The Duchesses of Malfi

This week, the RSC announced its new season of productions. Excitingly, the company will produce The Duchess of Malfi; even more excitingly, it will be directed by Maria Aberg, who directed an excellent production of Doctor Faustus in 2016. Another Duchess of Malfi is no bad thing and this could yet turn out to be a great one. However, I can’t be the only one who is a bit disappointed. Malfi is the only not-Shakespearean early modern play in the season. While it’s a brilliant play, it’s hardly a particularly bold move. In 2010, Lyn Gardner noted that Malfi had become unusually fashionable; seven years later, Webster’s tragedies remain in vogue: the Globe staged Malfi in 2014 and The White Devil earlier this year; Aberg directed The White Devil for the RSC in 2014. The RSC are currently staging Marlowe and Nashe’s Dido, Queen of Carthage and they’ve produced Apha Behn’s The Rover and Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta in the last couple of years, but this still scratches the surface of a period of phenomenal theatrical creativity.

There are reasons for this, of course. Not everyone loves early modern drama as much as me (fair enough). Theatre companies make commercial choices and they don’t want empty theatres. The RSC’s laudable Scholar’s Pitch project resulted in the full-scale staging of Ford’s Love’s Sacrifice in 2015, but this production was not a commercial success. But the RSC have been adventurous in the past and I hope they will be again. When the Swan opened in 1986 it housed productions of Heywood’s The Fair Maid of the West and Jonson’s Every Man in His Humour.

But while some of the more obscure plays of the period may currently seem like too big a risk there is surely room to expand the repertory further. At the moment, Webster and Marlowe reign supreme (see, for example, Edward II; National Theatre, 2013; Dido, Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, 2015; RSC, 2017; The Jew of Malta, RSC, 2015; Doctor Faustus, RSC, 2016; West End, 2016). But there are plenty of other canonical not-Shakespearean early modern plays which would add variety to a modern repertory. We’re overdue another major production of The Spanish Tragedy, for example and I think it’s high-time for some more Beaumont and Fletcher, especially given the success of the 2014 Sam Wanamaker Playhouse production of The Knight of the Burning Pestle. How about The Maid’s Tragedy, Philaster, or A King and No King? The time would also be ripe for an RSC Tamburlaine, if they wanted to keep within the Marlowe canon.

I’ve been thinking about what scholars can do to help get some of these plays better known. We may not convince the RSC to change their approach, but we can continue to spread interest in early modern plays and to help provide opportunities for actors and audiences to get to grips with the wider early modern canon. In London, the Read Not Dead enterprise continues apace, but it would be lovely to see more opportunities to see rarely performed plays beyond London. To that end, the Playhouse Lab project at the University of Leeds looks very exciting. I’ve also been really encouraged to see actors playing an important part in all three of the conferences I attended this year: Playing and Playgoing at Oxford, Before Shakespeare at Roehampton, and the Cockpit/Phoenix symposium at the London Metropolitan Archives. The three events testify to the importance of practice as research, but they also, more broadly, attest to the value and pleasure of performance. Because so many of the plays we work with as scholars of early modern drama are fun!


Play Previews: May – August

I usually write a preview post every four months or so. It’s that time again…

MAY is a busy month. I’ll be in London later this week where I will try to see The Globe’s Merchant of Venice starring Jonathan Pryce as Shylock. I’ll also definitely see the RSC’s A Mad World My Masters at the Barbican. I was finishing my PhD when this was on in Stratford, so completely missed it, so I’m happy to have another chance to see the Constable of the Commonwealth. I’ll be in Stratford later this month too, where I’ll look forward to seeing Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta and, if possible, Ford’s Love’s Sacrifice. If I can, I’ll also go back to London for Ninagawa’s Hamlet at the Barbican. It will be busy, then, and there will be a lot that I won’t see. I won’t get to the York International Shakespeare Festival and I’ll miss the Malone Society’s staged reading of King Leir at Somerville College, Oxford. Last year’s event, which I wrote about here, was really good, so I’m sad to miss it.

