Politic Tyrants: The 2005 Jacobean Season at the Swan
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Shakespeare Quarterly 57.4 (2006) 450-462

Politic Tyrants:
The 2005 Jacobean Season at the Swan

The Swan Theatre's 2005 "Jacobean" season was clearly designed not only to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the Gunpowder Plot but also to comment on the current atmosphere of fear and repression. It consisted of four plays: the largely anonymous Sir Thomas More, Jonson's Sejanus, Middleton and Rowley's A New Way to Please You, and Massinger's Believe What You Will. In each of the four, a powerful figure, sometimes invisible and sometimes merely inscrutable (Henry VIII, Tiberius Caesar, the Duke of Epire, the Roman state), manipulates people's lives. Most people succumb to this manipulation; the few who do not are for the most part awkward characters who would look like cranks in a more normal society. They are usually defeated; if they survive, it is only at the will of the authority that they are powerless to influence. Not surprisingly, given this subject matter, the plays are anything but escapist; in fact, they depict the impossibility of escape. The world of Sejanus, peopled with spies and informers and sudden glimpses of figures on their way to prison, is only the most extreme example of a sense of entrapment, which affects both the performers and the audience. Sir Thomas More moves from house arrest to the Tower to the scaffold, as Massinger's Antiochus moves from one prison to another; even in A New Way to Please You, the dutiful children have to hide their father in a lodge in the forest.

Textually, the plays also pose problems. Two (Believe What You Will and Sir Thomas More) were never printed. The manuscript of Believe What You Will (originally Believe as You List) suffers from torn and missing pages and is known to have been altered from its original sixteenth-century setting to a less controversial classical one. It was marked up with a view to performance by the King's Men, but there is no evidence that this ever happened. Interestingly, it is apparently the only one of the four plays not written in collaboration.1 Sir Thomas More exists in a manuscript in several hands, one of them probably Shakespeare's, with notes by Edward Tilney, Master of the Revels, insisting on numerous changes. Scholars still differ as to exactly how the play was written and revised, but agree that, despite the heavy rewriting, it probably did not reach the stage at all until its revival in the last century.2 Jonson [End Page 450] worked with a collaborator on Sejanus His Fall but removed all traces of the other person's work from the printed text. The play not only had a disastrous first performance but also got Jonson called before the Privy Council on charges of popery and treason.3 The one comedy in the series, originally The Old Law but called here by its subtitle of A New Way to Please You, was a Middleton and Rowley collaboration. Although in some ways the most outrageous play of the lot, it seems to have been the only one that had no negative consequences for the authors; like several other Middleton plays, it was published only in the 1650s,4 but no one (except perhaps the editors of the forthcoming Oxford Middleton) knows what to make of that fact. Even more than usual, then, this season of non-Shakespearean plays was fraught with difficulties: the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) team needed to make the plays attractive to audiences for whom the titles and authors meant nothing, and it also had to make their texts intelligible and to find a theatrical language to accommodate their different styles.

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As in the last non-Shakespearean season, the Swan began with a play that is thought to be at least partly by Shakespeare, knowing that even the faintest suggestion of his presence would be enough to ensure a reasonably respectful audience. This was the second professional revival of Sir Thomas More that I've seen...