Bussy D'Ambois, the Duel and the Dynamic of Performance



  1. The plot of George Chapman's Tragedy of Bussy D'Ambois hinges on two events adopted and adapted by the playwright from French history: a duel fought in 1578, which in fact did not involve the historical Bussy, and his adulterous affair, which led to his death in an ambush prepared by the vengeful husband of his lover. Conflating ideals of masculine fortitudo and sexual prowess, both incidents are tokens of Bussy's chivalric heroism, set off from the actions associated with his less chivalrous enemies – the King's brother Monsieur and his clique of courtiers – by Chapman's handling of contrasting modes of dramatic representation.

  2. This contrast, which can be described, in narrative terms, as one between diegesis and mimesis, between 'telling' and 'showing', is illustrated most strikingly by Chapman's dramatic transformation of duelling on the one hand, and the torture of Tamyra, wife of the Count of Montsurry, at the hands of her raging husband on the other. Embracing the aesthetic dicta of neo-classicism for his depiction of duelling, Chapman employs the Senecan device of the messenger in order to avoid the performance of violence on stage. The notorious bloody climax to his adulterous affair is by contrast rendered in a realistic scene of full frontal violence: Tamyra is dragged onto the stage by her hair, repeatedly stabbed and finally put to the rack by Montsurry.

  3. This juxtaposition constitutes both a moral and a dramatic value judgement; the two scenes not only depict 'good' and 'bad' acts of violence, they also exemplify elite and popular forms of dramatic representation. Pitting a ritualised, choreographed form of violence against an act of blunt, erratic, and apparently gratuitous, brutality, Chapman constructs certain forms of violence as 'other', as well as as something done by and for 'others'. Interpretations of the scene have on the whole followed this critical lead: while for Swinburne the torture of Tamyra betokens Chapman's misogyny (1925, 192-3), Schücking has seen it as indicative of the playwright's 'lack of taste' (1947, 25), whereas for Robert Ornstein the scene attests to an aesthetic failure on the part of Chapman to 'translate his vision of life into vital dramatic terms' (1960, 54).

  4. The two scenes thus seem to adumbrate a moral polarity already intimated at the beginning of act 1, where, in an apparent return to the allegorical tradition of the moralities, Chapman contrasts Poverty and Virtue (represented by Bussy) with Wealth and Vice (represented by the court as represented by Monsieur). But like the apparent moral structure established at the beginning of the play, the dichotomous juxtaposition of contrasting representations of violence disintegrates, on various levels of the plot, into aesthetic and moral ambivalence (Brooke 1964, xxviii-xxix; McLuskie 1993, 219). In Chapman's tragedy the interplay of forms of violence results in a dramatic logic of cruel urgency which confounds simple, divisive moral closures.

  5. In this paper I wish to trace the interaction of the two scenes in question and to delineate the negotiations of violence in which they engage. Where do these representations of violence differ, where communicate? In how far do they support and/or undermine one another? To what extent (and in which direction) do the different modes of representing violence in the tragedy inflect audience reactions? To address these questions it is helpful to illuminate one aspect of the tragedy's historical perspective, its contribution to the contemporary debate around the duel. Yet while a contextualisation of Bussy D'Ambois will undoubtedly enrich our understanding of the play by illustrating authorial sympathies and beliefs, the interpretive certainty apparently provided by its historical context is ultimately refracted by the disruptive dynamic of performance the play attempts, but fails, to contain.

