Galatea – Act One: “since my father will have it so, and fortune must”

Scene One: Galatea’s father explains to her why he’s dressed her as a boy; he’s attempting to keep her from being selected as Neptune’s sacrificial virgin. He recounts to her the history of the virgin sacrifice. Galatea is uncomfortable being disguised as a boy and protests that destiny cannot be changed or avoided.  

The 1.1 plot exposition not only provides the backstory for the virgin sacrifice and consequently, why Galatea is dressed as a boy, it situates the play in its forest setting. Galatea and her father Tityrus rest and talk under the same tree where every five years a virgin is bound and left for the sea monster Agar. Galatea protests being garbed as a boy and against attempts to avoid her destiny (“Destiny may be deferred, not prevented” 1.1.76-77), but the location is just as important as her disapproval. Galatea, although protesting her disguise, possesses an agency the virgins tied to the sacrificial tree did not/will not have: she can walk away from the tree at will.  As the plot unfolds, Galatea realizes this agency and proves more philosophical, and wiser, than her father (as does Phillida). This realization gives the girls’ eventual relationship a gravitas and solidity it might not have had if they been less thoughtful or mature.

The 1.2 exposition from The Tempest, written much later in 1610-11, is similar in many respects to Lyly’s opening scene. In Shakespeare’s play, Prospero (like Tityrus) tells his tale to his daughter Miranda, who (like Galatea) listens intently and exclaims in wonder as it unfolds. Prospero and Tityrus both employ forms of deception in their attempts to direct their daughters’ destinies, and both stories involve danger from the sea (Tempest has the titular storm; Galatea has a flood legend and a sea monster).


Scene Two: Cupid encounters one of Diana’s nymphs in the wood. She is less than impressed by him, and by love in general, which angers him and leads him to begin his mischief.

At the end of Scene One, Tityrus and Galatea remark on the gods “hav[ing] taken shapes of beasts” (1.1.97) in their quest for love. Five lines later, Cupid makes his entrance at the start of Scene Two. He encounters one of Diana’s nymphs, who has no interest in him or love. She brushes his hints and suggestions aside and exits the stage, calling him a “little god” (1.2.32). The antagonized and offended Cupid then vows to cause trouble among the nymphs so they will know he is a “great god” (34).

With the introduction of Cupid and the nymph, Lyly introduces puns and wordplay. In the previous scene, the discussion between Galatea and Tityrus was straightforward, reflecting their simple pastoral (read: non-courtly) life. The nymph’s first lines in Scene Two launch the wordplay (“There is none of Diana’s train that any can train” [1.2.6-7]) and it picks up twenty lines later (“I will follow Diana in the chase, whose virgins are all chaste, delighting in the bow that wounds the swift hart in the forest, not fearing the bow that strikes the soft heart in the chamber” 25-28). This punning, twisting, and turning of words will be a staple of the text from this point on. Note that wordplay enters the text with Cupid, and therefore with the idea of love and physical attraction. It also implies that the appearance of a god signals a portal or threshold between the rustic and the courtly (or, the simple and the wittily deceptive).


Scene Three: Phillida’s father Melibeus explains to her that he’s dressed her as a boy to protect her from Neptune’s sacrifice. She, like Galatea, is not comfortable with the disguise.

The difference in the girls’ responses to their fathers’ disguising them is worthy of note. In Scene One, Galatea’s protestations were premised on her belief that destiny cannot be avoided or delayed. In Scene Three, Phillida’s argument is that it is not becoming, or virtuous, for her to wear male clothing. She argues that she “must keep company with boys and commit follies unseemly for my sex…and be thought more wanton than becometh me” (1.3.18-21). Phillida is the first character to use the word “wanton,” which as mentioned before, is used frequently throughout the play. Does this connect to the wearing of gendered clothing and its perceived effect on behavior and virtue? The recurrence of “wanton” is an interesting detail to keep in mind.

It is also helpful to consider the manner of the girls’ responses. Both are obedient to their fathers’ wishes, but it can be argued that Galatea pushes back more forcefully against her father’s directive. Her stance on destiny and virtue relies on reason, and her appeal is longer in length and more direct than that of Phillida. Phillida’s response is more submissive, her few lines of argument based on others’ perception of her honor, behavior, and appearance. Galatea’s reply to her father is three times longer than Phillida’s (fifteen lines vs five), and Scene One closes without a clear resolution to Galatea and Tityrus’s disagreement. Phillida, by contrast, states “I agree, since my father will have it so, and fortune must” (26-27), and the scene ends almost immediately. The glimpse into their personalities situates them for growth and change as the plot unfolds.


Scene Four: Three brothers, Rafe, Robin, and Dick, are cast ashore after being shipwrecked. They begin quests to find employment or new masters.

