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.
- 27 April 2020 at 4:10 am #30714
After a relatively sedate and political start, we’re off in Act Two with our introduction to the Clown and Joan (holy misogyny, Batman!! I’d forgotten how dark that scene gets…); Aurelius & Artesia’s wedding procession; the introduction of Proximus, the Saxon magician; our first MAGIC BATTLE between Proximus and the Hermit; the return of Prince Uter; and, finally, the introduction of the brothers’ love triangle (egged on by Artesia, of course!). But still no Merlin…
Moment of joy for the ‘artificial crab’ line. 🙂
What say you, friends, of Act Two?
27 April 2020 at 9:35 am #30716
- This topic was modified 1 month, 1 week ago by Nora J Williams.
Couple of initial thoughts:
One of the interesting recurring features when working on the ‘Shakespeare Apocrypha’ was the recurrent forests – see also Mucedorus and Locrine – and what happens within those forests. In 2.1, aside from the misogyny (wow) that Nora has noted, I was struck by the coincidence of the location and the focus on naming. Identities are always murky in the forest – from the disguised and cannibalistic figures of Mucedorus to the shifting identities of As You Like It – and the emphasis of both the Clown/Joan on the name of the father, and Uter on the name of the woman he searches for, is marked.
I love Edoll’s whole presence in 2.2. ‘Do not deceive me by your flatteries’ – the no-nonsense dismissal of political niceties is a great start, and then that rage just builds and builds. In the Read Not Dead production, John Gregor marched in wearing camo and served as a catalyst to all the court scenes, immediately forcing people to draw lines of conflict, and you can see that in this first appearance. The whole of 2.2 is a really interesting scene in this sense – other than the opening procession, it’s build-up to this character, and the character delivers powerfully.27 April 2020 at 1:56 pm #30754
I’m just catching up with everyone’s comments on Act One – Act Two certainly accelerates the plot, with an abrupt pivot into magical rather than romantic/political territory.
Joan Go-too’t is reminding me of the Jailer’s Daughter from Two Noble Kinsmen – perhaps primarily just because she is apparently a working class woman cruelly rejected by a high-status man, but the combination of comedy and tragedy feels familiar from Fletcher/Shakespeare as well.
And the magic battle! It would be fascinating to see a staging of this. For me the obvious comparison is Prospero interrupting his own display of magical prowess in The Tempest, but the competitive aspect here raises the stakes (“what? at a non-plus, sir?” is an amazing putdown from the Hermit). I’d be interested to hear what people think about the choice of Trojan mythology for the demonic display. It’s classical and therefore pagan, but often seems to get co-opted by Christian characters elsewhere in EM drama?
“Think of your sea-crab, sir, I pray” is such a fabulous exit line…28 April 2020 at 9:42 pm #30804
So much stuff to talk about! Great comedy, weird poetry and a battle of magic! Some random observations:
29 April 2020 at 11:48 am #30823
- This comedy is very funny. If you rummage the shelves of your local academic library (not easy right now, I know) you might find a very obscure edition of this play, created to accompany a revival at Theatr Clywd in the 80s and featuring an introduction by legendary British comedian Roy Hudd,who played the Clown; in it, Hudd waxes lyrical on the badum-tish nature of the lines about the knight’s ‘hangers’, which he finds to be a splendid example of a recurring gag; he opines that one can produce similar effects with the word “trossacks”. I defer to his expertise on this matter.
- The Clown and his sister are a great double act. The Clown’s mixture of exasperation and concern for Joan is rather touching. Rowley seems to have liked stories about Clowns with sisters who get into trouble with dodgy men – you can find the same thing in All’s Lost by Lust, The Thracian Wonder and The Maid in the Mill, all, written around the same time. They weren’t all written for the same company, but All’s Lost was, so we might imagine the same boy actor playing Joan and the more tragic Margaretta in All’s Lost, who is similarly done wrong by an aristocratic man, but opts for bloody revenge as her solution.
- Weirdly, this play, and especially this act, is full of lines loosely borrowed from Fletcher’s Cupid’s Revenge (a boy’s company play of about 1608, published in 1615). Example: when Edol says Aurelius’s mistake “would make / Wisdom herself run madding through the streets, / And quarrel with her shadow”, the author is reworking a line from Leucippus in CR: “would make / Wisdom herself run frantic through the streets, / And patience quarrel with her shadow”. That’s the most striking example, but there’s a lot of other, looser ones. What’s going on with that?
