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Genre Trouble in Early Modern English Writing (1500–1800)

“His Comedie unto his Theatre”: Genre in the Early Modern Dramatic Epilogue

« “His Comedie unto his Theatre” : le genre dans l’épilogue dramatique de la première modernité »
Emily Smith


Cet article suggère que le concept multiforme de « genre » est un outil fructueux pour examiner les conventions complexes des épilogues dramatiques du début de l’époque moderne. Les épilogues dramatiques offrent une perspective unique, puisqu’elles permettent à la fois de réfléchir à la conclusion de la pièce, ainsi qu’anticiper sa réception. En utilisant l'analyse de corpus, cet article examine comment les épilogues créent un genre formel en soi, mais contribuent également à la conceptualisation générique dans les pièces de théâtre de manière plus générale. Il conclut que les épilogues sont profondément intertextuels dans deux sens : en tant que genre à part entière, et en tant que commentateurs d’œuvres spécifiques.

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  • 1 A “Say Master” of the “Mint within the Tower of London” is named in a 1604 Charter (Grant-Francis 1 (...)

1“Gentlemen, I am no Epilogue,” begins an address entitled “Epilogue” in James Shirley’s The Doubtful Heir (Shirley 1652, sig. F6r). What in this epilogue forces text and speaker to stake such contradictory claims? The epilogue speaker, the Captain in the play’s earlier action, continues in a conventional manner by soliciting the audiences’ “opinion of the Play” in purely pecuniary terms: asking whether it is “current,” can be trusted without “a say-master to autorise it,” and whether the lines are “sterling” and “hold […] weight” (ibid.).1 After thirteen lines of this seemingly dispassionate and objective weighing of the play, however, the speaker suddenly significantly modulates his register to request that the audience “tell me faith / How do you like the Captain? ha?” (ibid). Capitalising on his identification with the “Captain” of the play, the epilogue speaker shifts the mode of detached judgement into a literally embodied and emotionally involved discussion. Rather than the objective criticism associated with monetary transaction, he now stresses the interpersonal relationships which have been built between his character and the audience: “I’l tell you, y’are my friends,” he insists. The final lines of the epilogues then jest that the Captain / epilogue speaker “hath vow’d to press, and send […] to the Wars” any audience member who receives him ill (ibid.). Yet an emphasis upon the affective potential of the address is, like a call for the audience to judge the play, also a frequent feature of early modern dramatic epilogues. The reason why this epilogue may indeed be “no Epilogue,” then, may lie in its unconventional combination of conventional elements. This article elaborates the conventions which underpin early modern epilogues by exploring their interaction with genre in two senses. It will first examine how these epilogues function as a discrete genre in themselves, before turning to consider how they position themselves in relation to theatrical genres more broadly.

2The concept of genre is notoriously slippery. Even David Duff’s impressively concise definition of the term as “[a] recurring type or category of text, as defined by structural, thematic, and/or functional criteria” necessarily admits multiple possibilities (Duff [2000] 2014, xii). As the OED notes, a “genre” may be based upon shared characteristics of “form, style, or purpose” (“genre, n.” 2022, 1b, emphasis mine). It is not in spite of but rather because of this plurality that genre will prove a fruitful concept with which to examine early modern dramatic epilogues, for it is able to acknowledge the multiplicity of intertextual connections which epilogues establish and rely upon.

The Epilogue in Early Modern Drama

  • 2 I have here defined a text as an epilogue when it is marked as such in print, where a speaker refer (...)

3The analysis which follows examines a corpus of 227 extant early modern epilogues, performed between the beginnings of commercial theatre in London in 1576 and its suppression in 1642, and which were printed alongside their plays across this period. The corpus incorporates drama performed in any context within this period, including boy or adult professional theatre, university drama, Inns of Court plays, masques, and closet drama.2 I will begin by examining epilogues as a formal genre. Early modern epilogues have not yet been analysed as a corpus. The quantificational comparisons and scope of reference which such corpus analysis facilitates carries great promise, as it encourages analyses which are inclusive, expansive, and representative of the corpus as a whole. In particular, such an approach allows shared conventions in epilogues of this period to emerge. However, although each individual epilogue participates in the epilogue as a genre, it is equally a part of a larger dramatic text. Moreover, epilogues were performed and written for plays which, in turn, also participated in a much larger body of theatrical material. This second section will examine how epilogues engage with this broader context through their examination of generic form, style, and purpose.

  • 3 Brian Schneider distinguishes between texts which are “closely related to the[ir] play” due to thei (...)
  • 4 See Schneider’s chapter 3 for the history of the epilogue.

4The dramatic epilogue of the early modern period has a long ancestry, reaching as far back as the ancient Greek choral “moral reflection,” a choral reflection upon the content of the play, and “the ‘vos plaudit’ (or call for applause) of the Roman comed[ies]” (Bower 1884, 7). Elements of both types of theatrical conclusion – “sententious sapience” and a desire for approval – are abundant in early modern dramatic epilogues, and often co-exist (Bower 1884, 7).3 However, even before the widespread popularisation of classical literature, Brian Schneider notes that medieval theatrical pieces often concluded “with expository, admonitory, sermonising, and theatrically self-aware […] final speeches” which involved interaction with the audience, “pleas for attention,” and “apologies for shortcomings” (Schneider 2016, 55).4 It is thus difficult to provide a definite outline for the lineage of the epilogue as a form with certainty. Nonetheless, it is evident that the common features in early modern epilogues – a single speaker who either asks for or delivering a verdict on the play, accompanied by a call for applause – have precedents in classical and medieval dramatic texts.

