Notwithstanding the influence of English playwright Joseph Addison upon the character and content of Mercy Otis Warren’s The Adulterer – noted in the previous entry in this series – the style and the text of the play are also marked by certain parallels to the works of another prominent English dramatist whose canon was widely performed and admired in contemporary British America. The artist in question was, of course, one William Shakespeare (1564-1616). Ever-popular, ever-relevant, and seemingly ever-present anytime an English speaker sets pen to paper, it should come as little surprise that Shakespeare was in some way present in Warren’s earliest attempt at political satire. She was, after all, a highly literate woman. Doubtless she had read his work, though a 1750 law passed by the Massachusetts General Court would have prevented her ever taking in a performance. Nevertheless, it bears some explanation as to how she sought to utilize certain elements of the accepted Shakespearean style and why she felt such allusions might be useful.
To begin, it bears noting the extent to which the works of Shakespeare continued to be performed across the Anglo-American world during the middle-to-late 18th century. Despite the brief ban on most forms of theatre at the behest of Puritan authorities during the Interregnum (1642-1660), the Restoration (1660-1688) witnessed the re-emergence of Shakespeare’s works as both objects of popular enthusiasm and subjects of royal patronage. By the middle of the 18th century – after a period in which producers and actors reacted to what they considered to be dated language and static staging by freely adapting works like The Tempest and A Midsummer Night’s Dream into operas that better suited the popular taste – this unchallenged centrality in the canon of English theatre was further reinforced by the coupling of Shakespeare’s original text with the emerging Georgian Era (1714-1830) fascination with celebrity. Star actors like David Garrick (1717-1779) and Charles Macklin (1690-1797) nightly plied their trade at London’s Drury Lane and Covet Garden theatres, not infrequently staring in the same plays on the same night – so high was the demand for quality productions of “the Bard’s” newly restored works. By the early 1740s, a full quarter of the plays being yearly performed in Britain were the product of Shakespeare’s quill, and in 1769 the aforementioned Garrick succeeded in organizing a celebration of Shakespeare’s two hundredth birthday in Stratford-upon-Avon. By the 1770s, the celebrated author of Romeo and Juliet, Julius Caesar, and Hamlet had unquestionably been embraced as the national poet of the British people and had become the premier influence on contemporary English theatre.
Granting that the above description may not seem to bear much relevance to the popularity of Shakespeare in 18th century colonial Massachusetts, it nevertheless ought to be remembered how closely contemporary Americans’ tastes in music, art, and literature followed those of their British cousins. Certainly there were American composers, painters, and playwrights of the period who developed unique forms, patterns, and models of expression, but they tended to be in the minority. Most American-born painters either studied in England or consciously sought to imitate popular English styles, largely in response to the tastes of an audience that had developed its aesthetic sensibilities by studying prints of the works of prominent English artists. Popular music in the colonies was similarly influenced by the established European Classical model, which formed both the basis of listener expectation and the framework of practitioner education. American theatre was no exception to this trend. Of the earliest productions put on by a professional troupe of actors in British America – that of English theatre manager William Hallam (1712-1758) – the majority were of English extraction. Hallam had been forced to leave London following a declaration of bankruptcy in his competition with the aforementioned David Garrick, and set about organizing a tour of the Thirteen Colonies and the British West Indies in order to recoup some of his losses. Together with his brother Lewis, Hallam brought professional productions of some of the most popular plays in contemporary Britain – The Beaux’ Stratagem and The Recruiting Officer by Irish playwright George Farquhar (1677-1707) and Hamlet, Richard III, and The Merchant of Venice by Shakespeare – to theatres in Virginia, Pennsylvania, and New York. Even the first play of American origins to be put on by professional actors in British America – The Prince of Parthia by Thomas Godfrey (1736-1763) – was a neoclassical tragedy in the mold of Julius Caesar or Coriolanus and was acted by Hallam’s English-trained performers.