With the entrance of Rafe, Robin, and Dick, Lyly introduces more blatant sexual innuendo and punning along with themes of cunning and cozenage. The brothers are clown figures, and revel in making saucy, sarcastic remarks. One of the recurring puns is on the word “points,” which were the “tag ends of the laces that held upper and lower garments together” (Hunter and Bevington 42, n.44-5). “For you see betwixt us three there is not two good points” (1.4.44-5); “Well, begin with your points, for I lack only points in this world” (53-54). As the scene ends, the three sing a song about shipwreck and fate that includes the verse “For being well manned / We can cry ‘Stand!’” (94-95). For the audience, these bawdy lines might gesture to Galatea and Phillida, dressed as boys but not “well-manned” in any sense of the word.

Once more, the sea is shown to be important to the action of the play. Here, rather than flooding the village, it casts the brothers and the Mariner ashore after a shipwreck. Traditionally, the sea and sea voyages were associated with fortune (the rise, fall, and ebb of tides corresponding with its fickleness) and the fact that the three brothers are shipwrecked hints that fortune is not on their side. Their first attempt at a new master is with the Mariner, but they cannot grasp the basics of navigation, so he leaves them to shift for themselves. Their inability to understand the secrets of navigating the sea also suggests their poor fortune: the Mariner has the knowledge and canniness to ply the sea (fortune), but the brothers do not. They must now scheme, cozen, and use cunning to get ahead.

Galatea and John Lyly: Introduction and Overview

In short (very short), John Lyly (c.1554-1606) was one of the star playwrights of the late 1500s. Nearly all his plays were written for the Children of Paul’s, perhaps the most important boy theatre company in early modern London. Many of his characters are women, nymphs, or fairies; at the time, these were roles for young men and boys. Lyly appealed to Queen Elizabeth for patronage for many years but was never rewarded. He died relatively poor and unknown. (More information on Lyly can be found here and here.)

Galatea was entered into the Stationers’ Register in 1585. Like Lyly’s other plays, it is heavily influenced by Greek mythology. Its forest setting is important, as it brings together humans and gods in a space often considered a threshold between two worlds. In many early modern plays, a pastoral or forest setting signals a place of transition or freedom, especially from the strictures and hierarchy of the Court — think of Rosalind and Celia in Shakespeare’s As You Like It, or the lovers in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. As with AYLI, Galatea’s setting is pastoral, but Lyly’s realm is more liminal than Shakespeare’s: not-quite-human, but not-quite-myth. Much like Dream, this brings the people who enter it face-to-face with gods/goddesses, nymphs, and fairies.

The main plot involves two girls disguised as boys by their fathers. In their fathers’ minds, the male attire will help their daughters escape being selected as a virgin sacrifice. The girls each hide in the forest, and when they meet, things get interesting. A subplot has Cupid dallying in the same wood and deciding to have some sport with Diana’s nymphs, who live and hunt in the forest. Another subplot is the story of three shipwrecked brothers who end up in the vicinity and attempt to find a way to easy fortune. All three plot lines converge in the final scene.

Here are the characters, with a short explanation of who (and what) they are:

  • AUGUR: An oracle who warns the citizens of their debt to Neptune and interprets the outcome of the sacrifice.
  • ALCHEMIST: The first of Rafe’s new masters.
  • ASTRONOMER: The second of Rafe’s new masters.
  • CUPID: Venus’s son. Likes to wander about in disguise and cause trouble with his arrows of love.
  • DIANA: Goddess of the hunt. She places a high value on chastity, both for herself and the retinue of nymphs who accompany her. Diana has no time for the silliness of love.
  • DICK: One of three shipwrecked brothers attempting to improve their situation either by finding a sympathetic master or by cunning and cozenage.
  • ERICTHINIS: Accompanies the sacrificial virgin to the fateful tree.
  • EUROTA: One of Diana’s nymphs, and a victim of Cupid’s tricks.
  • GALATEA: A fair maiden. Her father Tityrus disguises her as a boy so she will not be selected as the sacrificial virgin, causing confusion and unexpected results.
  • HEBE: The maiden selected to be the sacrificial virgin.
  • LARISSA: Another of Diana’s nymphs. She also gets caught up in Cupid’s mischief.
  • MARINER: Comes to shore with the three brothers but doesn’t put up with them for long.
  • MELIBEUS: Phillida’s father. He decides dressing her in boy’s clothes is a way to keep her safe from Neptune’s sacrifice.
  • NEPTUNE: The god of the sea. Requires a virgin be sacrificed to him every five years to make up for the citizens’ previous neglect of him and the destruction of his temple.
  • PETER: Apprentice to the Alchemist, and just as crafty.
  • PHILLIDA: Melibeus’s maiden daughter. Like Galatea, her father disguises her as a boy so she will not be sacrificed to Neptune (again, with unforeseen consequences).
  • RAFE: Another of the shipwrecked brothers. We follow him in his attempts to find a master that will improve his fortune.
  • RAMIA: Another of Diana’s nymphs who feels the effect of Cupid’s fun.
  • ROBIN: The last of the three shipwrecked brothers.
  • TELUSA: Another of Diana’s nymphs on the receiving end of Cupid’s sport.
  • TITYRUS: Galatea’s father. Like Melibeus, he decides dressing Galatea as a boy will save her from the virgin sacrifice.
  • VENUS: Goddess of love and Cupid’s mom.

