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Ballads+: The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet and its After-piece Jig
-- Matthew J. Smith and Julia Reinhard LuptonImaginethis jig occurring at the end of a performance of Romeo and Juliet. How would a theatrical presentation like this, with its bawdy dialogue and comic mood, affect an audience’s digestion of the tragedy they have just witnessed? We asked this question at the University of California, Irvine in January, 2016, when the UCI Shakespeare Center hosted the English Broadside Ballad Archive (EBBA) for a jig performance and a discussion of jigs and music in Romeo and Juliet. The event included introductory comments by Patricia Fumerton, a lecture by Matthew Smith on Romeo and Juliet and the jig tradition, and a concluding round table with Fumerton, Smith, the EBBA singers and musicians directed by Eric Bell, and host Julia Lupton. The goal of neither the initial event nor this resulting essay is to claim any direct relationship between this particular jig, “A Pleasant Jigge Betwixt Jack and His Mistress” (which dates from the 1670s), and Romeo and Juliet but rather to explore the resonances generated by their creative juxtaposition. In particular, this hypothetical pairing provides an occasion to closely examine some puzzling early modern tragedy-jig connections—for such pairings would have been performed in the period—at textual, musical, environmental, sexual, and even gustatory levels.
“Dulled with one Tragedy?”
We will return to “Jack and His Mistress” later and want to begin instead with a clue into the early modern reception of post-tragedy jigs that is conveyed in the sixth scene of Robert Daborne’s swashbuckling tragedy, A Christian turn’d Turke, wherein the main character known as Ward distinguishes himself as the most vicious of his circle of renegades, Jews, Turks, and fellow pirates. Even the famous pirate Dansiker remarks about Ward under his breath, “I hate this villain. He’s all blood.” The most horrifying expression of Ward’s ruthlessness comes when he sells the two sons of the French Merchant, Raymond, into slavery, after ignoring the father’s honest appeals to parenthood and common humanity. Raymond delivers a final speech, vowing to “appeal” for his sons to heaven’s “yon high court” and seconds later dies of grief. The scene proves to be too much for some in the surrounding company as well; Dansiker, for instance, admits “that instead of words, my eyes thus speak,” conveying his compassion. Ignoring such protests, Ward insists that sympathy has no place in their business, and he compares the witnesses of this scene to the audience of a tragedy:
How is’t, my noble spirits? Dulled with one tragedy?Ward extends the comparison of the events we witness with reference to the after-piece “jig,” often a rowdy mini after-play performance, which had become commonplace by 1612, when A Christian turn’d Turke was entered into the Stationers’ Register. The other activities mentioned in Ward’s response also reflect the raucous scene of the early modern playhouse: singing, drinking, and gambling—“a catch” being a song sung in the round. It is to the jig, however, that Ward specifically refers when he upbraids his “noble spirits” and suggests that the jig is the natural way to “digest” a “tragedy.” Ward’s pirate underling, Gallop, then provides an alternative after-piece in the form of a game of matchmaking, “Adam’s game at one whole—every male to his female,” directing Ward’s attention to Voada, Ward’s future wife.
Let us digest it with a jig, a catch!
Some wine there! Shall we to hazard?
Of special interest here is the connection of the jig to tragedy. Upon seeing his companions’ reactions to his hardhearted actions, Ward appears to recoil, almost metadramatically, at the foreshadowing of his own tragic downfall, and this may explain his swift acquiescence to Gallop’s sexual game, as post-play jigs themselves typically involved bawdy sport. For scholars of early modern drama, however, the post-tragedy jig poses a problem. Following tragic catastrophe with a jig might seem to us a jarring mismatch of emotional registers. The most common explanation offered by modern critics is that the jig and the company clown that performed it served a subversive purpose as a “release-valve”: they diffused the serious mood of the tragic finale and created a kind of carnival reversal to the performance of aristocrats and rulers that are usually the subjects of tragedy.
One thing is certain: early moderners were fascinated by the phenomenon of after-piece jigs, especially after tragedies. Of the many early modern references to this festive addendum to tragedies, Thomas Dekker’s statement in his quirky pamphlet, A Strange Horse-Race, is one of the most descriptive and frequently cited. Having narrated a fight between noble virtues and vices, “the Vertues departing in Triumph,” Dekker then conveys the revelrous mood of a fictional race as the “Epicures” (sensualists or hedonists) take the field. Their entrance, after such a grand battle, is like a jig after a tragedy:
Now, as after the cleare streame hath glided away in his own current, the bottome is muddy and troubled. And as I haue often seene, after the finishing of some worthy Tragedy, or Catastrophe in the open Theatres, that the Sceane after the Epilogue hath béen more blacke (about a nasty bawdy Iigge) then the most horrid Sceane in the Play was.Dekker views the Epicures preparing for their race as akin to the performers of an after-piece jig in that “though the persons in it were nothing equall to the former, yet the shoutes and noyse at these [from the audience] was as great, if not greater.” Although Dekker’s reference to the jig (as simultaneously “black,” “nasty bawdy,” and “horrid”) is too visceral and nuanced simply to be labeled a critique of the practice, there is certainly no shortage of other early modern jig detractors. Yet there are also positive portrayals of the after-piece jig, as when the likeable character Thrift in Thomas Goffe’s Careless Shepherdess explains his decision to attend a play at a playhouse with a rowdy reputation:
I will hasten to the money Box,Problematic, by contrast, is Thomas Platter’s often noted description of a dance that was performed after a production at the Globe of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar in 1599. He writes that the play was enacted “with a cast of some fifteen people,” and “when the play was over, they danced very marvellously and gracefully together as is their wont, two dressed as men and two as women.” Platter’s remembrance of “Graceful” dancing does not quite square with Dekker’s “horrid Sceane.” But rather than a contradiction, we can take these different impressions as evidence of the variety and evolution of the after-piece song and dance.