- The artificial crab makes me suspect Webster is lurking somewhere in this play. Remember in Duchess of Malfi, “Think ‘t the best voyage / That e’er you made; like the irregular crab, / Which, though ‘t goes backward, thinks that it goes right”. And the year after the writing of Birth of Merlin, Rowley praised Webster in a friendly commendatory poem for the Quarto of Duchess. Just sayin’ there’s connections.
One of the things I find so interesting about 2.1 is the knife-edge space between comedy and violence — that’s present in so much clowning, of course, but I think that Joan’s predicament perhaps brings it into relief for me in a slightly different way. Really interesting to think about in relation to Dave’s reminder that the Clown and Joan are a kind of double act (and perhaps a kind of repeat performance, that an audience who knew All’s Lost by Lust might have looked forward to seeing together again).
Having watched the Cheek by Jowl Winter’s Tale last week, it’s also put me in mind of that production’s treatment of Leontes, Mamillius, Polixenes, and even _that_ Clown, where the space between light-hearted play and horrifying violence is wafer-thin. I’m also interested in the way that the play asks us to accept Prince Uter’s violence toward the pregnant Joan and then understand him as a kind of hero at the end of the act (in his resistance to Artesia’s plot to pit the brothers against each other). I’m forgetting exactly how this plot develops, but (possible spoiler!) I believe it’s the Prince who ‘saves the day’ with respect to the Saxon invasion which surely we all see coming…30 April 2020 at 4:33 am #30833
Yes to all of this! I wonder what role Uter’s costume plays as well–from Joan’s description, we’ve been told to expect a man with ‘most rich attire,’ a feather in his hat (and ‘excellent hangers,’ ha ha etc) – does Uter walk on stage matching the description? And he gives forty or so lines of Petrarchan-ish yearning before suddenly becoming violent and abusive.30 April 2020 at 5:28 am #30836
I’m fascinated with the shape of Act 2: how we move from the liminal, perilous and (as Pete says) identity-morphing space of the woods, ever closer to the court and ultimately the king’s bed-chamber – the place where legitimate heirs are begotten and patriarchy perpetuated. But something about that woodsy disorder continues to permeate all of the scenes throughout the act. As others have noted, the misogyny of the first scene is breath-taking and continues to infect gender dynamics throughout the act: another theme running through it is how women act to unravel masculinity – whether through impugning their sexual integrity (Uter), their martial conquests (Edol/Aurelius), or their homosocial and fraternal bonds (all three).
I have been doing research recently on gendered contexts of movement and was talking to Nora the other day about how the woods are always sexually dangerous contexts for women, a site which anticipates their sexual undoing or violation – with Hermia at one end of the scale and Lavinia at the other. Sadly it is the context that says ‘asking for it’ in early modern thought, legitimating their sexual availability and assault. When it came to the devil’s seduction (if we can ever call sex with the devil consensual…) I was reminded of Peg’s account of devil sex in Act 5 of The Late Lancashire Witches. She is similarly blindsided by his outsides and particularly his ‘black points’, analogous to BOM’s Devil’s ‘hangers’:
Doughty: Peace, and did he weare good clothes?
Peg: Gentleman like, but blacke blacke points and all.
Doughty: I, very like his points were blacke enough.
So the image of the Devil as a dazzling gallant appears in at least two plays, and marries up with Sally’s point that he mimics a certain ostentatious nobility. I wonder if this is a literary trope or if it finds itself into any ‘factual’ texts? And finally, THE MAGIC BATTLE! What a tantalising staging proposition! I was reminded of the figures’ starting positions in Tekken for some reason, ready to fight and raring to go but waiting for the player-magician to push the button. Fabulous stuff. Bring on Act 3.
1 May 2020 at 11:18 am #30872
- This reply was modified 1 month ago by Eleanor Rycroft.
