The Singing 'Vice': Music and Mischief in Early English Drama

The Singing ‘Vice’: Music and Mischief in Early English Drama

Maura Giles-Watson(University of Nebraska-Lincoln)

Early Theatre, 12.2 (2009): 57-90 (paper). Article 4


The ‘Vice’ — a corrupt character frequent in early English drama — engages in mischief ranging from the benignly annoying to the outright wicked. His activities typically include subterfuge that results in the seduction of the dramatic hero, other characters, and even members of the audience. Music is a frequent device in the Vice’s project. From the standpoints of Baudrillard’s theory of seduction and of sixteenth-century and contemporary perspectives on theatrical music, improvisation, acting, and ethopoieia, this essay explores the role of singing in what Robert Weimann and Douglas Bruster term the Vice’s ‘personation’. The effect of the Vice’s musicality in the representation and achievement of seduction in plays from Mankind to Shakespeare is also considered, with particular emphasis on three intervening interludes: John Heywood’s comedy A Play of the Wether, Bale’s history play King Johan, and Pickering’s pseudo-classical revenge tragedy Horestes.

Over the last half-century, scholars have extensively studied and debated the use and function of instrumental and vocal music in the English mystery plays, but music in the secular English interlude drama has yet to receive similar treatment. This is not without good reason: the subject of music in the interludes is fraught with ambiguity and uncertainty. Although the extant interludes contain many indications of song in the form of references, snatches, cues, stage directions, and even full song texts, very little scored music has been preserved in either manuscript or print. Richard Rastall’s observation with regard to music in early English religious drama might also be made of music in the interludes: ‘the surviving written music is only a fraction of that actually required in performance’. To be sure, absent musical scores and elided stage directions present special problems for the researcher.

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