And take my schilling out again, for now
I have considered that it is too much;
I’le go to th’ Bull, or Fortune, and there see
A play for two pense, with a Jig to boot.
The after-piece jig had a manifold reputation as bawdy and beautiful, disgraceful and desirable, but one consistent aspect of the jig’s identity is that it was used pejoratively so much that it took on a euphemistic meaning of bawdry even when it was used by people who celebrated it. Ward’s reference to the jig in Daborne’s play is partially euphemistic, but it also provides scholars with a less dichotomized—i.e., tragedy vs. jig—perspective on the after-piece performance. Perhaps feeling melancholy after Raymond’s speech and hoping to settle his humours, Ward refers to the jig as a remedy, as if it were a medicine to “digest.” Yet how would a lewd, comic, and dramatic song help an audience digest the emotional impact of a tragic catastrophe? The Oxford English Dictionary’s early modern definitions for “digest” convey some promising alternative meanings. To “digest” usually retained its etymological connection to the verb gerĕre, “to carry,” as in to carry on or abroad, “to divide and dispose, to distribute.” In other words, to digest an experience often meant to disperse it, suggesting that Ward’s proposal to digest the tragedy with a “jig” analogically may refer to how the after-piece carried aspects of the tragedy into the playhouse environment rather than to how the jig marked a theatrical division or termination of the play’s emotions.
We want to suggest that the early modern after-piece jig, and the after-tragedy jig in particular, in fact exhibits continuity rather than contradiction with the tragedy that precedes it. The jig effects a dispersal of the tragic drama into the broader play event—an event throughout infused with music, dancing, sexuality, and other jig-like material. Here, we draw on what has been described as the “intertheatricality,” “occasionality,” “media dispersal,” “eventuality,” and “festivity” of the early modern play experience. And although it is impossible to identify the specific jig that followed the performance of a particular tragedy in the time of Shakespeare, we will take the “occasion” of this essay to explore one possible pairing—one among thousands. We couple Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, a play whose earliest performances occurred when the jig was especially popular at The Theatre, The Curtain, and The Globe, with a broadside jig entitled, “A Pleasant Jigg Betwixt Jack and His Mistress: Or, The young Carman’s Courage cool’d by the sudden approach, of his Master, who found him too kind to his Mistress” (shown in the above video).
Jig in Ballads, Ballads in Plays, Plays in Jigs
As a performance type, we must first observe, “jig” could refer to several kinds of event. The broadest form may be the “dramatic jig” like the one staged in the video above. A dramatic jig is a song with multiple parts, sometimes danced, that combined, in the words of Clegg and Skeaping, “entertainment with social comment, which in turn offered its spectators an opportunity to be part of a theatrical experience rooted in the long history of popular entertainment that is determinedly with, by and for the people.” Despite overlap, we can differentiate the “stage jig” from the “dramatic jig” by the categorical distinction between performance and form. A stage jig is a jig that either was actually performed on stage or was composed to be performed; a dramatic jig, on the other hand, is a song with a dramatic form that may or may not have been intended for the stage. The difference is important because many after-piece jig performances were not dramatic songs. The clown Richard Tarlton, for instance, was famous for his improvised repartee with the audience. Finally, in the realm of print, ballads provide an additional historical jig category, that of the “jig ballad.” A jig ballad is a dramatic jig that was printed as a broadside ballad. We identify some ballads as jigs either because they have the word Jig/Jigg in the title or because they fit most of the main criteria for a dramatic jig—a dialogue song in multiple parts, to a familiar tune, on a typical jig theme.
Many jigs were wooing dialogues, and this thematic trend seems to have become so conventional that jig ballads often experimented with variations on the wooing scenario, sometimes elaborating upon the wooing in their dramatic structure, as in Figure 2 below.
“Frauncis New Jigg”consists of four distinct scenes, each with its own stage directions and tune imprint. Another example of a jig ballad variation is found in the narrative twist of “The Wanton wenches of Wiltshire Being a Pleasant Discourse between Four young Females, as they sat together in a convenient place to scatter their Water” (Figure 3, below):
The ballad opens with four women expressing their sexual frustrations with men, while two men spy on them; in the end the women defy expectations and prefer one another’s company. The spying men observe the wenches leaving to “piss” together at the end, but the men pick up on the sexual, even lesbian, innuendo, describing the women as having a “gigg” with one another.
