Home  »  Volume V: English THE DRAMA TO 1642 Part One  »  § 13. The Gray’s inn Entertainment; The Misfortunes of Arthur: extent of its debt to Seneca

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

§ 13. The Gray’s inn Entertainment; The Misfortunes of Arthur: extent of its debt to Seneca

The most elaborate effort of its kind that has come down to us was the Gray’s inn entertainment presented to the queen in 1588, of which The Misfortunes of Arthur, by Thomas Hughes, was the principal feature. The dumb-shows were more complex in their apparatus and allegorical significance than ever before, and, evidently, were regarded as of primary importance, for the title of the pamphlet contemporaneously published reads: Certainedevises and shewes presented to her Majestie by the Gentlemen of Grayes-Inne at her Highnesse Court in Greene-wich, the twenty-eighth day of Februarie in the thirtieth yeare of her Majesties most happy Raigne, making no mention of the tragedy. “The dumbe showes,” we are finally informed,

  • were partly devised by Maister Christopher Yelverton, Maister Frauncis Bacon, Maister John Lancaster and others, partly by the saide Maister Flower, who with Maister Penroodocke and the said Maister Lancaster directed these proceedings at Court.
  • Alternative introductory and final speeches for Gorlois, and two alternative choruses, were provided by Flower, and the whole entertainment was prefaced by an elaborate introduction penned by Nicholas Trotte; in this, five gentlemen students were presented to her majesty as captives by one of the muses, who assured the queen that
  • since your sacred Majestie
  • In gratious hands the regall Scepter held
  • All Tragedies are fled from State, to stadge.
  • As this was in the interval between the execution of Mary queen of Scots and the coming of the Armada, the compliment was extravagant enough to satisfy even Elizabeth’s inordinate appetite for flattery; and, all things considered, it is no wonder that, a few years later, the queen said that Gray’s inn was “an House she was much beholden unto, for that it did always study for some sports to present unto her.” The study undertaken by Thomas Hughes and his collaborators in 1587–8 was no light one. Following the example of Sackville and Norton, Hughes found a subject in ancient British legend and chose the same main authority—Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae. This is proved by the adoption of the main outlines of the story as they are found in Geoffrey and of his forms of proper names—Gorlois, Igerna, Anne (Arthur’s sister), Cador, Gillamor, Cheldrich, Aschillus, Hoel, Angharad, Conan. But Hughes had recourse to other versions of the story as well—probably Malory’s Morte d’Arthur—for we have also such forms as Guenevora, Mordred, Gawin, not found in Geoffrey. The incestuous birth of Mordred, and the slaughter of Arthur and Mordred by each other’s hands, are in Malory and not in Geoffrey, who describes Mordred as Arthur’s nephew. These additional horrors, doubtless, were selected by Hughes in order to bring his theme up to the level of Senecan sensationalism. In this, he was following the classical tradition of the time, and, no doubt, pleasing the queen, whose blank verse translation from the Hercules Oetaeus is still preserved in the Bodleian library, though, according to Warton, it has “no other recommendation but its royalty.” Hughes chose as his first model the most horrible of Seneca’s tragedies, Thyestes. The ghost of Gorlois, who comes up from hell to recite the first scene, is merely the Tantali umbra of Thyestes in another guise, and lines 22–28 are translated literally from this source. In the next scene, between Guenevora and Fronia, Thyestes proved inadequate to the demands made upon it, and the words of the injured or erring wives of Agamemnon, Hercules Oetaeus and Medea are reproduced; how extensive the borrowing is may be judged from the fact that in Guenevora’s longest speech (19–47) there is only one original line (20), and that is a commonplace, quite in Seneca’s manner. In the third scene, the general relation of Guenevora to Angharad is that of Phaedra to her nurse, but Hercules Furens, Medea, Thebais and Oedipus are also put under contribution, Guenevora’s longest speech (43–54) being again taken entirely from Seneca. The conversation between Mordred and Guenevora in scene 4 is modelled on that of Aegisthus and Clytemnestra in Agamemnon; Conan, in the latter part of the scene, introduces some of the sententious precepts put into the mouth of Seneca in Octavia. Then the chorus, four in number according to establsihed tradition, recite, each in turn, a six-lined stanza: this division of the chorus, which occurs again in the dialogue of the fifth act, is the one innovation Hughes has introduced.

    It is hardly worth while to follow the dramatist in his borrowings through act II (where they are almost as extensive) and through the rest of the play to the last lines of the epilogue, which still echo Seneca; but one feature which affected Elizabethan tragedy throughout its history may be noted. The earlier dramatists had attempted, without much success, to imitate Seneca’s stichomythia. Hughes copied this staccato style of antithetical and epigrammatic dialogue very closely. The following lines, of which only the first is taken from Thyestes, may serve as an example:

  • CADOR. To rule is much. ARTHUR. Small if we covet naught. CA. Who covets not a Crowne? AR. He that discernes The swoord aloft. CA. That hangeth fast. AR. But by A haire. CA. Right holdes it up. AR. Wrong puls it downe. CA. The Commons helpe the King. AR. They sometimes hurt.
  • This device is of frequent occurrence in later tragedy, and is sometimes very effectively used by Shakespeare, e.g. in the opening scenes of Richard III and of Hamlet.

    The characters of The Misfortunes of Arthur not only indulge freely in Senecan aphorisms, but are cast in the regular Senecan moulds. Mordred is the typical usurper, Guenevora the faithless wife, and the messengers, counsellors and confidants show few gleams of personality; but an exception must be made in the case of Arthur, who, perhaps, is the first well-conceived character of English academic tragedy. Of course, he utters many Senecan commonplaces, but he is not a merely conventional type. His inclination to deal gently with his son is finely contrasted with his vigorous address to his troops when he is roused to action by Mordred’s insolent message; and his lament over his son’s body has been justly admired, in spite of a touch here and there of Senecan rhetoric. His last words breathe a dignity and mystery not unworthy of the situation:

  • Yea: though I Conquerour die, and full of Fame:
  • Yet let my death and parture rest obscure.
  • No grave I neede (O Fates) nor buriall rights,
  • Nor stately hearce, nor tombe with haughty toppe:
  • But let my Carkasse lurk: yea, let my death
  • Be ay unknowen, so that in every Coast
  • I still be feard, and lookt for every houre.
  • The blank verse of Hughes, though it is still monotonous, has more power and life than that of his predecessors; and it seems reasonable to regret that he did not rely more on his own efforts. If he had left himself free to develop his theme according to his own ideas, he would probably have filled a larger place in the history of English tragedy, though, no doubt, the Senecan patchwork he produced was more in accordance with the expectations of his audience.