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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

    Dramatic Discussion of An Humorous Day’s Mirth

    The most explicit, and perhaps amusing, joke in An Humorous Day’s Mirth reaches its climax in the final scene. It concerns Lemot’s witty word play and careful choice of the phrase ‘instrument of procreation’ to mislead the Queen into thinking her husband’s penis is about to be detached from his body. When the object concerned turns out to be Martia, a woman, thus fitting Lemot’s description, the Queen is relieved, if embarrassed, and Lemot lives up to his name once again.

    It is appropriate that this memorable joke concerns reproduction. Marital relations cause the most concern, and comedy, in this play. Part of this anxiety lies in inter-generational marriage, part in the unwillingness of children to obey their parents’ wishes. The play opens with Labervele’s monologue, in which he describes his ‘device’ (TLN 12) to the audience. He explains that it is still dark and he has gained entry to Florila’s forbidden garden by copying her key. His purpose is to plant posy-inscribed jewels for Florila to find and persuade her that, although they haven’t yet had any children, it is her Christian duty to stay faithful to her husband. He betrays his marital anxiety by pointing out that she is both young and attractive. The fruits of this ratiocination are observed in Scene 4, when Florila finds the jewels but is far from impressed with her husband’s poetry. For Labervele the scene is disastrous: in persuading his wife to wear richer clothes and increase her social activity, he only succeeds in augmenting his own anxieties.

    Countess Moren similarly suffers from marital jealousy of her younger spouse. She begs Moren not to go to the ordinary for fear that other, younger women might be there. The couple exchange the word ‘bird’ as a reassuring term of affection: for Moren it serves as a means of pacifying his needy wife, while she uses it as a whiny expression of dependence. Scene 12, in which Lemot both confuses and reassures the Queen, is punctuated with the Countess’s moans concerning the fickleness of men and the particular cruelty of her husband. The insecurity of this marriage is obviously built on the age gap between husband and wife, which all the more blatantly points towards their lack of children, and a potential factor of unification. In contrast with the unfruitfulness of the old Countess and Labervele with their respective marital spouses is Verone’s Maid. Her pregnancy is announced during the course of the lottery in the final scene, but Catalian has previously pointed out that she is not yet married to Verone: ‘Hark you, my host, you must marry this young wench. You do her mighty wrong else’ (TLN 1156-1157).

    140There is an unsubtle irony in the fact that the unconsecrated union is the most fecund, perhaps since in this relationship Verone is seen to express his warm feelings for Jaquena: ‘Oh, sweet Jaquena, I dare not say I love thee’ (TLN 1046). His tone is genuinely reassuring and her fortunate condition is highlighted when he places her in the role of Queen Fortune in the lottery presentation. The thought of ‘young fortunes’ (TLN 1959) pattering about the ordinary is touching and hopeful, and also an anticipatory outcome of Dowsecer and Martia's union.

    Dowsecer initially voices concern and repulsion at the thought of sex and procreation in Scene 7, but the sight of the beautiful Martia swiftly changes his mind. He is one of two motherless sons in the play, along with Verone’s Boy, pointing to a very real absence of mothers in particular, perhaps due to death in childbed. Martia’s mother is also missing. It is more likely that Chapman was not trying to represent realistically a common sociological problem, but that male parents best served his plot. As the concerned old father, Foyes perfectly fits the pantalone or senex role. But the lack of one complete nuclear family places greater emphasis on married couples without children, and the resultant anxiety it breeds.

    The subjects of jealousy, marital disharmony, and anxiety about pregnancy and sex cut across all strata of society, from the King’s penis to Jaquena’s pregnant belly. Despite social inclusion, the play’s premise is a great leveller of all characters. Social status is of less importance than each character’s potential for providing mirth. Although Lemot humiliates Jaquena by announcing her pregnancy as one of the posies in the lottery, in general the lower status characters, such as Verone and Jaques, work alongside him in gulling the idiotic victims. Locations support choices of characters from a societal cross-section: private, moneyed dwelling places, fit for the reception of kings, give way to a presumably upmarket tavern, while the conclusive offstage action is promised at the King’s court.

    The containing, external elements of An Humorous Day’s Mirth are complemented by its neatly compact structure. Characters are balanced with one another: there are two jealous, older spouses, two anxious fathers, two young, easily tempted women, and two fatherless sons. However, the individuals within each pair are very different: Dowsecer concerns his father because of his lack of interest in sex, but Foyes fears his daughter being preyed on by unsuitable young men; Florila is a young wife and allegedly devout Puritan while Martia is single and openly free-spirited. So the balanced symmetry designed by Shakespeare in Love’s Labour’s Lost is present but reinvented in different and interesting ways by Chapman. An Humorous Day’s Mirth also contains plenty of imbalance: the gallants are excluded from the pairing; five men, two of whom are married, chase one woman; married characters flirt and encourage illicit goings on; and the balance of the family unit is in upheaval.

