Ballads or stern and bloody banquets

An interesting woodcut came to my attention this week as I was reading through handfuls (or screenfuls) of broadside ballads.  It was typically crude, very violent, and strangely unfit for the subject matter.  Indeed, the illustration accompanies a 1674 ballad (although a copy was originally registered by John Danter in the same entry as Shakespeare’s play, 5th February 1594) on ‘The Lamentable and Tragical History of Titus Andronicus‘:

Shakespeare’s ‘Tarantino play’, granted, has its elements of black humour, but the ballad’s title provides an even more comic disjunction between its ‘lamentable and tragical history’ and the ballad form:

With the fall of his five and twenty sons in the Wars of Goths , with the manner of his Daughter Lavinia, by the Empresses two Sons, through the means of a bloody Moor, taken by the Sword of Titus, in the War; his revenge upon their cruel and inhumane Act.  To the tune of, Fortune my foe.

Such an awkward and immediate transfer in the title from high tragedy to popular ditty might seem a little distasteful today, and no doubt Sir Philip Sidney would quarrel, but perhaps this most popular of forms understands that exaggerated theatricality of the play perfectly.  It appears that London is engraved in the top right of the picture, though I am having trouble identifying the building on the front-left, with a domed roof and protruding flag (any suggestions?); placing the Globe theatre squarely in the centre of the metropolis shifts the action from Rome to Troynovaunt, announcing the fiction of tragic lament as the play’s gruesome action is played out pageant-like in the foreground of the woodcut – blood draining, cannibal banquets, and Lavinia’s terrible struggle to reveal the truth.

The pairing of mirth and melancholy in this ballad reminds me of Cheek by Jowl’s performances of Jacobean drama; their recent staging of ‘Tis Pity She’s A Whore performed dialogue while jigging and cut from Annabella’s guilt at her incest to Hippolita’s hilarious burlesque seduction and Putana’s dirty asides.  Though these are elements of the play anyway, Cheek by Jowl’s interpretation was pitch-perfect, moving from pathos to parody in the blink of a stage-light.

The woodcut from the Titus ballad performs a similar cultural cross-over:

Written in the first-person voice of Titus, its history would of course have been sung from street-corners, in alehouses, or even indoors at home, transforming tragedy into melody in the manner of a Smiths song. Like Julie Taymor’s film Titus, the play’s carnival elements are brought to the fore:

The ballad and its popular reprinting (not to mention the possibility that the woodcut was purpose-made, unlike its stock-figure companions) suggest that the presence in the cultural imagination of such spectacular violence, incorporated within an ‘everyday’ image – a broadsheet hawked in shops and outside churches and Cathedrals, in Popes-head alley and St Paul’s – might indicate a different relationship between violent fictional worlds and the walled London of the woodcut.  Does this tell us about more than theatrical memory, then?  Maybe the mixing of artistic styles in the broadsheet, being simultaneously image, theatre, ballad, suggests the broadsheet’s negotiation of the removed worlds of the stage with the real worlds of early modern London; the image and the song familiarise the scandalous and spectacular, transforming blood-letting into wallpaper, flyer, or poster.

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One comment

  1. […] her hips. The King is drawn from the nobility of playing cards and this cheerful fellow in the sunniest of Shakespeare’s plays. The lady with a fan is a nod to a lively lady appearing on many ballad sheets, the put-upon-sun is […]

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