Lyly’s afore-mentioned debt to myth is obvious from these characters, and the forest setting has been discussed. What else is notable? Cross-dressing, disguise, and mistaken identities are extremely important. These devices are the play’s lifeblood, and many characters are garbed as, or attempt to pass themselves off as, something they are not. “Cozenage” or “cheating, deception, fraud” (per the Oxford English Dictionary) is another type of disguise seen throughout. Who is being authentic? Is anyone? Are they doing it of their own accord, or do they have no choice? What is their agenda? How does disguise allow (or hinder) the idea of self? Finally, there’s the question of fate. Can it be controlled, directed, or avoided? Are you fated to love? To live a certain way?

Looking at the text from a literary standpoint, Galatea is filled with repetition and wordplay. There are the requisite dirty jokes and double entendres (mostly from the three brothers), but there are also words and phrases that appear frequently. “Wanton” is one example. “Wanton,” sometimes defined as “unchaste,” (or “undisciplined, ungoverned; unmanageable, rebellious” per the OED) is used no less than ten times, mostly by Telusa and Diana. It’s apparent Lyly found this word especially useful, or descriptive, for this particular tale. Other intriguing structural aspects of Galatea are its heavy use of asides and direct addresses to the audience. Lyly uses them to show interiority, but they also engage the audience and create dramatic impact. The soliloquies and lengthy monologues Lyly gives many of the characters are used to similar effect.

There aren’t a lot of clips of Galatea online, but Rider University posted their 2016 production on YouTube. Before Shakespeare did a wonderful blog on a workshopping of the play and is an excellent resource on early modern drama in general. There’s also a rather different Lego version available, if that’s your thing.

For this blog and my other work on the play, I relied on the excellent Revels series version edited by George K. Hunter and David Bevington (Manchester UP, 2000). For all Shakespeare references, I used the Arden editions (the Third Series when available). The text of Galatea can also be found (free) on The Folger’s Early Modern English Drama (EMED) website:

So, off we go into Lyly’s world of gods and goddesses, disguise, and realization…

New Year, New Direction…or, Welcome to the Absolute Rebirth of My Blog

During a recent conversation, the topic turned to how the presence of Shakespeare seems to swallow up and overwhelm other early modern dramatists. This wasn’t about bashing the man; it was about the importance of reading or seeing Shakespeare’s plays alongside those of his contemporaries. Doing this reveals how early modern plays interconnect, share, and blatantly steal from one another, and it shows how the spirit of collaboration was alive and well. It also suggests Shakespeare’s influences (and vice versa): from whom he borrowed ideas, and in turn, who borrowed from him. It also introduces the reader or playgoer to some exceptionally good drama.

So where does the average playgoer start if they want to learn more about these plays? A good portion of the information on the web pertaining to Shakespeare’s contemporaries is for scholars and academics, which can be off-putting for the casual reader. Here’s where the new direction for my blog comes in. I want to help fill the void for those who’d like to discover plays like The Spanish Tragedy or ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore but don’t have the time or inclination to peruse a thesis or scholarly journal. I do, of course, hope my blog will be of some use to scholars and teachers. I also hope to reach those who want to better engage with Shakespeare, since knowing what Will’s contemporaries wrote about, and how the plays cross-pollenate, can enhance the reader’s or playgoer’s experience. In sum, I’d like my blog to be a resource.

My goal is an instructive close reading that is both engaging and thought-provoking. Here’s the plan: for each play, my first post will be about what to look for as far as overarching themes and concepts. Next, I’ll do more focused posts, act by act, pointing out anything interesting or important that might enhance the experience of seeing or reading the play. Since interpretations and productions vary, my posts will cleave to the spirit of the texts, but I will incorporate links to online videos where available. Finally, in hopes of making the unfamiliar more familiar, I’ll note any similarities to Shakespeare plays. If something in Galatea, for instance, is like something in The Tempest, that connection might be key to concepts otherwise missed.

This new direction isn’t meant to be an exhaustive analysis. I’m not going to state a thesis or make any claims. I’m simply going to point out things I find interesting and unusual in the hope it will help others discover and enjoy non-Shakespeare drama. I’m proselytizing for Shakespeare’s contemporaries, but I’m not the only one; check out the Read Not Dead project in the UK and the Rarely Played play-reading series at the Stratford Festival in Ontario, if you haven’t before. There’s also been an uptick in productions of plays such as Middleton’s The Changeling and Webster’s Duchess of Malfi. Even John Lyly is experiencing a bit of a revival, and if you’ve been following my blog, you know that I’ve previously done some work on his Galatea (ergo, it’s the first play I’ll feature).

