Stuff that Happens
stuff that happens before the play
- Arbaces, the King of Iberia, has defeated Tigranes, King of Armenia, after long years of war.
- Panthea, sister to Arbaces, was nine years old when Arbaces last saw her.
stuff that happens in the play
- Victorious Arbaces declares to defeated Tigranes: “thy ransom is to take my only sister to thy wife.”
- Tigranes, however, loves Spaconia, whom he sends ahead to Iberia to ask Panthea to refuse the marriage.
- Upon seeing the adult Panthea, both kings fall in love with her.
- Arbaces is wracked with guilt over his incestuous love for his sister.
- Risking damnation ensues.
Notes from the Executive Director
beaumont and fletcher, the invigorators
A King and No King: 1611
A King and No King is the first play we have produced from Shenandoah Shakespeare’s Bring ‘Em Back Alive reading series, and we chose it because many of the people who were at the Blackfriars for that reading requested it. The play is the product of the most famous dramatic collaboration in Renaissance England, the partnership of John Fletcher (The Tamer Tamed) and Francis Beaumont (the author of The Knight of the Burning Pestle). “Beaumont and Fletcher” were as famous a duo as “Gilbert and Sullivan” or “Rogers and Hammerstein,” and their specialty was tragicomedy, of which King and No King is one of the outstanding examples.
In the first decade of James I’s reign, tragicomedy became the theatrical rage, and Shakespeare tried his hand at it with Cymbeline, Pericles, Winter’s Tale, The Tempest, and The Two Noble Kinsmen, which he wrote with Fletcher. Here is how Fletcher defined tragicomedy: “it wants deaths, which is enough to make it no tragedy; yet brings some near it, which is enough to make it no comedy.” (Preface to The Faithful Shepherdess.)
A King and No King certainly abides by that rule, but it brings its characters near a great deal more than death, and in doing so it gives us the delicious sensation of imagining death, disaster, and a broken taboo, while it simultaneously finds a way to escape the worst.
A King and No King has charms beyond its value as a model of the genre. For a play that hovers near incest for five acts, the play has a kind of odd purity. It takes place in an adult never-never-land where a victorious king (Arbaces) is so chivalrous that he offers his captive enemy (Tigranes) his sister in marriage. The world of Iberia is a world where everyone is at leisure to examine their passions and wrestle with their vices, and they do so in the most elegant and seemingly effortless verse.
And while the noble characters wrestle with their grand passions in poetry, the braggart Bessus provides us with the prose comedy. Bessus comes out of the tradition of the miles glorioso – the self-regarding soldier – that gives us such Shakespearean characters as Don Armando in Love’s Labour’s Lost and Falstaff in the Henry IV plays. But what makes Bessus so much fun – and so endears him to us – is that he knows exactly who and what he is. Scholars suggest that Fletcher might have been responsible for Bessus and the crowd scenes, and they guess that the beautiful language in the play is the work of Beaumont.
That language and the play’s easy otherworldliness make us wish we had more from Beaumont, who was a shooting star in London’s literary cosmos. A devoted member of the “Tribe of Ben” – a group of poets who attached themselves to Ben Jonson – he wrote his first play in 1607 and his masterpiece, The Knight of the Burning Pestle, in the same year. A King and No King, which followed a series of successful plays in partnership with Fletcher, was his last play. In 1612 – after just five years on the literary scene – he married a rich and titled woman, retired to the country, and died four years later at the age of 32.
Ralph Alan cohen
Director of Education