Some of the earliest jigs recorded in the Registers—such as “The Wooing of Nan,” “A New Northern Jigge,” “Singing Simpkin,” and several of “Kemp’s” titular jigs—survive in their earliest forms in manuscript or in books, but jigs like “Jack and His Mistress” are unique for their status as broadside ballads and for their reconstitution in stage performance. While some critics have speculated about the performance conditions of early modern jigs based on these manuscript songs and on sporadic references to after-piece dramatizations by early modern writers, few have considered how what we know about ballad performance might relate also to jig performance. Jig and ballad enactments had much in common, to be sure, and the terms “jig” and “ballad” each covered a plethora of meanings, even at times denoting one another (“jig” referring to a ballad, and “ballad” referring to a jig). In print, the multi-modal link between the two overlapping genres—jig and broadside—is the “jig ballad” (of which there are 23 extant entries, some repeats or revisions of others, in the growing online English Broadside Ballad Archive alone). Over the course of their lives, jig ballads were printed, reprinted, read, sung, danced, sold, bought, posted, and recycled. In a given instances, it can be difficult to determine if these jig ballads were nostalgic artifacts of popular performed jigs, if there were performed at the very same time as on-stage jigs, or if they were used as a performance script of sorts. Probably, they served all such purposes, and it is in part the broadside ballad’s multiple roles, both concretizing and redistributing the jig, that connects it to the theatrical after-piece—itself a bookend to the performance and a channel through which the theatricality of the play is extended into broader performance culture.
On the surface, or at least in print, Shakespeare’s play Romeo and Juliet and the anonymous ballad jig “Jack and His Mistress” have little in common. The jig ballad, like most, is bawdy and comical, and its plot is predictable. The wife of a carman (someone who drives a cart) attempts to seduce her husband’s apprentice, John, who at first resists her out of fear of his master. The mistress becomes more suggestive and insistent. She entreats the youth,
Thy Corral and Bells,John eventually, inevitably concedes. But the carman predictably returns, catching the two “in the act,” and “Like a Fellow Horn-mad, / He fell on the Lad.” The carman concludes the song with a promise to shame the apprentice rather than to “free” him. The majority of the ballad, however, consists of the mistress’s attempt to seduce John, and the focus of the performance would have been on her (a male player dressed as a woman in staged performances, but possibly a female singer in the street or alehouse) and her use of music, rhyme, and mimetic dance to persuade the apprentice to consent. This element of virtuosity on the part of the performer playing the mistress owes much to the ballad’s tune, “Mary Live Long,” which is melodically complex and requires a particularly broad range.
And Whistle I know it,
If thou wilt bestow it
For pleasures excells,
The lest in the Town,
Thou art Lusty and strong
And can lay me along,
Take Courage for shame,
Thou here in the Stable,
Thou here in the Stable,
Shall pleasure thy Dame.
Were it to be performed as an after-piece to a tragedy, “Jack and His Mistress” would have appeared as an exhibition of talent on the part of the performer as mistress—given the skill-set noted above—and we know that the period’s most famous stage jiggers, such as Richard Tarlton, Will Kemp, and Robert Armin, acquired reputations that in some ways surpassed those of their plays and play companies for just such talent.
In addition to being a demonstration of musical talent, the after-piece jig was also a reflection of the music that preceded it on stage—that is, the music performed in and during the play. The jig gave the stage over entirely to the dominance of music and dance in the spirit of festivity and local performance culture that typified ballad performance generally. Following a play like Romeo and Juliet, which is itself full of song and dance, the after-piece jig would have worked to consolidate the atmosphere of music and festivity that pervades the play. For starters, the play would have been imbued with what is sometimes called ambient or incidental music. This includes ceremonial music played during the action and music played between acts for formal and informal uses, such as interludes, dumb shows, pantomimes, and social dances. Stage directions in many of the period’s plays are filled with sennets, blasts (a specifically designated term describing the sounding of wind instruments, as before a hunt), drums, cymbals, alarms for rousing characters, and other sounds. There is even some evidence that balladeers may have stood at the doors of playhouses singing and hawking their broadsides to audience members as they entered and left. And finally, there is also plenty of music within the action of Romeo and Juliet itself, as when, for example, the stage directions indicate “music within” just moments before the Nurse discovers Juliet’s body and, of course, during the important Capulet ball where Romeo and Juliet first meet.
The lord of music in Romeo and Juliet is Peter, the Capulet servant, played famously by the clown for the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, Will Kemp. It was Kemp who would have reentered the platform at the end of the play to lead his companions in the jig. As Peter, Kemp’s role throughout the play is mediatory. He tends to escort characters in and out of scenes and in particular to prompt dialogue in the form of duets. Bernard Beckerman has linked Shakespeare’s use of the duet between non-clown-like characters directly to the early modern clown via the medieval Vice tradition: whereas the medieval Vice and Renaissance clown would form a direct presentational duet with the audience, Beckerman observes, in dramatic duets characters must create an “assertion and counter-assertion of energy . . . which permits an audience to become imaginatively engaged and emotionally attached.” Peter is both clown and dramatic character; his clowning reputation and image never fully leave him. In this way, he carries over his role as clown and prepares the audience for the presentational energy of the after-piece jig simply by instigating two-character dialogues. One such duet occurs between Romeo and Benvolio, who stumble upon Peter soon after he is tasked with delivering invitations to the Capulet ball. This encounter results in their accidental invitation to the ball, which they turn into a kind of game. In the spirit of gaming, Benvolio challenges Romeo to compare Rosalind with other women he might see at the ball—a game that may have more in common with the wooing and spying antics inherent to jig ballads than it does with the aspects of intellectual seriousness sometimes understood to define the tragic genre. The scene conceivably could be performed in jig fashion itself. The clown’s role is the same on both sides of the largely anachronistic play-jig divide, as he engages in banter with characters during the play and with the audience during the jig.
