This play, Damon and Pythias, is a rather wonderful thing. As I happen to own a copy, I re-read it. And I send it along both because it has some bearing on the friendship issue an d because it’s an informative piece of English-drama history.
1. Damon and Pythias was written 30 years before Two Gentlemen of Verona, telling a story that everyone knew in a style that was totally antiquated by Shakespeare’s time. Its main theme is the inspirational power of self-sacrificing friendship. There are no women in the play; there is no pastoral-romance in the play; the characters are simple, and the vast majority of the play’s lines are devoted to satire of (1) tyrants, (2) courtly intrigue, and (3) sycophants. I feel very little commonality between it and Shakespeare’s play.
2. The play was written for choirboys to put on for a private audience—in this case a collection of University students and courtiers. “Commoners” would not have seen it. There were many plays so written and performed, and I’m sure sophisticated, London-based players were aware of them and their plots, but companies like Shakespeare’s and Marlowe’s were, in a general way, writing plays for a different audience—one ranging from commoner-groundlings to drop-in courtiers and students—in outdoor theatres. The so-called "children’s companies" were no great threat to publicly-performing companies like The Lord Admiral’s Men or the Queen’s men or the Lord Chamberlain’s Men until the mid-nineties, when far more sophisticated writers like George Chapman and Ben Jonson began writing plays for them and the plays were put on inside warmer buildings (for a price). That situation created the “little eyasses” Hamlet cries out against.
3. Damon and Pythias was, Like most plays of its time, written (mostly) in “fourteeners,” 7-foot, roughly iambic lines: di-da, di da, di-da, di-da, di-da, di-da, di-da. These lines were often written in rhymed couplets. We are more familiar with this pattern than we might think. For, if you take two such lines and break each up into four stresses and then three stresses each, you have a ballad stanza:
Di-da, di-da, di-da, di-da (Alas, my love, you do me wrong)
Di-da, di-da, di-da; (To cast me off discourteously)
Di-da, di-da, di-da, di-da (For I have lov-ed you so long,)
Di-da, di-da, di-da. (Delighting in your company.)
You can imagine how ballad stanzas would have broken up the natural flow of speech or serious thought or, at best, made them sound absurd. Fortunately, not too many years before the writing of Damon and Pythias, a couple of members of Parliament wrote a serious play in iambic pentameter (The Tragedy of Gorboduc), and by the late eighties, thanks to Kyd and Marlowe, unrhymed iambic pentameter became the language of upper-grade popular plays. Boy! Was Shakespeare born at the right time, or what!
And example of two “fourteeners” from Damon and Pythias (the verse is so irregular that two t0ogether are hard to find):
“But now, whereas I have felt the king’s liberality,
As princely as it came, I will spend it as regally.”
Shakespeare makes fun of such old-fashioned play-speech in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (although it’s written out differently on the page:
“Asleep, my love? What dead, my dove? O Pyramus arise!
Speak, speak. Quite dumb? Dead, dead? A tomb must cover thy sweet eyes.”
4. Finally, I found myself amazed (I had forgotten) at how much satire it contained—either by making caricatures of court types or by bringing in characters who would give us brief lectures on court evils (mind you, the playwright carefully says that nothing here is directed at Elizabeth’s court. Here is the moderate counselor talking to the tyrant Dionysius:
“To put to death presently whom envious flattery accused
It seemeth of tyranny; and upon what fickle ground all tyrants do stand.
Athens and Lacedemon can teach you, if it be rightly scanned.”
This moderate counselor, whose name is Eubulus (which means moderation) is borrowed from the afore-mentioned Gorboduc, where his function is the same. The play also borrows one of my favorites, Grim the Collier (who already has his own play), a normally populist sort of grumpy guy who complains about how hard the lower classes have it, but who, in this play (put on for aristocrats) is maltreated by a couple of servants (see plot below). The play also contains lots of physical clownery, such as the business with Grim mentioned above and the beating up by Stephano of Carisoppus, the slimy sycophant. I am sure kids loved putting on such rough-and-tumble scenes.
Well, so much for one brief introductory lecture on the nature of mid-fifteenth-century English courtly drama.