Of course Massachusetts was never the beneficiary of any of these early experiments in American professional theatre. As mentioned above, the General Court – motivated by much the same quality of Puritan censoriousness that had prompted similar measures during the English Interregnum – passed a law in 1750 barring the production of plays of any kind within the boundaries of the colony. Not only does this account for the absence of Hallam’s troupe from Boston – one of the larger settlements in contemporary British America – but it also seems to point towards the manner in which Mercy Otis Warren’s own works were intended to be consumed. After all, why would she have chosen the form of theatrical drama for her attempt at social commentary if she knew The Adulterer would never be performed? The answer, quite simply, is that more people read plays in mid-to-late 18th century British America than saw them staged. Not only is this attested to by documentary evidence of personal ownership of early Folio and Quarto editions of Shakespeare by individual colonists – private citizens, mind, not actors, producers, or playwrights – as early as the 1690s, but the dialogue of prominent members of the Founding Generation was frequently interspersed with quotations from or references to the works of the same.
Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), for example, was known to recommend the reading of Shakespeare as both a lesson in the finer points of English composition and – in the case of King Lear – an exemplar of the value of filial duty. Massachusetts native John Adams (1735-1826) was no less struck by what he perceived to be the utility of Shakespeare’s work to the occasions and challenges of daily life. Pages from his diary – a practice he kept up throughout his life – nearly burst with passages from The Merry Wives of Windsor, Timon of Athens, and Henry VIII, and letters sent to and received from his wife Abigail (1744-1818) were often accompanied by choice citations. Granting the John and Abigail Adams may conceivably have witnessed performances of Shakespeare prior to the 1750 ban, their obvious and casual familiarity with the text of Shakespeare would seem to indicate that they read the works of the Bard far more often than they ever saw them staged. Taking John Adams as a fair approximation of the kind of audience Mercy Otis Warren hoped to touch with her own work – circa 1773, a reasonably successful, educated, middle class lawyer – it would therefore seem a realistic assumption that her ideal audience possessed both the means and the tastes to recognize and appreciate allusions, parallels, or references to the works of Shakespeare when they encountered them in the works of others.
The actual forms which The Adulterer’s particularly Shakespearean elements took were several, of both a structural and textual nature. In terms of the former, many scenes of Warren’s tragedy end with a rhyming couplet, and every act ends with the Latin word exeunt – save the last, which ends with the phrase exeunt omnes. The use of rhyming couplets as a form of punctuation at the end of a scene was exceedingly common in the works of Shakespeare, though he was also known to introduce rhyme into the dialogue of certain characters in order to convey specific personality types or represent a sense of artifice. A famous example of a scene-ending couplet can be found at the conclusion of Act II, Scene I of Macbeth, wherein the titular character, intent on murder, announces upon hearing the chiming of a clock, “Hear it not Duncan; for it is a knell / That summons thee to heaven or to hell.” Compare that to the last line of Act I, Scene II of The Adulterer, in which ruthless Rapatio resolves in a double couplet, “Over fields of death; with hastening step I’ll speed / And smile at length to see my country bleed: / From my tame heart the pang of virtue sling, / And mid the general flame like Nero sing.” While, as aforementioned, Shakespeare did not solely confine his application of rhyme to the ending of a scene, the use of such couplets was, and is, a readily identifiable trademark of the Shakespearean style of verse. For Warren’s purpose, therefore, employing rhyming couplets as scene-ending punctuation was an easy way to conjure the feeling or mood of Shakespeare in the minds of her audience.
