1Traditionally, social history has long been focused on fundamental structures at the heart of society: margins, out of focus, tend to get forgotten. Fortunately today, these obscure zones of society have begun to arouse curiosity. More and more critics acknowledge the fact that margins have been the most fascinating of all places since the beginning of the early modern period. Anyone paying attention to the literature produced during the last decades of the sixteenth century can see that they invade Renaissance imagination. Why? The answer is twofold: partly because they attract those who seek to escape into some other world, and partly because they frighten those who feel isolated and insecure when they venture into such dangerous places. That is one of the reasons why the image of the labyrinth, whether it is attractive or repulsive, can be juxtaposed to the representation of sixteenth-century margins. As a mythic reality refashioned by the English Renaissance, the maze is first and foremost a geographical utopia, a marginal area where the translators of Ovid, Plutarch, or Pliny, could free themselves from the constraints of reality. Furthermore, be it geographical or metaphorical, it offers Elizabethans a wonderful area for invention and creativity. We may even define this mythological figure as an area where competing orientations crisscross. Encompassing an esoteric space, it is part of an aesthetics of surprise which is fully at work in Renaissance drama. Three artists, particularly concerned with creating tortuous itineraries in their plays, will help us examine the myth of the maze from various perspectives. Moving through the textual labyrinths designed by Marlowe, Peele, and Shakespeare, we will explore some of the recurrent images that invade the margins of Elizabethan theatre. These dramatic, fictional margins will then give us further insight into the blurred territories characterizing the darker reality of Renaissance England. One question will be our Ariadne’s thread to guide us towards the conclusion of our paper: can sixteenth-century margins be regarded a place for power?
2Ambiguous territories bordering the center sometimes provide a shelter to rogues and fugitives of all sorts. However, they can often be compared to places of loss, which are not always visible at first sight. Occasionally, they may be remote areas which attract and trap lovers. The twists and turns of such places form a large and complex knot, like the tightly woven net which, according to Homer, was used by Vulcan when he wanted to prove that Venus had a love affair with Mars, the god of War. Book VIII of the Odyssey, which is famous for this particular story, was the source of inspiration of many an Elizabethan artist. The myth takes on Renaissance colours, for instance, thanks to Christopher Marlowe. The labyrinthine trap of love is present in a play composed in 1586, The Tragedie of Dido. in Act 3,the net is a marginal place associated with seclusion, desire, and intimacy:
Dido: Tell me deare loue, how found you out this cave?
Aeneas: By chance sweete Queene, as Mars and Venus met.
Dido: Why, that was in a net, where we are loose,
And yet I am not free, oh would I were.
(3, 4, 998-1001)
3Aeneas tries to seduce Dido by means of carefully selected mythological hints. Quite surprisingly, in his allusion, the god of war is quoted first, appearing before Venus. While masculine authority is stressed, feminine seduction is considered as a secondary value. Aeneas, who in the end will not rise to Dido’s expectations, already betrays himself through an awkward use of mythological rhetoric. Nonetheless, love makes women blind… or deaf, we should say. The young man attracts his beloved to deviant and remote spaces, outside the public sphere. The cave, being part of a green world at the edge of society, is likely to be turned into a real snare. In metaphorical terms, Dido is also on the edge of disaster. Since she, of course, knows the story of Venus and Mars, she would like to re-write it in order to suppress the net imprisoning the lovers. And when one becomes aware that originally, the Greek word laburinthos meant “a net”, it is no real surprise that borders between the circuitous paths of a labyrinth and the twisting threads of a fatal net should prove to be so fragile.
4Marlowe is presumed to have been both an atheist and a rebel. In a world narrowed by cruelty and ambition, in which people are characterized by their wickedness, the artist’s ominous margins are pervasive.