Damon and Pythias
Richard Edwards (1564)
Genre: Play, Tragi-Comedy.
Country: England, Britain, Europe.
Queen Mary and Westfield College, University of London
This play is the first acknowledged tragi-comedy in English and was written by Richard Edwards for a court performance by the Children of the Chapel Royal at Christmas 1564-5. It would have been staged in the main hall of the palace and, in the tradition of the performance of classical drama, in front of “houses” made of timber frames covered in painted canvas (representing, in this case, the court of Dionysius and the town of Syracuse). Written in a mixture of irregular rhyming couplets, ballad metre, regular stanzaic poetry and both popular and serious song, it is an interesting attempt to use differing poetic forms to create both character (Prologue 14-26) and dramatic pace and structure.
Published in 1571 (reprinted 1582), it may have been used as a school text and was certainly well known in Oxford colleges until the middle of the seventeenth century. It makes extensive use of proverbs in both Latin and English but wears both its learning and its morality lightly. A professional production with an all-female cast was given a single performance at the Globe theatre in London, 10 September 1996.
The archetypal story of the friendship of Damon and Pythias (sometimes Phintias), both followers of the philosopher Pythagoras, is ubiquitous in classical literature. Edwards would have known it from both Cicero (De Officiis, 3.10.45 and Tusculan Disputations, 5.22) and from Sir Thomas Elyot, Book of the Governor, 1531 (2.11). The story concerns the power of friendship in the face of state tyranny, but the play also sets out to confirm the legitimacy of theatre. The ingenuous disclaimer “We talk of Dionysius' court, we mean no court but that” (Prologue 40) of course invited the audience to make comparison with the court of Elizabeth I.
The pleasure-seeking philosopher, Aristippus (like Dionysius, an historical figure), is in competition with the sycophant, Carisophus, but agrees to be friends with him for expediency's sake. Damon and Pythias arrive, dressed as mariners to indicate their sea-journey from Greece, and accompanied by their slave Stephano. Carisophus, who makes a living sequestering the wealth of those he arrests on trumped-up charges, determines to entrap them. Stephano is instantly suspicious of the atmosphere of fear in the town and warns his masters, but Damon ignores him. Carisophus arrests Damon for taking more than a tourist's interest in the fortification of the city and Dionysius sentences him to summary execution. Pythias sings a heart-broken lament in anticipation of his friend's death. He approaches Aristippus, who is sympathetic but too frightened to intercede for him. The King's minister Eubulus (whose name literally means “good advice”) bravely urges clemency, “A cruel king the people hateth”, but Dionysius is determined: “Let them hate me so they fear me” (Scene 10, 169-70). Damon asks to be allowed time to return to Greece to settle his affairs. Dionysius gives him two months, provided he can leave a substitute in his place, but thinks that no-one would be so foolish as to agree. Pythias, however, offers himself. Damon departs and Pythias is taken to prison by the gruesomely comic hangman, Groano. Stephano surprises Carisophus ransacking Damon's lodgings and beats him up.
Scene 13, the longest in the play but only tangentially connected to the main storyline, shows the boisterous playground friendship of Aristippus's and Carisophus's pages, Will and Jack. They waylay Grim the collier (an adult part, probably played by Edwards himself) and get him drunk. He makes a good living supplying charcoal to the royal kitchens and asks if it is true that Dionysius gets his own daughters to shave him. Grim fancies being polled (shaved) by beautiful young women. Jack pretends he will give him a similar luxurious experience, but while doing this, polls (steals) his purse.
Carisophus, who has fallen out of favour at court, calls on his friend Aristippus to come to his aid. Aristippus refuses on the grounds that true friendship only exists where people love each other “not for profit but for virtue” (Scene 14.42). The day fixed for Pythias's execution arrives. Eubulus's controlled poetry in the face of tragedy causes the Muses themselves to be revealed singing a lament. Pythias, however, is overjoyed at the thought of his sacrifice for friendship's sake. At the last moment, Damon returns. The two friends now argue as to which them should die. Dionysius is overwhelmed and asks them to admit him into friendship with both of them. Stephano is freed and Carisophus beaten out of the court. The play ends with a song, wishing such faithful friends for Queen Elizabeth.