5With the ability to reflect upon the play which they conclude whilst also looking forward to its reception, epilogues of this period enjoy – and provide – a unique vantage point. A clear concern for the play’s economic success and preservation for future performances is evident in many epilogues, as Tiffany Stern has explored at length (Stern 2009, 87-95, 113-119; 2004). However, the perspective from which the epilogue speaks also allows it to discuss concerns beyond the purely practical. These texts illuminate the “responsibilities envisaged for […] reader[s] or playgoers” (Kay 1984, 207), the “projection of […] some post-scriptural or non-textual future” for its narrative “after the play has ended” (Weimann 1991, 98), and may even imply the audience’s autonomous power to “cause effects in the play-world directly” (Steggle 2013, 135). An epilogue, in other words, has both economic and narrative force. But the epilogue also has power by virtue of its participation in and reflection upon the “social and historical aspects” of dramatic rhetoric – in other words, upon genre (Miller 2009, 151).

6Studies of dramatic prologues and prefatory material have sometimes noted their concern for their texts’ genre. Martha Gause McCaulley’s 1917 study of “Non-Organic Elements in English Drama” – a survey which considers inductions, prologues, epilogues, and choruses – observes that “prologues and epilogues” feature “more or less reference […] to the nature and function of comedy and tragedy,” but cites only the “Induction to A Warning for Fair Women” (Gause McCaulley 1917, 249, fn 90). Similarly, Douglas Bruster and Robert Weimann’s study of early modern prologues briefly notes that “some prologues assumed” an “expository function” which could include discussing the “genre of a play,” but they do not consider epilogues (Bruster and Weimann 2004, 27). References to genre may also precede the play even before it was performed or read, as Stern observes, as there was an intermittent fashion for “naming the genre of play” on playbills before a play’s performance and title-pages once it was printed (Stern 2009, 57-58). Prefatory epistles to printed dramatic texts may likewise discuss its genre in order to establish “a communally understood set of expectations and limitations” for writer and audience alike (Pendergast 2008, 487-488).

  • 5 I do not here reflect upon the debate in the study of epilogues concerning how frequently (or occas (...)

7However, genre has not been a subject of inquiry in scholarship of the early modern English epilogue.5 Instead, stress has often been placed upon the ways in which the epilogue does (or does not) mediate the relationship between a play’s content and its audience. Brian Schneider argues that the epilogue is a “framing text” which both “seeks to define [the play’s] own audience” and helps to “dissolve” a “fictional world” (Schneider 2016, 149, 154), whilst David Young suggested that epilogues provide “a liminal space” where participants may “glance back” on the performance as it concludes, endorsing the play’s afterlife in an “extradramatic circuit of […] further engagements” with its contents (Young 2017, 3, 113). Similarly, R. Chris Hassell argues that “Shakespeare’s comic epilogues” provide a “final consolidating of theme and a final education of audience,” allowing “a sharing of psychological, aesthetic, and perhaps even religious insight” (Hassel 1970, 161). The other scholarly emphasis has been the epilogue’s economic role in the early modern theatre. Gause McCaulley argued that “[p]rologues and epilogues” were “essentially intermediaries between author and audience,” and related this function to the author’s desire “to secure a favourable verdict, at least until his benefit night” (Gause McCaulley 1917, 215, 233). Stern is foremost upon those who have developed this idea, arguing that epilogues were ephemeral texts, “generally for first performances,” and were of particular importance due to their ability to encourage a “benefit [which] could potentially double, treble, or perhaps quadruple a playwright’s payment” (Stern 2009, 82, 70). Likewise, Bruster and Weimman suggest that the role of the epilogue is to conclude “an unwritten, unspecified contract offering gratification and promising acceptance and satisfaction to be expressed […] through applause,” and which “capitalise[s] on an ethos generated by the communal participation of an audience in a theatrical performance” to do so (Bruster and Weimann 2004, 49, 23). Both strands of criticism may co-exist comfortably: an epilogue may participate in (and navigate the closure of) the play it concludes and also participate in the endeavour to mould its reception. The epilogue’s doubled interaction with genre, I suggest, connects both of these concerns.

Epilogues as Genre

  • 6 The count for the word “writ” includes all forms from the stem “writ*,” thus including “writ,” “wri (...)
  • 7 Fidele and Fortunio (alternatively known as Fedele and Fortunio) was first performed between 1579 a (...)

8As a site amenable both to reflection and projection – looking backwards to the spectacle just performed but also forwards to its imminent reception – early modern epilogues present a dual perspective upon their play. Both the processes of creation and reception are often foregrounded in early modern epilogues through reference to writing, acting, or even the relationship between author or authors and players. Thirty-two epilogues refer to how the play was “writ,” the “writer” or “writers,” or the act of writing more generally, whilst thirty-six refer to their “author,” and forty-four to their “poet” (with one further, Summer’s Last Will and Testament [Nashe 1600, sig. I2r], discussing the “poetical fury” which animated the work).6 Similarly, twelve epilogues refer to the “pen” that wrote the work and fifteen to a “muse.” Almost half of the epilogues explicitly consider the process of their play’s composition using one or more of these terms. This interest is, moreover, shared by plays performed and printed in every decade across this period. The earliest example is that of The Glass of Government, a closet play printed in 1575, which refers to its author’s “muse” (Gascoigne 1575, sig. N1v). Soon afterwards, the boys’ company play Fidele and Fortunio speaks of “Our Writer” ([Munday 1585] 1933, sig. H1v), indicating that articulating the author’s influence was as important for publicly performed plays as it was for private drama.7 This feature extends to the very end of the period under consideration, when the epilogue to The Walks of Islington and Hogsdon thrice speaks of its “Poet” (Thomas 1663, sig. H4r).

