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The Critical Forum

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THE PROOF OF THE PARODY


I hope I may be allowed a belated reply to R. A. Foakes's
comment (E in C, July, 1972) on my 'Good Bad Drama'
article (January, 1972). He raises two kinds of issues, one
dealing specifically with his parodic reading of Antonio and
Mellida, and one with the general problem of proving or disproving such readings.
Professor Foakes's defence of his interpretation of Marston's play (the reviewer of 'The Year's Contributions'
in the latest volume of Shakespeare Survey feels he has
established his case 'beyond reasonable doubf) centres
on the Induction, where the actors discuss the roles they
have been given. He claims that it shows 'the author consciously inviting his audience to attend to the convention'
of the boy-actors playing adults, and so (presumably) prepares them for the parody in the action that follows, which
is supposed to involve the deliberate exploitation of that
discrepancy. But his evidence for this claim turns out to be
a single speech in the Induction, in which the actor given
the part of Antonio complains that he will be unable to
manage Antonio's disguise as an Amazon because he does
not have 'a voice to play a lady'. I agree with Mr. Foakes
that this is meant to be funny, and that the humour depends upon the audience's awareness that the actor is a
boythat is, someone who in an adult company would play
ladies; yet I do not see how this supports his case. In the
first place, we must exercise caution in applying such remarks to the drama itself. It is after all very common in the
inductions, prologues, and epilogues of the period for the
actors to step out of their roles and comment upon them
(often to crave the audience's indulgence of their shortcomings), but this need not mean that within the drama the
'distance' between actor and role has been emphasized for
a parodic effect. Jonson wrote a similar Induction, with
much more explicit references to the actors' youth, for
Cynthia's Revels, which can scarcely be a parody; and the
Chorus to Act IV of Henry V acknowledges that 'we shall

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much disgrace /With four or five most vile and ragged foils, /
Right ill-dispos'd in brawl ridiculous,/The name of Agincourf, yet no one has taken this as evidence that the ensuing
battle was played for laughs, although I suppose that too is
coming.
A more serious objection, I believe, is that Antonio's part
is a very special one because it includes the female disguise,
which is of course the point of the joke. If Marston had
wished to focus attention on the discrepancy in age (rather
than sex) between the actors and their roles, which is the
basis of Mr. Foakes's interpretation (where the boys are
'consciously ranting in oversize parts', 'mimicking rather
than simply representing men', 'aping adults self-consciously',
'strutting like adult actors' in 'burlesques of adult styles',
etc.1), we would surely expect him to suggest this, as he so
easily could, through some of the actors who were to play
undisguised adult males. But there are no such suggestions
in the entire Induction. Moreover, the Prologue and the
Epilogue to Antonio and Mellida and the Prologue to
Antonio's Revenge, all of which contain the conventional
admission of 'imperfections' and plea for indulgence, never
relate this to the youth of the actors (which is not even
hinted at), let alone to any intention to exploit their youth.
So I would have to say of the two Antonio plays, as I said
of The New Inn, that in the extra-dramatic components
where the author is able, more or less directly, to speak for
himself, he gives no indication of the purpose which the
parody-seekers attribute to him.
The only other evidence Professor Foakes supplies from
Antonio and Mellida is the episode at the end of Act I where
Antonio is placed in an embarrassing position because of his
disguise as an Amazon. Again I would agree that this is
meant to be humorous, and again I fail to see how it supports his case. Indeed here I cannot even see why the
humour depends on, or points to, the actor's age, since the
ladies who treat him as a woman are themselves also played
by boys, as are the men who earlier left the stage. This kind
of comic situation resulting from a transvestite role was not
uncommon in the drama of the period, nor was it limited to
the children's companies or even to a child actor, nor did it
imply a parodic treatmentcompare, for instance, Viola's