In fact, the most conspicuous transition between theatrical moods in the play is not after the catastrophe of the actual deaths of Romeo and Juliet but, rather, just before it, when the music literally stops. This moment is also Peter’s most assertive entrance, as the Capulet family discovers Juliet’s seemingly lifeless body in her bedroom on the morning of her proposed wedding day. This scene demonstrates the continuity between the tragedy and its after-piece jig through an invocation of ballad performance. After the Capulet family mourns on stage the “hateful day” of Juliet’s apparent death, and only the Nurse and the Musicians remain, the Second Quarto stage directions convey a telling slip in theatrical transparency when Peter’s entrance reads, “Enter Will Kemp” (4.4.83):
Peter here asks the musicians to play “Heart’s Ease,” a ballad from the mid-sixteenth century with a cheery, nonchalant perspective on life (4.4.127). While Shakespeare would have expected his audience to know the tune and its popular associations with frivolity, it is also possible that Peter’s specific reference occasioned an off-script singing of a stanza or more of the ballad, and maybe even dancing or moving to the tune, especially if the clown player was eager to show off his musical abilities:
Again, Peter acts as a mediator in his attempt to transform the mood of the scene with music. We can imagine Kemp himself drawing on his performative awareness as clown, dissatisfied that the wedding party’s music is now silenced; and in his role as jigger, Kemp further reminds his audience of the jig’s traditional origins in wedding festivals and May Games.
Although the Musicians complain that Peter’s request is inappropriate, we can recognize that in the larger scheme of the play event it is Juliet’s rash and dangerous action in taking the potion that is truly misguided and out of tone theatrically. It is Juliet’s apparent death that stops the music. Peter’s presence in this scene reminds viewers of this, as he fails in his attempt to reinstitute the sound and movement that characterized the play up to this point. In fact, considering the many ballad allusions and one-liners in Shakespeare’s plays, it is not at all unique for Peter here to call for “Heart’s Ease”; and, we would suggest, the very popular and festive performativity resonant in Peter’s allusion to “Heart’s Ease” is exactly Shakespeare’s intended evocation.
Scholars continue to find countless insights on Shakespeare’s plays in the ballads alluded to and sung by characters like Sir Toby, Desdemona, and Silence. Romeo and Juliet itself contains two extended references to ballads. The first appears in Act 2 when Mercutio taunts the Nurse, who is searching for Romeo. Perhaps inspired by the antics-arousing presence of Peter, Mercutio launches into “An old hare hoar” for six lines, which he is instructed to sing by the stage directions in the First Quarto (2.3.120-25). As with “Heart’s Ease,” in any given performance, Mercutio may have sung more of the popular song than the quarto records. For that matter the audience, knowing the lyrics and tunes, may well have joined in. Since ballad tunes naturally morph and the same verses could often have been sung to more than one tune variant, we have two “takes” on how Mercutio might have sung “An old hare hoar”:
Moments later, Mercutio sings another line as he departs—“Farewell, ancient lady. Farewell, [sings] ‘lady, lady, lady’” (128-29)—seemingly echoing the sixteenth-century ballad, “The Constancy of Susanna,” with its refrain’s repetition of “Lady, Lady.”
This ballad also makes a cameo in Twelfth Night when Sir Toby sings, “There dwelt a man in Babylon, lady, lady!” The first stanza of the broadside ballad “The Constancy of Susanna” (Figure 6) reads:
There was a man in Babylon,Like Mercutio, Toby is emboldened by the presence of a clown player, in this case, Kemp’s successor Robert Armin, who played the part of Feste. As we thus see across Shakespeare’s plays, in the recurrence of allusions, lines, and whole verses to ballads and their tunes, as well as more generally in the invocation of ambient sound, there would have been substantial theatrical crossover in situ between songs sung by characters (and perhaps audiences) as part of the dramatic action and the play’s inter-act and after-piece performances.
of reputation great by fame,
He took to wife a fair woman,
Susanna was she called by name.
This suggestion is salient to the appearance of “Heart’s Ease” in a manuscript from the 1560s of an earlier Tudor comedy called Misogonus. The entire song is slipped in as a kind of interlude at the end of a lewd dialogue between four characters. One of the characters is the Vice, the precursor to the Elizabethan clown, and although the song is part of the proper action, its effect would have been that of an inter-act song, in this case, a complete ballad performance, and would have offered an opportunity for audience participation.
