Queens and Queenship in Shakespeare’s First Tetralogy (9th August)

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The Darnley Portrait (c. 1575)

Next meeting: 9th August / Room 2.46 / 3-5pm

In 1592, the pamphleteer, poet and playwright Thomas Nashe wrote that the Elizabethan plays which drew their subject matter from English Chronicles should be celebrated because, through them:

our fore-fathers valiant actes (that have lyne long buried in rustie brasse and worme-eaten bookes) are revived, and they them selves raysed from the Grave of Oblivion, and brought to pleade their aged Honours in open presence: which, what can bee a sharper reproofe, to these degenerate effeminate dayes of oures?[1]

Nashe was referring to those plays which we now call the ‘English history plays’, which enjoyed enormous popularity in the 1590s. Whether a result of nationalistic pride, anxieties about the country’s future, or otherwise, the last decade of Elizabeth I’s reign, in particular, saw a proliferation of plays produced which dramatised events of the country’s ‘glorious’ and often bloody past. These plays were well-attended, making these iterations of history accessible to a vast number of theatre-goers. Nashe articulates a notion that dramatising English history was laudable not only for its celebratory patriotism and memorialisation of the past, but also because such plays could have a particular utility: to help to recall and revitalise traditional chivalric values, and to revive a ‘valiant’ national history for the public eye and imagination.

An additional merit of such dramatic renderings of history, Nashe suggests, derives from the fact that they could provide ‘sharp reproof’ of the more indulgent, less masculine Elizabethan days of the early 1590s. In this view, the valour demonstrated in history plays was made all the more vivid by their contrast to the supposedly ‘effeminate’ contemporary moment of their dramatic construction and production. Carol Banks titles an article after Nashe’s words, and provides some discussion of the broader, sixteenth-century connotations of the term ‘effeminate’.[2] According to Banks, Nashe uses the word ‘effeminate’ to mean not only ‘womanish’ – or, perhaps, ‘unmanly’ – but employs its wider definition as ‘a virtual antonym to military valour and honour’. Indeed, there are numerous moments of nostalgia for this apparently dead or dying chivalric code throughout the first tetralogy (perhaps most notably, but not exclusively, through the person of Talbot in 1 Henry VI).

At almost the same moment that Nashe was writing these words, William Shakespeare (possibly with collaborators, and perhaps even with Nashe himself) was writing some of his earliest plays and contributing to the increasingly popular history play genre. In 1591 to 1592, Shakespeare wrote his ‘first tetralogy’ of history plays. He probably began with The First Part of the Contention of the Two Famous Houses of York and Lancaster (more commonly known as The Second Part of Henry VI, or simply 2 Henry VI), then Richard Duke of York (The Third Part of Henry VI, or 3 Henry VI), before returning to First Part of Henry VI (or 1 Henry VI). Though usually performed in isolation, The Tragedy of King Richard III (more commonly just Richard III) follows on from events of the Henry VI plays to complete the tetralogy; this play was also likely to have been written last of the four.[3] The first tetralogy dramatises a telescopic version of the ‘Wars of the Roses’, the period of civil unrest that followed the death of the great English martial king, Henry V. Shakespeare begins with the coronation of Henry VI, depicts the ongoing battles against the French, shows the emergence of a Yorkist line of claimants to the throne and the battles that result from these factionalist divisions, dramatises Richard III’s machinations against his own family, and ultimately concludes with his defeat and the ‘healing’ of ‘civil wounds’ with the union of the Houses of Lancaster and York that is symbolised by the marriage of Henry Tudor (the new King Henry VII) and Elizabeth of York.

