Muse of tragedy, the failure to unite the two aspects of Apollo, the failure to achieve a theatre of the human psychology – all are amply dramatised by this most self-reflexive of texts. But as the tragedy of its own tragic theme, as an ironic investigation into human obsession and self-deception, Death’s Jest-Book is a magnificent challenge to the modern reader; and in the fascinating intricacy of its writing in verse and prose, Death’s Jest-Book is a thrilling success.
Death’s Jest-Book is a revenge tragedy. The plot concerns two brothers who have sworn revenge on the corrupt Duke of Münsterberg, Melveric. They are Wolfram, a generous and heroic knight who gives up his search for vengeance and befriends the Duke, and Isbrand, disguised as a jester, who nurses his sense of grievance and becomes an obsessive and sadistic revenger in the classic Jacobean style. The Duke has been taken prisoner on a crusade; Wolfram makes an expedition to rescue him from captivity, and saves his life; but by this time the two friends have become rivals for the love of Sibylla, and once freed the Duke murders Wolfram at the end of Act I. When Wolfram’s body is shipped home, Isbrand smuggles it into the vault in which the Duke’s wife is buried, there to lie in wait for him, a shock accusation on Judgement Day; the clown Mandrake has also hidden in this tomb. Isbrand has joined the Duke’s two sons, Adalmar and Athulf, in a conspiracy to overthrow the Duke: disguised, the Duke joins the conspirators in their nocturnal carousing. Later, the Duke uses his necromant slave to try and raise his wife from the dead, but of course doesn’t get what he expected: first Mandrake appears, with some fine comic speeches, and then the risen ghost of Wolfram, to plague Melveric with his own guilt. This long scene of resurrection takes place in a ruined cathedral decorated with a ‘Dance of Death’ frieze. The rest of the plot concerns the rise and fall of Isbrand as a replacement tyrant; the conflict between the two princes, also rivals in love; and the ‘wooing’ of Sibylla by the ghost. Isbrand is summarily executed by Mario, a symbolic character devoted to Liberty; in the final lines of the drama, the Duke is led off ‘still alive, into the world o’ th’ dead’ by Wolfram.
As previously with The Brides’ Tragedy, Beddoes’s considerable knowledge of Elizabethan and Jacobean theatre is in evidence throughout, but Death’s Jest-Book has often been treated unfairly as an exercise in hollow pastiche or revivalism. Beddoes is expert at