The Old Law, or A New Way to Please You
|BtR reader "Wat" has very generously taken up our invitation to contribute to our Holzknecht Redivivus series. For those of you who aren't familiar with this series, you can read Simplicius's originating post.|
Wat's written up a wonderful summary of The Old Law, written (according to its title page) by Philip Massinger, Thomas Middleton, and William Rowley, probably around 1618 but not published until 1656. Some of you may be familiar with The Old Law not for the play itself but because the publisher of the 1656 edition, Edward Archer, appended "an exact and perfect Catalogue of all the Playes, with the Authors Names, and what are Comedies, Tragedies, Histories, Pastoralls, Masks, Interludes, more exactly Printed then ever before." So I suspect more scholars of early modern drama are familiar with this catalogue than with The Old Law itself, which is why we're grateful to Wat for his Holzknechtian summary, which is available on his purpose-built blog and which he's also given us permission to reprint below, for which many thanks. If others would like to contribute, just let us know: we can reprint them here or provide links to them elsewhere; if we manage to put together enough of them, I think this could be an incredibly useful resource, since if you're anything like me, you're often wondering whether certain plays might fit into a research project, but of course no one has time to read them all and find out.
The Old Law, or A New Way to Please You
Evander, Duke of Epire
Cratilus, The Executioner
Creon, Father to Simonides
Simonides, A Young Courtier
Cleanthes, A Young Courtier (the hero)
Lysander, Husband to Eugenia, and Uncle to Cleanthes
Leonides, Father of Cleanthes
Gnotho, The Clown
Butler, Bailiff, Tailor, Coachman, Footman, Cook, Servants of Creon
Antigona, Wife of Creon
Hippolita, Wife of Cleanthes
Eugenia, Wife of Lysander, Mother of Parthenia
Agatha, Wife of Gnotho
Old Women who marry Creon's servants
Fiddlers, Servants, Guard, etc.
In ancient Epire, the new Duke has passed a law that all men who reach their eightieth birthday (and all women who turn sixty), having outlived their usefulness to the state, will be euthanized. Simonides enters discussing the strength of this new law with two lawyers. He can hardly wait to get his hands on his inheritance, as two courtier friends of his have already done. Cleanthes laments the imminent demise of his father, but can find no way around the law. Creon and his wife arrive and Simonides puts on a show of grieving that today Creon turns eighty; old Creon can see through his son's feigned care. Leonides, accompanied by his virtuous daughter-in-law Hippolita, arrives and hears Cleanthes' sincere despair but accepts his fate because he has had a good life. Cleanthes and Hippolita hatch a plan to fake Leonides' death and hide him out in the countryside.
Creon and his wailing wife appear before Evander to receive the death sentence. Simonides's courtier-friends congratulate him on his inheritance. Meanwhile a gaudy funeral procession crosses the stage, with Cleanthes and Hippolita rejoicing that Leonides has passed away of natural causes rather than under the executioner's blade. Simonides dismisses his father's former servants who must shift for themselves now. Young Eugenia comes on stage; she can hardly wait to be released from marriage to her much older husband, Lysander, and accepts the flirtations of the courtiers, especially Simonides, who hope to marry her and gain her wealthy husband's fortune. Her husband scolds her and departs. Her cousin, Hippolita, arrives and mistakes Eugenia's tears for genuine sadness over Lysander's approaching death and, to comfort her, reveals the secret that Leonides is not dead but is hiding in a hunting lodge. Maybe Eugenia would want to do the same for Lysander?
Gnotho, who is married to an older wife, Agatha, tries to persuade the Clerk to amend the baptismal registry to make the date of her baptism in 1539, sixty years before the play's "present" [the play was written in 1618 however]. He meets the newly unemployed servants of Creon, explains how much profit is to be made from marrying 59-year-old widows, and wagers that he can make his fortune by marrying two in quick succession while getting rid of Agatha, who arrives and scolds Gnotho while being depressed by his determination to be rid of her. Eugenia receives the stylish Simonides and his friends, but Lysander arrives and attempts to prove his youthfulness by challenging the suitors to three feats of strength: he duels with one, out-dances a second, and drinks Simonides under the table. Cleanthes arrives, rebukes Eugenia as an undutiful wife, and scolds Lysander for not soberly acting his age. When Eugenia confronts Cleanthes, he accuses her of being a whore. To get her revenge, she heads off stage to inform Evander that Leonides is still alive.
Reveling in a tavern with a courtesan, Gnotho domineers the unemployed servants. Disguised Agatha arrives with several old women, who dance for and entertain these poor men. Cleanthes, at the hunting lodge with Hippolita, cares for Leonides. The sound of a hunting horn dismays him. Evander arrives and Leonides is discovered. Cleanthes rails against Hippolita, the only other person to know the secret. Eugenia arrives to gloat and Cleanthes argues back, but ultimately blames himself for provoking wicked Eugenia to use the information his wife had disclosed.
Empowered as magistrates, Simonides and the Courtiers dally with Eugenia, pass judgment on Lysander who has reached eighty, and then as Evander arrives, prepare to pass sentence on Cleanthes and Hippolita for helping Leonides escape his due punishment. An extended scene ensues between Cleanthes, defending conscience and filial piety, and Simonides and his crew. As Cleanthes demands that judgment be passed, Evander intervenes (this is a tragicomedy after all) to reveal that none of the old men have been executed. Further, he has passed a new law that only sons who exhibit proper respect for their fathers can inherit their property. As Simonides watches his plans go up in smoke, Gnotho arrives, dragging Agatha along to execution, with his beautiful courtesan on his arm. The fact that the old law has been repealed, a kind of test, means that Gnotho will remain married to Agatha and Creon's old servants will remain married to the old widows they'd been pursuing, though Creon will now take his servants and their new wives back into his household.