‘Black Ugly Death’: Locrine, crocodiles, and my take on #NaNoWriMo

Yesterday, I said I would, for the next 10 days, be working through Shakespeare & Others: The Collaborative Plays. Not a big challenge perhaps but committing to a play a day is exciting and so far I’m discovering how little time it really takes to read it in one sitting (with obligatory tea breaks of course), and most importantly it’s fun to discover new plays, or new-to-me plays.

It’s a bit like my take on #NaNoWriMo – which for those not in the know is an international novel writing month every year where writers and those who want to write are challenged to write a novel in a month, that’s just under 2000 words a day, and zoom come the end of November you’ll be done. For more on this check it out here. I know I know that’s not what I’m doing but I have taken up the challenge a little just with a dash more reading and considerably less words to write. Oh and, you know it’s not a novel. Ok fine, perhaps I’m jumping on the “be challenged” bandwagon, but why not! But back to play and day #2. Because true to word, or almost. I read Locrine on Sunday. In reality I finished the last couple of scenes off this morning (I realise that’s partially cheating but it hit two last night and I  had to call a night – fear not I’m not going to slack off and skip today’s play. Edward III is tonight’s entertainment. Though first I’m off to see The Witch of Edmonton over in Stratford. It’s turning into a very renaissancey day. The best kind of days).

Hands up who’s read, seen or even heard of Locrine. Yep, I thought that might be the case, I’ll be honest before I read the contents of this big RSC collection I’d not heard of it either, it hadn’t even cropped up in criticism. Which is a real shame, it’s a cracker and you can see so many bits of Shakespeare’s plays in embryonic form as King Lear, Henry V and bits of many other of his canon start to make their presence. A quick Google search pulls up a few copies of the text online and a trusty Wikipedia page but not a huge range of resources. That said it’s probably really well known in Shakespeare and Apocrypha and I’m just displaying my ignorance. In fact a quick flick to the back of Shakespeare & Others reveals an interview with James Wallace who staged Locrine as part of the Globe’s Read not Dead series back in 1999 which gives some interesting insights in the adaptation of the play from page to stage.

Anyway, it’s a good’un and I’m pleased I set aside the time to read it. A bit like Arden of Faversham the title leaves little to the imagination as to the contents of the play:

THE LAMENTABLE TRAGEDY OF LOCRINE, the Eldest Son of King Brutus Discoursing the Wars of the Britons and Huns with their Discomfiture: the Britons Victory with their Accidents and the Death of Albanact. No Less Pleasant than Profitable. Newly Set Forth, Overseen and Corrected by W.S.

If the strapline “no less pleasant than profitable” doesn’t grab you nothing will.. unusual advertising to say the least.

Each act begins with a dumb show, explained for the dumber still (myself included) by Até. Dumb shows in this play usually reference Greek myths before saying our tragedy is like this but worse. Ate the goddess of ruin, folly and revenge is hardly likely to bring good tidings of great joy. Sorry to disappoint. The play opens with an aging king and many a-happy image of death. The king weak in old age decides to divide his kingdom between his three sons, sound familiar King Lear lovers? There’s even a splash of Henry IV part 2 in there.

Like the manhood/manliness I found in Arden of Faversham it was also dotted about in Locrine like Brutus’s “courage of my manly mind” how I wonder is this distinct from a womanly mind, it certainly suggests greater power.

We also hear a bit of Corineus’s back story (he’s important later in the play) and he apparently fought “with a furious Gogmagog” which I misred initially as Gollywog. Gives quite a different impression. I mean can you imagine fighting with someone like this? Totally Un-PC of course but it was mere word association or poor reading on my part.

 

Back to Brutus (the father – no I’m not getting confused with Julius Caesar) who gives his kingship to his eldest (surprise surprise) aka Locrine who he pitches as

The column of my family

And only pillar of my weakened age

High praise indeed, though it does immediately set him up for disaster, he’s got a lot to live up to. But Locrine agrees to follow in his father’s footsteps. Not only does he win place as king he also gets a wife thrown into the mix, Gwendolyn. Not that she gets any choice in the matter of course, a bit like the war-prized Katherine of Henry V. She yields to Brutus and her father, “he to whom [she] must obey” before she comes out with some simply brilliant lines. Which describe women, sneaky women, well especially mistress Arden..

I will not stand aloof from off the lure

Like a crafty dame that most of all deny

That which they most desire to possess

A “I couldn’t possibly” but actually can’t help myself kind of attitude, is captured in these cryptic lines.

