What is a minor dramatist? or, three types of minority

One of the concerns of Before Shakespeare is the impact of the canon on contemporary performance, editorial practice and theatre history. Dramatists, like playhouses, are often divided, either explicitly or implicitly, into groups deemed major or minor. Over the next four weeks, we’ll be publishing papers from the 2019 annual meeting of the Shakespeare Association of America’s  in Washington DC. The first such paper comes from Robert Stagg and was written for a seminar on ‘Shakespeare and “Minor” Dramatists’ (note the sceptical quotation marks), with thanks to all the seminar participants for a fruitful discussion, and particularly David McInnis and Tom Rutter for organising and chairing us so effectively. Follow the links to read pieces in this series by Eoin Price, BK Adams and Andy Kesson.

In his ‘grammatico-critical essay’ Seven Types of Ambiguity (1930), William Empson advanced one definition of ambiguity only to succeed it with another.[1] For Empson, initially, ‘An ambiguity, in ordinary speech, means something very pronounced, and as a rule witty and deceitful’.[2] This ‘ordinary speech’ definition is not quite the ‘ambiguity’ that literature students encounter in most of today’s classrooms and lecture halls, nor is it quite the ‘ambiguity’ that academics encounter in most literature monographs (including Empson’s, where ambiguity is often ‘witty’ but rarely ‘deceitful’, so that Empson’s second ‘and’ – witty and deceitful – appears to indicate alternatives more than synonyms). This first sort of ‘ambiguity’ seems attuned to the word’s early modern senses – most of which picture ambiguity as a matter of confusion, obscurity, dubiety and equivocation, rather than (the prevailing critical sense) its more or less benignly ‘Admitting more than one interpretation, or explanation; of double meaning; or of several possible meanings’ (OED 2).

Empson quickly follows his first definition of ambiguity with another: ‘I propose to use the word [ambiguity] in its extended sense, and shall think relevant to my subject any verbal nuance, however slight, which gives room for alternative reactions to the same piece of language’.[3] The second definition never quite replaces the first; it is an extension, a giving-room, rather than a repudiation of what came before (indeed, we might not want to think of them as definitions: the second seems a gesture to a definition, but one external to Empson’s writing and never quite clarified or adumbrated). If they are definitions, they are not seeking to define the same thing or, if they are seeking to define the same thing, they do so in different ways. Nor is Empson’s second definition a modernising of the first, since the ‘extended sense’ of ambiguity still provides space for Shakespeare, predominantly, and other early modern writers, also, to be furnished as examples of all seven types of ambiguity. Yet Empson worries that ‘the word [ambiguity] may be stretched absurdly far’ since ‘In a sufficiently extended sense any prose statement could be called ambiguous’ (another definition, or escape from definition, still).[4] In this post, I hope to eke out a similar act of critical, philological extension – albeit an abbreviated one: three types rather than seven – with the notion of the ‘minor’. Like Empson, I hope to worry usefully about whether such extension goes ‘absurdly far’ while wanting, also like Empson, to risk absurdity nonetheless.


“Major” and “minor” are of no use to any seriously intended literary criticism. No-one has ever been able to suggest what interesting questions might depend on or from them […] As titles for text-books (Major British Writers, Minor Elizabethan Drama), they are least assuming, and have at least the candour of being openly unpromising.

Christopher Ricks, ‘Notes Away from the Definition of Major and Minor’[5]

