Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Summer reading: The Downfall and The Death of Robert, Earl of Huntingdon, by Anthony Munday

First in a series of posts about Stuff I'm Reading. This is mostly for me, so I have a place to store my notes that won't be lost if my laptop crashes, but feel free to read along if you have any interest in oddball plays about Robin Hood and King John.

These are very weird plays, even by Ren drama standards, which is saying a lot (it always blows my mind that we've gotten so used to Hamlet that we think it's in any way normal), and unfortunately, they aren't very good plays either. (Even the editor, John Carney Meagher, can't resist being snarky at Munday's expense in his intro and notes. This was probably the most enjoyable aspect of reading the plays, and I want to have a drink with Meagher. But anyway.)

Plot summary for The Downfall: Robert, earl of Huntington, is betrayed by his steward Warman to his evil uncle the Prior of York. Robert is in love with a girl named Marian, whose name mysteriously changes to Matilda fairly early on, then back to Marian, then back to Matilda, since Munday is conflating a couple of different traditions. Prince John, who is usurping the kingdom while his brother is off on crusade, also lusts after Marian / Matilda, and his mother, Queen Eleanor, lusts after Robert. The upshot of all this is that Warman becomes Sheriff of Nottingham and Robert becomes an outlaw, and starts calling himself Robin Hood. Marian / Matilda plans to run off with him; the queen pretends to help her, and suggests that they change clothes. Secretly, the queen plans that Robin will take her for Marian / Matilda and run away with her instead. (N.B. Historically, Eleanor of Aquitaine would have been getting on for seventy, but we're pretending that the only way to tell the difference between a young woman and an old woman is by the clothes.) Robin and Marian / Matilda foil this plot and hang out in the greenwood, where they are joined by Much the miller's son, Little John, Scarlet and Scathlocke, a girl named Jinny, and, eventually, Friar Tuck (who starts off as a bad guy, and is, bizarrely, played by John Skelton. Well, not literally played by John Skelton, since he was long dead by 1597, but played by an actor playing John Skelton playing Friar Tuck. As a consequence, Friar Tuck keeps falling out of character and breaking into skeltonics because he just can't help himself -- "Master, in briefe, there is a theefe, that seekes your griefe, God send reliefe, to you in neede: for a foule deede, if not with speede, you take good heede, there is decreede") Friar Tuck goes into the greenwood to betray Robin Hood and becomes a good guy; Warman loses his job as sheriff and goes into the greenwood to hang himself and becomes a good guy. Prince John hears that his brother is soon to return and that he killed a lion in Austria by plunging his hand down its throat and pulling its heart out, and wisely concludes that if Richard is that much of a badass he needs to stop usurping the throne, like, right now. John flees into the greenwood and becomes a good guy, but unfortunately it doesn't take. Richard returns to England and restores Robin to his lands.

Plot summary for The Death: Richard and John and the former outlaws go hunting. The evil Prior and Sir Doncaster plot to kill Robin; they try to tempt Warman to play along, but he refuses to play along, so they stab him and make it look like a suicide. The Prior gives Robin a drink that turns out to be poison; he dies after 300+ lines of making peace among former enemies, disposing of his property, etc. In an extended dumbshow, King Richard dies, Prince John becomes king and dispatches his nephew Arthur, and woos Marian / Matilda, who is having none of it. Matilda's father, Fitzwater, calls upon his relatives, who all seem to be named Bruse, to defend her. (Meagher devotes an extended, and hilarious, footnote to working out whether there are actually two or three Bruses in this scene.) Civil war ensues. The king takes Lady Bruse and her young son captive and starves them to death. Hughbert, in the meantime, has smuggled Matilda away to Dunmow Abbey, where a monk and the abbess try to persuade her to sleep with the king. When she refuses, the king's assassin, Brand, steps forward and tells her he's come to poison her. (This is perhaps not the most effective way to go about it if you actually want to poison somebody, but Matilda wants to die anyway, so she drinks the poison willingly.) Brand climbs a tree to hang himself, but falls to his death before he can complete the deed. In a gloriously disgusting scene, Young Bruse displays the bodies of his mother and young brother for all to see, explaining that Lady Bruse's teeth and chin are bloody from chewing her own flesh out, her hands are bloody from offering it to her child to eat, but the child's teeth are not bloody "Which is an argument the boy would not / Once stir his lips, to touch that bloudy foode ... But as it seem'd (for see, his prettie / Palme is bloody too) he cast it on the ground." Matilda's body is brought out on a bier, and King John views it and repents of his crimes. There is some talk about whether the lords should follow King Lewis of France, who is about to invade, since John hasn't worked out so well, but the Queen points out that Lewis might turn out to be even worse, so Bruse and the others make their peace with John. There is a brief epilogue: "Thus is Matildaes story showne in act / And rough heawen out by an uncunning hand: / Being of the most materiall points compackt / That with the certainst state of truth doe stand." (Meagher's note on the final line: "!")

