Antony and Cleopatra by William Shakespeare (1606)

“These strong Egyptian fetters I must break,
Or lose myself in dotage…”
(Antony in Antony and Cleopatra, Act 1, scene 2)

Plot summary

Act I

The assassination of Julius Caesar in March 44 BC led to a period of chaos with warlords commanding legions around the Roman world, until a deal was brokered the three most powerful of them, Mark Antony, Octavius Caesar, and Lepidus, who formed what came to be called the Second Triumvirate in November 43.

They divided up the provinces of the empire and Mark Antony was assigned command of the eastern Mediterranean. The play opens three years later, in 40 BC, and finds him living in Egypt where has fallen deeply in love with the queen, Cleopatra, where he has abandoned himself to a life of luxury and debauchery.

Act 1 scene 1 sets the scene quickly: the chorus of Demetrius and Philo lament that Antony, the fearless warrior, is ignoring his responsibilities and wasting his time in thrall to a seductive queen. They have barely finished before Antony and Cleopatra enter and give us a prize example of the foolish flirting of love. But they have barely begun – are in fact only 4 lines in – when a messenger from Rome arrives and prompts Antony to an outburst of vexed frustration. Cleopatra then taunts him, saying he must listen to the messenger in case he brings instructions from his ‘master’ Octavius in Rome, or from his true Roman wife, Fulvia.

CLEOPATRA: Fulvia perchance is angry; or, who knows
If the scarce-bearded Caesar have not sent
His powerful mandate to you, ‘Do this, or this;

At which Antony eloquently summarises his own devil-may-care, laddish irresponsibility for the benefit of the audience:

MARK ANTONY: Let Rome in Tiber melt, and the wide arch
Of the ranged empire fall! Here is my space.
Kingdoms are clay: our dungy earth alike
Feeds beast as man: the nobleness of life
Is to do thus;

And he embraces his Greco-Egyptian squeeze. The messengers tell Antony that his Roman wife, Fulvia, is dead. (Fulvia was a tough cookie. She had united with Antony’s brother, Lucius, to raise an army in Italy against Octavian which led to the so-called Perusine War, because it boiled down to a siege of Perusia, modern Perugia, and had taken Octavian over a year to quell. Out of respect for Antony, Caesar spared Lucius, who was sent to be governor of a province in Spain, but he exiled Fulvia to Sicyon in Greece where, we now learn, she has died from unspecified causes.)

As if this wasn’t enough another messenger arrives to tell him that the son of the Gnaeus Pompeius who had fought Julius Caesar in the first civil war of 49 BC – Sextus Pompeius – has established a naval base on Sicily from which he is attacking Roman shipping.

The guilt Antony feels at the death of his wife is compounded by news that the state he is charged with defending is in danger, and so he announces that he must return to Rome.

ANTONY: I must from this enchanting queen break off:
Ten thousand harms, more than the ills I know,
My idleness doth hatch

Cleopatra is angry, mocking, scornful, upset. Antony travels with his friend, the general Enobarbus who has become even more of a wastrel in the fleshpots of Egypt and who acts as a foil to Antony’s drunken antics, a licensed jester who delivers satirical opinions about Antony, Cleopatra and everything else.

Act II

Meanwhile in Rome Octavius Caesar, adopted heir of the murdered Julius, has been consolidating his power and acting with stern dutifulness. Their first meeting is difficult, with Octavius and his entourage freely criticising Antony’s unpatriotic, unroman behaviour in Alexandria, which he is forced to acknowledge and admit to.

One of Caesar’s closest advisers, Agrippa, then proposes an ingenious solution to their problems: Antony should marry Octavius’s sister, Octavia. Antony ponders this for a moment, then willingly agrees and the two triumvirs shake hands on it.

The red-faced old general, Enobarbus is shown reunited with officer friends who are part of Octavius’s entourage, and he rather too candidly tells them the marriage will never work out. Antony will never be able to kick his addiction to Cleopatra and he paints a glowing portrait of her multi-faceted character:

ENOBARBUS: Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale
Her infinite variety: other women cloy
The appetites they feed: but she makes hungry
Where most she satisfies…
(Act 2, scene 2)

The third triumvir, Lepidus, attends these meetings but is depicted as a well-intentioned but weak-minded older man who just wants everyone to be friends.

Antony had been prompted to return to Rome by news of the threat young Sextus Pompeius poses to Rome’s merchant fleet and so the next scene shows Antony, Octavious and their followers  having a summit meeting with Sextus aboard the latter’s ship. At one point Sextus’s admiral suggests they cut the cables, put out to sea, and murder all the triumvirs but Sextus refuses. Once agreement is made, Enobarbus and Antony lead all the delegates into a boozy dinner which turns into a drinking session in which Lepidus is humiliated in front of everyone while Octavius coldly refuses to get drunk and holds himself aloof from the partying which degenerates into drunken dancing.

Act III

Cleopatra is amusing herself with her serving women, Charmian and Iras, when a messenger arrives and tells her her beloved Antony has married someone else. Furious she attacks the messenger before demanding to know everything about her rival. Only slowly does she reassure herself that this prim and proper Roman matron is no real rival for Antony’s affections.

Meanwhile Antony and Octavia arrive at Athens en route for his command in the East only to learn that Octavius has gone back on the deal he made, and attacked Pompey. He has also ended the triumvirate  by dismissing Lepidus on a trumped-up charge relating to the campaign against Pompey in Sicily.

Compassionately enough, Antony sends his new wife back to Rome to parlay with her brother – but also because, like an alcoholic hitting the bottle at the first sign of trouble, this rupture of the triumvirate makes him hanker for his real love, Cleopatra. So he heads back to Egypt with a view to raising an army to take on Octavian.

Caesar had handed over his beloved sister to Antony with visible reluctance, and had repeated his  injunction that Antony respect and love her, so her unannounced reappearance in Rome makes him furious, part of which he directs at her (the poor woman). Incensed, he declares war on Antony and Cleopatra.

Antony ignores the advice of Enobarbus and his other generals, to fight on land, and decides to tackle Caesar’s fleet at Actium. During the battle, Cleopatra’s ships flee from the Roman fleet and Antony loses his head and sails after her in his admiral’s ship, abandoning his fleet. He effectively loses the battle, his fleet, and the allegiance of the many eastern kings he had cultivated as allies.

Act IV

Initially very downcast, much weeping and wailing between the loves, Antony eventually pulls himself together and vows to rally his land forces and attack Caesar on land.

However, we are shown various soldiers and generals questioning his judgement and then, in the one supernatural scene in the play, a squad of guards at his camp at night think they hear strange music coming from underground; they take this to be Hercules, Antony’s ancestor and protector, abandoning him.

Back in the real world, Antony’s bosom buddy and drinking companion, Enobarbus, disillusioned at Antony’s string of bad decisions, defects to Caesar’s army. He had been very conflicted about doing this and when Antony graciously sends him all his belongings and a kindly message, Enobarbus is so overcome with guilt that he kills himself.

So a second, land, battle takes place between Caesar and Antony’s forces but Antony’s bullish confidence turns to despair when Cleopatra’s forces abandon Antony and, like everyone else, go over to the unstoppable force of destiny which is young Caesar.

Terrified of the Roman army which is now approaching Alexandria, Cleopatra leads her serving women and eunuchs into the stronghold of her ‘monument’. Wrongly thinking Antony will blame her for her army’s defection, she sends a messenger to Antony, wandering forlorn in the city, to say that she is dead.

She had hoped this would soften his heart to her but it is a colossal miscalculation (and eerily reminiscent of the misunderstanding at the end of Romeo and Juliet). For Antony is so distraught at her death that he resolves to die and falls on his own sword. However, like many a Roman before him (e.g. Cato) he makes a bad job of it and is writhing in agony from his injury when messengers arrive to tell him that Cleopatra is alive after all. Oh.

So he asks the messengers to carry his dying body to Cleopatra’s ‘monument’ where she has holed up. Here they have a piteous exchange, before his body is lifted up on a rope and pulley and fetched inside the ‘monument’ where they exchange touching last words, then Antony dies in her arms and Cleopatra is distraught.

Act V

With Antony defunct, the entire last act is devoted to Cleopatra and builds steadily towards a kind of apotheosis.

The Romans trick their way into the ‘monument’ and there is, at last, the confrontation between the future world emperor Caesar, and the legendary woman who seduced his father (Julius Caesar) and fellow triumvir.

Caesar is, as usual, suave and reasonable and tells her to live, for her children’s sake, and that he will allow her to continue her rule of Egypt – on Roman sufferance, of course. Cleopatra is more resolute and self possessed than, I think, a woman was expected to be in Elizabethan culture i.e. she shows herself to be exceptional and there are hints that, even in her grief and loss, she may very slyly be laying the groundwork to seduce a third great Roman leader in a row.

But as soon as Caesar leaves, she gets her women to send for a countryman who brings a basket of figs which contain the famous asps, small poisonous snakes. Suspecting nothing the Roman guards let him through. He is, in fact, a yokel, a simpleton, on a par with the rude mechanicals in A Midsummer Night’s Dream or the hungover porter who pops up at the most dramatic part of Macbeth.

It’s a prime example of the incongruity and tonal unevenness which the classically minded French reject about Shakespeare and made the classically-minded Restoration playwright John Dryden rewrite the play to make it conform to enlightened standards.

Long story short, Cleopatra takes not one but two asps from the basket, gets them to bite her and dies, along with her two long-serving maids, Charmian and Iras. However, the intensity of her wish to travel quickly to the afterlife to be reunited with her beloved Antony achieves an intensity and luminance absent from most of the rest of the play and really, for me, takes it to a new level.

She dies, Caesar is called back to see the corpse, delivers the standard eulogy over the dead body of his adversary, orders the lovers to be buried together with all due ceremony etc, then tells his people they must head back to Rome where, of course, he will become undisputed ruler of the state and, in effect, the first Roman Emperor.

But still. In this final act Cleopatra rises above the skittish, ironic, mocking, bad tempered, squabbling middle-aged woman she appears in much of the rest of the play to become a force of nature. And it’s  the image of this transcendent icon that she leaves blazing in the audience’s memory.

A problem play

In the First Folio of Shakespeare’s plays, Antony and Cleopatra is categorised as a tragedy, but it is far longer, more complex and problematic than the earlier tragedy, Julius Caesar (1599), to which it is a sort of sequel.

Julius Caesar has one obvious central event to which the first half leads and from which everything in the second half follows; I’ve come to realise that although he is physically absent from the second half, it is nevertheless Caesar’s play because his spirit haunts the subsequent actions of all the characters, actually appears as a ghost to Brutus on the eve of the Battle of Philippi, and that both the assassins, Brutus and Cassius, address his spirit just as the commit suicide, and do so using the same swords they murdered him with. So there is one central figure dominating Julius Caesar.

Antony and Cleopatra is more complicated. There is no one central event and no one central figure. Instead acts 1 and 2 contain a confusing mish-mash of scenes, introducing us to different settings, characters and events in swift succession; and 3 and 4 depict a series of battles which are all defeats for Antony and lead to his downfall…but not immediately; the process is dragged out.

I agree with the assessment of Jonathan Miller who directed the BBC Shakespeare production of it, that there is something elegiac about the whole play: both Antony and Cleopatra are past their prime: Cleopatra is touchy about her age, Antony looks back to past military glories, and both, when they talk about happy love, refer to it in the past. Antony refers to the grey hairs appearing among their brown (Act 4, scene 8).

They are both on the way down and for this reason, maybe, deep down, not that sad to be beaten by confident young Octavian. The whole thing has a dying fall right from the opening lines where two Romans lament Antony’s falling-off from a world-bestriding general to the plaything of an Egyptian strumpet.

Time covered

Whereas Julius Caesar packed two years (44 to 42 BC) into its 3-hour span, Antony and Cleopatra tries to cram in ten years of complex history – from the death of Antony’s wife Fulvia, in 40 BC, to Antony and Cleopatra’s double suicides in 30 BC.

Ten years is a long time and these years were packed with events, the most notable being Antony’s vast ill-fated campaign to invade and conquer Parthia in 36 BC a huge 2-year undertaking of which we hear nothing whatsoever in the play (Wilder, p.58).

This drastic cutting and collaging is testament to Shakespeare’s skill at picking out what he needed, at throwing away references to entire wars (such as the Perusine War) in just a few lines in order to stay focused on the central psychological theme of his play, of the bickering, addicted central lovers. But still, despite all his skill, and even stripped of many key events and virtually all details, the sheer logic of the events which the play sets out to depict is still irreducibly complex and, well, big. The result is that the play is very long and feels it. Picking up on all the historical events and references is quite an ask.