For Christopher Ricks, the words ‘“Major” and “Minor” ‘have the lure that they are quasi-professional’ and ‘they have the air of being the product of a training, for the single reason that no ordinary human being would ever use them in a living conversation’ (Ricks proceeds to imagine, incredulously, someone’s ‘normal non-trained uncle’ emerging from a play ‘murmuring that it was a “major” or “minor” anything’).[6] While Ricks announces this as his ‘First’ objection, his opposition mostly depends on the ‘second’: the claim that ‘major’ and ‘minor’ are ‘adjectives which possess no nouns’, so that ‘the pseudo-critic can never be pressed to define and refine our sense of what property these words possess’.[7] That is, ‘major’ and ‘minor’ are judgments without attendant discrimination and without the grounds on which a judgment should normally be made or promulgated. They ‘float free (no price to be paid)’, unsusceptible to Empson’s ‘extended sense’ with its insistence on precise elaboration not floating drift.[8] Ricks may indeed have Empson in mind at this point, as at so many other points: his essay finishes by taking Empson’s insistence that he will no longer use the word ‘subjective except as a quotation’ as a model for a future criticism’s handling of the distinction – or the lack of distinction – between ‘major’ and ‘minor’.[9] Yet where Empson found the ‘stretch’ in the word ‘ambiguity’ by pulling it back to its early modern meanings, Ricks does not much consider the historical particularities of the words ‘major’ and ‘minor’.

If he had done so, he would have discovered that the words have plenty to ‘define and refine’ them. T.S. Eliot, another of Ricks’s subjects and objects of inspiration, also found the words problematically used – but thought we can at least ‘take notice of the fact that when we speak of a poet as “minor”, we mean different things at different times’.[10] We can accordingly ‘make our minds a little clearer about what these different meanings are’; ‘We shall go on meaning several different things by the term[s], so we must, as with other words, make the best of it, and not attempt to squeeze everything into one definition’.[11] Eliot seems closer to Empson than (to) Ricks, even employing an Empsonian diction of space (‘squeeze everything into one definition’) to unfurl – or admit the possibility of unfurling – the ‘several different things’ that ‘major’ and ‘minor’ might mean, denotatively and connotatively. For Ricks, Eliot’s efforts are futile: the words ‘major’ and ‘minor’ are not ruined by their critics but are themselves a ruination, since they constitute a vacancy (an impossibility of proper definition) not an ambiguity (a proper plurality of definition). They are words more sinning than sinned against, though for Eliot they serve an immediate purpose: by setting aside some of his published verse as ‘Minor Poems’, he could be ‘at once modest (these are minor poems, and I know it) and tacitly assured (the other poems are not minor, and I know it)’.[12] Eliot’s tilting in favour of the major/minor distinction, especially his suggestion that it is a distinction with plenty of differences, is (at least for Ricks) somewhat undermined by Eliot’s own, more straightforwardly strategic use for both words. Yet in appealing for ambiguity, Ricks obscures the range of meaning the words ‘major’ and ‘minor’ might have. He rightly notes that ‘major’ and ‘minor’ are ‘adjectives which possess no nouns’ in a literary-/critical sense, but this is (wilfully?) blind to their status as nouns in myriad other situations.

  1. Age

In the first of my two types of ‘minority’, then, ‘minority’ can be ‘The period of a person’s life prior to attaining full age; the state or fact of being a minor’ (OED 1a), explicitly logged by the OED’s lexicographers as ‘n. and adj.’ In the early modern period, as today, the state of minority was ambiguous and contestable. In a publication of 1607, Henry Cuffe conjectured that childhood lasts until the age of twenty-five, while nine years later the anonymous Office of Christian Parents (1616) circumscribed childhood at fourteen (and childhood may not, of course, be quite the same thing as minority).[13] Legal maturity was usually granted at twenty-one, but Anglican communion was taken as young as twelve and marriage (another putative point of departure from minority) was often delayed to the late twenties.[14] For boys, breeching took place around the age of seven. The ‘absence of clear-cut transformations in the form of a single rite of passage’, the lack of a ‘universally accepted division between childhood, adolescence, youth, and so on’, especially in an age of relatively low life expectancy, created the conditions for an ‘extension of puberty’ or a ‘prolongation of childhood’ in which minority could last more than half a lifetime.[15]