This new direction is a work in progress, so I encourage feedback. How can I make this better? What else needs to be addressed? What plays should I include? Last of all, please share and spread the word. More readers mean more feedback and more potential fans of Middleton, Ford, Webster, Beaumont, Fletcher, Heywood…etc, etc, etc.

So there you have it. New year, new direction for my blog (and I hope you enjoyed the Spinal Tap reference in the title). Check back next week for my overview of Galatea.



The Galatea Project: Pt 1 – Diary


What follows is a rambly, diary sort of reflection on the process of preparing, putting together, and someday realizing my dream of a “read not dead” project. I blogged on this before, and some stuff is a recap (sorry, I do tend to repeat myself), but enjoy! (Now go read a non-Shakespeare early modern play, darn it.)

I’ve been asked several times why I don’t teach, and my reply is that I just don’t have the gift of patience teaching in a classroom requires. I am consistently in awe of my teacher friends and how they keep their cool with difficult students and in impossible situations. (So much respect for them!) On the other hand, if you asked me what I’d do in a perfect world, I’d tell you that I’d be working with a theatre company, doing a little dramaturgy and leading talk-backs and curtain discussions. I suppose, then, I do want to teach, but not in a classroom.

Fast forward a year or so after finishing my MA. I decided that rather than be frustrated by the fact that I’m not a dramaturg leading discussions after Shakespeare plays, I’d take a lesson from my old friend Dr. Frank N. Furter and quit dreaming it. I’d be it. I’d put together a casual reading of an early modern play and hold a discussion afterward. Since I’m a perpetual student, after graduating I’d enrolled back at my university as a non-degree seeking student (I get to keep my library rights, so bonus), and I decided I’d contact the school and see if there was any interest in my idea.

I emailed a couple of my former literature professors, as well as the prof that led an online theatre appreciation class I’d recently taken. To my surprise (and relief) they all loved the idea and suggested other professors I might contact. Each professor I spoke with was encouraging and supportive. One theatre professor told me he’d been waiting for someone to suggest this very thing! One of my former literature profs gave me a great idea for the play to use: Lyly’s Galatea. I agreed that yes, Galatea was the one! If you’re not familiar with it, it has everything: cross-dressing, questions of fate/fortune, concepts of sexuality, gender, and relationships, gods, goddesses, and nymphs…and a sea monster. With the play selected, I could get to work. If nothing else, I’d have a better appreciation of a play that had a huge influence on my buddy Will Shakespeare.

What I envisioned for this project was, as I said, a very casual, laid-back reading of the play. I went to a new plays festival to see how they handled their readings; they had music stands at the front for their scripts, and each came forward to read their part. That didn’t appeal to me, and since I hoped to have non-drama majors attend, I didn’t want the reading to be on stage. Sitting around a table in a classroom seemed boring, so I got the idea of sitting on the grass on the lawn in front of our library. Passers-by could stop and listen and join in the discussion afterward. It was different, no pressure, and I hoped it would sound inviting to all kinds of students. I wanted to include everyone who wanted to participate; if we had math majors, awesome! Biology, great! These students would bring an entirely different insight to the play, and their input could lead to some exciting and intriguing discussion.

I had a copy of the Revel series Galatea / Midas, and I downloaded another copy of the play from the Folger EMED site, but I began to wonder if the play was too long for a reading and discussion after. Early modern play lovers (like me) would be in heaven, but for anyone else, it might be deal-breaker. During a discussion with a former professor/mentor of mine who is now a dear friend and colleague (now that I’ve styled myself an independent scholar, I can say that!), she made a remark that has stuck with me, and I am forever grateful. “Cut the play, cut characters, cut whole scenes or acts if you want. This is your project! You’re the artistic director, you’re the director of the play, make it yours!” WOW. I’m an artistic director. WOW. I still like the sound of that. (And thank you again, if you’re reading this. You know who you are.)

Reader, I did just that! Galatea has a subplot of rustics, and I cut the heck out of poor Rafe and his fellow clowns — right out of the play. That brought the length down to about an hour and a half, and also made the story focus more clearly on Galatea, Phillida, and their relationship. I also cut the prologue and epilogue; I felt at liberty to do that because not only is their purpose patronage and getting the play extended for another performance or two, they aren’t always written by the author. Again, this keeps the focus on Lyly and his text. After these cuts, I read through the play and began a more specific edit based on the Revel edition. I glossed some of the more unusual early modern words and phrases, relying on the Revel when necessary. After that, I read through again and tweaked the punctuation a bit. This was based on my own experience of reading the play and consisted of changes I felt would help non-early modernists with the often-weighty syntax.

