A great plot for an Elizabethan play was offered free last night at the Folger Library, to any Elizabethan dramatist willing to deal with complexities that Shakespeare and company avoided.
Speaking on "Elizabethan Marriage on Fiction and Fact," Giles E. Dawson related a tale of love, death debauchery and deceit which he discovered while plowing through more than 1,000 letters from two generations of a Staffordshire family, when he was curator of manuscripts at the Folger.
THe point about Elizabethan marriage, he said, is that it was "universally recognized that youths lacked the wisdom and experience required in so important a step as the choice of a wife or husband. They were likely to be influenced by passion and by such irrelevant considerations as good looks and personal charm. And the making of a suitable choice was of importance to the family, not only to the son or daughter."
But this was not dealt with in the fiction of the time, he said. "Romantic comedy simplifies the love relationship by eliminating parents, as in "Twelfth Night,' or making them ineffectual, as in 'A Midsummer Night's Dream'. 'The Merchant of Venice', and Dekker's 'Shoemakers' Holiday,' or irrelevant, as in 'As You Like It.' When parents try to force marriages, tragedy ensues, as in 'Romeo and Juliet,' Dekker, Rowley and Ford's 'Witch of Edmanton,' and George Wilkins' 'Miseries of Enforced Marriage.'"
Dawson's factual story is as follows:
When Jane Skip was about 11, her mother died, and she went to live with her cousins the Bagots, who had an 11-year-old son named Lewis. When her father re-married, she returned home, but kept in close touch with the Bagots, who lived nearby.
She wrote sweet letters to Lewis who went on to fail to distinguish himself at Oxford. "My best cousin, you shall ever find me as true as my word to you, and to let you know I am not unmindful of my promise I write these lines . . . wishing you as much happiness and content as I do myself . . . I had sent you a little box of marmalade . . . I recieved no letter from you by our carrier, which I do much wonder at because you promised me I should . . . if you knew but how welcome your letters are to me you would not be so sparing of them . . .' and so on.
Then Lewis' father found out about the correspondence, and Jane protested that she would never marry without family consent and that she would never address Lewis again.
Well, you know what that promise would be worth in Elizabethan fiction. But in fact, Jane married somebody else and lived, as far as we know happily ever after.
Lewis, while he was not sending enough of those welcome letters, was busy elsewhere with a servant-girl, Mary Bagaly, who was apparently also enamored of the cook. Mary announced that she was pregnant, but Lewis resisted pressures to marry her on the grounds that he was "contracted to another, to which he must marry if ever he married any, and that was Jane Skipwith," according to the spies that Lewis' father sent to check him out.
Just as Mary's employers were closing in on Lewis. Lewis upped and died, although we don't know of what. (That's the trouble with fact: in fiction such a detail could not have been omitted.)
Now one of the King's footman showed up and offered to marry Mary, and to "make as much of the child as if it had been his own, because so worthy a gent was the father of it."
A happy ending for a misused heroine, a poor servant dallied with by a member of the gentry? Wait. It turned out that Mary was not pregnant at all, but had been padding herself "with a great stomacher." And so the footman who had offered to forgive her sin found himself unable to forgive the lack of it.
"Such," concludes Dawson, "is the story of Lewis Bagot. What a tragedy it would have made in the hands of Thomas Heywood or Thomas Middleton!"
Yes, but would they have been capable of portraying the parents of Jane and of Lewis realistically - as sensible people of wisdom and experience, who turned out to be a lot smarter than the young hero and heroine?