Henry Medwall’s Fulgens and Lucres is a play that is located between the late Christian moralities of the early Tudor period and the later traditions of “academic drama” of the early modern period. Where the earlier drama primarily concerns itself with Christian moral education and the mythography of early Christian narrative – Fulgens and Lucres uses a classical narrative from Roman literature as an exempla of Christian moral practice
The play opens with Dramatis Personae: A and B – who are not only characters in the play (as servants to Gayus and Cornelius) but also spectators within the play who announce the forthcoming drama and watch the play themselves (Walker 307). While this is nothing innovative in the history of early theater – especially noting my earlier post on The Knight of the Burning Pestle.
Initially – I found myself fascinated after reading Mary Beard’s interpretation of the Rape of Lucres – which I mistakenly assumed to be the same Lucres between the two works. While being quite short in length – Beard’s work is incredibly dense and strikes at some of the worst enduring misogynistic cultural practices of western democracy. She refers to Lucres’ narrative as being one of a handful of Classical narratives in which women are allowed to speak, however and importantly, she notes that the only instances in which women are given the power to speak in these narratives are when they are “victims and martyrs” (13) and, less frequently, when they speak in defense of their “homes, their children, their husbands or the interests of other women” (16) . I don’t think it’s a secret that the Classical tradition is often overwhelmingly misogynistic, patriarchal and overall geared towards a society steeped in warfare and men who talk over each other. There are obvious exceptions – Aristophanes’ Lysistrata stands out the most here – (and arguably Medea). My question is – can these works in any way be read as empowering for our understanding of women in Classical mythology and narrative? I like to think that Medea is a badass who takes off in a dragon chariot in revenge of all the shitty men she has put up with. I am also a cis-gendered man writing this – so I do not have an answer. Having first in mind the disgusting narrative of the Rape of Lucrece – I was surprised to find this play to be one with a heroine who exerts a higher degree of autonomy over her affairs. Tho this really shouldn’t surprise me with reference to medieval literature (Christine De Pizan’s Book of the City of Ladies, The Book of Margery Kempe, and of course Chaucer’s Wife of Bath’s Tale – to name a few).
Turning to Medwall’s play – Fulgens and Lucres is a farcical narrative – with “A” and “B” adding comic relief. A is more of a “rustic” type of figure whereas B is “finely dressed (Walker 308) and acts accordingly. The two still function as comical “servant” characters – who banter about the happenings of the higher class characters in the play and bonk each other over the head. The two suitors to Lucres, who these characters serve, mimic the banter of A and B in more “serious” manners. Overall – I found this an odd play to read – and one that would undoubtedly be more accessible once staged. As has been argued elsewhere – the comic episodes serve an important narrative function in that they sustain the audience’s interest in the rest of the play – even if not entirely enjoyable themselves.
I really enjoyed the sequence where Ancilla, a servant to Lucres, runs into B – who is just way too forthright in his desire. Ancilla responds to his advances with a resolute “No, no , I wolde have an other knave!” (L867). B is condescending overall and begins to tell her that he is “good and honest” (891) and is looking out for nothing but her “wele” (891). Ancilla is far too smart for this – and questions – “how” (894) he thinks exactly that he is looking out for her well – a thing he sarcastically comments that she “can not se” (895). Anyhow – I too would have another knave than this one if this is how they express romantic interest! He leaves off with the misogynistic remark that he could find “as pretty a woman as ye be….for moche les wagis and hyre” (927-8). For those not familiar with this older form of English – he’s being an idiot and referring to the fact that he could find a prostitute for cheaper and less effort than Ancilla. He later tries to kiss her and exclaims “The Devyllis torde! / The man is madde, I trowe” (L995-6). He is mad. I wish someone would take him away.
Later in the play – before the final act – A and B enter to perform a “bace-daunce” (1810) for the audience that is apparently “after the gyse of Spanye” (in a Spanish style) (1811). B brings in a tamboyrne and hopes that Cornelius will not bring in a “pype” (1818) which he undoubtedly has to annoy B anyways. a group of dancers and minstrels enter at this time to play music and dance for the audience (Walker 339). Gayus then enters and asks the entertainers to get back to “the matter we came for” (1842). Get back to the play you lugs!
Generally – Lucres is under the influence of her father Fulgens – a roman senator who is prodding her to marry either Gayus or Cornelius, unlike the absent father of the Merchant of Venice, his daughter is allowed to choose for herself whom she wants to marry and “what so ever sentence” (L1857) she declares her judgement to be. Cornelius declares to her that whatever she chooses (Do what thyng ye wyll) (L 1991) and he will “have to support” (1991). Even though he makes an overly lengthy plea to her – Lucres will make the decision and he will live with it. Thank bloody god. Could some early modern Shakespearean “heroes” take note of this, please? Anyhow – he proves himself an idiot when he starts to insult the “poore degree” of Gayus who will without doubt in this sort of narrative prove to be the worthy suitor. The lower the class (but not too low! no paupers in this story for Lucres), the more virtuous it seems – according to her judgement which declares that by Gaius’ virtue – she will choose him (2188). Anyhow Lucres gives up a fair degree of autonomy when she declares to Gaius Flaminius that “to hym onely I shall my self apply / to use in wedloke at his commaundement) (2226-7). Damnit. She could have easily kept it after the degree of self confidence and autonomy she has demonstrated over the course of the play.
This marks the last of my Tudor morality play posts for a little while – expect something on medieval poetry in the coming month or so. There’s so much to the middle ages that often gets muddled in the crap. I hope my posts continue to demonstrate the complexity and range of expression in the late middle ages – to write against the faulty historiography of “renaissance” historiography and its ideological fault-lines. While this play fits in with the study of early modern drama – I hope that, implicitly through discussion, to demonstrate the colorful and vibrant nature of “what came before” BigMan Shake-Man (Will).
Until next time.
- Title page of Fulgens and Lucrece from a woodcut version in the collections of the Huntington Library, San Marino, California. Image from http://www.stage-door.com/Theatre/2014/Entries/2014/11/11_Fulgens_and_Lucres.html
- Dating the play to 1497 is based off of Pamela King’s estimation in “Morality Plays” (262)
King, P. (1994). Morality plays. In R. Beadle (Ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Medieval English Theatre (Cambridge Companions to Literature, pp. 240-264). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Print.
Walker, Greg, and Henry Medwall. “Fulgens and Lucres.” Medieval Drama: an Anthology, Wiley, 2011, pp. 305–348. Print.