The aforementioned use of exeunt and exeunt omnes were similarly typical of Shakespearean scripting, though they admittedly enjoyed a currency that extended beyond the lifetime and works of the Bard of Avon. Taken from the third-person, plural, active form of the Latin verb exeo (to leave), exeunt means essentially “they leave,” and was a common form of stage direction – indicating that a group of characters should depart the scene – among Elizabethan dramatists. Exeunt onmes, meanwhile, with the addition of the third-person, plural, active form of the word omnis (all, every), means “they all leave,” and was often used to conclude the final scene of a particular play. Again, Shakespeare was far from the only playwright of his era to make use of this style of stage expression – a cursory survey of some of the works of contemporaries Christopher Marlowe (1564-1593) and Ben Johnson (1572-1637) make this abundantly clear. And there were also a number of 18th century dramatists who continued its use as a standard piece of written stagecraft – the aforementioned George Farquhar, for instance, or fellow Irishman Richard Brinsley Sheridan (1751-1816). Nevertheless, Warren’s use of the same possessed a significance not usually enjoyed by those of her predecessors or contemporaries. Whereas Farquhar’s The Recruiting Officer or Sheridan’s The School for Scandal were always meant to be performed – thus making their uses of exeunt essentially invisible to the audience – Warren’s The Adulterer was always meant to be read. The audience of Warren’s freshman theatrical effort would thus have been exposed to the stage direction as well as the verse, just as they had been when reading the works of Shakespeare. Noting the use of exeunt and exeunt omnes in The Adulterer, the impulse to comparison would doubtless have been felt by those who read it – i.e. Warren’s play was overtly Shakespearean in form, and perhaps aspired to be Shakespearean in tone and significance as well.
Another common feature among The Adulterer and the works of William Shakespeare is their shared use of what’s called blank verse. Essentially a poetic form that utilizes unrhymed but specifically measured lines, this style of lyrical expression was famously utilized by writers like Shakespeare, his friend and contemporary Christopher Marlowe, and English poet and polemicist John Milton (1608-1674). Shakespeare in particular used a form of blank verse structured on what’s known as an iambic pentameter, wherein each line is divided into ten alternating syllables, five stressed and five unstressed. Thanks in no small part to the efforts and innovations of Shakespeare – who later began to deviate from the strict use of measured syllables, and introduced looser and more varied rhythms as a result – blank verse went on to dominate the style and form of English poetic expression for several centuries after his death. Indeed, by the time The Adulterer was published in 1773, it was still the most popular lyrical form in the realm of English poetry, thanks in no small part to its re-popularization by Milton’s Paradise Lost. Non-poetic blank verse, however, had largely fallen out of favor. Some of the most popular plays in the 18th century Anglo-American world, like the aforementioned Farquhar comedy The Beaux’ Stratagem or Sheridan’s The Rivals, were written in free and unrestricted dialogue, and attempts to write drama in the style popularized by Shakespeare were most often attempted in the spirit of purposeful allusions or imitations. The aforementioned Cato, a Tragedy by Joseph Addison – a neoclassical drama on the order of Julius Caesar or Coriolanus – very much falls within this sphere.
Arguably, so too did Warren’s The Adulterer. Granted, the verse therein does not strictly follow the framework of iambic pentameter. Some lines are short, composed of one or two words, while others contain nine, eleven, or twelve syllables instead of the prescribed ten. Nevertheless, the piece is unmistakably written in verse. It is not a skillfully wrought as Macbeth, say, or Hamlet – it doesn’t trip off the tongue, as it were, in nearly so delightful a manner. The intention, however, is plain enough. Owing to the popularity of comedic works written in far more informal and naturalistic language, it would surely have seemed sensible of Warren to pen her scathing denunciation of the Massachusetts ruling elite as a farce or a comedy of errors – barbed, yes, but uncontrived. That she instead went to the effort of writing The Adulterer in verse would seem to signify an objective beyond the ordinary. More than simply communicating a partisan message to her fellow countrymen, Warren made a point of structuring that message in a very particular way. While this may have represented an attempt at emulating Addison rather than Shakespeare, the familiarity of Warren’s countrymen with the works of the Bard of Avon would seem to recommend the latter. Viewing The Adulterer through the lens of its Shakespearean pretensions, an 18th century audience may well have applied – consciously or otherwise – their internalized assumptions about tragedy, heroism, and pathos to Warren’s first attempt to represent the same.