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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.

X. Plays of Uncertain Authorship Attributed to Shakespeare

§ 4. A Yorkshire Tragedy

A Yorkshire Tragedy resembles Arden of Feversham in its unflinching realism, as well as in being a dramatisation of a tragic occurrence in the annals of English domestic life. The event which it memorises took place at Calverley hall, Yorkshire, early in 1605, and was recorded very fully by an anonymous pamphleteer, very briefly by Stow in his Chronicle, by a ballad writer and, lastly, by two dramatists—the authors of The Miseries of Inforst Mariage and A Yorkshire Tragedy respectively. The former play, which was first published in 1607, was by George Wilkins; the latter, after being acted at the Globe theatre, was entered on the Stationers’ register on 2 May, 1608, as “by Wylliam Shakespere,” and published in the same year with his name upon the title-page. Wilkins, appalled by the tragic gloom of the story, alters the facts and brings his play to a happy ending; but the author of the ten short, breathless scenes which make up A Yorkshire Tragedy spares us none of the harrowing details. Keeping very close to the version of the pamphleteer, he furnishes a record of the last act in a rake’s progress to the gallows, and, delighting in the relentless analysis of criminality, sacrifices everything for the sake of the criminal. The wife—a faintly-outlined Griselda of the Yorkshire dales—the various “gentlemen,” and the “Master of a College,” are little more than lay-figures grouped around the central character, the master of Calverley hall.

In him, we encounter a being of strange complexity of character; at first sight a mere wastrel and ruffian, we realise, as the play advances, the tragic fascination that he exercises. Brought to a sense of his evil ways by the Master of a College, he expresses in soliloquy thoughts which carry with them a haunting power: “O, would virtue had been forbidden! We should then have proved all virtuous; for ’t is our blood to love what we are forbidden.” The soliloquy ended, a tragic surprise awaits the reader: remorse, which seems to be driving the husband to repentance, is suddenly turned in a new direction by the impulse of ancestral pride; and, instead of a repentant sinner, we are confronted with a murderer, red-handed with the blood of his own children, whom he slays lest they shall live “to ask an usurer bread.” The closing scene, though it contains Calverley’s infinitely pathetic speech, made over his children’s corpses—

  • Here’s weight enough to make a heart-string crack,…
  • is unequal to what has gone before.

    There is no sufficient reason for ascribing the play to Shakespeare. Powerful as it is, the workmanship is not Shakespearean, and the fact that a play written about 1606–7 should introduce rime into some twenty-five per cent. of the total number of verses is, in itself, it would appear, ample proof that the ascription of the title-page is unwarranted.