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Thursday, September 20, 2007

Violent Ekphrasis and Rape: William Hemings, The Fatal Contract, A French Tragedy

Going above and beyond the call of blogging, Spurio, everyone's favorite purveyor of bumbasted legs, has graced us with another entry in our ongoing Holzknecht Redidivus series. This time she has tackled William Hemings's The Fatal Contract, and, yes, if you're wondering, it is that William Hemings, the son of the Shakespeare First Folio editor, John Hemings (or "Heminge" or "Heminges"; William was John's ninth child and third son, and no one is sure of the "proper" spelling of their surname). This play was written around 1639, and if you love old French kings, female revengers disguised as black eunuchs, not to mention violent ekphrasis and rape, then this is a play for you.

There are something like 836 plays in Greg's Bibliography; we've now done five, so just 831 to go.

I present to you, Spurio....


The Fatal Contract, A French Tragedy, by William Hemings, "As it was Acted vvith great Applause by her Majesties Servants" (London, printed 1653). Based on the note prefacing it, it seems to have been published posthumously.

The only edited edition I've found is by Anne Hargrove (Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute Publications, Western Michigan University, 1978); its introduction could be subtitled, "How Hemings is not quite Shakespeare though he obviously wants to be," and the footnotes are the incredibly helpful type along these lines: "In this line Hemings uses the word 'and' -- a quick search of the Shakespeare Concordance shows that Shakespeare himself used the word 'and' in numerous plays, but Hemings's use achieves none of the same subtlety or transcendence as that of the great WS." [This is a slight exaggeration.]

This play is distinctive for featuring a female revenger -- and not only a female revenger, but a female revenger who disguises herself as a black eunuch! Other notable features include violent ekphrasis and a ridiculous number of meta-textual references to rape (appropriate, given the driving action of the play is the rape of the wonderfully named Crotilda). I think this is one of the plays that Fredson Bowers had in mind when he described the revenge tragedy tradition as "dissolving." In case all this isn't enough of a ringing endorsement, a summary is given below.

Dramatis Personae

Childerick -- an old King of France

Fredigond -- the queen

Clotair -- "the young King," son of the King

Clovis -- "the Monsieur," younger son of the King

Landrey -- favorite to the Queen, promoted to Duke of France and Mayor of the Palace

[Old] Brissac -- an old peer of France

Charles -- Brissac's son

Lamot and Dumain -- two banished lords, brothers

Martell, Bourbon, and Lanove -- noblemen of France, friends of the banished lords

Crotilda -- disguised as Castrato the black eunuch, sister to Lamot and Dumain

Attending Lords and Ladies

"A Cardinall for the state, when Aphelia is to be beheaded."

Six Young Men -- to bear a hearse

Six Guards

A Headsman


A Page to Brissac

A Lackey

Act 1

Lamot and Dumain enter, "like souldiers," and complain about the fact that soldiers are treated so badly by the people they protect. Dumain, complaining of the cold climates in which they fight, delivers my favorite line in the play: "I have lain down a man and rise[n] a snow-ball." Landrey, the queen's favorite and a "gilded flesh-flie" comes on long enough for Lamot and Dumain to trash-talk him. Castrato the Eunuch comes in, and drops a bag of gold and a letter from the queen.

The queen and eunuch come in, and the queen waxes evil: one of her sons (Clotair) raped the fair Crotilda, and one of Crotilda's family killed the queen's brother (Clodimir) by mistake. To make up for this, the Queen is killing the entire extended family of Crotilda, and to add that extra spice of creepiness, she has a kind of family portrait where she paints in new family members as she kills them off. The queen talks to the portrait, mocking the women who she has de-tongued and de-handed (very Tamara of her), then starts stabbing the painting. She then sobers up and reveals to Castrato her plan to poison the King and frame Lamot and Dumain, Crotilda's brothers.

Clovis and Aphelia love one another; Clotair enlists Castrato to help him get to Aphelia first. The King dies and Clotair becomes king; Lamot and Dumain are blamed but escape.

Act 2

Old Brissac frets about his daughter (Aphelia)'s absence. Castrato sets up Aphelia to be raped, leaving her with a copy of Ovid's tale of Philomel to read while Clotair sneaks up on her. Everything is very metatextual and clever as Clotair sneaks up on her, comparing himself to Tarquin. Clotair is originally overcome with her fairness and exits having decided not to rape her, but changes his mind and comes back.

Clovis comes in and attempts to stop the rape, and Castrato sounds an alarm. The Queen comes in and, finding the two brothers at arms, tries to provoke them into killing one another. Clotair stabs Clovis, who is carried off as a corpse.

The queen tells Landry how great an actress she is, then proposes that the two of them go and "Act" some "old Playes" in bed (kinky)!

Act 3

Castrato sets the queen's chamber on fire to smoke the two lovers out, but the queen disguises Landry as Clovis's ghost. "Clovis the ghost" pretends that only Aphelia's death will put him to rest (the queen wants her two sons and Aphelia dead so that she and Landry can rule). Clotair obligingly commands that Aphelia be executed over Clovis's hearse, but then Castrato clues him in to the trick.

Dumain has gathered forces to invade the castle; he says that Lamot has disguised himself as a surgeon, and that when Clovis's body was sent to him to be embalmed he was discovered to still be living and cured.

Clotair, instead of sacrificing Aphelia, weds her as his queen. Clovis, poised to make a grand entrance at his own funeral and be very melodramatic, speaks up too late, and instead is very melodramatic about the access he will no longer have to Aphelia's body. He plans to revenge himself on Aphelia by making Clotair think she sleeping with Landry, and gets Castrato to help.

The queen tells Castrato that she plans to spend the night with Landry; Castrato tells Clovis.

Act 4

The ladies bustle Aphelia in to prepare for bed, and Castrato goes to the king with a letter, faked to look like Aphelia's handwriting addressed to Landry as a lover. The king becomes jealous.

Clovis appears to his mother and Landry -- who are in the midst of heavy poetic flirtation -- as the ghost of the dead king, and the queen confesses to poisoning him then faints. Landry takes up the king-ghost disguise to get past the guards, but gets knocked out by a saucy, sauced guard and gets captured anyway. Clovis delivers up the queen and Landry to Castrato for punishment, and prepares to meet Dumain and his forces and overthrow his brother.

Act 5

Castrato, formerly everyone's lackey, shows his evil side. He has been starving the Queen and Landry, and finally brings them poisoned food and wine; Landry escapes with a hidden dagger, but is weak and overpowered by Castrato, who sits on him then stabs him.

Clotair comes on weeping at Aphelia's putative falseness; Castrato eggs him on and they bring Aphelia out and bind her to a chair; Castrato "much sears her breast." Soldiers come on and report that Clovis is invading, and Clotair realizes the game is up and asks Castrato to kill him.

Castrato gives the evil villain speech, revealing the corpses of the queen and Landry. Clotair realizes that Aphelia has not been false, but has given Castrato all his weapons. Castrato is unable to deliver the fatal blow, however, and Clotair wounds him mortally. Castrato reveals himself to actually be the ravished Crotilda in disguise! Yes, the ravished woman has been in disguise the whole play as a Machiavellian, castrated, black man! Her brothers, who have forced their way into the castle, speak of her nobleness and are impressed that her revenge was better than theirs; Clotair laments his ravishing and comes near death for his remorse; Aphelia, despite the much-searing of her breast, describes Crotilda as worthy of praise. It is implied that Clotair, Crotilda, and Aphelia are going to die and Clovis will be king, and all ends with a rhyming couplet and a dead march.

 Scribble some marginalia

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