Monday, May 7, 2012

A Contest of Wills

It is Sunday, May the 6th, 2012.

The Cranky Old Man sitting on his back porch, here in Wichita, Kansas, quite alone. When one is alone, there is no contest of wills, and that is heavenly. The Cranky Old Man insists that he is not really cranky, but methinks he does protest too much. His family insists that he is and it is their will that seems to prevail.

The family is gone, but the dogs, Tobie and Sam remain, and together, we have the day to ourselves. Where should we go, what should we do?

This Sunday, the weather is mild. It is an English summer day, one where billowy clouds shield the earth from the harsh rays of the sun. A gentle breeze stirs the leaves in the trees. The honeysuckle vine's yellow and white blooms announce that Spring is here to stay. All this suggests to me that a trip to Shakespeare's London of 1599 is in order. My trip is arranged by way of James Shapiro's, A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare, 1599. To make such a trip is simple enough, pour a glass of wine and open the book. Let the breeze stir your thoughts to Elizabethan England.

In Shapiro's England, it is still Winter, for a I am reading chapter one, A Battle of Wills. The chapter begins on December 26, 1598, and Shakespeare's troupe, the Chamberlain's Men, is off to Whitehall to perform The Second Part of Henry the Fourth this Christmas for Queen Elizabeth.

Shakespeare's play, as many did, had an opening prologue and an epilogue. This is a rhetorical device, well known to public speakers. Tell the audience what they are going to hear, tell them again, and follow that up with a summary of what they heard. The rule of three is often repeated - repetition makes for memory retention.

In The Second Part of Henry the Forth, the epilogue was delivered by the actor Will Kemp. Kemp was perhaps the most famous actor of his day, a bit of a Charlie Chaplin, acting in comedic roles and always center stage. Kemp was also well known for what followed the play. This was a dance called a Jig. Today we imagine a jig as a robust dance, but back then it was more. Jigs, as Shapiro explains, were, "basically semi-improvisational one-act plays, running to a few hundred lines, usually performed by four actors. Kemp's jigs were so popular that in London of 1599, everywhere you turned, you could hear "whores, beadles, bawds, and sergeants filthily chant Kemp's jigs." The word "beadle" refers to a parish constable who was charged with the duties of charity; and "bawd" refers to a prostitute or the madam that keeps them. Thus, Shapiro suggests, those coming to see Kemp dance the jig were the riff-raff of London, those who waited until the end of the play to enter the theatre without paying their penny.

Shapiro's first chapter, A Battle of Wills, concerns the battle of egos between Kemp and William Shakespeare. Kemp had come to believe, with reason, that the audience came to see him dance and sing, and not to hear the staid and lifeless words of a lengthy play. Most plays at the time were dry and humorless. Shakespeare changed that with his wit and wisdom. His plays were topical, his words biting and quotable. The fact that the Queen herself viewed many of Shakespeare's plays suggests that the plays of Shakespeare and The Chamberlain's Men were the blockbusters of the stage.

Kemp was a member of The Chamberlain's Men and an equal owner in the profits of the company. Yet, egos often get in the way of common sense, and Kemp decided that he could take his name and his jig elsewhere for more money. He was wrong, and within a few years died penniless. Shakespeare got the last word in at the Globe.

And as for the Epilogue, take that of The Second Part of Henry the Forth, spoken by a dancer, Will Kemp:

First, my fear; then, my curtsy; last my speech. My fear is, your displeasure, my curtsy, my duty, and my speech, to beg your pardon. If you look for a good speech now, you undo me; for what I have to say is of mine own making; and what indeed I should say will, I doubt, prove mine own marring. But to the purpose, and so to the venture. Be it known to you,—as it is very well,—I was lately here in the end of a displeasing play, to pray your patience for it and to promise you a better. I did mean indeed to pay you with this; which, if like an ill venture it come unluckily home, I break, and you, my gentle creditors, lose. Here, I promised you I would be, and here I commit my body to your mercies: bate me some and I will pay you some; and, as most debtors do, promise you infinitely.

My tongue is weary; when my legs are too, I will bid you good night: and so kneel down before you; but, indeed, to pray for the queen.

Fame, as Shakespeare so well understood, depends on an uncertain audience.

In the Second Part of Henry the Forth, the words of the play center around Will Kemp's character - Falstaff, friend to Prince Hal, son of King Henry the Forth. Although Shakespeare promises to write further of him, he changes his mind. There are no more words for either Falstaff or Will Kemp in Shakespeare's plays and so his audience is gone. For Kemp, "the jig was up."

Note and afterword.

Thomas Platter, a native of Basel, visited England in 1599. The following, from his diary translated from German, describes his visit to the Globe theatre, and the premier of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar.

On September 21st after lunch, about two o'clock, I and my party crossed the water, and there in the house with the thatched roof witnessed an excellent performance of the tragedy of the first Emperor Julius Caesar with a cast of some fifteen people; when the play was over, they danced very marvellously and gracefully together as is their wont, two dressed as men and two as women. ...
There are different galleries and places, however, where the seating is better and more comfortable and therefore more expensive. For whoever cares to stand below only pays one English penny, but if he wishes to sit he enters by another door and pays another penny, while if he desires to sit in the most comfortable seats, which are cushioned, where he not only sees everything well, but can also be seen, then he pays yet another English penny at another door. And during the performance food and drink are carried round the audience, so that for what one cares to pay one may also have refreshment.
 Read more from the Norton Anthology of Literature.

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