Heroides by Ovid translated by Harold Isbell (1990)

Like devout incense thrown on smoking altars
like waxed torches tipped with sulphur, I
am burning with love…
(Dido to Aeneas, Letter 7)

This turns out to be an excellent and compelling translation of Ovid’s brilliantly original poems, despite the rather poor quality of some of the introductory matter.

Harold Isbell

In 1990 Penguin published this translation of Ovid’s Heroides by Harold Isbell. Isbell was a) American b) Associate Professor at Notra Dame University and c) from 1972 to 1983 director of the Continental Bank and Trust Company in Salt Lake City. His little biography proudly tells us that he also sat on the board of directors of a school, two ballet companies, and a publishing house. What’s he doing translating Ovid, then?

Doubts about his qualifications are quickly confirmed by Isbell’s introduction, 13 pages long and often very weak. The reader is continually pulled up short by his trite and banal observations:

The experience of love is a very complex emotional phenomenon. Love exists in many forms and it can be both rational and irrational.

I would suggest that it is a personality which exhibits both good and evil that is most interesting for an audience and most typical of the people with whom we, the readers, live and work.

Isbell’s often orotund prose style sounds like a banker pleased with his own importance:

It seems, however, that a critical comment more germane to the fact at hand…

Or a senior barrister’s preening presentation to a high court, rather than scholarly description and analysis. Most of his introduction is like this and very disappointing. Compared to the brisk, factual and immensely insightful introduction to Tibullus by A.M. Juster, this is very poor stuff.

Key facts

Nonetheless, a handful of hard facts emerge:

  • the Heroides are an early work by Ovid
  • they consist of 21 verse letters written by figures from ancient Greek legend
  • all the poems are about 5 or 6 Penguin pages long i.e. not brief lyrics (not like Propertius’s elegies which are mostly just a page long) but not very long either
  • the first 15 are all written by wives or female beloveds, generally in a tone of grievance at having been abandoned by the addressees of the letters, absent men whose side of the story we never hear
  • the last 6 letters – the so-called ‘double letters’ – consist of 3 sets of letters, the first in each set written by the male figure to his beloved, the second being a reply by the beloved woman to the man’s letter; they are generally agreed to be in a significantly different style from the first 15 poems and some scholars think they aren’t by Ovid at all
  • were the second set of 6 written as part of a second work, or a second book, then tacked onto the original 15? were they written by a different author and tacked on to Ovid’s 15, either explicitly or by subterfuge? nobody knows

In his later writings Ovid is very proud of having created an entirely new genre: the verse love letter.

Dramatic irony

Isbell points out that the pervasive mood of the Heroides is irony because the women (mostly) are writing to their distant menfolk a) wondering where they are and b) hoping they will return and so provide a happy ending for the letter writer. But the letter’s audience –Ovid’s contemporary readers and educated readers ever since – unlike its writer, know just what is delaying the man’s return (which is generally his infidelity or that he’s just gone off and abandoned her for good) and so, contrary to the hopes of the letter writer, knows the loved man will never return.

An aspect of this is that the letters are written at a particular moment in a narrative which contemporaries and educated audiences since know all about. The letter writer is trapped in that moment like a fly in amber: Laodamia begs Protesilaus to be careful but we know he won’t and he will die because of it; Ariadne pleads for Theseus to return to her but we know he won’t, ditto Dido to Aeneas; furiously angry Medea makes wild threats that the reader knows will eventually lead to her murdering her own children by the feckless Jason. The letters are dramatic in the sense that the reader supplies the rest of the drama.

Elegiac metre

Isbell briefly tells us he has decided to translate all the poems into the same strict metre. Ovid wrote his poems in couplets so Isbell does the same, translating all the letters into couplets which do not rhyme but in which the first line has 11 syllables and the second 9. But, weirdly, he nowhere explains why he’s chosen this form. It was only from reading the Wikipedia article about the Heroides that I learned that Isbell is copying, with his metre, the ‘elegiac metre’ used by Ovid, a metre of couplets, the first a hexameter (six ‘feet’) the second a pentameter (five ‘feet’).

Isbell doesn’t explain this basic fact or give the history of the elegiac metre, unlike the excellent introductions of A.M. Juster and Ronald Musker to their editions of Tibullus and Propertius, respectively. Those are model introductions; this one very much is not.

Mythological references

Isbell’s edition prefaces each of the letters with a 2 or 3 page introduction and follows it with 2 or 3 pages of notes. Thus the first letter, from Penelope to her husband Ulysses, is 4 pages long (there is no line numbering; why not?), is preceded by 2 pages of introduction and followed by two and a half pages of notes. So each poem is accompanied by as much or more editorial matter.

You quickly realise Isbell’s introductions to each of the letters is as weak as his general introduction. What the reader obviously needs is an explanation of the setup to each poem – who the character writing it is, who they’re writing it to, a summary of their relationship or the story up to that point i.e. the writer’s motivation for writing it – and then what happened after the moment of writing.

Having established the basic facts, then maybe the ideal editor would add a page or so considering how the poet treats their character and story, its leading themes, anything noteworthy about it.

Instead Isbell’s mini introductions go straight into the second part, not explaining the story behind the letter at all, instead going straight into commenting on the treatment and themes, all sprinkled with the kind of fatuous comments we met in the general introduction.

For example, after giving a sketchy introduction to the story of Phyllis to Demophoon, he concludes:

Yet as Phyllis here presents herself as a simple woman swept off her feet by an experienced man of the world, the reader cannot help remembering that love is blind. (p.11)

‘The reader cannot help remembering that love is blind.’ Good grief! I found this kind of trite editorialising very frustrating. All I wanted was a clear explanation of the basic facts behind each letter.

The notes following each poem are a lot better than the introductions; they do stick to the facts and explain who the umpteen different mythological and legendary figures referred to in each poem are – and there are a lot of them. To say the poems are full of myth and legend references is an understatement: it’s what the poems are made of. You have to really know the stories, in great detail, to appreciate the depth with which Ovid has dramatised them and the nuances included in almost every line.

You have to know not only who the letter writer is and the addressee is, but who their mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers are because a) they are often referred to in the poem b) they often play a key role in the events being described.

A particularly complicated example is poem 8. The letter writer, Hermione, was betrothed as a child to her cousin, Orestes, and grew to love him but now, a decade later, her father, Menelaus, off at the Trojan War, has abruptly decided she’s to be married off to the son of Achilles, Pyrrhus, in order to keep him motivated fighting in the Trojan War.

So Hermione’s grievance isn’t simply with one man, as in most of the other poems, but with her own mother and father and her uncle and aunt. To understand her feelings towards all these people you first have to get a good grasp on the family relationships and how they’ve all behaved towards her.

In this respect I should point out that the Penguin volume does have another layer of help, for at the back is a glossary of Principal Characters devoted to the really central figures in the poems, giving a page each on Achilles, Hercules, Helen, two pages on Jason and Medea, and so on.

Thus you come to realise, as you work your way through the book, that for each new letter you need to a) go to this glossary and see if the letter writer (or addressee) features in it b) read their entry c) identify the part of their biography which relates to the particular moment in their lives dramatised by the letter, d) really grasp what has happened to them up to this point and what their current feelings must be, before e) going back to the short introduction which prefaces each poem and reading that to see how the letter treats their situation (ignoring Isbell’s fatuous comments) – all this before f) you finally start reading the actual poem. Quite a lot of work.

As usual with Greek mythology, the stories have an appeal of their own and its quite easy to get lost in the notes and glossary, with their repetitions of key elements of each legend and their beguiling interconnections, so lost you almost forget about the poems. In this respect it feels like you’re not just reading a collection of poems but entering an entire world, the world of Greek mythology.

Isbell’s translations

Putting criticism of Isbell’s feeble comments to one side – his actual translations are very enjoyable. They’re good. I think it’s for a combination of two reasons:

  1. Ovid’s letters are themselves brilliant – deeply imagined, dramatic in construction, and often very moving. In effect, they’re like extended soliloquies by wounded and hurt lovers pouring their hearts out. They’re reminiscent of the soliloquies of Shakespeare characters, taking right into the hearts and souls of these poor, wronged women. Maybe a better comparison would be with the brilliantly imagined poems about characters from history by the Victorian poet, Robert Browning.
  2. The metre Isbell has chosen – a line of 11 syllables followed by one of 9 – is very precise and tight and this forces him to cut his use of language right back: the flabby platitudes of his introductions are just not present; instead we have very concentrated essence of Ovid.

Also, the result of Isbell’s choice of syllables to measure his lines by, is that the number of beats in the lines – which is what English readers tend to notice ore than syllable count – varies quite a bit: although a line can have exactly 11 syllables it might have 5, sometimes 4, sometimes 3 beats. This has the result of keeping the rhythm of the poems unpredictable, varied and fresh.

I’ll give excerpts from each of the poems to demonstrate how effective this approach is. Isbell’s poems are very good; his introductions are poor. Maybe Penguin should have adopted the same strategy they’ve done with some other classical translations I’ve read, namely have got the translator to do the translations and gotten a scholar to write a separate introduction.

The 15 single letters

1. Penelope to Odysseus

Penelope writes asking why, now the Trojan War has ended and so many other heroes have returned to their homelands, her husband Odysseus still hasn’t come home to her? Has he been waylaid by some foreign lover?

In this excerpt anyone can see that the syllable count is fixed and regular (11 syllables then 9), but I’m not at all sure that I’ve put the stresses in the right place; someone else might easily read the lines in a different way. And that’s the point. Using syllabic count gives the verse regularity of length but allows considerable freedom of emphasis.

Fields of grain grow on the site of Troy, the soil (11 syllables, 5 beats?)
has been sweetened by Phrygian blood (9 syllables, 3 beats?)
while ploughs drawn peacefully by captive oxen (11 syllables, 4 beats?)
turn up the bones of buried heroes (9 syllables, 4 beats?)
and ruined palaces are covered by vines. (11 syllables, 4 beats?)
You are a victor but I am here (9 syllables, 4 beats?)
alone while you loiter in some foreign place. (11 syllables, 4 beats?)

2. Phyllis to Demophoon

Phyllis is a princess of Thrace. After she found Demophoon (son of Theseus, king of Athens) shipwrecked on her shores on the way back from the Trojan War, she gave him everything, had her men rebuild his ships, believed his wooing and went to bed with him and gave him her virginity. He eventually said he had to sail home to tell his parents he was still living and he sailed off promising to return within a month and then…nothing…and slowly she realises she has been duped.

You swore by the gods to come back to me
but even they have not brought you back.
it is quite clear to me now, not even love
will move your ship, you delay too long.
When you left this port you unfurled your white sails
and the wind blew your promise away.

Isn’t that a beautiful image? ‘The wind blew your promise away.’ Isbell’s phrasing in his translations is confident and smooth.

3. Briseis to Achilles

Early in the Trojan War the Greeks sacked all the small cities in the neighbourhood of Troy. Achilles led an attack on the city of Lyrnessus where the Greeks killed the king, all his sons, his one daughter, along with Briseis’s husband, leaving her orphaned and widowed. Achilles then took Briseis as his concubine.

Some time later, Agamemnon, being deprived of one of his own concubines, seized Briseis from Achilles. Book 1 of the Iliad describes the furious argument which ensued and ended with Achilles stomping off to his tent and refusing to come out and fight. After the Greeks are badly defeated in a series of battles, the other Greek leaders force Agamemnon to change his tune, to offer Achilles not only Briseis but a bevy of other captured women, plus various treasures to make up for the initial offence, but Achilles is obstinate, refuses to return to the fight, and even lets it be known he plans to sail home to Greece, find a well-born princess and settle down.

It’s at this point that Briseis writes her letter to Achilles, referring at various points to all these events and begging him to accept Agamemnon’s offer and take her back. Having seen her father and brothers murdered and her home destroyed, what motivates Briseis is less love than a longing for security and safety. She knows Achilles will marry a high-born princess and she, Briseis, will just be a slave, but still she wants him to take her.

Your brave men levelled the walls of Lyrnessus.
I who was part of my father’s land
have seen my dearest relatives lying dead:
the sons of my mother, three brothers,
comrades in life, are today comrades in death;
my husband writhed in the bloody dirt…

I fear nothing so much as the fear
that I will be left here behind when you sail.

Rather than be deserted again, she prefers to die:

Why should I wait for you to tell me to die?
Draw your sword, plunge it into my flesh…

Briseis’s grief and loneliness and fear are viscerally conveyed.

4. Phaedra to Hippolytus

Phaedra is the middle-aged wife of Theseus. She was daughter of King Minos of Crete (and so sister of Ariadne and half-sister of the Minotaur). After Theseus had killed the Minotaur and sailed back to Athens, he took her as wife. Here she slowly tired of Theseus’s love and watched the maturing of Theseus’s son by an earlier wife, Hyppolita. This fine young man, Hippolytus, grows up disgusted by sex, devotes his life to the virgin huntress Diana, and so refuses to take part in ceremonies to Aphrodite. In revenge, Aphrodite casts a spell on Phaedra to make her fall madly in love with Hippolytus who, as we’ve seen, is revolted by love and so spurns her.

It is at the point, high on her bewitched infatuation for her young stepson, that she writes this letter to him, confessing her semi-incestuous and illicit love for him. Ovid persuasively dwells on the way it is not a youthful love but one which has seized a mature heart and is all the deeper for it.

Because it has come late, love has come deeper.
I am on fire with love within me;
My breast is burned by an invisible wound…

When the art is learned in youth, a first
love is simple; but the love that comes after youth
always burns with a harsher passion…

There’s a passage describing how Phaedra admires Hippolytus’s physique and strength, how he reins in his high-spirited horses, the flex of his arm when he hurls a lance or grasps a hunting spear, which really do convey the force of sexual obsession.

5. Oenone to Paris

Paris was one of the many sons of Priam, king of Troy. Before he was born his mother, Hecuba, dreamed she gave birth to a firebrand which set fire to all of Troy. Soothsayers told her this meant the boy would be the ruin of Troy and so she and Priam ordered the baby to be given to a shepherd, Agelaus, to take into the mountains and abandon to his fate. The shepherd did so but when he went back a few days later found the helpless baby being suckled by a bear, which he took to be an omen, so he took the baby in and raised it as his own. Obviously the young prince grew up strong and tall etc and the mountain nymph Oenone fell in love with him, they married according to simple rustic rites and she bore a son, Corythus.