Early modern dramatists were concerned with this state of affairs, worrying over the friction (or notable absence of friction) between minority and majority in a theatre which made much of its boy and child actors (the scholarly dissatisfaction with both those terms notes the difficulties in separating minority from majority).[16] To take one example: Gina Bloom has written of the likely effects of puberty on boy actors’ voices as they reached the limen of minority. They became ‘squeaking’, ‘unstable’, ‘cracked’.[17] Shakespeare is frequently fascinated by the squeak and crack of the adolescent voice (suggesting that it was a fairly routine phenomenon on the early modern stage), from the actor boying Cleopatra’s greatness (5.2.215-7) to the ‘mannish crack’ afflicting Arviragus and Guiderius in Cymbeline (4.2.235). Portia proposes not only to be ‘accoutered’ like a boy but to ‘speak between the change of man and boy / With a reed voice’ (3.4.66-7), while Hamlet hopes that a boy actor’s ‘voice, like a piece of uncurrent gold, be not cracked within the ring’ (2.2.430-1). These crackings and squeakings sound like a theatrical ‘liability’ but Shakespeare’s sustained attention to the ‘humoural voice’ realises its potency too.[18] The young actors playing Arviragus and Guiderius may have been stopped from singing thanks to the ‘exigencies of casting’ – a sudden outbreak of puberty skewing the actors’ voices and forcing Shakespeare into a hasty revision – yet it is also possible that Shakespeare knew of the actors’ ‘mannish crack’ at the outset, and found it a sonic complement to two characters who are ‘taking leave of their childhood’.[19]

A ‘crack’ is ‘a partial fracture, not a full breakage’, rather as legal majority is a transition not an absolute departure (or as adolescence is ‘not a moment but a process’, however sudden its onset).[20] Evelyn Tribble has encouraged us to ‘recast’ the critical concept of ‘embodiment’ to ‘take account of the skilled, dynamic, animate body’; to think, in the anthropologist Tim Ingold’s words, ‘of the body not as a sink into which practices settle like sediments in a ditch, but rather as a dynamic centre of unfolding activity’.[21] In the case of early modern boy actors, we might regard the vocal ‘crack’ as suitably precarious – allowing a dramatist to range across the distinctions between and within kinds of minority and majority. The cracking voices at the start of John Marston’s Antonio and Mellida (c.1599) are not necessarily, then, an embarrassment to all concerned (as they have been in some twentieth-century Marston criticism, which gives us ‘child-actors consciously ranting in oversize parts’, ‘transforming tragedy into bombast’ or into a ‘burlesque style’).[22] They may instead attest to Antonio’s in-between status – neither fully child nor fully adult – as he wonders whether his father, the Duke of Genoa, is alive or dead.

In one important sense, then, any early modern play that features a female character can be considered a ‘minor’ drama. We are still missing some of the implications of what it might mean to have a ‘minor’ onstage, too often thinking this an isolable phenomenon rather than something that can affect the entire plot and trajectory of a play. Consider the marriage, or intimation of marriage, that concludes The Taming of the Shrew (c.1592). As well as seeing the union of Katherine and Petruchio, we are hearing and seeing a boy actor make some sort of contract with an adult male actor, so that the play seems as much about a minor’s indenturing or impressment into a theatre company as it is about a marriage (it thinks of the two as almost analogically related). ‘Not coincidentally’, David Kathman notes, ‘the age range for performers of female roles, roughly 13 to 22, [was] also the typical age range for apprentices’ in the King’s Men (and presumably not so different beforehand for the Lord Chamberlain’s company, though many more seventeenth- than sixteenth-century records of theatrical apprenticeship culture survive).[23] Accordingly in The Taming of the Shrew, we hear the boy actor playing Katherine forced to learn a fictional script (Petruchio’s, of calling the sun the moon) and induced to perform stage action (laying their hand under another actor’s foot); as in all early modern apprenticeships, the boy must come ‘to uphold prevailing norms of patriarchal authority’.[24] The early modern apprenticeship ‘often involved some form of neglect’ too – one case in the minutes of the Guildhall court system sounds eerily like 4.3 of the Shrew, in which an apprentice to a barber-surgeon complains that his ‘master did not maintain him sufficient meat, drink and apparel’ (Robert Wallis, GL Court Minutes 1601, MS. 5252/3, fol.108v.).[25] This is scarcely more hopeful, then, than the play’s supposed representation of a marriage: unlike the formal destination of most early modern apprenticeships, there is little evidence of boy actors being granted ‘freedom’ or ‘freedoms’ at the end of their service. Gerald Eades Bentley calculates that three per cent of boy-player ‘apprentices’ made the transition to hired man or company sharer, enduring instead ‘unpaid bondage and little hope for social or financial improvement, ever’.[26]