Maybe this is why the final act, Cleopatra’s apotheosis, is, from one angle, the most effective thing in the play. It is the only event that is entirely in the present. It is the most mindful of the acts. It fulfils the old (and misunderstood) Aristotelian idea of the unity of time and action. With Antony dead and her cause roundly defeated, Cleopatra is intensely present. Like many suicides, once the decision is made, those last few minutes of life take on a supernatural intensity. Every word, every gesture, is lovingly scrutinised as the last this mind and this body will take. The never-ending web of Roman wars and alliances which Caesar completely mastered, which Antony miserably failed at, disappear.

Instead the audience is privileged to share the last moments of an extraordinary human being about to turn themselves into a legend.

Stats

A quick check with this website which gives basic stats about the plays reveals that, if Julius Caesar was notable for its relative shortness and the brevity of some of its acts, Antony and Cleopatra is the reverse.

At 3,039 total lines Antony and Cleopatra is longer than the average Shakespeare play (average play: 2,768 lines; average tragedy: 2,936). It has more scenes – 43 – than any other Shakespeare play (average play 21; average tragedy: 24). And far more characters – 57 – than any other play (plays: 36; tragedy: 39).

The obvious conclusion is that the excessive length and the unusually large number of scenes and characters, reflect the complexity of the history Shakespeare is trying to pack in (see below).

Knotty verse

And there’s something else. The verse is more sinewy and knotty than before. As Shakespeare’s career developed, the prolific invention of the early plays evolved into a more mature but still gorgeous style around 1600, dense with metaphor and dazzling flights of fancy. But by the time he wrote Antony and Cleopatra in late 1606, Shakespeare had been writing plays for about 17 years (first play 1589). Antony and Cleopatra follows a run of three major thrillingly visceral tragedies but, as this list demonstrates, represents a pivot into a series of later, less famous and less outstanding works:

  • All’s Well That Ends Well (1602–1603)
  • Measure for Measure (1604–1605)
  • Othello (1604–1605)
  • King Lear (1605–1606)
  • Macbeth (1605–1606)
  • Antony and Cleopatra (1606–1607)
  • Coriolanus (1607–1608)
  • Timon of Athens (1607–1608)
  • Pericles (1608–1609)
  • Cymbeline (1609–1610)

Either Shakespeare was out of juice or he was pivoting towards a late style in the conception, construction and style of the plays. Assessing the structure of the plays would require an examination of their sources and quickly turn into a book, so it’s easiest to focus on the verse style:

To me Antony and Cleopatra feels characterised by less flashily beautiful verse and a kind of sparser, knottier style than previously. Julius Caesar sounds like this:

CASSIUS. Why, man, he doth bestride the narrow world
Like a Colossus, and we petty men
Walk under his huge legs and peep about
To find ourselves dishonourable graves.

This is a vivid metaphor and it is developed over four lines which run confidently over the end of each line to create one long, fluent sentence. It is clear, vivid and enjoyable to read or hear spoken. Compare it with a random passage from Antony and Cleopatra:

ANTONY: Go, Eros, send his treasure after. Do it.
Detain no jot, I charge thee. Write to him–
I will subscribe–gentle adieus and greetings.
Say that I wish he never find more cause
To change a master.

This is deliberately staccato, broken up into bitty phrases (except the more fluent sentence at the end, which caps the thought). Whereas sentences in the earlier play are long and complete, confidently running over a series of lines with little punctuation to create a fluid, mellifluent effect, in the later play, again and again, the full stop comes in mid-line and phrases are not an easy sentence in length, but are often shorter, sometimes three little phrases wedged into one line.

CLEOPATRA: Nay, pray you, seek no colour for your going,
But bid farewell and go. When you sued staying,
Then was the time for words, No going then.
Eternity was in our lips and eyes,
Bliss in our brows’ bent. None our parts so poor,
But was a race of heaven. (Act 1, scene 3)

And speeches hand over from one character to another, not at the neat end of a line, but joltingly, in mid-line.

CLEOPATRA: Or thou, the greatest soldier of the world,
Art turn’d the greatest liar…
ANTONY:                               How now, lady!
CLEOPATRA: I would I had thy inches; thou shouldst know
There were a heart in Egypt.
ANTONY:                                Hear me, queen.

This creates a clotted, knotty style, a lot less fluid.

POMPEY: I shall do well.
The people love me, and the sea is mine.
My powers are crescent, and my auguring hope
Says it will come to the full. Mark Antony
In Egypt sits at dinner and will make
No wars without doors. Caesar gets money where
He loses hearts. Lepidus flatters both,
Of both is flatter’d.

It also has the related effect of making the poetry less metaphorical. There are a lot more orders and instructions or sudden thoughts, a lot less florid poetry, similes and comparisons. When Cleopatra asks whether she or Antony is at fault, Enobarbus replies:

ENOBARBUS: Antony only, that would make his will
Lord of his reason. What though you fled
From that great face of war, whose several ranges
Frighted each other? Why should he follow?
The itch of his affection should not then
Have nick’d his captainship.

See what I mean about the sentences ending (and the next one beginning) in mid-line and so creating a stuttering, staccato, clipped effect. There’s similes even in this little passage (the face of war, ‘the itch of his affection’ meaning his lust, ‘nicking his captainship’ meaning cut short his command [of the fleet at Actium]). But none of them are developed at relaxed length into a gorgeous conceit expanding over multiple lines as in his earlier style. Instead they are tightly compressed, expressed in as compressed a form as possible before the verse moves onto the next one.

It is a style less appropriate for the flowing love duets of Romeo and Juliet, than for undecorated sarcasm or irony, which doesn’t need elaborate conceits, as when Cleopatra jokes with Antony that she has something important to say to him, but can’t remember what it is:

CLEOPATRA: Courteous lord, one word.
Sir, you and I must part, but that’s not it:
Sir, you and I have loved, but there’s not it;
That you know well: something it is I would,
O, my oblivion is a very Antony,
And I am all forgotten.

Here’s another example from Julius, showing what I mean by the fluent flow of long sentences running through a sequence of lines with hardly any punctuation, or coming only at the end of each line, thus allowing the lines to breathe through their full length:

SOOTHSAYER: The throng that follows Caesar at the heels,
Of senators, of praetors, common suitors,
Will crowd a feeble man almost to death.
I’ll get me to a place more void and there
Speak to great Caesar as he comes along.

It flows, each iambic pentameter has the entire line to breathe and display. It’s a pleasure to read or say aloud. By contrast here’s Octavian from the later play giving instructions to his envoy Thyreus:

CAESAR: From Antony win Cleopatra. Promise,
And in our name, what she requires. Add more,
From thine invention, offers. Women are not
In their best fortunes strong, but want will perjure
The ne’er touch’d vestal. Try thy cunning, Thyreus.

Completely different. This must be deliberate, a deliberate creation of a late style. Why? What does it do? Well, I think that instead of the long verse paragraphs, the far fetched metaphors, the open rhythms of the earlier plays, this style creates something closer to the jerkiness of actual thought and real speech. Fragments of phrases, even individual words, several different thoughts expressed in fragments bolted together to make lines. Much more bitty, fragmented, less florid, less gorgeous.

This explains why the one set-piece speech in the entire play stands out so much, namely Enobarbus’s magnificent long speech describing to Octavian’s lieutenants the scene when Antony first met Cleopatra, when she had herself rowed up the Nile in a magnificent galley.

ENOBARBUS: The barge she sat in, like a burnish’d throne,
Burn’d on the water: the poop was beaten gold;
Purple the sails, and so perfumed that
The winds were love-sick with them; the oars were silver,
Which to the tune of flutes kept stroke, and made
The water which they beat to follow faster,
As amorous of their stroke

Even this, when you look closely, is in the same manner, with the first sentence ending half-way through the second line, and sentences stopping mid-line 3 times in these 7 lines, at ‘water’, ‘them’ and ‘stroke’. The effect of ending sentences and starting new ones in mid-line is to break up the untrammelled liquid flow of the earlier style. But in this speech the effect is overruled by the gorgeousness of the metaphors and the magnificence of the vision. Its rich colour highlights how relatively grey, functional and gnarly a lot of the rest of the play is.

And difficult. The thought is often so compressed as to be hard to follow. In the excerpt below, I don’t  really understand what the first half means. It is Antony telling Octavian’s sister, the honest but boring Octavia, who he has married in a purely political marriage to try and patch up his alliance with Caesar – telling her that if she’s unhappy, she’s free to go:

ANTONY: When it appears to you where this begins,
Turn your displeasure that way. For our faults
Can never be so equal, that your love
Can equally move with them. Provide your going.
Choose your own company, and command what cost
Your heart has mind to.

It’s not only the verse that is choppy and fragmented. It feels like something clever is going on in the sentence starting “For our faults…” but, to be frank, I don’t follow it.

This kept happening to me while reading Antony and Cleopatra. I enjoyed reading and rereading Julius Caesar because each reading revealed new depths to the characters, made me realise how certain symbols or topics cleverly recur, made me see the subtle linguistic threads which bind the fabric together. Not so Antony and Cleopatra, with its fewer metaphors and similes, and its thought so compressed I often didn’t understand it. I read and reread passages and they remained obstinately gnarly in rhythm and opaque in meaning. They remain what they first appeared.

Here’s Cleopatra lamenting that Antony has married Octavia and regretting her first angry impulse to smack and slap the messenger who brought this news:

These hands do lack nobility, that they strike
A meaner than myself; since I myself
Have given myself the cause.

It sounds interwoven and self-entwining as if there ought to be a hidden meaning, but repeated readings leave it what it was.

And this brings me back to my earlier reference to the theme of age and decline. Because maybe this is a style suited to mature characters. It is not the show-off prolixity of the young and flashy. It feels like the poetic style of a man who has ‘done all that’, has written unbeatably show-off verse in Romeo and Juliet and Henry V and Hamlet and knows it, knows he’s written the best pyrotechnic verse in the world and so is now trying something different.

He’s deliberately cutting back on mellifluous flashiness and trying for something more…tough and wizened. As leathery and furrowed as the face of Colin Blakely playing Antony on the BBC Shakespeare production I’ve just watched. The lined and grizzled face of a man who, although the play gives the impression it’s taking place over a few hectic weeks, in fact ages ten years over its duration.

Lack of oomph

Admittedly ‘oomph’ is not a common technical term in literary criticism. What I mean is something like impact and atmosphere. The first three acts of Julius Caesar not only have dramatic unity because they are entirely about the conspiracy to murder him, but are given thrilling dramatic and psychological atmosphere by the use of the wild storm the night before the murder. The night the assassins hold their final meeting is characterised by a wild storm of thunder and lightning which terrifies half the characters, during which people see ghosts and wild animals prowling the streets and fire in the sky.

This is a fairly obvious effect – the same depiction of discord in nature reflecting the overthrow of the social order on earth is used in Macbeth and King Lear – but it is fantastically successful at giving the play a kind of unity of palette and the same feeling is, of course, revived at the end of the play when Brutus sees the ghost of Caesar appear to him in his tent. Once introduced, this supernatural vibe runs throughout the play.

Antony and Cleopatra lacks any of that. There are occasional attempts to give the thing an orientalist exotic Egyptian vibe, but not many, and you don’t really notice them. There is no comparable melodramatic setting / scene / vocabulary / diction which dominates and unifies the scenes. A couple of times characters refer to the stars, but this is bog standard stuff, passing references: all Shakespeare protagonists refer to Fortune or the stars at some point, even in the comedies:

ANTONY: And at this time most easy ’tis to do’t,
When my good stars, that were my former guides,
Have empty left their orbs, and shot their fires
Into the abysm of hell…

ANTONY: Alack, our terrene moon
Is now eclipsed; and it portends alone
The fall of Antony!

It isn’t the large scale dramatisation of astrological doom, as in the storms of Lear or Macbeth. The one ‘spooky’ scene is, as so often, on the eve of the last battle, a standard moment for protagonists to soulfully muse about the destinies which have brought them to this point etc, when none of the main characters are about but soldiers on guard at Antony’s camp hear strange music coming from underground and one, as if clairvoyant, says it is the sound of Hercules, Antony’s ancestor, leaving him to his fate (Act 3, scene 3). That, I grant you, is strange and eerie but not, by itself, enough to spook up the overall story.