9Indeed, some epilogues speak as if directly for the author themselves. For instance, The Ladies Privilege (printed in 1640 and performed at some point in the three preceding years) has its epilogue speaker, Frangipan, deliver the “Newes” to the audience that “the Play is done,” stating that “he that writ it betwixt hope and Feare / Stands pensive in the Tyring-House to heare / Your Censures of his Play” (Glapthorne 1640, sig. J2r). Although less insistent upon their author’s physical presence in the theatre, Henry V notes that “Our bending Author hath pursu’d the Story” (Shakespeare 1623b, sig. K2r), whilst The Little French Lawyer’s epilogue speaker declares that “I Am sent forth to enquire what you decree / Of us and our Poets” (Beaumont and Fletcher 1647, sig. L1v). Other metadramatic references instead focus upon a play’s “actors,” as do eight plays in the corpus, or their “scene” or “scenes,” as do twenty-eight.

  • 8 The count for “our” also includes “ours.”
  • 9 John Lyly, Campaspe (London, 1584), sig. G4r; William Shakespeare, Troilus and Cressida (London, 16 (...)

10However, writerly and performative contributions to the play are most frequently conflated using the first-person plural pronoun, allowing the epilogue speaker to refer to all of those involved in a play’s production collectively. The terms “our” and “we” appear in 139 epilogues each, whilst the pronoun “us” is present in 65 epilogues.8 A clear majority of epilogues – 177 out of 227, or seventy-eight percent – employ at least one of these terms. Indeed, “we” and “our” are the twelfth and twenty-first most common words in the epilogue corpus as a whole. Perhaps the best-known of early modern epilogues begins “If we shadowes have offended” (Shakespeare 1600, sig. H4r-v). Yet a more explicit reflection upon the play’s collaborative realisation may take such form as speaking of “our endeavour,” as do the plays Campaspe, Troilus and Cressida, A Wife for a Month, The Jealous Lovers, and The Loyal Subject.9 Where epilogues so reflect upon the play’s own composition and the conditions of its staging, however briefly, they allude to (or indeed reveal) the conditions which inform its creation, and do so in order to shape its reception.

  • 10 Wiggins and Richardson place a “best guess” of 1600 upon the play, with limits of 1598-1600 for its (...)
  • 11 The Captain in Comedies and Tragedies (London, 1647), MM4r; James Shirley’s The Cardinal in Six New (...)

11Yet an epilogue is often as much apart from as a part of the play, in that many consciously foreground that the epilogue address is a genre in its own right by articulating and policing its internal conventions. No less than eighteen epilogue speakers in the corpus refer to themselves or to their dialogue as an “Epilogue.” Such self-consciousness of their own form begins rather early in the early modern theatre. The concluding speech in William Shakespeare’s As You Like It, performed between 1598 and 1600, is the first to so designate itself, opening with the declaration that: “It is not the fashion to see the Ladie the Epilogue” (Shakespeare, As You Like It, sig. S2r).10 Epilogues which reflect upon their own role recur across the period: according to their estimated performance dates, self-referential “epilogues” appear in four texts performed before 1610, three texts in the 1610s, one text in 1625, seven texts in the 1630s, and two texts in 1641. These self-declared “epilogue” speakers tell us much about the expectations for an epilogue. For instance, the speakers in the plays The Captain, The Cardinal and The Parson’s Wedding insist that they are indeed an “Epilogue,” despite more than one speaker being present onstage.11 Such a need for these texts to declare themselves as epilogues suggests that they are unusual. Examining the corpus as a whole proves this indication true, as only seventeen epilogues in the corpus have more than one speaker. In these instances, the epilogues’ assertion of their form allows them to subvert its conventions yet still remain recognisable as an epilogue.

12Another convention of early modern epilogues upon which their self-designated deliverers insist is that their speaker should be a sober and solemn figure (even when the preceding play was comedic). Once more, the texts which make this expectation more visible are the ones that subvert it. As You Like It hints towards the typical epilogue conventions, despite ultimately resisting them, by insisting that they are “not a good Epilogue” (Shakespeare, As You Like It, sig. S2r). Their insistence upon their failure as an epilogue clearly marks the subsequent endeavour to alluringly “conjure,” rather than humbly “begge,” to win the “love” of those watching the play as deviant (ibid.). Similarly, Ben Jonson’s Cynthia’s Revels (printed in 1601 and performed at some point during the preceding year) further demonstrates that epilogue conventions were firmly established within the first three decades of commercial theatre. Jonson’s epilogue figure states that “since I went in / I am turned Rimer” (Jonson 1601, sig. M2v), making a tongue-in-cheek distinction between the player’s earlier role and his new position as speaker of the epilogue. Even more explicitly, the speaker explains that he is bound to speak a “Ceremonious Epilogue,” and lists his requisite duties. In typical Jonsonian fashion, this listing of conventions is done in order to deny their fulfilment: the speaker insists that he will not “lay the blame / Upon the Childrens Action,” “crave your Favours with a begging knee,” “promise better at the next [play] we bring,” nor “proudly approove / The Play” ((Jonson 1601, sig. M2v). The speaker’s insistence that he will not do any of these things illuminates the expectation that he would, and thus indirectly indicates the range of contents typical for a “Ceremonious Epilogue.” In each of these cases, the early modern epilogue is constructed as a discrete form with powerful conventions. The expectations which the epilogue, as a genre, enforces must be engaged with even when subverted.