Many of Shakespeare’s formative years as a dramatist, then, were spent writing these ‘intensely nationalistic’ (English) history plays.[4] By depicting the rise and eventual victory of the first Tudor king at the beginning of his career, Shakespeare’s earliest plays seem, ultimately, to contribute to the genre’s politically expedient, propagandist aims to contribute to the so-called ‘Tudor myth’ and ‘support the right of the Tudors to the throne’.[5] However, the first tetralogy does not simply serve to straightforwardly glorify the Tudors, aggrandise the past, or offer simple ‘reproof’ to an ‘effeminate’ present in a manner Nashe seems to deem commendable. Rather, these plays explore a number of complex issues that Shakespeare would continue to address throughout his career, for example: what is the nature of divine providence and what happens when it is meddled with? What makes a ruler (a king?) effectual or ineffectual, just or unjust? What role do (and should) women play in political and social action?

Indeed, though the first tetralogy’s primary focus is, as suggested by the plays’ usual titles, on the martial conflicts and political machinations of the kings and key male players of the Wars of the Roses, significant space and importance is also afforded to women: the wives of influential nobleman and the kings’ queen consorts. These figures occupy different and intriguing spaces in a group of plays which dramatise, primarily, a masculine, masculinised conflict. History playwrights ‘remained [largely] committed to a notion of historical truth and are bound by the received record concerning the major events of the past’,[6] ‘records’ referring to (chronicle) accounts by the likes of Thomas More (c. 1519), Edward Hall (1548), and Raphael Holinshed (1577 and 1587) among others. Nonetheless, embellishment of the historical ‘fact’ and/or emphasis on moments the playwright deemed important or interesting was common practice. When Shakespeare writes compelling female characters and addresses the matter of queenship and female rule in the first tetralogy (and in his history plays more generally), therefore, it is difficult to divorce such depictions from the knowledge that they were rendered in a moment of longstanding, independent female sovereignty, of a true Queen Regnant whose (even recent, direct) ancestors were depicted in these plays and their sources.

At the beginning of the 1590s, when Shakespeare was writing his earliest (history) plays, England had been under the rule of a female sovereign for around four decades. Though this was a lifetime for many and, indeed, a lifetime for Shakespeare himself (born in 1564, eleven years after Mary Tudor’s coronation and half a decade into what would become Elizabeth Tudor’s forty-five years on the throne), the question of female rule was no less contentious. When John Knox wrote that ‘to promote a woman to bear rule, superiority, dominion, or empire above any realm, nation, or city, is repugnant to nature’ in his 1558 pamphlet The first blast of the trumpet against the monstruous regiment of women, he was contributing to a familiar, longstanding discourse about the (in)appropriateness of female power and authority. By dramatising the actions and voices of the women who sat on the throne of England before the Tudor queens so thoroughly, Shakespeare’s first tetralogy appears to contribute to these (continued) questions about the rights and roles of women, and encourages audiences to interrogate the actions and individuals traditionally valued in our historical accounts.

Questions for discussion

  1. Are there any significant or particularly interesting departures from, or ‘faithful’ similarities to, Hall’s Chronicle in the Shakespeare extracts?
  2. How relevant are Chronicle texts and other sources to the writing of (these) history plays? Is there a sense that Shakespeare is not just striving to represent history, but also to re-present history? If so, why?
  3. Is it appropriate to consider the three parts of Henry VI and Richard III as a cogent ‘tetralogy’? Do the portrayals of Margaret and Elizabeth vary between these plays or even between these scenes?
  4. Can we identify an aesthetic of queenship in these texts? Or, what makes a queen a queen?
  5. Are queens represented positively, negatively, or otherwise in these extracts? Does our reading change/depend on the plays’ late Elizabethan context?
  6. A lot of these scenes focus on (women’s) speech and language as a means of accessing power. Why do you think this is? Is it effective?
  7. How is marriage presented in these texts? What about love and lust?
  8. How do Margaret and Elizabeth respond to the men who proposition, befriend or antagonise them? How do these men respond to them? How are their bodies used (by themselves, or by others)?
  9. The queen’s primary responsibility was often considered to be to produce a legitimate (and preferably male) heir to the throne. How do these scenes represent the queen (as) mother or queen regents?
  10. And finally, what’s up with John Knox?

