Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Digression: The Maid’s Tragedy

(Image: illustration from the title page of the quarto printing)

Life has kept me away from this blog for a few days now. Mostly, I’ve been busy with an out-of-town conference, and I found the carry-on baggage restrictions less than amenable to my bringing my Full Textual Apparatus along for the ride. But it wasn’t all Sudoku in the airport bar: I thought I’d use to opportunity to caulk over one of the many, many cracks in my knowledge of the Renaissance Stage: Beaumont and Fletcher’s The Maid’s Tragedy.

Why that play? Well, I own a copy, but that’s been true for like fifteen years without instilling a sense of urgency. I suppose talking about Cardenio put me in mind of it: Cardenio brings up the play George Buc (with the poetic heart of a government censor) called “The Second Maiden’s Tragedy,” and that always makes me think about how I’d never read the first. It’s anthologized and performed often enough to suggest that it’s not entirely devoid of artistic quality, and I rather enjoy Fletcher, based on what little of him I’ve read (Two Noble Kinsmen and Henry VIII, mostly). So, maybe a funny choice for someone who hasn’t even read The Alchemist for crying out loud, but there you go.

To the fan of Shakespeare, much is familiar: bodies everywhere, cross-dressing, wild and wooly plotting, platitudinous closing speech by the new authority figure (who orders everyone to carry the bodies off the stage)…yep, that’s Jacobethan drama. I’m glad to know there are some things you can count on.

But there’s that hard edge of cynicism, too, that Shakespeare seldom dabbled in: that Troilus and Cressida quality where “virtue” is a word for chumps. Newly-married Amintor, in the best scene in the play, is taken aback when his bride, Evadne, refuses to go to bed with him—has sworn, in fact, an oath that she will not. He grapples for some charming explanation:

If you have sworn to any of the Virgins
That were your old companions, to preserve
Your Maidenhead a night, it may be done
Without this means.

Oh, Amintor, you poor, dumb kid. His wife practically snorts in reply:

A Maidenhead, Amintor, at my years?

No bashful virgin, Evadne is in fact conducting a liaison with the very man who arranged her marriage: the King. He won’t (or can’t—the play isn’t clear) marry her himself, and needs a nominal husband for her, to cover any pregnancies that come along. Amintor is the patsy, the beard, the front man—and on no account is he to sample the merchandise.

I was reading this scene in my hotel room, and it just smacked me. A complete sucker-punch. We’re in the second act at this point, and there’s been no indication this is coming. Evadne—no “maid”—isn’t even the title character. That honor goes to Aspatia, a lovely young woman of good birth, who was engaged to marry Amintor before the King hatched his own scheme and ordered Amintor to call it off. She takes this badly.

The play opens after the wedding ceremony, but just prior to the evening’s celebrations. Allegedly set on the island of Rhodes, there is no attempt to capture a foreign culture beyond giving everyone strange names. One of Evadne’s brothers, Melantius, has been summoned home from the wars to attend the festivities, but he was told only that it was his friend Amintor’s wedding, not Evadne’s, and he didn’t get the memo about the last-minute change of brides. Before anyone can clear this up, he sees the jilted Aspatia and congratulates her, giving us one of the other really potent moments in the script:

Hail, maid and wife!
Thou fair Aspatia, may the holy knot
That thou hast tied today last till the hand
Of age undo’t; may’st thou bring a race
Unto Amintor that may fill the world
Successively with soldiers.

My hard fortunes
Deserve not scorn; for I was never proud
When they were good.

(Exit Aspatia.)

How now?