5This is notably the case in the first part of Tamburlaine the Great, produced on stage in 1587. A chaotic daedal (maze) triumphs in the very heart of the play’s language: the maze of war paralyses and astonishes men. To put it in different terms, it literally amazes them: as a consequence, dissidents get entangled in a lawless underworld, a kind of marginal realm where riots and disorders become ordinary. Tamburlaine forges a labyrinth of agony, a word whose etymology sends us back to the Greek notion of “struggle”.In Act 1, scene 1, spectators already detect an emerging labyrinthine trap designed by Tamburlaine, the rays of light from which are intended to bring about the amazement of dangerous adversaries: “Lay out our golden wedges to the view, / That their reflections may amaze the Persians” (1, 1, 139-40). Incidentally, the role of the guide in this play is taken on by a character called Meander: to find their ways throughout life’s twists and turns, warriors would be well advised to listen to the advice of a professional Dedal…
6The remote and oblique lines of existence also constitute a key motif to understand The Jew of Malta (1590). Even though this work may be considered as a piece of high-spirited entertainment, Abigail confesses to Friar Jacomo:
Then were my thoughts so frail and unconfirm’d
As I was chain’d to follies of the world;
But now experience, purchased with grief,
Has made me see the difference of things.
My sinful soul, alas, hath pac’d too long
The fatal labyrinth of misbelief,
Far from the sun gives eternal life!
(3, 3, 65-71)
7The tone of those lines seems quite desperate. Abigail’s labyrinth must be regarded as a theological place of repulsion: its oblique paths lead to villainy and transgression. The girl, experiencing grief, is disparaging about life’s diversions, which she defines as “the fatal labyrinth of misbelief”. This expression has been carefully selected by the girl and it comes at the end of personal considerations; moreover, what strikes us here is that the only occurrence of the “labyrinth” is situated precisely in the middle of the play, thus contributing to a paroxystic moment. The speech gains much when read with the benefit of hindsight, since Abigail dies after the words: “And witness that I die a Christian” (3, 6, 40). But nowhere can the spectator hear the word “God” within the play: only human machinations, or, as Shakespeare would have it, “indirections”, matter. Abigail sincerely loves both her father and Mathias, but she is a mere puppet for them. Because she is never treated as a subject, but as an object removed from the sphere of the decision-makers, she cannot survive. However, those who have some resilience in the play fall away from central values, too: those who dominate society do not expose their bodies and minds on central public territory. The Jew remains in security insofar as he voluntarily places himself on the fringe of events. And it comes as no surprise to see that asides — marginal speeches — are Barabas’s favourite linguistic device when he intends to conceal his purposes and deceive his enemies. When he dies, in Act 5, scene 5, his end results from his dangerous position, very close to the centre of things, that is to say, to the power of the Maltese society. Significantly, he is “discovered” just after having fallen into the cauldron. The discovery place — maybe a booth, in this case — could well be seen as reminiscent of the centre of a maze garden where, after several distractions and delays, Elizabethan wanderers discover the central space around which the circuitous paths revolve.
- 1 William Cecil was known as Lord Burghley (1520-1598). Theobalds became the propriety of James I in (...)
8In fact, the serpentine gardens of the real Renaissance labyrinthine parks elaborated during the sixteenth century had a theatre-like structure; like theatres, they were experienced as substitutes for travel outside the borders of everyday life. The meanders of Theobalds, created in 1560, were probably one of the masterpieces of William Cecil’s gardens1. Cecil’s second son, Robert, had a little farm called Pymmes, and he clearly wanted to emulate his father so as to succeed in politics, too. He even proposed a horticultural programme similar to Theobalds’s, aimed at seducing the Queen. In 1591, he staged a show for one of her progresses. Obviously, to impress his audience, Robert had to speak of his own vegetal mazes, showing that he knew how to elaborate subtle, tortuous designs. Fortunately, valuable documents have survived: during the last decade of the sixteenth century, an author wrote a full discourse, a kind of propaganda, about them: George Peele, who had already contributed to many pageants and festivities for the Queen. Though his prose reflects a partial vision, it is full of vivid details. The artist uses his dramatic gift to describe an amazing, almost unreal place, staging an eccentric gardener who explains the design of an area closer to heaven than earth:
The moles destroyed and the plot levelled, I cast it into four quarters. In the first I framed a maze, not of hyssop and thyme, but that which maketh time itself wither with wondering; all the Virtues, all the Graces, all the Muses winding and wreathing about your majesty, each contending to be chief, all contended to be cherished: all this not of potherbs, but flowers, and of flowers farrest and sweetest; for in so heavenly a maze, […] the Virtues were done in roses, […]; the Grace[s] of pansies partly-coloured […]; The Muses of nine several flowers, being of sundry natures […].