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ESSAYS IN CRITICISM

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predicament in the duel scene of Twelfth Night, or FalstafFs


when he tries to pass as Mother Prat of Brainford in The
Merry Wives of Windsor, or, to take a closer but more
modern analogue, the difficulties of the two male leads 'in
drag' in the movie Some Like It Hot. So this episode, like
the Induction, does not seem to be very convincing evidence
for Mr. Foakes's interpretation of Antonio and Mellida. (I
am of course aware that he has presented additional arguments elsewhere, but assume that these two were selected
for his reply because he thought the others less impressive.)
This leads to his second point, the charge that I offered no
evidence myself to support my criticism of the new parodic
readings. I thought I had marshalled a good deal of evidence
against this reading of The New Inn, which was my principal
target, but he is certainly right in objecting that I lumped all
the others together, unfairly passing over their many differences. My excuse, such as it is, is that I was not concerned
with treating them individually but only as examples of the
general trend. There is, however, a question of principle involved here. The New Inn was a very special case, as I had
explained, because of the amount of authorial commentary
attached to it which the parody-seeker had to confront, especially the commentary written after its failure on the
stage. For most of the other works we have only the texts
themselves, as Mr. Foakes points out, but he does not go on
to point out what sort of evidence I or anyone else could be
expected to find in them to demonstrate that they were not
parodic or ironic. I cannot imagine any internal evidence
that would do this, which was why I had acknowledged in
my article that there is no way to disprove these readings.
But it is not up to me to prove the plays are not parodies;
it is up to the proponent of such readings to prove they are,
since the burden of proof rests entirely upon him (and on
this I am happy to see the reviewer of Shakespeare Survey
agrees with me).
I do not regard this as some arbitrary rule in a debating
game we critics play, since it follows from a basic principle
of interpretation which Mr. Foakes has been good enough
to provide when he accuses me of working 'on the assumption that Elizabethan and Jacobean plays are to be treated
as straight tragedies or serious comedies unless there is

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absolute proof to the contrary'. I cannot tell what he means


by 'serious comedies' (in fact I oppose the tendency toward
over-solemn readings of the comedies of Shakespeare and
Jonson), and I realize there can be no 'absolute proof in
such matters, but with those qualifications I would accept
his accusation as a statement of my operating principle: I
do approach the plays of this period with the assumption
that they are to be treated as 'straight*as meaning what
they seem to meanunless there is very good evidence, internal or external, to the contrary. And I make this assumption because I believe it describes the attitude or mental
'set* which audiences actually bring to plays when encountering them for the first time (as least up to very recently), and
which dramatists, including ironic dramatists, count on
when writing them. If we do not begin with some such
normal expectation (which is of course subject to all sorts of
modification as the evidence of the play unfolds before us),
then any artistic difficulty or defect in any work can be
transmuted into a positive virtue by the philosopher's stone
of parody, and we are thrown into the kind of critical chaos
which A. L. French has so ably discussed, in his article on
'Purposive Imitation' in the April 1972 issue of E in C, over
a much broader front than I could.
In addition to neglect of evidence, Mr. Foakes also acuses
me of adherence to 'old critical positions' in making this assumption, but this is a charge to which I cheerfully plead
guilty. For one thing, it puts me in some pretty good company,
including the Bard himself, since Mr. Foakes has been telling us that, in relation to his new readings of the plays of
Marston and others writing for the children's troupes,
'Shakespeare's heroic tragedies, like Hamlet and OtheUo,
look almost old-fashioned in their conventional assumptions" (although there are plenty of other critics busy bringing them, too, up to date). I suspect that when an established
interpretation has grown up around a play that has been seen
or read by many people over many years (which is less true of
Marston's works, to be sure, than Shakespeare's or Jonson's), it is much more likely to be nearer the truth than
some new, idiosyncratic reading. And I would be willing to
restate my working principle in those terms, since the established interpretation is usually the 'straight* one: I