Far more emblematic is the setpiece scene where the triumvirate meet with Pompey aboard his flagship, make peace then drink till they’re drunk and perform a drunken dance, accompanied by music. Which has no symbolic overtones at all; it’s just another party.

One way to demonstrate the lack of oomph is to compare the soothsayers in the two plays. In Julius Caesar the soothsayer’s warnings about the Ides of March are genuinely spooky and concern the central event of the play. The murder scene itself (Act 3, scene 1) opens with Caesar progressing to the senate building with his entourage and spotting in the cheering crowd the soothsayer who’d warned him about the Ides of March. Caesar shouts mockingly to him:

CAESAR: The ides of March are come.
SOOTHSAYER: Ay, Caesar; but not gone.

This has real bite. It links up to the strong supernatural theme, it revives the sense of destiny and fate, and purely in dramatic terms, it gives Caesar and his entourage pause for a moment of doubt, before Caesar recovers his composure and blusteringly dismisses him as ‘a dreamer’. In other words, this two-line exchange packs a punch on a number of levels.

There is also a soothsayer in Antony and Cleopatra but a) he isn’t integrated into any other supernatural aspect or indicators; he is a rather isolated almost forlorn figure. And b) his scope is limited to reading the fortunes of Cleopatra’s giggling maids, who mock him and each other. From the sublime to the ridiculing.

Schoolgirls

I watched the BBC Shakespeare production, starring Colin Blakely and Jane Lapotaire, and the 1984 TV movie, starring Timothy Dalton and Lynn Redgrave. Neither of them really convince and both of them bring out Shakespeare’s odd decision to make the second scene in the play a comic one featuring Cleopatra’s two serving women (‘My noble girls!’), Charmian (very much the main one) and Iras (who hardly speaks at all).

Alexas, supposedly Cleopatra’s chief minister but who appears to be her chief male servant, introduces the Egyptian soothsayer to the giggly women and, instead of adding to and crystallising the sense of world-encompassing doom, as his avatar in Julius Caesar does, this soothsayer is reduced to answering their gossipy enquiries about their husbands and children.

Now, the canny audience will spot the way the soothsayer accurately predicts the fact that both women will die alongside their mistress, but in the obscure, limited way of the Delphic Oracle, so that neither of them grasps the truth and, in any case, are too busy making jokes about each other’s future husbands to notice.

Maybe the audience will remember his predictions three hours later when Charmian and Iras accompany their mistress to her death; maybe the audience who knows they’re all going to die will enjoy the dramatic irony when they hear it – but either way, it’s indicative of the way that a supernatural element is vestigially present but much tamped down, itself symptomatic of the more muted, adult focus of the play as a whole.

The unattractive protagonists

The puzzling effect of the play is also a function of the lack of a clear protagonist. Cleopatra emerges in the final act as the dominating figure of the play, but before that was often absent for long periods or, when she was present, was a very reactive figure, reacting to Antony’s decisions or apologies or outbursts. Even when she is alone with her handmaids and Alexas, she is constantly thinking about Antony, reacting to him even in his absence.

Brutus is the protagonist of Julius Caesar and his antagonist is the savvy, virile Antony of that play, drolly ironic, cleverer than all the conspirators put together – with the ghost of Caesar lurking under the stage until he emerges in the last few scenes to neatly round everything off by haunting the assassins to their deaths. I liked the clever, ironic Antony of the earlier play, with his devil-may-care confidence.

The Antony of this play and his Cleopatra, by contrast, I found tiresome, as people. Maybe it’s me, but right at the start Shakespeare goes out of his way to show how quickly the famous lovers fall out and bicker like teenagers (‘Fie! wrangling queen!’).

Along with the immediately following scene of the schoolgirl handmaids, this sets a tone of silliness in their relationship, a stroppy teenage quickness to fall into heated arguments over nothing, from which the play, for me, never qute recovers.

I found Antony’s flip-flopping between infatuation with Cleopatra and guilty acknowledgement that he needs to break free and return to his Roman duties and responsibilities, irritating rather than profound.  I wanted to tell him to grow up.

Also, by the time we meet him, he is a loser. He has lost the insouciant, devil-may-care brashness of the earlier play. Now Caesar is the winner, and knows he will win, and goes on to win.

Antony, by contrast, is a loser. He fails in his negotiations with Cesar. He fails as a husband to innocent Octavia, setting out to damply please her but all-too-quickly letting himself and her down.

Antony never comes over as the world-bestriding general the other characters describe him as having been, once, in the play’s heretofore. When we meet him he is well on the way to making a series of catastrophic errors, which lead up to his military blunders: first, deciding to fight by sea, and then abandoning his fleet when Cleopatra sails away.

This sequence of bad calls is capped when he believes the messenger who tells him Cleopatra is dead and makes the foolish decision to kill himself; and then makes a botch of it, terribly injuring himself but failing to die. It’s failure all down the line. It’s a fine line between Tragic Fall and pathetic failure.

Similarly, Cleopatra, for me, for the first four acts, never achieves the awe and majesty which the play claims for her. Enobarbus’s description of her is far more impressive than the reality.

In Julius Caesar both Portia (wife of Brutus) and Calpurnia (wife of Caesar) have real presence and depth. Your heart bleeds for poor Portia, tormented by her husband locking her out from his feelings (i.e. not telling her about the conspiracy to murder Caesar).

Jane Lapotaire is a handsome woman but I found her continual arbitrary switching from anger to irony to sarcasm so tiresome that, when she finally got around to something like genuine expressions of love and/or soulful introspection about her feelings, I’d stopped caring. I found her unpredictable mood swings alienating rather than entrancing. Maybe she’s just not my type.

That said, I suppose Cleopatra’s depiction is on a different plane from that of the men, if only for the sheer length of time she is on stage and the phenomenal number of lines she gets to deliver. But for me, only right at the end, locked away in her strongpoint, as she commits herself to ending her life, does she attain a kind of visionary transcendence, which lifts her onto a different plane from all the other characters.

Enobarbus and Caesar

First a word of explanation: after Julius Caesar was assassinated, it turned out that in his will he left the majority of his estate to his great-nephew (his sister’s daughter’s son) Gaius Octavius who he legally adopted as his son. Octavius, only 18 at the time, promptly came to Rome to claim his inheritance, to ratify his adoption by Caesar, and, as was common with Roman adoptees, to take his adoptive father’s name, calling himself Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus, where Octavianus is the adjectival form of Octavius. Quite quickly he took to referring to himself as ‘Caesar’ since this helped in winning the loyalty of the dead dictator’s legions. And all this explains why he is referred to as ‘Caesar’ throughout this play.

Enobarbus, meanwhile, is based on this historical figure of Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus, Roman general and politician, birth date unknown, who died in 31 BC. A quick scan of his Wikipedia entry indicates how thoroughly Shakespeare has fictionalised the character, and is also a good indicator of how completely Shakespeare ignores the long historical duration covered by the play, and the extremely complex web of shifting alliances which took place during the ten years the action supposedly covers.

Instead of a highly successful general who led forces against Antony at Philippi and persisted in opposing the triumvirate, until he was eventually reconciled with Antony, and went on to play a leading part in the latter’s ill-fated invasion of Parthia (36 BC), Shakespeare’s Enobarbus is depicted as a fellow drunk, a kind of embodiment of Antony’s devil-may-care debauchery. He’s a sort of cut-price Falstaff.

And a chorus to the main action. His main structural function is to be a court jester to Antony, licensed to say anything: to mock him, to mock the queen, to mock their love affair, to mock Rome and responsibility and pour Antony another drink. In the scenes where Antony and Caesar and their entourages meet, parley and party, he is shown getting on well with two of Caesar’s senior advisers, Agrippa and Maecenas, and speaking probably tactlessly about he and Antony’s party ways back in Alexandria. He very tactlessly shares his belief that Antony’s marriage to Octavia won’t last.

So he is not intended to be a pleasant man, and in his asides to the audience he has something of Iago – not in orchestrating and motivating the action, but in his increasing tone of malevolence and misanthropy. He becomes more bitter and cynical as the play progresses, eventually defects from Antony’s service altogether, going over to young Caesar, but finally malevolences his way right out of existence by killing himself (as does, of course, his former master). So he is like a barometer indicating the steady, relentless decline in Antony’s fortunes.

So from out of this pack of squabbling lovers and their cynical hangers-on, I couldn’t help coming to admire Caesar. He is quite obviously depicted as a Spock-like emotionless automaton, a ruthlessly efficient calculating machine. His speeches are very deliberately made as emotional as computer printouts.

But if one person was going to end up ruling the Roman Empire who would you prefer it to be? The childishly irresponsibly, changeable, unreliable, petulant self-pitying drunk, Antony? Or the sober, hard-working, focused and efficient young Octavian? Antony is like Boris Johnson: an impetuous, charismatic, changeable, unreliable, making-it-up-as-you-go-along party animal. A great bloke to stay up all night carousing with but shouldn’t be left in charge of a whelk stall, let alone half the Roman Empire – as his over-ambitious, badly managed, and disastrous foray into Parthia (36 BC) conclusively proved, and then his catastrophic decision to abandon his fleet and his legions at Actium (31 BC) proved all over again.

Just like Boris Johnson, Antony’s supporters keep giving him the benefit of the doubt as he proves himself unfit for high office again and again and again, as one by one his senior allies defect, until he managed to dig his own grave and even his most loyal hanger-on (Enobarbus) abandoned him.

ANTONY: O, my fortunes have corrupted honest men!

No, Octavian for me. If you want someone to manage a country, let alone an empire, you want a managerial type: hard working, sober, efficient, fair, and also – a winner. As he always does, right from the start Shakespeare plants the seed of the character’s eventual fate – in this case Octavian’s complete triumph – by pointing out that he just wins. Whatever enterprise he undertakes, whether it’s playing dice or taking on the senate, he just wins. Enobarbus comes to realise Caesar is ‘twenty times of better fortune’ than Antony. As the soothsayer (they crop up everywhere, these soothsayers, don’t they) tells Antony:

If thou dost play with him at any game,
Thou art sure to lose; and, of that natural luck,
He beats thee ‘gainst the odds: thy lustre thickens,
When he shines by…

And so it ultimately proves here.

Binaries and dichotomies

Antony is a man caught between two contrasting worlds and sets of values:

  • Egypt versus Italy
  • Alexandria versus Rome
  • East versus West
  • Femininity (all those Egyptian handmaids plus the eunuchs) versus masculinity (all those Roman senators and generals)
  • Cleopatra versus Caesar
  • Love versus Reason
  • Irresponsibility versus duty
  • Sensual pleasure versus puritan abstention (Caesar’s fastidious dislike of the drunkenness at Pompey’s party)
  • An empire of the senses versus the real-world empire of war and conquest
  • Mistress versus wife
  • The personal versus the public
  • Colourful exotic costumes versus the plain white Roman toga

Indeed the play overflows with carefully contrasted binaries and contrasts:

  • (Cleopatra’s) playfulness versus (Caesar’s) earnestness
  • Humour versus seriousness
  • Irony versus sincerity
  • Hyperbole versus statements of fact
  • Emotional instability versus fixed resolution

Right down to the contrast between the two suicides, one botched and hideously painful (Antony’s) in which he is pitifully abandoned by his servants; the other ceremonious, beautiful and painless (Cleopatra’s) in which she is loyally served to the end by her maids.

Suicide

1. History. The era is packed with famous suicides: Cato, Portia, Brutus, Cassius, Enobarbus, Eros, Antony, Cleopatra, a generation of generals and rulers liquidated itself to make way for Octavius.

2. Shakespeare. Throw in Shakespeare’s most famous depictions of suicide, Romeo and Juliet and you can reasonably ask: Has any other major author so glamorised and romanticised suicide?

CLEOPATRA: The stroke of death is as a lover’s pinch,
Which hurts, and is desired.

The end speech

While Antony was alive, Caesar’s cronies queued up to mimic their master’s mood and mock and insult Antony. When, in Act 5 scene 1, they learn he is dead, they queue up to praise him (‘A rarer spirit never / Did steer humanity’). Octavian joins in and then, a long 20 minutes later, after Cleopatra has also killed herself and Octavian stands over her lifeless body, he delivers the same kind of eulogy.

This naturally reminds me of the same Octavian standing over Brutus’s corpse while Antony delivers a noble eulogy to him (Brutus) at the end of Julius Caesar. All of which prompts a simple thought: it is easy to be noble and generous about your opponent after he is safely dead.