  6. The critical outrage concerning the violation of Tamyra has tended to preclude an open-minded analysis of this act of theatrical violence and its dramatic function, leading critics to ignore other, though less apparent, violent dramatic stimuli in the play. Such a stimulus is the violence of Bussy's three-a-side 'duel' 1 which, without being performed, nevertheless makes for gory listening/ reading:

    But D'Ambois' sword (that lightened as it flew)
    Shot like a pointed Comet at the face
    Of manly Barrisor; and there it stuck:
    Thrice pluck'd he at it, and thrice drew on thrusts
    From him, that of himself was free as fire;
    Who thrust still as he pluck'd, yet (past belief!)
    He with his subtle eye, hand, body, scap'd;
    At last the deadly-bitten point tugg'd off,
    On fell his yet undaunted foe so fiercely,
    That (only made more horrid with his wound)
    Great D'Ambois shrunk, and gave a little ground;
    But soon return'd, redoubled in his danger,
    And at the heart of Barrisor seal'd his anger:
    Then, as in Arden I have seen an Oak
    Long shook with tempests, and his lofty top
    Bent to his root, which being at length made loose,
    (Even groaning with his weight) he gan to nod
    This way and that, as loth his curled brows
    (Which he had oft wrapp'd in the sky with storms)
    Should stoop; and yet, his radical fivres burst,
    Storm-like he fell, and hid the fear-cold Earth:
    So fell stout Barrisor, that had stood the shocks
    Of ten set battles in your Highness' war
    'Gainst the sole soldier of the world, Navarre (2. 1. 81-104). 2

    The passionate Senecan rhetoric of this passage barely masks the graphic description of Barrisor's violent death; its evocative iconography of bloodbath and agony invites the spectators to continue fantasising the scene in bloody detail while at the same time sustaining their comforting belief that they contribute to the writing of an heroic myth. Corroborating the perennial argument that the violence of our images is somehow more seductive than the violence of our words, the reporting mode of the passage diverts attention away from its scandalously outspoken representation of violence by apparently endorsing a Platonic dismissal of mimesis. Not only does the act of retelling the event defuse the dangerous potential of representation by incorporating (confining) it in the framework of narrative, it also validates the event as such: creating the sense of a mythical past, the 'epic narratio' (Altman 1978, 308) suggests that this is an heroic example worth remembering.

  7. In contrast to the retrospective validation of Bussy's battle, the violation of Tamyra – enacted though as yet not judged and justified – takes place in the absolute, mimetic present; it is an experiment in process about whose meaning, aesthetic value and indeed mode of performance the text as such yields no clue. Nor does the scene grant the audience the interpretive interceptions of a reporting witness to 'come to terms' with what is shown on stage; on the contrary, it constructs the audience at once as witnesses to a violent crime and as voyeurs both guilty of intruding upon and complicitous in this act of domestic violence. The potentially deeply unsettling scene, while clearly tapping the audience's emotional responsiveness, ultimately provides no moral guidelines as to the quality of these emotions. Moreover, as I will be arguing, by leaving it uninterpreted and its actual performance unprescribed, it opens the scene up to the conscious interpretation by the actor on stage.

  8. If the torture of Tamyra can be seen to underscore the ethic and aesthetic propriety of Bussy's duel in contradistinction to Montsurry's violence, it also sheds light on Chapman's attitude with regard to the social issue that is at stake. While the duel was publicly debated throughout the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century, serious official attempts to abolish the practice were only made by James I in 1613 and 1614, subsequently influencing public opinion about the duel. Presumably written in 1604, Chapman's play is positioned at a moment when opinion with regard to this issue was highly unstable, when, a topic still open to discussion, the duel could be publicly defended. Like other plays of the period (e. g. Shakespeare's Timon of Athens and a number of pre-1615 plays by Beaumont and Fletcher), Bussy D'Ambois seems to take a stand in favour of duelling as a modality of a golden age of aristocratic virtues and beliefs (cf. Waggoner 1965, 304).