- 2 George Peele, “Speeches to Queen Elizabeth at Theobalds”, part II: “The Gardener’s Speech”, in The (...)
These mingled in a maze, and brought into such shapes as poets and painters use to shadow, made mine eyes dazzle with the shadow, and all my thoughts amazed to behold to bodies2.
9A speeche made before the Queene at Tybolles conjures up remote microcosm, composed of myriads of flowering mazes. According to James M. Sutton, these marginal and wonderful spaces are not mere ornaments to please the eye. The stakes are high for Robert Cecil:
- 3 James M. Sutton, “The Retiring Patron: William Cecil and the Cultivation of Retirement, 1590-98”, (...)
The ‘maze’ of flowers described by the gardener was probably an elaborate closed knot of ‘roses’, ‘pawnces’ and other ‘sweete’ ‘sovereign’ plants. Like one of the best-known knots in the Theobalds garden, this Pymmes planting was an elaborate if transparent conceit complimenting Elizabeth and her beautiful if fractious court. The motive behind Robert’s directive to surround and protect the maze with an ‘Arbour of eglentyne’ eludes the speaker, but the meaning was clear to his listeners. Like Burghley, Robert Cecil is prepared to keep Elizabeth above the fray of bickering courtiers, and safe from the scorching ‘sonne of Spaine’. As at Theobalds, so too in Robert’s garden, close associations between the Cecil family and Elizabeth’s well-being were drawn3.
10Thus, a non-dramatic work gives us access to an authentic, though marginal place, which can be defined as an open-air theatre: a garden maze, inaccessible for the vast majority but enjoyed by a privileged elite. Even if vegetal circumvolutions appear, at first sight, to be futile ornaments, they provide an important scene of representation and power. These ephemeral, elusive labyrinths have much in common with other Renaissance areas of apparent lightness: theatres.
- 4 Penelope Reed Doob, The Idea of the Labyrinth from Classical Antiquity through the Middle Ages, 19 (...)
11George Peele is of course generally remembered for his plays. The Old Wives’Tale, published in 1595, explores folklore and nonsense. In the framework of this play, the “labyrinth” flourishes in his own right: it informs the comedy as a whole and can be considered as its thematic matrix. The play’s structural deftness owes much to its labyrinthine pattern, notably because it allows the staging of eccentric characters, belonging to fringe groups of society. T. M. Evans has already devoted a cogent study to the dramatic meanders forged by Peele, in “The vernacular labyrinth: mazes and amazement in Shakespeare and Peele”, and our purpose here is much more synthetic. At the start Peele’s comedy, three serving-men lose their way in a forest-maze and are eventually received by an old wife called Madge. Actors, entering the stage, then give a dramatic representation of her merry winter’s tale. Within her tale-become-play, the audience has to find an Ariadne’s thread through several inset narratives, playing upon a variety of genres. At one point, spectators follow the quest of Eumenides, the Wandering Knight, whose only purpose is to rescue the lady of his heart. After having heard the old man’s enigmas, he exclaims: “This man hath left me in a Laborinth” (1, 449). “Laborinth”, not “labyrinth”, is the spelling of the word as it appears in the old-spelling version of the play. This minimal difference is important because only the old-spelling version allows us to hear the alleged Latin etymology of the word. In the Middle Ages, scribes were convinced that it came from “labor intus” (“hard work to do within”)4. That this somewhat fanciful origin remained deeply rooted in Renaissance knowledge is shown by Randle Cotgrave’s bilingual dictionary edited in 1611:
Labyrinthe: m. A laborinth, maze; intricate matter.