With the script finished, I set to work on finding some good background info on John Lyly (I picked this from the Globe website: and a short summary of the play. I didn’t want to get too in depth about the play, because I wanted ideas and discussion to grow organically from the experience of reading. I made up a flyer that was eye-catching and meant to suggest that this reading was meant to be interesting and fun, not just a sit-in-your-chair-and-learn kind of thing. I also wrote up some short character descriptions for the organizational meeting so attendees can think about who they’d like to play. The organizational meeting will allow me to judge participation and see if doubling (or tripling!) might be necessary; I will then assign parts and hand out scripts. I plan to give participants the option of picking their character, and after those who are interested in a specific character are happy, the rest can be assigned at random. The character descriptions are light-hearted; one character, Hebe, I described as right out of a melodrama. Like I said before, I don’t want to sway anyone’s impression of a character, but I also want to emphasize the humor in the play.

galatea flyer for blog

With the new semester now underway, I reconnected with my list of professors and let them know all was ready. The response was incredibly supportive, and the organizational meeting is booked for the end of January. During the meeting, based on the schedules of the participants, we’ll set the date for the actual reading; I’m thinking mid-February. I’m excited, but very anxious. If I get 8 or so participants, I’ll be happy. A dozen or more and I’ll be ecstatic!

In part two, I’ll reveal if the organizational meeting is a success or failure, and in part three, I’ll blog about the actual reading. If you’re lucky (?) I might do a part four, reflecting on the project as a whole. Thanks for reading!

Kyd’s “The Spanish Tragedy”: Existential Boundaries Meet Metatheatre

This blog entry has been a long time coming, what with Thanksgiving, being knocked flat by a nasty cold, and the like. Anyway, several weeks back, I did a full-on tweet-gush over the pleasures of re-reading. This was brought on by a third? fourth? more? read of Kyd’s Spanish Tragedy. I went into this particular read with an open mind and came out of it with a new respect for Kyd. I’m not trying to make a cohesive argument here, just noting some impressions and what caught my fancy. This is a dense play with a lot going on (as you know), so I’m going to assume anyone reading my ramble has a basic knowledge of the plot and characters.

I noticed frames and boundaries. Each one nests inside another, yet all are completely separate. Although important to the organization of the plot, these boundaries aren’t left to stand: they’re poked, prodded, and shown to be porous. Kyd begins this nesting and framing by starting the play with Revenge and Andrea on stage; they remain on stage throughout (, watching and at times commenting on the action. In IV.4, Kyd sets it up so we are watching Revenge and Andrea watch the King, Duke, and their retainers watch a play put on by Hieronimo, Bel-Imperia, et al. How meta is that? This is just one example of how ST displays its frames and boundaries. It’s also proud of being a play and wants you to know it. It’s like a Mondrian, formed and formatted by boxes that become the work of art, thereby creating a meta experience for the viewer. So why all the boundaries? Based on my reading experience, early modern playwrights loved boundaries. They knew their importance for separating and defining, but they also recognized their necessity for pushing back, making a point, or creating parody. Gender is one they couldn’t leave alone (I’m sure the gentle reader knows several instances of cross-dressing in early modern drama). Another line they loved to toe is class: think of Malvolio, envisioning himself married to his mistress (and our laughs at his presumption). There’s also the supernatural and spiritual: Glendower, fairies, Endymion, Doctor Faustus. ST rests on more prosaic boundaries, however; we find no cross-dressing or over-reaching of class, and the supernatural considerations are not of religion or power. Kyd’s boundaries are of blood, life, and relationships; he shows us how they structure a particular situation, their porosity, and how they can be collapsed while still holding true. He does this in a way that not only displays his plot’s structure, he revels in the experience of being meta.

One important boundary is Hieronimo’s arbor, which is fraught with meaning. Bel-Imperia and Horatio first meet here to consummate their love after Andrea’s death (II.4). If their consummation is physical, it adds yet another boundary, but even if it’s not, the line between their being friends and lovers is crossed within the confines of this arbor. The arbor stands as a portal between life and death, as it’s where Horatio is murdered and his body hung for his father Hieronimo to find (II.5). It’s a place where Isabella crosses the line between sanity and madness (III.8.5 sd), and where she stabs herself (IV.2.37-38 sd), making it once more a portal between life and death. It is mirrored in the gallows when Pedringano is hung in III.6; his body reminds us of Horatio’s body and the arbor’s association with life and death.

Balthazar’s character is constantly shifting and unsure, moving from one side of a boundary to another, never standing firm. In I.2, he’s literally caught between Horatio and Lorenzo: Lorenzo claims he took Balthazar’s horse by the reins and seized his weapon, while Horatio says he’s the one who knocked him from his horse and unarmed him (I.2.155-158). Balthazar is no help in the dispute. He equivocates by describing Horatio as more courteous and valorous, Lorenzo as brutal, but never allows which was his actual captor (I.2.161-165). By way of this dispute, his character parallels that of Bel-Imperia, who is also a point of contention between the two men. Balthazar recognizes this similarity (II.1.112-131), but he is weak compared to her. Unable to make a stand as far as his feelings, and much to her disgust, he is clearly intimidated by her strength and independence (II.1.9-28).

