ABSTRACT

Over a decade and a half ago, at the height of the discipline’s most recent wave of methodological self-investigation, Anthony Dawson asked scholars of early modern English drama: “What exactly is theatrical activity and what does it do? How is enactment, theatricality, on a stage different from monarchical theatre?”1 As Dawson and numerous scholars before and since have argued, New Historicist discourse often sidesteps questions about theater’s distinctiveness because, as Paul Yachnin writes, it tends “[to regard] drama as a mirror of the culture, as if it had no particular institutional content or agenda of its own.”2 This tendency to assume a one-to-one correlation between theatrical representations and their real-world counterparts shapes much recent criticism on Shakespeare’s dramatizations of punitive practice: the spectacular violence exerted upon traitors on England’s scaffolds makes transparent the meaning of the bloodied head and stage at the end of Macbeth; Aaron’s proclamations of his villainies in Titus Andronicus are read as subversive dying speeches that expose the limits of punitive authority, while Saturninus’ summary execution of the Clown occludes and thus allows for the continuation of such violence; similarly, Prospero’s theatrical manipulations of offenders reveal-and thereby alternatively undermine or confirm-the techniques by which state and church exert control over their subjects.3 These studies have made important strides in our understanding of sixteenth-and seventeenth-century English punitive practices and their simulation on the commercial stage. Indeed, I began the current project as an investigation of the execution procession as a particular procedure that although represented in several of Shakespeare’s plays, has been overlooked by scholars. Ultimately I became less interested in the analogies between dramatic and disciplinary performances than in their differing formal commitments. In this essay, I formulate a response to the question of the

theater’s distinctiveness by focusing on the interaction of generic and punitive forms-specifically, on what happens when Shakespeare’s comedies represent execution processions. In so doing, I retrieve the conventions and procedures that distinguish comedy and the execution procession from one another, as well as from other genres and punishments. At the same time, I recuperate some of the defining characteristics shared by a host of formal practices, which allow us to productively juxtapose dramatic and disciplinary performances. These seemingly incongruous acts of recovery register an early modern understanding of form more expansive, inclusive, and socially efficacious than our own. It is this understanding that Shakespeare’s comedies exploit, scrutinize, and sometimes undermine through the enactment of execution processions. A notoriously capacious and flexible term, form may designate a range of official and quotidian practices, including ecclesiastical rites, state ceremonies, societal decorum, as well as dramatic enactment.4 Shakespeare’s plays bear witness to this semantic excess, invoking (among other senses) the “noble rite [and] formal ostentation” of burial, “[t]he glass of fashion and the mold of form,” “the plain form of marriage,” and the “form[s] of justice” and “of law.”5 While Shakespeare does not use form to refer to kinds of plays-what would be dubbed genre in the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries-his contemporary George Puttenham indicates that the term was used thusly at the time: in his Arte of English Poesie (1589), he describes the “foure sundry formes of Poesie Dramatick … to wit, the Satyre, old Comedie, new Comedie, and Tragedie.”6 With no pretense of offering a comprehensive definition, I would like to suggest that these literary and non-literary uses of form have in common a triumvirate of interrelated characteristics that suggest the power of the concept in the early modern period as well as its value for current historical criticism: familiarity, expectation, and efficacy.7 We may briefly survey this common ground by focusing on the two formal categories at the heart of this essay: the generic and the punitive, as exemplified by comedy and the execution procession. To begin with, to function and be recognized as such, forms create and rely upon familiarity. Through repeated encounters one becomes familiar with a form’s principles, patterns, and conventions, and these encounters, whether first-or second-hand, experiential or textual, create shared memories and understandings that bind together communities.8 Early modern London, despite its population explosion and urban congestion and sprawl, was no exception-especially in terms of punitive forms. Public hearings and lay law books produced a population well versed in the codes and customs of English jurisprudence. But London residents did need not to attend court or be literate in order to become familiar with the itineraries and procedures of the execution procession. Offenders were frequently carted through the city’s commercial and civic hubs, literally bringing processional practices to the people. Indeed, knowledge of the route to the Triple Tree gallows became so pervasive that Sir John Oldcastle (1600) describes it as proverbial: “From Newgate up Holborn, Saint Giles in the Field, and to Tyburn: it’s an old