Faire le tour du labyrinthe. To labour hard and be never a whit the neerer; also, to fall againe, after much adoe, into the matter be first handled.
12Eumenides, like the spectators, is distracted from the simple, straight path of meaning: facing a challenge, he has to interpret, to make sense of the stories he is told. He is distracted, too, from Delia, the woman he loves. Taking action from the margins, he must find the good path leading to the centre of the Laborinth. Etymologically, then, he has many labours to accomplish before gaining access to the final reward. Indeed, it seems that the playwriting techniques of Shakespeare and his contemporaries are not so much involved in central places and values as to unstable, metamorphic and marginal realms, in which characters enter and leave in their wanderings. The degree of entertainment provided depends on the protean quality of the margins.
13Of course, the dramatic treatment of marginality is more complex than it seems to be at first sight. Not only does the margin function as a space of disempowerment, it can also become the centre: Polonius’ theory of espionage in Hamlet – that one can “by indirections find directions out” (2, 1, 65) – shows that obliquity allows access to a central knowledge. Through a process of displacement, what is initially considered as marginal and unimportant eventually leads to the secrets of the human mind.
14For any Elizabethan dramatist, the peripheral in Renaissance English society – madness, prison, outcasts – is in fact central. It generates change, whereas norms produce lethargy. Drama, without dynamic values, becomes sterile and dogmatic. Ambiguous spaces reflect diversity and as such, they divert people, as Shakespeare knew it well. On the stage, divergent and abnormal characters subvert the law, refashion the world they live in, and become ephemeral heroes. Such characters could be classified in the “last sort” listed by William Harrison in his description of England, published in 1577. In a chapter called “Of Degrees of People in the Commonwealth of Elizabethan England”, Harrison underlines the fact that this category has “neither voice nor authority in the commonwealth, but are to be ruled and not to rule others”. In an other part especially devoted to “sundry kinds of punishment appointed for offenders”, it is clear that rogues and vagabonds are never to be allowed to rest in peace in their own sphere. Their social as well as geographical dislocation is controlled and stigmatised by the authorities, whose main purpose is to erase values diverging from central precepts. Through drama, Shakespeare turns reality upside down by destabilizing powerful characters and showing the itineraries followed by dissident minorities. Moreover, most of the time, he situates his political plots in the margins of the past: the gap between his contemporaries and the historical figures of his plays allows him to criticize society, developing oblique comments on the dominant power of the sixteenth century.
15Right from the beginning of his career, his plays are informed by the myth of the labyrinth, even if the word “labyrinth” only occurs twice in his plays. Interestingly, each time, it has negative connotations, and it is part of an aside. Spectators, then, become occasional confidants. In Troilus and Cressida, Thersites, the sarcastic commentator, finds himself lost “in the labyrinth” of his own “fury” (3, 2, 2). In an earlier play, namely 1 Henry VI, Suffolk, revealing his inner thoughts, alludes to the mythin the last Act:
O, wert thou for myself! – but Suffolk, stay.
Thou mayst not wander in that labyrinth.
There Minotaurs and ugly treasons lurk.
(5, 5, 143-45)
16The character takes time to consider the dedalean prison of love endangering the wooer’s life. Shakespeare does not truly innovate here. Elizabethans were generally familiar with the view that Dedal’s work was essentially a jail to incarcerate unrequited lovers. In The First set of English Madrigalls for instance, the image is exactly the same:
- 5 George Kirbye (1565-1634), The First set of English Madrigalls, London, 1597, in English Madrigal (...)
See what a maze of error,
And labyrinth of terror,
My love hath traced.
I, wretched, whom love paineth,
And true faith only gaineth,
Hope utterly disgraced,
And by disdain defaced.
- 6 See Edward Burns in his edition of King Henry VI, Part 1, London, The Arden Shakespeare (Third Ser (...)
- 7 T. M Evans, op. cit., p. 165.