 


[1] Thomas Nashe, Pierce Penniless, His Supplication to the Divell (1592).

[2] Carol Banks, ‘Warlike women: ‘reproofe to these degenerate effeminate dayes’?’, in Shakespeare’s histories and counter-histories, ed. by Dermot Cavanagh, Stuart Hampton-Reeves and Stephen Longstaffe (Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 2006), pp. 169-181 (p. 170).

[3] Jean E. Howard’s ‘Introduction to The First Part of Henry the Sixth’ gives a good, concise overview of the first tetralogy’s compositional dates. The Norton Shakespeare, 2nd edn, ed. by Stephen Greenblatt et al (New York: Norton, 2008), pp. 465-474.

[4] Irving Ribner, The English History Play in the Age of Shakespeare (London and New York: Routledge, 1965), p. 2.

[5] Ribner, The English History Play, p. 2.

[6] Jesse M. Lander, ‘William Shakespeare: The History Plays’, in The Oxford Encyclopedia of British Literature, Volume 1 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), pp. 489-494 (p. 490).

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Mary Magdalene: Saint and Sinner (12th April 2017)

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Mary Magdalene in the desert, British Library, Egerton MS 2125 f. 215 v.

Next Meeting: Wednesday 12th April / Room 2.46 / 3-5pm

Mary Magdalene: Introduction

Repentant prostitute, aristocratic decadent, devote follower of Christ, virulent preacher, troublesome woman, apostle to the apostles – the many sides of Mary Magdalene have been constructed and reconstructed for centuries. She is a composite figure, drawn from at least three figures in the Gospels, whose mythic biography has been supplemented by many other literary legends.

The three texts we read this week are a short selection of Middle English popular works on the Magdalene. Performance ties all three text – the stanzaic Life (c. 1280) contained in the Short English Legendary owes much to contemporary verse romance; John Mirk’s account (c.1400) is a sermon to be read on her feast day; the Digby Mary Magdalene (c. 1475) the most ambitious – and longest – Middle English drama extant.

We read all of the SEL’s Life and Mirk’s sermon from the Festial, and just a short range of extracts from the Digby play.

The Genesis of Mary Magdalene

The Gospel of Luke (8:1-3) explicitly names Magdalene (‘Magdala’ was a town on the western Sea of Galilee) as an early supporter (or patron?) or Christ:

After that, Jesus travelled about from one town and village to another. The Twelve were with him, and also some women who had been cured of evil spirits and diseases: Mary (called Magdalene) from whom seven demons had come out—and many others. These women were helping to support them out of their own means.

Mary Magdalene is also named as one of the witnesses of the Crucifixion (Mark 15:40, Matthew 27:56 and John 19:25). Mark 15:47 and Matthew 27:61 also name Mary Magdalene as one of the witnesses of Joseph of Arimathea’s burial of Christ:

When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices so that they might go to anoint Jesus’ body.

In all four Gospels, Mary Magdalene – sometimes alone and sometimes with female companions – is the first witness to the resurrection. In John 20:1, Mark 16:9, and Matthew 28:1 she discovers the tomb is empty. John 20:16 and Mark 16:9 state that Jesus’ first post-resurrection appearance was to Mary Magdalene, with no mention of others.

Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher). John 20:16

Now after he rose early on the first day of the week, he appeared first to Mary Magdalene, from whom he had cast out seven demons. Mark 16:9

Suddenly Jesus met them and said, “Greetings!” And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshiped him. Matthew 28:9

According to Luke and Mark, the apostles did not believe Mary’s report of what she had seen.

Mentioned 12 times, she is amongst the most frequently named of all women in the Gospels. She is not mentioned in any other book of the New Testament. Her role as first witness to the Resurrection is not included in Paul’s epistles, even when he recounts the catalogue of Christ’s post-Resurrection appearances in 1 Corinthians:

For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me has not been in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them—though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me. Whether then it was I or they, so we proclaim and so you have come to believe. 1 Corinthians 15:3-11

Creation of a Composite Saint

The canonical Gospels make no mention of Mary Magdalene’s life before she was cured of the seven demons. Her reputation as a repentant notable sinner – or prostitute – is not supported in the New Testament, but is a result of her conflation with other women of the Gospels.

