Academic journal article Medieval & Renaissance Drama in England

Moorish Dancing in the Two Noble Kinsmen

Academic journal article Medieval & Renaissance Drama in England

Moorish Dancing in the Two Noble Kinsmen

Article excerpt

IN Shakespeare and Fletcher's The Two Noble Kinsmen, Gerald, a pedantic schoolmaster, badgers a dozen reluctant countrymen and women (including the crazed Jailer's Daughter as the Madwoman and a "bavian" or baboon, "with long tail and eke long tool [penis]" [3.5.131]), to perform a morris dance for the newly married Duke Theseus and his Amazon wife Hippolyta while they are out hunting. (1) The dance takes place immediately before Palamon and Arcite, the two noble kinsmen of the play's title, fall to blows over which one will marry Emilia, Hippolyta's sister. Emilia wishes to marry neither; one of the play's many ironies is that Emilia, "bride-habited, / But maiden-hearted" (5.1.150-51), would rather remain Diana's priestess and die a virgin.

Fletcher adapted the morris dance in The Two Noble Kinsmen from Beaumont and Fletcher's Masque of the Inner Temple and Gray's Inn, where it forms the second of two popular antimasques. Some critics and directors have interpreted the fact that the morris dance is a revival as proof that the entertainment is an unwelcome or last-minute interpolation in the play's action, an inappropriately lighthearted digression before the kinsmen begin a course of action that will end in defeat for one man and death for the other. But the dance itself takes place in act 3, scene 5, almost at the center of the play. Its position is highlighted by the significant thematic parallels between the dance and the play, notably the sustained metaphor of the morris (associations picked up by the most recent productions, as Potter and Waith observe). (2)

I want to suggest, however, some other ways in which the morris dance in The Two Noble Kinsmen functions within the play as an organizing trope for the frustrations of desire and of heterosexual marriage. In particular, I will argue that the supposed Moorish origin of English morris dancing allows Shakespeare to domesticate dark-skinned exoticism by incorporating it into rural English customs and traditions and Fletcher to employ figures of foreign femininity in the service of an emergent, court-centered, coterie feminism. Let me say at the outset that my claims about the collision of the domestic and the foreign owe more to the late Edward Said's definition of "Orientalism" than to more recent arguments of contemporary postcolonial criticism. That is to say, I am more interested here in the morris dance and the Moorishness that informs it as indices to anxieties within early modern England, rather than in uncovering the material conditions of Moorishness and Moorish dancers in England. There may be no original or authentic "Moorish dance," as it were, hiding behind the hybrid presentation that makes up the English morris. For both Fletcher and Shakespeare, as we shall see, the morris makes the strange familiar; the wild, tame; the antique, modern. Renaissance society uses Moorishness, I will argue, to trope geographical, temporal, and literary alterity within that culture. These anxieties circulate around nation-formation, in Shakespeare's case, around female autonomy and rank, in Fletcher's, and around the exoticism of the rural--especially of rural women--in their collaboration, The Two Noble Kinsmen. Finally, I suggest that as a collective, cross-cultural production, the morris dance in The Two Noble Kinsmen recalls both the collaboration of Shakespeare and Fletcher and the dialogue between The Two Noble Kinsmen and A Midsummer Night's Dream.

Douglas Bruster argues that during the Jacobean period a number of plays and masques figure rustic pastimes such as morris dancing as exotic and unfamiliar. He attributes this new exoticism in part to the influence of London, whose population was growing at an unprecedented rate. As economic historians such as Fernand Braudel and F. J. Fisher have documented, a significant number of the new London immigrants were country gentry who, "from either boredom or ambition, had abandoned their country seats for permanent residence in the town" (Fisher, 114). …

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