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Home :: Archive :: 2005 :: December ::
Deceitful Plays
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 16.2035  Friday, 9 December 2005

From: 		Martin Steward <
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Date: 		Friday, 9 Dec 2005 08:54:25 -0000
Subject: 	Deceitful Plays

"Above all, WS intentionally deceives his audience" in WT, says Larry 
Weiss in the Shadowplay thread (SHK 16.1993). "Can anyone think of any 
pre-restoration play in which that was done?"

Well, the connection back to Shakespearean romance/tragicomedy is 
obvious, but I'd have to suggest a number of Beaumont and Fletcher 
plays, and among them, single out A King and No King.

Finkelpearl articulates the effect admirably: "A Beaumont and Fletcher 
play seems designed to maximize intellectual inattentiveness in those 
who should not hear" (Philip J. Finkelpearl, "The Role of the Court in 
the Development of Jacobean Drama", Criticism 24 (1982), pp.156-157). 
William Cartwright, for example, described how their audience would "all 
stand wondring how / The thing will be untill it is" (William 
Cartwright, "Upon the Dramatick Poems of Mr John Fletcher", 38-39, G. 
Blakemore Evans, ed., The Plays and Poems of William Cartwright (Madison 
1951), pp.518-521). Thus, watching A King and No King, they would be so 
"captivated" by "the artful elaborations of the king's apparently 
incestuous passion" that only those whose politics would cause them to 
be sensitive to such things would notice "that this is also a play about 
a kind of man dangerous to have as king" (Finkelpearl).

In fact, the methodology is much more interesting than that, as it 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, for example, 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 - "deliberate mystification", as Bradbrook calls 
it - 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" (Muriel C. Bradbrook, Themes and Conventions of Elizabethan 
Tragedy, p.117. "There is a more complex manipulation of suspense" among 
the later Jacobean playwrights "than in the earlier writers", which was 
"all extremely clever" but ultimately "the kind of thing which can be 
learnt": Ibid., p.249. Cf. The Growth and Structure of Elizabethan 
Comedy, 2nd Edition, pp.179-180).

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. (Sandra Billington argues 
that "Although the audience would not know until the end why Arbaces was 
a mock king, they would understand the basic falsity of his role, 
particularly at the first recorded performance in the Christmas season, 
and so would understand the context behind the grotesque, bacchanalian 
passions": Mock Kings in Medieval Society and Renaissance Drama, p.192)

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