Listening to the Gaoler’s Daughter

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From whence come ideas? Kendra Leonard explores the origins of her new article (now live on the Cerae website) in this guest blog.

My article about song and meaning in The Two Noble Kinsmen came about through my already-existing research interest in Shakespeare and music and a symposium held on Two Noble Kinsmen organized by my friend and colleague Niamh O’Leary at Xavier University in Cincinnati, Ohio. My 2009 book Shakespeare, Madness, and Music: Scoring Insanity in Cinematic Adaptations examined the relationships between madness and music in film versions of Shakespeare’s three political tragedies—Hamlet, Macbeth, and King Lear. But there is madness—or the simulacrum thereof—in many of Shakespeare’s other plays as well, and I wanted to examine the supposedly mad vocality of the Gaoler’s Daughter in particular.

The Two Noble Kinsmen is based on Chaucer’s “The Knight’s Tale” from The Canterbury Tales and was first published in 1634. Two previous plays had taken this tale as their source: Richard Edwardes’s Palamon and Arcite from 1566, written for the young Elizabeth I, and an anonymous version that was played in 1594 by the Admiral’s Men. These works focused on the story of the aristocratic cousins divided by their love for the same woman and did not include the secondary plot line of the Gaoler’s Daughter and her love of Palamon. Scholars believe that the schoolmaster and his coterie were based on Francis’s Beaumont’s Masque of the Inner Temple and Gray’s Inn from 1613. Despite a title page stating that the play was by ‘Mr. Iohn Fletcher, and Mr. William Shakespeare. Gent,’ Shakespeare’s involvement was often dismissed, and authorship was given to Fletcher and Beaumont. Recent research divides up the play between Fletcher and Shakespeare, assigning Act 1, scenes 1–3; Act 2, scene 1; Act 3, scene 1; Act 5, scene 1, lines 34-173, and scenes 3 and 4 to Shakespeare, the Prologue; Act 2, scenes 2–6; Act 3, scenes 2–6; Act 4, scenes 1 and 3; Act 5, scene 1, lines 1–33, and scene 2; and the Epilogue to Fletcher. The authorship of Act 1, scenes 4-5 and Act 5, scene 2 remains undecided. The songs sung by the Gaoler’s Daughter are contemporary ballads and broadside tunes that would likely have been well-known to audiences. That the Daughter knows so many ballads suggests that she is an avid collector of them—if not in print, then in aural memory.

Because of its later entry into the canon of Shakespeare’s plays, The Two Noble Kinsmen has not been produced as frequently as Shakespeare’s other works. To this date, it remains one of the few plays that has not been adapted for television or cinema. However, there are several recordings of professional, university, and amateur productions online. Many of these are particularly interesting for their treatments of the Gaoler’s Daughter’s songs. Often, actors and directors use the music for these songs as provided in Ross Duffin’s Shakespeare’s Songbook (Norton, 2004). Others sing the song texts to melodies of their own composition or improvisation. In some cases, the Gaoler’s Daughter sings fragments of music rather than entire melodies, and in an especially excellent performance of the play by students at Victoria University in Wellington, the Gaoler’s Daughter incorporates bits of song and speech together, creating a Sprechstimme effect that truly conveys the character’s emotional distress and gradual healing. Yet other productions bring new music into their stagings, such as the Brave Spirits Theatre did in 2014, using songs by Billy Idol (“White Wedding”) and Ingrid Michaelson (“The Chain”), among others.

Regardless of what kind of music is used, the Gaoler’s Daughter has much to say through it, and her songs provide alert audiences with a narrative too often overlooked.

Read Kendra’s article, ‘Listening to the Gaoler’s Daughter’, for free by clicking here!

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