Royal Carnality and Illicit Desire in the English History Plays of the 1590s

By Forker, Charles R. | Medieval & Renaissance Drama in England, Annual 2005 | Go to article overview

Royal Carnality and Illicit Desire in the English History Plays of the 1590s


Forker, Charles R., Medieval & Renaissance Drama in England


I

IN a famous passage defending native plays, Thomas Nashe praises dramas "borrowed out of our English Chronicles" such as The Famous Victories of Henry V and 1 Henry VI (glorifying Talbot) that confer "immortalitie" upon the nation's heroes and inspire patriotism, valor, and moral uplift in spectators; compared to the theater "beyond sea," he continues, "our Sceane is more statelye furnisht..., our representations honourable, and full of gallant resolution, not consisting, like theirs, of a Pantaloun, a Whore, and a Zanie, but of Emperours, Kings, and Princes...." (1) Honor, resolution, and stateliness do indeed abound in the stage histories performed during the decade in which Nashe wrote, but a number of these plays also contain a greater element of lust, adultery, and nonconformist sexuality than Nashe suggests. Nor is it unremarkable that the royal figures who give their names to many of the plays' titles are themselves profoundly implicated in attempted seductions, extramarital affairs, or other illicit expressions of sexual desire as well as sometimes being cuckolded. The intention of this essay is to survey some of the more obvious instances of carnality in the histories of the period, to inquire what dramatic purposes they serve, and to suggest that the pervasiveness of these elements may help illuminate the politics and cultural significance of a genre that flowered colorfully in the 1590s and thereafter rapidly declined. It is convenient to begin with the four King Edward plays--Peele's Edward I (1590-91), Marlowe's Edward II (1591-92), Shakespeare's (?) Edward III (1592-93), and the two parts of Heywood's Edward IV (1592-99)--not only because these works comprise a range of playwrights and styles but also because, the difficulties of precise dating aside, they would appear to span the decade chronologically.

II

Peele's play, which probably preceded Marlowe's since the latter seems to have borrowed verbally from it, (2) is episodic, textually garbled as the result of imperfect revision, and inconsistent in its characterization of Queen Elinor: sometimes she appears as a comedic figure, speaking in a tone of unroyal jocosity as King Edward's "sweete Nell" (line 74) (3)--as his earthy, plain-spoken but adored companion in military campaigns (including a crusade) and even as a vulgar boxer of her husband's ear; at other points she emblematizes hateful Spanish pride, being portrayed as a witch-like foreign princess (Elinor of Castile) who would have the beards of all her male subjects shaved off and the breasts of all women mutilated, and who is given to haughty, egregiously inflated rhetoric. By the end of the play she has become the "scourge of England" (line 2104), an "accursed monster" (line 2473) guilty of both murder and adultery, although her deathbed repentance is represented as sincere. Apart from the use of chronicle material for the depiction of Edward's conquest of Wales and Scotland and the influence of Tamburlaine for the tone of Edward's more vaunting speeches, the play obviously draws upon the traditions of balladry and romantic comedy (several scenes invoke the holiday ambience and greenwood setting of the Robin Hood legend) like that represented by the anonymous Fair Em (1589-91?) and Greene's Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay (1589-92) and The Scottish History of James IV (1590?). (4) A pageant in the middle of the play presents Edward's "beautuous lovely Queene" (line 1452) discovered in her tent, having just been delivered of the Prince of Wales (the future Edward II) whom she ceremoniously presents to the king for christening: "He is thine owne, as true as he is thine" (line 1479). The legitimacy of royal descent is thus celebrated with regal pomp and much lyrical effusion in an episode that echoes the equally ceremonial presentation of the crown to the title character as successor of Henry III in the opening scene.

The final section of Edward I then vilifies Elinor almost beyond recognition, concentrating on her barbaric cruelty, her jealousy of the Mayoress of London (whom she poisons by means of an adder applied to her breast), and on her "loose delights" (line 2466) and "lawles lust" (line 2517); in a death-bed confession the queen reveals that she has violated her marriage to King Edward by sleeping with his brother Edmund and by conceiving her daughter Joan of Acon (now married to the Earl of Gloucester) not legitimately as everyone had supposed, but rather by "a leacherous Frier" (line 2579).

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