Like many potential post-play jigs, including “Jack and His Mistress,” “Heart’s Ease” here blends with the banter, whimsicality, and sexuality of the scene that precedes it. As we have argued in this article, such integration of a ballad or jig with the play surrounding or preceding its performance would have been understood by an early modern audience of a tragedy as well as that of a comedy.
Music for Dessert?
Peter, as the clown, plays host to the tragedy of Romeo and Juliet. He serves music, and when he is unable to at the end of Act 4, the scene becomes inhospitable, to say the least. Ward’s metaphor of jigging as a kind of digestif conveys an awareness of the playhouse’s almost familial, everyday relation to musical and festive entertaining and to the meaningfulness of banqueting as an analogy for the environmental metabolisms that accompany performance.
Digestion, that is, had not only an alimentary sense for early moderners. A whole culinary, medical, and hospitable regime formed around the proper digestion of a meal’s main course. The bankett or banquet course featured special foods including cheese, fruits, cordials and confections, all praised for their digestive functions. The banquet course could also include music and light entertainment, while the foods themselves often had a theatrical quality, such as the popular stuffed swan or marzipan hedgehog that often took center stage at the table. References to dessert occur throughout Romeo and Juliet, often accompanied by music and entertainment and linked to key moments in the action as agents of ambience and transition. The bustle of servants at the vibrant edge of the party scene in Act 1 dramatizes the act of clearing the room for dancing and dessert as an orchestration of laboring persons, mobile objects, and pleasant confections in preparation for the events to come:
First Ser.: Where’s Potpan that he helps not to take away? He shift a trencher! He scrape a trencher!The name “Nell,” coupled with “Bess” not “Susan,” cited in this passage, shows up in the version of “Heart’s Ease” featured in Misogonus:
Second Ser.: When good manners shall lie all in one or two men’s hands, and they unwashed too, ’tis a foul thing.
First Ser.: Away with the joint-stools, remove the court-cupboard, look to the plate. Good thou, save me a piece of marchpane, and as thou loves me, let the porter let in Susan Grindstone and Nell — Anthony and Potpan!
In both instances, the names of the working-class women signal opportunities for enjoyment in a space defined by proximity and flow: Susan Grindstone and Nell will be let in the back door in Romeo and Juliet, and the audience of Misogonus is invited by the ballad singers’ to approach Bess and Nell by walking. Although the scene of table clearing in Romeo and Juliet is not technically musical, the serving men’s back-and-forth banter assumes the quality of a duet, and the clattering of plates and moving of furniture could generate its own rough music and comic play. The men refer in passing to one of the most beloved creations on the banqueting table, as noted above: the marchpane or marzipan that was often formed into imaginative shapes and colored or gilded for festive effect. The servingmen are saving the leftovers for their own after-hours party in a dessert-after-the-dessert that will provide for their own digestive pleasure and rest. Perhaps their gathering will include some ballads, such as “The Love-Sick Serving Man” [recording and facsimile image]. Like Act 4’s interlude with Peter and the musicians, the business with the servants and their dishes is often cut from modern performances, yet might have been savored by Renaissance audiences as a dynamic interlude drawing several familiar environments of entertainment into both the play world and the play house.
Romeo and his band never get to sample the marchpane. As they depart, Capulet tells them,
Nay, gentlemen, prepare not to be gone:Oxford editor Jill Levenson comments, “Capulet disparages the dessert course just coming – sweetmeats, fruit, wine (OED sb.1 3) – as silly and without value, probably to enhance the effect of its sumptuous arrival” (199n.). But we have already enjoyed our dessert, in the form of the lyric sonnet-duet composed by Romeo and Juliet in their back-and-forth exchange (1.4.204-17). The sweet space of the sonnet (soft and sonic, mobile and mellifluous) takes shape in the opening for encounter and acknowledgement first cleared by the serving men as they make room for the festivities to come.
We have a trifling foolish banquet towards. (I.iv.234-5)
Later, the Nurse plays the role of pantler, the household servant in charge of dessert dishes, when she is told to “take these keys and fetch more spices,” since “they call for dates and quinces in the pastry” (4.4.1-2). But even later she stewards a “broken banquet” or interrupted feast, since “our wedding cheer” will be changed to “a sad burial feast” (4.5.87). Reversing the order of left-overs in Hamlet, the Capulet’s supper of “baked meats” (4.4.5) (glossed as “pastries, pies” by Arden editor René Weis) will coldly furnish forth the funeral table. And this interrupted and inverted meal finds its musical counterpart or complement in the interlude provided by Peter and the musicians. Both the meal and the music are forms of “digestion” with the power to incorporate and redistribute what has gone before, and both participate in a mixed dramaturgy that employs servant-clowns as tuners of affect and atmosphere in multi-sensory settings of hospitality, like the jig that will soon follow.
