Talking a little bit about Bennett's (and Greg's) thoughts on Abrams' over-reliance onT for his edition has made me realized that I never explored that work ore thoroughly in my notes here. Honestly, I haven't looked at it since first conceiving this project almost a year ago in Dr. Knutson's class, which makes me think it's time to revisit this pamphlet.
I want to re-iterate what I said yesterday, the parallels between The Merry Devil of Edmonton (Merry Devil) and The Life and Death of the Merry Devil of Edmonton (Life and Death) are too strong to be merely coincidental. I find it probable that either the pamphlet inspired the play, or that the play inspired the pamphlet, but before I can say anything meaningful about that, it might help to describe the pamphlet.
Originally registered on 5 April 1608 by Joseph Hunt and Thomas Archer, the earliest extant version dates from 1631. The initial registration follows Arthur Johnson's registration of Merry Devil on 22 October 1607 so closely that the registration dates are of no practical use in determining precedence. Where Merry Devil remains completely anonymous, the title page of Life and Death bears the initial T.B. Editorial tradition ascribes this to Anthony (Tony) Brewer.
Life and Death is, much like Tarleton's Jests, a pamphlet describing humorous situations, which in some cases rely on physical comedy, but usually involve one party being over-reached by another. The first couple of stories are about Master Peter Fabell, as the title would imply, but the majority of the work is devoted to the further misadventures of Smug (the title page also advertise "With the pleasant pranks of Smug te Smith, Sir John, and mine Host of the George, about the stealing of venison," but these other characters do not figure as prominently into the narratives as does Smug.
5 of the vignettes feature Peter Fabell, the last of which to mention his name is a story wherein he is deceived by Smug. Smug, by contrast, plays a staring role in 17 of the vignettes described, 3 of which feature Sir John, Banks, and the Host, and 1 of which features the nuns of Chesson. The keeper and the constables are common antagonists, but nowhere do any of the knights or lovers of Merry Devil make an appearance. Smug does indeed deceive the keeper and his man by climbing on top of the sign of the White Horse (not mentioned in Merry Devil) and taking on the appearance of St. George, this causes the keeper to think there are two Georges and that they are in the wrong town, which is not at all like the situation described in Merry Devil's penultimate scene.
There are some crucial, noteworthy differences. Neither the Host's catchphrase about "serving the Good Duke of Norfolk" nor Sir John's "grass and hay, let's live till we die and be merry, and there's an end" are at all featured in Life and Death. It might also be argued that the role of Smug among his fellow clowns is greatly reduced in Merry Devil, but one must also remember that we have an incomplete text, and possibly transmitted to Arthur Johnson in a manner as the Q1 Merry Wives (which was formerly described as bad): that is to say largely reliant on the parts of the actor playing the Host.
Given the wildly differing narratives between Merry Devil and Life and Death, two clear probabilities emerge. Either Merry Devil came first, and a fan of that play reworked the events he saw there into a book of jests to capitalize on the popularity of the show (which was likely written in 1603 and popular on the London stage by 1604), or an author or authors familiar with an already circulating pamphlet (perhaps even a manuscript publication) reworked the events there described into a romantic comedy for the stage.
There is no way of knowing which of these scenarios, or if some other, is correct, but I once again cannot help but think of the Marx Brothers, whose work provided so much inspiration for our productions. I have compared Merry Devil to A Night at the Opera; a central love drama is transformed into a comedy with a happy ending by an unrelated group of wild and crazy guys trying to get ahead in the world. That film, however, represents the middle period in the Marx Brother's films; their earlier work had a tendency to feature the wild and crazy guys trying to get ahead in the world, and proceeded from one bit to the next. Duck Soup is the classic example of these films, and Life and Death tends to follow this mold.
Again, as Tom Berger would say, let us be wary of applying post-Enlightenment thinking to pre-Enlightenment work, but the plot of the lovers and the plot of the clowns in Merry Devil is distinct enough that it is conceivable that each plot has its own source, and Merry Devil represents a conflation of these. Life and Death could conceivably be the source for the clown plot and the Famous History of Friar Bacon, which was likely the inspiration of Robert Greene's Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay, would serve as an equally viable source for the lover's plot if it were indeed available in manuscript before it's printing (which it would have to be to inspire Greene's play).
The history of the London stage is one of adaptation, conflation, and collaboration, and if Merry Devil is an example of this, it stands in very good company.