17But in 1 Henry VI, the topos is refashioned in a particularly dysphoric way, for this time, the mythical background reminding spectators of Ovid’s tale is not completely erased. On the contrary, it is both emphasized and distorted: the plurality of monstrous Minotaurs increases the threatening atmosphere of the passage. Instead of finding treasures in the labyrinth, Suffolk detects “treasons” likely to bring about his fall. Edward Burns may well encourage this interpretation, since he writes “Suffolk’s primary meaning is, of course, that he is lost in a maze of transgressive erotic feeling”6. However, it might be objected that the word “maze” is not appropriate to comment on this aside. This word, much more popular than its learned counterpart, usually appears in positive contexts. In comedies, it is used quite spontaneously by characters pouring out their hearts, whereas the “labyrinth”, suited to tragedies, is generally the fruit of further reflections. T. M. Evans perceives it as a sign revealing a destructive passion, and he notes: “The Earl of Suffolk, in 1 Henry VI, restrains his lustful impulses towards the captive Lady Margaret, remembering his marital vows and his duty to her future husband the king (…)”7. In other terms, he wants to repress his sensuality: he is horrified by the prospect of becoming an outcast, edged out by the authorities. If he began an affair with Lady Margaret, his story would be considered as a betrayal. Entering the maze of love means abandoning personal ambitions. It means erring in the tortuous paths of lust, far from reason, far from power. This would be in complete contradiction with Suffolk’s political strategy.
18The play shows how cunning Shakespeare’s composition could be. Even if some key issues are not revealed until the last developments, a lot of them are made clear much sooner, thanks to minor or marginal characters, too easily forgotten by critics. Here, it is the countess of Auvergne who asks the question summing up the play as a whole: “How can these contrarieties agree?” (2, 3, 59). She articulates the problematic notion of discordia concors, whereas Talbot defines himself as a new Dedal. He is but a “desp’rate sire of Crete”, 4, 6, 54, whose words prefigure the tragic end of his son John, implicitly compared to the unfortunate Icarus. Shakespeare elaborates a paradoxical world without resting points, in which guides, ousted from power, prove too weak to conduct men in the right direction. A world in which soldiers err, in both senses of the term. Joan’s aside, “turn and turn again” (3, 7, 85), shows that straight and simple roads to victory have become mere fancies. The action itself is blocked by excessive “delays”. This term pervades the play, and René is fully aware of the danger: “Defer no time; delays have dangerous ends” (3, 3, 16).
- 8 Geoffrey Bullough, Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare, p. 73. And see Edward Burns (ed) (...)
19Thus, with the benefit of hindsight, we can see the extent to which the image of the labyrinth contributes to the meaning of Shakespeare’s play. This assumption may be reinforced by a last point: all the evidence suggests that the dramatist, when writing his plot, drew upon Edward Hall’s chronicle, The Union of the Two Noble and Illustre Families of Lancaster and York (1548). What must be stressed at this point is that Hall himself uses the myth in order to describe Talbot’s perception of his own tragic fate, just before his death. Thus, Shakespeare the reader had already found the fully developed metaphor of the existential trap: “The erle… perceyvinge the imminent jeopardy and subtile labirinth”8. Obviously, this “subtile labirinth” can be associated with the margins of life, where life edges towards death. Central places are safe, peripheral zones prove ominous. Characters who stray the meandering paths of these zones are likely to disappear quickly.
20In the medieval setting of King John, possibly written around 1596, one can also detect a figure who may be qualified as a “figure of the margins”: the bastard who, having started his life as an outcast, far from the centre of things, wanders throughout the ambages of life. Even the King of France regards the world as a gigantic maze, where all warriors fight and wander in fields of blood:
For this downtrodden equity we tread
In warlike march these greens before your town.
(2, 1, 241-42)
21Words such as “downtrodden”, “tread”, “march”, and “greens” point to the lexical field related to the maze. Men, busy with the conquest of power, are reluctant to devote their time to other central matters. Deviation becomes a strategy to follow, as if margins were gradually becoming the most important spaces of the play. Pandolph, representing the Pope, supports a dedalean way of life and proves to be a disruptive influence a long way removed from Christian ideals:
The better act of purposes mistook
Is to mistake again; though indirect,
Yet indirection thereby grows direct,
And falsehood falsehood cures, as fire cools fire
Within the scorched veins of one new burned.
