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  • Title: An Humorous Day's Mirth: Critical Introduction
  • Author: Eleanor Lowe

  • Copyright Digital Renaissance Editions. This text may be freely used for educational, non-profit purposes; for all other uses contact the Editor.
    Author: Eleanor Lowe
    Peer Reviewed

    Critical Introduction

    Containment and Control

    Despite the similarities between the theatrical spectacles of animal baiting, anatomical dissection, and plays, there is one principle difference between the former two categories and the latter. However realistically the characters paraded in the play are drawn, their realism is nothing compared with the actual bodily dismemberment occurring in the alternative entertainments. Not only is the action fictional, but it is made safe in a variety of ways.

    In An Humorous Day’s Mirth, this is partly achieved by the publicised self-containment of the play’s action within one day, coupled with a notion that Lemot’s activity will also be limited within this frame. There is little to be feared that cannot be righted by the seizure of power by the King in the final scene. Wiggins’s statement on comedy is therefore true of this play: ‘the comic structure limits and contains the disruptive energies of the aspirant imagination.’[88] Containment is also achieved by location within the private walks and houses of the characters, who are then shepherded to the ordinary, where the play’s ‘catastrophe’ is unravelled. Miraculously, Lemot manages to engineer the plot so that it is always just about within his controlling grasp.

    Although Chapman consciously chooses mostly French names for his characters, and has them name-drop their fellow Parisian citizens, the specific setting of the play is lost on at least two commentators. While Anne Barton scornfully refers to ‘Chapman’s nameless French city’,[89] missing all references to Paris, Jonathan Haynes criticises lack of definition making it nearly impossible ‘to tell if we are in the city or the country’.[90] On the contrary, ease of movement between the great houses of Count Labervele and maybe also the King, scenes referring to the street as location, and the presence of an ordinary deemed good enough for royal entertainment suggest that the action undeniably occurs within a city. Augmented with references to a tennis match recently played and brothel visited, the city becomes a vivid environment for the play’s action, and that city, because it is so named, is Paris. Furthermore, Wiggins, who has correctly spotted the play’s location, identifies this as ‘the first English comedy to have a realistic modern setting’.[91]

    Until Elizabeth’s death made available political material from her reign, English playwrights looked to Europe for contemporary events.[92] Hence, Dekker’s The Civil Wars of France (1598-9), which existed in four parts, all of which are lost, and Marlowe’s The Massacre at Paris (c.1591), coupled with Love’s Labour’s Lost (1595) and An Humorous Day’s Mirth point to France as a popular location for drama of the 1590s.

    115Like The Comedy of Errors before and Every Man in His Humour after, An Humorous Day’s Mirth occurs within the space of one day. This is signalled by Lemot in Scene 2 when he dedicates the day to mirth. The reason why this scene is not the first witnessed by the audience is because Count Labervele’s appearance draws specific attention to the start of the day at the beginning of the play. Entering in his night-gown, indicative of a scene occurring at night or in the early hours of the morning to an Elizabethan audience, Labervele announces that day is breaking, but that ‘the soil of night/ Sticks still upon the bosom of the air’ (TLN 5-6). He has risen early to hide jewels in his wife’s private garden, before the rest of the house stirs: ‘Her maid, nor any waking I can see’ (TLN 8).

    Riddled with jests and complex plotting, the day continues until the characters meet for dinner at the ordinary, presumably halfway through the day, as it is also at the mid-point in the play. The morning’s entertainment has comprised Florila’s wooing, observation of Dowsecer’s melancholy, and the invitation of key characters to the ordinary for the midday meal. The afternoon’s distraction involves the disentanglement of Lemot’s scheming and the entertainment of the lottery, after which the King invites the whole company back to his court, ‘where with feasts we will crown/ This mirthful day, and vow it to renown’ (TLN 2004-2005). The day is therefore segregated by refection, while the action progresses from private dwellings to the public ordinary, and on to the King’s court, where the day’s events will be celebrated and any unhappiness dispelled by monarchic approval. In balance with Lemot’s assumption of royal power in Scene 2 is the King’s reclamation of his title, diffusing tensions and preventing further disharmony. The wild and unpredictable reign of Lemot has reached its diurnal termination.

    Barton acknowledges that while the purpose of containing the action of The Comedy of Errors in a single day is to create a sense of urgency with Egeon’s threatened execution, in An Humorous Day’s Mirth the device provides a safety net within which the action is contained. The timing is ‘quite appropriately that of a practical joke’, since retardation ‘would have provoked questions, and aroused sympathies’.[93] Despite provoking rather serious questions about marital conduct by a dangerous schemer, the play’s potential for harm is thus limited by its time, resulting in a compact play injected with wit.

    Reassurance of genre also acts as another method of containment, rendering safe the action witnessed onstage, and diffusing any possibility of real pain or death. As Wiggins has identified, comedies have the potential to become tragedies, and the ‘pain is only bearable ... through the knowledge that the play is not a tragedy’.[94] But given the provocative machinations of Lemot and the need for the King to deliver a speech condoning the day’s events, ‘now all are friends, now is this day/ Spent with unhurtful motives of delight’ (TLN 1999-2001), how satisfactory is the ending? Unlike Jonsonian comedy, emphasis is on complete reconciliation rather than the driving of characters out of humours as in Every Man out of His Humour, or their punishment, as in the exclusion of Bobadilla and Matheo by Doctor Clement in Every Man in His Humour.

    In Chapman’s play only Dowsecer is cured, distracted from his melancholic humour by the sight of beautiful Martia. This is not Lemot’s purpose, but a by-product of the action. Lemot fits Doran’s description of the English intriguer who ‘is more apt to be a healthful exposer of men’s follies than a malicious instigator of them’.[95] Like Rinaldo in All Fools, Lemot is disinterested save in the hilarity such exposure provides him.

    120As Wiggins points out, the play rejects divine intervention from the first scene, when Labervele places his jewels in Florila’s garden and hopes she will think they are gifts from heaven.[96] The lottery in the final scene also rejects chance and fate, since Lemot, who has written the posies, has rigged it. Appropriately for a plot concerned with the predictability of character and linguistic play, the lottery, with its customised posies, comes closest to judgement and public punishment. Even the prizes awarded to each character are tokens of judgement and criticism: the Queen receives a heart of gold, while Florila’s Puritanism is mocked by awarding her a Catholic rosary. After a day consecrated to mirth, a mock judgement is all the audience can expect, especially since the King, in whom the real power is invested, is complicit with the architect of the intrigue, his minion Lemot.

    The point of the play is therefore not as a didactic display of errant characters, but as a mirthful, time-bound entertainment. One senses that the characters will not change much as a result: Labesha and the Queen will remain foolish, Labervele and the Countess jealous of their younger spouses, Florila an insufferable Puritan and Blanvel the affected gentleman. As C. G. Thayer observes of Jonsonian comedy, ‘the audience is educated by watching the comic characters remain essentially uneducated’.[97]