Ambient music, rough music, ballads, the presence of Peter, inter-act songs and banter, post-prandial entertainment, the Capulet ball, duet dialogues, “Heart’s Ease,” Misogonus, “The Constancy of Susanna”—viewed together these aspects of the play event exhibit the continuity between the tragedy and the jig. Even at the thematic level, Romeo and Juliet and a ballad jig like “Jack and His Mistress” have more in common than not. They share interests in transgressive romances, comedy, elaborate wooing, duet verse dialogues, the kinetic kinship between fighting and dancing, and the punning pleasures of sexual innuendo. These theatrical and formal connections attest to porousness on both sides of the largely illusory tragedy-jig divide. For early modern audiences, the question of theatrical dissonance between the tragedy and jig would have certainly been present, but it would have been a particularly nuanced thought process, always aware of its polemical context. It is no wonder, then, that several tragedies made it into broadside ballad print as a result of their stage success, including especially dark plays like Doctor Faustus and Titus Andronicus. In ballad form, such tragedies were conditioned to the variable venues, improvised acoustical settings, peripheral noise, and fragmented hearing experiences of ballad performance. The jig ballad itself—existing as both performance and print, script and souvenir, main event and after-piece—also dispersed dramatic attention across spectacles and venues. The after-piece jig digested the tragedy by carrying the play into the surrounding playhouse setting by emphasizing a certain musical, dialogical, and clownish viewing experience, and—perhaps playing the role of host—by contextualizing the tragedy within environmental redistributions of sound and movement.
"Greensickness carrion": Re-reading Capulet through Broadside Ballads
-- Jessica C. Murphy
AfterRomeo and Juliet have spent their first night together, Juliet’s parents try frantically to convince her she should marry Paris. During this argument in which Juliet resists her parents’ authority and refuses the match, Capulet calls his daughter “greensickness carrion.” Ursula Potter reads this moment as proof of “the dual nature of Capulet’s fears for Juliet’s life and for the onset of sexuality in her.” If, following Potter, we understand greensickness as “a disease of the leisured classes,” as “was standard by the seventeenth century,” then Capulet’s worries about honor, reputation, and Juliet’s budding sexuality are certainly the most salient aspects of his accusation. However, when we turn to the understanding of greensickness in another seventeenth-century textual form—the popular broadside ballad—Capulet’s motives take on another dimension. In broadside ballads that talk about greensickness, the disease is used more often as a joke about the insatiable female body. If we read Capulet as engaging with this popular understanding of greensickness, then we can recognize his response to Juliet’s resistance as a calculated use of a female disease to bring his daughter’s body back under his control. What Potter sees as an “inadequate handling of the onset of puberty in his only daughter” becomes an informed choice of attribution to a “disease” that may even acknowledge Juliet’s actual sexual activity.
Performances of Romeo and Juliet often use the “morning after” scene to illustrate the irrationality and violence of Capulet’s fathering. As can be seen in the excerpt below from Matt Toronto’s production of the play, this violence is often placed next to Juliet’s heightened sexuality. In Toronto’s Romeo and Juliet, Juliet appears in a revealing nightgown. An angry Capulet tosses her across the stage and strikes out at her nurse:
The tension between violence and sexuality that runs throughout the play looms large in this scene that ostensibly deals with a father’s desire to see his daughter married. Juliet’s revealing nightgown may do some of the same work for modern audiences as “greensickness carrion” would have done for a late sixteenth-century English audience, who would understand a range of meanings being implied, because she appears at once sexually appealing and vulnerable.
Greensickness, when used as a medical term in the early modern period, demonstrated the status of the female body as a cultural cipher. The disease allowed physicians and parents to read a daughter’s unmarried state as physically harmful, thereby justifying the cultural injunction to marry. According to early modern physicians, greensickness was a “disease of virgins” for which the best cure was sexual intercourse within marriage. By pathologizing virginity, diagnoses of greensickness reflect the shift from valuing virginity to valuing Protestant marriage for women in early modern England.
One of the major markers of greensickness, according to the medical treatises, is obstructed menstruation. This calls to mind a woman’s body in a state of arrested sexuality—she cannot give birth if her body is stopped up, and she is thus excluded from the expected path of marriage and childbirth. Though some of the “disease’s” described symptoms change over time, an absence of menses is always part of greensickness, and that absence is often accompanied by “diverted menstruation.” Because women are “leaky,” their fluids “could erupt from any orifice,” as Helen King puts it. Greensickness thus puzzlingly brings to mind both promiscuity and hindered female sexuality.
Many alternative cures, in lieu of (and less effective than) marriage that doctors suggest involve attempts to restore the young woman’s body to its “proper” non-leaky, but also non-stopped-up state. For example, most of the herbal remedies the surgeon John Gerard advises in his 1597 manual are purgative. His location of both the cause and the cure of greensickness in his entry for “Water-Cresse," imaged below, is indicative: “it doth cure yong maidens of the green sicknesse, bringeth downe the termes, and sendeth into the face their accustomed lively colour, lost by the stopping of their Menstrua.”
The herb watercress, as Gerard explains in the quotation above, removes the obstruction in the “yong maiden” with green sickness, which allows for menstruation to resume and for her color to return. A similar description is offered for watercress’s use in purging kidney stones. Some of the same herbs used in the treatment of greensickness, such as Monk’s Rhubarb and Rue, might be used as abortifacients in other contexts.
The potential for the herbal cures to induce abortion further speaks to the problem of illegitimacy in early modern English culture. A desiring virgin can cause some troubles for her family, but an unmarried pregnant women is detrimental to the parish more generally.