  9. The duel evolved in the Renaissance from medieval forms of legal and ludic combat, at a time when the aristocracy found itself at its nadir, threatened both by an increasingly centralised, absolutist power above and terrifying upwardly mobile ranks of society below. As a truly aristocratic practice it testified to the crisis haunting this 'class' and served as a bulwark of its values, offering a sense of individual as well as collective identity in the face of growing social uniformity. For the waning aristocracy the duel was a codified means of self-definition, a (potentially fatal) test of their autonomy and an indicator of their self-discipline, privilege and honour. Yet while in its emphasis on the code of honour the duel exemplifies the pervasive (if not obsessive) Renaissance concern with essence and appearance, advocating aristocratic ideals of inwardness and secrecy, its theatrical logic, according to which honour must be publicly legitimised by ritualised role-play, compromises any hierarchical distinction between interior and exterior, truth and spectacle (cf. Maus 1995, 4). What reverberates through Chapman's tragedy and undermines critical attempts to pin down its moral or political stance is precisely this self-subverting theatrical dynamic of the duel, which in the long run would turn the spectacle of aristocratic privilege into a site for the dramatic self-fashioning of an aspiring bourgeoisie. 3

  10. Violently theatrical as well as secretive, the duel inevitably ran counter to the professed rationality of the emerging modern state. Yet as such it also testified to the dilemma of a sovereign authority caught between the conflicting political interests of a world in flux. While his own 'class' expected the monarch, the greatest aristocrat of all, to take a stand in the name of duelling, raison d'état demanded that he condemn the practice; a tension which Chapman's play both stages and appears to resolve. The King legitimises Bussy's duel implicitly by ordering its retelling ('Relate at large what thou has seen and heard' (2. 1. 34)), and explicitly, by pardoning Bussy – against all common sense (consider Guise's outraged: 'Mort Dieu, who would have pardon'd such a murder?' (2. 1. 207)) – upon Monsieur's passionate pleas. This is reiterated, even extended, in the following act (3. 2. 95-107) in a lengthy eulogy celebrating Bussy as 'man in his native noblesse' (3. 2. 91) and epitome of aristocratic honour. As such, Bussy is the King's own narcissistic mirror-image. The sovereign, as Jonathan Goldberg has argued,

    sees the golden age when he sees Bussy; he apprehends a founding myth for the imperium in him, a state which is also a spirit and a genius, out of time and eternal, before nature and justice were separated, an originary principle that transcends opposites. This makes Bussy, in the final paradox of the play, at once virtually inapprehensible and invisible – there is no way to see or to say what he is – and yet the principle of power, totality, form, and substance in the play (1989, 160).

    The principles of invisibility and secrecy embodied by Bussy indicate the duplicitous strategies of sovereign authority; like the monarch he is the vanishing point of sight and power, the embodiment of a gaze which must not be returned lest this (re)turn would uncover the material origin of his authority – his mortal body. 'Enjoy what thou entreat'st, we give but ours', Henry says in response to Bussy's verbose self-defence after the duel (2. 1. 205), thus offering his royal gift of pardon while cancelling his presence in this act by demanding to leave it unrequited (cf. Goldberg 1989, 143-4). In response to Bussy's duel the King displays a powerful gesture of (absolute) self-referential self-abrogation, vanishing within the rules conceived by himself even as he enacts them, without leaving a trace of his involvement in their making and maintaining.

  11. This vanishing act of sovereignty is echoed by the duel's 'morality of veiling' (von Müller 1996, 20), expressed on the one hand by its paradoxical symbiosis of public legitimation and secrecy, and on the other by the emphasis on formal and moral propriety, which allowed the duellist to disappear behind/within his fight. This propriety is illustrated by the notions of order invoked by the nuntius' narrative transformation of the factual violence of Bussy's duel. The ground for his verbally explicit presentation of cruelty has been prepared rhetorically beforehand, so as to convince the audiences on and off stage of the righteousness of the combat.

