20‘Like an old king in an old-fashion play’: Comedy’s Inheritance

Announcing his intention to ‘point out all my humorous companions’ [TLN 50-51], Lemot refers back to drama’s rich inheritance as he looks forward to the day’s mirth. Quoting from Preston’s successful play Cambyses, King of Persia, Lemot assumes royal authority, just as Chapman calls to mind a dramatic authority that reaches far beyond the mid-sixteenth century. After the popularity of Marlovian heroic tragedy diminished, ‘Theatrical taste was on the turn’, bringing with it a renewed appetite for comedy.[24] Fledgling dramatists George Chapman and Ben Jonson recognized the potential of Latin comedy to be reinvented, even combining two plots for maximum dramatic complexity. Jonson’s first surviving play, The Case Is Altered (1597, revised 1601), borrows Plautus’ plots of Aulularia and Captivi, while Chapman’s later All Fools (1604) is based on Terence’s Heautontimorumenos and Adelphi.

The principal concepts of Roman New Comedy, preserved in Plautus and Terence, filtered down to the Renaissance in essays by Evanthius, Donatus and Diomedes. Their writings can be summarized thus: comedy deals with the private lives of ordinary men without threat of serious violence, danger or death, is often concerned with love, and ends in happy resolution. It therefore differs in diametrically opposed terms from tragedy, which is said to concern public political figures, whose ends are unfortunate. Thomas Heywood provides a classification of genre in his Apology for Actors (1612): ‘Comedies begin in trouble, and end in peace; tragedies begin in calms, and end in tempest’ (B3, sig F1v). An Humorous Day’s Mirth more accurately begins with trouble in the guise of Lemot.

However, Chapman’s play challenges several of the assumptions commonly held about comedy, based on the ‘rules’ laid down by the three essayists mentioned above. Although An Humorous Day’s Mirth is concerned primarily with private rather than political events, the characters involved are not all ‘ordinary’: many of the characters are lords or counts, and even the king and queen appear as persons of the play. The ordinariness of this play lies in the subject matter: love, marital fidelity, mental and physical health, eating out and having a good time. The threat of violence is very real to the queen, who is convinced that her husband’s penis, what Lemot misleadingly refers to as the ‘instrument of procreation’ [TLN 1629], is about to be removed. The threat affects not only the royal couple, but also the succession and thus the entire country. The threat is diffused within the safe boundaries of mirthful comedy. The quick-thinking Lemot explains he was referring to Martia, for ‘is not she the instrument of procreation, as all women are?’ [TLN 1738].

While An Humorous Day’s Mirth is concerned with love, as the definition of comedy dictates, it is principally the love of marital relationships, and predominantly manifests itself as a preoccupation with sex. Wiggins lists sexual content as a novel aspect of An Humorous Day’s Mirth, first introduced in The Blind Beggar of Alexandria, but developed in Chapman’s next play and further explored in comedy over the next few years. However, study of jigs dating from the late 1580s and early 1590s suggests that this was not such an unknown phenomenon before 1597. Baskervill’s Elizabethan Jig and Related Song Drama contains jigs whose plots revolve around adultery with neighbours and apprentices. ‘Rowland’s Godson’ features a wife who has secretly been having sex with the apprentice, and manages to engineer a situation in which her husband, disguised in her clothes, goes to meet the supposedly amorous apprentice to beat him, only to be thwarted by his servant’s apparent chastity.[25] Of course, the wife has briefed the apprentice in advance, and the husband is therefore reassured of having a faithful wife and servant.

The wife in ‘Singing Simpkin’ is nearly caught with not one but two lovers in her house.[26] When the wife’s lover, Bluster, knocks at the door, the other lover, Simpkin, is hidden in a chest. When the wife’s old husband arrives, Bluster feigns a search for an enemy, and, when he leaves, Simpkin is then able to crawl from his hiding place as the nice man chased by Bluster. The old husband cautions Bluster not to frighten his wife since she is pregnant. From within his chest, Simpkin poses an apt question to the audience: ‘But know you who the father is?’ (l. 115). The evidence from these jigs suggests that instead of Chapman doing something completely new, he was utilizing a lower form of comedy in drama. So comic drama did feature sexual content before 1597, but in jig, rather than play, format.

25The anxieties and weaknesses of Labervele and Florila, the Countess and Moren, and the King and Queen, chiefly occupy Lemot’s intrigue. The union of a young couple, Dowsecer and Martia, is achieved almost by accident through the paternal concern of Labervele, and is less consciously Lemot’s plot concern than Chapman’s. There is a superficial happiness at the end of the play, principally forced by the King’s forgiving speech with its promises of conviviality and unity.