“Tragical trifles . . . darkly figured forth”

In the 15th and 16th centuries, modern imaginative literature (poetry, novels and plays) erupted out of feudal darkness at the courts of European kings and princes, for nowhere else was there the leisure to create it or the literacy to enjoy it. This is not to say that the uneducated and illiterate did not have a rich heritage of spoken and sung story and verse, one shared by educated and uneducated alike, it’s that it was not until the Renaissance that it was combined with the literatures of ancient Greece, Rome and the Middle East into elegant national literatures.

In England, however, where, unlike the other nations of Europe, the Renaissance got preempted by the Reformation, the Renaissance urge to create got so thoroughly and completely forced underground by Calvinist fears of damnation and the Devil, that it took on a most peculiar appearance. This doesn’t mean that nothing got published––though necessarily much was suppressed––what it meant was that the process of getting it published forced writers and publishers to assume an obscure and defensive posture, pretending that the work was something it wasn’t, and seemingly written by persons who apparently had nothing to lose, who were utterly unknown at Court or to anyone in London.

There was a lot more hiding going on in 16th-century English literature than just the hiding of Shakespeare’s identity. In fact, it might be stated without fear of exaggeration that the entire canon of Early Modern English literature was one long exercise in hiding––authors, central figures, publishers, patrons, printers, dates of publication, and most of all, messages, for the Reformation didn’t like the kind of messages that were emerging from the push for intellectual freedom that was the repressed English response to the European Renaissance. If the message was too obviously Catholic, too ornate, too passionate, too sexy, too ironic, too satirical, the English ministers of State wanted it toned down or better, squashed. As we puzzle out the truth about these early works of the imagination, we need to keep this in mind. There were two major issues for the censors, if it (the play, the poem, the story) was “lewd” (naughty, dirty) it encouraged audiences and readers to take serious matters like sex and hellfire too lightly; if it was too political it encouraged heresy and rebellion.

For instance, take the tag “No less pleasant than profitable” found in one form or another on almost every work of imagination published between 1540 and 1640. What on earth does that mean? If it’s got you puzzled, you aren’t alone. What it seems to be saying is that what you are about to read is not only “profitable,” that is, it will leave you wiser than you were before, it is also “pleasant,” that is enjoyable, entertaining.  In other words, it looks like a promotion, it sounds like a promotion, but it doesn’t really promote. In fact, if anything, it sounds like the kind of modest inversion for which the Brits are famous, as when a billionaire confesses that he’s not “doing too badly,” or a beautiful woman is described as “not unlovely.”

Titles can be just as confusing. As William Roberts put it in 1889: “Whether the title had an immediate or remote reference to the subject-matter does not appear to have been considered material, or, in fact, whether it had reference to anything at all in particular” (An Early History of Bookselling, 67). He’s right about the title, but this isn’t true of this or similar tags, which did have a meaning, however obscure to present day literary historians. The message it conveyed to the silent seekers of reading entertainment was that this was a work of the imagination.

It’s said that during this time, the Jesuits were training their missionaries in a sort of double-speak known as equivocation, so that if grilled by the Protestants in northern Europe or the Inquisition in Italy and Spain, they could find ways of answering without condemning themselves to their inquisitors on the one hand, or to God on the other. Many in those days believed the fate of their souls was bound up with what answers they gave under oath: if they lied to the Man they’d get burnt at the stake; if to God, they’d still get burnt, only later, and for eternity.  Equivocation was simply a more serious form of the kind of wordsmithery that was the intellectual bread and wine for an educated, progressive Elizabethan.

Where did it come from?

Usually it was not the author but the bookseller or publisher who composed a book’s title page and front matter. His primary objective, of course, was first to get it past the censor, and second to sell as many copies as possible as quickly as possible. Over time, much experimenting led to a formula that worked. A tag like “No less pleasant than profitable” met the Reformation requirement that everything, even joke books, had better advertise itself as having a serious purpose or it was in danger of getting a closer look and potential rejection. So for the publishers of the 1590s, t’were best to take the easy way: give the work a confusing name, then use the front matter to distract the censor from taking too great an interest in the content.

While some works could withstand such an examination, many, in particular those that “darkly figured forth” real persons and politics, could not. And that there was a growing audience that fed on such works is evident from the complaints by writers of attempts to read into their innocent tales personal and political comments that were simply not there. Among those who complained the loudest was Thomas Nashe, the worst offender of all, whose complaints have to be taken with the same grain of salt required by almost everything he wrote.