Brutus speaks in metatheatrical manner as he paints the life Locrine is to live, “thy part is on the stage” Locrine must “bear the person” for the role of a king is burdensome and involves putting on new dress.

Son number 2, Cumber (aka Mummy’s boy) is given land in the South and Son number 3 – the baby of the family and a real daddy’s boy – Albanact is given land in the North. Soon after Brutus pops his clogs.

The sons of course are far from happy at their father’s death, I really like the language that Locrine uses to describe this heart-renching event:

Accused stars, damned and accursed stars

To abbreviate my noble father’s life

Beautiful and tortured all at once.

Probably my favourite character of the play, and the lead of the comic subplot enters next, it’s Strumbo and he burns “in love”, trying to write wooing words to win the lady who has caught his attention (Dorothy) he dispatches a letter to her by way of his servant Trompart. This reminds of Love’s Labour’s Lost as does the action that follows. Dorothy comes rushing in and Strumbo speaks with contrived speech to her, lamenting his learning “my great learning is an inconvenience to you” (this is of course a joke – but made me think of the difficulties academics and experts in their field can sometimes find with explaining it to anyone, not of course limited to academics by any means). Strumbo is in fact a con as he confesses to the audience his wooing technique

If any of you be in love, provide ye a cap-case full of new-coined words and then shall you sson have the succado de labres and something else

Next act is up and Ate’s back again followed by the enemy, that’s Humber, Hubba, Estrild & Co (i.e. an army great in number). They’re invaders and seek to take over Albanact’s land. Albanact tries to take on Humber and Co, though they are unphased by this. Hubba wants to assert his strength and take down Albanact himself.

Before we see how this story pans out we flick back to the subplot and the cobblers, Strumbo, Trompart and Dorothy (who Strumbo has now wed). The enter singing but the entry of the Captain and his news that the two men must be conscripted is even more jarring given the comedy and joviality which precedes his arrival.

Back to the battle and Thrasimachus heads out to check out the enemy for Albanact, meanwhile Strumbo and Trompart make a right old racket. They moan about losing their houses and then ungrately request not houses by the castle as offered by Albanact but one’s closer to the pub. He agrees and this indicates his generous nature. Afterwards Humber and Albanact fight and there’s even a line about tennis balls (which the notes suggest are part  of the imagery of fortune as a game of tennis but all I could think of were the tennis balls later in Henry V clearly I had that play on the mind).

Albanact loses, curses fortune before running himself through with his sword. He urges others to revenge his death.

Stumbo also claims to be dead.

Act 3 and another dumb show featuring a crocodile, poisoned by an adder as he stretches following a good meal. Don’t believe me? Check out the play!

The happy refrain of the play also appears for the first time in this act “all our life is but a tragedy”. This certainly seems to be true for many in the play.

Locrine is told of his brother’s death and in a somewhat strange mourning fashion he compares his grief to other classical figures before declaring that he is of course the best and more sincere mourner ever. Corineus tells him to stop being a cry baby, buck up and revenge his murdered baby brother. Actually he compares him to a woman as well a baby urging him to quell his “childish sobs and womanish laments” (it’s sad I think that we associate the expression of emotion as intrinsically bad, and also something only children and ‘weak’ women do. This is neither true nor a healthy attitude. Whatever your age or gender you should be free to express how you feel especially in times of grief I think, though bragging a la Locrine is of course not the way forward. See I told you this play had modern themes. The 21st Century is since stuck in the renaissance.. So much for making things new. In true modernist and renaissance sentiment).

Cumber offers Locrine his army in support of a revenge mission. Meanwhile back at the battlefield Humber assesses the land and is joined by the Ghost of Albanact who enters “unseen” – as you surely would expect from a ghost. He curses Humber and seems very much like the ghosts that haunt Richard in Richard III. Humber gets wind of the approaching Britons and looks to the stars for help.

Back to the subplot and it seems Strumbo’s been busy. Oliver wants to know if Stumbo will marry his daughter as he’s slept with her. He refuses like the true gentlemen that he is. Margery (the women in question) fights with him and he relents (this of course like the rest of the subplot is a parody of the main plot and the threads and relationships located there especially with Locrine). And yes he’s already married (reminds me of The Witch of Edmonton and the two wives in that play for one man). Clearly she wears the pants. He is mad at himself and uses some pretty explicit words to express his anger at his inability to control his lusty desires.