Most early modern physicians agreed that marriage was the best cure for greensickness because it provided an opportunity to engage in condoned sexual intercourse. Sexual intercourse (and certainly a pregnancy resulting in birth) would help to remove the obstruction caused by virginity. It is this cure that the broadside ballads pick up on to make their joke about the insatiable female body. The young woman in “A Remedy for the Greensickness” (1678-1680, Pepys 3.119, EBBA 21126), taking the sexual intercourse cure as her cue, actively seeks it out.
In this ballad, the young woman sings her lament of her illness in loud moans until a young man helps her by giving her a cure. We know she is suffering from greensickness not only because the title tells us so, but also because her symptoms are those of a greensick woman: she is a virgin, “panting,” “green as grass,” she “sighs and grieves,” and she does not have a specific love object in mind. Unlike the passive, languishing greensick girl of some early representations, this young woman performs her illness in her search for a cure.
The young woman worries that she will become “quite mad” and needs a “bonny Lad” to “coole those burning flames of fire.” A couple of stanzas later, the consequences of greensickness become more severe than madness—she wants someone to “keep” her from her “grave.” She believes that if someone only knew how ill she really was and how close to death, he would come to help her. There is a young man nearby who overhears her complaints. Being a nice guy, he helps her very quickly. She is intrigued by his ability to cure her greensickness: “He has an Art / With out all smart, / Green Sickness to remove,” but it all happened so fast that she is not sure that he got it all: “oh! come again to me, / For I am half afraid / I shall not cured be, / At this first bout then prithee try / to help me once again.” So the young man repeats his cure as often as is deemed necessary.
This story derives humor from its engagement with the stereotype of the young lascivious woman who performs purity. Greensickness always works in this balancing act—it is a way to diagnose and categorize the desire of young females and to resist the charge of lasciviousness. The story of “A Remedy” makes the most effective cure for the greensickness of young women into a joke while simultaneously revealing a central problem with the disease: to claim that a young woman suffers from the fact that she is not engaging in intercourse is to make virginity itself into a disease. The way that “A Remedy” treats the notion of the diseased desiring virgin shows that attempts to manage the needs of young women allow for the kind of mis- or re-interpretation in which the young woman in the story engages. If virginity is a disease, then a young woman like the one in the ballad should seek a cure.
Another ballad from the Pepys collection centers on a part of the male anatomy (or a replica of it) as a metonym for the cure. This ballad is a lot less interested in the young woman’s symptoms than it is in what she is willing to give in order to have her virginity taken away. In contrast with the typical early modern depiction of chastity as a treasure to be protected at all costs, the ballad turns virginity into an illness that the young girl is willing to pay to have cured. As early as the title, we can see that this ballad’s depiction of greensickness will be a little different from the medical treatises: “The Maids Complaint for want of a dildoul This Girl had long time in a sickness been Which many maids do call the sickness green. I wish she may some comfort find poor Soul and have her belly fill’d with a Dil doul” (1681-1684, Pepys 4.50, EBBA 21716).
Far from the diagnosis meted out by the members of London’s Royal College of Physicians, the title has put the naming of the sickness in the hands of women: “Which many maids do call the sickness green.” The transfer of agency suggests that if you give women permission to engage in intercourse for medical reasons, it is only a matter of time before they start engaging in intercourse promiscuously. The first two woodcuts also reveal the content of the ballad because the young man has his hand on the hilt of his sword (a common representation for the penis in the period) and the young man offers him grapes (a common symbol of fertility).
“The Maids Complaint” is addressed to “Young men” who are to “merriment inclin’d.” This story that the narrator promises will make such youths “to smile” is not about a young woman; rather, it is done by her: “of late done by a woman kind.” Unlike the fear of death demonstrated by the young woman in “A Remedy,” the heroine of “The Maids Complaint” worries that she will become “undone” if she cannot find a “dil doul,” a man’s penis, to satisfy her desire. Contrary to the belief that a young woman who loses her virginity outside of marriage is undone both physically and socially, this young woman believes she will be undone if she does not lose her virginity right away. “Undone” implies that she might physically explode if she stays in this obstructed state, as the young woman desperately looks for a release.
Mimicking the trade of the physician, the maid’s proposed cure commodifies the dil doul as the story progresses: it is “such a pretty fine thing,” she says, that it is worth ten thousand times more than a maidenhead, and for it she would willingly “sell all [her] Coats & Smock from [her] back.” Her virginity (the cause of her illness), inversely lessens in worth from the moment she meets her sister, who is so happy to have gotten rid of her maidenhead that “if [she] had ten thousand [she] would give um all / For a dill doul.” The maid goes directly from this meeting in search of a dil doul to “rub on the place that doth itch,” promising “good red Gold and Silver bright” to the “bonny Lad” who will help her by taking a “good bargin while it is to be had.”