  1. Verb

‘Minor’ can also be a verb, and this constitutes my second kind of minority – albeit a kind of minority already implicit in the noun. The OED yields two instances of ‘minor’ as a verb, ‘minorate’ (first usage 1534) and ‘minorize’ (first usage 1615). In both cases, the verb is transitive: ‘To diminish, reduce. Also: to belittle, depreciate’ (now ‘obsolete, rare’). This is latent in the OED’s second instance of the noun, ‘The condition or fact of being smaller, or subordinate in relation to something else’. The OED’s ‘or’ (smaller or subordinate) can easily become ‘therefore’, most notably in the case of ‘juvenilia’, those ‘Literary or artistic works produced in the artist’s youth’ (first usage 1622) and therefore deemed less important or valuable than the works of a putative maturity or majority. This kind of ‘therefore’ – a logical or argumentative connection between youth (the ‘minor’ in terms of age and legality) and literary or dramaturgical worth (the ‘minor’ in terms of status and value) – can be glimpsed in the so-called ‘War of the Theatres’ or ‘poetomachia’. What can occasionally seem a ‘name-calling contest’ or ‘tiresome and obscure series of back-bitings’ also helps shape a sense that the work of youth is somehow inadequate or inadequately developed.[27] James Bednarz, another participant in the SAA seminar that originally housed this paper, has written revealingly of the ‘poetomachia’ as a ‘series of literary transactions’ that enabled playwrights ‘to master each other’s language and drama’ (my emphasis), recognising in his verb how these ‘transactions’ often asserted the theatrical and dramatic value of adulthood (the master) over the un- or under-developed kinds of ‘minority’ (the minor) that appeared to, or really did, threaten it (‘One way in which the early modern child is defined’, writes Edel Lamb, ‘is in relationship to a parent, teacher or master’).[28] In the 1623 Folio text of Hamlet, for example, Rosincrance drives home his objection to the Children of the Chapel by noting their bothersomely youthful voices: the minors will ‘berattle the common stages’ (F 2.2.340; that is, ‘fill [them] with rattling noise or din’ – OED). This is rather in the style of subsequent Marston criticism (see above), plugging its ears as it does against the ‘ranting’ and ‘bombast’ associated with theatrical minority.

Shakespeare had himself been accused of ‘bombast’ in his youth. In Greene’s Groatsworth of Wit (1592), some combination of Robert Greene and Henry Chettle lashed Shakespeare as an ‘upstart crow’ who ‘supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blank verse’ as other, more established playwrights.[29] Bombast may be a prosodic feature or comportment of Shakespeare’s youthful (‘minor’) drama, but it may also have been a product of his youthful, callow (‘minor’) voicing of other dramatists’ lines on stage; Shakespeare may have found his own actorly voice precipitously between minority and majority. Rosencrantz’s description of the minor actors as ‘little eyases’ – assuming that Theobald’s ‘restoration’ of that word (from ‘yases’) is correct – even reprises Greene’s ornithological metaphor, though with a hawk in place of a crow. Shakespeare’s poetomachic echo of Greene might be an act of sympathetic identification with the minors, a fellow-feeling formed in the crucible of Greene’s attack on the young Shakespeare. Yet it may (instead or also) have offered Shakespeare an opportunity to wield – and master – a criticism he had previously suffered, especially when faced with the ‘age-transvestism’ of the children’s stage, where upstart boys often performed brutally parodic versions of adulthood.[30]

