A group for those interested in reading William Rowley’s The Birth of Merlin! Whether it’s your first or fiftieth time through the weird and wonderful world of this fabulous play, you are welcome here to discuss (asynchronously) with friends.
- 4 May 2020 at 4:16 am EDT #30970
Enter the Devil in mans habit, richly attir’d, his feet and his head horrid
Welcome, friends, to Act Three!
The meeting of the Clown and Merlin is one of my favourite scenes in the whole play — It’s so funny! ‘Why, of what profession is your father, sir?’ ‘ He keeps a hot-house in the Low Countries’ 😆
Also super interested (a couple scenes before that) in Modestia’s conversion of Constancia — disrupting the ‘love’ plot further, and after Constancia’s wedding to boot! Are there precedents for this? I can think of lots of interrupted/delayed/ill-advised weddings, but none that are dissolved by religious fervour after the fact…
- 4 May 2020 at 5:01 am EDT #30972
One last quick thought before I get to other work for the day: some really exciting stuff for Ellie’s work on forests and danger in this act. The Devil appears in the forest, Merlin’s “monstrous” birth happens in the forst — and yet, the Devil shows much more care to Joan than we’ve seen from any of the courtly men she’s encountered so far. All the summonend spirits and goddesses to look after her in labour etc. Is this a continuation of the topsy-turvy rule of the forest, where we can count on the Devil? Or is it pure Devilish selfishness, looking out for the wellbeing of his son? Or something else?
- 4 May 2020 at 5:58 am EDT #30973
A miscellany of thoughts today – what an act!
3.1 is a great scene. I love how Joan is speaking verse while her brother is in prose; she’s sustaining the narrative of being in a courtly romance while he repeatedly undermines it. In this sense, when the Devil appears, I feel like he’s continuing to play into Joan’s narrative, and at this stage – to answer Nora’s comment – I still feel suspicious of him (I mean, he’s the Devil, right?). Those of you who know James Wallace (or saw him in the NT Twelfth Night last week as the Captain) will know the quality of his voice – him appearing as the Devil in the Read not Dead production gave a confidence and mellifluousness to the role that made clear just how out of their depth Joan and the Clown were in these scenes.
I’ll defer to our resident beard expert, but I’m interested in how old Merlin is here. Most of the Arthurian narratives I’m familiar with allow Merlin a childhood of some kind, but here he’s already got a beard, and I wonder how old he’s being presented as here – a young man? A full-bearded wizard a la Disney?
In 3.6, I re-read the last section several times before confessing I’m confused – isn’t it weird that, after having dominated the first half of the scene, the Prince goes silent for the last fifty lines? I’m finding Uter a very bizarre character, and here, the fact that his dialogue ends at the point of crisis and conflict as the two armies are drawn up seems an unusual choice – and gives lots of options for what is going on for him onstage (is he being restrained? Is he stunned by the turn of events? Is he pushed aside to make way for the eruption of other furies?)
Finally, I can’t believe I haven’t spotted the Clown’s suggestion that the Devil’s ‘Ancestors came first from Hell-bree in Wales’. I might be wrong, but this sounds to me like a reference to Hilbre on the Wirral (which fits with the play’s general interest in the border region between what is now North Wales and Cheshire/Merseyside – aka my neck of the woods). Hilbre is an archipelago just off the NW coast of the Wirral, and the tides of the Dee allow you to walk out to it sometimes. There’s tons of local mythology around it – the quicksand, the risk of getting cut off, and the utter barrenness of this little outpost in the middle of the Dee estuary makes it a place of urban legend and semi-supernatural interest (and a director from the area based a whole murder thriller around it called Blood a few years ago: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z2cy-Et2Bnc).
- 5 May 2020 at 10:36 pm EDT #31035
I don’t even know where to start. So much awesome in one act. I can only offer random thoughts.
There’s some good poetry here! It has a smoothness that you don’t often get with Rowley. I like, “This world is but a masque, catching weak eyes, / With what is not ourselves but our disguise, / A vizard that falls off, the dance being done, / And leaves Death’s glass for all to look upon” (3.2). I also like, “All are but borrowed robes in which we masque / To waste and spend the time, when all our life / Is but one good between two ague-days”. And wait a minute! Who does that remind you of? Webster!! “Pleasure of life, what is it? Only the good hours / Of an ague” (Duchess of Malfi, 5.4). WEBSTER CONFIRMED.
Costume! The Devil comes on looking like “a ragamuffin with face like a frying-pan”, i.e. in rags with a black face (the latter a convention of stage devils). But then Joan says, look again, and the Clown is like “do you juggle with me?!” and now the Devil is dressed like a gallant. His costume has changed in the space of one line – how did they do that? Some kind of reversible suit? Also, at the end of that scene, the Clown says he spied his cloven feet regardless – just words or a reference to an actual costume?
