Home  »  Volume V: English THE DRAMA TO 1642 Part One  »  § 12. Transformation of the May-game into the Robin Hood Plays

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

II. Secular Influences on the Early English Drama

§ 12. Transformation of the May-game into the Robin Hood Plays

Another instance of folk-festivals turned into plays and modified by the introduction of principal characters of later date is the development of the May-game into the Robin Hood play. From the earliest times, dance and song had celebrated the coming of spring; and we have seen the elements of drama in the amoebaean form of the reverdies as well as in the use of the cantilenae. In France, a direct descent can be traced from the chansons of the folk to the plays of Adam de la Halle; the lack of English folk-song makes a corresponding deduction impossible with regard to English drama. But it is known that, both in spring or summer and in autumn, a “king,” or “queen,” or both, were appointed leaders of the revel; and the May-game—the “Whitsun Pastorals” to which Perdita in The Winter’s Tale (act IV, sc. 4) likens her play with the flowers—was protested against by the clergy as early as the thirteenth century.

The influence of the May-game on the drama may be traced in such plays as The Winter’s Tale, Chapman’s May Day and Jonson’s Sad Shepherd; but it achieves its highest importance through an impetus towards the dramatic form derived from the minstrels. In France, Robin, as we see from de la Halle’s plays, was the type-name of the shepherd lover, and Marion of his mistress. It is suggested that these names were brought to England by French minstrels, and that here, by the sixteenth century, Robin became confused with the Robin Hood (or à-Wood) who first appears in Piers the Plowman, but who, perhaps, had, long before this time, been a popular hero of the ballads, his origin being purely fictitious, or, perhaps, nothing less than the personality of Woden himself. Robin becoming Robin Hood, Marion became Maid Marian, who does not appear at all in the earliest ballads; the May-game king and queen were now the central figures of a story, in which subsidiary characters—Friar Tuck, Little John, the sheriff of Nottingham and others—found their places; and the old May-game—probably consisting merely of dances, processional or circular, with the inevitable quête or collection, still maintained by small boys who go a-maying in the streets of London—was transformed into the Robin Hood play. The Paston letters mention a servant who played Robin Hood and the sheriff of Nottingham. A fragment of such a play dating from the fifteenth century is extant. And the Garrick collection in the British Museum includes a “mery geste” of Robin Hood, “wyth a newe playe for to be played in Maye games” printed about 1561.In Scotland the play of Robin Hood survived, in spite of Puritan protest and of legal prohibition, at least till 1578; and in England the new drama was not slow to avail itself of the story. Anthony Munday was writing for Henslowe in February, 1598, a Downfall and Death of Robert Earl of Huntingdon, “surnamed Roben hoode,” and introduced him again in his pageant, Metropolis Coronata (1615). He appeared, also, in Haughton’s Roben hood’s penerthes and other lost plays, as well as in Peele’s Edward I, Greene’s George a Greene—the Pinner of Wakefield and the anonymous Look About You. After the Restoration, he is to be found in Robin Hood and his Crew of Soldiers (1661). At least four other Robin Hood plays or operas are noticed in Biographia Dramatica, and a recent production in London proves that the public is not yet tired of the old story. More important, however, than the actual subject is the fact that Robin Hood, whatever his origin, became a national hero, and, as such, was celebrated in the drama. The new national spirit awakened in the days of Elizabeth was destined to extend this narrow field into the spacious domain of the chronicle play.