However, Paris went to take part in competitive games at Troy and, being of princely blood, won everything, much to the anger of his brothers, before finally being recognised as the long-abandoned son and taken back into the royal family. At some point (the chronology is vague) Paris had, quite separately, been asked to judge which of the three major goddesses – Juno, Minerva or Venus – was most beautiful and chose Venus because she promised him the love of the most beautiful woman in the world.

So, under her guidance, he built a small fleet and embarked on a tour of friendly Greek states which brought him to Sparta where he met and seduced Helen, wife of King Menelaus, abducted her and brought her back to Troy.

It is at this point that Oenone writes her letter, lamenting that Paris has abandoned her, with much execration of Helen:

You were a nobody when you married me;
I was the daughter of a great stream…
When you were only a poor shepherd you were
content with no one but me, your wife…

Your tears fell when you left, do not deny them.
Victims of grief, we wept together;
your arms held me closer than a clinging vine
holds the elm.

And of Helen:

I tore my clothes away from my breasts
and beat my hands against my flesh; my long nails
tore at my tear-stained cheeks and my cries
filled Ida’s holy land with their sad lament:
I took my grief to the barren rocks.
So may Helen grieve and so may she lament
when she is deserted by her love.
The pain I endure was brought by her and she
should suffer then as I suffer now.

And then criticism of the immense mistake he has made in stealing another man’s wife, and another beautiful metaphor:

Happy Andromache, Hector is faithful.
Why could you not be like your brother?
But you are lighter than dry leaves drifting on
a fitful breeze, you are even less
than the smallest tip of a spear of grain dried
in the insistent warmth of the sun.

6. Hypsipyle to Jason

Hypsipyle was queen of Lemnos, the granddaughter of Dionysus and Ariadne. In an exceptional event, the women of Lemnos killed all the males on the island, though Hypsipyle saved her father Thoas. So she was ruling Lemnos as queen when the Argonauts visited the island. She was wooed by Jason, who stayed on Lemnos for two years and had two sons by him.

However, he told her he had to sail off on his quest for the Golden Fleece and so off he went, promising to return. Now, some time later, she has learned that Jason went on to take up with the witch Medea (‘some barbarian poisoner’, ‘a barbarian slut’) before sailing on to Colchis, winning the golden fleece, and then sailing back to his home city of Iolchus, in Thessaly, with Medea as his partner. This is the moment of maximum bitterness at which the poem is written.

Where is your promised fidelity? Where are
the marriage oath, the torches that might
better be used now to light my funeral pyre?

Her long description of Medea’s witchly practices is wonderful, her contempt for her rival, magnificent.

7. Dido to Aeneas

For the plot, see my review of the Aeneid books 4 to 6. Dido’s letter is written at the dramatic moment when Aeneas has packed his men into their ships but they have not yet actually departed Carthage’s harbour, waiting for a favourable wind.

Dido very shrewdly asks Aeneas why he is pursuing his quest when she offers him everything a prince could want, a devoted queen, a new-built city and a people to rule as his own? When he arrives in Italy he will have to set about doing it all over again. Why?

If all your wishes were granted now,
without any further delay, could you find
a wife who will love you as I have loved you?

Ovid depicts her piteous pleading with moving insight:

By your former kindness to me, by that debt
which I will owe you after marriage,
give me just a little time until the sea
and my love for you have both grown calm.

8. Hermione to Orestes

Hermione is the victim of a double betrothal arranged by the menfolk in her life. Old King Tyndareius had two sons, Agamemnon and Menelaus. Hermione was the daughter of Menelaus, king of Sparta, and his wife, Helen of Troy. Prior to the Trojan War, Hermione had been betrothed by her grandfather, Tyndareus, to her cousin Orestes, son of her uncle, Agamemnon. She was just nine years old when Paris, son of the Trojan King Priam, arrived to abduct her mother, Helen.

During the Trojan war, Menelaus, desperate to curry favour with the greatest Greek fighter, Achilles and – apparently – ignorant of his father, Tyndareus’s plan for the cousins, promised Hermione to Achilles’ son, sometimes named Neoptolemus, in this poem called Pyrrhus.

After the war ended – and Achilles’ death – Menelaus sent Hermione to the city of Phthia (the home of Peleus and Achilles), where Pyrrhus was staying and the two were married. Meanwhile, Orestes has been involved in bloody adventures. His mother, Clytemnestra, had conspired with her lover Aegisthus, to murder his father, Agamemnon on his return from the war. In revenge, Orestes had murdered Aegisthus and his own mother, Clytemnestra, with the result that he is now being pursued by the Furies in punishment for his sacrilege (the sequence of events which is the subject of Aeschylus’s trilogy of plays, the Oresteia).

Hermione writes her letter to Orestes after being married off to Pyrrhus, telling Orestes she still loves him and begging him to save her from marriage to Pyrrhus.

Ovid vividly imagines what Hermione’s life must have been like: at a young age her mother was abducted (by Paris) and soon afterwards her father and all the young men of the city disappeared off to war. Therefore, he nominal engagement to Orestes was the one certain point in her young life and then even that was torn away from her. Hence the excessiveness of her please for him to come and rescue her.

My childhood knew neither father nor mother;
one was away, the other at war.
Oh my mother, you did not hear your daughter’s
childish words, you neither felt her arms
around your neck nor felt her weight on your lap;
when I was married no one prepared the bed.
When I returned I went to meet you –
I tell the truth – but I did not know fyour face.
You were the most beautiful woman
I had ever seen, you had to be Helen,
but you asked which one was your daughter.

I don’t know why, but that passage made me cry.

9. Deianira to Hercules

Deianira was Hercules’s first wife. She has learned that he has begun an affair with Iole, the daughter of Eurytus, king of Oechalia. She writes to upbraid him and ask him back. All educated audiences know that her keenness to have him back leads directly to Hercules’s death. Wikipedia:

Travelling to Tiryns, a centaur, Nessus, offers to help Deianira across a fast-flowing river while Hercules swims it. However, Nessus is true to the archetype of the mischievous centaur and tries to steal Deianira away while Hercules is still in the water. Angry, Hercules shoots him with his arrows dipped in the poisonous blood of the Lernaean Hydra. Thinking of revenge, Nessus gives Deianira his blood-soaked tunic before he dies, telling her it will ‘excite the love of her husband’.

Several years later, rumour tells Deianira that she has a rival for the love of Hercules. Deianira, remembering Nessus’ words, gives Hercules the bloodstained shirt. Lichas, the herald, delivers the shirt to Hercules. However, it is still covered in the Hydra’s blood from Hercules’ arrows, and this poisons him, tearing his skin and exposing his bones. Before he dies, Hercules throws Lichas into the sea, thinking he was the one who poisoned him (according to several versions, Lichas turns to stone, becoming a rock standing in the sea, named for him). Hercules then uproots several trees and builds a funeral pyre on Mount Oeta, which Poeas, father of Philoctetes, lights. As his body burns, only his immortal side is left. Through Zeus’ apotheosis, Hercules rises to Olympus as he dies.

Ovid, with his gift for getting to the heart of a character, imagines that the wife of Hercules would be constantly terrified that his next great challenge, that the next monster he has to fight will be his doom.

I so rarely see my lord that he is more
a guest in our house than my husband;
he is always away, pursuing wild beasts
and horrible monsters. I busy
myself, widowed and chaste, with praying at home,
tortured by my relentless fear that
some vicious foe will bring him down; my mind’s eye
is filled with snakes and boars and lions,
with three-throated hounds pursuing their quarry…

10. Ariadne to Theseus

Theseus volunteers to go on the latest shipment of 14 young Athenian men and women who are sent every nine years to be sacrificed to the Minotaur on Crete. He falls in love with the daughter of King Minos, Ariadne, and she has the bright idea of using a ball of thread to help them escape the labyrinth after Theseus has killed the half-man half-bull. He pledges his love to her and she departs in the ships of the rejoicing young Athenians back to their home city. But somewhere along the way (accounts differ) he abandons her on an unpopulated island.

So she has not only lost her love, but for him had given up all the rights and perquisites pertaining to a royal princess (of Crete). So she is double bereft.

Ovid, as usual, captures the intensity of the experience, to be abandoned, the entire fleet to sail off without her, leaving her abandoned on a desert island. How terrible!

Often I go to the couch where once we slept,
a couch that would not see us again,
and I touch the hollow left by your body –
it is all that remains – and the clothes
that once were warmed around your flesh. I lie down
on the bed wet with my tears, and I cry…

11. Canace to Macareus

Canace was the daughter of Aeolus, the lord of the winds. Canace fell in love with her own brother, Macareus, and committed incest with him, which resulted in her getting pregnant. Macareus promised to marry Canace but never did. When their child was born, Canace’s nurse tried to take the baby out of the palace in a basket, pretending to be carrying a sacrificial offering, but the baby cried out and revealed itself. Aeolus was outraged and compelled Canace to commit suicide, sending her a sword with which to stab herself. He also exposed the newborn child to its death.

The letter is written just before Canace kills herself, she holds the quill in her right hand and the sword in her left. She describes how she and her nurse used a variety of herbs to try and induce an abortion but failed. She describes how, during labour, she was close to death but Macareus brought her back, swearing to marry her. Then how her nurse tried to smuggle the baby out in a basket of fruit but it started crying, arousing Aeolus’s suspicions who rummaged in the basket and produced the baby, showing it to the assembled courtiers with howls of outrage.

As the ocean trembles at the passage of
a little breeze, as the ash tree shakes
in a warm breeze from the south, you might have seen
my whitening flesh shiver.

She describes how Aeolus ordered the screaming baby to be taken and exposed in the wild and then sends a servant with the sword and the order to kill herself. Through all this she retains a strange kind of innocence and barely reproaches Macareus, mainly reproaching Aeolus for his mad rage, but above all feeling pity for her baby son, barely a day old and condemned to die a horrible death.

My son, pitiful pledge of unholy love,
this day is both your first and your last.
I was not allowed to let my tears – the tears
that are owed to you – fall upon you;
I was not allowed to clip a lock of hair
that I might carry it to your tomb;
I was not allowed to bend over your flesh
and take a last kiss from your cold lips.

12. Medea to Jason

Jason and the Argonauts came to Medea in desperate need of her help. Venus made Medea fall in love with Jason and join the expedition. Her help was invaluable in winning the golden fleece. Jason returned and settled in Corinth but here, in a peaceful civilised state, Medea’s sorcery – and the fact she was a non-Greek ‘barbarian’ – becomes a liability. When Jason is offered the hand of Creusa, princess of Corinth and daughter of King Creon, in marriage, he takes it as she is a civilised woman, a princess, and a useful alliance. It is this betrayal that drives Medea into a frenzy of jealous rage. Wikipedia:

When Medea confronted Jason about the engagement and cited all the help she had given him, he retorted that it was not she that he should thank, but Aphrodite who made Medea fall in love with him. Infuriated with Jason for breaking his vow that he would be hers forever, Medea took her revenge by presenting to Creusa a cursed dress, as a wedding gift, that stuck to her body and burned her to death as soon as she put it on. Creusa’s father, Creon, burned to death with his daughter as he tried to save her. Then Medea killed the two boys that she bore to Jason, fearing that they would be murdered or enslaved as a result of their mother’s actions. When Jason learned of this, Medea was already gone. She fled to Athens in a chariot of dragons sent by her grandfather, the sun-god Helios.

A hymn of vengeance:

Let her laugh now and be merry at my faults
while she reclines on Tyrian purple,
soon enough she will weep as she is consumed
in a blaze that is hotter than mine.
So long as I have poison, fire and weapons
Medea’s foes will all be punished.

13. Laodamia to Protesilaus

Unlike most of the other writers, Laodamia has no grudge or grievance against her man – they are loyally married and still in love. He has simply been swept up and off to the Trojan war and her letter worries about him. The audience knows that an oracle had prophesied that the first Greek to from the invading force to set foot on Trojan land was fated to die and Protesilaus couldn’t control his enthusiasm so, as his ship beached, leapt from it and, sure enough, was cut down by the mighty Hector in the first battle, though Laodamia, as she writes her letter, doesn’t know this. Instead she pours ridicule on the whole idea of an army being raised because one man’s wife has been abducted: what an absurd over-reaction to put so many thousands of lives at risk for ‘a common slut’. Laodamia doesn’t care about ‘honour’ and ‘war’. All she wants is her beloved husband back.

How long until I hold you, safely returned;
how long until I am lost in joy?
How long before we are joined together, here
on my couch and you tell me of your deeds?

14. Hypermnestra to Lynceus

In ancient times Hypermnestra was one of the 50 daughters of Danaus. Danaus took his daughters and settled in Argos. Now Danaus had a brother, Aegyptus, who had 50 sons. Aegyptus ordered his sons to follow the Danaids to Argos and there press their suits to each marry one of the 50 daughters. Danaus strongly suspected Aegyptus’s motivation was less family solidarity than a wish to take over all Danaus’s land.

Anyway, a huge wedding party was held at which all the suitors got royally drunk, then Danaus handed out daggers to all his daughters and told them to stab to death the 50 cousins as they came to claim their conjugal rights. All the daughters did so except for Hypermnestra who spared her spouse, Lynceus. She either did this because she found herself unexpectedly in genuine love with Lynceus or maybe because Lynceus was charitable enough to spare her virginity.

Either way Hypermnestra helped Lynceus escape the palace full of his brothers’ bodies before dawn but her subterfuge was discovered, the was arrested and imprisoned. This is the moment when the letter begins. She doesn’t regret behaving ‘morally’; it is her murderous father and her sisters who are the real criminals. If she is to be punished, so be it.

Then she launches into a vivid description, told in the present tense, of the events of that bloody night. The poem is less about grievance than most of the others, it is more about presenting the moral case for her actions in defying her father. She says her family has already seen enough of bloodshed, why add more?

Only right at the end does she ask Lynceus to come and save her, but cuts the poem short saying the weight of the manacles on her wrists prevents her from writing more!

What happened next? Danaus had her brought before a court but Aphrodite intervened and saved Hypermnestra. Lynceus later killed Danaus as revenge for the death of his brothers. Hypermnestra and Lynceus’ son, Abas, would be the first king of the Danaid Dynasty.

15. Sappho to Phaon

This is an exception in the series because it is the only poem relating to an actual historical personage. Sappho is the famous archaic Greek poetess who lived from about 630 to 570 BC. She was prolific and within a few centuries came to be treated as a classic. Unfortunately, only fragments of her copious works survive. In the same kind of way her life story was subjected to speculation and invention by later generations. A particularly enduring legend was that she killed herself by leaping from the Leucadian cliffs due to her love for the ferryman, Phaon. And so this last of the 15 poems is a fictional letter from Sappho to this ferryman.