13The solemn delivery of the epilogue seems to have persisted throughout the epilogues of this period, as the occasional spoof epilogue continues to poke fun at the convention. The expected gravity of the epilogue speaker is the subject of much sport in the epilogue to The School of Compliment (performed in 1625 and printed in 1631):

Bub. Stay a little, and Ile along with you. Since I have mist my Wench, Ile ask these Gentlemens good wils to a second match, in stead of an Epilogue.
Courteous Spectators, and kind Gentlemen.—
Gor. Why, how now? what, are you mad? will you speake the Epilogue? though you have played a foole in the Play, you will not show your selfe an Asse before all this company. The Epilogue? I hope I am the wiser ath’ two, and the better read in complement.
Judicious Gentlemen—
Jen. Harke you, Master double-colours, and you goody Gorgons, here is one wiser, Asses you both, to pronounce the Epilogue, warrant you, and one, that knawes— to speak in as good English, Gentlemen, now sans Complement.
Our Love-tricks have been showne, and we attend
To know if your acceptance crown the end,
[…] (J. Shirley 1631, sig. L4v)

14In this discursive epilogue, two fools from the play each attempt to begin a serious address, with alterations in the manner of their delivery marked in print by shifts to italic font. Neither of their speeches is accepted, despite a distinction between their former role as “a foole in the Play” and their present position as speakers being drawn. Ultimately, the successful delivery of the epilogue necessitates a switch to verse, a more subtly directed address to the audience, and an acknowledgement of the collective endeavour of the company (as the use of the first-person plural pronoun indicates), whilst the shift of the typeface to italics once again indicates a differentiated manner of delivery. The epilogue, though at first humorously distorted, is finally delivered in an expected (and generically conventional) form.

15A play performed at the very close of the period under consideration, The Parson’s Wedding (performed between 1640 and 41, and printed in 1664), is even more explicit about the expectations for an epilogue’s comportment:

Capt. Lend me your cloak then, to appear more decent; you'd not ha me present Epilogue in Buff, whoreson Dunce, with a red nose.
Pars. Sir, my business is praying, not Epilogues.
Capt. With that face? By this light, ‘tis a scandal to see it flaming so neer the altar; thou look’st as if thou’dst cry top, in the face of the Congregation, instead of Amen. […] nay, I will have your cloak.
Captain puts on his Cloak, and addresses himself to speak the Epilogue, and is interrupted by the Lady Love-all and Faithfull her woman, who in haste and full of anger pull him by the Cloak.
Faithf. Why do’s your Ladyship lose time in talking with this fellow; don’t you know him, Madam? ’tis the rascally Captain, hid in a black cloak; I know you, Sirrah.
Love. She has reason; now I mark him better, I should know that false face too; see Faithful, there are those treacherous eyes still.
Capt. Alas, you mistake me, Madam, I am Epilogue now; the Captain’s within […] (Killigrew 1664, sig. V1r-v)

16In this exchange, the character of the Captain seeks to “appear more decent” in order to be a suitable epilogue, borrows the “Cloak” of the Parson. This item of clothing alludes to the “black velvet cloak” of a conventional Prologue speaker in this period (Bower 1884, 11; Stern 2009, 92). Although no clear evidence survives as to the typical costuming of an epilogue’s speaker, the Captain may verbally indicate that they were clothed in a manner akin to that of a prologue – providing further support for Stern’s argument that “[t]he Epilogue in look, movement and frame of reference […] shared his approach and devices not with the plays to which he was attached, but with other Epilogues and with Prologues” (Stern 2009, 114). Donning a cloak, the Captain insists that he has abandoned his previous role, and is “Epilogue now.” This presumably underwhelming transformation once more pokes fun at the practice of players abandoning their former role to become a serious epilogue figure. Although not all plays see a character engage in such a transparent transformation – the epilogue is sometimes delivered by a named character who remains in their earlier role – these quick changes clearly happened frequently enough to be a worthy subject of parody.

17Self-referential epilogue speakers, whether serious or parodic, indicate that an epilogue was understood as a distinct formal genre with its own conventions. The epilogue is solidified as such a discrete genre very early on in Elizabethan theatre, and actively articulates its conventional form almost as quickly. These conventions, moreover, remain startlingly stable throughout this period. Even deviations from the epilogue’s expected tone and content serve to re-assert its conventional form, and even to patrol its boundaries.

Genre in Epilogues

  • 12 These sixteen epilogues belong to only fifteen plays, as The City Match has two epilogues (both of (...)
  • 13 Arden of Faversham (1592); A Warning for Fair Women (1599); Anthony Munday and Henry Chettle’s The (...)
  • 14 John Lyly’s Sappho and Phao (1584); A Warning for Fair Women; John Fletcher and Philip Massinger’s (...)
  • 15 Henry Burnell’s Landgartha (Dublin, 1641), sig. K1r.

18Although epilogues constitute a formal genre of themselves, they also engage in striking ways with the genre of the larger play to which they belong. In a sort of proto-criticism, thirty epilogues explicitly refer to their genre or to generic conventions more broadly: sixteen to Comedy,12 thirteen to Tragedy,13 four to History,14 and one to “Tragie-Comedy.”15 Of these, sixteen epilogues use their genre as a synecdoche to refer to the play as a whole. For instance, Arden of Faversham (first performed at some point between 1588 to 1592 and printed in 1592) asks audiences to “pardon this naked Tragedy” (Arden of Faversham 1592, sig. K1v), whilst The Jealous Lovers (both performed and printed in 1632) states that “The Lovers now jealous of nothing be / But your acceptance of their Comedie” (Randolph, Thomas 1632, sig. L3v). Such uses of synecdoche illustrate that a play’s genre could be referentially substituted for the play itself. These generic categories therefore seem not only to have been meaningful to early modern audiences, but even to have superseded the individual play in importance. What a play shares with other plays – its genre – may have been regarded as more important than its individuality.