    I saw fierce D'Ambois, and his two brave friends
    Enter the field, and at their heels their foes;
    Which were the famous soldiers, Barrisor,
    L'Anou, and Pyrhot, great in deeds of Arms:
    All which arriv'd at the evenest piece of earth
    The field afforded; the three challengers
    Turn'd head, drew all their rapiers, and stood rank'd:
    When face to face the three defendants met them,
    Alike prepar'd, and resolute alike,
    Like bonfires of contributory wood:
    Every man's look shew'd, fed with either's spirit,
    As one had been a mirror to another,
    Like forms of life and death; each took from other;
    And so were life and death mix'd at their heights,
    That you could see no fear of death, for life;
    Nor love of life, for death: but in their brows
    Pyrrho's Opinion in great letters shone,
    That life and death in all respects are one (2. 1. 35-52).

    Diction and imagery of the passage establish an impression of choreographed harmony; depicting the duel as balanced, even ballet-like (cf. Florby 1982, 135) it defuses its violence by aestheticising it; the narrative enclosure where ritual and order reign supreme figuratively representing the champs clos where duels took place. The passage constitutes an implicit defence of the act by illustrating its rule of 'satisfaction': the 'even' ground on which the combat is fought and the concomitant equality in rank of the combatants justifies the duel as an act of mutual acknowledgement of status. Even life and death are in the duel so close as to become indistinguishable, again corroborating the scene's pervasive notion of harmonious interaction. This is further emphasised when the nuntius invokes the legal component of the duel by harking back at one of its medieval models, the trial by combat. Concluding triumphantly that '(of all the six) sole D'Ambois stood/ Untouch'd, save only with the others' blood' (2. 1. 131-2), he describes a private skirmish in terms of divine judgement, the miraculous outcome of the event justifying both the act and the fatalities incurred.

  12. Contemporary critics of the duel saw this superficial harmony as a mere smoke-screen for the factual antisocial brutality of the practice. Francis Bacon's Charge Touching Duels of 1614 could be set as a belated 'reply' against the nuntius' rhetorical transformation of manslaughter:

    But I say the compounding of quarrels, which is otherwise in use, by private noblemen and gentlemen, it is so punctual, and hath such reference and respect unto the received conceits, what's before-hand, and what's behind-hand, and I cannot tell what, as without all question it doth in a fashion countenance and authorize this practice of duels, as if it had in it somewhat of right (1996, 307).

    Reiterating 'the rationalism of the Jacobean establishment' (Halpern 1991, 227) headed by a King whose disapproval of anything superstitious was notorious, Bacon describes the excess and expenditure of duels – the spilling 'of so much noble and gentle blood' (1996, 305) – in political and economic terms, as a negative influence weakening the body politic. At the same time his critique reveals his anxiety as to the epistemological implications of the notion of honour. For Bacon the invisible and evasive aristocratic concept of honour defies the ideals of rational empiricism, the law of evidence. Honour, he argues, is all in the mind; impossible to gauge and thus a dangerous influence on Albion's malleable youth:

    Touching the causes of it; the first motive no doubt is a false and erroneous imagination of honour and credit; and therefore the King, in his last proclamation, doth most amply and excellently call them 'bewitching duels'. For, if one judge of it truly, it is no better than a sorcery that enchanteth the spirits of young men that bear great illusion and apparition of honour; against religion, against law, against moral virtue, and against the precedents and examples of the best times and valiantest nations, as I shall tell you by and by [ . . . ] (1996, 306, my emphasis).

    For Bussy, by contrast, the invisibility which is the defining feature of honour attests to an essential truth beneath outward signs: in a world of appearances honour indicates an inwardness beyond the grasp of empiricism, a privacy tarnished only by attempts to expose it. The problem is not, as Bacon suggests, that honour is 'in the head', but that it 'goes on his head' (1. 1. 2) once it is turned outward, being mocked and perverted by shallow gallants in expensive clothes; artificial colossi made of 'mortar, flint, and lead' (1. 1. 17) aping the virtuous. Rather than disavowing the existence of honour as such, Bussy doubts only the reliability of its outward manifestations and thus proposes the ideal of an inaccessible, secretive self.