    Across these symmetries work the previously identified tensions of jealousy, intrigue and sex. These tensions are already existent amongst Chapman’s characters, but become magnified and motivated into dramatic consequences by the prime mover, Lemot. By playing with onstage and offstage watching, interacting with his audience and other characters, Lemot carefully exposes comic humours and places pressure on already strained relations. He is witty, cunning and engaging, a fact not lost on his fellow characters. Part of his success is due to clever manipulation of language, part because of his reputation. Labervele’s response to Lemot’s entry in Scene 4 voices this concern best: ‘God’s my passion, whom do I see? The very imp of desolation, the minion of our King, whom no man sees to enter his house but he locks up his wife, his children, and his maids, for where he goes he carries his house upon his head like a snail’ (TLN 310-315).

    145Labervele is clearly worried that his wife and household are at risk, such is the threat Lemot poses. Despite Labervele’s choleric protestations, Florila is soon in private conversation with Lemot and within a hundred lines is being kissed by him. As it turns out, Labervele is right to fear Lemot’s influence on his wife, even though Lemot himself has no desire to take his dalliances with her any further than is necessary for the purposes of his mirthful humiliation of her professed religion. He is paradoxically intricately involved with the plot, but detached from the characters within it. This affords his audience a similar detachment, further aided by witty asides containing snippets of additional information.

    Since Labervele is a suspicious, jealous husband, it is unsurprising that he reacts so violently to Lemot’s entry. He is similarly cautious when Catalian enters a few lines earlier. In the next scene, however, the Countess suggests that Lemot’s reputation precedes him, since she cuttingly remarks, ‘So now we shall have all manner of flattering with Monsieur Lemot’ (TLN 478). Martia pitches in wittily and begins a series of puns on Lemot’s name: ‘Madam, we shall not have one mot of Monsieur Lemot, but it shall be as it were a moat to drown all our conceit in admiration’ (TLN 485-487). Women and insecure men fear Lemot, are in awe of his reputation, so that his associates are composed only of single gallants and the King, his patron. The label ‘imp of desolation’ therefore adds a frisson of danger to Lemot’s character.

    Although the female parts can be labelled as stereotypical caricatures of the hypocritical Puritan, the shrewish older wife and the flirtatious younger woman, the women are given a feisty and vocal role until their individual humiliation. Indeed Martia’s boisterous verbal banter disappears after the incident with the King at the ordinary, replaced by an absence of speech, prompted by Lemot’s warning posy: ‘Change for the better’ (TLN 1946).

    Chapman carefully ensures that the action builds towards a purpose, and Lemot’s aim is to organise the congregation of key characters for a meal at the ordinary. This scene follows another group scene at the pivotal midpoint of the play. The observation of Dowsecer in Scene 7 is neatly inverted in the spectacle presented by the tavern scene to the audience, in which the tables are turned and the assembled characters are unwittingly spied upon by Lemot and Catalian.

    These two scenes demonstrate the new fascination with humours, not just as a medicinal theory, but as a mode of characterisation. The stock characters inherited from older forms of drama are still present: the melancholy scholar, jealous husband, shrewish wife, idiotic gull, protective father, and witty intriguer. But they are given a special sharp focus, and are accompanied by other characters whose interest is contained in their quirks and idiosyncrasies. The format also allows new characters minor cameo roles: Rowley only appears in Scene 8, but is used to illustrate Dowsecer’s point concerning the disparity between outer appearance and inner substance, and is also preyed on in Lemot’s predictive word game. Berger has an extra scene in which Labesha’s affected melancholy is exposed, but his role in Scene 8 appears to add background locational colour, since his visit to the Parisian brothel is mentioned, and furthers the point about reputation.

    150By stressing individual character type, Lemot is able to make predictions concerning behaviour, for example with Blanvel in Scene 2, and language, exemplified in Scene 8’s predictive word game. But Lemot most cunningly displays his skills when unselfconsciously performing tricks. An example can be found at the end of Scene 12, when Lemot has informed the Queen, Foyes, Labervele and the Countess of the goings on involving the King. He gives them enough information to prompt each of them to ask the right question concerning their own daughter, son and husband. As a trick, it triumphs over the predictive game in the tavern because the audience are not informed in advance of what Lemot is planning.