Greetings from a healthy social distance, friends! I’ve been using this time to think about all sorts of “distance” – social distance, physical distance, middle distance, relative distance…It’s been a time of deep contemplation, to say the least.
However, my mind keeps returning to our recent (if too-short) run of A King and No King by Beaumont and Fletcher. King Arbaces frets over his “unnatural, lustful” feelings about his sister, Panthea, and orders that she be kept physically distant from him until he can conquer them. (Spoiler alert: he can’t!) Then, he attempts to enlist Mardonius, a faithful and valiant soldier, as his pander. Unsurprisingly, Mardonius refuses; but another soldier with a more flexible sense of morality, Bessus, willingly – even gleefully – takes on the job. What follows is an uncomfortable-yet-hilarious confrontation between the siblings in which they both confess mutual…err…feelings…for one another and grapple with how to handle it. (Another spoiler: they don’t handle it well. Hilarity ensues.)
Arbaces and Panthea’s situation probably should feel a little uncomfortable to the audience: incest is a huge social taboo, even today. It threatens the social order and is an unnatural closure of distance in relationships that should – for biological reasons, if nothing else – remain distant. And yet, there is something so alluring about this and other taboos that makes storytellers return to them again and again. Unless you’ve been living in a sensory deprivation chamber, you know that one of the most popular TV shows of all time – HBO’s Game of Thrones – depicts multiple variations of incestuous relationships. We use taboo tropes like incest in our art in order to laugh at them, process them, learn from them, or all of the above.
Playwrights during Shakespeare’s time – and Shakespeare himself – were a little obsessed with social taboos, and frequently used them as plot points in their plays. I’ve done a little digging into what was considered taboo in Shakespeare’s time, and (not surprisingly) it’s not all that far off from today. I’ve even put together a little game you can play to learn what was considered taboo at the time. Along with that handout is an excerpt from William Harrison’s “Description of England” in which he enumerates the types of punishment in store for the various offenses. Incest, in particular, was punishable by “carting” – loading the offenders onto a cart and wheeling them through their town to display their shame to the community. Since committing a taboo act ruptures the fabric of the community, the punishment should therefore right the wrong publicly.
Once familiar with early modern taboos, read through (or if you can, walk through or perform) Act 3, scene 3 of A King and No King using cue scripts. Note how, because each character only has their own speeches to rely on for information, Mardonius and Bessus use their words to create or close distance with Arbaces when they realize what he wants from them. Not, too, the different way Arbaces broaches his request with each man. Try playing the scene through multiple times, making different choices about the physical proximity between the characters each time. Then layer in the different levels of revulsion (or lack thereof) each character feels about the particular taboo of incest and what you know about how that crime was punished in Shakespeare’s day.
Bonus points if you can find these taboos in other early modern plays! Stay safe out there, folks!