Another striking departure from the previous 14 is that neither character came of aristocratic let alone royal family. Phaon really was just a ferryman and no more.

But the poem does have in common with the others is its tone of grievance. Sappho was a lot older than Phaon. She appears to have conceived a pash for the handsome young labourer, they had a torrid affair, now he’s legged it.

What makes it quite a bit different from other poems on the same subject is that, in leaving, Phaon has not just ‘betrayed’ her yaddah yaddah yaddah – he has taken her poetic inspiration. Her identity, her sense of self, her achievement, her reputation in her society, is based on the numerous brilliant love poems she has written to young women in her circle. Hence our modern word ‘lesbian’ from the island of her birth and where this circle of gay women lived.

But now, to her dismay, Sappho discovers that, in his absence, Phaon has become an obsession. She has erotic dreams about him at night and erotic thoughts during the day and these have a) destroyed the calm and equilibrium which were once so important to her inspiration as a poet b) destroyed her feelings for other women.

I do not make songs now for a well-tuned string,
for songs are the work of carefree minds…
Yours is now the love these maids once had,
yours the face that astonished my eyes…
I wish that eloquence were mine now, but grief
kills my art and woe stops my genius.
The gift of song I enjoyed will not answer
my call; lyre and plectrum are silent.

The double letters

There are six double letters, divided into three pairs. They present several differences from the 15 single letters which precede them. For a start they’re all about twice the length.

But they’re still written by the same kind of Homeric hero as the first series, exemplified by the first pair, the letter of Paris to Helen, then Helen’s reply to Paris.

16. Paris to Helen (13 pages)

As mentioned, this poem is twice the length of previous letters. But something else, which happened a bit in previous poems, really comes to the fore in this one: which is that the moment of writing, the moment the letter is written, seems to change as it progresses.

On the first page it seems as if Paris is writing before he’s even set off for Greece, imagining the great beauty of Helen he’s heard so much about and addressing the oddity of him being in love with her without ever seeing her:

But let it not seem odd that I am in love
from so far off. With a bow so strong
the arrows of love were able to find me.
So said the Fates. You must not refuse…

But on the second page Paris describes building the ships and setting sail; on the third page he describes arriving in Sparta and being graciously hosted by Menelaus; then he describes in great detail being overwhelmed by the reality of Helen’s beauty, at successive dinners being unable to look at her without choking with love; then he describes how Menelaus has chosen this moment to leave to supervise his estates in Crete and so, how the gods are conspiring for them to run off together; and it ends with Paris using an array of arguments to beg Helen to elope with him.

So the end of the poem seems to be composed at a drastically later moment than the beginning, and the precise time of writing seems to continually shift through the course of the poem. This makes it feel very dramatic and, as it reaches the climax of begging her to run away with him, quite exciting and immediate.

17. Helen to Paris (9 and a half pages)

In the medieval courts attended by Geoffrey Chaucer, among many other literary games, there was one in which the courtiers divided up into two teams and staged a formal debate, one team proposing the merits of the flour (beautiful but transient), the other, of the leaf (dull but enduring). It was a sophisticated courtly entertainment.

I can’t help feeling a sort of echo of that here: in Paris’s letter to Helen Ovid provides the Trojan with a series of arguments for why Helen should run away with him:

  • the Fates decree it
  • Venus orders it
  • the gods are immoral and break marriage vows
  • their ancestors on both sides broke marriage vows
  • her mother, Leda, let herself be ravished (by Zeus in the form of a swan)
  • Menelaus is unworthy of her
  • his own record of bravery and his descent from gods
  • Troy is much richer than Sparta so she will be adorned with beautiful things
  • the Greeks won’t seek her back and even if they do, he is strong and he has his mighty brother Hector to fight alongside him etc.

And then Helen, in this letter, refutes Paris’s arguments and proposes her own counter-arguments.

You can imagine Ovid’s sophisticated audience enjoying not just the dramatisation of the characters, but savouring the argumentation they articulate. Roman poetry is, as I’ve pointed out half a dozen times, very argumentative. Even the love elegists – Tibullus, Propertius – make a case in each of their poems; each poem takes a proposition (women look best without makeup, women are fickle etc) and then marshals a sequence of arguments to make the case.

Anyway, Helen concedes that Paris is very beautiful (making the two of them sound like Vogue models: ‘beauty attracts you to me as me to you’). She admits that if she were unwed she would be tempted by him as a suitor. But she makes a shrewd hit when she simply refuses to believe his cock and bull story about the three most powerful goddesses in the world presenting themselves to him on some hillside! What an absurd story!

She says she us unused to the ways of adultery. She sees him writing her name in wine on the dining table and thinks he is silly. She knows she is watched. It was she who advised Menelaus to go on his journey to Crete, telling him to hurry back. Now she agrees with Paris, this has presented her an opportunity for illicit love but she hesitates, she is in two minds, she is fearful.

She’s been doing her research about Paris and knows he was married to Oenone and abandoned her. Won’t he do the same to Helen? And, the final worry of all hesitant women, what will people say? What will Sparta and all Achaia (i.e. Greece) and the people of Asia and of Troy think of her if she abandons her husband for him? And Priam? And his wife? And all his brothers?

If she abandons her legal husband and kin and adopted homeland she will have nothing, nothing. She will be entirely at the mercy of his moods and his kinfolk who, chances are, will bitterly resent her.

If he and his family become fearful of Greek revenge then every new ship coming over the horizon will trigger their paranoia and she knows men: eventually she’ll get all the blame, everyone will blame her womanly weakness instead of his insistent lechery. She knows war would follow in her footsteps.

And what about the two goddesses he didn’t choose, in his absurd story? They won’t support him, will they? They will be against him, and her. And for all his boasts that he is a warrior, he is not: he is a sensualist; his body was made for love, not war.

The letter concludes by reminding him (and the reader) that Paris has begged for a secret meeting so he can plead his cause face to face. She refuses and says she is sending this letter now, by her servants, and let that be an end. Leaving the reader to speculate about what came next: did they meet up? Did Paris finally overcome her doubts and persuade her to elope with him? Or, as some accounts say, did he drug and abduct her?

18. Leander to Hero (7 pages)

Hero (despite the name, a woman) was a priestess of Venus who lived in a tower in Sestos on the European side of the Hellespont (now generally known as the Dardanelles), and Leander was a young man from Abydos, on the opposite side of the strait. Leander fell in love with Hero and every night swam across the Hellespont to spend time with her. Hero lit a lamp at the top of her tower to guide him.

Hero wanted to remain a virgin but Leander wore her down with lover’s pleading until she gave in and they made love. Their secret love affair lasted through one long summer. They had agreed to part during winter and resume in the spring due to the turbulent nature of the strait between them.

One stormy winter night, Leander saw the torch at the top of Hero’s tower, thought it must be important and so set out to swim to her. But the winter wind blew out Hero’s light and Leander lost his way in the strong waters and drowned. When Hero saw his dead body, she threw herself over the edge of the tower to her death to be with him. Their bodies washed up on shore together in an embrace and they were buried in a lover’s tomb on the shore.

Leander’s letter is written towards the end of the summer, as autumn is coming on, as the seas are growing rougher. He is writing it to give to a ferryman to pass on to Hero. He’d come in person but everyone would see him getting into the boat and start gossiping and the pair, in their young innocence, want to keep their love a secret.

It is extremely sensuous, the text of a very young man experiencing the first thrill of sexuality. Unlike the 15 single letters, this isn’t a letter of reproach or grievance but of intoxicated young love. Brilliant description of the joy and ardour and fatigue of swimming, but his delight of seeing the light atop Hero’s tower, stepping out of the water exhausted and dripping to be greeted by his love who wraps him in a towel and dried his hair and takes him tom her chamber for a night of sensual delight.

Now, with the autumn storms coming on, Leander can sense the difficulty of the crossing and, in the final passage, imagines his own death as a sensual pleasure, imagines his beloved caressing his smooth corpse on the seashore, splashing his body with tears, all very young and idealistic and sentimental.

19. Hero to Leander (7 pages)

Hero, in her reply, begs Leander to come, inadvertently luring him to his death which, in turn, will trigger her suicide.

Hero reproaches him for spending his days and nights in manly activity while she, a woman, is unfree, confined to her room, working her spindle, with only her nurse for company. She knows the sea is becoming rough, she knows the excuses he will make – but at the same time wants him so badly. She is consumed with jealousy, wondering if he doesn’t come because he has found another woman; then acknowledges that she is being silly. There is something of Juliet’s innocent passionateness about her.

It has tremendous immediacy: Hero describes the lamp she is writing by, the way it flares up then dies down, and how she interprets that as a good omen. Come to me, swim to me, let us enfold ourselves in each other once again, she writes. Hard for any man to resist.

20. Acontius to Cydippe (9 pages)

The maiden Cydippe had gone to the temple of Diana at Delos and here a young man, Acontius, rolled an apple across the pavement in front of her with an inscription written on it. Curious, she stooped, picked it up and read the inscription aloud. It was a trap. It read: ‘I swear by this place that is sacred to Diana that I will marry Acontius.’ Before she could stop herself she had made a binding oath, which is the basis of the next two letters.

This pair of letters feel like the most complicated of the set, in the way the invoke, explore, play with ideas of oath, promise-making, faith, bonds and legal concepts. If someone makes an inadvertent promise is it still binding? Because he tricked her into it, is the oath Acontius made her read invalid? But if it was uttered in the presence of then god, does Cydippe’s assent matter? Acontius goes on to scare Cydippe with legends of the bad ends people have come to who scorned Diana.

This is the creepiest of the letters: Paris sort of had the force of destiny behind him but Acontius is just a creep bullying a helpless young woman. He jealously speculates that someone else might be kissing and holding her and becomes creepily jealous. He hangs round her closed door and buttonholes her servants. He is talking her.

It emerges that she was betrothed to another man and their wedding day is approaching, but she is incessantly ill. Acontius says this is because she is breaking her vow to him and the goddess is punishing her. The only way for her to get better is to ditch her fiancée.

Jacques Derrida would have a field day with the multi-levelled complexity of argumentation going on: the way the spoken word is meant to bind, but Acontius tells Cydippe about the primacy of the spoken word using the written word. In his writing he tries to impose a permanent meaning to words spoken by accident and ephemerally. The text goes on to create a complex web of meanings around pledges, oaths, promises and bonds.

Acontius then complexifies things even more by claiming the goddess came to him in a dream and told him to write those words on the apple: a spoken order to inscribe an oath which, when read aloud, becomes legally binding, as he is insisting, in another written text.

By what authority do promised things written come to pass? Does the mere act of writing make them happen? What extra is needed then? It feels dense with assumptions and ideas about language, speech and writing, which could have supplied Plato with an entire dialogue.

21. Cydippe to Acontius (8 and a half pages)

Cydippe’s reply rejects the idea that a trick oath has validity. But as her letter proceeds we realise that she is not utterly disgusted by Acontius’s subterfuge; in fact, she is intrigued by a man who would go to such lengths to win her, and now finds herself torn between the fiancé her father and family have chosen for her and this adventurer. Maybe he represents freedom. Certainly she enjoys having, even if only briefly, the choice.

She begins by confirming that she is ill, weak and weary, and her nurse and family all speculate why. She thinks it’s these two men fighting over her have made her ill. If this is his love, making her ill, she’d prefer his hate!

She gives a long description of the journey she, her mother and nurse made to the island of Delos where the apple incident took place.

She makes the key argument that even though the words of an oath may be read out, they are meaningless without informed consent. It is

the mind that makes an oath; and no oath ever
has been uttered by me to benefit you.
Only intention gives form to words.
Only counsel and the soul’s careful reason
can shape an oath…

Words without will mean nothing. So why is she being punished? Why is she ill? Has she offended against Diana without realising it?

She describes the unhappiness of her fiancé who visits her but she turns away, she removes his hand from her skin, he knows something is wrong. If he, Acontius, could see her now, lying sick and pale in bed, he would hurriedly take back his oath and try to drop her.

Then she comes to the point: her family have sent to the oracle at Delphi which has declared the gods are unhappy with Cydippe because some pledge has not been carried out. So it seems as if the oath she read out is binding in the eyes of the gods. At which point she stops fighting fate. She has told her mother about reading out the oath. She gives in. She will come to him. And so the letter ends.


Violence

The poems are quite varied but the cumulative impression is of the extremity of these legends, the extreme violence of the world they inhabit and the anguish and hysteria of much of the tone. So many of the women writers have had fathers, brothers, families murdered.

  • Briseis’s entire family massacred by the Achaians
  • Agamemnon murdered by Aegisthus who is murdered by Orestes
  • Patroclus killed by Hector, swathes of Trojans massacred by Achilles, Achilles killed by Paris, Paris killed by the rival archer Philoctetes
  • Hippolytus killed by his horses
  • Hercules killed by the cloak sent by his wife
  • the Minotaur killed by Theseus
  • the women of Lemnos killed all the men on the island
  • the daughters of Danaus stabbed to death 49 of the sons of Aegyptus

And that’s just the close relatives of characters writing the letters; behind them, their backstories contain scads of other gods and mortals who met very grisly ends.

Emotional extremity

Many of the writers threaten to kill themselves or the addressee or the woman he’s gone off with (or she’s guessing he’s gone off with). In several cases we know these dire threats come true – Dido piteously kills herself while Medea kills her children by Jason then disappears. It’s a paradox that the Greek philosophers have such a reputation for calm reflection while the imaginative world they inhabited reeked of emotional and physical extremity.

I long for poison, I wish that I could plunge
a sword in my heart so that my blood
could be poured out and my life would be finished.
Since you placed your arms about my neck
I should gladly tie a noose about it now.
(Phyllis to Demophoon)

You should see my face while I write this letter:
a Trojan knife nestles in my lap;
tears fall from my cheeks on its hammered steel blade
and soon it will be stained with my blood.
How fitting that this knife was your gift to me,
for death will not diminish my wealth.
My heart has already been torn by your love,
Another wound will hardly matter.
(Dido to Aeneas)

Now vicious beasts are tearing into pieces
the child’s body that my flesh produced.
I too will follow the shade of this infant,
I too will give myself the blade so that
not for long will I be known to all the world
as both grief-stricken and a mother.
(Canace to Macareus)

I admit the awful truth – I put
to your throat the blade my father gave. But dread
and piety stayed the brutal stroke…
(Hypermnestra to Lynceus)

There is a terrible, heart-tightening, stricken quality to so many of the women’s complaints that makes them genuinely moving.