saw.”9 Like those who attended executions, London’s community of theatergoers retained the memorial residue of their experience. The induction to A Warning for Fair Women (1599) plays to the audience’s recognition of generic convention when it refers to comedy’s “puling … lover,” history’s martial displays, and tragedy’s portrayal of “some damnd tyrant, [who] to obtaine a crowne, / Stabs, hangs, impoysons, smothers, [and] cutteth throats.”10 Furthermore, just as the proliferation of crime pamphlets familiarized readers outside of London with its punitive practices, the publication of play-scripts-their generic commitments prominently (if not always consistently) displayed on the title-page-disseminated knowledge of the “sundry formes” of drama. Familiarity, of course, creates expectation: principles, patterns, and conventions may become so well known that a form’s contents, trajectory, and outcome can be anticipated. But whereas familiarity gestures backward to collective memories, expectation points forward to shared notions of formal possibilities, prospects, and desires. And if familiarity accrues passively, expectation in contrast requires active participation, an outlay of intellectual and emotional capital in a wager between repetition and variation, tradition and novelty. The routine omission from juridical records in early modern London of the exact routes by which offenders were to be transported indicates the firm establishment of expectations for the execution procession. On 15 March 1596, for instance, John Taylor was condemned for coining and sentenced to be “drag[ged] bound through the middle of the City of London directly to Tyburn.”11 This sentence assumes that magistrates, executioners, and would-be onlookers did not need reminders of the route to the scaffold or the traditional rites performed along this path. Likewise, audiences could anticipate the broad outlines of a play’s action from its stated generic affiliation. In Thomas Heywood’s formulation, “Comedies begin in trouble, and end in peace; Tragedies begin in calmes, and end in tempest.”12 Not unlike modern audiences, who self-consciously decide between “feel-good movies” and “tear-jerkers,” early modern playgoers paid their pennies in anticipation of a particular dramatic arc and denouement. As we shall see, formal expectations could be frustrated as well as fulfilled, and neither option was without consequences for form’s efficacy. Essential to any historical comprehension of early modern forms is the understanding that forms did things, at least in part through their established familiarity and predictable expectations. Forms had effects not only on those who performed them or those upon whom they were performed, but upon those who witnessed them as well. For example, while the early modern state used judicial penalties to punish offenders for their violations of law and order, another and possibly more essential function was to work on the witnesses of these often violent spectacles. As Arthur Golding describes in his 1577 account of the executions of George Sanders’ murderers, punishment “shoulde by the terrour of the outwarde sight of the example, driue vs to the inwarde consideration of our selues,” for “excepte their [i.e., offenders’] example leade vs to repentance, we shall all of vs come to as sore punishment in

this worlde, or else to sorer in the worlde to come.”13 Through public demonstrations of the long arm of law-of its vicious and inevitable blow-the state attempted to deter illicit and disorderly behavior. The execution procession promulgated this effect by disseminating punitive forms to a wider population than only those gathered around the scaffold. Similarly, literary forms also “make things happen,” as Douglas Bruster demonstrates earlier in this volume, and particular genres “work” on audiences in specific ways.14 Indeed, according to drama’s theorists and advocates, comedy shared with punishment a prophylactic effect. In An Apology for Poetry (c. 1595), Sir Philip Sidney claims “that the comedy is an imitation of the common errors of our life, which he [one of the “play-makers and stage-keepers”] representeth in the most ridiculous and scornful sort that may be, so as it is impossible that any beholder can be content to be such a one.”15 Similarly, Thomas Heywood describes comedy’s capacity to “to shew others their slouenly and vnhansome behauiour, that they may reforme that simplicity in themselves.”16 At first blush, this (at least theoretical) convergence of the effects of punitive and generic forms returns us to the question with which we began, and brings us dangerously close to the conflation of theater and culture decried by Yachnin and Dawson. Examined more closely, however, the seeming functional coincidence of execution and comedy reveals the significant differences within the broad commonalities of form-what Stephen Cohen describes in the introduction to this volume as “formal specificity.”17 Forms collectively rely on familiarity, expectation, and effect, but each individual form-as a result of its specific institutional affiliation, venue and medium of performance, and sphere of efficacy-produces particular associations, expectations, and effects that distinguish it from other forms. Accordingly, despite the superficial coincidence of claims to social prophylaxis, what was familiar and expected about the execution procession, and how it worked on audiences, was very different from, and in many ways contradictory to, what was familiar, expected, and efficacious about comedy. On the one hand, execution processions achieved their putative deterrent effects by repeatedly showing audiences the spectacles of humiliation and pain that attended the procession, and teaching them to anticipate its fatal conclusion on the gallows or the block. On the other hand, after repeatedly attending the playhouse, these same London audiences became familiar with the reprieves, delays, and pardons by which comedy conventionally evaded disciplinary action, presaging its dramatic denouement in a space where reconciliation, forgiveness, and often marriage can take place. In this sense, despite the socially responsible apologetics of its defenders, comedy might have a very different effect than Sidney and Heywood claim. Circumnavigating or surpassing deterrence and reprehension, comedy elicits the pleasures of hard-won unions and long-sought reunions, and the relief of rehabilitation and absolution. Evidence that at least some early modern audiences and authors recognized punishment’s incompatibility with comedy may be found in the Epistle to Ben Jonson’s Volpone (1605-1606). Answering critics who

