Ancient Scripts and Modern Experience on the English Stage, 1500-1700

Ancient Scripts and Modern Experience on the English Stage, 1500-1700

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by Bruce R. Smith

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Unlike the contrast between the sacred and the taboo, the opposition of "comic" and "tragic" is not a way of categorizing experience that we find in cultures all over the world or even at different periods in Western civilization. Though medieval writers and readers distinguished stories with happy endings from stories with unhappy endings, it was not until the


Unlike the contrast between the sacred and the taboo, the opposition of "comic" and "tragic" is not a way of categorizing experience that we find in cultures all over the world or even at different periods in Western civilization. Though medieval writers and readers distinguished stories with happy endings from stories with unhappy endings, it was not until the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries--fifteen hundred years after Sophocles, Euripides, Plautus, and Terence had last been performed in the theaters of the Roman Empire--that tragedy and comedy regained their ancient importance as ways of giving dramatic coherence to human events. Ancient Scripts and Modern Experience on the English Stage charts that rediscovery, not in the pages of scholars' books, but on the stages of England's schools, colleges, inns of court, and royal court, and finally in the public theaters of sixteenth-and seventeenth-century London.

In bringing to imaginative life the scripts, eyewitness accounts, and financial records of these productions, Bruce Smith turns to the structuralist models that anthropologists have used to explain how human beings as social creatures organize and systematize experience. He sets in place the critical, physical, and social structures in which sixteenth-and seventeenth-century Englishmen watched productions of classical comedy and classical tragedy. Seen in these three contexts, these productions play out a conflict between classical and medieval ways of understanding and experiencing comedy's interplay between satiric and romantic impulses and tragedy's clash between individuals and society.

Originally published in 1988.

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Ancient Scripts & Modern Experience on the English Stage 1500â"1700

By Bruce R. Smith


Copyright © 1988 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-06739-1


I • Critical Contexts

And here, who soever hath bene diligent to read advisedlie over, Terence, Seneca, Virgil, Horace, or els Aristophanes, Sophocles, Homer, and Pindar, and shall diligently marke the difference they use, in proprietie of wordes, in forme of sentence, in handlyng of their matter, he shall easelie perceive, what is fitte and decorum in everie one, to the trew use of perfite Imitation. Whan M. Watson in S. Johns College at Cambridge wrote his excellent Tragedie of Absalon, M. Cheke, he and I, for that part of trew Imitation, had many pleasant talkes togither, in comparing the preceptes of Aristotle and Horace de Arte Poetica, with the examples of Euripides, Sophocles, and Seneca. Few men, in writyng of Tragedies in our dayes, have shot at this marke.

Settled comfortably in their Cambridge rooms in the early 1540s, Roger Ascham and his colleagues brought together seven different historical periods, three different civilizations, and two very different ideas about the nature of drama. Homer (eighth century B.C.), Pindar (518–438 B.C.), Sophocles (c. 496–406 B.C.), and Aristophanes (c. 450–c. 385 B.C.) speak for at least three separate periods in Greek civilization; Terence (c. 195–159 B.C.), Virgil (70–19 B.C.), Horace (65–8 B.C.), and Seneca (4 B.C.–A.D. 65), for at least three separate periods in Roman civilization. Seen from the distant perspective of sixteenth-century Englishmen, these ancient playwrights merged into a chorus who spoke with a single voice. For Ascham and his colleagues, "true imitation" was a straightforward matter of copying ancient models.

"The precepts of Aristotle" are not, however, the same as "the precepts of Horace." By mimesis Aristotle meant something altogether different from Horace's imitatio. Mimesis in Aristotle's analytical view is the very basis of all the human arts, which differ from each other in the particular objects they imitate, in the means they use to produce that imitation, and in the mode (narrative or dramatic in the case of poetry) in which the imitation is carried out. Imitatio in Horace's practical view is the more limited matter of studying good examples to perfect one's own style. The difference between Aristotle and Horace on this single matter of imitation reflects fundamental differences in how they understand what goes on when actors speak and move and audiences watch and listen. Aristotle and Horace assume, that is to say, different ideas about the ontology of drama. Everything in Aristotle conduces to make us view the play as an object: the clear visual bias of mimesis itself (Aristotle's illustrations are all painted or sculpted images), the distinctions among the "objects" (hetera, "other things") that the various arts imitate, the very definition of poiesis as "a made thing." Horace's bias, on the other hand, is not visual but verbal, and the remarks on drama that make up one-third of his Ars poetica follow Cicero and Quintilian in conceiving of the play as a rhetorical event, an act of communication between speaker and listener. The difference between Horace and Aristotle is the difference between going to "hear" a play and going to "see" one.

