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This era of verse was what got me to university to do an English degree. I still love and read my 1911 copy of thirty of these plays, which was given to me by Bob Brush, an English teacher of mine.
- The Alchemist – Ben Jonson
"The Alchemist" is a great comedy – a cross between a heist movie and a farce (lots of people hiding, dressing up, almost getting caught). It opens with two of the gang fighting, and one taunting the other to do “thy worst! I fart at thee”. One character berates another character, "Thou look’st like the Anti-christ in that lewd hat" – something I’m always dying to say when I see people in headgear.
- Dr Fautus – Christopher Marlowe
A great tragedy of the over-reacher, Faustus is a man who wants more knowledge than his station as mere mortal allows. The play is patchy (the comic scenes are almost certainly a hack job), but when Marlowe is on form, the poetry is fantastic. Here’s Faustus on kissing Helen of Troy:
“Was this the face that launch’d a thousand ships, / And burnt the topless towers of Ilium? / Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a kiss! / Her lips suck forth my soul: see, where it flies! / Come, Helen, come, give me my soul again. /
Here will I dwell, for Heaven is in these lips,/
And all is dross that is not Helena.
The irony is that it’s not really Helen, but a demon dressed up: its kiss really does suck his soul away and damn him. His speech while waiting for the devils to take him finally into hell is a masterpiece.
Volpone – Ben Jonson
Another vicious comedy from Jonson, with Volpone (The Fox), Mosca (the Fly), Voltore (the Vulture) and other, almost medieval-style allegorical characters, with the same comedy of misfits that was found in The Alchemist.
- The Changeling – Middleton
Beatrice-Joanna teams with sinister servant De Flores to murder the man her father has chosen for her husband. As a reward, de Flores deflowers her (geddit?), and implies she is a changeling – no longer belonging to her father or good family name:
.. fly not to your birth, but settle you/ In what the act has made you; you are no more now./ You must forget your parentage to me;/ You are the deed’s creature.
There’s a cool bit at the end when her father doesn’t know whether to call her Beatrice or Joanna, and alternates the names – as if to imply that the two names indicate two different people in one.
- The Duchess of Malfi – John Webster
Death, murder, despair and unremitting gloom: the quintessential Jacobean tragedy. A sort of video nasty of the early 17th century.
Bubbling under were Ford’s "Tis Pity She’s A Whore", Tourneur(?)’s "Revenger’s Tragedy" (blood and black comedy – like a 400 year old "Evil Dead"), Dekker’s social comedy "The Shoemaker’s Holiday" , Peele’s pantomime-like "The Old Wives’ Tale" and Beaumont and Fletchers’ play-within-a-play "The Knight of the Burning Pestle."
Everlasting thanks to Robert Brush for firing and nurturing my enthusiasm for this era.