Malone Society Research Fellowship: Maria Shmygol, part 2

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).

Bursary Funded Research: Performing ‘The Tragedy of Thomas Merry’

This post is the third in our series of guest-authored posts written by scholars who have been awarded funding for their research by the Society. This post was written by Emma Whipday, a PhD candidate at University College, London.

Performing ‘The Tragedy of Thomas Merry’

I was awarded a 2014 Malone Society Bursary to stage a research production of ‘The Tragedy of Thomas Merry’ from Two Lamentable Tragedies (1601), which portrays the murder of a London shopkeeper by his neighbour. The play is significant in its tragic portrayal of a murder in the home of an ordinary Londoner, and in its unprecedented attention to the forensic processes of detection. On Friday 21st March, the production was staged at UCL in what was, to my knowledge, its first performance in modern times.

Freyja Cox Jensen as Merry and Eleanor Rushton as Rachel. Photo credit: Niina Tamura
Freyja Cox Jensen as Merry and Eleanor Rushton as Rachel. Photo credit: Niina Tamura

The play is based on a true murder that took place in London in 1594: Master Merry, who ran a tavern, murdered a neighbouring shopkeeper, Master Beech, and the surrounding community worked together to solve the crime. This sensational murder caught the attention of Elizabethan London; it was reported in news pamphlets and sung about in broadside ballads. In 1600, a play named ‘The Tragedy of Thomas Merry’ was performed at the Rose by the Admiral’s Men. The following year, a play based on Merry’s crime was printed in quarto, in a collection entitled Two Lamentable Tragedies. The title page claims that the author of the plays is Robert Yarington. The only surviving record of a Robert Yarington living in London refers not to a playwright, but to a scribe; it is impossible to discover whether he was the author of the plays, or whether he simply compiled them into a single narrative. The second play is fictional, set in Padua, and stages the murder of a nobleman’s ward. Scenes from both tragedies are intertwined in the quarto, and thus Two Lamentable Tragedies is unique in presenting a traditional, elite tragedy alongside a true and recent neighbourhood murder. In staging only the tragedy of Merry, I wanted to test whether it was performable as a standalone play.

Drawing on the Malone Society edition of Two Lamentable Tragedies (edited by Chiaki Hanabusa), which was the Society’s ‘Book of the Year’, this research production aimed to discover how our understanding of the play alters when it is performed. This project is grounded in an interdisciplinary approach to practice as research, combining the expertise of theatre practitioners with the knowledge of literary critics and historians. Freyja Cox Jensen (University of Exeter) co-organised the production; Helen Hackett and Alexander Sampson (UCL) were the executive producers; and the cast was composed of both professional actors and UCL staff and students.

Our production was prepared using Elizabethan rehearsal practices, based on the research of Tiffany Stern (Oxford). We sought to explore the ways in which reconstructing early modern rehearsal and performance practices could illuminate spatial dynamics and character development in the play. In so doing, we hoped to demonstrate the validity of practice as research as an approach to early modern drama.

The actors received their ‘parts’, composed of only their own lines and short cues, thirteen days before the production, at the read-through, at which they read the play aloud; they then met with me individually to discuss their character choices and work on their lines. A week later, we also had a single ‘stage business’ rehearsal, where we plotted use of props, fights and the closing jig, and a single dress rehearsal. These were the only times the actors rehearsed together; the rest of their work on the text took place alone. As the ‘book holder’ or prompter, I sat to the left of the playing space during the final performance, visible but not part of the action, to highlight the role of the book holder for the audience.

 - ?? as ??. Photo credit: Niina Tamura.
Charlie Howitt as Second Waterman, Becky Moore as First Waterman, Brian McMahon as Constable, and Eleanor Rushton as Rachel. Photo credit: Niina Tamura.

The performance was accompanied by music contemporary to the play. Our lutenist Sam Brown performed at the side of the stage, and was visible to the audience throughout. He drew from his repertoire pieces by various composers, including John Dowland, Robert Johnson and Francis Pilkington. Our musical director Simon Smith assisted in the selection of pieces, and worked with us on adding musical cues to the script, ensuring that our musical practices were appropriate. Music was used as an overture, in the act breaks, at moments of heightened theatricality – such as when the narrator-figure, Truth, appeared – and to accompany the closing jig.