Necks and breasts

Breasts are for beating

When the women are stricken and distraught they tear their robes and beat their exposed breasts.

I tore the clothes away from my breasts
and beat my hands against my flesh; my long nails
tore at my tear-stained cheeks and my cries
filled Ida’s holy land with their sad lament.
(Oenone to Paris)

Terrified, I rose from the abandoned bed,
my hands beat my breasts and tore my hair,
dishevelled as it was from my night of sleep…

Those were my words. When my voice became weak I
beat my breast and mixed my words with blows…
(Ariadne to Theseus)

my enemy rushed [my] child away from me
to the dark forests, that the fruit of my flesh
be consumed by wolves. He left my room.
I could beat at my breasts and score my poor cheeks
with my sharp nails…
(Canace to Macareus)

…I tore my cloak and beat
my breasts; I cried out and my nails tore my cheeks…
(Medea to Jason)

When I recovered grief, I beat my breast and
tore my hair and without shame I shrieked
like that loving mother who lifts to the high
funeral pyre her son’s empty body…
(Sappho to Phaon)

A discreet veil is drawn over the act of sex…

The act of sex is nowhere described. When Hero refers to making love with Leander she draws back, draws a veil, stops.

I could say more, but a modest tongue stops and
says nothing while memory delights;
words spoken now would bring a blush to my face…

Ditto Sappho to Phaon, describing the feeling but not the detail of her vivid erotic dreams:

It seems I fondle you while uttering words
that are near the truth of wakefulness
and my sensation is guarded by my lips.
I blush to say more…

…which is instead symbolised by arms round necks

Instead, when they remember making love, all the letter writers use the image of arms round the neck as a synecdoche, this one gesture standing for all the entanglements of the act of love. It seems that a man only puts his arms round a woman’s neck as a gesture of the utmost intimacy.

Since you placed your arms about my neck
I should gladly tie a noose about it now…
(Phyllis to Demophoon)

So often, it seems, I press the weight
of my neck against your arms and so often
do I place my arms beneath your neck.
I know the kisses, the tongue’s caresses which
once you enjoyed giving and getting…
(Sappho to Phaon)

Many times my arms are wearied by
the endless stroke and can hardly go on through
the endless waters. When I tell them,
‘You reward will not be poor, for you will have
the neck of my lady to embrace,’
they find strength and reach for the prize…
(Leander to Hero)

It seems that you swim nearer to me, and now
it seems your wet arms have touched my neck…
You must come to me, throwing about my neck
those arms weakened by the pounding sea.
(Hero to Leander)

Beating breasts symbolises emotional torment; arms round necks symbolise physical bliss.

Rape

A lot of women are raped in these stories or desperately flee would-be rapists. This is accepted by the characters, the narrator, the author and, presumably, his audience. But not by modern readers.

Faithful Tros, Troy’s builder, once loved me
and the secrets of his gifts ran through my hands.
We wrestled together for the prize
of my virginity, I pulled at his hair
and scratched his face with my fingernails…
(Oenone to Paris)

Has some fate come to us, pursuing our house
down the years even to my time so
that we, mothers of the line of Tantalus,
are easy prey to any rapist.
(Hermione to Orestes)

It’s a toss-up who was the biggest rapist, Jupiter or Neptune but pretty much all the male Greek gods are rapists.

Familiarity and pleasure

It’s inevitable that I enjoyed the letters by the characters I’m most familiar with because I knew enough about the ‘setup’ or backstory to the poem to really appreciate the emotional and psychological nuances, the train of thought, how Ovid has his character develop their argument. These would be:

  • Penelope to Odysseus
  • Briseis to Achilles
  • Oenone to Paris
  • Dido to Aeneas

Reflecting on that choice I realise it’s because these are characters from the epic poems, the Iliad and the Aeneid which I have known since childhood. I know about, but am less familiar with, the secondary stories of, for example, Phaedra or Deianira; and I know nothing about Phyllis, Hypsipyle, Laodamia, Hypermnestra or Sappho. For these characters I was relying on the introductions to tell me who they were, what their dramatic situation was, what their grievance was and what the outcome would be – making it very frustrating that Isbell’s introductions do such a poor or patchy job.

To be fair, if you look up characters in the glossary at the back of the book, this does give the complete biographies of key players such as Helen, Paris, Jason, Medea and so on. But it requires quite a lot of juggling to read those biographies, then the wobbly introductions, and then the footnotes to each poem. It felt a lot like hard work before you could get round to the actual pleasure of reading the poems themselves.


Credit

Heroides by Ovid, translated by Harold Isbell, was published by Penguin books in 1990. All references are to the revised 2004 paperback edition.

Roman reviews

Edward the Second by Christopher Marlowe (1592)

Historical notes

England had three king Edwards in a row, over a century of Edwards – Edward I (1272 to 1307), Edward II (1307 to 1327), Edward III (1327 to 1377).

Ed the first was a hard man who devoted himself to conquering Wales and Scotland, acquiring the nicknames Edward Longshanks (he was, apparently, over 6 foot 6 in height) and ‘the Hammer of the Scots’.

Edward III came to the throne as a boy (hence the unusual length of his reign, 50 years) and for the first decade England was ruled by his mother and her lover. Once he had thrown off their tutelage, he also became a mighty king, launching what became the Hundred Years War against France, during which his son, Edward the Black Prince, won famous victories at Crecy and Poitiers.

In between came the second Edward who is traditionally seen as one of the Middle Ages’ ‘bad’ kings. Not as awful as king John, but nonetheless he ruled unwisely, alienated the population, most of his nobles, struggled against rebellion and insurrection. The most notable battle of his reign was the humiliating defeat at Bannockburn where 6,000 Scots, led by Robert Bruce, crushed an army of 15,000 English infantry supported by 2,500 heavy cavalry.

Marlowe is not interested in much of this. What fascinates Marlowe the playwright is the relationship between Edward the fey king and his notorious favourite, Piers Gaveston. As a boy Edward was presented with a foster brother, a child named Pierce (alternately Piers or Peter) Gaveston, the son of a Flemish knight who had fought with the king against the Scots. Gaveston became Edward’s nearest friend and confidant, a relationship which grew into something deeper, a profound dependency.

This may or may not have been a homosexual relationship, in the modern sense of the word (Edward had a wife, Queen Isabella, of France) but Edward became intensely dependent on his favourite’s company, and showered him with inappropriate honours, land and titles, which helped to fuel widespread anger at both men. The French royal family took the closeness of the relationship as an insult to the queen, and so forced Edward to exile Gaveston.

In fact Gaveston was sent into exile not once, but three times, once under Edward I right at the end of the old king’s reign, and twice under Ed the second, from spring 1308 to July 1309 into Ireland, and from October to December 1311. In the play, Marlowe elides the second and third exiles into one. When Gaveston returned for a third time, in 1312, his behaviour continued to infuriate his enemies so much that he was hunted down and executed by a group of magnates. King Edward may have been distraught but he still had 15 years of reign left, so Gaveston was in no way the primary cause of his downfall.

Instead Edward now shifted his reliance to the Despenser family (referred to throughout the play as ‘Spencers’), and to another young man his own age, Hugh Despenser (Spencer) the Younger. It was as he shifted his reliance to this family, rewarding numerous members with honours and land, that a really determined opposition to Edward’s rule gained strength, and it solidified when his wife returned to Paris in 1325 and refused to come back. His regime began to collapse as his advisers abandoned him and Edward was forced to flee to Wales, where he was captured and taken to Berkeley Castle, where he died on 21 September 1327, it is generally thought he was murdered, and soon a gaudy rumour went around that he had been killed by having a red-hot poker inserted into his anus and pushed up into his bowels.

Executive summary

The Elizabethan Drama website gives a good summary:

  • Part One: Act I.i – Act III.i – the Gaveston years (1307 to 1312)
  • Transitional Scene: Act III.ii – the scene ties together Gaveston’s removal in 1312 to Edward’s military challenge to Lancaster at Boroughbridge in 1322.
  • Part Two: Act III.iii – Act V.v – the final years of Edward’s reign (1322 to 1327)
  • Coda: Act V.vi, the final scene of the play; the end of the Mortimer era (1330).

The play

Act 1

Scene 1 Marlowe pitches us straight into the action, as we find Piers Gaveston onstage reading a letter from the king telling him his father (Edward I) is dead (7 July 1307), and to hasten back from exile to his bosom.

In his opening speech, Marlowe makes it crystal clear what kind of sensual sybarite Gaveston is:

I must have wanton poets, pleasant wits,
Musicians, that with touching of a string
May draw the pliant king which way I please.
Music and poetry is his delight;
Therefore I’ll have Italian masques by night,
Sweet speeches, comedies, and pleasing shows;
And in the day, when he shall walk abroad,
Like sylvan nymphs my pages shall be clad;
My men, like satyrs grazing on the lawns,
Shall with their goat-feet dance the antic hay.
Sometime a lovely boy in Dian’s shape,
With hair that gilds the water as it glides,
Crownets of pearl about his naked arms,
And in his sportful hands an olive-tree,
To hide those parts which men delight to see,
Shall bathe him in a spring; and there hard by,
One like Actæon peeping through the grove,
Shall by the angry goddess be transformed,
And running in the likeness of an hart
By yelping hounds pulled down, and seem to die

It is very gay. Gaveston says that, having just returned from exile, he is like Leander, arriving panting on the shore having swum across the Hellespont to be with his lover, and looks forward to embracing the king, and ‘dying’ on his bosom, where dying has the obvious romantic meaning, but is also the Elizabethan sense of having an orgasm. And in this long quote note how Gaveston thinks entirely in terms of men and boys, men like satyrs, his pages dressed like girls (sylvan nymphs are always female), lovely boys coyly hiding their groins with olive branches. It is a gay fantasia.

It’s quite jarring when the play leaves these visions of sensual homoerotic bliss and, with a loud crunching of gears, suddenly turns into a Shakespeare history play with the abrupt arrival of King Edward, Lancaster, the elder Mortimer,Young Mortimer, Kent, Warwick, Pembroke and Attendants. Suddenly Marlowe tries to persuade us he is the author of a historical drama and it’s not totally believable.

Thomas, second Earl of Lancaster, an immensely rich and powerful man, loathes the upstart Gaveston. He is exceeded in his hatred by Young Mortimer. Both tell Edward they promised the recently dead king to keep Gaveston in exile, so they are outraged that Edward has recalled him. Edmund, Earl of Kent, is a half-brother of King Edward, and he speaks up for Edward and reproaches the two others for daring to criticise the king. He goes so far as to suggest the king cut off Lancaster and Mortimer’s heads. Young Mortimer calls Edward ‘brain-sick’ and Lancaster says, if Gaveston is recalled, Edward should expect to have his head thrown at his feet. The angry rebellious nobles exit.

Gaveston has been hiding and overhearing and commenting in asides on the preceding dialogue. Now he steps out and lets Edward see him, who is delighted and embraces him. And promptly makes him Lord High Chamberlain, Earl of Cornwall and Lord of the Isle of Man. He offers him a personal guard, gold, and his own royal seal. Kent points that even one of these titles would be excessive for a man of Gaveston’s modest background, but this only incenses the king to shower more gifts on him.

Enter Walter Langton, bishop of Coventry. It was a quarrel with the bishop – caused when Gaveston invaded his woods to go hunting – that escalated till the old king, Edward I, sided with his bishop and exiled Gaveston. Now Gaveston gets the opportunity for revenge, the pair fall to insulting each other and Edward eggs Gaveston on to knock off the bishop’s headdress, tear his clothes and beat him up. Edward says he’ll seize all the bishop’s rents and assign them to Gaveston. Gaveston announces he’ll have the bishop consigned to the Tower of London.

It’s easy to see why all responsible subjects, at every level, would despise and hate Edward and Piers.

Scene 2 The elder and younger Mortimers, the earls of Warwick and Lancaster meet together and share how appalled they are at news of the wealth and titles Edward is lavishing on Gaveston. They are joined by the Archbishop of Canterbury, who tells them about the terrible treatment of the bishop of Coventry.

They are joined by young Queen Isabella (the historical Isabella was born in 1295 and so was 12 years old when she married Edward in 1307) who laments that Edward ignores her and gives all his attention, love and money to Gaveston. Together they decide to call a meeting of all the nobles, a parliament, and pass a law to banish Gaveston.

Scene 3 The briefest of scenes in which Gaveston tells Kent he knows about the plot. Basically it’s a fig leaf to pretend the passing of time, until…

Scene 4 The rebellious nobles assembled in Westminster. They’ve barely finished signing the document, when Edward himself arrives, seats himself on his throne with Gaveston at his right hand. All the nobles tut and complain at this inappropriate positioning. Edward orders officials to lay hands on the rebels, but the rebels issue counter-orders for Gaveston to be arrested and taken away, and it’s these orders the officials obey.

The archbishop remonstrates with Edward, but fiery young Mortimer interrupts to tell him to excommunicate the king, then they can depose him and elect a new one. The impact of all this for the reader is that both sides use extreme language – a kind of Tamburlainian excessiveness of language – right from the start.

Edward immediately capitulates, collapsing into a whining boy, handing out titles like sweeties to the assembled lords, so long as they’ll leave him part of England to frolic in with Gaveston:

So I may have some nook or corner left,
To frolic with my dearest Gaveston

Young Mortimer is genuinely puzzled why the king loves such a worthless fellow. Edward’s reply is disarmingly simple:

KING EDWARD: Because he loves me more than all the world.

Despite this avowal, Edward realises his entire nobility is against him, and so signs the document of Gaveston’s banishment, with tears. The nobles leave Edward alone on the stage to rage against their actions, and especially the tyranny of the archbishop and of the Catholic church, vowing to burn its churches to the ground, fill the Tiber with slaughtered priests and then massacre his entire nobility.

It is the totalising, hyper-violent mindset of Tamburlaine, there is no subtlety, none of the sensitivity of Shakespeare’s Richard II.

Enter Gaveston who has heard he is to be exiled. Alas yes, says the king, but his love will never fade. Edward has the idea of sending Gaveston to be governor of Ireland (which is what actually happened, in 1308). They exchange miniature portraits of each other and then can’t take leave.

