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Thursday, December 17, 2020

An interactive discussion of the play and its themes with director José Zayas, scholar Mario DiGangi, and some of the other artists involved.


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MARIO DIGANGI specializes in the drama of Shakespeare and his contemporaries, with an emphasis on gender, sexuality, and embodiment. He is the author of two books, The Homoerotics of Early Modern Drama (Cambridge, 1997) and Sexual Types: Embodiment, Agency, and Dramatic Character from Shakespeare to Shirley (Pennsylvania, 2011). He is the editor, with Amanda Bailey, of Affect Theory and Early Modern Texts: Politics, Ecologies, Form (Palgrave, 2017). He has edited three plays of Shakespeare: The Winter’s Tale (Bedford), A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Barnes&Noble) and Romeo and Juliet (Barnes&Noble).  His recent work (in A Feminist Companion to Shakespeare, 2nd ed. and Women, Sex and Gender in the Early Modern Anglophone World) develops his long-standing commitment to feminist scholarship.  His current projects address intersectionality (particularly of race and sexuality) in early modern English literature and criticism.

JOSÉ ZAYAS was born in Puerto Rico and graduated from Harvard and Carnegie Mellon Universities. He is co-Founder and Artistic Director of The Immediate Theater Company. Zayas has held residencies at numerous theaters including Repertorio Espanol, the Ensemble Studio Theater and INTAR, where he served as co-producer of the 2006 New Works Theater.  In 2007 he was selected as one of nytheater.com’s People of the Year. He is also a Drama League Fellow and an alumnus of Lincoln Center’s Director's Lab and Soho Rep Writer/Director's Lab and has received numerous fellowships including the Phil Killian, Kenneth Frankel, John Pasquin and Van Lier. He is a current participant of the 2009-2011 NEA/TCG Career Development Program for Directors.



Ana Caro was deeply familiar with the tradition in which she was writing, and this is evident in Courage. The play is often in conversation with works by some of the most celebrated playwrights of the comedia—a dramatic form that emerged during Spain’s Golden Age. The opening scene on a wild mountain channels Calderon de la Barca’s baroque landscapes, while Leonor’s long made-up story of seduction and revenge recalls the outsize tales in plays by Juan Ruiz de Alarcón. The very plot is a rewrite of Tirso’s The Trickster of Seville and closely echoes his Don Gil of the Green Breeches. Playfully conscious of its own genre, Caro’s play presents many of the conventions of the comedia only to bring them under scrutiny and even overturn them.


First popularized in folktales, the mythical Don Juan had become a familiar feature of the comedia stage, beginning with Tirso’s Trickster. Much as in the myth, in Courage Don Juan de Córdoba is a flatterer and an unfaithful narcissist, who seduces women only to abandon them once he grows tired of the affair. His betrayal of Leonor is what sets in motion the action of the play as she follows him from Seville to Brussels seeking redress for the wrong committed against her. Yet in this version Don Juan’s charm proves to be no match for Leonor’s wit, as they rival for the affection of the Countess Estela. Leonor’s male persona offers an alternative version of masculinity, admired by both men and women, in which wit prevails over force.


Like many comedias, Courage reserves a prominent role for the gracioso, a lower-class character who often acts as a comic foil to an upper-class protagonist. Courage’s two graciosos, Ribete and Tomillo, present contrasting dimensions of the traditional role, with one marked by intelligence and the other by buffoonery. With his remarkable insight, Ribete reflects on both the mores of the play and the genre to which he belongs. In one key metatheatrical moment, he objects to the conventions that would have him play the gracioso merely as foolish and fearful, and instead points out that plays often require both the servant’s buffoonery and his intelligent intervention to hold the plot together. He also encourages audiences to think about the place of female playwrights in a world long dominated by men with his news that now “even women… dare to write plays” in Madrid (ll. 1137-38).