Oh codpiece, thou hast done thy master: this it is to be meddling with warm plackets

Back to the battle and Locrine calls on fortune to help win the revengeful war. Some fighting, and Humber enters speaking a line which is later to reappear almost verbatim in Richard III and also is suggestive of the ghostly presence permeating Hamlet as if things weren’t bad enough, “we must be tormented now with ghosts.” As the ghost of Albanact enters who cries “Revenge, revenge for blood.”

New act and new dumb show revealing Locrine falling in love with Humber’s concubine Estrilda after his murdering of Humber, dirty deeds facilitated through death with Locrine orchestrates. It’s just like the adulterous King David who spies that women bathing au naturale back in the Bible. There follows a very bloody narrative, solidiers fighting over who found Estrilda first and Corineus threatens Locrine urging him not to pursue his lusty desires as he warns “blood and revenge shall light upon thy head”

Back to the subplot and Strumbo has some make-up sex, as he thanks his “manhood” and “strength” (back to that manhood thing again). And gives advice on how to handle arguments in relationships, advocating love-making as the way forward speaking from experience of course, of a time when he “delighted [his woman] so with the sport [he] made” that he successfully “banished brawling forever”. Well that’s certainly one approach. This is no help to his companion Humber of course who mistakes Strumbo for Mercury in “clownish shape” as he eyes up Strumbo’s meat.

Meanwhile back with lusty Locrine we find he’s hidden Estrilda. Flashing back to Humber who’s still kicking about in a cave somewhere (a bit like Poor Tom of King Lear) but not for long he finally throws himself into the river (which given the talk of rivers of blood earlier in the play seems rather fitting). The ghost of Albanact rejoices and heads off to tell his father in the underworld.

New act time, Gwendolyn has heard about the new lady in Locrine’s life and she’s not a happy bunny. Well Corineus did warn him (incidentally Corineus has now died). Angry at being usurped as his wife she museters her brother’s army. Ignorant of this Locrine moves Estrilda into Gwendolyn’s chambers and doesn’t seem to care much for the death of Corineus. Thransimachaus curses him and ends up being banished by Locrine.

The son of Locrine and Gwendolyn also pipes up in defence of his mummy sad that daddy has hurt her.

Locrine thinks it a joke when Gwendolyn arrives with an army in tow, in a brief interlude the ghost of Corineus enters bring with him stormy climes which exemplify the unnatural nature of Lucrine’s deeds with Estrilda. He is a greedy chap, not happy with battle victory he had to take the woman of the bloke he’d just murdered. I mean really!

Revenge it seems is order of the day and the “filthy lusts” of Locrine must be dealt with, he is pushed back by Gwendolyn and her army (female empowerment I think so – a bit like the Margaret of the Henry VI plays. Scared of becoming a “laughing stock” (which frankly should be the least of his concerns) Locrine like his younger brother kills himself and in Romeo and Juliet fashion so does Estrilda.

They “welcome death” having repented of their “foul sin” in true renaissance play fashion. At least they save Gwendolyn a job, as does their daughter who after hearing about the horrible death Gwendolyn has planned for her throws herself to the river (just like Humber). She’s filled with revenge spurred on by her fathers ghost (Hamlet bells anyone..) but they’re done the dirty work for her.

This play which speaks of “fickle fortune” and the way in which

In a glass we plainly see

That all out life is but as tragedy

(I told you it was happy stuff). Closes with the same goddess who opened it and a warning to all, here’s the opening of the closing peroration in full. It’s a great synopsis of much of the action.

Lo! Here the end of lawless treachery,

Of usruption and ambitious pride,

And they that for their private amours dare

Turmoil our land, and set their broils abroach,

Let them be warnedby these premises.

Beware of letting women and lusty or love filled desires dictate civil and political policy, Locrine warns.

Thus this is a bloody, revenge filled, bitter feelings, fateful lusty desires, and deathly scented tragedy. Much more gruesome than much of the modern horror churned out by the movie industries. All in all a great play. If I’ve grabbed your attention and you can’t wait to read the play either dash down to your local bookstore and pick up a copy of Shakespeare & Others: Collaborative Plays or check it out on Gutenburg here. Tomorrow it’s Edward III.

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About Sarah Waters

I'm a PhD student at Oxford Brookes University researching female melancholia in Early Modern medicine, drama, and its resonances with our understanding of female depression today. I also have research interests in Shakespeare, Renaissance literature, Children's Literature, CS Lewis, and The Inklings.
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9 Responses to ‘Black Ugly Death’: Locrine, crocodiles, and my take on #NaNoWriMo

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