Luckily the queen enters and Edward lets her have both barrels, expressing his dislike, calling her a French whore (see what I mean about the intemperateness of the language?). Edward angrily accuses her of involvement in the exile plot, and leaves with Gaveston.

Alone onstage Isabella laments that she ever got married, wishing she had drowned on the sea crossing or been poisoned at her wedding.

Lancaster, Warwick, Pembroke, the Elder Mortimer and Young Mortimer re-enter and are sorry for Isabella, who they find sitting alone and weeping. She turns to them and begs them to repeal the banishment of Gaveston; they are astonished, but she explains that begging them for Gaveston’s return is the only hope she has of winning back Edward’s heart. She takes Young Mortimer aside and whispers her reasons to him as the others talk.

Then, to their consternation, Mortimer returns and begs the nobles to overturn their decision. He argues that Gaveston may make friends and allies in Ireland, on balance, better to have him back in London where a servant can be bribed to assassinate him. And banishing then recalling Gaveston will humiliate him and make him realise his place. And his bad behaviour will mean they have the people on their side. Isabelle thinks it’s a good plan, and hopes it will make the king love her again.

Edward re-enters, dressed in mourning and deeply lamenting the departure of Gaveston, wishing he had been struck dead by some fury from hell. So when Isabelle tells him the nobles have relented and will let Gaveston return, he embraces her, weeps and kisses her. But, quite obviously, not for her sake.

In his relief and delirium Edward showers the rebel nobles with titles and positions, Warwick shall be his chief counsellor, Pembroke shall bear his sword in processions, he offers Young Mortimer admiral of the fleet, or Lord Marshall, he makes Elder Mortimer, general of his army against the Scots.

Having acted and sounded like a proper king, Edward then calls in a messenger to send the recall to Gaveston in Ireland. And tells the lords he has arranged Gaveston’s marriage to the heir of the Earl of Gloucester, then invites them all inside for a feast.

Leaving the Elder Mortimer who tells the Young Mortimer the king has reformed, and goes on to list a number of rulers and heroes from the ancient world who had young male friends or lovers. Elder Mortimer trusts that, as Edward matures, he will abandon his youthful ‘toy’. Young Mortimer details what it is about Gaveston that infuriates him – the enormously expensive clothes he wear,s worth a respectable lord’s entire revenue, that he struts around the court, that he and the king mock respectable nobles. Still – both of them believe the king has made a sincere repentance.

Act 2

Scene 1 In the household of the Earl of Gloucester, who has just died, his servants Spenser and Baldock debate which great man to attach themselves to, Spenser electing the Earl of Cornwall (Gaveston). He goes on to lecture the bookish Baldock on how he needs to dress more boldly, and be more sycophantic, if he wants to rise in the world (all this being a satire on contemporary Elizabethan fashions and behaviour).

Enter Margaret de Clare, dead Gloucester’s sister and niece of Edward II. For years, since the first Edward’s time, she has been pegged to be married to Gaveston and now she reads out a letter he has sent her, declaring her his love. She tucks it in her bosom, where she hopes her lord will rest his head, and tells Spenser he will be rewarded for his service.

Scene 2 On the coast, with a party of nobles, Edward joyfully greets Gaveston as he returns from Ireland. To pass the time he asks the nobles what emblems they’ve come up with for the tournament he plans to hold in Gaveston’s favour. The king ignores news of the French king’s manoeuvres in Normandy, and the nobles notice all he cares about is his favourite.

The emblems are slyly critical of the king and he gets angry. Isabelle tries to calm him. But all is forgot when Gaveston actually appears and Edward enthusiastically greets him, then turns to his nobles to get them to greet him as keenly. Of course, they don’t, some being sarcastic, Gaveston is immediately offended and Edward eggs him on to insult them. The argument quickly gets out of control, Lancaster draws a sword as if to stab Gaveston, the king calls his servants to defend them, Young Mortimer draws a sword and does manage to wound Gaveston.

Gaveston is taken away and the king banishes Lancaster and Young Mortimer from his court. These two say Gaveston will lose his head, the king says it’s they who will lose their heads, and so the two parties exit opposite sides of the stage, threatening to raise armies.

Come, Edmund, let’s away, and levy men;
‘Tis war that must abate these barons’ pride.

Edward storms out and the rebel nobles make a vow to fight until Gaveston is dead. Enter a messenger who says Elder Mortimer, leading an English army, has been captured and his captors demand £5,000. With what seems to me wild inconsistency, Young Mortimer says he’ll go see the king (who he’t just declared war on) to beg for the ransom.

The scene cuts to Tynemouth castle, the idea that Young Mortimer and Lancaster force their way in past the guard and confront the king. He tells them to ransom Elder Mortimer themselves. They point out he was fighting in Scotland on the king’s behalf, and go on to give Edward a reality check: his royal treasury is empty, the people are revolting against him, his garrisons have been beaten out of France, while the Scots are allying with the Irish against the English, Edward is so weak foreign princes don’t bother sending him ambassadors, his treatment of his wife has alienated the French royal family, the English nobles avoid his court, and ballads about his overthrow are sung in the streets, the inhabitants or north England – overrun by the Scots – curse his and Gaveston’s names. Not a good situation, is it?]

EARL OF LANCASTER: Look for rebellion, look to be deposed;

Young Mortimer says he’ll sell one of his estates to ransom his old uncle and he and Lancaster storm out in a fury. Now even loyal Kent, the king’s half-brother, counsels the king to get rid of Gaveston, but the king furiously rejects his advice, and so Kent, the last word of sanity, reluctantly abandons him.

Enter Queen Isabella with waiting women and Spenser and Baldock. Very unfairly, the king blames Isabella for all his troubles – until Gaveston advises the king to dissemble and be nice to her. She is pathetically grateful for even the slightest show of affection. Conversation turns to Young Mortimer and Gaveston briskly recommends the king cut off his head.

It may be worth just pausing a moment here and noting there is something hysterical about all Marlowe’s plays. Maybe it’s because of the direct contrast with Shakespeare’s history plays, but there is absolutely no subtlety: Gaveston is madly passionately sensuously in love with Edward from the start, the king ignores his nobles, within a page or two of them appearing both parties are threatening to stab, murder, assassinate and overthrow each other.

Baldock and Spencer turn up and are taken into Edward’s service on the recommendation of Gaveston.

Edward confirms that he will marry Gaveston to Margaret, his (Edward’s) niece and only heir to the deceased Earl of Gloucester.

Digression on Marlowe’s lack of subtlety

In Dido, Aeneas either completely loved Dido or completely overthrew her in order to leave for Italy, there was no halfway house. Tamburlaine is turned up to maximum mayhem throughout both his plays. Barabas in The Jew of Malta is a scheming murderous miser from the get-go. There is, in other words, precious little subtlety in Marlowe, not psychological subtlety, anyway. What there is is the thrill of the extremity, exorbitance and hyperbole of so many of the emotions, the melodrama; and there is tremendous pleasure to be had from the combination of sensuality and power in the verse, in the quality of the poetry.

Scene 3 Kent announces to Lancaster, Young Mortimer, Warwick, Pembroke and the other conspirators that he has broken with his half-brother, Edward, and is joining them. Some suspect he is a spy but Lancaster vouches for him. Whereat Young Mortimer tells the drums to sound so they can storm the castle in which are the king, Gaveston et al.

Scene 4 Inside Tynemouth castle as the rebels storm it Amid the alarms of battle, Edward tells Gaveston, Margaret and the queen to escape by ship, he will post by land with Spencer. They all exit except the queen, who is found when Lancaster and the rebels come onstage. She laments her unhappy lot, blaming everything on Gaveston. They ask where the others have gone, she explains the king split his followers into two parties hoping similarly to divide the nobles. Young Mortimer is sympathetic to the queen and invites her to go with them as they chase the king. She demurs. The rebels exit. Isabella is left alone and says she is beginning to love Mortimer, at least he is kind to her.

Scene 5 Country near Scarborough Enter Gaveston closely pursued by the lords who capture and arrest him. The leading rebels all declare they will have Gaveston hanged immediately, only refusing to stab him to death because it would dishonour them. At that moment enter the Earl of Arundel as messenger of the king, begging a last opportunity to see Gaveston. They all deny the request, urging that Gaveston be hastened to death but old Arundel gives his word that Gaveston will be returned, and then Pembroke nobly joins him. The others reluctantly agree.

The scene abruptly cuts to somewhere in southern England, the idea being that Pembroke and Arundel and their men guarding Gaveston have travelled this far to take him for his last interview with the king. In a page or so it is explained that Pembroke took the fatal decision to depart from the route for the night, to see his wife who lived nearby, and leave Gaveston in the charge of some of his soldiers.

Act 3

Scene 1 Enter Warwick and his men. They have ambushed Pembroke’s party while Pembroke was away. Now they capture Gaveston and drag him off to murder him.

Scene 2 Edward laments his Gaveston is lost. Young Spencer says, if it was him, he’d behead all the rebel nobles (this is exactly what Gaveston suggested right at the start of the play: that’s what I mean by lack of subtlety). Spenser’s father, Old Spenser, arrives with soldiers. He has come to serve his king. For his loyalty Edward creates him Earl of Wiltshire.

Enter the queen with letters from her brother the king of France, that he has seized Edward’s lands in Normandy. Edward charges his wife and young son to travel to France to negotiate with the French king. (In reality, the future Edward III was not born until 1312, after Gaveston’s murder).

Enter the Earl of Arundel with the news that Gaveston is dead. He recapitulates the story of his meeting with the rebels, his pledge to return Gaveston to them, how Warwick’s force ambushed Pembroke’s while their lord was away, abducted Gaveston, and cut his head off in a ditch. Well, Edward is not happy, although Marlowe lacks the psychology and the language to ‘do’ grief. He is much better at anger and vengeance:

Treacherous Warwick! traitorous Mortimer!
If I be England’s king, in lakes of gore
Your headless trunks, your bodies will I trail,
That you may drink your fill, and quaff in blood,
And stain my royal standard with the same,
That so my bloody colours may suggest
Remembrance of revenge immortally
On your accursèd traitorous progeny.

Moving the plot briskly along, Marlowe has Edward adopt young Spenser as Gaveston’s replacement in his affections.

Even more briskly, the nobles send a messenger who demand that Edward rid himself of his new favourite, Spenser. This is one among many moments when Marlowe doesn’t just concertina events, he crushes them to a pulp, moving through the actual sequence of historical events at light speed. Edward contemns the nobles’ request, embraces young Spenser, chases the herald off the stage and vows defiance.

End of part one / part two

I found it invaluable to read the annotated Elizabethan Drama version of the play which, at this point, has an extended note which explains that there is now a Big Jump in time. The Gaveston years are over (Gaveston was murdered in 1312) and the play now leaps over ten years to 1322. A lot has happened, but Part Two opens with the Battle of Boroughbridge in March 1322. Edward is on the rise, has raised an army of 30,000, and chased Lancaster’s rebel army up the river Severn to the village of Boroughbridge.

Scene 3 The battle is in mid-flow and Marlowe brings Edward and his established favourite, Young Spenser, on one side of the stage opposite Lancaster, Young Mortimer and the other rebels on the other, so the two groups can hurl abuse at each other. He did the same thing in the Tamburlaine plays. For the umpteenth time Edward claims the rebels will pay with their heads.

Scene 4 The king is triumphant, crows over Lancaster, Warwick and Young Mortimer, commands his men to take them away and behead Lancaster, Warwick et al, but consign Young Mortimer to the Tower. Warwick calls him a tyrant. Edward and his train exit.

Leaving Young Spenser to brief an ambassador from France to go back to France and persuade the king and nobles to drop their support for Isabella. This requires a note of explanation: In March 1325 Isabella had returned to France and refused to return, sick of being ignored by her husband, and had begun to plot his overthrow. In this scene Spenser gives the ambassador gold to bribe French nobles away from the queen.

Act 4

Scene 1 London near the Tower Enter Kent who has been banished. He is hoping for a fair wind to carry him to France. He is joined by Young Mortimer, who has escaped from the Tower of London.

Scene 2 Paris It is 1325, three years after the Battle of Boroughbridge where Edward decisively established full control over his realm. We are in Paris with Queen Isabella and their son, Edward, the future Edward III. She had been sent there to broker a peace deal with the French king. In this scene she laments that England is under the rule of the rapacious Spencer family and the king under the thumb of Young Hugh Spencer, and also laments that her plans to raise the French nobles to support her return and overthrow Spencer, have come to nothing. She is ‘friendless in France.’

Enter Sir John of Hainault who invites them to come and stay at his estate. And then she is delighted by the arrival of Kent and Young Mortimer from England. They assure her many will rise up to overthrow Edward, if someone gives them a lead. All of them are grateful for Hainault’s offer of support and hospitality.

Scene 3 In King Edward’s palace at Westminster The king rejoices with his lackeys (young Spenser is now Earl of Gloucester) at his achievement, for the first time, of complete control over his realm. He gets Spenser to read out a list of the nobles who have been executed, then they discuss the reward they’ve put out on Young Mortimer’s head.

Enter a messenger with a letter from the ambassador sent to France warning that the queen and her allies (Mortimer and Kent) plan to return and raise a rebellion. Edward defies them, and calls on the winds to blow their fleet quickly across the sea to England so he can defeat them in battle.

Scene 4 Harwich The rebels have landed (24 September 1326). Queen Isabella laments her husband’s bad kingship. She is superseded by Mortimer who makes a speech to the assembled troops explaining they have come with two specific goals: to reclaim for Isabella all the lands that have been sequestered by the Despencer family; and to remove the king’s bad advisers (the Despencer family).

Scene 5 Bristol The queen’s party gained strength as it marched on London, and Edward was forced to flee West. At the start of the scene Spenser counsels the king to take ship to Ireland, Edward demurs and says they must stand and fight, but Baldock counsels flight and they scarper.

Enter Edmund Duke of Kent, Edward’s half-brother who – if you remember – was loyal for most of the first half, before being driven to join the rebels. Now he regrets it, now he’s seen Young Mortimer snogging the queen, he fears their aim to overthrow the king altogether:

Fie on that love that hatcheth death and hate!

Bristol has surrendered without a struggle to the rebels. Kent is worried that Mortimer is watching him.

Enter Queen Isabella, Prince Edward, Young Mortimer, and Sir John of Hainault. They have triumphed. Edward has fled. His son is declared Lord Warden of the realm. Kent asks how they’re going to treat the king? Mortimer mutters to Isabella that he doesn’t like Kent’s soft attitude.

