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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.

XIII. Lesser Elizabethan Dramatists

§ 5. His extant Plays founded on Ballads and Folk-lore

The first extant play which is certainly Munday’s is John a Kent and John a Cumber, of which we have a transcript dated December, 1595. Fleay has very plausibly conjectured that this is identical with The Wiseman of West Chester, which was produced at the Rose by the Admiral’s men on 2 December, 1594, and was very popular. Henslowe mentions thirty-one performances within three years. On lines laid down by Greene in Frier Bacon and Frier Bongay, it describes the “tug for maistree” between the two wizards John a Kent and John a Cumber. When the play opens, the two heroines, Sidanen and Marian, are preparing a strong confection of deadly aconite, which they propose to drink with the husbands presently to beforced upon them, the earls of Morton and Pembroke. But the romantic side of the story is entirely subordinated to the wiles and disguisings by which the wizards succeed in getting possession of the heroines, first for one set of lovers and then for the other. Finally, by the subtlety of John a Kent, Sir Griffin and lord Powis win their brides. The power of the wizards to disguise and transform, and the masking of the “antiques,” make the play a maze of errors not easy to follow. With this main action, the comic scenes of “Turnop with his Crewe of Clownes and a Minstrell” are mingled in pleasant confusion. “Turnop and his Crew” are not unworthy of being mentioned in the same breath with Bottom and his mates. Munday’s play is a humble variation of the dramatic type of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. But another parallel with Shakespeare’s work is even more interesting. Shrimp, John a Kent’s familiar, makes himself invisible and, by music in the air, leads his master’s enemies astray till they lie down to sleep from weariness. It throws light upon Shakespeare’s mind and imagination rather than upon Munday’s to suppose that Munday’s play gave hints for the character of Ariel and the exquisite poetry of The Tempest; but the earlier play, in its brightness and sweetness and wholesomeness, was worthy of supplying the ground upon which Shakespeare’s feet stood—the point of departure for his mind—when he created his own masterpiece.

This play shows that Munday was interested in English folklore. His next play is a further incursion into the same type of drama, which may be looked upon, in some respects, as a variety of the chronicle play, and, in others, as a variety of the romantic play of which Fedele and Fortunio was a specimen. As in John a Kent and John a Cumber, historical characters are brought into the play and mixed up with folklore. Munday’s new subject is the Robin Hood cycle of legends and ballads, which had been connected with dramatic representations early in the sixteenth, and even in the fifteenth, century. It is worth noticing that a line in Fedele and Fortunio, “Robin-goodfellowe, Hobgoblin, the devil and his dam,” cannot have been a literal translation from the Italian. Munday’s treatment of the Robin Hood story ran into two parts. Part 1, when the plays were printed in 1601, was entitled The Downfall of Robert, Earle of Huntington; part II was called The Death of Robert, Earle of Huntington; but both title-pages describe the earl as “called Robin Hood of merrie Sherwodde.” It would seem probable that, in a passage in the first play, we have a description of an earlier play, of which Munday’s aspires to be a reconstruction. This contained “mirthful matter full of game” and confined itself strictly to the pranks and pastimes of Robin Hood, Maid Marian, Friar Tuck and the other familiar personages of the Robin Hood May game. Munday prides himself upon adding to this the story of “noble Robert’s wrong” and “his mild forgetting” of “treacherous injury.” Fleay thinks that the old play was The Pastoral Comedy of Robin Hood and Little John, written in 1594. It cannot be claimed that the attempt to identify Robin Hood with Robert earl of Huntington, and Maid Marian with the “chaste Matilda” whom king John persecuted, is artistically successful; the two elements of history and folklore are not satisfactorily fused together. On the whole, John a Kent and John a Cumber has more artistic unity than The Downfall of Robert, Earle of Huntington. But the effort to work in the historical element is due to a true artistic instinct and aspiration. Munday wishes to raise his subject above farce and horseplay to a romantic and even tragic level. He gropes, also, after some sort of organic unity which shall make his play more than a series of incidents. An effort is made to produce sustained blank verse, which is most successful in the earl of Leicester’s account of the prowess of Richard I. For a moment, the dramatist touches the epic note of the history play, when he is fired by the thought of the deeds of Richard Cœur de Lion. But, as a whole, the historical side of the play is weak and feebly conceived. On the romantic and imaginative side, it is stronger. When Fitzwater comes upon the stage seeking “the poor man’s patron, Robin Hood,” and the life of the greenwood is described, Munday uses the riming verse which he seems always to handle more easily than blank verse, and the result may be called a pleasant and intelligent attempt to express the soul of the old English Robin Hood story. This is the soundest and best part of the play and was deservedly popular. We find in the play phrases that may have rested in the mind ofShakespeare: such are “heaven’s glorious canopy,” “made the green sea red” and, in the second part, “the multitudes of seas died red with blood”; but a more general influence upon Shakespeare’s work of Munday’s attempt to idealise and dignify the Robin Hood legend may, probably, be found in As You Like It. Munday was paid £5 for the first part of his play in February, 1598, and its vogue may have prompted Shakespeare’s picture of the forest “where they live like the old Robin Hood of England … and fleet the time carelessly as they did in the golden world.” The first part of Robin Hood was immediately succeeded by a second part, in which Munday was assisted by Henry Chettle. When the two parts were printed in 1601, The Downfall was Chettle’s revision of Munday’s play for performance at court at the end of 1598. This revision clearly consisted of the induction in which the play is set and the “Skeltonical” rimes. The Death presents a more difficult problem. Up to the death of Robin Hood, it is, in the main, Munday’s work and continues the style and tone of Munday’s combination of the Robin Hood legend with a history; but this occupies less than one third of the play, and, when Robert is dead, a new play begins dealing with the “lamentable tragedy of chaste Matilda,” and striking a tragic note quite different from anything written by Munday. At the end of The Downfall, a second play is promised us, which is to describe the funeral of Richard Cœur de Lion; and this was written in 1598, but is no longer extant. It is tempting to suppose that the opening section of The Death was written originally as a part of The Funeral of Richard Cœur de Lion; and that Chettle, when he “mended” the play for the court, cut down Munday’s work as much as he could.