Human nature being much the same in every age, by the 1590s when publishing had become a commercial industry generating a considerable volume of submitted manuscripts needing to be read by the censors, what could be more likely than when the stack got too high, the junior official in charge of weeding out problematic submissions was likely to give each a quick once-over, initial and return it to the publishers, only holding out for a closer look the one or two whose title and front matter forced him to look more closely. Thus by the nineties, publishers would have been well aware that as long as the title page, introduction and first few pages looked kosher, a book had every chance of making it past the censor. Those who enjoyed these works were unlikely to blow any whistles, unless the material got so raw they they feared for their souls, or more likely were offended by satires about themselves or their friends. Some such scenario is undoubtedly behind Stephen Gosson’s attacks on the playwrights of Fisher’s Folly following the rash of plays for the Children of the Chapell, the Queen’s Men, and Paul’s Boys in the early 1580s.

Profit and pleasure

That nothing during this era was ever published purely for entertainment, but all must be utilitarian (even the most lascivious and violent, for these taught readers what to avoid) can be found in everything from the title page to the preface by the printer, to the introduction and poems by the author and his friends, to the dedication to some important figure and the various complimentary letters to the author, all meant to be taken as guarantees of the book’s legitimacy. Take it as a given, the more questionable the work, the more equivocal the introductory material, and the more likely that the names and dates on the title page might be less than 100 percent on the level.

While efforts to obscure the real nature of a work appear to get briefer and more formulaic as time went by, we can see from the preachy tone of the earliest examples the author’s, or more likely the publisher’s need to steer the censor toward acceptance. We see this clearly in this excerpt from the “Letter to the Reader” that introduces what may be the first of these early works of the imagination, Arthur Brooke’s narrative poem, Romeus and Juliet, where the theme of passionate desire would surely have caused a problem without this robust caveat:

The glorious triumph of the continent man upon the lusts of wanton flesh, encourageth men to honest restraint of wild affections; the shameful and wretched ends of such as have yielded their liberty thrall to foul desires teach men to withhold themselves from the headlong fall of loose dishonesty. So, to like effect, by sundry means the good man’s example biddeth men to be good, and the evil man’s mischief warneth men not to be evil. . . . And to this end, good Reader, is this tragical matter written, to describe unto thee a couple of unfortunate lovers, thralling themselves to unhonest desire; neglecting the authority and advice of parents and friends; conferring their principal counsels with drunken gossips and superstitious friars (the naturally fit instruments of unchastity); attempting all adventures of peril for th’attaining of their wished lust; using auricular confession, the key of whoredom and treason, for furtherance of their purpose; abusing the honourable name of lawful marriage to cloak the shame of stolen contracts; finally by all means of unhonest life hasting to most unhappy death. This precedent, good Reader, shall be to thee, as the slaves of Lacedemon, oppressed with excess of drink, deformed and altered from likeness of men both in mind and use of body, were to the free-born children, so showed to them by their parents, to th’intent to raise in them in hateful loathing of so filthy beastliness. Hereunto, if you apply it, ye shall deliver my doing from offence and profit yourselves.

It’s clear that whoever wrote this preface either had no idea what Brooke’s long narrative poem was really about, or he was deliberately describing it in ways that might ensure its publication. Rather than “thralling themselves to unhonest desire,” the love Romeus feels for Juliet is portrayed as a natural force over which neither the boy himself nor the Friar’s advice have any power. As for the Friar, not only is he not “superstitious” or a “naturally fit instrument of unchastity,” he is loving and wise, a genuine spiritual counselor, whom the poet describes as “beloved well, and honoured much of all.” Nor is there any “loathing of filthy beastliness” in his description of the young lovers’ wedding night, nor moral drawn against their desire for each other. Instead the poet admits:

I grant that I envy the bliss they livéd in;
Oh that I might have found the like, I wish it for no sin,
But that I might as well with pen their joys depaint,
. . . . .
If Cupid, god of love, be god of pleasant sport,
I think, O Romeus, Mars himself envies thy happy sort.
Ne Venus justly might, as I suppose, repent,
If in thy stead, O Juliet, this pleasant time she spent.

The only possible reason for such a dishonest preface is that either the author or the publisher wrote it to distract the censor. Published in the early 1560s, when such works were only a trickle, the same scenario continues to play out on title pages and in introductory material in almost every work of the imagination published throughout the Elizabethan and Jacobean era. As the trickle became a flood in the eighties and nineties, these red herrings got briefer and more automatic, but also more cleverly worded. Finally the reference to poetry or any sort of fiction as a frivolity appropriate only for young men before the serious matters of adult life banished such time-wasters from their minds, was a judgment heard not only from conservative Reformers and older members of society but also from the poets and storytellers themselves, who were ever wont to apologize for what they invariably describe as “childish toys” written for no other purpose than simply to pass the time.


One thought on ““Tragical trifles . . . darkly figured forth”

  1. Another magnificent entry on the mysteries of Elizabethan publishing and censorship. At least to me, the “Letter to the Reader” seems written in the voice that we will hear subsequently prefacing Cardanus Comforte. Now it seems clear: such elegant justification is not mere showy or courtly display, but ritual effort expended on “passing the pikes” of the censors (as De Vere might put it).

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