The rhetorical idea of poetry in general and drama in particular remained current in the Middle Ages. Aristotle's Poetics, by contrast, did not arrive in Europe until the middle of the fifteenth century, the very last of the philosopher's works to be recovered from antiquity. Giorgio Valla had published a Latin translation in 1498, and the Greek text had appeared from the Aldine press in 1508, but it was not until the publication of Francesco Robortello's commentary in 1548, several years after Ascham's Cambridge symposium, that Aristotle's Poetics began to be widely known and discussed — and then only because Robortello managed to translate Aristotle's ideas into critical terms that Renaissance scholars already knew from Latin writers. It is an open question, indeed, whether Watson, Cheke, and Ascham knew the Poetics firsthand at all, or only through references in other books. Scholars like Ascham may have rediscovered Greek drama, but they read it — literally and figuratively — in Latin terms. It was within this philosophical context, with its two opposed ideas about the very nature of drama, that scholars, actors, and audiences studied, performed, and watched the scripts of Sophocles, Aristophanes, Euripedes, Plautus, Terence, and Seneca. As the balance between Aristotle's ideas and the ideas of Cicero, Quintilian, and Horace shifted within that context, so too did audiences' perceptions about why tragic heroes die and how the happy endings of comedy come about. To understand why comedy and tragedy were reclaimed for modern audiences in just the forms they were, we must consider first the general view of classical theater that Cicero, Quintilian, and Horace offered to Renaissance readers, then the challenge to this system presented by Aristotle's Poetics, and finally the ways in which the Romans and the Greeks were brought to common terms. In that compromise, comedy and tragedy took on the adaptability to changing experience that has given them vitality down to our own day.


To sixteenth-century scholars, Cicero stood forth as the readiest guide to ancient drama for three reasons: he spoke a language they knew well, he had a great deal to say, and he confirmed what they already thought about drama. As a guide to Roman civilization, Cicero offered himself to Renaissance readers as a kind of Will Durant or Kenneth Clark. He was the dictator of prose style, the authority on humanistic education, the perfect exemplar of the Renaissance ideal of a private contemplative man who gives himself up to the service of the state. Animated by the force of Cicero's own example and filled with detailed instructions, Cicero's rhetorical treatises, particularly his De oratore, offered a program for training Roman orators that humanists turned into a program for training Renaissance statesmen.

Not surprising in a man whose powers of self-dramatization were great both in speaking and in writing, Cicero was fascinated by plays, players, and playing. Though he never addresses himself to the theater exclusively as better known authorities like Vitruvius do, when he does mention scripts and performances, he writes about them with an immediacy that no other classical writer, Greek or Roman, can match. One of Cicero's favorite comparisons is between the art of the actor and the art of the orator. Indeed, Plutarch claims that Cicero studied the one to perfect the other:

for his gesture and pronunciation, having the self same defects of nature at the beginning, which Demosthenes had: to reform them, he carefully studied to counterfeit Roscius, an excellent comediant, and Aesop also a player of tragedies. Of this Aesop men write, that he playing one day Atreus' part upon a stage (who determined with himself how he might be revenged of his brother Thyestes) a servant by chance having occasion to run sodainly by him, he forgetting himself, striving to show the vehement passion and fury of this king, gave him such a blow on his head with the sceptre in his hand, that he slew him dead in the place. Even so Cicero's words were of so great force to persuade, by means of his grace and pronunciation.

If Plutarch is right about the power of the actor's example, Cicero later had the opportunity of returning Roscius the favor when he defended the great comedian from a charge of breach of contract with a business partner. In his Saturnalia Macrobius tells a similar story about Cicero and the players. Such warm friends were Roscius and Cicero, says Macrobius, that they used to match themselves against each other to see which of them could express the same idea in the greater number of ways. Roscius had such a high opinion of his own skill, Macrobius relates, that he wrote a book comparing the art of the public speaker with the art of the actor.

Behind the dozens of theatrical instances and anecdotes in Cicero's treatises, speeches, and letters is the assumption that plays are rhetorical events: occasions when speakers harangue an audience. It was a notion of drama that Cicero's Renaissance readers entertained already. In morality plays and the Biblical cycles, characters speak directly to the audience with just the face-to-face immediacy that Cicero describes. In his treatises on rhetoric Cicero points out the artful devices that orators can use to sway listeners and cites examples of those devices from plays in performance. Speechmaking and playacting, he implies, use the same skills. Drama provides models both for how a speaker should work up arguments, as outlined in De inventione, and how he should put those arguments across, as developed in De oratore. In the latter treatise Cicero takes as an example the opening exposition in Terence's Andria and proposes it as a model for how speechmakers should lay out an argument. Simo, the hardheaded old father who has marriage plans for his son that, as usual, work at cross-purposes to true love, takes his slave Sosia aside and untangles the past, present, and future complications of the plot: "Thou shalt heare all the matter from the beginning, so shalt thou understand both my sonnes life and my intent, as also what I would have thee to doe in this behalfe." Cicero commends the neatness of this partition and points out how in the speech that follows each of the three divisions is taken up one by one: first the son's past philanderings, then the father's present plans, finally the strategem he hopes to try with Sosia's help. "Just as he turned his attention first to each point as it arose, and after dispatching them all stopped speaking, so I favour turning our attention to each topic and when all have been dispatched, winding up the speech." Economical in his dramaturgy, Terence was a model for how to lay out an argument; elegant in his style, he was a model for how to put that argument across to an audience. In De oratore Cicero cites this same set of speeches from Andria when he is discussing the art of narration. Terence knows just how to fill out the narrative with clarifying detail, just when to punctuate it with interruptions from Sosia.