JUNE sees the opening of two of my favourite plays: Measure for Measure at the Globe and Othello at the RSC. I’ll hope to see both. It’s also an interesting month for staged readings of John Ford. The Globe’s Read Not Dead will produce The Queen in May and follow that up with The Lover’s Melancholy and Perkin Warbeck in June. You can see the full list herePerkin Warbeck is really wonderful, so I’ll try very hard to see it (in the meantime, someone please do a full production). I’ll be in Canterbury at the end of the month for the John Fletcher conference at which there will be a script-in-hand performance of The Two Noble Kinsmen at St Mildred’s Church. The full details, including the conference programme, are available here.

JULY involves another exciting Fletcher event: a script-in-hand performance of The Scornful Lady at The Shakespeare Institute. Middleton’s A Game at Chess also gets a script-in-hand performance in July, at an interesting symposium in Canterbury. I also look forward to the opening of the RSC’s Volpone and to the National Theatre of China’s Richard III which is at the Globe.

AUGUST is harder to preview – I’m sure lots of things will pop up between now and then, but I’ll hopefully also see The Merchant of Venice at the RSC and I’m interested in Carol Ann Duffy’s adaptation of the medieval Everyman at the National. I’m sure there’s lots that I’ve missed out or don’t know about and there are some that I’ve ignored (I can’t write about everything!) Let me know what you think!


The Globe regularly produce stage readings of rarely performed plays from the period, under the banner ‘Read Not Dead’. Considering I claim to like a broad range of Renaissance drama it is perhaps a bit shameful that, until this month, I’d never been to one of their productions. I shudder to think of all the stuff I’ve missed since I started my PhD in 2009, but I’m glad, at last, I got to see one their productions. I’m glad, too, it was a play I’d already read; indeed, it was one for which I have a good deal of affection: John Maston’s early Jacobean disguised duke drama, The Fawn.

Unfortunately, I’ve lost my programme and I can’t find a cast list on the internet so I can’t properly praise the actors for a variety of entertaining performers (though I can credit James Wallace with a strong performance as the disguised Duke Hercules). What I can do, however, is praise the play and, in particular, Marston’s brilliant, perverse poetry of the body.  Here’s Herod, talking about Hercules, not realizing he is also talking to him:

By this light, I’ll swear he said his father had the hipgout, the strangury, the fistula in ano, and a most unabideable breath; no teeth, less eyes, great fingers, little legs, an external flux, and an everlasting cough of the lungs.

And here’s Hercules, proposing to find a ‘modest, matron-like creature’ for the jealous Don Zuccone:

She has three hairs on her scalp and four teeth in her head, a brow wrinkled and puckered like old parchment half burnt. She has had eyes. No woman’s jawbones are more apparent. Her sometimes envious lips now shrink in, and give her nose and her chin leave to kiss each other very moistly. As for her reverend mouth, it seldom opens, but the very breath that flies out of it infects the fowls of the air, and makes them drop down dead. Her breasts hang like cobwebs. Her flesh will never make you cuckold. Her bones may.

‘She has had eyes’ earned a great laugh, as well it might, though I was especially enamoured with the image of halitosis so bad is causes birds to fall from the skies. And yet, while The Fawn is interested in the lecherous, the ugly, and the corrupt, it also celebrates the young love of Tiberio and Dulicmel. At the start of the play, Hercules resolves not to be ruled by ‘nice opinion’ and hopes to enjoy the ‘wild longings’ of youth by temporarily divesting himself of power and travelling in disguise to a foreign land. His son, Tiberio, is sent to win Dulcimel’s love for his father, so, initially, Hercules does not seem quite so different from the lusty figures that fill Duke Gonzago’s court (perhaps that is why he is able to play the part of the fawn so well). But Hercules genuinely learns about himself by pretending not to be himself. In a funny and tender scene, Tiberio shows Dulcimel a picture of his father as Hercules watches on in disguise. In the Read Not Dead production, the picture was an old cover shot of Wallace; rather wonderfully, Hercules had to look back at a younger version of himself, as his poor lovesick son tried to pass off the image as ‘the perfect counterfeit’. Later, Hercules wistfully acknowledges he ‘never knew till now how old I was’. It’s a poignant tonal shift which offers a striking reminder of Marston’s ample dramatic talents. Just as well that there will be more Marston soon, as the Globe’s fully-mounted production of The Malcontent opens at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse next month.