Pope Gregory the Great, in a homily of 591 is the first figure of the western Church to emphatically conflate three figures mentioned in the Gospels into the composite ‘Mary Magdalene’: first is Mary Magdalene herself, the others are Mary of Bethany, sister of Martha and Lazarus (John 11:1-2), and a nameless ‘sinful woman’ who washed Christ’s feet with tears (Luke 7:36-50). Gregory’s Homily XXXIII is the key text:

She whom Luke calls the sinful woman, whom John calls Mary, we believe to be the Mary from whom seven devils were ejected according to Mark. What did these seven devils signify, if not all the vices?

It is clear, that the woman previously used the unguent to perfume her flesh in forbidden acts. What she therefore displayed more scandalously, she was now offering to God in a more praiseworthy manner. She had coveted with earthly eyes, but now through penitence these are consumed with tears. She displayed her hair to set off her face, but now her hair dries her tears. She had spoken proud things with her mouth, but in kissing the Lord’s feet, she now planted her mouth on the Redeemer’s feet. For every delight, therefore, she had had in herself, she now immolated herself. She turned the mass of her crimes to virtues, in order to serve God entirely in penance.[1]

Thus the seven demons driven out of Magdalene became the seven deadly sins, with lust (and with it pride and covetousness) being foregrounded. She was further associated in later legends with Saint Mary of Egypt, a repentant prostitute who lived, in later life as a hermit.

A single ‘life of Magdalene’ appears first in a sermon attributed to Odo of Cluny in the tenth century – and multiple versions sprang from it. The dominant account in the West claimed that Mary, after the time of Christ’s Ascension, travelled to Provence in a rudderless boat; preached in Marseille and Aix-en-Provence; and then spent 30 years alone in a wilderness as a contemplative hermit.

Magdalene in Europe

Magdalene has particular importance in France, and especially in Provence, the site of her principal shrines. The Abbey of Vézelay claimed to possess its body, and grew into one of the greatest pilgrimage sites in Europe; a grotto at Sainte-Baume was widely believed to be MM’s abode during her abode in the wilderness. The tradition that she and Lazarus brought Christianity to the Gaul in the first century – thus providing the French Church with a distinct, yet still reconcilable, history to the rest of Latin Christendom had deep patriotic appeal in both medieval and post-medieval times.

In England, the cult of Mary Magdalene was prominent enough for Bede to have mentioned her feast day in his Martyrology (c. 720). But the real explosion of her popularity occurred in the later Middle Ages. Only 3 or so churches were dedicated to her at the time of the Conquest; some 35 are listed by the mid twelfth century; by the late fifteenth century England now possessed over 200 churches dedicated to the Magdalene. Sherry Reames summarises her widespread, and polysemous, appeal:

For the late-medieval Mary Magdalen was an exceptionally multi-faceted saint, who served many different functions for different segments of the population. She was the archetypal sinner who repented and was redeemed, supplying a powerful illustration of God’s forgiveness and an example of reform that was potentially relevant to every Christian, although it could also be narrowed to provide lessons for female sinners or sexual sinners in particular. Because of her own transformation from sinner to saint, she was the patron saint of moral rebirth and regeneration and of institutions founded for that purpose, including convents for former prostitutes and hostels for pilgrims. Because of her loving care for Christ’s body when she washed His feet and went to the tomb to anoint His body after death, she was often held up as a model of active charity; hence she became a favorite patron of hospitals and confraternities that engaged in works of corporal mercy. Since she was also believed to be the Mary whom Jesus praised for having “chosen the better part” (Luke 10:42) when she sat quietly at his feet instead of attending to the mundane chores of the household, she provided an appealing patron and model for cloistered nuns, monks, and others who had chosen lives of contemplation rather than worldly activity.[2]

Texts

As indicated above, the textual traditions of the Magdalene legend are long and diverse. As so often, the key text for most English accounts lies in the Legenda Aurea, or Golden Legend by Jacobus de Varagine. We are reading a small sample of the different forms in which the legend was popularly known in English – a notably romance-like stanzaic hagiography, a short prose sermon, and selections from a long dramatic rendering of the late fifteenth century.