Rowley’s recurring gags: when the Devil says “I must now call you brother” and the Clown says “not until you have married my sister”, the scene is recalling All’s Lost by Lust 1.3 in which the Clown gets over-excited about a gallant named Antonio marrying his low-born sister, and keeps insisting on being called “brother”. I want to believe it’s the same three actors replaying their schtick.
Wales! Peter, as a Salopian, I too am pleased by references to North Wales, and so, it would seem, was Rowley; check out A Shoemaker a Gentleman, which contains the line “I have some cousins in your country. You know Penmaenmawr, Beaumaris, Llangollen, Abergavenny, Troed-y-rhiw, St Davy’s Harp and the Great Organ at Wrexham?”
- 6 May 2020 at 10:36 am EDT #31049
Those familiar with my research background won’t be surprised if I confine my discussion to Act 3’s presentation of Merlin as newborn with a beard because it is AMAZING.
But what in holy hell is going on? Early modern masculine ideology is clear that, in order to be considered a man, one must have a beard. Lucina assured us that Merlin will be “Manlike in judgement, person, state, and years” – all categories of manhood which are sustained through a adult bearded masculinity – and the Clown is disturbed that a child should be “born with a beard on his face” or be in “need of a barber before he was born”. Merlin’s own reference to his “growth” might include his hair as well as stature. And yet the Clown describes him upon first sight as a “moon-calf” and Joan suggests that her son should leave off his study until he is a man, with Merlin retorting that he will only ever be half a man because the rest of him is immortal “spirit”. So it’s equivocal at a textual level exactly how bearded Merlin is – he’s certainly hirsute for a child, but is he only “man-like” and “more like” Joan’s husband than her son, or is he completely manly? In terms of Pete’s question about whether this is a patchy-bearded young man or full wizard, I’d say that it’s unclear- and I’ll be interested to continue to trace his masculinity through the remaining acts for more clues.
I was reminded of Nestor in Troilus and Cressida and the idea of him being hatched from an egg as a grey-bearded elderly man rather than of woman born. Particular masculine archetypes seem to be obstructed from normative births/childhoods, and Merlin is clearly imagined in this mould, although, as Pete says, other sources grant Merlin a childhood.
I love that the Clown is able to finally recognise that Merlin’s father is the Devil by his feet and not his horrid, frying-pan face. Also agree with David about the poetry in 3.2: the world-as-masque speech is wonderful. Interested to hear Andrew potentially speak about the witchcraft language/imagery in this scene, and the ‘strange transformation’ of Constancia. We also have an ‘antick dance’ in 3.3 which might have related to the demonic movement in the Masque Of Queens possibly?
- 6 May 2020 at 4:20 pm EDT #31055
Alright! This is what I came for: antic dances, devil charms, quotes from Doctor Faustus, antic dances!
I feel like a pretty solid chunk of my research career so far has involved saying “But what IS an antic dance?” “What IS hollow and infernal music?”
But let’s back up a bit first. I’m really impressed with just how comprehensively the term “witchcraft” is deployed in this play. We’ve seen it with respect to Artesia’s beauty, Joan’s sexuality, Clown’s love for his sister, and now Modestia’s and then Constantia’s religious conversions. It’s almost as though “witchcraft” is just “anything that bugs men a bit.”
I’m also really digging the musical cues here. We get “soft musick” as Constantia’s wedding party enters the scene in 3.2, which seems to interrupt Modestia’s pious meditations on death. Edwin interprets it as emblematic of her sister’s happy marriage, but Modestia then immediately dismisses it (alongside the ceremony itself) as vanity. Then, a little later, we get the beautiful poetry others have taken note of already in Modestia’s “masque” speech. What strikes me here is the way that Modestia’s perfectly rhymed iambic pentameter arrests and appropriates music’s potential “vanity” and disciplines it in language. Her speech centres on the image of the masque (a highly musical and highly ceremonial entertainment) in a way that immediately disempowers the musical and visual force of the marriage that was supposed to take place. And Constatia’s response, “Her words are powerful! I am amaz’d to hear her!” suggest yet another bewitchment. When Donobert himself recognizes the power of Modestia’s words, he cautions Constatia (too late) to “hear her no more.”
The scene that immediately follows this then opens up with the Devil’s call for a dance number that may or may not involve Hecate (does she exit with the Fates before the dance–the stage direction only has the Fates exiting, but the dialogue implies they all go). I’m not entirely sure what to make of the devil’s suggestion that “anticks” will dance to pass the time–witches? spirits? In Macbeth, Hecate calls for an “antic round,” which may be a model here. That word “antic” doesn’t specifically appear in Middleton’s “The Witch,” from which those scenes are most likely borrowed, or in The Masque of Queens, which Middleton probably used as a model for those songs and dances. But I still suspect that Rowley is thinking of those plays here. At the very least, Jonson’s description of the antimasque dance in Queens might help us with a visual:
with a strange, and sudden Musick they fell into a magical Dance, full of preposterous change, and gesticulation, but most applying to their Property; who at their meetings, do all things contrary to the custom of Men, dancing back
to back, and hip to hip, their hands joined, and making their circles backward, to the left hand, with strange phantastick motions of their heads, and bodies.
