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Broadcast LIVE on 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’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.



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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