Through the character of Balthazar, the “fence-sitter” or the person who cannot choose one side of an argument or another is seen as weak and ineffective. This is not a matter of a back-and-forth that permeates boundaries, but one of fearing them. Since Balthazar is unable to maintain a stance one way or this other, he is in danger of being led astray, outwitted, or overcome. This is exactly what happens when the boundaries between the characters of Balthazar and Lorenzo collapse following the murder of Horatio. As Lorenzo puts it, he lays the plan and Balthazar (unwittingly) does the work, so he sees Balthazar as just as implicated in the killing as he is (III.4.38-49). In Lorenzo’s mind, through their conspiracy they become one, merged in his paranoid plan to eliminate all who may know too much. In the final act, Kyd deftly makes note of Baltazar’s lack of a strong, discrete self; preparing to stage Hieronimo’s play-within-the-play, Balthazar is asked “What, is your beard on?” (IV.3.18). In response, he notes his costume beard is “half on; the other [half] is in my hand” (19). Quite frankly, a better definition of waffler, or a character who is half a man or still half boy, I’ve yet to see.

Bel-Imperia is placed behind physical boundaries when her brother Lorenzo locks her in a tower (III.9; III.10.31); but throughout the play, she is framed by various existential boxes and boundaries. In I.4, her dead lover, Andrea, watches as she proclaims her love for his friend, Horatio, who wears Andrea’s blood-soaked scarf as a token (a note to II.6 says “the chorus figures [Revenge and Andrea] have been on stage from the start and remain so…). The scarf, taken by Horatio from Andrea’s arm as his friend lay dead, had been given to Andrea by Bel-Imperia. The scarf therefore binds the three in friendship, love, duty, and finally, the process of revenge. Andrea watches from his place near Revenge as Bel-Imperia lays her gage for Horatio, setting up a love triangle consisting of herself, Horatio, and Balthazar. Balthazar, who was Andrea’s killer (I.4.69), was captured on the field by Horatio but is now captivated by his love for Bel-Imperia, and this interlocking group of lovers is the core of the play. Without the death of Andrea, the spurning of Balthazar by Bel-Imperia, and her choice of Horatio as lover, there would be no motive for the death of Horatio–and no play. Horatio’s murder and Hieronimo’s call for revenge against Lorenzo and Balthazar then dovetails with Andrea’s earlier demand for revenge against Balthazar for killing him in battle. So many to be avenged, so little time!

The play’s love triangle also blends love and war, bringing us back to Bel-Imperia, who repeatedly associates the two. Not only does this keep the strife between Spain and Portingale/Portugual in the forefront, it underscores the battlefield killing of Andrea and his call for revenge. Bel-Imperia’s words of love to Horatio are couched in allusions to battle and he responds in kind: “Thy war shall be with me” (II.2.32), “Appoint the field / Where trial of this war shall first be made” (II.2.39-40); “Nay, then, to gain the glory of the field, / My twining arms shall yoke and make thee yield” (II.2.42-43). Not only are Bel-Imperia’s words to Horatio peppered with references to battle, in one passage, she makes love as war active. After Balthazar proclaims his servitude to her, swears his heart is in thrall (I.4.81, 83), and declares he has “laid [his] heart to gage” (I.4.85), Bel-Imperia turns to leave and purposefully drops her glove, which is picked up by Horatio (I.4.99 sd). Horatio offers it to her, but she tells him to keep it for his pains (I.4.101). In this short passage, the concept of love as war is physically enacted: spying Horatio as he enters, Bel-Imperia throws down her “gage.” This action is a tangible play on the words spoken by Balthazar in line 85, as well as a sign that her choice of lover is Horatio (I.4.67)–who picks up both the glove and her challenge. By picking up Bel-Imperia’s “gage,” Horatio has unwittingly entered into the challenge laid down by Balthazar through his claim to have laid his heart to gage for Bel-Imperia’s love. Not only is Balthazar spurned by his intended, he watches her new love Horatio literally and figuratively pick up her gage, setting the battle in motion.

Bel-Imperia shows her agency by deciding she will love Horatio and refusing to consider Balthazar, who is a politically strategic match. Her framing of love as war, as well as her challenging her suitors with words thick with allusions to battle reveal more than her strength and independence. Is Bel-Imperia at war with love? Could it be she doesn’t want to marry, which would lead to a loss of independence? Or does she simply want to marry the man of her choosing? Is she actively rejecting the idea of a state marriage and becoming a political pawn or prize? Is her Venus/Mars dialog with Horatio a playful way of expressing her sexuality and revealing that she is open to being wooed by him? In III.10.96-99, Bel-Imperia tells Balthazar and Lorenzo that she “fears [her]self…As those / That what they love are loath and fear to lose.” The Norton Anthology of English Renaissance Drama (eds. Bevington et al, 2002) glosses this as a possible expression of the fear of losing her independence (p47, n9). Is it only in an arranged marriage she fears losing herself, especially this one, meant to broker peace between Spain and Portugal (and uniting her with the killer of her dead lover)? A look at Bel-Imperia’s actions and words throughout the play paint a picture of a woman who appears open to love and comfortable in her independence, seemingly willing to marry the man of her choice. An arranged marriage would stifle her, as she is loath to give up her freedom and become a token to broker peace. Her later suicide fits this scenario; if she cannot live and love on her own terms, her life would be intolerable.