A Welsh nobleman enters with the elder Spencer. He says Young Spenser has taken ship with the king to Ireland. Mortimer orders Elder Spenser to be taken away and executed.

Scene 6 Neath Abbey (Historical note: by mid-November, Edward and his few remaining followers – including Arundel, Baldock and Younger Spenser – were in hiding at the abbey of Neath in south Wales.) The abbot welcomes the small party to the abbey. Edward appreciates the peace and quiet.

They’ve barely been assured they are quite safe here, before enter Welsh nobleman Rice ap Howell and Leicester to arrest them for high treason. Spenser and Baldock are taken away – the general idea, to be beheaded – the king is to be escorted to Kenilworth Castle. When Leicester says they have a litter ready to convey him, Edward lets fly with some Marlovian hyperbole:

A litter hast thou? lay me in a hearse,
And to the gates of hell convey me hence.
Let Pluto’s bells ring out my fatal knell,
And hags howl for my death at Charon’s shore;

Note the characteristically Marlovian use of Greek classical myth. Leicester takes away the king. Baldock and Spenser lament their fate. Arundel and Spencer were hanged, castrated and eviscerated.

Act 5

Scene 1 (Historical note: It is now 20 January 1327. Edward is being kept at Kenilworth castle. He has surrendered the Great Seal to Mortimer and Isabella) Leicester is treating Edward kindly, but Edward has a long speech lamenting his situation. Parliament has sent a delegation (the bishop of Winchester and Trussel) asking him to abdicate. Edward takes off his crown but is loath to hand it over and delivers a lengthy soliloquy whose beauty and unexpected sensitivity anticipates Shakespeare.

But what are kings, when regiment is gone,
But perfect shadows in a sunshine day?

The nobles demand he resign the crown to his son, young Edward, for the time being the ward of the queen and Mortimer, but Edward, for page after page, agonises, accuses them, prevaricates – it is genuinely moving in a way rare for Marlowe. He tells them to take his handkerchief, wet with tears, to the queen.

Sir Thomas, Lord of Berkeley Castle, arrives with a commission to take possession of the king (he is being passed from one gaoler to another). Giving up the crown has plunged him into despair. They explain where they’re taking him, he doesn’t care:

EDWARD: Whither you will; all places are alike,
And every earth is fit for burial.

Scene 2 The royal palace Now run by Queen Isabella and her lover, Young Mortimer. Mortimer presses the urgency of having young prince Edward crowned, so as to cement his authority and Mortimer’s power. The queen assents to whatever her lover suggests.

Enter the bishop of Winchester with the crown, with rumour that Kent is planning to free his half brother the king, and that Edward is being moved from Kenilworth to Berkeley Castle.

To end their anxiety Mortimer explicitly asks the queen if she wants Edward dead, and she reluctantly, weakly agrees. Mortimer calls in two junior nobles, Baron John Maltravers and Sir Thomas Gurney, draws up and signs an order handing the king over to their care. Mortimer explicitly orders them to mistreat the king, humiliate and abuse him, move him from place to place, to Kenilworth then back to Berkeley so no-one knows where he is.

Enter Kent and the young prince Edward. The prince is understandably concerned about his father, Kent has several asides in which he laments his support for Mortimer and condemns Isabella for her hypocrisy. This breaks out into an open squabble as Mortimer physically grabs the prince to separate him from Kent, Kent asserts that as Edward’s nearest blood relative he should be protector to the prince. Both parties exit different sides of the stage.

Scene 3 King Edward is now in the care of Matrevis and Gurney, who systematically mistreat him, as ordered by Mortimer, giving him puddle water to drink, roughly force-shaving him.

Enter Kent who wants to speak with the king, but he is seized by soldiers. The king is roughly bundled into the nearby castle, while Kent is ordered to be taken before Mortimer, the real power in the land.

Scene 4 Mortimer knows the king must die but that, whoever does the deed will suffer once his son is mature. Therefore he contrives an ambiguous letter, which can be read both as ordering Edward’s death, but warning against it. He gives it to a messenger, Lightborn, to take to Matravers. He questions him about his qualifications and Lightborn assures him he knows numerous ways of murdering and killing. The precise method he’ll use on Edward, he keeps secret. What Mortimer is keeping secret from Lightborn is that along with the message, he is being given a token to show the captors which will instruct them that Lightborn himself be murdered once he’s killed Edward. Lightborn exits.

Mortimer soliloquises, reflecting on how he now has complete and ultimate power.

Now is all sure: the queen and Mortimer
Shall rule the realm, the king; and none rule us.

The setting changes (in that easy immediate way which was possible on the bare Elizabethan stage) to Westminster. Enter King Edward the Third, Queen Isabella, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Champion and Nobles, and we witness the coronation of young prince Edward to become King Edward III. This actually took place on 1 February 1327.

The first thing that happens before the new king is his half-uncle Kent is dragged in by soldiers who tell Mortimer Kent had attempted to free the king from imprisonment. Incensed, Mortimer immediately orders him to be beheaded, but the new king intercedes for his uncle but discovers there is nothing he can do, and Kent is dragged off to be executed. Edward fears that he himself will be next and complains to his mother, who promises to protect him.

Scene 5 A hall in Berkeley castle Matravers reveals that Edward is being kept in a dungeon filled with water up to his knees, yet he survives. They are planning to call in Edward and abuse and humiliate him some more when Lightborn arrives, shows them the ambiguous letter (from which they realise Edward is to be murdered) and the token (which signals that Lightborn himself must be murdered thereafter).

Lightborn gives instructions to what he needs – a red-hot spit and a feather bed – takes a torch and goes down into the dungeon where Edward is kept. He is repelled by the darkness and the stink. Edward knows he’s come to murder him, He describes his conditions, forced to stand for ten days in water soiled by the castle’s sewage, someone playing a drum continually so that he cannot sleep. It’s worth noting, in passing, that the Middle Ages, and the Elizabethan era describing them, were both well aware of the power of psychological as well as physical torture.

Edward accuses Lightborn of going to murder him. Lightborn says he will not have his blood on his hands and Edward is slightly appeased. We know Lightborn will not literally have blood on his hands as he does not intend to stab Edward, but to insert the red-hot poker in his anus. It is a very black piece of humour on Marlowe’s part.

Somehow a bed appears in the scene. Some editors suggest Lightborn has brought Edward onstage i.e. up out of the ‘dungeon,’ where a bed has been brought by Matravers. Now Lightborn gently coaxes Edward to lie down on it. Edward’s spurts of misgiving and fear are surprisingly moving, for Marlowe. He closes his eyes, begins to drift off, then suddenly starts awake and says he fears if he sleeps he will never wake.

At which Lightborn confirms it’s true, shouts for Matravers and Gurney to come running in with a table which they turn upside down and lay on Edward’s body and press so hard they suffocate him. No red-hot poker? No. It was by Marlowe’s time part of the legend of the king’s murder and is in his primary source, but Marlowe chose to leave it out. Possibly because of the censorship, murdering a king was historical fact, but such a crude torture of the lord’s anointed might have got the play in trouble with the authorities.

No sooner is Edward dead and the other three stand back from their labours, than Matravers stabs Lightborn to death. Grim and brutal. Mind you, if you think about how Shakespeare handles the death of kings or emperors, it always involves extended metaphors of Nature turned upside, down, earthquakes, graves yawning open, night-owls shrieking and so on. All that kind of supernatural paraphernalia is utterly absent from this account.

Scene 6 The royal palace Matravers reports to Mortimer that the king is dead, Lightborn murdered but Gurney has fled and might well leak their secret. Enraged, Mortimer tells him to get out before he stabs him.

Seconds later Queen Isabella enters to tell Mortimer that young Edward III has heard his father is murdered, tears his hair with grief, and has roused the council chamber against Mortimer. a) Edward has heard almost before Mortimer himself – or, more precisely, as soon as the audience has been informed of an action, it is one of the conventions of these dramas that all the other characters learn the same information at the same time. Young Edward has not only learned about his father’s murder, but raised the council about it, in approximately the same space of time it took Isabella to tell Mortimer about it, maybe 60 seconds.

These plays take place in magic time, in a sort of imaginative time which is closer to our unconscious sense of the connection between events and people, than to our everyday, rational understanding of time. In actual history, three years passed between the murder of Edward II and the revolt of young Edward III against his ‘Protector’, Mortimer, and the Queen. In this play not even three minutes pass.

Enter King Edward the Third, Lords and Attendants. Edward has grown in stature and now takes upon himself the authority of king, says his murdered father speaks through him and accuses Mortimer of murder. Mortimer says where’s the evidence but Edward produces the letter Mortimer gave Lightborn (it appears the Gurney must have handed it over).

Edward orders Mortimer to be taken away in an executioner’s cart, to be hanged, drawn and quartered. This sounds brutal – it is brutal – the intention was to demonstrate the utter control over every subject’s body of the all-powerful monarch.

Mortimer delivers a dignified soliloquy about facing death, then is taken away by officers. Edward is uncertain how to treat Isabella who pleads with him as her own flesh and blood that she had no part in the murder. Edward orders her to the Tower of London pending more police work and maybe a trial. Isabella weeps a few more phrases of regret, and is taken away.

Officers enter with the head of Mortimer. See, it’s Magic Time, by which I mean that orders are no sooner given than they are carried out, as the unconscious mind wishes all its desires to be enacted, immediately. It is more like dreamtime than the Real World. This may be a so-called history play but it is, in this respect, as much an inhabitant of fairy land as a Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Mortimer’s head is given to Edward who speaks to it, cursing that he was too young to prevent his father’s murder.

Attendants enter with the hearse of King Edward II (who had, in Real Time, been dead and buried for three years), so that Edward can put on his funeral robes, make his last speech – offering his dead father the traitor’s head, weep for his father, then everyone processes offstage to presumably funeral music, maybe the slow beating of a drum.

Thoughts

The history of the events described in this play are long and complex and it is impressive the way that Marlowe manages to contract and compress them into a dramatic whole.

Like Shakespeare he gets characters’ ages wildly wrong (young prince Edward appears towards the end of Part one when he hadn’t in fact been born yet), puts characters on the wrong sides of the conflict, conflates two characters into one or just invents them as he needs them. He has bent and twisted the events related in his sources, mainly Holinshed’s Chronicles, entirely to suit his own needs.

But more than that, what comes over is the immense freedom of the Elizabethan stage as a medium: a few props could be moved around on an empty stage and, bingo, we have moved from a room in the king’s palace to open country in Yorkshire, a handful of people wearing robes march onstage and we are at the king’s coronation, they all exit and a curtain at the back of the stage is drawn apart to reveal the king in his dungeon.

This makes Elizabethan plays difficult to stage, but amazing to read, because of their blithe indifference to the limits of reality or factuality. Almost in mid-sentence characters transition from one setting to another, can walk from a castle in Wales into a palace in London. Quite quickly you get used to the range of settings the playwrights deploy, and the extraordinary freedom with which they deploy them, the speed with which they get to the point, the kernel of a scene, with characters over-reacting, storming and raging, falling helplessly in love – whatever it is, the playwrights get straight to the heart of a scene and then milk it for all it’s worth.

It is a fast-moving parade of colourful scenes which, repeatedly remind me more of pantomime, with its garish baddies and soppy love affairs, and comedy turns, than 21st century media like TV plays or serious film.


Related links

Marlowe’s works

Bartholomew Fair by Ben Jonson (1614)

Bartholomew Fair is a very long comic play set in London’s huge and sprawling Bartholomew Fair. The fair had been held every year on 24 August since the 12th century in the precincts of the Priory at West Smithfield, outside the Aldersgate, and by Jonson’s day had grown into a massive, teeming festival of entertainment, sideshows and crime.

Reflecting the size and complexity of its subject matter, Bartholomew Fair is a very decentralised play. There is no hero or central authority figure, although a couple of the more monstrous caricatures come to dominate the narrative. Instead there are some 33 speaking parts which sprawl across an unusually long text.

The characters can be divided into two categories: the regular fair stallholders who remain their colourful selves throughout the play, such as fat Ursla, keeper of the roast pig stall, and Edgworth the cutpurse; and the visitors to the fair, a more disparate crew who can be sub-divided into three groups:

  1. A citizen family made up of John Littlewit – immensely proud of his own cleverness and of his beautiful wife Win-the-fight, her mother Dame Purecraft, and Purecraft’s spiritual father, the vehement Puritan, Zeal-of-the-land Busy. Win is pregnant, so one motive for the family going to the fair is to buy some of the roast pig it was famous for and she is yearning for; but another is so Littlewit can see the puppet show he has written.
  2. Another family party led by Bartholomew Cokes, a legendarily simple-minded idiot, his tiny angry tutor Humphrey Wasp (who Cokes winds up by referring to throughout as ‘Numps’), his fiancee Grace Wellborn (who is reluctant to marry Cokes) and Cokes’s married sister, Mistress Overdo.
  3. A pair of witty gallants – Winwife who is a suitor for the hand of Dame Purecraft, and Quarlous (who at one point accuses his friend of ‘widow-hunting’). These two only go to the fair once they’ve learned the Cokes family are going, because they reckon the latter will behave so stupidly as to be good entertainment.

Omitted from this list is Justice Overdo. One of the main themes of this complex play is the legal situation of wards of court. Through the Court of Wards, Justice Overdo has ‘bought’ Grace Wellborn, i.e. become her guardian, expressly in order to marry her – and her fortune – off to his idiot brother-in-law Cokes. One of the complex ironies of the play is that Justice Overdo ploughs through the fair seeking out relatively minor misdemeanours while all the time blind to the gross moral (albeit legal) crime which he was committing (the issues is explained in detail on page 98 of the New Mermaid edition).

Similarly short-sighted and troublesome is the butt of the other Big Theme of the play, which is Puritanism. For over forty years, ever since the earliest plays began to appear on Elizabethan stages in the 1570s, Puritan preachers and writers had been violently denouncing plays and, by implication, most forms of imaginative writing. They accused them of dramatising and thus glamorising all manner of crimes, including murder and adultery, stirring up bawdry at every point, and also as providing a cockpit for gallants and fine ladies and city merchants and prostitutes and petty criminals to meet and indulge their basest passions.

When the play was presented to James I in 1614 Jonson wrote a short verse prologue specifically addressing the king and the trouble he had with non-conformists and Puritans – ‘the zealous noise of your land’s faction’ and their ‘petulant ways’ – is mentioned as early as line 3 and makes up most of the content:

Your Majesty is welcome to a Fair;
Such place, such men, such language, and such ware
You must expect: with these, the zealous noise
Of your land’s faction, scandalised at toys,
As babies, hobby-horses, puppet-plays,
And such-like rage, whereof the petulant ways
Yourself have known, and have been vext with long.