Boys will be girls

Last thought about the characters, and a fact which opens up a Pandora’s box of debates about gender and identity – women characters in the theatre of Shakespeare’s time were played by boys. The numerous scenes between Cleopatra and her maids, the opening scene where the maids discuss marriage, all those furious arguments with Antony, and Cleopatra’s final, transcendent apotheosis – all this was depicted by pubescent boys.

Historical background

The first thing to emphasise is that, like Julius CaesarAntony and Cleopatra leaps through long, complicated historical events, cutting and paring and cherry picking just what it needs to produce a narrative which focuses on two of western history’s most famous lovers. But even more ambitiously than the 2 years covered by the earlier play, Antony and Cleopatra depicts events spanning no fewer than ten years of Roman history.

After Julius Caesar’s assassination in March 44 a complicated political and military situation emerged. You’d have expected a straight fight between Mark Anthony as Caesar’s loyal lieutenant and the conspirators led by Marcus Junius Brutus and Gaius Cassius Longinus. In fact the opposing factions patched together a compromise peace and all sides, including the senate, were struggling to understand what to do next when the situation was further complicated by the arrival of 18-year-old Gaius Octavius, named by Caesar as his main heir, who arrived in Rome within weeks of Caesar’s murder, determined to claim his legacy.

Brutus and Cassius were amnestied by the senate for the assassination but thought it wise to leave Rome and so secured from the senate governorships in faraway Asia (modern-day Turkey), leaving space for a conflict emerged in Italy between Octavian – who quickly raised troops by playing on his adoptive father’s name – and Antony who marched his legions north to besiege the town of Mutina, held by the legions of another of the assassins, Decimus Brutus.

The conflict developed into one between Antony, determined to seize complete control of Italy, and the senate, who supported Decimus and were persuaded to give their backing to Octavius. This was achieved largely through the influence of Cicero who delivered a series of stinging attacks on Antony’s character and aims, so much so that Antony was declared ‘an enemy of the state’. Meanwhile Brutus and Cassius gathered their forces in Asia, anticipating involvement in the war racking Italy.

Then there came an extremely unexpected development which transformed the situation. Despite having just led their legions in bitter fighting against each other, Octavian in particular came to realise he had more to gain by declaring a truce and even allying with Antony. There was always both an emotional and legal logic to the idea that Caesar’s best friend and his adoptive son would eventually unite against the men who murdered him.

And so it turned out. The senate and all the other political actors in the drama, not least Cicero who had heartily supported Octavian against Antony, were flabbergasted when in October 43 BC Octavian convened a meeting in northern Italy with Antony and Marcus Aemilius Lepidus, who had seized the provinces of Hispania and Narbonese Gaul. They called themselves the ‘triumvirate for organizing the republic’ (Latin: tresviri rei publicae constituendae) known to history as the Second Triumvirate, and divided the Roman Empire between them: at least initially Lepidus held Hispania and Narbonese Gaul, Antony retained Cisalpine Gaul and hegemony over Gaul itself, and Octavian was assigned Africa, Sicily Sardinia.

Octavia and Antony’s joined forces then embarked for Greece to confront the armies of the assassins, Brutus and Cassius, who they defeated in two clumsy, unwieldy battles fought with huge forces on both sides near Philippi in northern Greece on 3 and 23 October 42 BC. Both the assassins committed suicide and their cause dissolved. Antony and Octavian took over control of their legions and divided the Mediterranean world between them, Antony taking the East, where he wanted to win glory by taking on the Parthian Empire, and Octavian, shrewdly assuming control of Italy, Gaul and Spain. Lepidus was reassigned north Africa and Sicily.

The thing about the triumvirate is that it lasted for ten years, from 43, when the senate formally recognised it, to 33 when open conflict broke out between Octavian and Antony. Ten years is a long time and a lot happened, including a wide range of reforms back in Rome and in the administration of the empire (notably very contentious policies to seize land to settle veteran soldiers), plus wars in various places (notably against Gaius Pompeius’s son Sextus, in Sicily, in 36 BC, and the ill-fated Perusine War of 40 BC), and major disagreements between the partners, which were raggedly patched up. The triumvirate was ratified by the senate for five years, but the behaviour of the triumvirs increasingly sidelined the senate and all constitutional processes. It signalled the end of the Republic.

In 36 the triumvirate was renewed for another 5 years but Octavian took advantage of Lepidus’s mismanagement of affairs in Sicily to strip him of his powers in September of that year and force him into exile. The situation had thus evolved into just two Great Men dominating the Roman world, Antony based in the East and Octavian in Italy, Gaul and Spain.

Antony had responsibilities all round the Eastern Mediterranean but fell in love with Cleopatra, queen of Egypt and chose to spend years based in her capital, Alexandria, eventually fathering twin children by her, Alexander Helios and Cleopatra Selene II.

Octavian made use of every rumour of Antony’s partying, drunkenness, neglect of his duties, and his subservience to a foreign (and therefore, ipso facto, immoral) ruler, and a woman to boot, as part of his propaganda campaign against Antony back in Italy.

Cleopatra the movie

John Wilders, editor of the 1995 Arden edition of the play, optimistically claims that Shakespeare’s depiction of the star-crossed lovers defined them for all time:

Shakespeare clearly set a challenge for himself. He rose to it so splendidly that in most of our minds Antony and Cleopatra actually were the people he created. (Antony and Cleopatra, Arden edition, 1995, page 1)

I disagree. There were plenty of other literary depictions of them, both before and after –by Chaucer in his Legend of Good Women (1380s) and by John Dryden, the Restoration playwright (1677), to pick two famous authors. In fact a quick check of the Dryden Wikipedia page tells us that Dryden’s retelling of the story was widely performed in the 18th century: ‘becoming the preferred version of the story; Shakespeare’s play did not reappear on the London stage until 1813.’

And if you had to choose just one depiction of the story, surely it would be Plutarch’s Life of Antony without which none of the other accounts would exist.

But anyway, leaving the leafy groves of academe, I’d have thought a million times more influential than any literary depiction is the fabulous 1963 Hollywood movie, Cleopatra, starring Liz Taylor and Richard Burton at the peak of their fame. Quite obviously this provides the epic spectacle, the awe and majesty, which all the stage productions I’ve watched completely lack.

And although it’s easy to dismiss it as American kitsch, I think it very effectively depicts the kind of middle-aged ‘love’ which is closer to cantankerous addiction, to perpetual arguing with someone you can’t leave, of leaving them and then discovering you can’t live without them, which is the central theme of the play.

Mind you, all this is, of course, before we get to what is indisputably THE most important cultural representation of the story in our time:

Asterix and Cleopatra by René Goscinny and Albert Uderzo (1963)


Related links

  • Antony and Cleopatra text online
  • 1974 RSC TV production starring Janet Suzman and Richard Johnson – my favourite production: I like Richard Johnson (47 at the time) with his smoker’s laugh, as Antony, Suzman (35) has genuine sex appeal, manipulation and threat, the direction (by Jon Scoffield) captures the nuances and subtleties in the script far better than the others. And the court and party scenes, like the massage scene in 1.5, convey a genuine sense of party decadence which the other productions refer to but never show. And Corin Redgrave (35), looking younger than his years, is intimidatingly cool and calculating. The use of soft focus or blurring works very well to convey: messengers approaching from a distance; montages of events being reported, such as Antony and Cleopatra’s enthronement; and the swift transition and overlap of the short scenes conveying the Battle of Actium, the appearance of Cleopatra and her entourage to victorious Antony or of Cleopatra appearing to defeated Antony. All appear shimmering out of the sand yellow which very effectively evokes the blistering deserts of Egypt and also gives a successful visual unity to the sequence of very short scenes which critics from the 1700s onwards have criticised as too bitty.
  • 1981 BBC Shakespeare production starring Jane Lapotaire and Colin Blakely – savour Blakely (51)’s fixed rictus grin in the opening scene: he is not at home playing an abandoned sensualist; Jane Lapotaire is good but, ultimately to thin and light to convey earthy majesty as Suzman does; I very much liked Ian Charleston (32)’s cool Caesar, and liked his careful, even enunciation of the verse.
  • 1984 TV production starring Timothy Dalton and Lyn Redgrave – Dalton is fabulously handsome but not so good in the quieter scenes depicting emotion, and Redgrave comes over as a suburban housewife, Cleopatra played by Margot Ledbetter

Elizabethan and Jacobean reviews

Christopher Marlowe

Shakespeare

Theatre

Christopher Marlowe (1564 – 93)

Christopher Marlowe was one of the original bad boy rebels. He lived fast, died young (aged 29) and left a beautiful corpus of exhilarating plays and sensuous poetry. Marlowe’s half dozen plays are the first to use blank verse, demonstrating its power and flexibility, and so can be said to have established the entire format of Elizabethan and Jacobean theatre.

Early life

Marlowe was the son of a Canterbury shoemaker. There’s a record of his being baptised on 26 February 1564. He won a scholarship to King’s School, Canterbury, then another to Corpus Christi College Cambridge where he was awarded a degree in 1584. However the authorities hesitated to award him an MA in 1587 because of rumours that he had spent time abroad, at Rheims, consorting with English Catholic exiles who were ordained as Catholic priests there before being smuggled back into England. If true, this amounted to treason. However, there’s a record of a letter being sent from the Privy Council to the Cambridge authorities to dispel this rumour and confirm that Marlowe had done ‘good service’ to the Queen. What service? To this day nobody knows, but it has prompted speculation for over 400 years that Marlowe was, at the tender age of 23, an Elizabethan spy.

The plays

Marlowe came to London and almost immediately established himself as a major playwright. He wrote six plays in his six years as a public playwright before his early death. To this day, there is debate and disagreement about the order they were written in, though most scholars agree on the following order:

  • Dido, Queen of Carthage (c. 1585–1587)
  • Tamburlaine, Part I (c. 1587); Part II (c. 1587–88)
  • The Jew of Malta (c. 1589–1590)
  • Doctor Faustus (c. 1588–1592)
  • Edward the Second (c. 1592)
  • The Massacre at Paris (c. 1589–1593)

Massive success

Put simply, Marlow established blank verse as the standard medium for Elizabethan plays, an enormous literary achievement. To start reading Dido is to be immediately swept away by the combination of power and sensuality, the swaggering boom and lushness of what Ben Jonson called Marlowe’s ‘mighty line’.

But not only that, his most famous plays (Tamburlaine and Faustus in particular) depict protagonists of such grotesque and visionary ambition, who express their views in verse so viscerally powerful and compelling, that they established a kind of benchmark of imaginative achievement. His protagonists dominated the stage and thrilled audiences in an entirely new way, showing what theatre was capable of.

Marlowe’s plays were tremendously successful in his day, helped by the imposing stage presence of his lead actor, Edward Alleyn, the lead actor of the acting company Marlowe wrote for – the Admiral’s Men. Alleyn was unusually tall for the time and gave commanding performances of the bombastic roles of Tamburlaine, Faustus and Barabas (the protagonist of The Jew of Malta).

Bad boy

The obscure squabble about his Cambridge MA was just a taster for a short life packed with trouble.

Prison Marlowe was party to a fatal quarrel involving his neighbours and the poet Thomas Watson in Norton Folgate and was held in Newgate Prison for at least a fortnight in 1589.

Arrest In 1592 Marlowe was arrested in the English garrison town of Flushing (Vlissingen) in the Netherlands, for alleged involvement in the counterfeiting of coins, presumably related to the activities of seditious Catholics. He was sent to the Lord Treasurer (Burghley), but no charge or imprisonment resulted maybe – again – because he was on official spying business.

Controversy His plays sailed close to the wind. The intensity of Dr Faustus led to accusations that Marlowe himself indulged in witchcraft and magic. Edward II presents the same-sex love of the king and his favourite Piers Gaveston in an unusually favourable light.

Atheism Worse was the accusation of atheism, technically illegal at the time. In May 1593 anonymous posters were put up around London threatening Protestant refugees from France and the Netherlands. One of these was in rhymed iambic pentameter, contained allusions to several of Marlowe’s plays and was signed, ‘Tamburlaine’. On 11 May the Privy Council ordered the arrest of those responsible for the libels and they made a start with Marlowe’s colleague Thomas Kyd, who was arrested. When his lodgings were searched a three-page fragment of a heretical tract was found.

