This is the second of two blog posts from Maria Shmygol about her research into William Percy’s manuscript play The Aphrodysial, for which she received a Malone Society Fellowship.
Maria is based at the English department of the University of Liverpool, where she is assisting Nandini Das with her work editing Volume 6 of a fourteen-volume critical edition of Richard Hakluyt’s Principal Navigations, general edited by Daniel Carey and Claire Jowitt for Oxford University Press. She recently completed an AHRC-funded doctoral project entitled ‘“A Sea-Change”: Representations of the Marine in Jacobean Drama and Visual Culture’, research for which engaged with a range of commercial plays, civic entertainments, and court masques.
Maria’s current work—particularly her edition of William Percy’s The Aphrodysial, for which the Malone Society awarded her a Research Fellowship—develops her interests in textual editing and manuscript culture. Other research interests include cultures of knowledge in the early modern period and the relationship between natural history and print.
She was the co-organiser of a conference entitled ‘Making Knowledge in the Renaissance’ (Liverpool, March 2015) and is currently writing an article on theory and practice in the textual works and artisanal practice of the French Huguenot potter, Bernard de Palissy.
William Percy’s The Aphrodysial (1602)
Part II: An Early Modern ‘Marinall’
The Aphrodysial is a piscatory pastoral (Percy himself identifies it as a ‘marinall’ in the running title) and is rather unique as it is set almost entirely underwater. The play follows the events leading up to the Aphrodysial sea-feast at the court of Oceanus, where Cytheræa presides over the festivities and features an exciting array of characters lifted from classical mythology and literature. As well as Vulcan, Jupiter, Proteus, Cupid, and the nymphs Arida and Humida, the play unsurprisingly makes use of characters specifically associated with the sea, such as Thetis, Nereus, Oceanus, and Arion, all of whom, in one way or another, become embroiled in romantic schemes and pursuits. Likewise, Percy capitalizes on the popularity of the Hero and Leander story which he adapts in his play with a suitably happy conclusion befitting the festivities and contests in this remarkably innovative piece of drama.
The Aphrodysial bears the date 1602 in both surviving manuscripts (although the manuscripts themselves were transcriptions carried out in the 1640s; see Part I). Madeleine Hope Dodds used this evidence to suggest that the play was most likely written for performance at the christening celebrations of Percy’s nephew, Algernon Percy at Essex House in October 1602, although this is conjecture and ignores the external evidence that links Percy to the child actor companies elsewhere.1 Although there are no known records of Percy’s plays being professionally performed, the detail and richness of the stage directions (particularly in The Aphrodysial) demonstrate his keen awareness of staging practices reveal much about how Percy envisaged his play in performance by child and adult companies.2
One of the play’s most striking elements is a monstrous talking whale that a group of somewhat dim-witted fishermen attempt to capture as a prize for Cytheræa. As well being a source of spectacle and slap-stick, the whale proves instrumental in resolving several of the play’s weightier concerns. When the ‘monstrum horrendum’ is dissected at court, an apprentice boy is found in its belly and revealed as the ventriloquizer of the hideous creature. The boy makes known that he is in possession of Thetis’s lost magical bracelet, which explains the oracles and different tongues that the whale was previous able to utter to the amazed fishermen. The preceding parts of the play devote ample attention to Thetis’s suitors and their fruitless search for the enchanted bracelet, since she had vowed to marry no-one other than its finder. Following her initial chagrin at the idea of marrying the apprentice boy, she offers him a bribe to forego his right to her hand and so preserves her virginity.
While Percy is careful to specify that the monstrous whale keeps to his ‘den’ throughout the play, the descriptions of the creature that we hear from the group of startled fishermen constructs a rather terrifying image:
It is a thing Abosonaunt in Nature, see what Fegaries the villain will fetch. He roareth like thirty Barril of gunpowder,
He springeth at a spring Three Acres, o[f] water, He squirteth Fyre not onely before but also behind. (fol. 124r)
This description vividly calls to mind the mechanical water pageant devices commonly used in the Lord Mayors’ Shows on the Thames. The hydraulics and pyrotechnics that the fisherman’s description alludes to reveals Percy’s familiarity with such devices shaped like fish. A description of precisely such a device is found in the Ironmongers’ records for the waterworks used in the 1609 show: a whale ‘rounded close without sight of the boate and to row with ffins open for ffireworkes at the mouth and water vented at the head.3 It is my hope that my edition will make it possible to fully address the ways in which Percy’s literary and cultural experiences shaped this fascinating and regrettably little-studied play.
Although Percy’s poetic and dramatic efforts were derided in a smattering of essays written in the 1930s, Matthew Dimmock’s more recent edition of Mahomet and His Heaven (Ashgate, 2006) has highlighted how provocative Percy’s drama can be when read alongside similar material written by his contemporaries. Percy’s plays are remarkably inventive and, as is the case with The Aphrodysial in particular, bring together a variety of diverse literary sources and characters.4 For example, Percy imaginatively dramatizes a world of classical deities in a way that shows awareness of conventions used in masque texts as well as civic pageantry. The play is an important early example of the kinds of ‘underwater’ themes that would characterise masques and entertainments that flourished at the Jacobean court in the years following its composition.5 I’m really excited to be working on the play and hope that my edition will generate interest among scholars and practitioners alike – I’d be delighted to see a script-in-hand production of the play once the modernized text is ready, so if there are any interested parties, please do get in touch!
1 Madeleine Hope Dodds, ‘William Percy’s Aphrodysial’, Notes and Queries, 161 (1931), 237-40 (p. 237). In his entry on Percy’s Mahomet and His Heaven, Wiggins suggests that ‘one scrap of evidence tying the play [i.e. Mahomet] to 1601 (and indeed the Children of Paul’s) is the fact that the subtitle, A Dream of a Dry Summmer, is quoted in Blurt, Master Constable, performed late that year by the same company (see British Drama, 1533-1642: A Catalogue (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011-2014), vol IV: 1598-1602, p. 339). Mary C. Erler provides a very useful overview of ‘William Percy and Plays at Paul’s’ in Ecclesiastical London, Records of Early English Drama (Toronto and British Library: University of Toronto Press, 2008), pp. 278-91.
2 For instance, towards the end of first act of the The Aphrodysial, the stage direction calls for ‘a shower of rose-water and comfits, as was acted in Christ church, in Oxford, in Dido and Aeneas’, which clearly refers to a performance of William Gager’s play, an account of which appeared in Holinshed’s Chronicles (see Patrick Kincaid, ‘A Critical Edition of William Percy’s The Cuckqueans and Cuckolds Errants’, unpublished doctoral thesis, University of Birmingham, 1999, p. 25.
3 Jean Robinson and D. J. Gordon, eds, A Calendar of Dramatic Records in the Books of the Livery Companies of London, 1485-1640, Malone Society Collections, 3 (Oxford: Malone Society, 1954), p.73.
4 Harold N. Hillebrand rather unfairly described Percy’s works as ‘dramatically and artistically […] wretched—the prolix, pedantic, bloodless, laboured excogitations of a queer, cramped, academic personality; only when one tries to build [the plays] into this picture of the man do they acquire a half-pathetic, half-absurd interest’ (‘William Percy: An Elizabethan Amateur’, Huntington Library Quarterly, 1:4 (1938), 391-416 (p. 408)).
5 In fact, Kincaid supposes that the Percy’s affectation to write the stage directions in past tense was caught from masque texts (‘A Critical Edition of William Percy’s The Cuckqueans and Cuckolds Errants’, unpublished doctoral thesis, University of Birmingham, 1999, p. 107).