19However, other plays interact more subtly with the concept of genre. For example, the induction to the play A Warning for Fair Women sees an argument between “Hystorie” with “Drum and Ensigne,” “Tragedie” with “whip” and “knife,” and “Comedie” (A Warning for Fair Women 1599, sig. A2r). The latter generic representation presumably carries a fiddle, as Tragedy refers to its “strings” and the “cat’s-guts” they were made of at the time (Christensen 2021, 173, note 7). Eventually, finding “[t]he auditors prepared for Tragedy,” the other two genres-as-characters depart (ibid.). Tragedy, the winning genre, turns to address the audience, and the play’s genre is thereby settled. At the conclusion of the play, the figure of Tragedy returns once more. Seeking to excuse the play is common feature of epilogues (Gause McCaulley 1917, 209), but the matter which A Warning for Fair Women seeks to apologise for is specifically related to the genre of the play. As epilogue speaker, Tragedy admits that “it may seem strange unto you al, / That one hath not revenged anothers death” (A Warning for Fair Women 1599, sig. K3v). In other words, the epilogue acknowledges that the generic conventions of tragedy have not been fulfilled, as the plot did not result in a cycle of revenge. However, it continues to justify this aberration from expectations by informing the audience that the drama is based upon a true story rather than being a fictional invention: it is a

true and home-borne Tragedie,
Yeelding so slender argument and scope
To build a matter of importance on
And in such forme as happly you expected. (ibid.)

20The need for such an excuse is likely to be a consequence of the esteem in which tragedy was held in this period. As Timothy Reiss notes, “[in] tragedy, humanists found a tie with a striking grandeur of the ancients,” and consequently “[t]hose who suggested tragedy to be familiar and local provoked vehement debate” (Reiss 1999, 229). In A Warning for Fair Women, it seems that a justification of its plot’s deviation from generic norms is not enough. In order to attest to the play’s genre, the figure of Tragedy must also appear as the epilogue speaker. If the epilogue is considered as a type of proto-criticism, then the necessity for this explicit generic categorisation is fascinating.

21Yet in its final moments A Warning for Fair Women is not solely concerned with the matter of Tragedy. Its two final lines insist that “What now hath faild, tomorrow you shall see / Perform’d by Hystorie or Comedie” (A Warning for Fair Women 1599, sig. K3v). That the play considers plays to belong to three clearly delineated categories – History, Comedy, and Tragedy – is in itself noteworthy. Although Shakespeare’s First Folio of 1623 famously divides the plays into these three categories, “[d]espite the huge number of English kings who paraded through his playhouse,” the manager of the Admiral’s Men Philip Henslowe (the most comprehensive record which survives of theatrical history from this early period) “only once ever recorded a ‘history’ in his diary” (Ravelhofer and Grant 2008, 2). The critical commentary embedded within A Warning for Fair Women articulates a tripartite division of drama over two decades before the First Folio was printed, and does so in terms which seem especially distinctive in contrast to other examples of contemporary theatre.

22Moreover, the suggestion that content from the show just concluded which “now hath failed” could become the topic of a later play in another genre, “[p]erformed by Hystorie or Comedie,” is an odd one. Were only “Comedy” mentioned, then this remark could be taken as a joke at the play’s own expense, but the mention of “History” tones down the strength of such a jibe. Instead of self-referential levity, then, this ending seems to seek for a shift in both tone and content: it points away from its own play (and its genre) and towards future plays, in distinctly different genres. This line recalls the Induction, where “Hystorie” insists that “To morrow here Ile dominœre againe,” and “Comedie” also claims that “Wee’l make them laugh with myrthfull ieasts to morrow” (A Warning for Fair Women 1599, sig. A3r). The figure of Tragedy itself pointing to future theatrical events as the play concludes, however, is even more insistent. It is not the affective impact of the play, nor of the genre of tragedy more broadly, which the epilogue foregrounds, but rather the promotion of other plays to come. This epilogue becomes a space dissociated from the content of the play which it concludes, and instead dedicated to theatre in general.

23There are even more profound examples of the epilogue specifying the genre of the play to which it is attached, but then working to move into a more neutral register. The epilogue to The Virtuous Octavia (printed and performed in 1598), in requesting applause, demands that “no harsh jarring sound of discord” be heard, for “claps crowne the Tragicke Pen” (Brandon 1598, unnumbered, presumably sig. I1r). The notion of “discord” has a well-established association of tragic strife: a personified “Discordia” appears in the midst of the battle depicted on Vulcan’s shield in Book 8 of Virgil’s Aeneid (Virgil, Aeneid 8.702), whilst the figure “Discord” is the Prologue to and a character within the anonymous play The Tragedy of Caesar and Pompey, which has an estimated first production date of between 1595 and 1606 (Wiggins and Richardson 2015). Given this connection, the desire to reject any such “jarring […] discord” seems to consciously steer the epilogue away from the impact associated with tragedies. The reutilisation of this epilogue in the later play Messalina also suggests that this convention remained relevant across the four decades which separate the two plays’ composition.