If concern for male honor is an important feature of the comedia, as often as not it is there to be ironized. Courage takes this concern and turns it on its head. While Don Juan despairs over his perceived lost honor with long melodramatic speeches, Leonor orchestrates an elaborate plan of revenge to restore hers. This departure from more conservative plots that portray women as in need of a male savior is signaled from the very beginning. Although the opening scene suggests the story will follow a well-trodden path, as Don Juan swoops in to save the helpless Estela from danger, everything changes when Leonor enters the stage. Our hero, the scene makes clear, is no longer Don Juan de Córdoba, and the female protagonist is more than capable of defending herself.

The Courage to Right a Woman’s Wrongs is an engaging reflection on gender and genre that poses important questions about the conventions that dictate modes of living and writing. In undoing and reshaping those conventions, it dares to envision alternatives that open a space for female agency. 



For many twentieth-century critics, A King and No King (1611) is the prime example of a Beaumont and Fletcher play: a certain kind of sensationalistic, artificial, and amoral tragicomedy that depicts extreme sexual scenarios and provides implausible resolutions for seemingly intractable problems. In The Pattern of Tragicomedy in Beaumont and Fletcher (1952), Eugene Waith finds in A King and No King all the defining formal characteristics of seventeenth-century tragicomedy, including stylized language, intricate plots, protean characters, and a focus on strong passions. For other critics, scandalous themes and exaggerated characters make tragicomedy a “decadent” genre, a falling off from the tragic grandeur and dignified romance of late Shakespeare. Writing in 1960, Robert Ornstein compared Fletcher’s thematically daring plays not to the edgy, urbane drama of Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller but to Hollywood hackwork that indulged the “housewife’s escapist desire for romance and adventure.” More recent scholarship has taken tragicomedy more seriously, illuminating how Beaumont and Fletcher engaged with pressing contemporary social and political issues such as militarism, monarchical government, and changing gender roles. Still, A King and No King remains something of a curiosity. 


To begin with, the play’s title poses a riddle: are the “king” and “no king” two antithetical figures, or, paradoxically, one and the same figure? A few lines into the play, the soldier Mardonius describes King Arbaces as a collection of antithetical traits: “vainglorious and humble, angry and patient, . . . in extremeties, in an hour.” Arbaces speaks in the conquering, boastful idiom of Marlowe’s Tamburlaine, the grandiloquent conqueror, but Arbaces is also a ridiculous figure, squabbling with foolish inferiors such as the cowardly Bessus and subject to “wild moods.” At the end of this scene, Arbaces suddenly shifts from merry banter into bitter lament when revealing that his mother, Arane, has once again attempted to assassinate him. Arane and Gobrius, the Lord Protector, share some kind of secret knowledge about a “plot” involving Arbaces; while the playwrights hint that the discovery of this plot will end “happily for all,” they ratchet up tension and mystery by letting events take their queer course.

The central complication of the plot unfolds when Arbaces, returning home after years away at war, encounters his sister, Panthea, and refuses to recognize her as such. In a rant typical of the Renaissance tyrant, Arbaces compares his power to that of the sea, which “is to be obeyed / And not disputed with,” and simply decrees that Panthea is no longer his blood relation. Arbaces’ futile assertion of his temporal power against the authority of nature is, we soon learn, a consequence of incestuous lust. At this point, the tone of the play darkens, as Arbaces struggles with the sinful yearning that, as king, he has the power to bring to fruition. Yet even at the height of Arbaces’ political and spiritual crisis, the playwrights deflate the tragic mood, bringing in Bessus cheerfully to offer his services as pander to the king’s sister, and, if he has a mind to it, to his mother as well. 

Critic Philip Fisher writes that “wonder occurs at the horizon line of what is potentially knowable, but not yet known.” At the end of the play, having discovered that his love for Panthea is not technically incestuous, Arbaces is filled with joyful wonder, the emotion most often associated with the strange reversals and revelations of romance. By hinting at a comic ending that is on the horizon yet withholding from us the means by which it can be accomplished, Beaumont and Fletcher allow us to experience the wonder of a skillfully managed plot.

Mario DiGangi | Professor of English, Lehman College and the Graduate Center, CUNY



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