The account of Magdalene known as the ‘Early South English Legendary Life’ is first found in Bodleian Library MS Laud Misc. 108 (c.1280); it is also found in the Auchinleck MS of the 1330s. The vita is not part of the SEL proper, but most probably an older text inserted into (and adapted partly into the style of) the SEL by a patron or scribe of the SEL.

John Mirk’s Festial was produced in the late fourteenth or very early fifteenth centuries. It is a collection of vernacular sermons for the major feasts and saint’s days of the liturgical year. The sermons typically rely on legends, exempla, popular tales and hagiography (rather than, say, scripture). It was circulated very widely in England: 40 extant MSS contain at least one of Mirk’s sermons; 18 editions of the sermons were printed between 1483 and 1532. Mirk was a canon at Lilleshall Abbey, Shrophsire.

The ‘awesomely eclectic’ (Coletti 1979, 313) Digby Mary Magdalene has been described – with some justification – as ‘the most extravagant play in the whole of early English drama’ (Coldewey 1993, 186). The play was composed sometime in the late fifteenth century, in an East Anglian dialect, surviving only in MS Digby 133. It is over 2100 lines in length. It is divided into two parts. The first deals with the privileged private life of Mary, her inheritance of Magdalene castle, her life of debauchery, and her conversion from it. The second part dramatizes Mary’s public life of good works – including the conversion of the King and Queen of Marseilles, her apostolicity, and later retirement from the world. But it is much more than a dramatization of the familiar life of Magdalene – its action ranges from the Holy Land to Marseilles, as well as Heaven and Hell. It is peopled by a huge cast (50 speaking parts) of saints and sinners, allegorical abstractions and earthy sailors. There are several worldly tyrants and one tempting tavernkeeper, ‘wytty and wyse’. There is also a burning idol and a moveable ship.

Questions for discussion

  • Which aspects of Magdalene’s sanctity has been emphasised in each text? (penitent? Loving service to Christ? Active charity in the world? Contemplative withdrawal into solitude?)
  • What are the implications and significance of Magdalene’s preaching in Marseille? Influence / importance to Lollardy?
  • Sex and the second chastity? How do we read Magdalene’s place among the virgin saints?
  • Like the Stanzaic accounts of Margaret and Katherine, the SEL Mary Magdalene vita borrows frequently from the conventions of secular verse romances. What is the significance of this for readers? What does this say about the relationship between the genres?
  • The use of the rudderless ship motif?
  • To what extent do these texts engage with the idea of Magdalene as the First Witness (of the Resurrection)? Male clerical authority?
  • What does the prominence of Mary’s vita indicate about the relationship of the cult of Magdalene and the Gospels?
  • What are the implications of these texts to our understanding of writing women in the Middle Ages?
  • How do we read Mary’s ‘tedure love’ (Mirk, 36) for Christ; and His ‘love of hur’ (Mirk, 44)?
  • ‘[W]han the fadyr saw hys wyf dedde and the chylde borne and grasping towarde the modur pappes, he began to wepe and wrynggyd hys handys and was so sore and so woo on uche syde that he ne wyste whatte he mythe done.’ (Mirk, 76-8). Comment on the role of family in these texts.
  • What are the proper uses of wealth and money? Do both texts share the same views?