Filled with acts of violence and fraught with ethical questions, tragedies were even better suited than comedies for this kind of logical and rhetorical analysis. And among the traditional subjects of Greek and Latin tragedy, none raised more complex issues than Orestes. Cicero considers his case at some length in De inventione. Once you have determined whether a case is simple or complex, explains Cicero, once you have determined whether it turns on a written document or rather involves general reasoning, "then you must see what the question in the case is [quaestio], and the excuse or reason [ratio], the point for the judge's decision [iudicatio] and the foundation or supporting argument [firmamentum]. All of these should develop out of the determination of the issue." The case of Orestes touches each of these considerations:

For instance, to make my meaning clear, let me dwell on a simple and well-known example: If Orestes be accused of murdering his mother, unless he say, "I was justified; for she had killed my father," he has no defence. If this excuse were taken away, the whole debate would be taken away, too. Therefore the excuse in this case is that she killed Agamemnon. The point for the judge's decision [iudicatio] is that which arises from the denial and assertion of the reason or excuse. Suppose, for example, that the excuse has been set up which we mentioned a little while ago. "For she," he says, "had killed my father." "But," the opponent will say, "your mother ought not to have been killed by you, her son; her act could have been punished without your committing a crime." From this narrowing or limitation of the excuse the chief dispute arises, which we call iudicatio or point for the judge's decision. It is as follows: "Was it right for Orestes to kill his mother because she had killed Orestes' father?" The foundation is the strongest argument of the defence, and the one most relevant to the point for the judge's decision; for example, if Orestes should choose to say that his mother had shown such disposition towards his father, himself, and his sisters, the kingdom, the good name of the clan and household that her own children were of all people in the world most bound to exact the penalty from her. (1.13.18–14.19)

A far cry, this, from Aeschylus's Eumenides! As a lawyer, Cicero assumes that Orestes' predicament is reducible to a clear-cut issue. All one has to do is to go to work on the facts with the proper logical apparatus. Though Cicero is not talking here about a particular Orestes play, his attitude describes a way of responding to tragic heroes. Tragedy, he implies, is a matter of presenting arguments. The task for an intelligent reader or observer is to act as a judge: to consider the facts, to pass a verdict, to pronounce an iudicatio. An audience listens to a tragedy as a jury listens to testimony. This assumption about the rhetorical nature of drama has, as we shall see, enormous consequences for comedy and tragedy as they were put back onstage in the sixteenth century.

Cicero's trial of Orestes shows how naturally drama-as-rhetorical-event implies a moral program, a case to be demonstrated. This assumption, too, was shared by Cicero's Renaissance readers. The theatrical citations in Cicero's philosophical works must have sounded not very different from morality plays. Tragedies, obviously enough, were filled with eminently citable sententiae; but comedies, too, were grist for the moral mills turned by the interlocutors in Cicero's philosophical dialogues. In Book Three of the Tusculan Disputations, for example, M — and A — turn to consider the variety of ways in which man can alleviate distress. Foresight is one of these:

Therefore, herein trulye is little doubte, that all such thinges as are counted evell, are then moste greevous, when they fall sodaynelye. Wherfore, although this thinge onely doth not cause sorow, yet neverthelesse because the setlyng and preparynge of the minde, is of great force to assage the gryefe, let everye man forethynke such, inasmuch as they may happen to a man. And Trulye, it is a great poynt of wysedome, for a man to looke for all such casualties, as customably happen to men, not to mervayle at any thynge when it doth chaunce, and not to doubt but anye mischyefe whyche is not chaunced maye well ynoughe happen.

M — ("I doe gladly brynge in my talke the verses of our poetes," he has declared earlier) remembers an instructive speech in Terence's Phormio:

Wherefore let everye man in hys prosperitye,
Muse with himselfe, by what means he may beare adversitye.
Some peryll, losse, or cruell exyle, when he returneth home.
His childes offence, or his wives death, let him aye thinke upon.
And these as commen let him take besydes some straunger payne,
If some good chaunce befall to him, let him take that as gayne.

Inasmuche as Terence hath spoken this so wyselye, whyche he borowed of philosophye, shall not we out of whose store it was taken, bothe saye the same better, and also thinke it more constantlye?

"Saye the same better" indeed a philosopher might. What M — has done is to wrench the speech completely out of dramatic context. Quoted in the quiet of M — 's Tusculan garden, it sounds like sober advice; declaimed on the stage in Rome, it is framed with comic irony. The speaker is the cantankerous old father Demipho, just returned to Athens to discover his son Antipho married to a commoner and his slave Geta in cahoots with the lovers. An audience's sympathies, one would think, are with the lovers, not with the father; Demipho, long-suffering as he is, figures as a blustering blocking-figure. His advice that every man should "Muse with himselfe, by what means he may beare adversitye" is hardly the message we carry away from the theater. (Antipho's new wife, as it turns out, is Demipho's long-lost niece, and all ends felicitously.)


Excerpted from Ancient Scripts & Modern Experience on the English Stage 1500â"1700 by Bruce R. Smith. Copyright © 1988 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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