Awkward. That moment of understated dignity for Aspatia is, regrettably, the only one of its kind. She comes completely unglued soon enough, in really unattractive fashion: luxuriating in grief and pity, whining and wailing in front of anyone who will listen. As all the ladies are getting Evadne (un)dressed and prepared for what is supposed to be her big night, Aspatia won’t shut up:

…this should have been
My night, and all your hands been employed
In giving me a spotless offering
To young Amintor’s bed, as we are now
For you…

Yes, dear, you had a bad turn, but now you’re just behaving badly. Why don’t you beg off and go home? Ah, but she’s only gotten started:

This is the last time you shall look on me;
Ladies, farewell; as soon as I am dead,
Come all and watch one night about my hearse;
Bring each a mournful story and a tear
To offer at it when I go to earth…

Now that’s an unpleasant wedding guest. Sadly, this kind of operatic over-reaction becomes the dominant mode of the remainder of the play. The King drops in next morning to say hello, and flies into a jealous rage when Amintor plays the happy husband in public, which was the whole plan from the beginning, right? (The King is not only a lech, but a bit of a fool. Any resemblance to James I is purely coincidental.) Amintor goes crying to his new brothers-in-law, and the only discussion is about when and how they’ll kill the king. Bit harsh? Try the scene where Melantius confronts his sister and demands to have the truth from her mouth:

By thy foul self, no humane hand shall help thee,
If thou criest: When I have killed thee, as I have
Vowed to do, if thou confess not, naked
As thou hast left thine honor, will I leave thee,
That on they branded flesh the world may read
Thy black shame, and my justice; wilt thou bend yet?

This is, of course, perfectly disgusting, and it marked the moment in the play at which I stopped caring about much of anyone. But, in the forthrightly misogynistic world of the Maid’s Tragedy, this little talking-to was just what Evadne needed. She collapses in tears and resolves to sin no more. More than that: while the boys are cooking up some cockamamie plot to get control of the harbor fort, Evadne ties the King to her bed at their next encounter and stabs him. (In the last chuckle of the play, the King thinks it’s some kind of sex game at first. He finds it less charming when he learns the name of the game is “regicide.”)

Now it’s time for those bodies to start piling up, and what’s left of characterization, plot, poetry, all get shoved aside to make room for the blood and thunder. Remember Aspatia? She dresses up like her brother, seeks out Amintor, and challenges him to a duel—which she deliberately loses, so she can spend the remainder of the play gasping and expiring on the floor with as much melodrama as she can muster. By now, she’s grown so tiresome that I’m imploring Amintor to give her one more good stab and get it over with. In the middle of this, Evadne comes in to show her husband how she’s reformed her morals by progressing from adulteress to murderer, and Amintor demonstrates how the poetry has utterly collapsed at this point:

There is presage of some important thing
About thee, which it seems thy tongue hath lost:
Thy hands are bloody, and thou hast a knife.

Evadne explains how she has killed her lover, and now wants Amintor to give her another chance. Amintor has to leave the room for a minute to do the math on that one. As soon as he is gone, she takes a page from Aspatia’s book and offers proof of her love by killing herself with that aforementioned knife. Naturally, Amintor comes back on stage at that moment, thinking perhaps that with some counseling and a willingness to change and grow, they can make this work, but it’s too late. Evadne dies. Aspatia comes to just long enough to reveal her true identity, and dies. Amintor decides that death must be in fashion and rounds things out by killing himself.

Nothing left to do but mop up the mess. The new King (the former King’s brother) comes on with everyone else who’s still breathing, and Melantius tries to kill himself, but they wrestle his sword away from him. Melantius is almost—almost—a Miles Gloriosus figure, always blustering and whipping out his rapier, never actually doing anything. You can’t really read him as satire; just as you can’t read the play as satire, though it might work better that way. It’s all too earnest, too moralizing, even under that patina of cynicism. If Beaumont and Fletcher had had the courage of their lack of convictions, they might have made a better play: something genuinely dark and troubling. But they want to wallow in the filth and yet, ultimately, be above it, and like so many other writers who wanted to both have their cake and eat it, they get neither.

So, The Maid’s Tragedy: neglected masterpiece? No. Some good moments, one really good scene, but it falls apart badly after Act II, and ends up about as empty as any summer blockbuster at the multiplex. But I am glad that I’ve finally read the “First Maiden’s Tragedy,” and I’m ready for Middleton to bring on the Second.

I hope he makes a better job of it…

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