24The title-page to The Virtuous Octavia advertises that the play is a “Tragicomoedi,” not simply a tragedy. Nonetheless, the pattern of epilogues reinforcing whilst simultaneously undercutting the associations of their genre also extends to unmixed tragedies. For example, the epilogue to The Wonder of Women begins “And now with lighter passion, though with most just feare / I change my person” (Marston 1606, sig. G3v). The player who had been the king Massinissa thus states that he becomes the epilogue by adopting a different, “lighter” passion, rather than different outfit or any other means of distinction. In doing so, importantly, the epilogue articulates a deliberate modulation of the performance’s tone away from the tragic at its conclusion. In a similar fashion, in The Phoenix in her Flames (printed and performed in 1639), the epilogue asks the audience to:

[…] let your friends […]
Come here and weepe with you, until together,
You make up this a full press’d theater:
Then it shall please our ghosts to thinke the age
Pitties our wrongs presented on the Stage. (Lower 1639, sig. M3r)

25This epilogue insists on pain (this time, the pain of the “ghosts” of those who died within the narrative) being converted into pleasure. Likewise, The Sophy (printed and performed in 1642) concludes: “’Tis done, and we alive agen, and now / There is no Tragedie, but in your brow,” before seeking to wipe away this “Tragedie” by pointing to the pleasure it has caused. Or, if its audiences are not pleased, the epilogue to The Sophy suggests that the audience should: “send […] in your friends / Then laugh at them, and make your selves amends” (Denham 1642, sig. A2r). In either case, although the play is a tragedy, the audience should leave amused, if not delighted.

  • 16 For a summary of criticism which discusses catharsis in relation to early modern drama, see Hobgood (...)
  • 17 On the translation of the Greek καθαρσις in the Poetics to signify “getting clear through pity and (...)

26Considering the affective result of tragedy inevitably prompts thoughts of the Aristotelian notion of catharsis as the dramatic purgation of pity and fear leading to pleasure.16 It is crucial to recall that this concept was not so fixed for early modern commentators upon drama. It has often been assumed that Aristotle’s Poetics itself was “not widely known before the middle of the sixteenth century,” when it received a series of commentaries in both Latin and Italian which popularised the work (Cronk 1999, 201), but significant evidence exists as to its earlier print circulation in Greek and Latin (Lazarus 2013). Whether or not in dialogue with the original Aristotelian term or its mediations, however, the notion of catharsis was by no means monolithic. The conceptualisations of catharsis which emerged in the sixteenth century have been categorised by O.B. Hardison into three distinct types of “practical” theory: identifying a “moral” rationale for drama due to “[t]he cathartic value of […] the purgation of guilt and fear”; a second which suggested dramas imparted “moral instruction” based on “poetic justice”; and a third which saw “[t]ragic catharsis” as a type of “clarification,” or “the result of learning something about the events forming the tragic plot […] a form of learning […which] involves the discovery of coherence in a world that usually seems dark and chaotic” (Hardison 1969, 3, 5, 8-9, 15).17 Still, even where these readings seem fundamentally “un-Aristotelian” in their spirit – instead being more explicitly reliant upon medical or religious discourse (Rist 2013, 139, 143-148) – such notions of purgation each seem to suggest that tragedy should affect its spectators.

27However, the genre-conscious epilogues here surveyed do not seem especially concerned with such outcomes. For instance, whilst the epilogue to The Devil’s Charter does hope for the “contentment” of its audience, this hope is rather concerned with the judgement which they will pass upon the play: it comments upon the “curious observations, / Judicious censures, and sweete clemencie” with which they have “addressed our Tragick Theater” (Barnes 1607, sig. M3v). The “delight” and “cause of discourse” which it hopes to promote therefore are both explicitly linked to critical reflection upon the play’s merits, rather than its purgation of passions. Likewise, as examined earlier, when “Tragedy of force must needs conclude” in A Warning for Fair Women, this intervention is intended to defend generic conventions surrounding content rather than effect. The conclusion to Revenge for Honour sees the epilogue speaker lament that “the poet has made me / The Epilogue to his sad Tragedy,” and proceeds to reflect upon the “Censures” of the audience upon “this Play,” similarly emphasising their intellectual, rather than moral or passionate, response (Chapman 1654, sig. H4r). When the epilogue to Arden of Faversham seeks to tie up the loose ends of its plot (informing its audience of the fortunes of “the Ruffins, Shakbag and blacke Will”), it recounts how Arden’s “bodyes print was seene / Two yeeres and more” later. Rather than capitalising on this chilling tale for emotional affect, however, the epilogue’s next line simply states “Gentlemen we hope youle pardon this naked Tragedy” (Arden of Faversham 1592, sig. K1v). Again, the concern to ensure that the tragedy is perceived as a tragedy is foremost in the epilogue’s consideration. This generic identification is intrinsically related to the content of the play: it is made of “simple truth” rather than literary conceit, and is therefore to be recognised by a critical audience as a tragedy. In each of these epilogues, it is not the affective quality of a play’s genre which is of concern, but rather the relationship which it establishes with other plays and, as a result, the judgement it will receive from its audience. Operating as critics of the theatre, these epilogues foreground the social role of theatre as a cause of delight and an occasion for judgement.

28Matthew Steggle notes that praise for a play (and particularly its manifestation in applause) cannot be considered the result of solely individual and rational processes of reasoning as they are affected by both “passion” and “group dynamics” (Steggle 2013, 121). Yet there is a clear distinction between explicit instrumentalization of an audience’s passions and, in contrast, the foregrounding of processes of evaluation without such affective appeals. Given the importance of “passion” in a play’s judgement, it is striking that the genre-conscious epilogues just examined do not attempt to capitalise upon their play’s emotional impact in order to promote praise. If early modern theories of catharsis shared an “underlying premise that effective literature moved both bodies and minds” (Pollard 2013, 88), epilogues which discuss genre often elide any such consideration of physical passionate affect from reflections upon their reception. Instead, they emphasise their concern for how the play will be received from an intellectual perspective.

