Home  »  Volume V: English THE DRAMA TO 1642 Part One  »  § 3. Antony Munday’s career (1553–1633) and industry as a writer

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

XIII. Lesser Elizabethan Dramatists

§ 3. Antony Munday’s career (1553–1633) and industry as a writer

In considering the work of these men, upon whose output for six years a sudden light is thrown by Henslowe’s papers, we propose to follow a chronological order so far as may be, and to begin with the older men who were practised hands at the date when Henslowe’s payments are first recorded. Fortunately, there is one whom we may safely look upon as the senior of our group, and choose as a natural centre round which the work of the rest may be grouped, or from which it may bederived. This is the comedian Anthony Munday, spoken of by Meres as “our best plotter,” perhaps because of his seniority and experience as a hewer and trimmer of plays rather than with any reference to his faculty for conducting a plot in the modern sense of the term. Of the lesser Elizabethan dramatists, Munday is the most considerable, interesting and typical. In his general versatility, his copiousness and his reliance upon himself and upon life for his learning and culture, he corresponds, on his own level, to Shakespeare and Ben Jonson on the heights. His long life, moreover, of eighty years (1553–1633) covers the whole of the Elizabethan and Jacobean era of dramatic activity. He was born before Shakespeare; Jonson survived him only by four years. He was a Londoner, and had some experience as an actor before his apprenticeship, in 1576, to John Allde, stationer and printer. In 1578, he undertook a journey to Rome, to see foreign countries and to learn their languages, according to his own account; but, also, with the less creditable object of spying upon English Catholics abroad, and getting together materials for popular pamphlets against them on his return to England. After interesting adventures on the way, he reached Rome, and was entertained at the English college, so that he came to describe himself as “sometime the Pope’s scholar.” His experiences were detailed in a pamphlet published in 1582, with the title The English Romayne Life. This was a rejoinder to a tract, printed in 1581, in the Catholic interest, from which we get some interesting lights upon Munday’s early connection with the stage. He was “first a stage player,” says the pamphlet, “after” (i.e. afterwards) “an apprentice.” On his return from Italy, “this scholar did play extempore” and was “hissed from his stage,” “Then being thereby discouraged he set forth a ballad against plays; but yet (O constant youth) he now again begins to ruffle upon the stage.”

This is to say that Munday attempted to achieve fame in that special department of the Elizabethan player’s art of which Robert Wilson and Richard Tarlton were the most distinguished ornaments. The extemporising clown not only supplied the humorous element of the interlude, but, also, he was frequently called for after the play was over, when he performed a jig, accompanied by some kind of recitative of his own composing in prose or verse. The audience might challenge him to rime on any subject, and Tarlton’s facility was so remarkable that “Tarletonishing” is used as equivalent to extemporising. There is extant a “platt” or programme of the second part of The Seven Deadly Sins, which is said to have been the composition of Tarlton; and, probably, such skeleton plays, in which actors were expected to fill in their parts extempore, were not uncommon in the early days of the Elizabethan drama. Tarlton’s successor in the esteem of the public as a clown actor was William Kemp. It is easy to see from “Kemp’s applauded Merriments of the Men of Gotham,” which is inserted in A Knack to Know a Knave, how inevitably the improvising clown, with his license to introduce his own additions, was a discordant and incalculable element in the play, and hindered the development of artistic drama. The extempore clown of real genius usually failed as an author; but Robert Wilson was a remarkable exception. His two interludes, The Three Ladies of London, and The Three Lords and Three Ladies of London, are specimens of belated interludes modified in the direction of true drama by the life and the reality imported into the interlude by the extempore actor. It is from these interludes that Munday’s work derives.

Munday’s ballad writing is an important part of his earlier career. It put him into contact with the folklore of England, and had an appreciable influence on his dramatic work. It was so energetic that, by 1592, he looked upon himself as having some sort of monopoly of the art. Another of his activities, which was not without its influence upon the dramatists of the age, was his diligent translation of French romances, such asAmadis de Gaule and Palmerin of England. When Ben Jonson satirises him as Balladino, there is a double allusion to his ballad writing and to his Palladino of England, translated from the French.