  13. Yet by manipulating his historical data and making Bussy destitute ('poor', as the stage direction of 1. 1. tells us), thus having him exist at the beginning of the play in a social limbo where his 'native' honour (his 'neglected worth' (1. 1. 47)) is as yet unacknowledged by outward, 'acquired' manifestations, 4 Chapman turns the question of honour into the play's moral and dramatic linchpin and establishes a dramatic inevitability to prove the invisible, entirely abstract attribute Bussy claims to possess. His decision to accept the finery provided by Monsieur against his credo that honour cannot be expressed by sumptuary excess, rather than merely illustrating Chapman's failure to construct a psychologically consistent and convincing character, thus functions as a dramatic engine, which revolves at ever increasing speed after Bussy's failed first attempt to prove his virtue, only to culminate violently in Bussy's fight. His miraculous victory against the courtiers who only shortly before had made him the butt of their jokes sanctions this self-defence from above, while the rhetorical mode in which the incident is related establishes a safe spatial and temporal distance between audience and act.

  14. There is no such distance in the second scene in question when Montsurry, just prior to the torture of his wife, mimics the messenger's high rhetoric. His speech lacks credibility not because it fails to establish a sense of rhetorical bombast, but because he has been shown all along to imitate it: the torture of Tamyra is the climax of Montsurry's transformation from credulous cuckold to tragic hero, a theatrical rather than heroic self-fashioning which serves to confirm Bussy's doubts as to the correspondence between outward appearance and inward virtue:

    Who shall remove the mountain from my heart,
    Ope the seven time-heat furnace of my thoughts,
    And set fit outcries for a soul in hell?
    O now it nothing fits my cares to speak,
    But thunder, or to take into my throat
    The trump of Heaven; with whose determinate blasts
    The winds shall burst, and the enraged seas
    Be drunk up in his sounds; that my hot woes
    (Vented enough) I might convert to vapour,
    Ascending from my infamy unseen;
    Shorten the world, preventing the last breath
    That kills the living, and regenerates death (5. 1. 38-49).

    Compared to the nuntius' report, which emphasises notions of containment, order and limitation, Montsurry's tirade suggests that he is emotionally inundated. Unlike Bussy, who vents his anger in ritualised bravery, Montsurry's outburst is at best hysterical, not ordered; brutal, not civilised. Ostentatiously acting a part, Montsurry fails to fulfil the demand for 'prudent mediocritie' put forward in Renaissance tracts on the passions: 5 his excessive theatrical tricks cannot hide the fact that he is, like the hollow colossus imagined by Bussy in act 1, ultimately insubstantial. And because it highlights the aestheticism of Bussy's duel, the crude illusionism of Montsurry's mock-heroism channels audience reactions into an appropriately critical rather than sympathetic position.

  15. The play's dichotomous structure thus aims to locate audience sympathies with the aristocratic hero and his 'class' as well as, by extension, their socio-political anxieties and their nostalgic responses to these anxieties. The fictionalisation of Bussy's duel by the Senecan narrator contrasts a heroi-mythical world of natural law and essential truths with the politico-legal reality of strategic scheming and dissembling represented by the ploys of Monsieur and his puppet Montsurry, a conflict captured by Bacon's juxtaposition of the customary 'law of reputation' and the positive 'gown-law' (1996, 305). In this context, the torture of Tamyra acquires a significance beyond the domestic: the new discourse represented by Montsurry no longer unveils truth in honourable combat and by divine judgement but by evidence – an evidence established by fallible mortals, brutally, if needs be. The stabbing and torturing of Montsurry's wife anticipates the hero's cowardly murder in the ambush prepared for him by the husband; both go against the ideals of the rule-bound battle for honour and brand the likes of Montsurry as morally corrupt. His demand for 'ocular proof', of his wife's guilt as well as his own angry identity, is not only an intertextual pointer to other jealous husbands of Renaissance tragedy, it also transcends the boundaries of the stage. Reminding us of Francis Bacon's brutal demand that nature must be 'put to the rack' (qtd. Cassirer 1970, 48), Montsurry's domestic violence invokes the forensic curiosity of the post-Copernican world and its desire to make visible the unseen. His apparently irrational ire against his wife is complemented by his virtually anatomical (and finally rational) desire to open up, dissect and possess the disturbing secrets of the tragedy's hero:

    Sing (that is, write), and then take from mine eyes
    The mists that hide the most inscrutable Pandar
    That ever lapp'd up an adulterous vomit:
    [ . . . ]

    That I may hang him, and then cut him down,
    Then cut him up, and with my soul's beams search
    The cranks and caverns of his brain, and study
    The errant wilderness of a woman's face,
    Where men cannot get out, for all the Comets
    That have been lighted at it [ . . . ] (5. 1. 68-70; 73-78).

    The passage invokes the anatomical paradigm that characterised an early modern 'culture of dissection' morbidly fascinated with a 'corrupt world of mortality and decay' (Sawday 1996, 21) believed to be hidden in the abyssal depths of the body. Montsurry uncannily invokes Renaissance anatomists like Andreas Vesalius, both on account of the connection he makes between anatomy and the law ('that I may hang him' not only refers to the public hanging, drawing and quartering of convicted felons, it also hints at the use of the bodies of executed convicts in the anatomy theatres), and because Montsurry's diction and tone conflate the violent and the erotic (cf. Sawday 1996, 196-7).

  16. This forensic violence serves as the background to a brutal process of fact-finding where the body of Tamyra has various functions. Like the body in the trial by ordeal it represents a locus 'for resolving conflicts, and for testing truth' but also, as is suggested by Montsurry's solipsistic threats, 'for producing meaning' (Cunningham 1990, 141): 'Till thou writ'st,/ I'll write in wounds, my wrong's fit characters,/ Thy right of sufferance' (5 1 124-6). Chapman's emphasis on the performative nature of Montsurry's search for truth suggest that this is not so much an act of discovery and (re)cognition than of interpretation and construction. In the same way as he had previously fashioned himself in the heroic mould, Montsurry here invents – 'carves' – Tamyra 'as an emblem of Adultery' (Brooke 1964, xlviii), in scarlet letters. The very theatricality of his act suggests that the world represented by Montsurry is artificial and insubstantial, brutal and self-justifying, an age of reason whose ruthless will to truth is an offence both moral and aesthetic. But in pitting Montsurry's theatricality against an ideal of aristocratic secrecy and self-reflectivity, Chapman succumbs to a 'tactic of exposure' (Maus 1995, 44) which ultimately rebounds back on himself. His on-stage anatomy of Montsurry's anatomical desire – the voyeuristic 'double exposure' of forensic brutality – suggests that Chapman, in the theatre at least, cannot escape the discourses he condemns.

  17. Instead of reading the two acts of violence of Bussy D'Ambois as signs of the tragedy's divisive oppositional structure, therefore, I want to suggest that we imagine them as parts of a dramatic dialogue, with the second scene responding to and satisfying questions and desires thrown open by the closures apparently established by the play's neo-classical reticence. The play's moral, aesthetic and political dichotomy could be seen as something that is transcended – something that transcends itself – by virtue of interventions which pertain to the theatrical mode in which this dichotomy is enacted. Over and above the obvious didactic effect of channelling the audience's judgements into a morally conclusive point of view, the perpetual interplay of dramatic 'telling' and 'showing' in Chapman's tragedy could incite the audience's violent desires until from the point of view of dramatic and emotional logic they must be performed.