I haven’t quite finished all of Act 2, but, David, thanks for that note about the Roy Hudd connection. That’s the edition of The Birth of Merlin that the library at Warwick has, and until I saw your comment I was a bit confused by the reference in the catalogue to it containing a chapter by Roy Hudd… I was thinking “surely not that Roy Hudd?!”, but it makes a lot of sense having read Act 2, Scene 1! When I’m able to get my hands on the physical copy I’ll be interested to read it, although that might not be as soon as lockdown ends – encouragingly, someone has already borrowed the library’s only copy…4 May 2020 at 4:57 am #30971
Coming back to this thread having read Act 3 again, I’m thinking back to one of Dave’s early questions about collaboration (and his nod to the possibility that the artificial crab is either a nod to Webster or (if I’m understanding correctly?) possibly a hint that Webster was a collaborator on this play). The structure of the three plots, up to this point, certainly seems to match something like The Witch of Edmonton, where each of Dekker, Rowley, and Ford took responsibility for one plot line (again, if I’m remembering correctly?)….then again, everything’s about to start crashing together in Acts 4 and 5, so who knows??
I’m also really interested in Ellie’s thinking about the forest as a liminal, transformative, and dangerous space…much more to come on this in Act 3, of course! But the idea that the danger of the forest infiltrates the court is one I hadn’t considered before. It makes sense, since Artesia and the Hermit–who we could argue are the sources of these threats to the “natural” order of things–come from/through the forest to enter the castle. They literally invade that courtly, ordered space. Interesting, too, to think of this in terms of xenophobia/nationalism (which, again, we’ll see more of from Edol in Act 3) — when the “borders” of the castle are insufficiently secure, chaos ensues? Then again, it’s the Hermit who restores order at the end of the magic battle…4 May 2020 at 10:23 am #30987
Late to the party once again, but I just wanted to quickly add a half-formed thought about how highly concerned this act seems to be with women as threats to masculinity. There’s an interesting parallel being drawn here between Joan and Artesia, both of whom are called “witch” and “devil” by men whose ideas of themselves are threatened by them. And both react with actual or intended violence. There’s a kind of shame-as-contagion thing happening here, especially with respect to Edol’s response to Artesia’s infiltration of the kingdom, that reminds me a bit of Chamont’s conflicted responses to others’ shame (and his own) in Middleton’s The Nice Valour (a very strange and wonderful play that you should all read if you haven’t (hi Kat!)). Edol is impossibly caught between codes of honour that demand, on the one hand, requital for the betrayal of his king and, on the other hand, loyalty to that king. I’ll see if I can gather more coherent thoughts about that as we move into Act 3, but I just wanted to register it here for now.5 May 2020 at 2:51 am #31010
Since there’s been some discussion of Webster and his potential influence, Edol reminded me of Webster’s Sir Thomas Wyatt (play and character). Wyatt “would run through fire” for the sake of the true Queen, but transforms into fury and martial resolve when she follows her hormones (like Aurelius) and marries a Spaniard. I haven’t made a lines comparison, but the feel is just the same.
Also shocked all over again with the way, like in Merry Wives of Windsor when Master Ford beats Falstaff disguised as the old woman, it’s presented as a simple funny gag for a man to beat a woman, and one specifically shown to be vulnerable, at that, who hasn’t done anything except be unappealing to his sensibilities.5 May 2020 at 8:04 am #31013
To answer Nora’s question…
The structure of the three plots, up to this point, certainly seems to match something like The Witch of Edmonton, where each of Dekker, Rowley, and Ford took responsibility for one plot line (again, if I’m remembering correctly?)….then again, everything’s about to start crashing together in Acts 4 and 5, so who knows??
Actually, the authorship of The Witch of Edmonton is very unclear, and what we do know suggests that the playwrights did not take responsibility for just one plotline but rather contributed to all (necessarily, since the plotlines get intertwined quite rapidly). That play is, I suspect, a good one to compare to Birth of Merlin, as both have three plotlines that soon get intertwined.22 May 2020 at 2:16 pm #31504
This is a great read, Nora, thanks for arranging this, and Act Two really brings home the theatrical possibilities. The comedy holds up and it’s nice to see the sibling affection contained within it. Though of course, as has been mentioned, it was funny for me until the Prince got violent and then it was decidedly not funny. Nora started hinting at this, but it’s made me wonder how the play wants me to feel about him. I’m most fascinated by the fact that there’s so much interesting going on, that I don’t know who I’m supposed to follow – who is the audience avatar? And will the person the play wants the avatar to be match with who I see it in? As always, thinking about what a feminist production would look like… As like in The Maid’s Tragedy, the play sees Melantius as the hero, but I decidedly do not.
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