  1. Value

And so we turn, or return, to my third type of ‘minority’: the judgment of value posed by the critical description of an artistic work as either ‘major’ or ‘minor’, those words I have tried to ‘define and refine’ (in Ricks’s language). While Shakespeare usually seems the passive recipient of such judgments, he can at other times appear a more active participant in the definition of his drama as ‘major’ rather than ‘minor’. Andy Kesson, another seminar participant, has described how Shakespeare ‘seems to make us oddly incurious, wrong-footed and blindsided, skewing and refracting our engagement’ with and in relation to other early modern drama.[31] Kesson is predominantly using the name ‘Shakespeare’ as a metonym for Shakespearean scholarship or a kind of Shakespearean scholarship that is concerned with one author maximum (what Jeffrey Knapp has called ‘Shakespeare Only’).[32] Yet the Shakespeare of the ‘poetomachia’ could have intended to do exactly what Kesson is describing. If we can detect Shakespeare’s voice behind those of Rosencrantz and Hamlet, as scholarly work on the ‘War of the Theatres’ almost always insists, we can hear his sometime efforts to ‘minorate’ or ‘minorize’ the boy players of the Blackfriars, to make their ‘minor’ drama ‘smaller, or subordinate in relation to something else’, with that ‘something else’ being the more adult, ‘major’ drama of the Chamberlain’s Men, thrown into relief by the dramaturgical problems associated with the ranting, bombastic, squeaking, screeching ‘minors’ of the indoor stage.

Perhaps this is to ‘stretch absurdly far’, as Empson worried, three types of minority that need not be logically or conceptually related; perhaps this is to ignore, downplay or occlude other of Shakespeare’s motives in the ‘poetomachia’ (or to collude in a false assumption that we can read Shakespeare’s opinions out of Rosencrantz’s or Hamlet’s). Perhaps, however, this rather speculative, lightly-sketched sort of criticism can help rescue or recast the ‘major’ and ‘minor’ as terms of critical appreciation and approbation by considering how they exist in a particular historical grammar. For Christopher Ricks, they are a worthless remnant of belles lettres; but for us, as early modernists, they can be part of a dramatic culture that made ‘minority’ both central and, as such, contentious.

Robert Stagg

You can read the next post in this series, by Eoin Price, here.

[1] William Empson, letter to Ian Parsons, June 1929, qtd. in Lisa A. Rodensky, ‘Prefatory Note’ to Empson, Seven Types of Ambiguity (London: Penguin, 1995 [1930]), p.xii.

[2] Empson, Ambiguity, p.19.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Empson, Ambiguity, p.20.

[5] Christopher Ricks, ‘Notes Away from the Definition of Major and Minor’, Ploughshares, Vol. 4, No. 3 (1978), 115-121, 117.

[6] Ricks, 117-8.

[7] Ricks, 118.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ricks, 121.

[10] T.S. Eliot, ‘What is Minor Poetry?’, The Sewanee Review, Vol. 54, No. 1 (Jan-March 1946), 1-18, 1.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ricks, 117.

[13] Henry Cuffe, The Differences of Ages of a Man’s Life (London: A.Hatfield, 1607), p.117; anon., The Office of Christian Parents (London: C. Legge, 1616), p.162.

[14] Ilana Ben-Amos, Adolescence and Youth in Early Modern England (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994), p.36; S.J. Wright, ‘Confirmation, catechism and communion: the role of the young in the post-Reformation Church’, in Wright, ed., Parish Church and Lay Religion 1350-1750 (London: Hutchinson, 1988), pp.203-227; Stanley Wells, Shakespeare, Sex, and Love (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), p.16.

[15] Ben-Amos, pp.236-7; Michael Mitterauer and Reinhard Sieder, The European Family: Patriarchy to Partnership from the Middle Ages to the Present (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1982), p.95; Keith Thomas, ‘Age and authority in early modern England’, Proceedings of the British Academy (1977), 62.214.

