Strangeness, Jacobean Drama, and Chester

On 23 April 1610, the city of Chester in the north-west of England inaugurated its new St George’s Day horse races on the surrounding fields known as the Roodee—a tradition that endures today.  To celebrate the occasion, a raft of pageants and activities unfolded all over the city and its environs.  The festivities were recounted in a pamphlet of that year dedicating the races to James I’s eldest son, Prince Henry, which relates how the opening “act” (so to speak) saw “A Man by strange devices climbing to the top of a very high spire steeple”—the St Peter’s Church—and flying the flag of St George, shooting a gun, and “casting Fire-workes very delightful,” all while doing a handstand (Chesters triumph in honor of her prince, 1610; A3r).  This bizarre, elaborate, and visually spectacular performance seems to me an ideal emblem of “strange” performance.

“Strange devices” is a particularly choice phrase, especially in 1610.  Both words have a multiplicity of meanings in early modern English.  I was first drawn to the phrase when researching plays and their contexts in Jacobean England, and it sits at the heart of my book, Strangeness in Jacobean Drama, published today. There will be a launch event and roundtable on strangeness in early modern performance hosted by the University of Kent’s Centre for Medieval and Early Modern Studies (part of their digital seminar series for this term) on the 8 October at 6pm.  The book’s interest in “strange devices” broadly speaking spans the different meanings of “device”: across verbal constructions (ie how something is written or said) and material technology (a “device” in the sense of, say, a winch or perpetual motion machine).  

My prompt to explore “strangeness” itself as a dramatic concept came when I noticed how many plays in the years around 1610 employed the term or its derivations to describe their technological and rhetorical “devices,” as well as their narrative and generic peculiarities.  Despite its remarkable prevalence in characters’ speech, only two plays use the term in stage directions referring to visual action, both dating from the early 1610s—Shakespeare’s The Tempest (c.1610/11) and Heywood’s The Brazen Age (c.1613): “Medea with strange fiery-workes, hangs aboue in the Aire in the strange habite of a Coinuresse” (Brazen, G2v).

In turn, as the Chester festivities capture, I became especially taken with the term’s ambiguity and mystery. How on earth did the man in Chester climb to the top of the steeple?  A reader is left only to imagine what such a performance looked like.  Recovering the early modern connotations of the word “strange” seemed to me to be an important step in understanding how performance worked, as well as how it was articulated by playwrights, eyewitnesses, or commentators. 

A number of the thoughts underpinning the book have helped me approach the lived experience of Chester for middling individuals on this present project.  For starters, the term strange often speaks to questions of legal and/or geographical belonging, and the port city of Chester occupied a site of particular cross-cultural interaction and multi-lingualism: numerous residents spoke both Welsh and English; Chester was a mid-level trading port dealing with intra-coastal and overseas merchants; and the city sat in this period as England’s main “gateway” to Ireland and was therefore at the heart of the English state’s ongoing project of violent colonisation.  Simultaneously, the city (like many others across England) periodically expressed deep concern about “strangers”—which includes anyone born outside of Chester itself or not “free” to trade in the city, as well as those hailing from outside the nation.  The complex national and racial dimensions that underpin the label “stranger” are laid out in the ERC Tide project’s invaluable Keywords (see “Stranger”), and its enduring significance in this regard (as taken from a phrase in Othello) provides the exposition for Ayanna Thompson’s magnificent engagement with Shakespeare and race in contemporary American performance, Passing Strange

Early modern Chester is also marked by strangeness in other conceptual ways.  Like liberties in London such as the Blackfriars (which also happened to be characterised by a high population of immigrant craftspeople and was therefore especially strange), it sat at the time partly “estranged” from England: it had a complex jurisdictional arrangement as a “Palatinate,” which had for some time given it some autonomy apart from the Crown but whose separate authority was eroded and blurred by Elizabethan legal reforms.  Nonetheless, as Catherine A. M. Clarke has shown, the area’s broader cultural imaginary, formed through historical associations with the long-past kingdom of Mercia, cultivated a distinct “local” identity “which is contiguous—but not synonymous—with ‘England’ and ‘Englishness’” (202).

Such local distinctiveness is clearly visible through the vibrant records of performance in the city and the different “strange devices” at the heart of its musical, dramatic, and tumbling culture.  Indeed, the Stanley family who were Chester’s chief aristocratic champions included one Ferdinando Stanley, AKA Lord Strange (b.1559, d. 1594).  Strange not only gave his name to the London-based performing troupe of the period (whose plays, Lawrence Manley and Sally-Beth MacLean have shown, have strong regional markers linking them to the area), but the Derby/Strange family were also one of the only named early modern aristocratic patrons of a tumbling troupe (Revels Accounts, TNA AO 3/907; 1582)—a pastime especially popular in the north-west city.  

The term strange occupies a powerful position in the early modern English vocabulary, and it is one tool through which early modern English speakers and writers attempted to understand and articulate the human experience.  It therefore provides a fascinating example of one way in which a culture processes major change in a period of newness, doubt, and aesthetic and linguistic development.  This is just as true of the more “provincial” area of Chester as it is of London or the royal court.  

For early modern England, “strangeness” is at the root of legal questions of immigration and nationhood, it provides the means to make sense of challenging natural phenomena, and it is a site of debate about human communication and how individuals process and articulate their experience of the physical and social world. In the early years of James’s reign, the word begins to take on even more concentrated associations as it fell into the cultural spotlight: how is language related to thought and can words be trusted? What do mechanical inventions signify and to what ends can they be used? How should forbidden or queer desire be expressed?  How can we relate powerful sensory experiences? 

Strangeness in Jacobean Drama aims to plant some of the seeds for exploring these questions and identifying the widespread cultural and dramatic significance of “strangeness.”  In some oblique way, I also wonder if it might tell us something about the experience of living through times of extreme uncertainty and scepticism (something achingly familiar to us in 2020).  For, as I suggest in the book, the early modern concept of strangeness doesn’t simply serve to reflect or accept profound doubt but reacts to it—it represents an “attempt to resist total uncertainty and confusion by constructing open-ended and productively ambiguous aesthetic and linguistic responses.”