In a letter to the Keeper of the Great Seal, Sir John Puckering, Kyd claimed the document belonged to Marlowe, with whom he had shared a writing room two years earlier. In a follow-up letter Kyd – obviously seeking to exonerate himself – described Marlowe as blasphemous, disorderly, holding treasonous opinions, being an irreligious reprobate and ‘intemperate & of a cruel hart’.

A warrant for Marlowe’s arrest was issued on 18 May and he was tracked to the country mansion of Sir Thomas Walsingham, whose father was a first cousin of the late Sir Francis Walsingham, Queen Elizabeth’s spymaster – more fuel for all those who consider Marlowe to have been a spy throughout his career. Marlowe presented himself to the Council on 20 May and was instructed to ‘give his daily attendance on their Lordships, until he shall be licensed to the contrary’.

Details of his death Ten days later, 30 May 1593, Marlowe was killed. He spent all day in Eleanor Bull’s house in Deptford talking with three other men. In the evening, after supper, the four men quarrelled, one of them Ingram Frizer drew a dagger and stabbed Marlowe to death. At the inquest, Frizer said he did it in self defence, all three had worked for Walsingham at some point or another and were acquitted. Within a few weeks Frizer returned to Walsingham’s service.

So was it really a drunken brawl, did something Marlowe say genuinely offend the others? Or was it an assassination to hush up something Marlowe may or may not have been going to divulge to the Privy Council, maybe to exonerate himself from the charges arising from the atheistical and heretical document Kyd attributed to him? Or was it just a fight which got out of hand.

We will never know.

Baines’s testimony At the time of Marlowe’s arrest in Flushing, evidence had been presented against him by one Richard Baines who the governor of Flushing identified as an enemy of Marlowe’s. After Marlowe was arrested in May 1593, Baines sent the authorities a note ‘concerning his damnable judgment of religion, and scorn of God’s word’. Baines attributes to Marlowe a total of eighteen items such as:

  • the first beginning of Religion was only to keep men in awe
  • Christ was a bastard and his mother dishonest
  • the woman of Samaria and her sister were whores and that Christ knew them dishonestly’, ‘St John the Evangelist was bedfellow to Christ and leaned always in his bosom’, and ‘that he used him as the sinners of Sodom’.

The School of Night Baines went on to claim that whatever company Marlowe came into, he sought to persuade people to his atheistical point of view. This helped bolster the legend of what later generations have termed ‘The School of Night’ referring to a group of intellectuals centred on Sir Walter Raleigh supposedly including Marlowe, George Chapman, Matthew Roydon and Thomas Harriot among others. But once again it is based on the slender evidence of Richard Baines, a paid informer who, in the unsworn deposition mentioned above, claimed he had heard from another that Marlowe had ‘read the Atheist lecture to Sr. Walter Raleigh [and] others’. Rumour and gossip from a stated enemy, in other words.

Gay The damning list of atheistical statements attributed to Marlowe in the Baines document overlaps with accusations that the playwright was gay, including such gossip as that Marlowe said: ‘All those who like not boys and tobacco be fools’ (which seems a very reasonable sentiment).

In fact, apart from Baines’s statement, there is no hard evidence about Marlowe’s sexuality either way, and some scholars reject reports of his homosexuality altogether. Those who want it to be true quote selected moments from his works in which characters give a favourable account of male same-sex desire (the lengthy homoerotic description of handsome young Leander in the poem Hero and Leander, the opening of Dido Queen of Carthage which finds Zeus flirting very obviously with the beautiful young boy Ganymede, in Edward II the entire treatment of the relationshiip between the king and his favourite, Piers Gaveston).

Maybe. As with the spy theories and the numerous theories which have sprung up as to the real cause of his death, it is clear that Marlowe –  like so many authors, in fact like so many eminent figures from the past – is a kind of Rorschach test, a complicated and contradictory figure onto whom later readers can project whatever fantasy feeds their needs.

Was William Shakespeare really Christopher Marlow? There’s even a group of people who believe that Marlowe faked his own death and resumed writing under the pseudonym William Shakespeare (the two playwrights were, after all, born in the same year).

People – as the internet age has shown us more clearly than ever before – will believe anything.

Banned As well as plays, early in his career Marlowe wrote some poetry, most impressively the short epyllion Hero and Leander and a translation of the Latin poet Ovid’s Amores. Copies of this latter were publicly burned as offensive in 1599, as part of Archbishop Whitgift’s crackdown on offensive material. Even after his death he carried on being a bad boy.


Marlowe’s works

The Alchemist by Ben Jonson (1610)

The Alchemist is a plague play. Not only was it written in 1610, when the London theatres were closed (yet again) for (yet another) outbreak of plague, but the plot itself derives from that fact. The master of the house, Lovewit, has (like everyone else who can afford it) fled London and is waiting at his country seat for the plague to abate (his retreat appears to be in Kent; he is said to be waiting in his ‘hop-yards’). In the meantime his housekeeper, Face, has invited a conman, Subtle, and a prostitute, Doll Common, to come and stay in the house in a kind of joint criminal enterprise, persuading a series of gullible victims that Subtle is a renowned alchemist who will supply each of them the Philosopher’s Stone and make their dreams come true… for a price.

The cast

The three crooks

SUBTLE, the alchemist
FACE, the Housekeeper
DOL COMMON, their Colleague

The gulls or dupes

DAPPER, a Lawyer’s Clerk
DRUGGER, a Tobacco Man
SIR EPICURE MAMMON, a Knight
PERTINAX SURLY, a Gamester
TRIBULATION WHOLESOME, a Pastor of Amsterdam
ANANIAS, a Deacon there
KASTRIL, the angry Boy
DAME PLIANT, his Sister, a Widow.

The absent master

LOVEWIT, Master of the House

The plot

Act 1

Scene 1 The play opens in media res, with typically Jonsonian energy, as the three crooks stumble onstage in the middle of a flaring row, Face and Subtle throwing insults at each other, Face claiming to have rescued Subtle from absolute desperation, having found him on the streets in rags looking like ‘the father of hunger’, Subtle claiming to have set up the successful con scheme and made Face a fortune – both of them being told by a frustrated Doll to calm down and that by arguing they risk provoking the neighbours to call the constables.

The verbal energy in the abuse is invigorating and reminds us that formal contests of abuse were a recognised genre in medieval and renaissance literature, called flyting. They argue until Doll eventually grabs Face’s sword and ‘breaks Subtle’s glass’, calling them an ‘abominable pair of stinkards’, and reminding them they are all equal partners in the ‘venture tripartite’ and when Subtle, once again claims he plays the lead role, as the fake alchemist, Doll is so infuriated she flies at him and starts to strangle her till he cries quits and

They eventually argue themselves to a standstill and listen to Doll telling them they have to work together when there’s a knock at the door!

Scene 2 Enter Dapper, a ‘quodling’ i.e. innocent young man who has got into conversation in a pub with Face who says he knows a man can conjure a spirit to help him (Dapper) at his gambling. (I thought the name Dapper rang a bell and it is the name of Sir Davy Dapper and his son Jack Dapper, in Middleton’s play The Roaring Girl). Face makes a great pretense of claiming Subtle is a learned man who is almost to particular in his alchemical practice and then introduces Dapper (with sly humour) as:

FACE:Good deeds, sir… ‘Slight, I bring you
No cheating Clim o’ the Cloughs or Claribels,
That look as big as five-and-fifty, and flush;
And spit out secrets like hot custard,
Nor any melancholic under-scribe,
Shall tell the vicar; but a special gentle,
That is the heir to forty marks a year,
Consorts with the small poets of the time,
Is the sole hope of his old grandmother;
That knows the law, and writes you six fair hands,
Is a fine clerk, and has his cyphering perfect.
Will take his oath o’ the Greek Testament,
If need be, in his pocket; and can court
His mistress out of Ovid.

The verbal vigour of the play, the exuberance of its characters, is infectious and compelling. Face and Subtle make a wonderful double act, persuading the gullible Dapper that he was born under a lucky star, that he is related to the Queen of Fairy no less. They extort four angels from him (Jacobean coins), making pretense that Face is having to force them on Subtle, who makes a big show of warning Face that, if they give Dapper this power, he will ruin every gambler in the city and win all his bets – before telling him to return at 1 to carry out the full and elaborate ceremony which will raise him a familiar or lucky spirit.

Scene 3 Next to arrive is Abel Drugger, the not-too-bright pharmacist who is about to set up a new shop and has come to ask advice from the alchemist on how to arrange it, where to put the doors and windows and shelves. Subtle invokes contemporary learning about faces and hands (each one with its own tutelary spirit) to bamboozle the simple man.

(This is all played for laughs but as Subtle quoted obscure terms from contemporary books of alchemy etc in order to tell Drugger how to arrange his shop, I realised we still do exactly this today – it is called feng shui and, once again, requires a supposedly special mystical knowledge, dressed up in a foreign language).

Subtle promises Drugger that if he follows his instructions it will become the most popular apothecary’s in London, and they then extract a gold coin (a ‘portague’) as a down-payment. He also asks if Subtle can look over his almanac to tell him which days he should and should not trade on.

When Drugger leaves, Face repeats the accusations the play opened with, namely that Subtle thinks of himself as the supremo of these scams and yet it takes a lot of time, effort and money to seek out and latch onto such stupid gulls and bring them to him, and therefore he (Face) deserves a larger share of the loot. This is the basis of the argument between them.

Scene 4 A short one in which Doll runs to tell Subtle that she’s spied Sir Epicure Mammon waddling towards them from the end of the lane, and gives Subtle the opportunity to explain that today is the day when Subtle is due to hand over The Philosopher’s Stone to Mammon, who is already fantasising about wandering round London offering miracle cures to lepers and beggars and infertile women.

Act 2

Scene 1 Sir Epicure Mammon rolls up in front of the house and delivers a wonderful monologue to his sceptical follower, Surly, about all the wonders he will perform once he has the Philosopher’s Stone and can turn any metal into gold and can restore men to their youth and then a fantastical tour of the ancient world proving how every legend from Jason to Pandora, are but refractions of the wonder of the stone. Surly doesn’t believe a word.

Scene 2 Enter Face, from the house, dressed as a man who pumps bellows to keep a fire alight, and pretending to be working hard to maintain the heat required to produce the stone. Mammon calls him ‘Puff’ and ‘Lungs’ and says he will set him free from his master in order to come and supervise his harem, for Mammon intends to establish a vast harem, and to give himself magical powers of stamina, and a strong back, so he can make love to 50 women a night! He will, of course, have to geld Face. Face nods wisely at all this. Mammon’s speech swells into a cornucopia of sensual pleasures.

We will be brave, Puffe, now we have the med’cine.
My meat shall all come in, in Indian shells,
Dishes of agat set in gold, and studded
With emeralds, sapphires, hyacinths, and rubies.
The tongues of carps, dormice, and camels’ heels,
Boil’d in the spirit of sol, and dissolv’d pearl,
Apicius’ diet, ‘gainst the epilepsy:
And I will eat these broths with spoons of amber,
Headed with diamond and carbuncle.
My foot-boy shall eat pheasants, calver’d salmons,
Knots, godwits, lampreys: I myself will have
The beards of barbels served, instead of sallads;
Oil’d mushrooms; and the swelling unctuous paps
Of a fat pregnant sow, newly cut off,
Drest with an exquisite, and poignant sauce;
For which, I’ll say unto my cook, “There’s gold,
Go forth, and be a knight.”

Surly points out that he who creates the Philosopher’s Stone must be pure and virginal. Yes, says Mammon cutting across the difficulty – but I’m not going to make it, I’m going to buy it. As the introduction points out, this is a play about money and greed and people’s readiness to do anything, and believe anything, to be rich.

Scene 3 Enter Subtle. The comedy in this scene is that Subtle pretends to be fantastically pure and high-minded and pretends to spot slips and hints in Mammon’s speech that the latter is covetous and greedy – at which Mammon furiously backtracks and emphasises he will use the stone purely to do good works.

MAMMON: No, I assure you,
I shall employ it all in pious uses,
Founding of colleges and grammar schools,
Marrying young virgins, building hospitals,
And now and then a church.

Surly looks on with profound scepticism which is exacerbated as he listens to Face and Subtle have an extended and jargon-ridden exchange about the umpteen pipes and retorts and alembics and burners (later they are listed as ‘Retorts, receivers, pelicans, bolt-heads,’) which are bubbling away in their laboratory from which it slowly emerges that something is not going right and they require more money.