So an overbearing city official (Overdo) and an overbearing humbug (Busy) are the two main, serious, satirical butts of the play – but there are plenty of other victims, large and small.

Cast

Visitors to the fair

John Littlewit, a Proctor
Solomon, Littlewit’s man
Zeal-of-the-land Busy, suitor to Dame Purecraft, a Banbury Man
Winwife, his rival for Dame Purecraft, a Gentleman
Tom Quarlous, companion to Winwife, a gamester
Bartholomew Cokes, an Esquire of Harrow
Humphrey Wasp, his tutor
Adam Overdo, a Justice of Peace

Win-the-fight Littlewit
Dame Purecraft, her mother, and a widow
Mistress Overdo
Grace Wellborn, Ward to Justice Overdo

Fair people

Ezechiel Edgworth, a cutpurse
Nightingale, a Ballad-singer, who Edgworth slips the purses after he’s cut them
Mooncalf, dim and slow tapster to Ursula
Dan Jordan Knockem, a horse-courser, and a ranger of Turnbull – who talks continually about ‘vapours’
Lanthorn Leatherhead, a hobby-horse seller (toyman)
Valentine Cutting, a roarer or bully
Captain Whit, a bawd with a thick Irish accent
Trouble-all, a madman
Bristle, Haggis } Watchmen
Pocher, a Beadle
Filcher, Sharkwell } door-keepers to the puppet-show
Northern, a Clothier (a Northern Man)
Puppy, a wrestler (a Western Man)

Joan Trash, a gingerbread-woman, always bickering with Leatherhead the toy-man
Ursula, an immensely fat pig-woman
Ramping Alice, a prostitute

Costard-monger, Mousetrap-man, Corn-cutter, Watch, Porters, Puppets, Passengers, Mob, Boys, Etc.

The plot

Before it even starts, there is an unusual prologue in that the first person on-stage is a young stage-sweeper who gives a lengthy moan about how the play they’re about to see is nothing like Bartholomew Fair, he (the sweeper) knows it much better and gave the playwright many useful suggestions which he mocked and ignored.

The stage sweeper is then shooed offstage by two new arrivals, a book holder and scrivener, the former announcing he has come to make a deal with the audience. He gets the scrivener to read out a mock legal contract between author of the new play and the audience, which goes into some detail about how they are only allowed to criticise the play according to the entrance fee they’ve paid, and if one man has treated others audience members he can criticise to the extent of his payment but the others must be silent, and other humorous joshing about audiences and their criticisms. He says the play isn’t going to hearken back to former glories, nor is it going to feature servant-monsters from a Tale or Tempest (usually taken as a reference to Shakespeare’s recent plays The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest). He also goes out of his way to tell the audience to beware of spies and ‘politic pick-locks’ who would interpret this or that character as a libel on the famous and powerful. Such people must be exposed and mocked. All is for entertainment.

Act 1

The entire first act is set in Littlewit’s house, as we meet the man himself, in a good mood and fussing over his wife Win, lovely Win, la Win what a lovely day etc. Then one by one other characters are introduced: Winwife who, it is explained, is a suitor for Win’s mother, Dame Purecraft. Quarlous, who also fancies the Dame. To both Littlewit explains 2 things, 1. that Dame Purecraft has taken to visiting Bedlam to see the mad people, so anyone wooing her would do well to act a bit crazy and 2. just a few days ago her superior in the Puritan religion, Zeal-of-the-land Busy has come from Banbury to stay with them.

The act ends with Littlewit persuading his wife, Win, that she wants to go to the fair to eat pork at the famous pig shop – Littlewit also telling his wife that he has written a play for the puppets that he is itching to see performed.

Key characters

It is a vast play, 180 pages of solid prose whereas others in the New Mermaid hover around 100 to 120 pages, half of that in verse. In other words, it’s just packed with words and verbiage. Some of the characters are given whole pages of dense prose without paragraph breaks to explain their character and purposes.

Quarlous and Winwife play the role of The Observers, a pair of smart alec gentry who are cleverer than all around them. Having observed Littlewit and his compliant wife in the latter’s house – and then the arrival of Coke, the gangling, 19-year-old idiot heir – they declare to each other that following these dimwits to the fair will amount to excellent sport. And so they saunter through the rest of the play, sardonically observing the follies of the rest of the cast, pretending to sympathise while egging them on.

Thus they spend several pages outdoing each other with insults and abuse of Ursla, the pig woman, telling her how fat she is, while she replies with rich Bartholomew insults, until she is so infuriated she goes into her stall and emerges with a red hot scalding-pan, and gets into a fight with the two cocky young men, which she loses and in falling over manages to badly burn her leg so that half a dozen of the fair people have to carry her into her stall (II, v).

Master Overdo dresses up as a madman in order to infiltrate the world of the lowlife stallholders and is amusingly over-shocked by even the slightest scams and adulterations of food or drink or tobacco which he overhears, and has the stage to himself at quite a few early points to make mock heroic speeches about his bravery in going undercover and what he has to put up with in the performance of his duty – pomposity which is clearly intended to be mocked. Specially after he gets into dispute with Edgworth the cutpurse and ends up getting beaten up.

‘It is a comfort to a good conscience to be followed with a good fame in his sufferings. The world will have a pretty taste by this, how I can bear adversity; and it will beget a kind of reverence towards me hereafter, even from mine enemies, when they shall see, I carry my calamity nobly, and that it doth neither break me, nor bend me.’

Zeal of the Land Busy is a conspicuous hypocrite, depicted as endlessly stuffing his face (‘he eats with his eyes as well as his teeth’) while making long speeches about the sins of the flesh. He rails so loudly against Leatherhead’s toy stall and upsets Joan Trash’s basket of gingerbread men all over the floor, so that Leatherhead calls officers who, seeing all this, arrest Busy and take him off to the stocks.

Act 4

In a separate storyline Overdo (in his disguise) is placed in the stocks and learns that a man who he convicted the year before lost his place at the fair and his mind, and Overdo is chastened, and listening to other stories it dawns on him that compassion is suitable for a judge (IV, i).

After this chastening experience they take him out the stocks just as new officers rock up with Zeal-of-the-land who they had intended to put in the stocks but now the ravings of the madman Trouble-All has persuaded to take Busy in front of Justice Overdo instead.

Coke wanders round the fair being an imbecile. He has two purses. When the one containing only a little silver is pick-pocketed he makes a great show of waving around the other one and telling everyone it is full of gold, interspersed with joining in a long ballad about cutpurses sung by Nightingale, in the middle of which Edgworth does indeed pick Coke’s pocket, cutting the strings which attach his purse to his hose, and slipping it to Nightingale when no-one is looking (III, 5).

Except that Quarlous and Winwife are watching and see everything. They approach Nightingale and Edgworth, tell them they saw everything but won’t tell the officers, so long as the two crooks carry out some scams on simple-minded Cokes. Thus in a later scene they arrange for a pear-seller to stumble and drop his pears at Cokes’s feet. So naive is Cokes that he hands his hat, cloak and sword to a kind bystander as he stoops down to collect all the pears – and the bystander – Edgworth – promptly runs off with Cokes’s stuff – who stands up again, looks around, then starts shouting ‘Thief thief!’

Quarlous and Winwife – Quarlous is really the ringleader – commission Edgworth and Nightingale to steal from Wasp the black box containing the warrant for Coke’s marriage to the (very reluctant) Grace Wellborn III, v).

Meanwhile, in their flaneuring round the fair stirring up trouble, Quarlous and Winwife have been accompanied a lot of the time by Grace Wellborn, the poor young woman engaged to Cokes. In Act 4 she explains the situation. Her parents died leaving her a ward of court. Justice Overdo ‘bought’ her from the court and has now engaged her to his idiot brother-in-law, Cokes. Grace has now choice. If she refuses the marriage she will have to herself pay Overdo the value of the estate which he bought to buy her.

This outrageous story lights a spark of love in both men’s hearts and before we know what’s happening, Act 4 scene iii opens with the two men in a swordfight over Grace’s favours She begs them to desist. They say she must choose one of them. She says that’s ridiculous, she only met them a few hours ago. Instead she suggests they write in some writing tablets a name apiece, and then ask the first person to come past to choose one. They agree, write their names and the next person to appear is the madman, Trouble-All, whose every sentence is asking whether people have Justice Overdo’s warrant for their behaviour. He has difficulty understanding the task then ticks one of the two names more or less at random.

Now, Grace made the two suitors promise she wouldn’t show them which name was chosen till she was safely home, but in any case at this moment Edgworth rolls up to tell the pair of gallants that Wasp has fallen in with a droll set of company and that, if they come to watch, they enjoy his discomfiture and watch the box being foisted off him.

Quarlous watches half a dozen of the fair lowlifes playing a stupid game of ‘vapours’ where each person just has to contradict the speaker before him. Edgworth makes sure a fight breaks out between testy little Wasp and the Irishman, Captain Whit, and in the confusion steals the marriage licence (intended for Cokes and Grace) out of Wasp’s black box. Officers arrive to arrest Wasp (their role seems to be to punish everyone who is uppity and overbearing) and meanwhile, Mistress Overdo has been left without her man in the company of these rowdy gamesters and has been trying to calm them and stop them fighting.

Now she asks Whit if he can arrange for her to go for a pee somewhere. Just then fat Ursla enters and Whit asks her if Mistress O can use the ‘jordan’ in her booth to which she points out it is already being used by Win, Littlewit’s wife who we saw, in an earlier scene, saying she needed a leak. Knockem comes upon Whit in a corner with Mistress Overdo trying to help her and the conversation takes a bawdy turn as the rough fairmen make rude innuendos to Mistress Overdo which – I think – she quite enjoys.

Anyway, as Mistress Overdo goes into Ursla’s booth or tent, Littlewit and Win emerge – her presumably relieved to have had a pee – and Littlewit announces he is off to see the puppet show that he wrote and off he goes.

The point is – this leaves Win by herself just by Ursla’s booth and Mistress Overdo within it and sets Ursla thinking – the various rascals and cutpurses she knows will be tired and randy by the end of the fair and she has no ‘plover or quail’ (meaning wenches, meaning whores) ready for their entertainment. And here are two posh and rather silly women abandoned, Win and Mistress O. Ursla suggests to Kockem that they ‘work on’ the two women, with a view to making them compliant with the wishes of the whore customers they know will be arriving soon.

Kockem and Whit immediately set about persuading dim Win that a married woman’s lot is a terrible thing and she would be much better if she became a ‘lady’, wore fine clothes bought for her by her countless male lovers. Win is immediately dazzled, but the plan is knocked awry because, inside Ursla’s tent, Mistress Overdo encountered a real whore / punk, Alice of Turnbull, Ramping Alice, who has started beating and belabouring her. The men – Whit and Knockem – quickly dispatch Alice – after some choice insults have flown about – and resume seducing Win with visions of fine clothes and a coach of her own.

Enter Edgworth who has given the marriage licence he stole out of Wasp’s black box to Quarlous. Edgworth offers Quarlous the women in Ursla’s booth, fine green women he promises, but Quarlous scorns such an offer and warns Edgworth he saw him cut a purse so holds the threat of the hangman over him.

Edgworth exits and enter the watchman, Haggis, bearing Wasp to the stocks which they lock him in. (If you remember Wasp got into a fight with a bunch of roughs and Mistress Overdo shouted for the watch to come and restore peace, and because testy old Wasp wouldn’t stop shouting ‘A turd i’ your teeth’ at everybody, they arrested him.) Quarlous saunters by and enjoys teasing Wasp in the stocks.

As he does so the other officers bring back Zeal-of-the-land Busy and Justice Overdo still in disguise. They lament that they can’t find Justice Overdo anywhere and his assistants don’t know where he is so, in the absence of his authority, they’ll clap these two troublemakers min the stocks and proceed to do so – so for a while Wasp, Overdo and Busy exchange moans.

Trouble-All enters. Now Quarlous has been looking for him ever since he indicated in Grace Wellborn’s writing tablets which man should marry her to ask him which he chose – but the officers now tease Trouble-All and call him a madman so Quarlous is taken aback to learn that the man who has made the decision of whether he will marry Grace or not is insane. By a ruse Wasp escapes from the stocks and the officers, when they return, argue about whether they were locked properly, undo them with a view to redoing them tighter but at that moment Trouble-All enters and the mocking escalates into a fight, during which Overdo and Busy take advantage to escape. When they stop fighting the officers look round and are horrified that their prisoners have escaped.

During this confusion, improbably enough, Dame Purecraft, the widowed Puritan falls in love with Trouble-All because, like many stage madmen, he speaks clearly and nobly (if obsessively and repetitively). While Dame Purecraft declares her love for Quarlous-as-Trouble-All, Quarlous has dressed like this in order to ask Grace to see the chapbook and see which name ‘he’ ticked. Turns out it wasn’t him, it was Winwife. The secret is out.

So: Grace admits it to Winwife who is over the moon and they exit. Quarlous is sunk in dejection as Dame Purecraft tells him she loves him – at which he rounds on her with a snarling abuse of all Puritans. To which she reveals that she is indeed a hypocrite and gives a long list of the deceptions and cons she has been carrying out under cover of being a deacon for the past seven years, not least mulcting gifts from all the suitors she’s led on – and goes on to indict Zeal-of-the-land as ‘the capital knave of the land’ and listing his crimes and deceits – presumably to the enthusiastic applause of the audience.

Quarlous turns to the audience and ponders. Well, he’s definitely lost Grace and has no other prospects in sight. Dame P has just said she’s worth some £6,000. Well… why not marry her, he has Cokes’s marriage licence in his pocket, all he has to do is scratch out the name, marry the widow and come into a fortune and a juicy wife. Yes. He’ll do it.

At this point Justice Overdo-in-disguise approaches Quarlous, thinking he is Trouble-All who he has so much offended, and reveals his true identity and offers to do anything to make reparations, offers him a blank warrant signed and sealed by him. Quarlous jumps at the opportunity, Overdo gives him such a warrant, and Quarlous is left reflecting how powerful this disguise of insanity can be.

Act 5

Act five centres around the puppet theatre and the play Littlewit has written for it. But of course various other plotlines come to a climax.