Speaking of suicide…there is so much blood in this play: suicides, stabbings, bloody scarves worn as tokens, letters written in blood, tongues bitten off (is that even possible?). Many of these actions take us back to the breaking or maintaining of boundaries. For instance, the sibling relationship between Lorenzo and Bel-Imperia is destroyed when he kills her lover, their blood ties slashed and destroyed, bleeding like Horatio in the arbor. Grief is linked with blood, as is revenge: Andrea’s bloody scarf, Isabella’s blood when she stabs herself, the death and blood in Hieronimo’s play. Bel-Imperia’s prison boundaries are broken by blood when she uses her blood to write a letter to Hieronimo, which finds an echo of sorts in his biting out his own tongue; in these two actions Kyd examines the effectiveness of the spoken word. Bel-Imperia finds the spoken word useless in her captivity, while Hieronimo is able to escape his own captivity (literal and existential) by voluntarily ending his ability to speak.

In every sense, revenge frames this play. It bounds it, opens it (“enter the ghost of Andrea, and with him Revenge” I.1.1 sd) and literally has the last word (“For here, though death hath end their misery / I’ll there begin their endless tragedy” IV.5.47-48). Revenge, as well as the pain and chaos accompanying it in the mind of the grieving, is made tangible as well as implied. Revenge as a character watches the play and keeps us company as part of the audience. It comments on the action (I.1; III.15; IV.5) just as it drives the action, and its presence adds to the meta aspect of the plot: we know the play is about the act of revenge, yet we can see a physical Revenge observing the action and supporting those who call on him. Revenge sustains those who clamor for him, and is joined by the dead, who continue to exist in his company. The living characters are unable to see Revenge and Andrea sitting on the stage (joined by the dead Horatio?), so when Isabella  says “To heaven, there sits my Horatio / Backed with a troop of fiery cherubins” (III.8.17-18), and Bel-Imperia laments Horatio’s unavenged death with “Andrea, O Andrea, that thou sawest” (III.9.9), the nesting, framing, and meta aspects of the play are compounded. In another instance of this, grief, felt by Hieronimo, Isabella, and Bel-Imperia, is given flesh in the character of Bazulto, the old man seeking justice for his murdered son. Hieronmio recognizes him as the “lively image of my grief” (III.14.162), making grief tangible on the stage, just as the embodied Revenge sits watching with Andrea. Perhaps a directorial choice would be to have Bazulto/Grief join them.

The chaos of the mind brought on by grief is enacted in Act IV with the staging of Hieronimo’s play and its jumble of languages and nationalities. During these scenes, ST again shows just how metatheatrical it can be, referencing Hieronimo “knocking up the curtain” (IV.3.1 sd); giving the King a copy of the play and referring to the “argument” or plot (IV.3.6-7); “hanging up the title” (IV.3.17); and appointing the “bookkeeper” (IV.4.9). As the play draws to a close, Kyd nests, boxes and carefully positions, framing that acts as a foil to the apocalyptic chaos of Hieronimo’s play-within-the play. The play-within-the-play dialog is a Babel of languages, its actors speaking at each other rather than to each other, and ending in carnage and bleeding bodies. All the while Revenge and Andrea sit watching; are they watching the king and his retinue or the bloody play-within-the-play? Are they watching us?

In Kyd’s play, revenge is something directed and set in motion by forces on the outside of life. Revenge exists on the boundaries of existence, yet remains a part of it; set apart, yet woven into the fabric of a life. It is shown as a force that can define and include as well as confuse and separate. Kyd, framing his story like a Mondrian and nesting it like a set of Russian dolls, has a lot to say about boundaries, and he does so subtly and succinctly. The blood is there to hold our attention.




What I’m reading: why, another Shakespeare book, of course! “The New Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare”

I just finished The New Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare (Margreta DeGrazia & Stanley Wells, eds.; Cambridge UP, 2010). This medium-sized companion is a good overview of the basics, and would definitely be useful for a school/uni library or on the shelf of any Shakespeare enthusiast. The chapters include a biography of the man by Stephen Greenblatt and a look at the theatres of early modern London by Tiffany Stern, as well as discussions of textual theories and other literary concerns such as Shakespeare’s writing process and how his works came to print. There are chapters on the various genres of the plays, including one on the comedies by Stanley Wells. Discussions of how race, religion, and gender resonate through Shakespeare’s plays are included, as are chapters on Shakespeare and the media, popular culture, global Shakespeare, and Shakespeare in performance. The final chapter is filled with suggestions for further reading and online exploration of Shakespeare in general.

