Home  »  Volume V: English THE DRAMA TO 1642 Part One  »  § 27. Promos and Cassandra

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

V. Early English Comedy

§ 27. Promos and Cassandra

George Whetstone’s Promos and Cassandra, printed in 1578, is another tragicomedy in direct line of succession to Damon and Pithias. It is based on one of the tales in Giraldi Cinthio’s Hecatommithi, though the names of the leading figures are changed, as they were to be changed yet again by Shakespeare when in his Measure for Measure, founded on Whetstone’s play, he gave to the story its final and immortal form. Whetstone’s sense of the importance of design and structure is seen in his prefatory statement, that he had divided “the whole history into two commedies, for that, Decorum used, it would not be convayed in one.” Thus the story of the self-righteous deputy Promos, who seduces Cassandra by a promise of pardon to her condemned brother, Andrugio, is dramatised in two parts, each, after the orthodox classical pattern, divided into five acts. Yet the necessity for so complex and formal a scheme arises largely from the fact, not mentioned by the playwright, that with the overmastering English instinct for elaboration and realism, he adds a comic underplot, in which the courtesan Lamia is the chief figure. This underplot is much more closely linked to the main theme than is the humorous interlude in Damon and Pithias, for it heightens the impression of general social demoralisation and of hypocrisy in officials of every grade. With its far from ineffective portrayal of several characters new to English drama, and with its sustained level of workmanlike though uninspired alexandrines and decasyllabic lines, including some passages of blank verse, Promos and Cassandra is the most typical example of an original romantic play before the period of Shakespeare’s immediate predecessors.