  18. The gory combat, the act of adultery – these are sketched in euphemistic rhetoric and discreet hints only. In a similar manner, Chapman makes a point about not disclosing the content of the numerous letters which are mentioned, even handed around on stage. The riddle, thematised in the ambivalent exchanges and innuendoes between Tamyra's servant Pero and Monsieur in act 3, is indeed Bussy's axiom and leitmotif, establishing a dynamic that transcends the limits of the stage and titillates the audience's desire to know. In this light, the climactic spectacle of torture, rather than making a moral commentary upon a new world order characterised by a brutal, scientific episteme, could be seen to perform the physical exteriorisation of the secrecy claimed by the hero and his aristocratic world. With a critical intention, no doubt: Chapman addresses the audience's forensic voyeurism and potential for suspicion in order ultimately to equate them with Montsurry. In so doing, however, he runs the risk that the rhetorical floodgates burst open with the force of that which they wish to contain. In Bussy D'Ambois, as in that earlier play of outrageous gendered violence, Titus Andronicus, 'the rhetoric of violence points outward to theatrical spectacle, pressing language into enactment' (Helms 1992, 558).

  19. The linguistic secrecy of Chapman's tragedy – the hero's obscure syntax and diction, which suggest the playwright's deliberate appropriation of James's royal language (Goldberg 1989, 147) – thus triggers a theatrical dynamic. Speaking on the basis of absolutely subjective, self-referential codes, Bussy insinuates the existence of a common language between audience and actor only to obfuscate meaning and prevent communication. Even in translation (by the nuntius, the King, Monsieur), he only appears to become understandable, as in the final analysis these texts serve as veils to render invisible his true self; an ideal of rhetorical closure which is challenged by the theatrical situation, the inevitably performative nature of this (of any) play. Instead of being contained by their narrative mask, Bussy's undisclosed secrets are finally exposed, in a manner which is both brutally theatrical and subversive of the moral meanings offered by the play, on Tamyra's body.

  20. Following Robert Weimann's influential thesis of the 'bifold authority' of the Renaissance stage, criticism has tended to ascribe such a subversive theatricality to the popular elements of Renaissance theatre, notably the platea as the imaginary space onstage where the 'process of authorization' (Weimann 1988, 402) is shown forth. In her critical annotation of this argument Lorraine Helms has recently attempted to transcend its ultimately hegemonic (and strikingly 'un-gendered') privileging of the popular tradition by putting forward the notion of a tragic platea characterised by the dying, the suffering, the silent woman acted by a boy or young man. Complementing, in performance, the gaps of a play text generally unexplained by stage directions with his own interpretation of his role, the boy actor embodied a source of ambiguity even on a classical stage intent on preventing such theatrical subversions. From the point of view of performance, then, the silent suffering of Lavinia in Titus Andronicus could attest to this 'actorial' authority, inviting the boy actor's 'histrionic techniques' in response to the bloody verbiage with which the pained Andronici try to wrap their and Lavinia's suffering in words (Helms 1992, 559).

  21. In the torture scene in Bussy D'Ambois the 'woman'/boy bound to the rack drifts from comprehensible pleading and arguing into illogical screams and shrieks: 'Oh, who is turned into my Lord and husband?/ Husband? My lord? None but my lord and husband./ Heaven, I ask thee remission of my sins,/ Not of my pains; husband, O help me, husband!' (5. 1. 142-46). Whereas the nuntius' report illustrated the mechanisms of narrative representation, Tamyra embodies the bloody marker of the end of narrative and the counterpoint to Montsurry's glorification of forensic rationale. As such, however, she also marks the moment where performance begins – and begins to challenge the notion of the supremacy of the play's text in the making of dramatic meaning. Performance, as W. B. Worthen writes,

    signifies an absence, the precise fashioning of the material text's absence, at the same time that it appears to summon the work into being, to produce it as performance (remembering that reading is as much a performance, a production of the work, as a stage performance is), a performance that summons one state of the work while it obviates others (1997, 17).