By way of example, in Claire McEachern’s chapter, “Shakespeare, religion and politics,” one section addresses questions of interiority, transformation, and individual action (194-195). The entire chapter is interesting, but I found her short examination of these particular questions especially thought-provoking. When interiority differs from practice, how is this presented on stage? Does performance affect interiority? Do words? Her answers look at Hamlet, Prince Hal, boy actors in female roles, and the dynamic between Iago/Othello, Claudio/Hero, and Rosalind/Orlando. For me, these few paragraphs considering of depth of character as opposed to visual array stood out from the rest of the piece.

The following complete chapters were also standouts (in my humble opinion):

Anthony Dawson, “Shakespeare on the stage” – an interesting look at the physicality inherent in Shakespeare’s texts, such as directed movement, gesture, and stance. He also discusses staging and scenery and how they intersect with the actor and character, as well as how the architecture of the stage contributes to performance.

Jonathan Gil Harris, “Shakespeare and race” – Harris looks at the complexities of race in the texts, how “race” as a word has variable meanings, and its use. His chapter explores “race” in not just Othello, but also examines how it runs through Anthony and Cleopatra, Titus Andronicus, and The Merchant of Venice. (I highly recommend this chapter.)

Stephen Orgel, “Shakespeare, sexuality and gender” – Orgel examines sexuality as it pertains to maturity, gender identity, and marriage in early modern England and Shakespeare’s plays in particular. His findings are intriguing and surprising, and the chapter is an excellent read. Plays treated by Orgel include Twelfth Night and Romeo and Juliet; he also presents cultural and medical beliefs from the period, as well as historical anecdote and legend. (This is another I highly recommend.)

Last but not least, the final chapter on further reading is impressive. Page after page is filled with suggestions for further research on everything from the complete works to stage history to music, including books, journals, and online sources. This catalog of information, along with the bibliography provided at the end of each chapter, gives the student or Shakespeare enthusiast a plethora of ways to increase their knowledge (or just skim around for the enjoyment of it). This overall abundance of sources alone is worth the price of the volume.



What I’m reading: “Stage Directions and Shakespearean Theatre”

(Wow! Two posts in two weeks. Don’t get spoiled, this is likely to be an anomaly.)

I read a lot, and I mean A LOT. Most of the books I read are primary and secondary texts – not much popular stuff. (I’m a pretty boring conversationalist, unless you’re into early modern drama.) I’ll put up some info on what I’m reading, in case you might have an interest. I don’t intend these posts to be a review by any stretch of the imagination, or a complete recounting of the entire book – just a little taste to whet your appetite. Here’s my latest adventure:


Stage Directions and Shakespearean Theatre
Eds. Sarah Dustagheer & Gillian Woods
Bloomsbury Arden Shakespeare, 2018

This is an interesting little volume. I was intrigued by the promise of a closer look at stage directions, and it did not disappoint – I learned many things about the seemingly innocuous “stage direction,” and found the various examinations of them to be thorough, expansive, and highly informative. Contributors included Tiffany Stern, Paul Menzer and Jess Hamlet, Emma Smith, Terri Bourus, and Sarah Lewis.

I’ll quickly touch on some of the discussions I found most notable:

Who actually wrote stage directions? Surprisingly enough, the editors argue in their introduction (as does Tiffany Stern in her chapter) stage directions were not always written by the playwright. There is no definite answer offered for the question, but it is posited that they may have been intended for “backstage” personnel such as prompters, and of course, added by subsequent editors (41).

Are stage directions literary? Emma Smith makes a good case for this, citing instances such as Shakespeare’s referring to Othello as “the moor” (rather than by name) in only a handful of directions – and those being ones gesturing to his sexual relationship with Desdemona. These are things spectators of a play would be unaware of, yet the reader finds in them an underlying suggestion of the stereotype of the “sexual or violent” other. (94-95)

Are they for actors or readers? Well, see the example above, for starters. Also, Douglas Bruster finds that often stage directions include descriptive elements that actors would already know, such as family relationships (sister, brother, etc), location information, and elaborate description of attire. He also finds that some directions appear to be carefully worded so as to include puns and homographs (132-33).

When should editors step in and add them? Are they necessary – and aren’t any added directions simply a directorial choice, as we normally have no written record of how a scene is played? We can assume how a scene may have been played, based on the text, but we don’t really know. Terri Bourus addresses this thorny question, and explores why, how, and when editors should make the choice to add them. She also examines stage directions and how they may be affected by spatial placement on the page.

The book has many discussions on dumb shows – the possible reasons for including them, how they relate to stage directions in general (are they the *real* stage directions?), how they should be interpreted. There are also sections on dead bodies on stage – their “discovery” and what it means metaphysically and theatrically. There are chapters focused on The Duchess of Malfi, The White Devil, and Macbeth. I enjoyed the book, and look forward to reading further on the intricacies and paradoxes that are stage directions. Who knew there could be so much to learn about the staging notes we see scattered throughout a play? Like so much else in early modern drama, there is more to them than meets the eye.