“The Maids Complaint” does not concentrate on the symptoms and feared outcome of greensickness; it focuses on this young woman’s determined search for a “cure” for her desire. The dil doul or penis, then, becomes like an apothecary’s medical mixture that can be bought to ease suffering. The young woman marks her home just as a store might—she lives “at the sign of the Cup and the Can”—both connoting an open and willing vagina—and offers to “be loving to any young man / For his dil doul.” “A Remedy” makes the doctors’ intercourse cure into a joke, but the “Maids complaint” also lays completely bare the absurdity of prescribing sex by turning the young woman’s desire for intercourse—the prescribed medical “cure”—into an object of ridicule.
In these ballad stories, doctors’ tales of young women suffering from greensickness and attempts to cure the maid’s pain through marriage, which are so popular in the late sixteenth century medical literature, are made out to be nothing but attempts to pander the bodies of young virgins. At the same time, the disease of greensickness reveals that popular ballads, like the medical treatises of the time, show women as untrustworthy keepers of their own bodies.
If we are to sincerely read Capulet’s accusation of Juliet as “greensickness carrion,” then we must consider the fact that he may also be engaging with the understanding of greensickness that popular ballads reveal. As portrayed by and for the early modern “leisured class,” as Potter puts it, greensickness is a polite disease that allows parents and physicians to shuttle young women into marriage. Broadside ballads, however, reveal that greensickness is a construct. As King argues, we must always keep in mind that there may not be a one-to-one relationship between modern diseases and earlier diseases. Reading the ascribed maladies of the past, King explains, requires an effort to recognize that disease is a “construct” particular to its historical and cultural moment. What is striking about the broadside ballads that engage with greensickness tropes is that they recognize this very fact: that the disease is a product of historical and cultural pressures. Because they reveal greensickness as potentially a way to engage in economic bartering for bodies, the broadside ballads should further make us question seemingly straightforward uses of the disease in other early modern texts.
Capulet’s concern with his daughter’s health in the first acts of Romeo and Juliet seems to focus on the dangers of becoming a mother too young. In his discussion with Paris about the possibility of their marriage, Capulet argues that Juliet is “yet a stranger in the world” and that “too soon marred are [mothers] early made” (1.2.8, 1.2.13). However, once the need for the Capulets to align politically with Paris through marriage becomes clear, the shift in Capulet’s approach is reflected in the language he uses to address and describe his daughter. When Capulet begins to fear Juliet will not be marriageable, he uses violent language to develop a metaphor about Juliet’s body, which he sees as having turned on itself to the point of undoing itself. Encountering his grieving daughter, Capulet responds by comparing her grief to both an intact ship sailing and the raging storm that could “overset” or destroy the “bark”:
In one little bodyUnlike Romeo, bitten by an “envious worm,” Juliet is the actor here: she mimics a bark, a sea, and a wind. In this confused metaphor, wherein she acts both the position of an object (a sailing bark) and a subject (the storm threatening the bark), her father imagines her as potentially self-destructive. Her bark-body is “tempest-tossed,” but the tempest is her own grief over which Capulet believes she should have some measure of control. He offers that control, indeed, insists upon it. When he calls her “greensickness carrion” and “tallow face” in 3.5, critics have argued, Capulet suggests that Juliet is wasting away because of her virginity and that she should appreciate the cure that her father (as physician) has brought her. Like a physician mixing up a cure of herbs, he has, after all, “wrought” or made this man Paris specifically to cure Juliet (3.5.145). If necessary, as her physician, he can force her to take the cure, threatening to bring her to the altar like a prisoner to an execution (3.5.156). He tells her to “fettle” her “fine joints,” which calls to mind either the image of cattle or of a human body preparing for war (3.5.154).
Thou counterfeit’st a bark, a sea, a wind:
For still thy eyes, which I may call the sea,
Do ebb and flow with tears; the bark thy body is,
Sailing in this salt flood; the winds, thy sighs,
Who, raging with thy tears and they with them,
Without a sudden calm will overset
Thy tempest-tossed body. (3.5.131-138)
The broadside ballads’ depictions of greensickness, however, should give us pause in this reading. Greensickness becomes a useful construct for fathers who need their daughters’ bodies to continue to be valuable in the marriage economy. By revealing greensickness as a construct that is historically and socially determined, broadside ballad depictions open up the possibility that Capulet is not ignorant to how Juliet spent the previous evening. On the contrary, the violent language he uses to describe her grieving body implies that he recognizes her incontinence. Juliet’s refusal of her father’s decree is in this sense enabled by her marriage to Romeo and her sexual maturity, and Capulet recognizes this.
By the time of John Ford’s ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore (published 1633), greensickness can go so far as to work overtly as a way to cover up a pregnancy. Annabella, languishing from what is variably called “the maid’s sickness” (3.2.81) and “fullness of the blood” (3.4.8) in the play, is in fact pregnant with her brother’s child. In ‘Tis Pity, the cover story does not come from Annabella; rather, it comes from her father, the (fake) doctor, and her brother/lover. But again the woman is the constructed object. I argue, in sum, that the depiction of greensickness in broadside ballads allows us to see the potential for the use of this so-called “disease” by the men who have a stake in young women’s marriageable bodies. Capulet, in other words, may not be the bumbling father critics usually take him for; he may in fact be acting within a tradition that sees disease as a construct that can be used to economic advantage.