Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Defense of Poesy

I've always admired the poetry of Sir Philip Sidney, though his great work of literary and dramatic criticism, The Defense of Poesy, still makes him sound to me like a bit of a wet blanket.

Sidney wrote the essay around 1579, so it was before most of the great works of the Elizabethan era had been composed. Shakespeare's plays were still a good ten years off at the time, and even Christopher Marlowe and Thomas Kyd hadn't begun to pen dramas.

The one English play Sidney singles out as worthy is Gorboduc by Thomas Norton and Thomas Sackville. That play, which was first performed in 1561 and later published in 1565, bears remarkable resemblances to the later King Lear by Shakespeare. Both involve the division of the Kingdom of Britain by an elderly monarch amongst his children, and both feature a Duke of Albany and a Duke of Cornwall.

What Norton and Sackville did that was truly innovative was introduce the use of blank verse to English drama. By writing the play in unrhymed iambic pentameter, they set a precedent used by most later Elizabethan dramas. Sidney called Gorboduc "full of stately speeches and well-sounding phrases, climbing to the height of Seneca's style." Still, he claimed it was "faulty both in place and time" since "the stage should always represent but one place" and "but one day" at the most.

Sidney's railings against improbability seem to be answered with a Bronx cheer from Shakespeare's play The Winter's Tale. Sidney objects to plays "where you shall have Asia of the one side, and Afric of the other, and so many other under-kingdoms, that the player, when he cometh in, must ever begin with telling where he is." The Winter's Tale begins with two lords discussing the kingdoms of Bohemia and Sicilia, and when the action moves from Sicilia to the sea coast of (the notoriously landlocked) Bohemia, Antigonus declares "Thou art perfect, then, our ship hath touched upon / The deserts of Bohemia?"

Offending against the unity of time is an even worse offense for Sidney. He complains how in English plays "ordinary it is that two young princes fall in love; after many traverses she is got with child, delivered of a fair boy, he is lost, groweth a man, falleth in love, and is ready to get another child,--and all this in two hours' space." Well, yes, that sounds like The Winter's Tale, too! The child born in Act II is shown getting engaged to be married in Act IV. As if to thumb his nose at critics like Sidney, Shakespeare has the character of Time come forth as a chorus at the beginning of Act IV to beg, "Impute it not a crime / To me or my swift passage that I slide / O'er sixteen years."

Sidney did consider that a crime, but fortunately Shakespeare did not. And if you want to see how his very un-Sidneyan play turned out, you're in luck. Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey will be performing The Winter's Tale beginning next week!