I’m assuming based on stage direction and the absence of any sense of a song text that we’re talking an instrumental number here, which is an interesting foil for the presumably more solemn instrumental music in the previous scene.
I’ve already gone on way too long here, so I’ll stop myself there and wait to see if there’s any more fun musical bits in the remaining acts.
I’ll just conclude then by saying that I’m just delighted by the fact that Merlin’s first speech in the play, in response to the question about why he’s reading (reading!), is “To sound the depth / Of arts, of learning, wisdom, knowledge.” That’s a pretty awesomely direct paraphrase of Faustus’s opening speech in Marlowe’s play: “Settle thy studies, Faustus, and begin / To sound the depths of that thou wilt profess.”
- 7 May 2020 at 9:58 pm EDT #31086
Still baffled by what a decent chap the Devil appears to be.
- 11 May 2020 at 5:45 am EDT #31173
There’s so much great stuff happening in this thread that makes me wish these discussion boards had Facebook-stlye ‘reaction’ options 😂 I’m so glad Ellie got deep into the beard discussion and Andrew into the music!
I wanted to pick up on the Devil’s ‘frying-pan’ face and Dave’s comment about the apparently instant costume change — I’m particularly noticing casual of equations of ‘blackness’ and evil/badness/devilry in early modern lit at the moment (probably because I’ve been re-reading Kim Hall’s Things of Darkness with another reading group), and I’ve been tossing around some half-formed thoughts about the early modern stage convention of blackface devils and this costume change. Hall argues that:
‘…descriptions of dark and light, rather than being mere indications of Elizabethan beauty standards or markers of moral categories, became in the early modern period the conduit through which the English began to formulate the notions of “self” and “other” so well known in Anglo-American racial discourses’ (1995: 2).
I think this is especially relevant in relation to The Birth of Merlin because Merlin is so much a part of the Anglo origin mythology: Uter-Pendragon, Arthur, Camelot, etc. Merlin, too, is a component of the ‘formulations of “self” and “other”‘ that are starting to take shape in this period. So I think it means something that his father’s appearance to Joan, at the time of Merlin’s conception, is as a “fair”/handsome and noble man, not as a traditional ‘stage devil’ — and that here he apparently has the capacity to move between his ‘face like a frying-pan’ and his appearance as a ‘gallant’ with ‘all the marks we look for’. It speaks to the Devil’s characteristic slipperiness and changeability and ability to hide among men, yes, but there’s something else I can’t quite put my finger on — something that also chimes with the xenophobia that we see from Edol and others throughout the play? Merlin is, apparently, both an important piece of what makes up the early modern audience’s sense of “self”/us AND, by virtue of his devilish parentage, an “other”/them — but there’s no indication that he has inherited his father’s physical characteristics (see also: cloven feet). So what does that tell us? I’m still parsing it out, but maybe others can make better sense of what I’m trying to articulate?
- This reply was modified 11 months, 1 week ago by Nora J Williams.
- 11 May 2020 at 5:38 pm EDT #31201
Hi Nora, I think what you’re trying to say may be tied up with the central weirdness of most Ancient Britain plays of this period. They’re all messed up because they depict native Britons being invaded by foreign Saxon “Other” – boo hiss! Except the Saxons are the ancestors of the English, i.e. “us”. So, we’re the foreign Other. A lot of these plays thus end up rather confused about who exactly we’re meant to identify with – Britons? Saxons? Kinda both sorta?
Hence, the presence of an extreme “Other”, i.e. the Devil, especially a devil with a black face, is very helpful to the playwrights. Differences between Britons and Saxons fade away compared to that. Things are simple again.
Except… as you say… the Devil can disguise as a “fair-faced” Briton. And indeed is the father of Merlin, who is a legendary ancestral figure of Britain. So … we’re back to being complicated again.
Is that close to what you were trying to say?! Ignore me if not!
- 12 May 2020 at 9:09 am EDT #31209
Yes, I think that’s getting at it, Dave! Identity is a very complex thing in this play (I think this speaks to some of what Ellie’s talking about in this thread and the Act 4 thread with the ambiguous beard / masculine patrilineal anxieties as well). And I think it’s significant that our “big baddie” (the Devil) is racialized whereas the Saxons (sort-of-us-but-also-not-us) are not.
I’ll probably revisit this thought in Act 5, when (spoiler!) Merlin renounces and magic-battles his father…
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