Wholly Given Over to Thee
- The English Romance in Time: Transforming Motifs from Geoffrey of Monmouth to the Death of Shakespeare by Helen Cooper
Oxford, 560 pp, £65.00, June 2004, ISBN 0 19 924886 9
In George Peele’s Elizabethan play The Old Wives’ Tale, a character called Jack interrogates the ‘wandering knight’ Eumenides: ‘Are you not the man, sir (deny it if you can, sir) that came from a strange place in the land of Catita, where Jackanapes flies with his tail in his mouth, to seek out a lady as white as snow and as red as blood?’ Jack is dead. The character who speaks to Eumenides here, and asks to be taken into his service, is the grateful ghost of a poor man for whose burial Eumenides, although a stranger and mere passer-by, had earlier and charitably paid, exhausting his own slender finances in the process. Eumenides takes his name from classical Greece, where it was a euphemism for the Furies, those terrifying Erinyes optimistically renamed ‘the kindly ones’ at the end of Aeschylus’ Oresteia. (John Lyly had also bestowed it on a questing knight in his comedy Endimion a few years before Peele.) Like Shakespeare’s notorious sea-coast of Bohemia, Catita cannot be found on any map, nor can a winged Jackanapes improbably flying with its tail in its mouth be made to emerge from even the most fanciful bestiary. Delia, the rather starkly white and red lady abducted by a conjuror in dragon shape, and the object of Eumenides’ love-quest, is paralleled in the play by Venelia, driven mad by the same conjuror after he turned her youthful betrothed into a very old man: the keeper of a crossroads obliged to assume the shape of a white bear at night. There is also a ridiculous braggart warrior (Huanebango), and two maidens of different aspect and character, one fair and ill-natured, the other ugly and compassionate, who both visit a magic well in search of a husband. For good measure, Peele throws in a pair of genuinely nasty Furies, a clown, some melodious harvesters, and a strange talking head.
Helen Cooper mentions Peele’s play glancingly on two occasions, describing it as ‘a compendium of everyone’s favourite motifs from popular romance and folk tale’. That implies a generic distinction between the two forms. But romance, whether popular or courtly, has a way of entangling itself with folk or even fairy tale in ways that are not easy to sort out. Peele’s questing knight may primarily evoke the world of romance, but that is not his only habitat. Jack, and the maidens at the well, certainly suggest folk tale but without being confined to it. Delia, Venelia, the were-bear and the magician Sacrapant who persecutes them could be accommodated in any of the three realms, while Huanebango derives from Roman comedy. All these stories and characters sit together comfortably in Peele. Here, and not only with respect to this play, The English Romance in Time raises more questions than it can possibly answer. That is understandable. Cooper attempts to distinguish fairy tale from romance on the grounds that the former is driven by ‘magic’ whereas the latter subordinates it, giving its characters greater independence and control over their actions and destinies. But she skirts the interpenetration of romance and folk tale, even though it happens all the time, as it does with Spenser’s House of Busirane, when Britomart enters it in Book III of The Faerie Queene, and finds that she both is and is not in Bluebeard’s castle.
Vol. 27 No. 1 · 6 January 2005
In so far as real bears were available in Henslowe’s bear-garden, live bears could have appeared in The Winter’s Tale and Mucedorus, as Anne Barton (LRB, 2 December 2004) and other bearists have argued: it does not follow that they did. Teresa Grant, who uncovered the origin of the polar bears that Henslowe curated for King James from 1611 onwards, claimed that her discovery did indeed ‘prove’ that live bears were used in the theatre. The polar bears (captured as small cubs by a Muscovy Company expedition early in 1609) were, she argued, appropriate for use on stage since they were tame, and they must have been tame since they were used at court in Ben Jonson’s Masque of Oberon.
Oberon, performed in 1611, calls for two white bears to pull a chariot, ‘guarded’ by sylvans. It is conceivable that these were the king’s own bears, though there is no supporting evidence. Two-year-old polar bears still qualify as cubs, and in the wild are only just being weaned. Letting rapidly growing cubs loose on a public stage is a very different matter, especially as late as 1613, which Anne Barton suggests is possible. By that time they would have been sub-adult, going on sexually mature, and have weighed in at several hundred pounds, with claws. We know little about Henslowe’s bear-garden, but polar bears, even those reared in captivity, react particularly aggressively to confinement. They are the only bears that are purely carnivorous. Even captive brown bears, less aggressive as a species, sometimes killed spectators.
