Henry Medwall Essay - Critical Essays


Henry Medwall’s plays reflect the aristocratic, humanistic, social, and political preoccupations of their audience, as well as the physical conditions under which they were performed. Drawing on diverse dramatic and intellectual influences, they achieve remarkable unity and focus and succeed in their purpose of combining entertainment and instruction. Although the dearth of extant plays from this period makes it difficult to judge the extent of Medwall’s innovativeness, it is possible to appreciate his dramatic genius in its own right and at the same time to use his plays as an index to the progress of dramatic form and to theatrical conditions in the court drama of his time.

Both plays were probably written for performance in the Great Hall at Lambeth Palace, the residence of Medwall’s patron, Cardinal Morton, at banquets during winter festivals. The audience (aside from the servants) was aristocratic and intellectual and included, if passing references in both plays are to be credited, women as well as men. The situation was an intimate one, with the dining audience seated at tables on three sides of the hall and the play taking place in the center of the floor, down the length of the hall, with entrances through the two doors in the screen at the end opposite the high table (possibly raised) where sat the host with his chief guests. The play took place, therefore, in the midst of the audience, and Medwall shows his genius in adapting and exploiting this close relationship to manipulate the relationship between reality and illusion and to provide humor.

Fulgens and Lucres

In Fulgens and Lucres, Medwall makes a virtue of the physical closeness that renders illusion impossible. The play begins as two characters, differentiated only by the speech prefixes “A” and “B,” step forward, apparently from the audience, to anticipate the coming performance and summarize the plot. When the rival suitors of the main plot enter, A and B take service with them and proceed thereafter to shift in and out of the play, discussing its moral and intellectual argument and mediating between it and the audience. Medwall uses A and B to guide his audience’s response to the play’s moral theme.

The main plot is based on Buonaccorso da Montemagno’s treatise De Vera Nobilitate (c. 1428), translated into English by John Tiptoft, earl of Worcester, about 1460 and printed by Caxton in 1481. Lucres, daughter of the Roman senator Fulgens, is sought in marriage by Cornelius Flavius, a dissolute aristocrat, and Gayus Flaminius, a virtuous commoner. Her father leaves the choice to her, and she urges the suitors to plead their respective cases in a debate, intending to choose the suitor who proves himself more noble. In the source, this debate takes place before the senate, and no decision is rendered, though the outcome points to Gayus. Limitations of cast size and considerations of dramatic interest and focus led Medwall to have Lucres herself be the audience and judge of the debaters, thus providing English drama with its first heroine. Her decision in favor of Gayus is announced in the play.

The play considers a moral question: the source of true nobility. This was a particularly topical matter because Henry VII’s government restrained the power of the old nobility and promoted accomplished commoners, such as Morton, to high office. The emergence of this new class encouraged a strong interest in Humanism, which emphasized innate virtue. Because Medwall’s audience must have included both old and new nobility, he took pains to avoid offending either. He distanced the argument by setting it in ancient Rome, and the brunt of his criticism is directed not at Cornelius’s inherited nobility but at his abuse of it by indulgence in ostentation and pride, theft, murder, riot, and sloth. Lucres makes it clear that honor with inherited nobility is preferable to honor without it, but when the ideal is unavailable, as in this case, honorable poverty is preferable to dishonorable nobility. Her insistence that her decision applies to her case alone and is not to be taken as a general rule provides a critically neutral setting for exploring the question. Finally, that A and B disagree with her conclusion admits the possibility of disagreement, although Medwall has steered the audience toward agreeing with Lucres by characterizing her as intelligent and virtuous and placing the opposite opinion in the mouths of A and B, who are scurrilous rogues without honor or nobility.

It may be no coincidence that virtually the first subplot in an English play originated in a household in which young Thomas More, as a page of fourteen, used to get up and improvise merry parts for himself during the Christmas plays, as his son-in-law and biographer William Roper tells us. Whether More’s antics inspired in Medwall the idea for A and B or whether More may even have played one of them is unknown. In any event, their shifting character and status allow Medwall to control the audience. The illusion of their improvisation makes A and B seem more “real,” and their comic confusions therefore achieve a sense of spontaneity, while being carefully controlled by the author.

A and B provide a comic parallel to the main plot and prepare for the coming debate by prefiguring it. As servants of Gayus and Cornelius, they become rivals for the affections of Lucres’ serving maid Joan, who puts them to a test as Lucres has done with her suitors: They must show their relative merits. This they proceed to do in a song contest, a wrestling match, and a mock tournament, which seems to involve beating buttocks with blunt spears (perhaps mops or brooms), with the competitors’ hands tied. Joan, comically apostrophized as “flower of the frying pan,” is the “lady” honored by the joust. Like Lucres, she exercises control over the two suitors, eventually rejecting both. Although the elevated tone of the main plot allows no outlet for expression of the physical side of love, A and B’s scatological jokes in their wooing of Joan fill this need and express the license appropriate to Christmas revelry.

In structure, the play falls into two parts. The division was probably occasioned by the exigencies of the dining situation. As A points out at the end of the first part, the members of the audience “have not fully dyned.” The first part of the play has been presented between courses of the midday dinner, and at the end of it, A directs the usher to fill the diners’ glasses with the best wine, at the request of the “master of the fest” (probably Morton). When the play resumes, it is evidently still the same day, for A refers to the earlier part as taking place “today.” Medwall builds this social requirement into the structure of the play by applying the break to the suitors’ needs as well: They need time to prepare their speeches. The play is given a natural time scheme: Lucres has appointed the suitors “to be here/ Sone, in the evynyng aboute suppere” to receive her decision.

As the first part presented diversions in song, wrestling, mock tournament, and bawdy jest, the second—the text of which, because of this diversion, is shorter—includes a mummers’ dance. As the comic wooing and mock tournament farcically prefigure the suitors’ debate, the dance prefigures it romantically (Cornelius offers it as a wooing device). These actions recall the wooing contest of courtly love poetry. By these means, and by the suspense created with the interval, attention is directed to the debate as the climactic event of the play. The intelligentsia, many trained in law, were accustomed to regarding public disputation as entertaining and diverting. The debate itself seems to draw on two earlier traditions: the medieval demande d’amour and the classical controversia. Medieval love literature often poses a question about love—for example, whether a rich or a wise suitor is preferable—and the question is followed by a debate. The controversia was an exercise in pleading by students of oratory and came to be a rhetorical showpiece for the entertainment of lawyers, in which two disputants argued each side of a philosophical question, with the choice (as in Fulgens and Lucres’ source) left to the audience. In the play, Lucres rounds off the argument by revealing her choice to B, while conflict is avoided by her not being seen to reveal it to the suitors: She intends to write to them. This avoidance of conflict should not be regarded as a dramatic flaw because conflict would distract the audience from the play’s main purpose of reaching a resolution to the problem of choice in an exemplum framed to illustrate a moral question.

The conclusion, the choice of Gayus, has been well prepared for in advance by the characterizations and relations of the characters to one another. Cornelius’s excess in sartorial ostentation, which exemplifies pride, is revealed in the first part by B. In the second part, B has to rebuke Cornelius for not behaving according to his rank in waiting on the mummers instead of letting them wait on him; this characterizes him as somewhat foolish. Cornelius is undercut in that his message to Lucres is given bawdy signification by B’s mistaking of words. Gayus, on the other hand,...

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