[16] Lucy Munro, among others, has argued for using the term ‘young adult’ – see Munro, ‘The Whitefriars Theatre and the Children’s Companies’, in Ben Jonson in Context, ed. Julie Sanders (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010). Harry McCarthy, among others, has argued for the term ‘youth’ – see ‘Men in the Making: Youth, the Repertory, and The “Children” of the Queen’s Revels, 1609-13, ELH, Vol. 85, No. 3 (Fall 2018), 599-629).

[17] Gina Bloom, Voice in Motion: Staging Gender, Shaping Sound in Early Modern England (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007), p.22.

[18] Bloom, p.64.

[19] Gary Taylor and Stanley Wells, William Shakespeare: A Textual Companion (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987), pp.607-8; Martin Butler, ed. Cymbeline (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), p.251.

[20] Bloom, p.40; Germaine Greer, The Boy (London: Thames and Hudson, 2003), p.21.

[21] Evelyn Tribble, ‘Pretty and Apt: Boy Actors, Skill, and Embodiment’, in The Oxford Handbook of Shakespeare and Embodiment: Gender, Sexuality, and Race, ed. Valerie Traub (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016); Tim Ingold, ‘Toward an Ecology of Materials’, Annual Review of Anthropology, 41 (2012), 427-442, 437.

[22] R.A. Foakes, ‘John Marston’s Fantastical Plays: Antonio and Mellida and Antonio’s Revenge’, Philological Quarterly, 41 (1962), 229-239, 236; Harold Newcomb Hillebrand, The Child Actors: A Chapter in Elizabethan Stage History (New York: Russell & Russell, 1964 [1926]), p.254; Anthony Caputi, John Marston, Satirist (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1961), p.101.

[23] David Kathman, ‘Players, Livery Companies, and Apprentices’, in The Oxford Handbook of Early Modern Theatre, ed. Richard Dutton (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), p.427.

[24] Celeste Chamberland, ‘From Apprentice to Master: Social Disciplining and Surgical Education in Early Modern London, 1570-1640’, History of Education Quarterly, Vol. 53, No. 1 (February 2013), 21-44, 29.

[25] Chamberland, 30.

[26] Gerald Eades Bentley, The Profession of Player in Shakespeare’s Time, 1590-1642 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984), p.135; Robert Barrie, ‘Elizabethan Play-Boys in the Adult London Companies’, Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, Vol. 48, No. 2 (April 2008), 237-257, 251. See also Stephen Orgel, Impersonations: The Performance of Gender in Shakespeare’s England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), p.69. Harry McCarthy gives a slightly rosier picture in ‘Men in the Making: Youth, the Repertory, and The “Children” of the Queen’s Revels, 1609-13’, ELH, Vol. 85, No. 3 (Fall 2018), 599-629, 604-7, as does Holger Syme in ‘The Jacobean King’s Men: A Reconsideration’, RES, Vol. 69 (Jan 2019), 1-21.

[27] David Bevington, Tudor Drama and Politics (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1968), p.279; Sydney Musgrove, Shakespeare and Jonson (Auckland: Pilgrim Press, 1957), p.7.

[28] James Bednarz, Shakespeare and the Poets’ War (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), p.8; Edel Lamb, Performing Childhood in the Early Modern Theatre: The Children’s Playing Companies, 1599-1613 (Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), p.4.

[29] Robert Greene and Henry Chettle, Greene’s Groatsworth of Wit (London: John Lane, 1923 [1592]), p.45.

[30] Lucy Munro, Children of the Queen’s Revels: A Jacobean Theatre Repertory (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), p.2.

[31] Andy Kesson, ‘Putting the Shh into Shakespeare’, April 23 2016, Before Shakespeare blog <https://beforeshakespeare.com/2016/04/23/247/&gt;

[32] Jeffrey Knapp, Shakespeare Only (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009).

4 thoughts on “What is a minor dramatist? or, three types of minority

  1. Pingback: Minor plays | Before Shakespeare

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  3. Pingback: Shakespeare as minor dramatist | Before Shakespeare

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