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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IV. Prose and Poetry: Sir Thomas North to Michael Drayton.

IV. Early English Tragedy

§ 11. Gismond of Salerne and its sources: motives of its authors

Jocasta did not advance English tragedy on its destined way; indeed, on the whole, the movement is backwards, for its authors not only showed less originality than their predecessors by adopting the method of translation, but, in other respects, their efforts are more imitative than independent. Neither tragedy had employed the resource of romantic passion, and it seemed, therefore, as if there were a real opportunity for development when Gismond of Salerne was presented in 1567–8 by “the worshipful company of the Inner-Temple Gentlemen.”

  • The tragedy was by them most pithily framed, and no less curiously acted in view of her Majesty, by whom it was then as princely accepted, as of the whole honourable audience notably applauded: yea, and of all men generally desired, as a work, either in stateliness of show, depth of conceit, or true ornaments of poetical art, inferior to none of the best in that kind: no, were the Roman Seneca the censurer.
  • So pronounces William Webbe, author of A Discourse of English Poetrie, in the letter prefixed to the revised (1591) edition of the play, and addressed to the editor, Robert Wilmot. From the initials appended to each act in this edition, it appears that act II was written by Henry Noel, act IV by Christopher Hatton and act V by Wilmot himself; the authors of act I (Rod. Staf.) and act III (G. Al.) have not yet been identified. The plot is taken from Boccaccio’s first novel of the fourth day, which had already been used by Italian dramatists, though our authors were indebted to none of these. They went directly to the Italian text of the Decameron, and not, as has been generally supposed, to the translation of the tale just published in The Palace of Pleasure, for their version is closer to the original, and in some important particulars more accurate, than Painter’s. For instance, Ghismonda, in her lament over her dead lover, says: Ahi dolcissimo albergo di tutti i miei piaceri, maladetta sia la crudeltá di colui, che con gli occhi della fronte or mi ti fa vedere. Assai m’era con quegli della mente riguardarti a ciascuna ora. This is translated by Painter:
  • Oh sweete harboroughe of my pleasures, cursed be the crueltye of him that hath caused mee at this time to loke uppon thee with the eyes of my face: it was pleasure ynoughe, to see thee every hower, amonges people of knowledge and understanding;
  • a grotesque misconception of the phrase, con quegli della mente. Wilmot reproduced the meaning of the original and passages might be quoted to show that his collaborators also had Boccaccio’s text before them, and were not content to rely on
  • 1 Ah pleasant harborrow of my hartës thought.
  • Ah swete delight, joy, comfort of my life.
  • Ah cursed be his crueltie that wrought
  • thee this despite, and unto me such grefe,
  • to make me to behold thus with these eyes
  • thy woefull hart, and force me here to see
  • this dolefull sight. Alas, did not suffise
  • that with my hartes eyen continually
  • I did behold the same? (Act V, sc. 2, 25–33.)
  • Painter’s translation, which, indeed, is often inadequate. The story is one of the most tragic in the Decameron, and offers an excellent subject for dramatic treatment. Boccaccio’s passionwrought and desperate heroine, with her fearless assertion of the claims of nature and love against those of social convention, is a magnificent centre of interest for the tragic stage; but all this advantage, ready to their hand in the original story, the English dramatists laid aside. Gismond’s lover is no longer un giovane valletto, but “the Counté Palurine,” and she herself is not so much a victim of love as a terrible example of disordered passion. Moral considerations prevented the Inner Temple gentlemen from making Gismond their heroine. “Herein they all agree,” Wilmot writes, “commending virtue, detesting vice, and lively deciphering their overthrow that suppress not their unruly affections.” It was necessary, therefore, to make a complete change from Boccaccio’s point of view and method of treatment. Part of the original material was transferred to other speakers or different occasions. Thus, Ghismonda’s reflection that the spirit of her dead lover still lingers near, awaiting hers, is applied by the English dramatists to her dead husband; and her plea to her father that the flesh is weak is made more respectable—and much less effective—by putting it into the mouth of the aunt, Lucrece, and placing it before, instead of after, the event. Moreover, the chorus hold up “worthy dames,” such as Penelope and Lucrece, as “a mirrour and a glasse to womankinde,” and exhort their hearers to resist Cupid’s assaults and be content with a moderate and virtuous affection (choruses II, III, IV). An epilogue (of the kind which, no doubt, would have been recited by “sweet bully Bottom”) assures the ladies in the audience that such inordinate passions are unknown “in Britain land”:
  • Nor Pluto heareth English ghostes complaine
  • our dames disteined lyves. Therfore ye may
  • be free from fere. Suffiseth to mainteine
  • the vertues which we honor in yow all:
  • so as our Britain ghostes, when life is past,
  • may praise in heven, not plaine in Plutoes hall
  • our dames, but hold them vertuous and chast,
  • worthy to live where furie never came,
  • where Love can see, and beares no deadly bowe.
  • In this way, the interests of morality and the authors’ reputations were saved, but at the sacrifice of much that was valuable in the original story, which the dramatists supplemented from other sources. Their thoughts, naturally, would be directed to classical examples of unhappy passion—Phaedra and Dido. The latter had been made the subject of a tragedy by Dolce (1547), and to this, undoubtedly, our authors had recourse. At the opening of their play, Cupid comes down from heaven and speaks the following lines:

  • Loe I, in shape that seme unto your sight
  • a naked boy, not clothed but with wing,
  • am that great god of love that with my might
  • do rule the world, and everie living thing.
  • This one hand beares vain hope, short joyfull state,
  • with faire semblance the lover to allure:
  • this other holdes repentance all to late,
  • warr, fiër, blood, and paines without recure.
  • On swete ambrosia is not my foode,
  • nor nectar is my drink, as to the rest
  • of all the Goddes. I drink the lovers blood,
  • and eate the living hart within his brest.
  • Cupid, likewise, opens Dolce’s Didone, and the lines quoted above are merely a translation and re-arrangement of the Italian original:
  • Io, che dimostro in viso,
  • A la statura, e à i panni,
  • D’esser picciol fanciullo,
  • Si come voi mortale:
  • Son quel gran Dio, che’l mondo chiama Amore.
  • Quel, che pò in cielo, e in terra,
  • Et nel bollente Averno;
  • Contra di cui non vale
  • Forza, ne human consiglio:
  • Ne d’ambrosia mi pasco,
  • Si come gli altri Dei,
  • Ma di sangue, e di pianto.
  • Ne l’una mano io porto
  • Dubbia speme, fallace, e breve gioia;
  • Ne l’altra affanno, e noia,
  • Pene, sospiri, e morti.
  • There are other parallels of less importance, but, as the play proceeded, the divergence in the development of the plot of Didone made it less suitable to the purpose of our authors, and they supplied their lack of invention with commonplaces taken direct from Seneca. As Dolce had done the same, it is hard to say whether a great deal of act I is taken from the Italian’s borrowings or from the Latin original, but there are Senecan reminiscences, at first or second hand, from Phaedra, Medea, Thyestes, Oedipus, Agamemnon, Hercules Furens, Hercules Oetaeus and Octavia. The chorus of act II was. no doubt, suggested by Octavia, 298–312 and 689–695. Act III lays Octavia and Phaedra under extensive contribution. The opening of act IV, by Megaera, is taken direct from Thyestes, and the invocation of Jove’s thunder at the beginning of scene 2 may have been suggested by the same play or by Phaedra, 679–690. This stock device (which may be traced back to Sophocles: Electra, 823–6) had already been used in Gorboduc (end of act III, sc. 1); and the original passage in Phaedra is misquoted in Titus Andronicus, act IV, sc. 1 81–82. But it is in act V of Gismond of Salerne that Seneca is most openly plundered. Lines 1–2, 21–38, 40–42, 45–68, 149–167, 182–188 and 207–208 are merely translations of Seneca, chiefly from Thyestes.