“censure” his play for violating “the strict rigour of comic law” because it ends not in forgiveness and reconciliation but in punishment, the neo-classicist Jonson turns to “the ancients themselves, the goings-out of whose comedies are not always joyful, but oft-times the bawds, the servants, the rivals, yea, and the masters are mulcted.”18 Despite Jonson’s claim that the function of comedy was “to imitate justice ... as well as ... stir up gentle affections,”19 his self-justification would seem to suggest that the “comic law” produced associations and expectations with a force akin to, and an effect opposed to, judicial laws and sentences. What happens, then, when familiar forms, each with its own expectations and effects, intersect-when, for example, the procedures of the execution procession are simulated as part of a comedy? Given the above, the representation of extratheatrical forms onstage is clearly more complex than a simple mirroring, or the transparent reproduction of ideological function. In this essay, I use the concept of crossing to identify and examine what is maintained, lost, and changed when comedy and the execution procession intersect.20 The term crossing proves particularly appropriate because it describes the process by which forms encounter one another onstage as well as the possible effects of that process.21 Modern readers are perhaps most familiar with the term’s spatial meaning. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, as well, crossing denoted movement: “[t]he action of passing across; ... traversing.” When a play represents an execution procession, it removes offenders and officials, shackles and weapons, confessions and condemnations, from London’s streets, fields, and marketplaces, and situates them within the theater. As a result of physically crossing punitive forms from one venue of performance to another, a play may produce a crossing in a variety of other senses: from perhaps the ideal outcome of interchange or reciprocity-a cross-fertilization in which one form’s expectations and effects coincide with or reinforce the other’s-to the less fortuitous sense of crossing as “thwarting, opposing, or contravening.” Perhaps not surprisingly, it is the latter that results from the crossing of punitive and generic forms in the plays discussed in this essay. Written as many as ten years apart, Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors and Measure for Measure both begin with condemned characters crossing over the stage toward unseen yet looming scaffolds, and both conclude with the thwarting of juridical death.22 From the opening scene of The Comedy of Errors the conventions and expectations of comedy have an obvious advantage over those of the execution procession. In the play’s final moments, genre decidedly preempts punishment, but whatever sense of loss or frustration this might occasion is overwhelmed by a surplus of comic pleasures. As generic effects captivate playgoers’ imaginations, any unsettling consequences of the disruption of punishment are expunged-crossed out, so to speak. By contrast, Measure for Measure introduces comic convention and disciplinary procedure in parallel and continues to alternate between them, evoking the associations and expectations of first one and then the other. In the end, the play fulfills conventional and procedural necessity, but the concluding discharge of expectation undermines the

efficacy of both forms. Genre and punishment exhaust one another, like “a crosse currant of waters,” as John Florio in his late-sixteenth-century dictionary defined the Italian word for crossing.23 The play’s overall structure thus reveals a strategic consequence of Shakespeare’s formal crossing. Raising the stakes of genre and punishment in parallel and showing them cross and thwart one another, Measure for Measure heightens playgoers’ awareness of form-and not solely those of comedy and the execution procession. Finally, the play undermines this collective sense of form by demonstrating that inside the theater, no less than outside it, the satisfaction of what is familiar and anticipated may not produce the intended effects. When Shakespeare’s comedies enact execution processions, then, they do not simply scrutinize the distinctions between drama and punishment; they also raise questions about formal efficacy that bear on these and other literary and nonliterary practices.