One of my joys in exploring the non-Shakespearean drama of the English Renaissance are the plays that play with genre. One can forgive Polonius (or even Corambis) for the extensive list of dramatic genres that players are to be congratulated for mastering: "the tragical-comical-historical-pastoral" (Hamlet, TLN 1479) suggests genre flips that can only be taxing for the playwrights and performers.
This kind of genre bending is rare for us today. We tend to know what kind of movie or television show we're going to get before we see it, and there is rarely any deviation from the formula. Which isn't to say that the formula can't be done well: I have previously written about my admiration for Captain America: The Winter Soldier, but as intelligent and politically relevant, even necessary, as The Winter Soldier may be, it still follows the basic action genre formula closely.
Most dramatic works establish what Colin Counsell calls "the law of the text" pretty early and stick to it. The law of the text establishes the ground rules for the the audience's interpretation of all elements of a play, so it's important for more plays to establish the law of the text early in the performance (Counsell 15). As an audience, we need to know how we should interpret signs and signifiers in order to enjoy the reading of the story: i.e. should we read that table as a representation of a table from the period in which the play takes place? Should we interpret it as a sign of wealth and status of the characters who use it? Should we read it as an artistic commentary on that wealth and status, or by extension, those characters? Is the cigar merely a cigar, or should we understand it to have signifying value beyond itself? And if so, how much weight should we give that significance, especially as relates to the signifying value of the object as an object?
This law of the text is usually imparted to us, as an audience, so seamlessly that we don't even realize it's happening, but when that law changes, our understanding of the world is turned on its head. Some films use this as a technique to great success: When Keeanu Reeves wakes up in a vat of goo in The Matrix, nothing that we've seen in the movie up to that point makes sense anymore. When Selma Hayek bites down hard on Quentin Tarantino's jugular in From Dusk Till Dawn, we're as surprised as George Clooney, Harvey Keitel, and Juliette Lewis to learn that this is a vampire movie. We're as confused as everyone else, and as a result, we can share in the immediacy and confusion of our protagonists.
It's easy for us to forget that Shakespeare was a fairly conservative writer, but it also shouldn't be too surprising: when you're the master of a formula, why deviate from it? Even as Shakespeare begins to incorporate some of the changing dramatic tastes into his later work (a masque in The Tempest, for example), his later work is most notable for how his verse develops to match the rhythms of natural speech and thought more closely. The real innovations in dramatic formula came from the next generation of playwrights, and Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher offer us an example of how the "up and coming" playwrights of the early 1600s were developing their own dramatic signatures with plays like Cupid's Revenge.
The law of the text that Cupid's Revenge establishes tells us that this is going to be a romantic comedy. A puritan princess is going to get her comeuppance by falling in love with a clown, the Duke will learn the perils of doting too much on his daughter, and his son will, through all of this, leave off his dallying and grow into the kind of king Lycia needs him to be. And then the bodies start hitting the floor, and Cupid changes from a "blind rascally boy that abuses every one's eyes because his own are out" (as Shakespeare describes him) to a dark and vengeful god whose blood-lust can bring down a country. By the time we've figured out what's happening in this play, the characters we suspected were our protagonists are already dead.
Beaumont and Fletcher wrote Cupid’s Revenge at a time when theatre was beginning to more closely resemble theatre as we know it than it was theatre as Shakespeare knew it, and Beaumont and Fletcher were key innovators in making that leap. Cupid’s Revenge comes right from that moment when Shakespeare was starting to hang up his pen, and English theatre was making an evolutionary leap. This "next generation" of playwrights knew they needed to do something to make their mark, and their formal experiments in drama, including genre bending, helped bring the theatre of the early modern period into something more recognizable to the modern era.
Beaumont, Francis and John Fletcher. Cupid's Revenge. London: 1615. EEBO. Accessed August 2016. STC 1667.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Dir. Anthony Russo and Joe Russo. Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictyures: 2014. Film.
Counsell, Colin. Signs of Performance. London: Routledge. 1996. Print.
From Dusk Till Dawn. Dir. Robert Rodriguez. Miramax: 1996. Film.
The Matrix. Dir. The Wachowski Brothers. Warner Bros.: 1999. Film.
Shakespeare, William. As You Like It. The Open Source Shakespeare. Fairfax: George Mason University. Web. Accessed 20 February 2017. <http://www.opensourceshakespeare.org>
--. Hamlet. The Open Source Shakespeare. Fairfax: George Mason University. Web. Accessed 20 February 2017. <http://www.opensourceshakespeare.org>
--. Twelfth Night. The Open Source Shakespeare. Fairfax: George Mason University. Web. Accessed 20 February 2017. <http://www.opensourceshakespeare.org>
Tambasco, Tony. "A Jig or a Tale of Bawdry." The Shakespeare Standard. 14 Sept. 2014. Web. Accessed 20 February 2017. <http://theshakespearestandard.com/notes-breach-jig-tale-bawdry/>
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