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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

§ 19. The relations between Locrine and Selimus

The Lamentable Tragedie of Locrine (Newly set foorth, overseene and corrected. By W. S. 1595) is a play of unusual interest, not only because of the questions of authorship it raises, but because of its combination of the diverse streams of influence to which the drama was by this time subject. It adopts the dumb-shows of academic tragedy, with Até as chorus; it has two ghosts and a duplicated revenge motive; the opening scene is imitated from Gorboduc; and there are numerous transcripts from Seneca. But it has also a large and lively comic element and a good deal of stage fighting, and it borrows freely from Kyd, Marlowe, Greene, Peele and Lodge, and from Spenser’s Complaints (entered in the Stationers’ register 29 December, 1590, and containing, in The Ruines of Time, a reference to the death of Sir Francis Walsingham, 6 April, 1590). The dramatist has been accused of borrowing from another play, very similar in style, The First part of the Tragicall raigne of Selimus (printed 1594); but, in this case, the obligation seems to be the other way. The contributions to this interesting controversy have been numerous and varied. Tieck marked a number of parallels between Locrine and Spenser’s Complaints in his copy of the fourth folio of Shakespeare; but these were first published, with a few additions by R. Brotanek, in 1900. P. A. Daniel had already drawn attention to the almost identical passages in Locrine and Selimus. Charles Crawford, who had undertaken the same investigation at the instigation of Grosart, charged the author of Locrine with wholesale “cribbing” from Selimus, supporting the accusation with an elaborate array of parallel passages. Emil Koeppel’s attention was called to Crawford’s articles by a summary of them published in the Shakespeare Jahrbuch; and, after an examination of the text, he arrived at an exactly opposite conclusion, viz. that Selimus borrowed from Locrine. The same conclusion had been reached independently by F. G. Hubbard of the university of Wisconsin, and has since been supported by him with further evidence in a paper to which he kindly gave the present writer access before its publication. It is pointed out that the comic scene in Locrine, which is paralleled in Selimus, stands alone in the latter play, while, in Locrine, there is much other low humour of the same kind in connection with the same characters. Hubbard adds to this argument in favour of the priority of Locrine some important considerations with reference to the lines in both plays taken from Spenser’s Complaints. Locrine has many such lines not found in Selimus, but (with the possible exception of a single line) Selimus has nothing from the Complaints not found in Locrine. Moreover, one of these borrowed lines in Selimus is followed by five other lines not found in the Complaints, but found in Locrine. A consideration of the whole passage in Locrine and its relation to the parallel lines in Selimus and the Complaints bears out the contention that the borrowings from the Complaints in Selimus were made through Locrine. The following parallels in the two plays show that the author of the later drama outheroded Herod in the current practice of plagiarism: Locrine, 1303–6:

  • Where I may damne, condemne and ban my fill,
  • The heavens, the hell, the earth, the aire, the fire,
  • And utter curses to the concave skie,
  • Which may infect the aiery regions.
  • Selimus, 1803–5:

  • Now Bajazet will ban another while,
  • And utter curses to the concave skie,
  • Which may infect the regions of the ayre.
  • Locrine, 793–6:

  • And but thou better use thy bragging blade,
  • Then thou doest rule thy overflowing toong,
  • Superbious Brittaine, thou shalt know too soone
  • The force of Humber and his Scithians.
  • Selimus, 2457–60:

  • But thou canst better use thy bragging blade,
  • Then thou canst rule thy overflowing tongue,
  • Soone shalt thou know that Selims mightie arme
  • Is able to overthrow poore Tonombey.
  • All this does not help us much as to the authorship of the two plays, except negatively. It seems fairly certain that they were not written by the same man, for it is unlikely that even an Elizabethan dramatist would repeat himself to the extent indicated above, and, as Crawford pointed out, Selimus has numerous borrowings from The Faerie Queene, while Locrine has none. The light thrown on the respective dates of the two plays is more significant. Locrine, in its present shape, cannot have been completed before 1591, when Spenser’s Complaints was published. Subsidiary proof of this is found by Hubbard in the line near the end of act V, “One mischief follows on another’s neck,” apparently copied from Tancred and Gismund (pub. 1591, with prefatory letter dated 8 August, 1591)—“One mischief brings another on his neck”—a line not given in the earlier MS. version of the play. Selimus was later than Locrine, from which it copied, and, as Greene died on 3 September, 1592, this brings the issue of his authorship of the play within narrow limits. The dates also disprove Crawford’s theory that Selimus was Marlowe’s first play.