  • 18 This epilogue is also reused by The Martyred Soldier, which was performed around 1622 (Wiggins and (...)

29Steven Orgel notes not only the emergence of a “notion of tragedy as a genre defined by its therapeutic effect on the audience” in the early modern period, but also that the theory of cathartic impact also spread to the genre of comedy (Orgel 1979, 117-118). In contrast to the stress upon dispassionate critical judgement which accompanies the mention of tragedy, epilogues which allude to comedy are not averse to imagining theatre’s bodily affects. The epilogue to Sicelides (performed in 1615 and printed in 1631) begins by claiming that “[a]s in a Feast, so in a Comedy [….] the Eye and Eare must be […] delighted” (H. Shirley 1638, sig. K3r), emphasising the sensory input and impact of drama.18 Although this epilogue imagines its play’s impact on an individualised level, it nonetheless refers to expectations of “Comedy” more broadly.

30Other epilogues which discuss Comedy stress their performance’s affective potential upon a similarly sensory basis. The epilogue to The Obstinate Lady is delivered by two speakers, the first of whom imagines the audience as a jury who will pass judgement upon their play; speaking on the part of the actors, they state that “what’s our fate we must / And will endure” (Cockayne 1658, sig. DD5v). However, this rather pessimistic image is interrupted by the second speaker, who insists it “is likely to spoil all.” This second speaker instead asks the “Gentle Spectators” to recall if the play “hath pleas’d your ears,” emphasising the physical grounding of the pleasure created. If the drama has left the audience with “weariness,” on the other hand, this second speaker insists that: “our Poet will repent / That you this Comedy we did present” (ibid.). To counteract such a dour ending, the audience should “be liberal of [their] hands” (Cockayne 1658, sig. DD5v). The audience is, in other words, recruited to applaud in order to confirm the play’s comedic genre – preventing it from a tragic ending.

31Likewise, the epilogue to Technogamia, or the Marriage of the Arts concludes by referring to the plot of the play, passing on the “message” that “[p]oore Melancholio has lost his wife” and can only be cheered by the “Musica” of audience applause (Holiday 1618, unnumbered, presumably sig. P1r). Whilst, on the one hand, a blatant call for a plaudite, the tonal shift of this epilogue is striking. The comedic ending seeks to induce a tragic note, and an ending unfit for a conventional comedy, which it will then impel the audience to reverse. This epilogue again employs generic conventions in order to elicit the approval of the play with applause.

32Having observed that epilogues to tragedies tend to privilege seemingly detached critical judgement whilst those to comedies insist upon an audience’s specific and embodied involvement, we may now profitably return to the epilogue which is “no Epilogue” of Shirley’s The Doubtful Heir (Shirley 1652, sig. F6r). This play is, as its title-page declares, a “tragi-comedie.” The unusual vacillation of its epilogue from contemplating objective fiscal “weight” to transactions of an interpersonal nature, I suggest, is thus no coincidence. Adopting both tropes from tragic and comic epilogues, we should indeed take the claim of The Doubtful Heir’s epilogue that it is “no Epilogue” seriously. It is no usual epilogue, but instead – reflecting the genre which its play declares itself to belong to – a hybrid. Its epilogue, in a rather literary-critical moment, recognises this difference.

33Recognising such hybridity, however, demands that an audience possess a great deal of intertextual knowledge, both of epilogues as a discrete genre and of genres of plays more broadly. Indeed, as John Frow notes, “knowledge about […] genre” is always inherently “intertextual,” as any understanding of generic conventions is built around earlier experiences with similar pieces of work (Frow 2006, 7). This expectation of intertextual knowledge may be explicit, as where Sicelides, The Obstinate Lady, and Technogamia refer to comedy as a genre. It may also be implicit, as in The Doubtful Heir’s stated refusal to be recognised as a (conventional) “Epilogue,” or in the resistance to the conventional affective associations of their play’s genre seen in Arden of Faversham and A Warning for Fair Women. In all cases, however, an epilogue works by virtue of the way that it consciously situates itself within a wider dramatic tradition. Their power results from working both with (or against) expectations of the epilogue as its own generic form, and with (or against) the conventions of their play’s own genre. Consequently, epilogues rely upon, emphasise, and perpetuate the intertextuality inherent to the operation of early modern theatre.

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1 A “Say Master” of the “Mint within the Tower of London” is named in a 1604 Charter (Grant-Francis 1881, 61).

2 I have here defined a text as an epilogue when it is marked as such in print, where a speaker refers to it as such, or where a discrete concluding speech follows a terminal rhyme (thus differentiating the final act from the epilogue).

3 Brian Schneider distinguishes between texts which are “closely related to the[ir] play” due to their “expository nature or […] thematic appropriateness” and those which are “free-standing” (Schneider 2016, 6). The contrast between these two types of texts may reflect that between the choral and the vos plaudit tradition, with choruses necessarily being more integrated with the play for which they are written.