My thoughts: Probably the most interesting parts are the metatheatrical bits -- the induction with Skelton, and a later scene where Skelton and Sir John Eltam talk about how the play defeats the audience's expectations for a story about Robin Hood ("Me thinks I see no jeasts of Robin Hoode / No merry Morices of Friar Tuck, / No pleasant skippings up and downe the wodde / No hunting songs, no coursing of the Bucke.") Skelton argues that "merry jeasts ... have bene showne before" and the time is ripe for a more tragic take on the same material. The other conspicuously absent feature, at least to my mind, is actual outlawry -- there's none of this robbing-from-the-rich business here. (I suspect this may be part of why I'm frustrated with these plays -- it feels like there are lots of places where Munday could be grappling head-on with all kinds of interesting questions about law and justice and disobedience, but he always seems to skirt them -- as at the end of the second play, when the upshot is "Well, we don't know King Lewis, and he might be worse, and besides, he's French.")

Lots of stuff about temptation in the second play, with Warman and later Matilda -- the scenes parallel each other, and there are some definite morality-play echoes in both. Matilda does seem to be wavering a little at one point; as Meagher notes, she speaks of her potential loss of chastity in the future rather than the conditional. Matilda's scene with Brand is easily one of the better bits; she pulls it off with dignity and a touch of humor. ("Farewell goodfellowe, now thy medicine works / And with the labour, I am forc't to rest") Webster seems to have been echoing this scene, at least subconsciously, in The Duchess of Malfi. ("Thou art the last poore alms-man I shall see. / Come, come, dispatch: what weapon death weare, / When he assailes mee? Is it knife or sworde? / A strangling cord, or sodaine flaming fire?")

6 comments:

Lea said...

(Meagher devotes an extended, and hilarious, footnote to working out whether there are actually two or three Bruses in this scene.)

Now, see, if I were staging the play, I'd be so tempted to have them break out into the Philosophers' Song...

I read the Downfall and Death a couple of years ago while blitzing through a huge collection of history plays for dissertatory purposes, most of which I'm not going to be using at all but I'm glad to have read them, and verily, it is on crack. Really, the entire chronicle history tradition is on crack, and we just don't realize it because nobody ever reads non-Shakespearean history plays, except for Edward II which is basically written according to the Shakespearean model.

There's also something about Robin Hood that brings out the cracktacular in Elizabethan dramatists -- have you read Peele's Edward I? Llewellyn ap Gryffydd spends much of the play running around disguised as RH and it is insane.

Fretful Porpentine said...

Really, the entire chronicle history tradition is on crack, and we just don't realize it because nobody ever reads non-Shakespearean history plays...

Or the Henry VI plays, for that matter. Plenty o' crack in Shakespeare if you know where to look...

There's also something about Robin Hood that brings out the cracktacular in Elizabethan dramatists -- have you read Peele's Edward I? Llewellyn ap Gryffydd spends much of the play running around disguised as RH and it is insane.

Not yet, but apparently I'm going to have to. :: adds to reading list ::

Lea said...

That's true, though even the Henry VIs are less on crack than Munday's or Peele's entries into the genre. Though I may just be, as you indicated in the post, overconditioned. Certainly things like the CSI: Windsor scene in 2H6 are pretty deliriously insane. Oh, and Margaret talking to Suffolk's head, even when the head doesn't sing as it did in one otherwise brilliant production I saw.

I love the Henry VIs so much.

Anent Edward I, I think my favorite part of it is the part where Queen Eleanor (whose bitchiness is apparently the ENTIRE POINT of the WHOLE PLAY) insists that wrapping her newborn son Edward in frieze to honor his birth in Caernarvon is just Not On, because her son's upbringing must be fabulous.

You can just see Peele going "heh. See, he got it from his mother."

Wat said...

I just wandered over to your blog from Quod She. Do you read Blogging the Renaissance? (blogggingtherenaissance.blogspot.com). Great blog, and they have a series for "Holzknecht Redivivus"--expanding plots of infrequently read early modern plays. I bet they'd love to be able to link to your Munday summaries here.

Good luck in the new job!

Fretful Porpentine said...

Hi, Wat!

Yeah, I read Blogging the Renaissance; I'm not sure this is quite ... Holzknechtian enough for them, though? I mean, it's not divided up into acts or anything, and I'm pretty sure I've skipped a few characters and plot points, and gotten a number of others out of order.

LadyKate said...

I came across your post while looking for information on the Munday play (I'm a big fan of the BBC's recent incarnation of Robin Hood, which has its own cracktacular moments, and have been looking for information on previous fictional treatments of the legend). Great synopsis!