‘You don’t say’, comments Surly, smelling a rat, whereas Mammon is desperately keen to hand over another nine or ten pounds of gold, and Subtle launches into a really massive theoretical justification of alchemy including an explanation of how gold comes about, naturally, in the bowels of the earth, but he knows the way to hasten this natural process, followed by a lengthy explanation of why the art requires such arcane terms, in order to protect it from the vulgar multitude.

They tell Mammon to bring everything iron in his house, his andirons and spit jacks, everything, so it can be turned to gold. Presumably the crooks intend to pawn it for cash.

In a further elaboration of their plotting against the gullible and self-deceiving Mammon, the pair cause Doll to briefly appear onstage before Subtle angrily tells Face to take her away. Mammon, the sensualist, is aroused at the sight of a nubile lady, even for only a minute and asks about her, whereupon Face spins an elaborate yarn that Doll is a noblewoman, a most rare scholar driven mad by studying the works of a famous alchemist, Hugh Broughton.

Hooked, Mammon gives Face money if he will mention him (Mammon) to her and praise him. (There is a deliberate disjuntion between Mammon’s verbal fantasies of being a second Solomon walking naked amid his harem, and the sordid reality of him paying Face to meet up with a prostitute.) This Doll episode convinces Surly that Subtle is a fake and this is a bawdy house.

In order to complexify the plot, Face takes Surly aside and asks him to meet Captain Face at a pub later that day (at which point we realise that Face is really meant to be utterly disguised as the bellows-man, ‘Lungs’).

Scene 4 Face explains to the others that his intention is to win the sceptical Surly round. They tell Doll she must play the part of a grand lady for Mammon, and she tells them not to worry, she knows all the tricks.

Scene 5 Enter another gull or mark or victim, a Puritan named Ananias in fact, to be precise, he is an Anabaptist, a heretical Protestant sect which arose in Germany in the 1530s but whose members were forced into exile. In a historical note, the area of Blackfriars (between St Paul’s cathedral and the river) a) was famous for its Puritans, b) it’s where Jonson himself lived for a while, and c) it was the location of the theatre where we think this play was first performed – so it was super-relevant to its first audience.

Subtle adopts a different, more religiose tone with him and, when Ananias recoils from his ‘heathenish’ use of alchemical terms, Subtle gets Face to trot through an impressive exposition of alchemical terms and concepts. Ananias is:

Please you, a servant of the exiled brethren,
That deal with widows’ and with orphans’ goods,
And make a just account unto the saints:
A deacon.

sent from the amusingly named Tribulation Wholesome. His congregation are hoping Subtle will make a philosopher’s stone for them, too, but when Subtle asks for more funds, complains that they’ve already given him thirty pounds of materials. Looking for a way to turn the situation, Subtle discovers the man’s name is Ananias and fakes outrage that the Elders have sent him a man named after the high priest who condemned Jesus in the gospel story.

Scene 6 Enter Drugger the pharmacist. Subtle concocts a sign for his new shop which plays on his name, and for which they extract more money. Drugger confesses he is in love with a young woman in his neighbourhood, a widow. He goes on to explain she has a brother, newly 21 and just inherited property worth 3,000 a year. Subtle and Face spy an opening and tell Drugger they’ll work to win him her favour. He gives them more money and leaves, at which they instantly insult him and say they will win the woman and her inheritance for one of them.

Act 3

Scene 1 A dialogue between Ananias and his superior in the Anabaptists, Tribulation Wholesome in which the latter explains that 1) Subtle may not be the heathen Ananias thinks him, maybe has has been soiled by his trade i.e. working with fire (later on Face refers to him as ‘black boy’ – presumably he has a sooty face), 2) explains their motivation, namely that many non-conforming ministers were excommunicated and forbidden from preaching by the Hampton Court Conference called soon after James’s accession, in 1604. The point being, they want to use the philosopher’s stone to produce gold to bribe secular magistrates into permitting their ‘silenced’ brethren to preach again.

Scene 2 Subtle joins them. He listens to Wholesome and makes him extravagant promises about what the philosopher’s stone will enable him to do, namely cure and heal people and so gain temporal power and influence (whenever Ananias chips in, Subtle turns on him and scolds him)

Subtle gives a long list of the odd and affected behaviours and secret hypocrisies which public opinion attributed to the Puritans, saying possession of the philosopher’s stone will mean they no longer have to practice them, with Wholesome and Ananias nodding in agreement and the audience laughing their heads off at the Puritans’ naked hypocrisy. Subtle manages to persuade them to contribute another 100 marks to buy alchemical equipment.

Scene 3 Face enters (in his disguise as a captain) to tell Subtle he’s irritated because Surly never showed up at their rendezvous at the Temple church. The good news is that ‘a noble Count, a Don of Spain’, laden with treasure, is on his way to court ‘our Dol’. How does he know? Someone handed him a message when he was waiting for Surly… Mmm.. I wonder if it’s Surly in disguise, planning to expose them as con-men.

Scene 4 Dapper arrives. He is expecting the Fairy Queen. Doll has to run off and get changed before Face opens the door to Dapper. Face is promising him the Fairy Queen will make him the most successful gambler in London when Drugger arrives, with Kastril, the brother of the widow he mentioned earlier.

Kastril is a recognisable type – a brash, crude young man, he’s come to town to learn how to swear and quarrel and smoke like the other roaring boys, and yet is touchingly naive and innocent – he won’t go to a pub because he has heard there is gambling there!

Anyway, Face bamboozles him with wild stories of how Subtle has made the poorest young men rich beyond their dreams and winds Kastril up to such a wild pitch he runs off to fetch his widowed sister. Then Face dispatched Drugger to get the length of damask cloth he’d promised them.

This leaves Face alone with Dapper. They told Dapper to wash with vinegar in preparation for his audience with the Fairy Queen, and he has, and has bought ‘six score Edward shillings’ and an old Harry’s sovereign and three James shillings and an Elizabeth groat. Would that our current money was so interesting!

Scene 5 Enter Subtle dressed as a priest of fairy who ensures Dapper has made the necessary preliminaries, they blindfold him and make him throw off all his valuables (purse, rings) then dance around him pretending to be fairies and insisting he throw off absolutely all his valuables.

They haven’t even got as far as introducing Doll dressed as the Fairy Queen, when she hisses through the window that Sir Epicure Mammon has arrived. Oops, that’s torn it! As he knocks at the door Face has to run over and speak through it saying he needs to get Subtle out of the way so Mammon can talk to Doll, so go for a few turns up & down the street… then he hurriedly changes into his outfit as ‘Lungs’.

Subtle and Face then persuade blindfolded Dapper that the Fairy Queen is eating and will see him presently. They furiously ad lib and decide he can be gagged with some gingerbread and stashed somewhere – where? the privy! They tell him it is all perfumed and ready for him, ‘Only the fumigation’s somewhat strong’. No sooner have they locked Dapper in the toilet, than Face runs over to the front door to let Mammon in.

Act 4

Scene 1 A comic scene in which Mammon, the overblown sensualist, woos Doll, enumerating her virtues and beauties, while Face stands to one side commentating, knowing she is a common whore.  When she points out his power to create wealth will threaten the authorities, Mammon paints a fantastic image of them moving to some free, fantasy country where they will live on unheard-of luxuries, in a bravura speech speech:

We’ll therefore go withal, my girl, and live
In a free state, where we will eat our mullets,
Soused in high-country wines, sup pheasants’ eggs,
And have our cockles boil’d in silver shells;
Our shrimps to swim again, as when they liv’d,
In a rare butter made of dolphins’ milk,
Whose cream does look like opals; and with these
Delicate meats set ourselves high for pleasure,
And take us down again, and then renew
Our youth and strength with drinking the elixir,
And so enjoy a perpetuity
Of life and lust!

Face enters to tell Mammon he is getting very loud, please to be quieter and go within. Doll and Mammon exit.

Scene 2 To make way for Kastril, the country heir who would be a city gallant, and his bashful sister the widow, Dame Pliant. When Kastril begins to make objections, Subtle interrupts him to play the part of teacher and explains to him how to make an argument, and then turns to the widow and flatters her, saying she is made to be kissed, and kissing her. He reads the lines in her hand and tells her she is destined for a military man.

At that moment, enter Face dressed up in his Captain uniform and he praises both Kastril and Dame Pliant, impressing both, but gets to whisper to Subtle that the Spanish Don has arrived! Hastily they fabricate a plan – Subtle will take Kastril and Pliant to his rooms where he will show them the rules of quarrelling and a magic mirror, while Face deals with the Don.

Scene 3 Subtle has taken the pair to his room and returns for an argument with Face. The scene brings out how, amid the frantic juggling of their victims, the pair are jostlingly rivalrous, quick to spot if either is gaining an advantage over the other. The arrival of Dame Pliant adds flames to the mix, because both now want to win her and are jealous of the slightest advantage the other gains… But they agree their plan and jointly greet the Don.

This Spanish Don is, in fact, Mammon’s sceptical friend, Surly, disguised in a comically exaggerate Spanish costume with an enormous ruff: ‘He speaks out of a fortification’, as Face puts it. There is the familiar but still very funny comic device that, once the Don starts speaking Spanish, Face and Subtle, at first timidly, and then with mounting confidence, insult and abuse him to his face in English, confident that he cannot understand. But of course, he can

But then they realise they are facing a pressing problem: the Don has arrived to fulfil the promise of seeing the beautiful senorita (Doll) but Doll is busy inside with Mammon. And the Don is getting impatient. Face has a brainwave. What about the widow, Dame Pliant, who’s just arrived with Kastril? Why not serve up Dame Pliant to the Don, he gets his woman, she gets a glorious knight, both pay our crooks?

This leads to a furious row between Face and Subtle who had both wanted the widow for themselves, but  the Don is getting impatient so they are forced to make a hurried deal, and Face runs off to get the widow.

Scene 4 Enter Kastril and Dame Pliant, who they all set about persuading that she should let herself be wooed by he Don, with Face and Subtle competing to paint the most grandiloquent picture of her wealth and eminence if she marries him – a coach and horses and fine clothes – whereas if she doesn’t, she’ll be a street vendor in a year. Her brother joins in the bullying and so, reluctantly, she acquiesces and goes over to the Don, who continues to address her in Spanish. They exit into the garden, apparently, while Subtle tells Kastril they should now go to his room where he can commence his lessons on how to argue and quarrel like a well-bred Londoner.

Scene 5 Cut to Mammon with Doll. Now you might have thought she would be seducing him for his money but in fact she is playing out the part allotted her of intelligent, educated woman who has been driven mad by learning and Face enters the room (having quickly changed his disguise to ‘Lungs’) to find Doll obsessively monologuing about Egyptian history and the fifth monarchy while Mammon is at his wits end to get her to stop. Face and he talk at the same time as Doll’s monologue and then they hear Subtle coming and all flee.

All except Mammon who Subtle discovers, trying to hide from him. Subtle immediately plays the role of the chaste and spiritual alchemist who is disappointed to find his favourite son engaged in some hole-in-a-corner bawdry. No wonder, Subtle grandly proclaims, the alchemy in the laboratory is going badly, if Mammon has brought spiritual impurity into the house!

THE GREAT EXPLOSION – A loud crack is heard within, and Face comes running in to say everything has exploded – ‘Retorts, receivers, pelicans, bolt-heads’ – all destroyed as if a bolt has come from heaven! Subtle faints and when he comes round, claims the great destruction was due to Mammon’s infidelity and licentiousness and Mammon believes him!

MAMMON: O, my voluptuous mind! I am justly punish’d.
FACE. And so am I, sir.
MAMMON: Cast from all my hopes—
FACE. Nay, certainties, sir.
MAMMON: By mine own base affections.

Face tells him the distressed noblewoman (i.e. Doll)’s brother is arriving, he will be angry if he discovers Mammon is wooing his sister, he’d better leave in a hurry. Is there no recompense Mammon can make? Well, says Face boldly, give a hundred pounds to the charity box at Bedlam Hospital for the insane – Mammon agrees – Face says he’ll send someone round to collect it later that day. Exit Mammon.

Our crooked pair congratulate themselves on having got one problem out of the way. Now to the Spanish Don and his wooing of the widow Pliant.