Enter Leatherhead (who for the rest of the play takes the alias Lantern) and Filcher and Sharkwell, who are going to stage the puppet theatre. Leatherhead reflects that although Biblical subjects are topical (like the fall or Nineveh or Sodom and Gomorrah) domestic subjects like the Gunpowder Plot are best.

Enter a) Overdo in a new disguise, that of a porter, still bent on his misguided mission to seek out ‘enormity’ before, as he plans, bursting forth in all his magnificence to rain down justice on his people. At least that’s how he sees himself; b) Quarlous, who has disguised himself as Trouble-All the madman.

The playmen and their booth: enter Cokes followed, as he now is everywhere, by a flock of children who’ve realised he’s an idiot, he reads out loud the playbill for the benefit of the audience i.e. it is going to be a parody of Marlowe’s heroic poem, Hero and Leander. Enter Lovewit who one of the boothmen owners won’t let enter though he protests he is the author of the damn play!

Littlewit greets Cokes and is surprised to see him without a cloak or hat – Cokes laments how he has lost everything at the fair – both his purses, his clothes and all his friends. Like an idiot, Cokes is excited about the play and asks if he can meet the actors or visit the changing room. Amused, Lantern explains that both are a little small.

This conversation takes in references to contemporary actors, including Richard Burbage and Nathan Fields, before Lantern explains that they commissioned Littlewit to adapt Hero and Leander for modern times and modern audiences. Indeed, we learn that the Hellespont has been translated into the River Thames, Leander is a dyer’s son from Puddle Wharf, and Hero a wench of Bankside, who is rowed one morning over to Old Fish Street and Leander, spying her alighting at Trig Stairs (these are all real locations in Jacobean London) falls in love with her. Or with her white legs. It is a crude, funny burlesque of the Marlowe poem.

Other character arrive for the play: Overdo still in disguise as a porter; Winwife now attached to Grace (they both hear Cokes being very dismissive of Grace who he’s never liked); and the two posh women who have been talked into becoming whores, silly Win and pompous Mistress Overdo, both wearing masks, swanking in fine clothes and enjoying having chairs pulled out for them, men dancing attendance; and Wasp – when Cokes tells Wasp he knows he’s been in the stocks, Wasp laments that his authority over his pupils is now at an end. (To be honest this doesn’t make much impact, because Wasp never seems to have had any influence at all over the idiot Cokes.)

They settle down to watch the play in bad rhymed verse as the puppets play the parts of Hero the fishmonger’s daughter, and Leander the dyer’s son. Cokes keeps interrupting when he doesn’t understand bits, or to praise bits he does understand.

This is by far the funniest part of the play, not least because it is the most self-contained and comprehensible. The reader easily understands that the puppet play is an outrageous burlesque of two classical stories, the tragic love affair and Hero and Leander and the legendary friendship of Pythias and Damon. In Littlewit/Jonson’s hands these become raucous fishwives and drunks. The famous friends fall out as they compete to hurl insults at the lovers which descends into a fight. And a little later puppet Damon and Pythias comes across puppet Hero and Leander snogging, start insulting her as a whore, she turns, bends, flips up her skirts and says they can kiss her whore arse, at which they kick her arse, and all the puppets descend into fighting again. All this while Cokes, like an idiot, repeats various parts of the bad verse, telling everyone else how much he admires it, and then cheering when the puppets start fighting. It’s also funny the way the puppetmaster, Leatherhead/Lantern, whispers asides to Cokes, about the onstage action, as if the puppets are real people.

So as a scene it is by far the most coherent and comprehensible and the comedy is as funny now as it was 400 years ago.

All this argy-bargy wakes up the puppet ghost of Dionysius but he’s barely delivered a speech before into the whole scene bursts Zeal-of-the-land Busy, fired up with rage and fury against the play and against the fair in general. But his wrath against the puppetmaster, Leatherhead, is neatly diverted against the puppets themselves, and Busy finds himself engaged in a Public Debate About Morality with a puppet – much to the derision of the onlookers.

The debate reaches a climax when Busy accuses the puppets of what Puritans had been accusing the theatre and actors for 40 years or more, namely that theatre was an unnatural abomination for encouraging men to dress up as women and women to dress up as men. The puppet Dionysius gleefully refutes Busy by lifting up his skirts and revealing that – he has no sex at all!

Deflated, Busy acknowledges defeat and sits down.

But this is the moment Justice Overdo chooses to throw off his disguise and carry out his Grand Promise to discover the ‘enormities’ of the fair and punish them all.

OVERDO: Now, to my enormities: look upon me, O London! and see me, O Smithfield! the example of justice, and Mirrour of Magistrates; the true top of formality, and scourge of enormity. Hearken unto my labours, and but observe my discoveries; and compare Hercules with me, if thou dar’st, of old; or Columbus, Magellan, or our countryman Drake, of later times. Stand forth, you weeds of enormity, and spread.

Immediately all the shady characters – Knockem, Whit – start sneaking away. But the real point is that, instead of dispensing justice and creating order, Overdo’s presence raises confusion to new heights. Ursla comes running in chasing the real Trouble-All, who has stolen her pan because, as Ursla explains, some nasty man stripped Trouble-All and borrowed all his clothes. Overdo turns to the man he thought was Trouble-All, who is in fact Quarlous and now admits it. Overdo orders the two masked women in the audience to unmask and they are revealed as Win – so Littlewit is appalled to see his wife dressed up as a whore – and Mistress Overdo – and the Justice is dumbstruck to see his wife dolled up like a trollop. Worse, she is immediately sick into a basin having drunk to excess (explains how the rogues got her to dress that way in the first place).

While Overdo is struck dumb, Quarlous – the witty cynical gallant who has in many ways been a chorus and instigator of scams – now steps forward and takes the Justice’s function, pointing out the true state of affairs.

  • The man Overdo took a liking to early on in the fair and has been protecting throughout is none other than Edgworth the cutpurse, who stole both Cokes’s purses and helped stir up the fighting which got Overdo and Wasp landed in the stocks.
  • Grace Wellborn, who Overdo intended to marry off to Cokes, has now become ward to Quarlous, who filled in the blank seal and signature he gave him to this effect.
  • Quarlous hands Grace over to Winwife, who won her in the little game where she wrote their names down and got the first passerby (who happened to be Trouble-All) to choose one. But since Quarlous is now Grace’s guardian, Winwife must pay him the value of her estate in order to free her for marriage. (This is a little difficult to follow, but it was the law of the land at the time.)
  • Quarlous hands Trouble-All back his cloak and gown and thanks him for the loan.
  • Then turns to his wife, Dame Purecraft, whom he has married in the guide of the madman Trouble-All, and who he now promises he can be mad whenever he pleases.
  • And then points to Wasp and facetiously thanks him for the marriage licence (which Quarlous got to steal out of Wasp’s black box) which he has used to marry the widow.

So Zeal-of-the-land Busy has been publicly humiliated and revealed as a hypocrite; Justice Overdo revealed as a man puffed up with own self-importance who doesn’t have a clue what’s going on, and his wife was on the verge of becoming a drunken whore; Wasp has lost all authority over his pupil; Littlewit has realised his wife was also easily led to become a fairground bawd; Winwife did win a wife, but only by default, not out of his own abilities.

And Quarlous is the clear winner and impresario of the entire play. As such he reprimands the justice:

QUARLOUS: Remember you are but Adam, flesh and blood! you have your frailty

And then goes on to perform the traditional role of inviting everyone to an end-of-comedy celebration feast at Overdo’s house:

QUARLOUS: Forget your other name of Overdo, and invite us all to supper. There you and I will compare our discoveries; and drown the memory of all enormity in your biggest bowl at home.

And then the Epilogue steps forward to address the king and asked if he was pleased. Presumably he was, as Jonson wasn’t thrown into prison! In fact by this stage, Jonson was well into his second career as a writer of masques for the royal court, and was in the highest favour.

Thoughts

Long Bartholomew Fair is so epically long – twice as long as a play like The Shoemaker’s Holiday – and consists of walls of solid prose unrelieved by passages of verse like all the other Jacobean comedies I’ve read – that I was just relieved to get to the end of it.

Numerous characters Both Volpone and The Alchemist have a much smaller cast of characters, much more focused plots and move much faster. There are so many characters in Bartholomew Fair that I found it difficult to distinguish many of the minor ones, especially the rogues who only appear in a few scenes, like Puppy and Cutting and Northern and Haggis and Filcher and Sharkwell.

Difficult prose This is compounded by the fact that 17th century prose is difficult to read. It’s unusual to get even a single sentence that doesn’t contain at least one obscure word or expression, or isn’t part of an elaborate metaphor which is incomprehensible without a good footnote. So you are continually stopping to read the notes and understand what they’re saying.

Different motivations And at a level just above the verbal, it’s often difficult to understand what the characters are trying to say or do. Even when you’ve understood every word in a speech it doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve understood why the character said it or what they were driving at. You are constantly rubbed up against the fact that, on a verbal and minor psychological level, the people of 400 years ago had different moment by moment concerns, and expressed them in language, metaphors and elaborate conceits, which are hard to grasp.

Disease Despite these obstacles, several things do come over loud and clear. The first is how utterly unlike our times the Jacobean era was in two obvious respects: the brutality of its punishments and the virulence of disease. There was no medicine worth the name and not only the recurring pandemics of plague, but smallpox, typhoid, syphilis and a host of other diseases killed or maimed a large percentage of the population and there was nothing the so-called doctors or anyone else could do about it.

Brutality As to the punishments, it is hair-raising the way even minor offences led to hanging, and the play refers throughout to the ritual whereby the condemned were taken in carts from the various London prisons to Tyburn to be hanged amid much popular celebration. But even worse in its way was the commonness with which whipping and scourging was applied. Ramping Alice the prostitute was whipped and scourged simply for being a prostitute.

Therefore the people in this time, as for centuries before and for some time to come, lived between two dire threats, the threat of catching, suffering horribly and dying from appalling diseases – and the threat of infringing one of any number of man-made laws and being subjected to capital punishment or extremely violent punishments.

Sex The next most obvious aspect is the absolute drenching of the play in sex and sexual innuendo. As with most comedies there’s a marriage plot (who will marry Grace Wellborn?) surrounded by seemingly endless jokes about marriage and adultery, endless references to the cuckold’s horns which arise when a man’s wife is unfaithful to him. But it’s far deeper than that, not a page of the text, not a minute of the play goes by without someone making a comment which has a sexual implication or double meaning. In these plays sex is everywhere, all the time.

Theatrical convention Now you could take this at face value and say something like, the Elizabethans and Jacobeans lived in a society which was massively less sexually repressed than our own, in which everyone all the time is making sexual comments and innuendo. Except that, as the editor of the Mermaid edition of The Shoemaker’s Holiday, D.J. Palmer, emphasises, plays like this should not be taken as documentary evidence of 1600s London life – far from it. They are entertainments and follow the conventions of entertainment, many of which have stayed the same from Chaucer to TV sitcoms like ‘Allo ‘Allo, Open All Hours or Last of the Summer Wine.

For centuries – in fact for millennia, because the Greeks and Romans did it, too – playwrights have used bawdiness and double entendre to make people laugh and have flooded the stage with sexual innuendo and byplay precisely because it was and is so lacking in everyday life. Characters on stage are licensed to be outrageously forward and suggestive (just as they are licensed to fall into despair and kill themselves or rage and storm and murder people) precisely as an outlet for feelings and impulses which most people, most of the time, in most societies we have records of, have been forced to repress and contain.

Overdo As to the obvious themes of the play, these are embodied in arguably the two key figures are Justice Overdo and Zeal-of-the-Land Busy. The justice is probably the more important one and his storyline concerns the way he adopts a disguise to seek out ‘enormity’, but this is problematic. Arguably going in disguise means abdicating the responsibility he has to be there in person – we see the watchmen at a loss what to do without his authority – and has a secondary indictment in that the ‘enormities’ he thinks he discovers are trivial. The main point of his storyline though, is seeing close up the impact a casual judgement of his against Trouble-All had on the poor man, namely to drive him mad.

Busy Zeal-of-the-Land Busy has less stage time than Overdo but is a more vivid character, not least because the Puritan rhetoric he uses is so very distinctive and, in its way, attractive. Here he is warning his little flock about the perils of the fair:

BUSY: The place is Smithfield, or the field of smiths, the grove of hobby-horses and trinkets, the wares are the wares of devils, and the whole Fair is the shop of Satan: they are hooks and baits, very baits, that are hung out on every side, to catch you, and to hold you, as it were, by the gills, and by the nostrils, as the fisher doth; therefore you must not look nor turn toward them.—The heathen man could stop his ears with wax against the harlot of the sea; do you the like with your fingers against the bells of the beast.

He is taken down twice, once when the widow, Dame Purecraft, reveals to Quarlous and the audience all the scams she and he have been foisting on their ‘brethren’ for seven years, and then when he loses his Public Debate to a puppet.

Conclusion

Complicated and obscure as some of it is, the broad plotlines are still totally accessible and Bartholomew Fair is not only sometimes very funny but turns into a thought-provoking meditation on social and cultural power which is still relevant to our times.


Social history

  • The Hope theatre where the play was performed, was also used for bear-baiting. On bear days the stage was taken down to allow packs of dogs to try and maul bears to death while the bears defended themselves and spectators gambled on the outcome.
  • King James opened a public lottery in 1612 to raise funds for the colonisation of Virginia (a colony often mentioned in these plays). James Fort, Virginia, had been founded in 1607, and would be renamed Jamestown.
  • It was a popular stereotype that Dutchmen consumed excessive amounts of butter.
  • Bridewell prison specialised in sexual offenders. The sex worker Ramping Alice was recently an inmate where she was flogged and scourged i.e. cut with the scourge.
  • A waistcoat, when worn without a gown over it, was the sign of prostitutes, who were sometimes known as ‘waistcoateers’.
  • Words for sex worker: prostitute, whore, bawd, jade, punk, waistcoateer, green woman,
  • Tailors were supposed to be a) bawdy, presumably because they saw their clients in states of undress b) greedy, having enormous appetites.
  • Colliers, black from their trade, were thought to be a) notorious cheats b) associated with hell.
  • The trade of working with feathers to make and sell fans and puffs and perukes was associated with Puritans, especially in the Blackfriars area (location of the Blackfriars theatre and also where Jonson lived). The contradiction between their vehement raging against worldly vanity, and the fact they made a handsome profit out of catering to that vanity, did not escape the Puritans’ critics.

Related links

Jacobean comedies

Cavalier poetry

17th century history

Restoration comedies

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