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ESSAYS IN OUTIfflSM

RICHARD LEVIN

State University of New York


Stony Brook
NOTES
Tor a critical examination of his theory concerning the
parodic style of the boy actors, see J. A. Lavin, 'The Eliza-

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believe we should approach the plays of this period with


the assumption that they mean what generations of spectators and readers have token them to mean (when we have
such a consensus), unless there is very good evidence to the
contrary. Any radically new interpretation of these plays
must be strong enough to support an extremely heavy
burden of proof, and that includes any discovery of pervasive ironies or parodies which have escaped detection until
now.
Meanwhile the vogue of 'good bad' Elizabethan and
Jacobean dramas continues to flourish, and I thought I
might add, by way of a footnote to my article, a few more
examples of this trend which have appeared or come to my
attention since it was written. We have just been told that
The Old Wives Tale is 'a parody from beginning to end' and
'an earlier Knight of the Burning Pestle?, so that 'all the absurdities of the multiple plots turn into parody* (John
Doebler, English Studies, LIE, 1972). Antonio's Revenge, it
seems, is a 'parodistic exposure of the amorality of the
Kydian revenger' and its ending is meant to be unsatisfactory because it 'deliberately travesties the accepted formula' (Philip Ayres, Studies in English Literature, XII, 1972).
Der Bestrafte Brudermord, that crude German Hamlet, is
now a 'burlesque creation1 (A. P. Stabler, Shakespeare
Studies, V, 1969), and so is Jack Drum's Entertainment, although previous critics had 'managed to mistake burlesque
for inept dramaturgy1 (Michael Andrews, Renaissance
Quarterly XXIV, 1971). And the problems of the resolution
of A Mad World, My Masters disappear if 'the play is intended as a parody of the moral view expressed in such
dramatic satires as those of Jonson' (William Slights, Comparative Drama, HI, 1969). I also see that Dryden's heroic
dramas are being converted into parodies of heroic dramas
by several critics, and predict further activity in this relatively undeveloped period.

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THE OHIO BROWNING


We are glad that Mr. Pettigrew has read our plea, in
each volume of The Ohio Browning, to have readers report
any error to us. An extremely accurate Browning Edition
is our primary concern. We regret inadvertent errors and
are determined that each one will be clearly listed and
corrected. The accuracy of the Edition is even more important than the extensive historical notes. Our own careful
examination of the first two volumes began long before
Mr. Pettigrew's review (E in C, October, 1972) appeared.
Our first published list of corrections appeared in the
Spring, 1972, issue of The Browning Newsletter.
Though we have found errors that have escaped Mr.
Pettigrew's eye, we are listing all errors, and are grateful
for his help. However, we feel impelled to protest against
some of his methods and the conclusion he reaches. He
judges the edition to be more harmful than useful. This
serious charge should be made only after the most exhaustive examination of the entire two volumes. Yet, after
stating imprecisely that he found three or four errors in
the 1869 readings in Volume I, he gave up, he says, further
investigation, implying that every page in the edition is

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bethan Theatre and the Inductive Method', The Elizabethan


Theatre II, ed. David Galloway (Toronto, 1970), pp. 78-80,
and Michael Shapiro, 'Children's Troupes: Dramatic Illusion and Acting Style', Comparative Drama, HI (1969),
42-53, in addition to the studies by Ejner Jensen cited in my
article.
s
'John Marston's Fantastical Plays: Antonio and Mellida
and Antonio's Revenge", Philological Quarterly, XLJ (1962),
238; 'Shakespeare's Later Tragedies', Shakespeare 1564-1964:
A Collection of Modern Essays by Various Hands, ed. Edward Bloom (Providence, 1964), p. 97; 'Tragedy at the
Children's Theatres after 1600: A Challenge to the Adult
Stage', The Elizabethan Theatre II, p. 47; Shakespeare:
The Dark Comedies to the Last Plays: From Satire to Celebration (London, 1971), p. 4.