(3, 1, 200-04)
22“Falsehood” appears to be one of Pandolph’s favourite weapons, and he intends to use it in order to progress in the margins of Catholic power. The “indirection” theme underlines the confusion threatening England. Everybody strays from the straight and narrow. In Act IV, even the bastard feels out of place, in spite of his long experience of marginalisation:
I am amazed, methinks, and lose my way
Among the thorns and dangers of this world.
(4, 3, 141-42)
23The centre has become virtually non existent in a word made up of perilous places. Such amazement echoes the lexicographer Thomas Thomas’s definition of the Latin “consternatus”. Thomas links the adjective to its English equivalent “amazed”: in the Dictionarum Linguae Latinae et Anglicanae, “consternatus” means “sore troubled, abashed, astonished, or amazed: desperate”.
24I would like to end this paper with the following argument: many pessimistic overtones can colour the phenomenon of amazement, when it occurs in tragic situations. When a character is lost in perplexity, he has no access to the centre of things. And in keeping with stage conventions, just a few clues can be enough to suggest the twists and turns that marginalize him.
25When Shakespeare wrote I Henry IV (1596) for instance, he selected his stage directions with circumspection. They are particularly suggestive with regard to situations of perplexity and amazement. Here is one of them, from Act 2 scene 5:
PRINCE HARRY: Away, you rogue! Dost thou not hear them call?
[As he departs] Poins and the Prince both call him.
The Drawer stands amazed, not knowing which way to go.
26Such indications, being part of the paratext, constitute in themselves a marginal zone, established on purely textual ground. Stage directions in general can be seen as fragments inserted in the main flow of a given text. But in 1 Henry IV, the marginal quality of the stage direction contaminates the content of the play: from a semantic point of view, the drawer finds himself caught in a crossfire of commands from the margins and halts, paralysed by surprise. Confronted with an “impassable path”, his experience is that of aporia. His attitude could thus be linked to one of Tilley’s numerous proverbs, “to be in the dumps” (D640): “the dumps”, a state oscillating between perplexity and depression, is equivalent to being in a maze, that is to say, of standing amazed. But if oblique ways pervade margins and seldom give us access to any centre, they are often the only path possible for those who have experienced a loss of power but nevertheless seek to live on.
- 9 I quote from A. L. Beier, “Vagrants and the Social Order in Elizabethan England: A Rejoinder”, Pas (...)
27It is easy enough to make broad generalizations about the issue of Renaissance margins; but the problem is a complex one. When artists allude to margins, these are very often depicted as labyrinthine. And when examined in Elizabethan plays, this dramatic theme charged with mythology constructs an intratextual motif which also reverberates extratextually, since the theatre in itself can be considered as a devious area. On stage, characters who put their own interests first struggle centrewards from the margins in order to obtain what they seek. However, once they have opted out, they are not left with much room to manoeuvre. About-turns and retreats are difficult. But at the same time, in these distant and tortuous areas, obliquity enables criticism and subsequently a temporary destabilisation of power. For virtuous characters, mazes allow a margin of error which cannot be found in central locations, and they generate the desire to peregrinate. They are much more restorative than the central places represented on stage. One thing is sure: as soon as characters enter these ill-defined zones, their life is radically transformed. For the spectator, dramatic labyrinths generate marginal realms and figures which make any play a collaborative imaginative adventure. Amazing margins afford space albeit minimal for interests other than those traditionally accepted by the dominant ideology. Reality has always been merciless towards outcasts, and at a time when more and more vagabonds lived either at the very margins of society or completely outside it, “people were liable to prosecution as vagrants simply for being out of work”9. Renaissance hegemonic discourse thus creates margins within which to inscribe disempowered groups. On the stage then, for a few hours, the excluded sectors of Elizabethan society can develop their own discourses of resistance, which enable them, mentally at least, to shake themselves free from the limitations imposed by conventional procedures emanating from the centre.