Scene 6 Surly is with Dame Pliant. He has thrown off his Spanish disguise and is explaining to her what a pack of crooks Subtle and Face are. Subtle comes in, is complacently rude to the Don (thinking he understands no English) and begins to pick his pockets when Surly throws him to the floor and berates him in English. ‘Help! Murder!’ cries a horrified Subtle. Face enters and is horrified to discover the Spanish Don is in fact Surly, who now gives a long list of the ways Face scams his victims in pubs. Face slips out again but when Subtle tries to, Surly grabs him.

Scene 7 Then Face r-enters accompanied by Kastril, and tells him that Surly is an imposter, come here on false pretences to seduce his sister. Face tells Kastril to practice his new-found quarrelling skills on him. Now Surly finds himself facing a united front of Face, Subtle and Kastril, who all start shouting at him.

With perfect comic timing, this is when the Puritan Ananias enters proclaiming the standard Puritan greeting: ‘Peace to the household!’ Ananias instantly tells from Surley’s preposterous Spanish ruffs and sill hat (!) that he is a Catholic and therefore of the Anti-Christ. Confronted by this wall of opposition, Surly has to retreat and exits. Comically, Kastril asks Face and Subtle if he quarrelled and argued like a professional. They praise him while, in fact, all he did was throw abuse.

Anyway, Kastril exits and now Face turns to sort out Drugger. He tells Drugger that they had intended him to play the part of a Spanish nobleman in order to win Dame Pliant’s heart. Has he a Spanish outfit? They dispatch him to go and find one.

That leaves the crooked duo with Ananias. The joke here is that Ananias reports that the Elders and the Brethren of the Separation (i.e. their congregation) have determined that coining money is not unlawful (to them; it is, of course, illegal according to the laws of the land). In other words, that they have piously and hypocritically decided it is alright to break the law. Subtle is pleased to act for them, but says it can’t be at this house, the Brethren must suggest another location – and so Ananias exists and Face and Subtle are finally alone, well, except for the widow, Dame Pliant, who is inside somewhere being hosted by Doll in the guise of noblewoman.

But at that moment Doll enters to tell them… the master of the house is back! He is outside, surrounded by forty neighbours! Face as usual, is the man with a plan. Subtle shall shave him to restore him to (we now discover) the character of smooth-faced Jeremy, the house servant. Face/Jeremy will put the master off for as long as he can, while Subtle and Doll pack up all their goods into a couple of trunks which they’ll have taken to the river and conveyed downstream to Ratcliffe, where they can all rendezvous in a day or two.

Act 5

Scene 1 A crowd of neighbours buzz round the master of the house, Lovewit, telling him about all the strange comings and goings and how none of them have seen Jeremy the butler for a month or more. Lovewit knocks on his own front door.

Scene 2 To his surprise, Jeremy (Face) opens it and proceeds, straight-faced, to tell his master he has been absent from the house for a month or more, and acts astonished when the neighbours insist they’ve seen so many strange comings and goings. Jeremy/Face pretends to be astonished when Lovewit retails the neighbours’ stories of endless comings and goings, saying it is all news to him. And indeed, in a nice touch of satire, the neighbours themselves begin to doubt their own testimonies and to downplay them, and Lovewit impatiently calls them changelings who are so unreliable.

Scene 3 So things were looking up when suddenly Mammon and Surly appear. Face pushes Lovewit inside just as Mammon and Surly arrive at the front door. Surly has fully explained to Mammon the scale of the imposture played on him and Mammon is furious. They knock at the door and Face/Jeremy opens it bold as brass, claims to know nothing of any Captain or alchemist, suggests they have the wrong house and, as they become angry, produces Lovewit as the true master of the house who, of course, knows nothing about them.

Hardly have they been put off than arrives Kastril, the angry boy, who bangs loudly on the door and insists on seeing his sister. And then Ananias and Tribulation, the Anabaptists, who also knock angrily on the door. When Lovewit appears at the door to appease them, they decide to fetch the officers and exit.

Face is still trying to persuade Lovewit that these visitors must be mad, when they both hear the voice of Dapper crying out from inside the house. Oops, everyone had forgotten him. Remember how they’d promised him he would meet the Fairy Queen and Face and Subtle had blindfolded him and gagged him with gingerbread, while they sorted out all their other visitors. Well, clearly the gingerbread has melted/been eaten and now he’s shouting.

When Subtle starts shouting at Dapper to shut up, Face can’t help hissing at both of them to be quiet and Truewit finally realises something is really up, and demands Face tell him the truth. He emphasises that he is a tolerant and forgiving master, just tell. So Face admits that he has been entertaining guests, but focuses on the fact that there is a widow currently within the house (Dame Pliant), a rich widow, who Lovewit can woo and win if he dresses up as a Spaniard.

Scene 4 Surprisingly, the scene cuts to the room where Dapper is, where Subtle enters and asks what happened to his gag, and where Face joins them. They both promise Dapper he will see the Fairy Queen and lo and behold, enter Doll dressed as the Queen. Subtle bids Dapper kneel and abase himself and kiss her skirts.

Doll performs impressively as the Queen, blessing Dapper and giving him a fly-familiar (?) to wear around his neck. Subtle tells him to prick his wrist to draw blood to feed the fly, once a week, and the magic fly will make him win every game of chance he plays. Subtle suggests that in a week’s time he brings them the first thousand pounds of his winnings, as fee. In fact, why doesn’t he give away his wretched inheritance of forty marks a year? To him, Subtle? ‘I will, I will’ says Dapper, kisses the Queen’s hem as she departs, then himself runs off to get the legal documents to sign over his inheritance.

He has barely left before Drugger is at the door with the Spanish suit they asked him for earlier. Subtle gives it to Face who runs off (I think) to give it to Truewit to woo Dame Pliant in. With Face out the way, Subtle tells Doll of his plan. Once they have packed up all their treasures and shipped by boat, instead of going to Ratcliffe, they’ll head west to Brentford, and escape Face, who they are both sick of. Doll agrees. She’ll go now and tell Dame Pliant to hand over rings and treasures to please the Doctor (i.e. Subtle) then they’ll abandon her and quit the house. They seal the deal with a kiss.

Face enters at precisely that point, spots them kissing, tells them Drugger is back with the parson they told him to get, runs off to sort it out – Doll and Subtle think he (Face) is planning to marry Dame Pliant in haste, but moments later he is back. The trunks are packed and all three go through the inventory of all the treasure they have extracted from all the victims they have conned, Face locks them up and then – there is A BIG REVEAL:

Face reveals that he invited his master to return, that he has told his master everything, and his master has forgiven him in exchange for possession of the treasure i.e. all the loot which only a few seconds earlier the other two were gleefully counting. All Face can offer them is a hand over the wall as they’ll have to flee the officers of the law who have been summoned.

At which exact point there is a loud knocking on the door from the officers. With mock solicitude, Face offers Doll a reference if she needs a job in a brothel – she tells him to go hang himself – and tells Subtle to set up as a conman in a different setting, and he’ll send him a customer or two for old times sake – to which Subtle replies he will hang himself solely so he can haunt Face for the rest of his life. All three exit.

Scene 5 Leaving the stage to Truewit, master of the house who enters dressed as a Spaniard and the parson, followed by Face who asks him if he’s got married to Pliant? Yes, is the quick answer. At which point the knocking gets louder, as no less a crowd than the police officers, Mammon, Surly, Kastril, Ananias and Tribulation are all banging on the door. Truewit lets them in.

They all clamour to see Face and Subtle, Truewit eventually calms them and explains – his servant here, Jeremy, has told him he let out the house this past month or more to a Doctor and a Captain, who have now quit it and where they have gone, he has no idea! He admits them all and tells them to search the premises which he himself has found the worse for candlesoot and burns, but nothing else.

All except for the widow who, he now declares, was waiting for a Spanish don to return but in whose absence, he has now married. Surly exclaims his disappointment and Truewit is comically surprised that he should have waited and delayed and so lost his bird.

Mammon has been searching the house and now returns to say it’s true, it’s empty, all except for his metal goods which the crooks have stashed in the basement and he’ll have back. ‘Will he, though?’ asks Truewit. Is Mammon prepared to go to court and broadcast to all and sundry how he was richly cozened out of his goods. ‘Oh, in that case you can keep them’, says Mammon.

Bitterly disappointed, Mammon says he will hire a farmer’s turnip cart and go preach the end of the world. Surly says he’ll join him, but if he ever finds that Captain Face… And Face – obviously transformed by having a shave and different clothes – says he will gladly tip him off if ever he sees him.

Ananias and Tribulation step forward and say they will reclaim their goods, but Truewit says no. When they launch into their biblical cant, Truewit says he will refute them with a cudgel and they flee. Drugger enters very briefly and doesn’t even have time to make a claim before Truewit scares him off.

It is clear that Truewit is, in his own gentrified way, just as much of a crook as his man, Jeremy. Editor of the New Mermaid edition, Elizabeth Cook, describes him as ‘amorally magnanimous’.

A vibe which comes over even more in the last moments of the play when Kastril enters, pushing his sister boorishly in front of him. He insults and vilifies her for marrying a poor man and not a knight as he’d planned, but Truewit interjects, says he is a true knight and when Kastril starts to practice his insulting, Truewit easily outdoes him and, in fact, talks him round to being quite friendly. Indeed the pair agree to take a pipe of tobacco together, and Kastril takes Dame Pliant inside (how many words does she get to speak in the entire play? she is just a kind of package passed from hand to hand).

It is The End. Truewit steps forward and addresses the audience, saying what master would not be delighted in a servant who procured him a rich widow as wife and trunks full of treasure, even if it is a little beyond the bounds of decorum. And the last word goes to Face who directly addresses the audience and asks their indulgence.

Thoughts

This is a brilliant play from the very start, driven by Jonson’s phenomenally energetic language, by the extraordinary range and breadth of his vocabulary – especially the specialised jargon of alchemy – and the sheer energy with which the three crooks carry out their scams.

It starts off at a gallop, throwing us into the middle of a violent argument between the crooks, and from that point the pace never lets up, with an endless stream of new victims arriving then returning in an ever-increasing frenzy of comic delusions, scheming and pomposity.

This latter quality is the speciality of the wonderful Sir Epicure Mammon – ‘I will be puissant and mighty in my talk’ – whose speeches are almost worth memorising for their elaborate and eloquent decadence.

More even than Volpone this play makes you realise Jonson was in love with the very crimes he purports to satirise and castigate.

Social history

One of the pleasures of reading older works of literature is the feast of social history they contain. The Alchemist makes reference to the following notable contemporary events:

  • Queen Elizabeth I imprisoned Alexander de Lannoy when he failed to produce the philosopher’s stone for her
  • quintessence simply means ‘fifth’ essence, superior to the four earthly elements, thought to be what heavenly bodies were made of
  • colliers were associated with hell and the devil (because of coal and its fires)
  • the act 33 Henry VIII c.8 forbade the use if magic invocations to find gold or silver
  • ‘laundering’ meant putting coins in acid to dissolve off some of the gold or silver surface; ‘barbing’ meant snipping slips off the edge of coins – both were illegal
  • the Elizabethan magician John Dee’s assistant, Edward Kelley, had both ears cut off as punishment for coining
  • Southwark doctor Simon Read was pardoned, in 1607, for invoking three spirits to discover a thief
  • Chaush – in 1607 a Turk named Mustafa arrived in England declaring himself an ambassador from the Sultan using the title ‘Chiaush’ and was grandly entertained until the fraud was discovered
  • Lambeth was ‘noted for prostitutes and thieves’, which amuses me as I live in Lambeth
  • Peru – synonymous with great wealth because of the Spanish silver mines there
  • The Hampton Court Conference of 1604 banned numerous non-conformist ministers from preaching
  • In the winter of 1607 to 16088 the Thames froze over
  • Lions were kept in the Tower of London as tourist attractions
  • It was a common punishment for prostitutes to be attached by rope to the back of a cart which was slowly pulled through the streets of London while the prostitute was whipped
  • Barbers used stale urine as a ‘lye’ to loosen their customers’ hair
  • One of the talks of the town was the little boy of six with a large penis (mentioned act 5 scene i and in Act 3 of The Knight of the Burning Pestle)
  • In 1609 the case came to court of Thomas Rogers, a Dorset man, who was robbed of £6 by two brothers who promised they would introduce him to the Fairy Queen who would be his bride

Related links

Jacobean comedies

Cavalier poetry

17th century history

Restoration comedies

The Knight of the Burning Pestle by Francis Beaumont (1607)

It is the spring of 1607 and a play is just about to start in the Blackfriars theatre. Unlike Shakespeare’s Globe theatre across the river, the Blackfriars is not open to the elements but roofed, and it is also small, meaning tickets are more expensive (sixpence compared to a penny admission at the Globe). Not surprisingly, it caters to a more upmarket audience, including courtiers and men-about-town who like to think themselves a cut above the middle-class merchants and artisans of ever-expanding London. The Blackfriars was a venue for ‘coterie drama’ for gentleman ‘wits’, in contrast to the more popular drama of writers like Shakespeare and Thomas Heywood across the water in Southwark.

