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Chapter Six looks at three plays by William Shakespeare which explores the merry world broadside ballad as a mode of consumption, probing the nature of audience complicity that it invites. It begins with The Winter’s Tale (c. 1610), which interrogates the status of old tales and of happy endings, and the idea – explicitly articulated in Cymbeline (c. 1610–11) – that to be ‘put into rhyme’ is to suffer aesthetic and emotional impoverishment. It then contrasts As You Like It (c. 1598–99) with King Lear (c. 1605–06) as rival disguised-king stories, in which the failure of ballad tropes to reflect reality is played first as farce and then as tragedy.
This chapter argues that the phrase ‘the merry world’ – and sometimes even the word ‘mirth’ – acquired a coded status in Reformation polemical print that then shadowed its use in other contexts: a way of expressing nostalgia for the pre-dissolution past that was proximate to, but not identical with, sedition and recusancy. There is evidence that these feelings were widespread, even amongst orthodox Protestants, but also that they remained potentially incendiary. Focusing on a series of disguised-king broadside ballads set in a pseudo-medieval ‘merry’ past, it suggests the historical fictions of cheap print recuperated the psychic materials of merry world complaint as a source of cosy and uncontentious pleasure.
Chapter Seven considers The Merry Wives of Windsor (c. 1600), Shakespeare’s only play explicitly set in contemporary England which also addressed the historical freight of mirth. Merry Wives juxtaposes historical with theatrical nostalgia in the person of Falstaff, embodying not just past carnival but more recent stage history. Translating the drama of repetition and disappointment into the register of theatrical experience, the play uses the structures of audience familiarity to make a bold claim for something new.
This chapter considers two plays which draw explicitly on the broadside ballad tradition of merry world fiction: Thomas Heywood’s The First Part of Edward IV (c. 1599); and Henry Chettle and Anthony Munday’s The Downfall of Robert, Earl of Huntington (c. 1598). While these play-texts quote from, allude to, and overlap with the ballad stories they dramatise in various ways, it is also possible to see a distinctively theatrical vocabulary emerging which adapts the merry world topos to the stage. As such, they presuppose a high degree of audience familiarity with the visual and verbal conventions of the genre on page, stage, and in performance. The theatrical literacy of this assumed audience allows both plays to be constructed around moments of recognition and repetition. This degree of stylistic self-consciousness is playfully knowing in Heywood’s Edward IV and a source of frustration in the Downfall, where it is the impetus for an elaborate meta-theatrical framework exploring audience desire and response.
For many people in early modern England the Reformation turned the past into another country: the 'merry world'. Nostalgia for this imaginary time, both widespread and widely contested, was commodified by a burgeoning entertainment industry. This book offers a new perspective on the making of 'Merry England', arguing that it was driven both by the desires of audiences and the marketing strategies of writers, publishers and playing companies. Nostalgia in Print and Performance juxtaposes plays with ballads and pamphlets, just as they were experienced by their first consumers. It argues that these commercial fictions played a central role in promoting and shaping nostalgia. At the same time, the fantasy of the merry world offered a powerfully affective language for conceptualising longing. For playwrights like Shakespeare and others writing for the commercial stage, it became a way to think through the dynamics of audience desire and the aesthetics of repetition.
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