You Gotta Know These English Dramas That Aren’t by Shakespeare
- The Spanish Tragedy (or, Hieronimo is Mad Again) (Thomas Kyd, c. 1585): A sensational hit when it was first performed, The Spanish Tragedy pioneered and popularized the gory genre known as the revenge tragedy. The play is set in the wake of a war between Portugal and Spain, during which the Spanish soldier Don Andrea was killed by the Portuguese prince Balthazar. After Andrea’s death, Balthazar was captured by two Spanish soldiers: Lorenzo, the nephew of the King of Spain; and Horatio, the capable son of the marshal Hieronimo. As the play begins, Andrea’s ghost has returned to Earth along with the spirit of Revenge, to watch the events that will lead to Balthazar’s death. Those events are put in motion by Andrea’s former lover Bel-imperia, who falls in love with Horatio and rejects the smitten Balthazar. Lorenzo and Balthazar then conspire to kill Horatio, whose death devastates Hieronimo. Bel-imperia is imprisoned by Lorenzo to cover up the crime, but sends a letter written in her own blood to Hieronimo, exposing Lorenzo’s schemes. During a climactic play-within-a-play, Hieronimo and Bel-imperia take vengeance by stabbing Lorenzo and Balthazar, and subsequently kill themselves. The Spanish Tragedy is noted for its influence on the works of Shakespeare, especially the incriminating play-within-a-play in Hamlet.
- The Jew of Malta (Christopher Marlowe, c. 1589): After his massive fortune is seized by Malta’s governor, Ferneze, to pay tribute to the Turks, the Jewish merchant Barabas embarks on a complex journey of revenge. Barabas uses his daughter Abigail to spark a jealous feud that leads to a duel in which the governor’s son Lodowick is killed. Abigail then hides in a convent and converts to Christianity, leading Barabas and his slave Ithamore to poison all of the convent’s occupants. Barabas eventually aids the Turks in conquering Malta, for which he is appointed governor, but betrays the Turks in favor of the Maltese, who kill Barabas in a boiling cauldron as they retake the island. The Jew of Malta is thought to have influenced Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice.
- (The Tragical History of the Life and Death of) Doctor Faustus (Christopher Marlowe, c. 1593): Two scholars named Valdes and Cornelius teach Faustus how to summon a demon, which Faustus promptly does, conjuring Mephistophilis. Faustus then signs his soul over to Lucifer, in exchange for 24 years of healthy life with Mephistophilis as his dutiful servant. Faustus constantly rejects the pleas of an angel to accept the forgiveness of God, instead traveling and gaining worldly fame. At one point, he summons the “shade” of Helen of Troy, and exclaims “was this the face that launch’d a thousand ships, and burnt the topless towers of Ilium?” On the night his deal is scheduled to expire, a clock’s chimes announce that Faustus is running out of time to repent. He never does, so devils appear and drag him to hell.
- Every Man in His Humour (Ben Jonson, 1598): Set in Jonson’s contemporary London, this comedy is a “humours play,” in which each character is a stock type governed by a corresponding “humour” (as theorized in Greek medicine). The plot chiefly concerns Knowell, an old gentleman who worries that his son Edward is becoming too involved with Wellbred, a fun-loving gallant Londoner. Knowell secretly follows his son to London; meanwhile, Wellbred’s brother-in-law, the merchant Kitely, worries that Wellbred’s behavior will give his business a bad reputation, all the while suspecting his own wife of infidelity. Various subplots involve Knowell’s mischievous servant Brainworm, the braggart-captain Bobadill, and two friends of Wellbred who try to be fashionably and poetically melancholic. In the end, the kindly Justice Clement settles all of the grievances amassed over the course of the play. A follow-up, Every Man Out of His Humour, was written one year later.
- Volpone (Ben Jonson, 1605): Each character in this Jonson play is based on an animal archetype. The greedy Venetian noble Volpone (named for the Italian for “fox”) cajoles gifts from men named Corbaccio (“raven”), Corvino (“crow”), and Voltore (“vulture”) by faking a fatal illness, and separately promising his fortune to each man. At the urging of Volpone’s servant Mosca (“fly”), Corbaccio agrees to disinherit his own son Bonario by writing a new will that will name Volpone as sole heir. Volpone also engages in stratagems to sleep with Corvino’s wife Celia, although his attempt to rape her is foiled by Bonario. In a subplot, the English traveler Peregrine humiliates a foolish fellow countryman named Sir Politick Would-Be. After a trial, Volpone fakes his death and names Mosca his sole heir; Mosca’s ensuing behavior prompts Volpone to reveal himself, resulting in the punishment of all wrongdoing.