One last point. The Blackfriars theatre was associated with the fashion for boy actors who grew increasingly popular from the turn of the century, specifically the members of the troupe called The Children of the Queen’s Revels. These boy actors were generally between the ages of 8 and 12! Yes, boys originally played all the roles in this play and many like them. Girls, women, heroines, matrons and old ladies, dashing heroes and crotchety old men – all played by boys.

The prologue

Anyway, a new play is about to begin and the actor playing the Prologue steps forward dressed in a long, black velvet cloak and a garland of bays to address the audience, setting the scene for the troupe’s new play which is entitled The London Merchant. But he hasn’t even completed three lines of the prologue before he is rudely interrupted by a member of the audience, who climbs up onstage to talk to him.

It quickly becomes clear that this man is George, a London grocer, and he starts decrying the new play before it’s even begun, moaning that it’s another one of those satires which mock honest merchants like himself.

Taken aback, the Prologue asks what he’d like instead. The merchant replies he wants to see something which stars a merchant like himself, and tales of romance and adventure. At which point his wife, Nell, starts yelling from down in the audience that she wants to see a play about a grocer who is a knightly hero and kills a lion with a pestle! – a random, off-the-wall suggestion which the loudmouth grocer promptly takes up.

The Prologue complains that they should have told him this request month ago, it’s too late now, they’ve rehearsed the new play and have no boys free to play a merchant. ‘I’ve got the solution’, says the merchant, ‘let my boy Rafe play him, his acting and impersonations are the highlight of every party’. And he promptly gets Rafe to prove it by hauling him onstage and getting him to declaim part of Hotspur’s speech from Henry IV part 1, loudly and confidently.

The Prologue reluctantly agrees that Rafe is pretty good, and tasks one of the assistants to take him backstage to be rigged up in acting apparel, then the Prologue asks for the merchant and his wife to be seated. Comically, they hustle and bustle themselves among the stools on the stage. (This was another feature of the Blackfriars theatre – that supposed wits and gallants paid extra to sit onstage throughout the play, making comments on it or chatting among themselves or grandstanding to the audience.)

By sitting on the stage you have a signd patent to engrosse the whole commodity of Censure; may lawfully presume to be a Girder; and stand at the helme to steere the passage of scaenes; yet no man shall once offer to hinder you from obtaining the title of an insolent over-weening Coxcombe…. If you know not ye author, you may raile against him, and peradventure so behave your selfe, that you may enforce the author to know you.
(The Gull’s Horn-Book by Thomas Dekker, 1609)

The grocer and his wife now rudely push themselves and their stools in among these posh gentlemen, presumably causing amusement in the wider audience down in auditorium at this breach of decorum.

Now the Prologue recommences his speech and out of this initial confusion it emerges that the play is going to have three distinct strands:

  1. The original plot of The London Merchant in which two young men – gentle but stupid Humphrey and charismatic but unpredictable Jasper Merrythought – vie for the hand of the merchant Venturewell’s daughter, Luce, with the usual round of complications.
  2. Rafe’s narrative – The Knight of the Burning Pestle – in which he dresses as a traditional knight errant of romance, is assisted by his squire and page (a fellow apprentice named Tim and a dwarf named George), declaims high heroic poetry and has a series of mock heroic adventures, some of which are based on Cervantes’ recent novel Don Quixote, but many of which stem from the same Iberian romances and mock heroic romances.
  3. Finally, the continual interruptions and commentary from George and his wife, specially whenever Rafe enters – applauding his every move when he’s onstage, and barracking the other actors and demanding his return whenever he’s absent, plus their running commentary on almost everything else, including the reactions of the audience and the gentlemen on stools.

It’s funny but it’s a real ragbag. Jasper, the rascally apprentice, is fired by merchant Venturewell, but manages to ravish young Luce off to the romantic venue of Waltham Forest. There’s an episode where the couple lie down to sleep, and Luce indeed falls asleep, at which point Jasper undergoes a curious transformation and decides he will wake her, threaten her with his sword, declaring he must have her blood to avenge her father’s wrongs (in booting Jasper out of his apprenticeship). This is ludicrous to begin with but is made doubly so by the immediate intervention of Nell the grocer’s wife, who’s never liked him and now starts damning his behaviour.

Later the pallid, useless apprentice Humphrey enters and confronts Jasper, who promptly beats him black and blue, leading Nell the grocer’s wife to not only berate him again, but cross over to poor HUmphrey and offer him several herbal remedies for his poor bruises.

Meanwhile we learn that Jasper’s parents are Old Merrythought and Mistress Merrythought, and their younger son, Michael, still lives with them. Old Merrythought is a strange ‘comic’ creation, he speaks almost entirely in songs, unstoppably answering every question and accusation and request by singing an excerpt from one of the many popular songs of the time.

OLD MERRYTHOUGHT: I would not be a serving-man
To carry the cloak-bag still,
Nor would I be a falconer
The greedy hawks to fill;
But I would be in a good house,
And have a good master too;
But I would eat and drink of the best,
And no work would I do.

He is utterly spendthrift, gay and merry, giving absolutely no thought for the morrow, and so drives his wife mad with his careless insouciance. In fact his wife has determined to leave him because he has spent all their money on drinking and partying.

OLD MERRYTHOUGHT: This it is that keeps life and soul together, mirth; this is the philosopher’s stone that they write so much on, that keeps a man ever young.

Nell, the grocer’s wife, once again is fiercely critical of Old M, not least in the scenes where he shows his complete indifference to his wife, for being ‘an ingrant old man to use his bed-fellow so scurvily’.

The London Merchant moves towards a big scene in the final act, where Venturewell has recaptured his daughter Luce, from Jasper, and locked her in his house, preparatory to her marrying the good apprentice, Humphrey. Jasper concocts a Cunning Plan, which is to pay a boy and some carriers to convey a letter to Venturewell saying that he, Jasper, has died and he has one dying request, can his corpse be conveyed into Venturewell’s house so that Luce can pay her last respects, say goodbye, and be ready to marry Humphrey.

As you might expect, this is a scam, the coffin arrives and Jasper is in it alright, lying still under a black velvet cloth. Venturewell allows it into the living room and leaves Luce to weep and mourn and declaim a page of sad verse over the body of her beloved, before Jasper suddenly leaps up out of the coffin and nearly scares her to death. He quickly gets her to swap places, covers her with the velvet cloth and gets the boy and carrier to convey her out, as if carrying Jasper to a cemetery.

Meanwhile, Jasper hides and covers his face in white flour so that, when Venturewell comes back on stage, Jasper suddenly appears like a ghost, terrifying Venturewell and threatening to haunt him for the rest of his life until he makes things right, beats and punishes Humphrey. Poor Humphrey enters at this stage and is promptly beaten for the second time in the play.

This is more or less the climax of the main play as Venturewell promises to do absolutely anything to make things right with the ghost and avoid being haunted – at which point Jasper reveals that he is not in fact dead, invites Luce back onstage, and gets the relieved Venturewell to agree to their being married. Finally.

Meanwhile, this narrative has been interwoven with a series of comic mock-heroic escapades featuring Rafe.

RAFE: My name is Rafe; I am an Englishman,
(As true as steel, a hearty Englishman,)
And prentice to a grocer in the Strand

It is clear from the moment he comes back onstage, hurriedly dressed up in the best knightly costume that the boy players can be spared, and sets about telling his squire (Tim the apprentice) and George the dwarf that they must no longer call him Rafe but address him as ‘the Knight of the Burning Pestle’ and so on, that his segments are going to be the most amusing.

RAFE: I charge you that from henceforth you never call me by any other name but “the right courteous and valiant Knight of the Burning Pestle;” and that you never call any female by the name of a woman or wench, but “fair lady,” if she have her desires, if not, “distressed damsel”; that you call all forests and heaths “deserts,” and all horses “palfreys.”

Three of his adventures stick out. He and his liegemen travel out to Waltham Forest (where their tracks cross, at various points, Jasper and Luce, and Mistress Merrythought and her son, Michael) and put up at the Bell Inn which is transformed, in his imagination, into a castle.

The host of the Bell twigs to the joke and then Rafe to visit the cave of the monster Barbaroso who is, in fact, the village surgeon-barber, and where they find three ‘victims’ languishing in his ‘dungeons’, who are in fact a customer having his hair cut and two others undergoing the totally quackish treatment Elizabethan surgeon-barbers were famous for. (The red and white swirly pole outside barbershops to this day recalls the times when surgeon-barbers let blood as well as shaving and trimming their customers.)

And lastly Rafe leads a number of his fellow prentices out to Moorfields in what, onstage, amounts to half a dozen small boys drilling with toy weapons, but in Rafe and the grocer’s imagination, becomes an army training before setting off to the wars in France.

But, Nell, I will
have Ralph do a very notable matter now, to
the eternal honour and glory of all grocers.

All the way through Rafe’s high-blown heroic poetry and noble sentiments, especially when he meets a damsel in distress (for example Mistress Merrythought when she gets lost in Waltham Forest), are undercut by the fact that he occasionally lets slip that he is in fact a grocer’s apprentice whose girlfriend is Susan, a cobbler’s daughter from Milk Street.

What’s odd because it’s inconsistent about these scenes is that we all understand they have been extemporised i.e. they’re not part of the rehearsed play being performed for us – and yet Rafe and the other characters in his ‘romance’ parts of the plot – the innkeeper and his daughter, the barber Barbaroso and his victims – all play along with the gag. This doesn’t really make sense – how could all these people be prepared, dressed and rehearsed with no time?

And it’s even weirder, because they are not only – on the face of it – extemporising with impressive speed, they are extemporising a play within a play within a play: because not only is Rafe 1. performing a play whose scenes 2. have been inserted into The London Merchant, but 3. he is shown explaining to the actors playing an innkeeper or a barber, that they in fact need to 3. speak and act on another level, as heroic characters from romance.

Some of Rafe’s scenes closely echo scenes in Cervantes’ long fiction Don Quixote, the first part of which had been published only a few years earlier, in 1605, although there is scholarly argument about whether Beaumont took the scenes from Cervantes or from earlier mock heroic comedies which are common sources for both.

The Rafe plot concludes after the grocer and his wife loudly demand a heroic ending for their Rafe and so, once the Jasper-Luce-Venturewell happy ending is tied up and they’ve exited the stage, Rafe staggers onstage with a fake arrow through his neck, as if mortally and heroically wounded in the wars, before delivering a long and ‘moving’ death speech and expiring to the floor – despite the disapproval of one of the main players:

WIFE: Now, good husband, let him come out and die.
CITIZEN: He shall, Nell.—Ralph, come away quickly, and die, boy!
BOY: ‘Twill be very unfit he should die, sir, upon no occasion — and in a comedy too.

Nell the grocer’s wife is beside herself with emotion, and immediately makes Rafe get to his feet and take a bow and introduces him to the fine gentlemen sitting on their stools and commends him to the audience. Everything has a happy ending and the audience go away happy.

The title

The title has about three sources and/or meanings. The pestle was one of the many signs hanging outside the shops of tradesmen in London, the pestle from a mortar and pestle used to grind up the spices sold at a grocer’s shop.

The pestle can also be thought of as a kind of weapon, along the lines of a club, and appears as such on the heraldic shield which the players quickly knock up for Rafe. And on the level of sexual innuendo which absolutely drenched Elizabethan and Jacobean theatre, it symbolises a penis, and the burning sensation can be attributed to the very common sexually transmitted diseases of the period, syphilis and gonorrhea.


Related links

There is no author’s name on any of the early printed editions of the play and the tradition grew up that it was one of the many collaborations between Beaumont and John Fletcher. Thus the 1913 edition of the play which Project Gutenberg has transferred online indicates that the play was written by both authors. But according to the editor of the 1986 New Mermaid edition, Michael Hattaway, recent, detailed studies of the play’s language have conclusively proved it was by Beaumont alone.

Jacobean comedies

Elizabethan art

17th century history

Restoration comedies

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