Staging the Henrician Court : What makes Merry Report a 'Vice'?

This page last changed on Dec 09, 2009 by Eleanor Rycroft.

Merry Report is the first nominated Vice on a title page of a printed playtext and yet doesn't seem to perform any of the moral functions associated with the figure. Merry Report riddles, talks nonsense, engages in scatalogical humour, sings, dances and informs the audience of his movements and travels, but can he be said to perform what Peter Happe calls the "homiletic function" of the Vice "which was to bring evil in all its realistic detail to every man" ('The Vice' and the popular theatre 1547-80' in Poetry and Drama, 1570-1700, eds - Brooks, H, Coleman, A, Hammond, A (Routledge, 1981) p22)? Beyond his linguistic and physical virtuosity, what characteristics might have led to Merry Report being called the Vice in 'The Play of the Weather'?

Please give us your thoughts on this.

In spite of his apparent lack of moral function, Merry Report is very much a stage Vice. All the comic motifs you name are common to other stage Vices. The term Vice was also used to refer to fools and jesters and I think this is key to understanding this character. He calls himself a poor gentleman but it should be clear to the audience that he is a jester/fool/Vice pretending to be a poor gentleman. The other characters can see he is a knave and I feel he should be dressed in motley – a sure sign of his double-dealing nature (Davy Dissimulation in Three Ladies has a motley suit under a farmer’s coat). Most importantly he is the conductor of fun in this ‘play’. I would be interested to hear how the director and actor approached the role. It seemed to me that the characterization was built on the idea that he is a poor gentleman in need of preferment. There was a sense of genuine needs and fears behind the performance and while I think this was well acted, I wonder whether it is true to the conception of the character. I would argue that all Merry Report’s actions are motivated by a desire to make merry. When he tricks the suitors out of money it is for fun, when he describes his journey it is for fun, when he fears a beating it is for fun, when he identifies himself with the gentlemen it is for fun because he is quite clearly not a gentleman – he is a fool. There are no long-term consequences for this character, no real jeopardy. To me, he is a clown, a showman motivated by the desire to entertain.

Posted by Peter Cockett at Aug 20, 2009 19:27

Yes indeed. I think Merry Report suggests that he as no moral compass, no values beyond theatrical playfulness from the outset: he is indeed indifferent - he doesn't care, which makes him a potentially very bad royal servant, but quite a good vehicle for satire, exposing the weaknesses and foibles of everyone, including the King.

Sooo, giving MR a moral compass, as this production did was an interesting directorial choice, which ran against the grain of the play as I would read it. But as a research tool it was really interesting as it suggested just what the limits were - and the gains and losses involved are - when you try to read the vice naturalistically - to give him a plausible back story. I don't think I would have done it that way, but I'm glad this production tried it.

Posted by at Sep 24, 2009 15:49

Its true that Merry Report suggests, and tells everyone prepared to listen that he does not have a moral compass, but in fact this is not the case. He does treat different characters differently and these differences seem, at least potentially, to be based on a set of moral judgements. MR's interactions with the Boy and the Launderess are different to those he has with the Gentleman and the Merchant. Indeed I would suggest he is particularly critical of the Gentleman and the Merchant because of their hypocrisy. While other characters ask opening for the weather they need for their trades it is these two who try to claim that what they want is also best for the entire commonwealth.

Posted by Tom Betteridge at Sep 30, 2009 13:19

I noticed when teaching the Croxton Play of the Sacrament this semester that there are a couple of moments in the opening of the play that reflect very directly on the status of Merry Report as a vice. The merchant, Aristorius, has a list of places that he visits that is similar to Merry Report's and there is a stage direction which reads, ' Now shall the merchantys man withdrawe him, and the Jewe Jonathas shall make his boast'. Clearly Merry Report's speech to Jupiter about his abilties, and his sucess with the widown, are a 'boast'. What is also interesting, however, is the difference between these two moments in the Play of the Sarament and the similar ones in the Play of the Weather. Aristorius' list is more then simply placenames - it is designed to indicate his wealth and skills as a merchant - and possibly therefore also has an implication of avarice attached to it. Jonathas' boast is literally a boast - it is focus on his wealth and the audience is encourged to enjoy the textaul sensual pleasure of the exotic items being listed. Merry Report's list is nothing more then a list - it has no other meaning then simply to give Merry Report the chance to impress the audience with his travels / memory. Merry Report does boast of his skills and why they make him ideally suited for the role, but is he wrong? His he boasting so much as telling the truth - both by being truthful and by being truthful to his name?

Posted by Tom Betteridge at Apr 06, 2010 22:33

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