Temporary Lyric in Skelton’s Magnificence

As promised, another example which shows how cleverly and self-consciously late medieval dramatists  exploited the familiar forms of late medieval lyrics in their drama.  At the beginning of John Skelton’s early Tudor morality play, Magnificence, Liberty (i.e. the character personifying liberality or generosity) and Felicity (i.e. the character personifying prosperity and happiness) debate between themselves whether they can happily co-exist.  Felicity argues that Liberty needs to submit himself to ‘Continence’, i.e. moderation, whilst Liberty argues that there can be no wealth or happiness when Liberty is constrained.

Onto the stage comes the character of Measure who is then chosen to decide the debate between Liberty and Felicity.  Having garnered their full attention, Measure begins a speech in rhyme royal, citing Horace on the virtue of measure or moderation.  The stanza concludes with a couplet arguing that this opinion proves that it is Measure himself who should have dominion.  He carries on outlining the benefits of measure in a second stanza, and Felicity chips in (as you can see below) to provide the concluding couplet which again rhymes opinion and dominion:

Felicity’s repetition of these rhymes creates a temporary collaborative lyric, not simply joining the same stanza-form but repeating similar last lines in a type of double-line refrain, ababbCC.  This double-line refrain lyric was a form Skelton definitely knew, as the play ends with another similar collaborative lyric, in which the characters Redress, Circumspection, Perseverance and Magnificence each contribute two stanzas to a final epilogue summing up the play’s teaching  about the insecurity of worldly prosperity before collaborating on a final shared stanza.  Each of their pairs of stanzas have the same final two lines, making it a kind of four-way double-line refrain ballade.

The lyric created by Measure and Felicity is only a temporary, fleeting phenomenon.  As you can see below, Liberty joins in the conversation and the temporary lyric ceases to be.  It’s an ingenious moment-in-passing, in which the audience hears a lyric created seemingly extemporaneously by two characters whose harmonious and philosophically wise teachings are embodied in the lyric form they construct together.



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