ that no story will satisfy them. ‘Nice’ is one of those words which now means almost the opposite of its earlier meaning: here it means ‘discriminating’, ‘picky’, ‘hard to please’, ‘overly sophisticated’. The result is that ‘for plays no invention but breedeth satiety before noon and contempt before night’. Stories make audiences weary and disdainful.
Unlike in Endymion, the prologue does not leave this idea hanging, but goes into quite some detail:
At our exercises [performances], soldiers call for tragedies: their object is blood; courtiers for comedies: their subject is love; countrymen for pastorals: shepherds are their saints.
Once again, I won’t address the statements about genre directly here, given my previous blog on that subject, but note that this play divides its audience (or playhouse audiences in general) into demographic groups, and then tells us that these various constituent parts demand different kinds of plays with different kinds of stories: violence, desire or country folk. The result, Lyly says, is that he has written a ‘mingle-mangle’: a bloody, lovely pastoral.
We’ve now been on a decade-long journey from a play first performed in 1581 to plays first printed in 1592, and looking back across them I’m struck by how diverse their discussion of storytelling is – as is the language they use to discuss it. Stories are stuff to furnish out a show; they are ‘fruits’; they are tales (but, then again, Lyly tells us that his tale is no story); they are inventions; they are ‘the truth’, even the ‘naked’ truth. They have no relationship to genre (Endymion‘s ‘tale’ is ‘neither comedy, nor tragedy’), but they also necessitate genre (soldiers want blood and therefore tragedies, courtiers love and therefore comedies, and so on). Stories have methods, matter and means; they can be superfluous, but then again they can be unfiled, unglossed and no more ‘gracious’ than strictly necessary. When it comes to story, a writer might aim ‘to keep a meaner gait’, but an audience might be ‘nice’, even contemptuous. Nevertheless, where Arden‘s epilogue can ‘hope you’ll pardon this naked tragedy’, Endymion‘s prologue seems to forbid its audience from disputing its story, and any story that is ‘fiction’. This reminds me of The Arraignment of Paris‘ prologue describing the play as a ‘task’ set for the audience: what work do early modern plays ask their audiences to do?
Stories are also things you define by saying what they are not: in addition to The Three Ladies of London, compare not only Tamburlaine but also Dr Faustus, which begins:
Not marching now in fields of Thrasymene […];
Nor sporting in the dalliance of love […];
Nor in the pomp of proud audacious deeds
Intends our Muse to vaunt her heavenly verse.
Then again, stories are also things you can spell out in advance, announcing from the start that Tamburlaine and Zenocrate will die. On the other hand, they may be things that you refuse to spell out in advance, either over the course of a couple of lines (‘But what became of fair Zenocrate?’) or over the entire course of an unusually long play (‘The sickle comes not till the corn be ripe’). In The Spanish Tragedy, stories are repeatedly described as mysteries, and repeatedly make their onstage audiences jump up and down (quite literally) in exasperation, terror or indignation.
In fact, The Spanish Tragedy ends with a play-within-a-play, in which the onstage audience spends much of the time worrying about the story and looking at a ‘book’, either the script or a plot summary. They spend so much time looking at this text that they seem not to be looking at the performance taking place in front of them:
KING. Now, Viceroy, shall we see the tragedy
Of Soliman the Turkish emperor. […]
These be our pastimes in the court of Spain.
Here, brother, you shall be the book-keeper:
This is the argument of that they show.
He gives him a book […] Enter Balthazar, Bel-Imperia and Hieronimo [in the play]
KING. See, Viceroy, that is Balthazar your son,
That represents the Emperor Soliman.
How well he acts his amorous passion! […]
Enter [Lorenzo playing the part of] Erasto
KING. Here comes Lorenzo, look upon the plot,
And tell me, brother, what part plays he?
I don’t know about you, but the Spanish King is exactly the sort of audience member I would never want sitting next to me. Here comes the play; here is the plot; ooh look there’s your son; and here comes mine: what parts are they playing? The dialogue and stage directions confirm that this is an onstage audience wildly excited about the play but also as much invested in the identity of the actors as they are of the characters. But despite all that they spend much of the play looking at ‘the book’, ‘the argument’ and ‘the plot’ (which appear to be three different ways of describing the same object). There is much that we could say here about the relationship of text and performance, but let’s stick to the relationship of story and performance. Endymion forbids us to ‘apply pastimes’, but here is a king openly celebrating ‘the pastimes in the court of Spain’. The Arraignment of Paris described itself as a ‘task’ for the audience, and here is an audience at work trying to decode performance by turning to its plot.
For those readers who do not know The Spanish Tragedy, I need to offer my own plot-spoiler now: this onstage play is a ruse devised by its author in order to kill off his many enemies. When characters die in The Tragedy of Soliman, their actors die in The Spanish Tragedy. Hieronimo, the onstage author and actor of Soliman, ends his play-within-the-play thus:
Haply you think, but bootless are your thoughts,
That this is fabulously counterfeit,
And that we do as all tragedians do,
To die today for fashioning our scene […]
And in a minute starting up again
Revive to please tomorrow’s audience.
In theatre, stories can be performed tomorrow, as Macbeth sort of almost said. You can kill a stage character as many times as you like. But Hieronimo gets away with killing his stage actors by two different means: firstly, by fooling his audience into thinking ‘this is fabulously counterfeit’; secondly, by directing their attention away from the stage and towards the fable itself, the story, the book, the argument. The plot is a plot to plot murder.
Stories may be stuff, fruits, tales, inventions, truthful or fabulous counterfeits. But they are also forbidden pastimes that can kill. I’m not sure we always give early modern stories the attention they deserve, but I hope I’ve shown a few reasons to consider doing so.