Actors' Renaissance Season 2008

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Stuff that Happens
Stuff that happens in the play
  • Sebastian returns home from war to find his betrothed, Isabella, married to another man, Antonio.
  • Gaspero, Antonio’s servant, comforts Florida, his master’s courtesan, as she weeps over her lover’s marriage.
  • Almachildes, a fantastical gentleman, tries to seduce Amoretta, the Duchess’s woman. When he fails, he vows to get a potion from the witches to make Amoretta “fall backwards.”
  • At Isabella and Antonio’s wedding banquet, the Duke of Ravenna makes a strange toast with a cup made from his father-in-law’s skull.
  • Francisca, Antonio’s sister, fears the drink will expose her concealed pregnancy.
  • Sebastian and, later, Almachildes visit Hecate, the witch, to ask her for charms to help them resolve their plight.
  • The following morning, Antonio, not feeling well, asks Gaspero for medicine. Hecate’s charm has taken hold.
  • Francisca elaborates on her condition, and the baby’s father, Abberzanes, arrives bearing gifts and a plan.
  • Almachildes uses the love charm on Amoretta.
  • Francisca gives birth and returns to her brother’s house.
  • Bed tricks, schemes, revenge, poisonings, and incantations ensue.
Notes from the Director of Mission
middleton – the new bard in town

Last October, Oxford University Press finally published The Collected Works of Thomas Middleton. Eighteen years in the making with contributions by seventy scholars (including me), the Works had as its goal the rescue of a great playwright from the shadow of Shakespeare. Gary Taylor, the general editor, wanted to do for Middleton what Heminges and Condell did for Shakespeare when they published his complete works in 1616: let the world see the whole range of his work. What The Collected Works will certainly do is give us a writer whose differences from Shakespeare help to illuminate not only his work but the entire early modern practice of playwriting as well.

As The Witch will show, Middleton’s plays have an earthy realism about them and a healthy kind of chaos in which two or more storylines can work almost like a two- or three-ring circus. (The play I edited, The Five Gallants, is a five-ring circus.) His language can be more colloquial than Shakespeare’s, more grounded, his women more assertive and more openly sexual, and his portrait of ordinary life more detailed.

The King’s Men produced The Witch at the Blackfriars around the time of Shakespeare’s death, and the play was forever linked to  Shakespeare when a passage featuring Hecate made its way into the text of Macbeth. Like Macbeth, Middleton’s work undoubtedly played on the popular interest in witchcraft fanned by King James I’s concern for the subject, a concern that prompted him to write Daemonologie, where the King sets the world straight on superstitions about witchcraft, especially those he didn’t himself hold.

The witches in Middleton’s play are less otherworldly and more individualized than those in Shakespeare. They have their own names – Hoppo, Puckle, and Hellwain, for example – and they are more subject to the desires and the tribulations of the world. And they are funnier.

Here, as in such major works as The Changeling, Middleton imitates and even exceeds Shakespeare in mixing low comic material with the high and the serious. This healthy disregard for the consistency of tone and genre is at the heart of the American Shakespeare Center’s goal in getting its audiences to look with fresh eyes at the brilliant unruliness of drama. And when it comes to rules, if Jonson was the enforcer (as you will see in Volpone), The Witch is good evidence that Middleton was the mutineer.

ralph alan cohen

Director of Mission