4 See Schneider’s chapter 3 for the history of the epilogue.

5 I do not here reflect upon the debate in the study of epilogues concerning how frequently (or occasionally) they were performed. Stern argues that most were strictly for the play’s earliest performances of a run (Stern 2009, 82); in contrast, Schneider posits that Stern’s argument is “unlikely to be sustainable” because “many framing texts are too relevant to the plays they describe to have been applicable only to a first performance” (Schneider 2016, 143). He does, however, acknowledge that some references do “suggest a framing text’s ephemeral nature,” although these “do not preclude the acting company changing the words to suit the occasion.” (ibid). Likewise, he points to the high price which Henslowe’s diary reveals was paid for prologues and epilogues, argues it is “highly unlikely that such a shrewd manager as Henslowe” would pay such “if the framing texts produced could not be used more than once or twice” (ibid.). Bruster and Weimann highlight that Henslowe “compensate[d] playwrights at a greater per-word rate for prologues or epilogues […] than for the scripts of plays themselves,” which – potential ephemerality aside – certainly indicates their importance upon the early modern stage (Bruster and Weimann 2004, 160).

6 The count for the word “writ” includes all forms from the stem “writ*,” thus including “writ,” “write,” “writer,” “writers,” and “written.” Likewise, the count for “author” also includes “authors.” The titles of all dramatic texts cited in this work are modernised to their titles in the database DEEP: Database of Early English Playbooks, edited by Alan B. Farmer and Zachary Lesser (created 2007), Unless otherwise specified, performance dates are taken from those listed in DEEP.

7 Fidele and Fortunio (alternatively known as Fedele and Fortunio) was first performed between 1579 and 1584. It was possibly played by the boys’ company The Children of the Chapel Royal at the public playhouse Blackfriars, but was certainly “at court by 1585” (Wiggins and Richardson 2012).

8 The count for “our” also includes “ours.”

9 John Lyly, Campaspe (London, 1584), sig. G4r; William Shakespeare, Troilus and Cressida (London, 1609), sig. M1v; Thomas Randolph, The Jealous Lovers (Cambridge, 1632), sig. L3r; John Fletcher, A Wife for a Month, in Comedies and Tragedies Written by Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher [henceforth Comedies and Tragedies] (London, 1647), sig. IIIIII2v; John Fletcher, The Loyal Subject, in Comedies and Tragedies (London, 1647), sig. GGG1v.

10 Wiggins and Richardson place a “best guess” of 1600 upon the play, with limits of 1598-1600 for its performance (Wiggins and Richardson 2014, 212).

11 The Captain in Comedies and Tragedies (London, 1647), MM4r; James Shirley’s The Cardinal in Six New Plays (London, 1652), sig. F3v; Thomas Killigrew’s “The Parsons Wedding” in Comedies and Tragedies (London, 1664), sig. V1v.

12 These sixteen epilogues belong to only fifteen plays, as The City Match has two epilogues (both of which refer to Comedy): A Warning for Fair Women (1599); John Marston’s Antonio and Mellida (1602); Thomas Dekker and Thomas Middleton’s The Roaring Girl, or Moll Cutpurse (1611); Ben Jonson’s Epicene, or the Silent Woman (1616); Phineas Fletcher’s Sicelides (1631), duplicated in Henry Shirley’s The Martyred Soldier (1638); Barten Holiday’s Technogamia, or the Marriage of Arts (1618); Thomas Randolph’s The Jealous Lovers (1632); Philip Massinger’s A New Way to Pay Old Debts (1633); Jasper Mayne’s The City Match (1639), the Blackfriars epilogue; John Suckling’s The Goblins (1646); Aston Cockayne’s The Obstinate Lady (1657); Richard Brome’s The English Moor, or the Mock Marriage (1659); and The Parson’s Wedding. The epilogues which refer to the “Comic” are William Davenant’s The Wits (1636) and the Whitehall epilogue to The City Match.

13 Arden of Faversham (1592); A Warning for Fair Women (1599); Anthony Munday and Henry Chettle’s The Downfall of Robert, Earl of Huntingdon (1601); John Marston’s The Wonder of Women, or Sophonisba (1606); John Denham’s The Sophy (1642); James Shirley’s The Cardinal (1652); and Henry Glapthorne’s [attributed] Revenge for Honour (1654). The plays whose epilogues contain the word “tragic” are: Samuel Brandon’s The Virtuous Octavia (1598), duplicated in Nathaniel Richards’ Messalina (1640); Barnaby Barnes’s The Devil’s Charter (1607); Jasper Mayne’s The City Match (1639); and William Lower’s The Phoenix in her Flames (1639). The Ghost, or The Woman Wears the Breeches (1653) includes the term “tragical.”

14 John Lyly’s Sappho and Phao (1584); A Warning for Fair Women; John Fletcher and Philip Massinger’s The Wandering Lovers in Comedies and Tragedies (1647); and Guy Earl of Warwick (1661).

15 Henry Burnell’s Landgartha (Dublin, 1641), sig. K1r.

16 For a summary of criticism which discusses catharsis in relation to early modern drama, see Hobgood 2014, 183-6.

17 On the translation of the Greek καθαρσις in the Poetics to signify “getting clear through pity and fear,” see Nussbaum 1992, 281.

18 This epilogue is also reused by The Martyred Soldier, which was performed around 1622 (Wiggins and Richardson 2016), and printed in 1638.

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Emily Smith, « “His Comedie unto his Theatre”: Genre in the Early Modern Dramatic Epilogue »Sillages critiques [En ligne], 34 | 2023, mis en ligne le 30 juin 2023, consulté le 10 décembre 2023. URL :

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Emily Smith

Université de Genève

Emily Smith is a PhD student and teaching assistant in early modern English Literature at the Université de Genève, having previously completed an MSt in English Literature (1550-1700) at the University of Oxford and a BA at Durham University. Her doctoral research focuses on ambiguous signification in early modern drama, and incorporates approaches including the study of dramatic reception and adaptation, the intersection of digital humanities methodologies and literary close reading, and cognitive approaches to literature.

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