The entrance of Machiavel to deliver the prologue at the start of The Jew of Malta signals that Marlowe’s tragedy will be driven by Machiavellian characters, from the ruthless and cunning jew Barabas, who ‘favours’ or resembles Machiavel (Prologue.35), to the outwardly pious but equally shifty Governor Ferneze. Something that struck me during our reading is the importance of the aside to the Machiavellian spirit of the play and especially the construction of Barabas’ devilish yet strangely likable character. Time and again Barabas speaks out of the hearing of other characters on stage, so that only the audience (and any other character he is scheming with) can hear what he’s really up to. ‘Please you to dine with me, sir,’ he says to the knavish Pilia-Borza, before adding ‘and you shall be most heartily poisoned’ (IV.iii.29-30). We’re privy to the inmost thoughts of the utmost villain, and yet it’s somehow satisfying to hear a character doing what we all do on a daily basis: supplement civilised public speech with private judgements and secret wishes that are better kept to ourselves (surely this isn’t just me). It’s difficult not to share in the pleasure Barabas takes from his plotting when he addresses us directly, privileging us over his unhearing victims: ‘Now tell me, worldlings, underneath the sun, / If greater falsehood ever has been done’ (V.v.50-1). Yes, Barabas, this worldling wants in (at least until you fall into that boiling cauldron).
Marlowe was crucial to the development of the aside (he influenced Shakespeare’s creation of double-tongued villains such as Aaron the Moor in Titus Andronicus and Iago in Othello), and it’s even been argued that performances of The Jew of Malta in the early 1590s ‘liberated’ the aside by energetically experimenting with its versatility as a theatrical technique. In performance, the aside can be thing of beauty, and the skilful combination of gesture, timing, tone and volume is an art whose mastery has made the career of many a Shakespearean actor (it’s no coincidence that just before taking on the role of Frank Underwood in House of Cards, a tv drama with asides aplenty, Kevin Spacey starred on stage as Richard III). No doubt the aside was also essential to the success of Edward Alleyn, the actor who originally played Barabas and was famed for his Protean qualities of body and voice. A few months ago in Canterbury at the Marlowe Theatre, Fourth Monkey’s production of The Jew of Malta demonstrated how the humour of the aside can largely be achieved through creative physicality.
But how do you deliver an aside on the Paper Stage, where physical movement is limited, if not altogether unseen because readers/auditors have their eyes fixed on their text? Harry Heath’s tour de force as Barabas taught us how, and other readers followed suit, exploring ways in which vocal shifts could make up for a lack of visuals and movement. The scene in which Barabas outwardly rejects his daughter Abigail for joining a nunnery while secretly telling her where to look for their hidden jewels (I.ii.358-75) got some great laughs, with Harry speaking an exhausting 5 asides in 18 lines (better him than me). Readers of early publications of Renaissance plays wouldn’t necessarily have had been told which lines were spoken aside, making things even more difficult, although the first publication of The Jew of Malta in 1633 was unusual for including directions such as ‘aside to her’ and ‘Whispers to her’. Modern editors add handy instructions [usually in square brackets], although of course there are often debates as to what’s spoken aside and what’s not.
Ultimately I felt our play-reading revealed something about asides more emphatically than silent reading or stage performance ever could. It demonstrated how effectively the speaking voice can be manipulated to nuance character and open up new linguistic spaces which draw audiences into the action. I for one am keen to see how our readers tackle and respond to asides at future Paper Stage events, and to learn how different dramatists use them to achieve specific dramatic effects within and across different genres. We’ll soon be posting the details of our next reading, so keep an eye out: The Paper Stage will be back (with a vengeance!).
 Ruth Lunney, “Speaking to the Audience: Direct Address in the Plays of Marlowe and His Contemporaries”, Christopher Marlowe the Craftsman: Lives, Stage, and Page, ed. Sarah K. Scott and M. L. Stapleton (Farnham: Ashgate, 2010), pp. 117-122.