- The Duchess of Malfi (John Webster, 1613): This play is a product of the Jacobean period, in which the thrilling, macabre, and fantastic were prevalent on stage. The play follows the widowed Duchess, who loves Antonio Bologna, a good-hearted nobleman below her station. Her twin brother Ferdinand denounces her affection for Antonio out of incestuous envy. Her other brother, a Cardinal, hires the former galley-slave Bosola to spy on her. Bosola discovers the Duchess and Antonio have married (and had children), so the Cardinal sends them into exile. Ferdinand subsequently imprisons the Duchess, terrorizes her with asylum patients, and arranges for her to see statues resembling the dead bodies of her husband and children. Executioners sent by Ferdinand then kill the Duchess and her maid Cariola. Paranoia overtakes both brothers; the Cardinal kills his mistress Julia with a poisoned bible, and Ferdinand imagines he has become a werewolf. Bosola, disgusted by his own actions, tries to murder the Cardinal but mistakenly kills Antonio instead. In a climactic confrontation, Bosola, the Cardinal, and Ferdinand all kill each other, leaving the son of the Duchess and Antonio to inherit what remains.
- All for Love (or, the World Well Lost) (John Dryden, 1677): Dryden wrote that he “professed to imitate the divine Shakespeare” in this play, which retells the story of the Roman leader Mark Antony and the Egyptian queen Cleopatra. In Dryden’s version of the tale, the Roman general Ventidius actively tries to separate the two lovers, and encourages Antony to believe that Cleopatra has been secretly consorting with the Roman Dolabella. Another of the central characters in Dryden’s play is Antony’s wife Octavia, who travels to Alexandria to convince Antony to reconcile. At the end of the play, the eunuch Alexas falsely tells Antony that Cleopatra has committed suicide. Antony falls upon his sword, and the grief-stricken Cleopatra lets herself be bitten by a poisonous snake. The dead lovers are then eulogized by Serapion, a priest of Isis.
- The Way of the World (William Congreve, 1700): The Way of the World’s complex plot (typical of Restoration comedy) concerns Mirabell and Millimant, two lovers who wish to marry. However, Millimant will lose “half her fortune” unless her choice of husband is approved by her aunt Lady Wishfort, who wants her to marry Sir Wilfull Witwoud. Mirabell enlists the married servants Waitwell and Foible to trick Lady Wishfort into falling in love with Sir Rowland, who is actually Waitwell in disguise, so that the compromised Lady Wishfort will be forced to agree to Mirabell and Millamant’s marriage. The scheme is supported by Lady Wishfort’s daughter, Mrs. Fainall, but exposed by a woman named Mrs. Marwood, who loves Mirabell. A resolution is reached when the rakish Mr. Fainall tries to blackmail his mother-in-law Lady Wishfort, who asks for Mirabell’s help. Mirabell then produces an old contract that invalidates the blackmail attempt, securing Lady Wishfort’s blessing for his marriage to Millamant.
- She Stoops to Conquer (or, The Mistakes of a Night) (Oliver Goldsmith, 1773): In this enduringly popular comedy, a wealthy gentleman’s son named Charles Marlow is sent to visit the country home of Mr. Hardcastle, who has a beautiful daughter named Kate. On the way, Marlow and his companion George Hastings stop at an alehouse where Kate’s half-brother, Tony Lumpkin, tricks them into thinking they are miles from their destination. Tony directs the travelers to Mr. Hardcastle’s house, claiming it is an inn. There, Marlow and Hastings rudely treat the Hardcastles as innkeepers, which the Hardcastles patiently endure for the sake of their friendship with Marlow’s wealthy father. At the same time, Kate discovers that Marlow is timid and reserved around high-born ladies, but is rakishly charming to lower-class women. Kate therefore “stoops” to impersonating a barmaid in order to woo Marlow. Meanwhile, Mrs. Hardcastle attempts to make her niece Constance Neville marry Tony. Constance, however, is secretly engaged to Hastings, and the pair try to obtain a casket of jewels that belongs to Constance, but which Mrs. Hardcastle carefully guards. In the end, Kate wins Marlow, and Tony discovers that he is older than the Hardcastles have led him to believe. Upon discovering he is an adult, Tony refuses the arranged marriage, freeing Constance to marry Hastings.
- The Rivals (Richard Brinsley Sheridan, 1775): Like Sheridan’s later play The School for Scandal, The Rivals offers a satirical take on manners and courtship. The play’s heroine is Lydia Languish, a wealthy heiress who loves reading novels, and who wants her own life to imitate the tropes of romantic fiction. To win Lydia’s heart, the wealthy Captain Jack Absolute pretends to be the impoverished “Ensign Beverley.” Lydia is also desired by the “country gentleman” Bob Acres and the Irish baronet Sir Lucius O’Trigger, the latter of whom sends letters via the maid Lucy. However, O’Trigger’s letters are actually read and answered by Lydia’s guardian Mrs. Malaprop, who is infatuated with O’Trigger and uses the pseudonym “Delia” in her correspondence. (Mrs. Malaprop’s comical speech patterns gave rise to the English word “malapropism,” which refers to the accidental substitution of one word for another that sounds similar, but has a different meaning.) Jack’s father Sir Anthony Absolute eventually exposes Jack’s deception, infuriating Lydia. Jack then has an abortive duel with Sir Lucius, leading Mrs. Malaprop to admit that she is “Delia.” At the end of the play, Lydia and Jack reconcile, as do their friends, the quarreling lovers Julia and Faulkland.
This article was contributed by NAQT editor Danny Kristian Vopava.