Lutenist Sam Brown in rehearsal. Photo credit: Niina Tamura
Lutenist Sam Brown in rehearsal. Photo credit: Niina Tamura

The production was a great success. The actors gave wonderful performances, my services as prompter were only needed a couple of times, Tiffany Stern’s introductory talk about actors’ parts and early modern rehearsal methods was fascinating and accessible, and the audience was enthusiastic and appreciative. We were amazed by how smoothly the play went with so little rehearsal time; it seemed to suggest that, with early modern actors accustomed to learning lines from ‘parts’ and a limited rehearsal period, Elizabethan first performances may have been more polished than we might imagine. We were even more surprised by how funny the play was – the audience laughed heartily throughout, even at seemingly ‘tragic’ events. This has raised interesting questions about how comedy and tragedy interact in the play. There are plenty of comic moments, from farcical falls to one character’s mis-hearing of murder as ‘mustard’, and even seemingly ‘tragic’ moments, involving murder and dismemberment, are macabre to the point of absurdity, and thus provoke laughter. Yet the narrator-figure, Truth, repeatedly calls attention to the truth of the crime that is staged, and comments on the teary eyes of the audience, reminding them that the action they watch is ‘but a play’. In our production, Truth’s commentary became an uncomfortable counter-point to the audience’s vocal amusement; this provoked further thought about how the hybrid genre of domestic tragedy may have been received by its original audience. I will be discussing the production at Andy Kesson and Stephen Purcell’s ‘Practice as Research’ seminar at the upcoming 2014 Shakespeare Association of America Annual Meeting, and look forward to exploring this issue further.

I am extremely grateful to the Malone Society for supporting this project; their generosity made our performance possible. This allowed us to purchase necessary stage properties, from pewter tankards to stage blood. It also made it possible for us to provide refreshments for the audience, so that Freyja and I could distribute questionnaires about audience responses to the play, and then swap completed questionnaires for glasses of wine, which proved a popular bargain! We look forward to exploring these audience responses over the coming weeks.

Furthermore, thanks to the Malone Society Bursary, I was able to invite Philip Bird, an experienced actor, director and teacher, to lead a workshop for our actors on Elizabethan rehearsal practices. Philip worked with the Original Shakespeare Company in the 1990s, and regularly leads workshops on cue-scripts at Shakespeare’s Globe and elsewhere. Concentrating on examples from Shakespeare, he worked with the actors on how to approach a part, before giving out the cue-scripts for scenes of various sizes. The actors all rose to the challenge, and though they admitted to finding the experience of working with cue-scripts ‘terrifying’ at first, they produced some fantastic scenes where everyone was engaged, responsive, and listening very hard indeed. It was a demanding process, but Philip was generous with his advice, and everyone participated with enthusiasm and immense concentration. The workshop proved invaluable for the actors in preparing for the final performance.

An analogy Philip shared with us in a good luck message just before the performance proved particularly useful:

‘The audience will be on your side… Instead of baking a cake and offering it up for consumption on the night, you are bringing the ingredients and baking it in front of them. They will be delighted.’

This was a hugely enjoyable, if daunting, process for everyone involved. The fruits of this production will inform and substantially benefit my own research on both Two Lamentable Tragedies and the genre of domestic tragedy, and I hope that the performance of the play proved illuminating for other scholars in the field.

N. B. Click here if you would like to see the actors discussing their experience of working with ‘cue-scripts’ and early-modern rehearsal methods.

Bursary Funded Research: Staging Daniel’s Cleopatra

This post is the second in our series of guest-authored posts written by scholars who have been awarded funding for their research by the Society. This post was written by Yasmin Arshad, a PhD Candidate at University College London.


I was awarded a 2013 Malone Society Bursary to mount a production of Samuel Daniel’s neo-Senecan closet drama, The Tragedie of Cleopatra. The performance, with Emma Whipday as director and Professor Helen Hackett as executive producer, was held on Sunday, 3 March at the Great Hall of Goodenough College. This may well have been the first such staging of Daniel’s play in four hundred years and certainly the first in modern times.