Mucedorus was first performed in the 1590s, when it already had a white bear chase two of the characters – white bears having a long history in romance, from the early 13th century onwards. The bearists argue that extra stage business added after 1610, in which the bear indulges in horseplay with the clown, was included to make full use of the real polar bear now at the actors’ disposal (though as Nevill Coghill long ago pointed out, bears lack a sense of comic timing). The stage bears of the 1610s, whether brown or white, are specifically free-range, unaccompanied and unshackled, in pursuit of characters who are running away from them, and who therefore might appear tempting as prey. In a modern theatre it might be possible for the bear to run straight across the stage, encouraged perhaps by a man in the wings waving a fish or a honeycomb (but would you want to volunteer?). In the Globe, the pursuing bear would have had to enter through one of the rear doors in pursuit of its prey, do a U-turn (after bumping into the clown in Mucedorus), and exit through the same or another rear door, to the confined backstage area crowded with actors. It would have had to relearn its movements for performances at the Blackfriars, at court or in private houses. Dancing and tumbling bears – brown bears – will have gone through a lengthy training: but polar bears are notoriously difficult to train, even when small. The complexity of the movements, not to mention the risk incurred in loosing an unfettered bear in pursuit of a fleeing man within reach of several hundred spectators with nowhere to run, would make the use of real bears problematic, no matter how many Henslowe had on offer.
No contemporary ever commented, in relation to Oberon or Mucedorus or The Winter’s Tale, that real bears took the place of the usual bear-suited actors. The only record we have of Henslowe’s polar bears being put to any use is that one of them was baited with dogs while swimming in the Thames, for the amusement of the Spanish ambassador. The sudden increase in stage-bear activity after their arrival in London may well have been a response to the interest they had created, but to extrapolate from the availability of the bears to their appearance on stage is dangerous, not because of the nature of the scholarship, but because of the nature of bears. It’s impossible to prove a negative, but the evidence still seems to me to be tenuous. I thought of giving the whole question an appendix to itself, but, as Anne Barton also noted, my book was long enough already.
Vol. 27 No. 3 · 3 February 2005
Despite Helen Cooper’s understandable caution about performing bears (Letters, 6 January), there is a great deal of evidence to suggest that polar bear cubs taken away from their mother before they are weaned (as these bears certainly were) can be successfully and safely reared by humans, until they mature aged about four. Richard Davids’s Lords of the Arctic: A Journey among the Polar Bears (1982) offers many such stories, both reported and first-hand. Cubs are very friendly: Davids and his crew rescued one which had been detached from its mother and it ‘pressed against us, purring in a rough kind of chuckle. The pilot he liked especially and curled round his neck while we searched for the missing mother.’ That bear cubs bond readily with humans makes Cooper’s imagined fraught backstage less plausible.
It is unlikely that King James ‘lent’ his possessions for use in the public theatres. I suspect that the cubs (which belonged to the king and were kept in the Tower menagerie, not in Henslowe’s bear-garden) were used only in the court performances of the revamped Mucedorus, The Winter’s Tale and Oberon, all of which probably took place between February 1610 and February 1611. The bear cubs were born in November or December in either 1607 or 1608, and so had not yet reached ‘bear puberty’.
I also take issue with the notion that these bears needed to be trained to perform. Only people need comic timing. Stage animals make us laugh when they get something ‘wrong’, or when human actors exploit their comic potential. Andrew Gurr has noted that ‘Exit, pursued by a bear’ is, uncoincidentally, the moment in The Winter’s Tale when tragedy turns to comedy. The white bear scenes in Mucedorus are pure comedy. I would argue that the cubs’ comic function is performed by their appearing at all, not by any specific behaviour.
Finally, in the additions to the 1610 Mucedorus, Mouse carefully exits backwards, keeping a close eye on the direction in which he last saw the white bear, only to reverse into it. Surely this is possible only if there are two white bears? The manoeuvre is a deliberate surprise for the audience as well as for Mouse, and it is a joke prompted by there really being two white bears in theatrical circles in 1610. Cooper admits that the increase in stage-bear activity might be a response to the cubs, but how much better an explanation would be their actual involvement.
University of Warwick