    Relying on the actor's individual interpretation and representation of the words (or, indeed, the silences) of the play text, acts of violence could be seen as the prime site for actorial self-speaking. The boy actor could have interpreted his role in favour of the character and her lover, by summoning his performative and elocutionary skills, representing Tamyra as truly dignified in her pain and inciting the audience's 'passionate participation' (Dawson 1996, 42) in her suffering. It is equally possible, however, to imagine a parodic interpretation of Tamyra's speech (cf. Gruber 1985, 197) in analogy to the exacerbated verbosity of Montsurry's diction, which would inevitably have had repercussions also upon the perception of Chapman's hero. Either way, the torture of Tamyra inevitably instils the uncertainties of theatrical performance into a dramatic narrative postulating epistemological closure and disrupts the moral dichotomy established by Chapman's juxtaposition of forms of dramatic representation.

  22. Apart from exposing the messenger's heroic narrative as 'empty rhetoric' (McLuskie 1993, 220), the tortured body of Tamyra/the boy actor undercuts the possibility of meaning as such, on numerous levels. First, as at this point in the play everyone on and off stage knows about the act of adultery and its agents, the violation of Tamyra ultimately does not contribute to Montsurry's fact-finding mission and hence questions the value of violent empiricism tout court. But the overall desire for information is further undermined by the hermeneutic indeterminacy of Tamyra's 'body of evidence' (to which she ultimately falls prey herself): in spite of writing the letter in her own blood with which she is forced to lure Bussy into the fatal ambush, she fails to warn her lover of her husband's plan; Bussy misreads the epistle as a token of her unfaltering passion rather than a word of warning and walks into the trap devised by Montsurry. At the same time as investing the secret letters handed around earlier in the play with a brutal materiality, Tamyra's note to Bussy empties them of all meaning. In his blind belief that he can interpret the material signs of Tamyra's violation Bussy finally stumbles – and falls – over the subversively insignificant (fe)male body in the play.

  23. Far from merely being 'a cipher, a sign of subjection' (Dawson 1996, 30), Tamyra torpedoes both Montsurry's forensic desire for evidence and Bussy's monopoly on aristocratic secrecy. In performance her figure surpasses the inaccessibility of Chapman's hero, drawing attention to the fact that a body on stage is never 'true'. 'In the theatre, the truthful body always lies' (Dawson 1996, 36), as the actor's emotional authenticity on stage inevitably demands a denial of her or his feelings 'in reality'. This is the final paradox posed by Tamyra, who opens up a space of interiority far more secret than that of Bussy, the King or indeed their author: an inwardness veiled by the impermeable fabric of emotions performed.


  1. Although, strictly speaking, the fight is no duel, Chapman's almost exclusive focus on the figures of Bussy and Barrisor warrants this categorisation.


  2. Here and in all subsequent quotes from the play I am referring to Nicholas Brooke's edition of Bussy D'Ambois.


  3. Both Frevert (1991) and Kiernan (1988) emphasise these social implications of the duel and its subsequent transformation from an aristocratic into an entirely bourgeois practice.


  4. For the distinction between 'natural' and 'acquired' honour see Price's introduction to Middleton and Rowley's A Fair Quarrel (1977, xxi).


  5. The quote, from Thomas Wright's treatise The Passions of the Minde, is cited by Dawson (1996, 34).


List of Works Cited

Altman, Joel B. 1978. The Tudor Play of Mind: Rhetorical Inquiry and the Development of Elizabethan Drama. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Bacon, Francis. 1996. 'The Charge Touching Duels.' In Francis Bacon: A Critical Edition of the Major Works, edited by Brian Vickers. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 304-313.

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Chapman, George. 1964. The Tragedy of Bussy D'Ambois. The Revels Plays edn, edited by Nicholas Brooke. London: Methuen.

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Contents © Copyright Anja I. Müller 1998.
Layout © Copyright Renaissance Forum 1998. ISSN 1362-1149. Volume 3, Number 2, 1998.
Technical Editor: Andrew Butler. Updated 12 May 1999.