Published in 1594, Daniel’s tragedy is significant as the first original drama about Cleopatra in English. Written as a companion piece to his patron, Mary Sidney’s Antonius (a translation of a French play by Robert Garnier), it portrays a strikingly different Egyptian Queen from the usual representations of the scheming seductress we have come to expect. Daniel’s play focuses on the final hours of Cleopatra’s life, showing a great queen in defeat as she struggles to negotiate some form of mercy for her children, while knowing that she has no option but to commit suicide or be led as a trophy in Caesar’s triumph.

Charlotte Gallagher as Cleopatra
Charlotte Gallagher as Cleopatra. Photo credit: Yi Ling Hunag

Daniel’s closet drama is important also as a play that is in dialogue with Shakespeare. It was almost certainly a source for Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, but Daniel was in turn influenced by Shakespeare in his much-revised 1607 edition. Although considered obscure today, Daniel’s play was a best-seller in its time, going through nine editions and five sets of alteration. Malone Society bibliophiles will be interested to know that in his study of early English plays, Peter W. M. Blayney has pointed out that Cleopatra would have ranked second in the number of editions published, out-performing Marlowe’s Dr Faustus and doing better than any of Shakespeare’s plays.

The idea for this production is based on my research on a portrait of an early-seventeenth century English aristocratic woman depicted as Cleopatra holding the asp, accompanied by an inscription. The painting has remained relatively unknown and was misidentified and misdated, with little work done on its inscription. The lines can be identified as coming from the 1607 Cleopatra (or the 1611 reprint) and the sitter as possibly being Lady Anne Clifford. The portrait is exciting as it may be a record of an actual performance of a closet drama. Until recently it was thought that such plays were written to be read aloud in coterie circles, but recent scholarship has suggested that they may have been fully staged in elite country house settings. The painting, which last came up for sale at Christie’s in 1948, has disappeared during the last sixty-five years. Its only visual record is the photograph the National Portrait Gallery had taken at the 1948 auction. Although more light can only be shed on the questions surrounding the portrait with its location, the painting itself provides us with a remarkable visual image of a Jacobean lady ‘playing’ Daniel’s Cleopatra in some way. It adds something new to our knowledge and understanding of early modern closet drama and female agency.

The aim of our production was to test the performability of Daniel’s closet drama, and to change the commonly held perception that there was no female participation in drama in Shakespeare’s time. Women were not only writing closet drama, but may well have been performing in these plays in the great country houses, using them to explore models of female heroism. As much as possible we wanted to replicate the probable conditions of a Jacobean country house performance.

We used Daniel’s 1607 Cleopatra as our play-text, primarily because the lines in the portrait’s inscription come from this edition. We decided to keep the play to about two hours for audience comfort, and as we were preparing the script and reading it out loud to time it, we began to realise that Daniel’s closet drama with its implicit performance cues, make it very performable. We also decided to follow the inscription’s lines in the script rather than those from the play text itself. If the portrait is a record of a performance then the excerpted inscription may suggest that an abridged version of the closet play was staged to make Cleopatra’s final 36-line speech more manageable for the actor –this also set a precedent for our cutting some lines. By moving beyond a staged reading with script in hand, we are satisfied that we have demonstrated that Daniel’s closet drama is fully performable. We were fortunate to have a cast and production team of extraordinary talents, and to have Charlotte Gallagher as our impressively mesmerisng Cleopatra and the talented Beth Eyre as our coldly ambitious Caesar. Both, alumni of UCL’s English Department, are now professional actors.

The cast of Cleopatra
The cast of Cleopatra. Photo credit: Yi Ling Hunag

It has been an exciting and wonderful experience to produce Daniel’s Cleopatra and to show how fantastic this moving and fascinating play is in performance. Staging this production has provided valuable insights into Daniel’s play and into understanding the workings of closet drama in general. I am very grateful to the Malone Society for their generous support of this project and in helping make the magnificent costumes and the DVD of this production possible.

Malone Society editions have formed an important part of my PhD research, particularly Daniel’s Hymen’s Triumph and Cary’s Tragedy of Mariam.