Historical background and criticism

http://d.lib.rochester.edu/teams/text/reames-middle-english-legends-of-women-saints-john-mirk-sermon-on-st-mary-magdalen

http://d.lib.rochester.edu/teams/text/reames-middle-english-legends-of-women-saints-early-south-english-legendary-life-of-mary-magdalen

Haskins, Susan, Mary Magdalen: Myth and Metaphor (London: HarperCollins, 1993)

Jansen, Katherine Ludwig, “Maria Magdalena: Apostolorum Apostola.” In Women Preachers and Prophets through Two Millennia of Christianity, ed. Beverly Mayne Kienzle and Pamela J. Walker. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998), pp. 57-96.

__________. The Making of the Magdalen: Preaching and Popular Devotion in the Later Middle Ages (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000)

Jones, Rachel, Mary Magdalene as Counter-Heroine: late Middle English hagiography and social order. PhD Thesis, Cardiff University (2014)

Saxer, Victor, Le Culte de Marie Madeleine en Occident des origines à la fin du moyen âge, 2 vols. (Paris: Libr. Clavreuil, 1959)

Thompson, Anne B., “Narrative Art in the South English Legendary“, JEGP 90 (1991), 20-30

Theresa Coletti, ‘The Design of the Digby Play of Mary Magdalene’, Studies in Philology, Vol. 76, No. 4 (Autumn, 1979), pp. 313-333


[1] Gregory the Great, Homily XXXIII

[2] Sherry Reames, ‘The Legend of Mary Magdalen, Penitent and Apostle: Introduction’, Middle English Legends of Women Saints (TEAMS Middle English Texts Series, 2003); available at http://d.lib.rochester.edu/teams/text/reames-middle-english-legends-of-women-saints-legend-of-mary-magdalen-introduction

Carols – 17th December 2014

Dancing a carol in the garden of pleasure, Le Roman de la Rose, Bibliothèque de l’Arsenal 5209, f.6v

The reading this month will be a selection of carols taken from The Early English Carols, ed. R. L. Greene, 2nd edn. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1977).  Our selection includes Advent and Nativity carols, lullaby, satirical, humorous and amorous carols (as designated by Greene). We will be meeting from 3:10 to 5 pm in Rm 2.50, John Percival Building, and refreshments (mead!) will be provided.  All welcome.

A brief introduction:

Until the fifteenth century, the carol was strictly understood as a song combined with a circular dance.  Its form is stanzaic, with a burden, or chorus, consisting usually of a couplet, to be repeated after each stanza.  According to Greene, a carol would be led by a person, often female, who would sing while others danced.  All participants would join in singing the burden, while the responsibility for remembering the entire carol would belong to the leader alone.

In later centuries the essential connection between song and dance began to be lost and the term ‘carol’ became associated primarily with religious hymns sung at Christmas.

Suggested topics for discussion:

  • What effect is created by the a a a b rhyme scheme, where the final line in each stanza breaks from the previous lines while remaining linked to the rhyme of the burden?
  • While many surviving carols are religious, our selection demonstrates the breadth of the genre.  How justified is the connection between joy and the carol?  See the following definitions from the OED:

2)  A song; originally, that to which they danced. Now usually, a song of a joyous strain; often transf. to the joyous warbling of birds.

3) A song or hymn of religious joy.

  • The theme of death appears in many of the ‘lullaby’ carols, especially those sung from the point of view of Mary or Jesus.  Does this theme represent an outpouring of affective lay piety focussed on the suffering and crucifixion of Jesus, or is there another explanation for its prominence in this group?
  • The carols categorised by Greene as being ‘of women’ present an interesting mixture of antifeminist and didactic texts.  Do these belong together?  What do you make of no. 401’s refrain:  ‘For sum be lewed, / And sum beo shrewed’?
  • The effect of ‘voice’ – especially in nos. 390, 392, 443, 456 and 457

The aim of this meeting, however, is to enjoy ourselves at the end of a long semester.  So with that in mind, here are links to performances of two of the carols we will be reading:

‘Lullay, lullow’, no. 144

‘Ther is no rose of swych vertu’, no. 173