Academic journal article Medieval & Renaissance Drama in England

William Percy's Logical Song

Academic journal article Medieval & Renaissance Drama in England

William Percy's Logical Song

Article excerpt

Few early modern English dramatists have been as critically maligned as William Percy (1570-1648). His six extant plays have received only infrequent attention, and even when scholars have analyzed his peculiar stage directions for insights into theatrical practices, their assessments of Percy's literary accomplishments have remained uniformly negative. "The literary value of Percy's plays is nil"; they have "little or no merit"; "[d]ramatically and artistically they are wretched"; "Percy's blank verse makes that of even the least talented Elizabethan and Jacobean professional playwrights seem relatively competent."1 Such de rigueur denigrations have been difficult for the majority of scholars to assess, however, since the bulk of Percy's dramatic writing has long been largely inaccessible. For the better part of two centuries, the only plays available in print were Change Is No Robbery (1601) and The Fairy Chase (1603), both of which appeared in a rare volume produced by the Roxburghe Club in 1824.2 Thereafter, publication stalled, and the lack of any new published edition meant that Percy's plays remained essentially unknown to students of early modern drama.3 A watershed moment finally occurred in 2006 when Matthew Dimmock published a scholarly edition of Percy's Mahomet and His Heaven (1601). If earlier generations had dismissed Percy's plays as aesthetic failures, Dimmock's edition reveals a playwright alertly responsive to the religious and political conversations of his day. As Dimmock shows, not only is Mahomet and His Heaven unique in Renaissance drama in representing the Prophet himself on stage and acknowledging the Qur'an as a narrative source but it finds in the history of Islam the resources to reflect on Christianity's own confessional divide and to imagine, however fleetingly, a vision of reconciliation.4

Dimmock's invaluable work constitutes a milestone in the critical appreciation of Percy; however, his edition's rewarding focus on the play's engagement with early modern ideas of Islam nevertheless entails a marked deemphasis of its peculiar aesthetic features and, in some respects, it falls short of fully representing the text itself to readers. Nowhere is this more apparent, and consequential, than in the play's most striking moment of theatrical experimentation, a choreographed poem that synthesizes philosophical, nautical, and musical ideas into what Percy describes as "A Logicall Nauticall Song in Fuge."5 The shortcomings of Dimmock's presentation of this passage are understandable: Percy's ambitious and eccentric vision, combined with the thorny complexity of the play's textual situation, resists easy comprehension. However, this episode at the heart of Mahomet and His Heaven merits close attention for our re-evaluation of Percy as a dramatist. As one sympathetic critic wrote of Percy, "if he failed to acquire the smoothness of the minor Elizabethans, he also escaped their conventionality."6 Indeed, if Percy has failed to live up to the Shakespearean standard by which drama of the period has historically been evaluated, the idiosyncratic experimentation of Percy's logical song is shockingly modern: in its physical enactment of philosophical ideas, it resembles nothing so much as Tom Stoppard's staging of Wittgensteinian language games in Dogg's Hamlet, and its attempt to realize a poetic embodiment of fugal music make it an early formal precursor of Paul Celan's "Todesfuge."

The present essay attempts to reconstruct the complex ambitions of Percy's logical song, unpacking its engagements with both early modern logical thought and music theory. It also offers a modernized text of the scene in order to make it more accessible to students of early modern drama. My aim throughout is not simply to offer a supplement to Dimmock's edition, but to draw attention to Percy's distinctive dramatic imagination. As Jeremy Lopez has recently argued, critical understandings of early modern English drama, especially the gradual ossification of its "canon" of plays, have been thoroughly conditioned by a "Shakespearean aesthetic" that tends "to engulf other forms and make them illegible in their own right. …

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