DVDs of the production can be purchased at:

To learn more about the production please visit:

The Cleopatra team will be discussing the research that led to this production and performing scenes from the play at Knole House in Kent, on Saturday, 9 November, and at the Shakespeare Institute in Stratford on Tuesday, 12 November. Details will be posted on our blog and on the UCL Centre for Early Modern Exchanges website (

For more on women’s participation in drama in Shakespeare’s time, see Helen Hackett, A Short History of English Renaissance Drama (London: I. B. Tauris, 2013), pp. 175-88.

For more on the portrait of a Jacobean lady in role as Daniel’s Cleopatra, see Yasmin Arshad, ‘The enigma of a portrait: Lady Anne Clifford and Daniel’s Cleopatra’, The British Art Journal 11.3 (Spring 2011), pp.30-36.

Elizabeth Sharrett, manning the Malone Society table at the Great Hall, Goodenough College, March 2013.
Elizabeth Sharrett, manning the Malone Society table at the Great Hall, Goodenough College, March 2013. Photo credit: Yi Ling Hunag

Bursary Funded Research: a visit to the Houghton

The Malone Society offers bursaries, fellowships, and grants to support research. This blog post is the first in a series of pieces written by scholars who have been awarded funding from the Society. It was written by C. K. Ash, a doctoral student at the Shakespeare Institute, Stratford-upon-Avon.  

Houghton Library. Photo credit: C. K. Ash
Houghton Library. Photo credit: C. K. Ash

In 2012 I won a Malone Society Bursary that funded a research trip to the Houghton Library at Harvard University. The Houghton is home to rare books and manuscripts at Harvard, and so home to an original quarto of the Admiral’s Men comedy Look About You, first printed in 1600, and to an undated manuscript transcription of the play. Because I imagine you, dear reader, as a bibliographically kindred spirit, a few technical notes on the two quarto-sized volumes of Look About You housed in Houghton.

The Kemble-Devonshire copy is one of the eight known extant quartos from the 1600 printing by Edward Allde for William Ferbrand. The actor-manager Kemble’s tidy manuscript labels the title page as a ‘First Edition’ and announces it ‘Collated | & | Perfect.’ as of 1798. The text is in mostly good condition, but the inlay obscures many headlines and some catchwords; small tears exist on several pages. The Harvard library system sent high-quality digital images of the quarto to The Shakespeare Institute, from which I did my first collation. Having checked doubtful readings in person, I highly recommend their imaging services, and cross my fingers that more archives will be able to digitize their treasures so well.

The manuscript copy is bound in half red morocco leather with marbled paperboards, done in the shop of Scottish binder C. Murton sometime in the mid-nineteenth century. It has 82 leaves, and the pages of text are lined in red to create 10.5 cm x 16 cm boxes, lightly lined and filled with neat handwriting. The copy text is unknown, but it appears not to be based on the Folger Shakespeare Library (Huth) copy, which has uncorrected variants on the inner forme of L. As far as I can tell it is a unique copy. No clear provenance for the copy has been discovered – if you know something about the c 1830 practice of transcribing Renaissance plays, for any purpose, please let me know in the comments, or on Twitter (@cassieash).

The bursary also allowed me to acquire a copy of Anne (Begor) Lancashire’s unpublished 1965 doctoral dissertation, the only other modernized edition of the play. Her careful research is an excellent beacon as I tramp through sometimes boggy editorial terrain. The Houghton reading room and its staff are lovely, and I spent a few happy days poring over the two copies of Look About You. (Honestly, it was one of the most pleasant guest-researcher experiences I’ve had.)

Malone Society Reprints are one of my most valued daily resources, and I am very fortunate indeed to have received the Society’s support for my research.

C K Ash


1. The Malone Society reprint of A Pleasant Commodie, called Looke about you was published in 1913. I bought my copy second-hand in Renaissance Books at Mitchell Airport (Milwaukee, WI). If you want one of your own, and why wouldn’t you, head over to the bookshop. It’s that easy.

2. For peeks at old things newly digitized (and more!) follow the Houghton Library on Twitter: @HoughtonLib

3. Sometimes I blog about my work, sometimes generally about the arts, and sometimes I forget I have a blog. If you like, you can check it out:

News and Updates

You’re never alone with a Malone

Our Publications Catalogue is revised and up-to-date, so you can see which volumes are in stock and available to order. The Catalogue also now lists the contents of all the Collections Volumes. You can download the catalogue on the Publications page.

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