Thursday, 5 January 2017

5 January, 1593 - The Jealous Comedy

Here's what Lord Strange's Men performed at the Rose playhouse on this day, 424 years ago...

Henslowe writes: ne ... R at the gelyous comodey the 5 of Jenewary 1592 ... xxxxiiijs 

In modern English: New. Received at The Jealous Comedy, 5th January, 1593 ... 44 shillings

Today was a big day for Lord Strange's Men, because they premiered their first new play of the season: The Jealous Comedy! Unfortunately, this play is now lost, but its title enables us to speculate as to its content.

Woodcut illustrating cuckoldry.
It's a fair guess that the jealousy of the title was sexual jealousy, an endlessly popular topic in the Renaissance. Possessive husbands, wayward wives, devious seducers and hapless cuckolds were stock figures in hundreds of comedies. They are all illustrated in the wonderful woodcut on the right, in which an overtly demonic seducer flirts with a wife at her door, while a giant alerts the husband at the window by blowing a horn to say 'Look out!' The house is decorated with antlers, the traditional mark of the cuckold, and the husband himself is growing little horns on his head.

It's possible that the play was set in Italy, because Italian comedy was an especially popular source for such tales. Indeed, the Italians still do this stuff better than anyone else, as can be seen in this clip from Divorce, Italian Style (1961):

But despite the popularity of its subject matter, two things indicate that The Jealous Comedy failed to delight the Rose audience. First, it received remarkably low box office for a new play. This is strange, because new plays almost always resulted in the Rose being packed with theatregoers; instead, today's play received only 44 shillings compared to the usual 60-70.

Second, the company will never perform this play again. Was it received so badly that they abandoned it? Possibly not. Later this week we'll encounter a play called Cosmo, which may be an alternate title for The Jealous Comedy. Hold that thought.

This weak debut is interesting because The Jealous Comedy does seem an outlier among the usual fare of the Rose. Most of the repertory consisted of violent dramas about war and horror, and even the comedies were of an old-fashioned English morality type. An Italian-style sex comedy may have felt out of place, since only Bindo and Ricciardo was similar. Conceivably, the company was trying to diversify their repertory by experimenting with something a little different. They may have regretted it, though.


Jealous Comedy information

  • Martin Wiggins, British Drama, 1533-1642: A Catalogue, vol. 3 (Oxford University Press, 2013), entry 945.

Henslowe links


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