The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 13.07389 Wednesday, 13 March 2002
From: Martin Steward <
Date: Tuesday, 12 Mar 2002 17:37:51 -0000
Subject: Early-modern detective story?
Mike Jensen asks, with reference to a recent strand about the origins of
the detective story: "Do you really think a plot cannot have an aspect
where a character wonders who committed a killing without putting the
plot in the detective/mystery genre? Are writers so vulnerable to later
interpretations that this claim is fair? Aside from that, what do these
plays really have in common with Agatha Christie or Dashiell Hammett?
I'll answer my own question: virtually nothing". Indeed. The detective
story plot actually has nothing to do with death or murder as such, and
more to do with mystery, and with privileged perspectives on the story
being sealed off from the audience.
So here's my candidate: Beaumont and Fletcher's "A king and No King"
(1611). This play's dramaturgy seems to signal a notable departure from
the usual conventions of plotting and dramatic irony, even as they had
been expanded in Shakespeare's Romances. In A King and No King,
characters engage in dialogue which is informed by the subtext of their
"really-lived" histories, whose wider relevance is withheld from the
audience until the catastrophe. This has nothing to do with dramatic
irony as conventionally understood - it can only make sense to the
audience after they have seen the last scenes of the play and are
familiar with the really-lived histories of the characters.
Whereas Cymbeline (e.g.) privileges its audience with an omniscient
perspective from the start, A King and No King gives that privilege to a
pair of characters within the play itself - Queen Arane and Gobrius.
Remarkably, they are assumed to exist independently of the drama that
gives them life, and the audience which eavesdrops on that life. So,
when Arane is punished for her attempted assassination of King Arbaces,
Gobrius mercilessly condemns her "that she should stretch her arm /
Against her king", and "think the death / Of her own son"; one would
expect Arane's reply, "Thou know'st the reason why, / Dissembling as
thou art, and wilt not speak", to refer to some terrible secret shared
by the audience. But their secret has never been revealed to the
audience, and at this point the truth is not readily reconcilable with
the characters' words or actions - it is effectively unimaginable. The
couple's cryptic exchange later in the same scene, despite their being
alone onstage, still only hints at this truth. "Nay, should I join with
you" in killing Arbaces, Gobrius says, "Should we not both be torn? And
yet both die / Uncredited?" It is unclear how the apparently loyal
Gobrius can sympathize with this traitorous woman whom he has just
attacked so bitterly. "I do but right in saving of the king / From all
your plots", he insists, to which Arane responds, strangely, "The king?"
Again, it is not clear why their should be any doubt concerning Arbaces
right to be King, as nobody else in the play raises the issue.
To add to the mystery, Gobrius then assures Arane, that "With
patience... a time would come for me / To reconcile all to your own
content", which seems to promise a removal of Arbaces from the throne;
furthermore, Arane's rash actions are said to "take away my power",
forcing Gobrius to "preserve mine own". Only the playgoer blessed with
astonishing foresight (and perhaps only the twentieth-century mind
conditioned by Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie, and the cinematic device of
the "flashback") could deduce from this what is revealed in the last
scene of the play - that Gobrius is the father of Arbaces, and Arbaces
is King by deception (and therefore treason) with Arane. Even Arane's
lament, "Accursed be this over-curious brain / That gave that plot a
birth; accurst this womb / That after did conceive to my disgrace" -
does little more than tease us with the possibility (II.i.8-14, 47-62).
In the context of the early seventeenth-century stage, this is
mind-bending stuff: a brilliant marketing ploy which must almost have
forced the play's audience back to enjoy a second look at the action
from an enlightened perspective, but which also attempted to justify the
most radical questioning of the nature of Kingship by disguising those
questions as harmless experimental dramaturgy.
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