Everyone had Shakespeare forced on them at school. For some of us, it was a life-changing moment that inspired a love of all things old and literary; for others it was the lesson that instilled a life-long hatred of the word “methinks”.
Schools and academics have valorised Shakespeare as the greatest writer of his generation, of his century, or even of all time – at least as far as English is concerned – and these are titles to which he probably does have a claim. But bardolatry has come at the expense of hundreds of other playwrights who worked in English theatre during the Renaissance. As in any literary milieu, most of them were pretty bad and some impressively so, but some of them were more than a match for the poster boy of early modern drama. All of these plays were written either towards the end of his lifetime or the following half a century, and they all need reclaiming.
The Duchess of Malfi – John Webster
When the eponymous young widow decides to marry her household steward, she does it in secret to avoid the wrath of her psychotic brothers. But when the volatile Ferdinand asks bitter malcontent Bosola to spy on his sister’s household, it starts a chain reaction of revenge and cruelty that builds to a devastating conclusion.
Be under no illusions – when Jacobeans said ‘tragedy’, they really meant it. But Webster has a talent for using cruelty and brutality to reflect on the darkest corners of the human mind. Bloody, bleak and brutal, it asks questions about fear, desire, obsession and redemption that will stay with you long after the actors have left the stage. And someone gets poisoned by a Bible.
Cupid’s Revenge – Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher
Beaumont and Fletcher collaborated on hundreds of plays as a duo or with others, but this is one of the best. When an iconoclastic princess begs her father to end the worship of Cupid in his kingdom, the god of love is unimpressed and makes all of the nobility fall in love with the wrong people. Isn’t Cupid remaking A Midsummer Night’s Dream? The haughty princess chasing the court dwarf is just Titania fawning over Bottom – except that Bottom was not executed for the privilege. Cupid’s Revenge is a comedy with a body count.
The Changeling – Thomas Middleton and William Rowley
Deflores has always been in love with his master’s daughter, despite her revulsion at his hideous appearance. When Beatrice finally decides that he is at least good enough to kill her fiancé so that she can marry her lover, the only payment he wants is her. Murder begets murder as the pair try to conceal their crimes, but their growing obsession with each other ensures that bad blood will out.
Where Webster goes for poisoned Bibles and gruesome waxworks, Middleton’s horror lies firmly in the mind. At its core, The Changeling is about the depths to which people will sink to satisfy their desires, even if they know it will tear them apart. And you thought Malfi was dark.
The Roman Actor – Philip Massinger
Paris is a leading man and one of the precious few to find favour with despotic emperor Domitian until he is seen onstage by the ruler’s new wife and becomes the object of her infatuation.
It is a reflection on the relationship between art and life. The boundaries between actor and character become confused: the empress thinks of Paris as a mixture of every part he has ever played, causing her husband to play a role of his own to take his revenge on stage. A powerful defence of the Arts against accusations of immorality that still dog them today, The Roman Actor is also a rejection of the political will to control cultural expression. Recent years have seen a couple of stage revivals; hopefully more will follow.
The Revenger’s Tragedy
There is no named author for this play, largely because nobody has decided who wrote it yet (possibly Middleton or Cyril Tourneur, if you’re interested). Nor is there a synopsis – there is no point in explaining the plot, but from the minute antihero Vindice strides on stage holding the skull of his dead lover, you have a pretty good idea of the kind of play you are watching. Suffice to say that it involves vengeance, adultery, honour, hypocrisy and the blackest humour on the Renaissance stage. Honestly, it’s not great – but it’s very entertaining.
All of these plays have enjoyed periodic revivals over the centuries. Malfi, in particular, did well out of the twentieth century new historicist desire to reclaim neglected works from the period. But both Malfi and The Revenger’s Tragedy feature in the opening season of the new mock-Jacobean Sam Wanamaker Playhouse in London, a sign that interest in these oft-neglected plays might be on the rise. We can only hope that their success helps bring some of their counterparts out of obscurity.