In Henslowe’s diary, Munday is mentioned in connection with fifteen or, perhaps, sixteen plays, between December, 1597, and December, 1602. Of these, only two—The Downfall of Robert, Earle of Huntington and The Set at Tennis—are ascribed to his sole authorship. Munday’s most frequent collaborators are Drayton, Chettle, Wilson, Hathwaye and Dekker; Smith, Middleton and Webster are mentioned as collaborating once. Of the lost plays in which Munday had a share, we know that The Funeral of Richard Cœur de Lion continued the Robin Hood plays, while Mother Redcap and Valentine and Orsonbelonged almost certainly to the same type of play, which used sources more popular than those of either the Italian romance or the literary chronicle. These plays were founded upon ballads and chap-books and folklore. They make a clumsy use of historical motives and romantic motives and generally fail to fuse them successfully with low life scenes—with the “crew” of peasants, or “sort” of artisans—which are often the salt of the play. Sir John Oldcastle is another play in which Munday collaborated. The first part of this play has survived. It shows a distinct advance towards the “history” in the Shakespearean sense, and helps us to realise the special achievement of a genius which, on the one hand, was to create the Shakespearean romantic comedy and, on the other, the Shakespearean history. But these plays of Munday, just because there is no genius in them, are more easily perceived to be natural developments of the interlude as written by the elder Wilson. In drawing the tree of our drama’s descent, we must insert them between Shakespeare and the interludes.

A play of exactly the same genre as Munday’s plays is the anonymous Looke about you, printed 1600; and it requires some notice because, in some respects, it is the best specimen of its class. We find Robin Hood and Robert earl of Huntington identified in this play as in The Downfall and The Death. But Robin is a youth remarkable for his good looks and the ward of prince Richard, afterwards Cœur de Lion; his action in the play is subordinate. Chronologically, therefore, our play would seem to come between John a Kent and The Downfall. We are in exactly the same atmosphere of mixed history and folklore, recorded, probably, in ballads and chap-books. Some of the amateurish mannerisms of The Downfall, such as the use of “too-too,” and the doubling of words and phrases to obtain emphasis, occur in Looke about you, while the relation to the play of the two tricksters, Skink and the “humorous” earl of Gloster, is a repetition of the use made of the rival wizards in John a Kent. The earl of Gloster is, perhaps, a reminiscence in the popular mind of Robert earl of Gloster, natural son of Henry I and father-in-law of Ranulph earl of Chester, who isconnected with the meagre historical element in John a Kent. The historical part of Looke about you deals with the quarrels of the sons of Henry II and is exceptionally naïve, undignified and clownish. Skink and Gloster are a sort of double Vice. Skink is tacked on to history as the agent who administered the poison to fair Rosamond. The play opens by his appearance before parliament, where Gloster strikes him in the king’s presence. Gloster is committed to the Fleet prison for striking Skink and, after this perfunctory historical opening, the real business of the “pleasant comedy” begins with the intricate succession of disguises, personations and tricks by which Skink and Gloster deceive and bewilder their pursuers. There are reminiscences of The Comedy of Errors in the play and, still more clearly, of the Falstaff scenes in Henry IV. Old Sir Richard Fauconbridge is a far-away echo of Falstaff; there is a drawer who answers “anon”; but the glimpses of the inside of the Fleet and of London taverns are at first-hand, and bring Elizabethan London pleasantly before us. The stammering runner Redcap is a humorous character of real originality, whose tireless activity adds delightfully to the bustle and rush of the play. We should like to claim this play for Munday; but, in the historical scenes and especially in the character of prince John, we have a style which cannot be Munday’s and was, perhaps, Chettle’s. It is abrupt and extravagantly emphatic. Munday’s tragical note in The Downfall and The Death is smooth, sentimental and lachrymose; this writer’s is rough, fierce and gloomy. It is very tempting to discern in the clumsily boorish quarrels of Henry’s sons and in the fierce rant of prince John early work of Henry Chettle.

From about 1592, Munday was in the city’s service, and probably began to write pageants about that date, although his extant pageants date from 1605 to 1616. His historical and antiquarian interests brought him the friendship of Stow, and, in 1606, after Stow’s death, he was instructed by the corporation to revise the Survey of London, which revision was printed in 1618. It is probable, therefore, that Munday left off writing for the stage about 1603. His earlier career is excellently illustrated by the attacks made upon him in the course of the “war of the theatres,” which broke out at the end of the century. In The Case is Altered, Jonson introduces him asAntonio Balladino, the “pageant poet,” “when a worse cannot be had,” and makes him describe his own style as eminently “wholesome”—

  • I do use as much stale stuff, though I say it myself, as any man does in that kind I am sure.… Why, look you, Sir, I write so plain and keep that old decorum that you must of necessity like it.
  • As for the new, more elegant play, “the common sort they care not for it.” This, no doubt, was true. We must not assume that the typical Elizabethan cared only for Shakespeare and Ben Jonson. There was a large public to whom inferior plays appealed, and for whose tastes Henslowe’s group of writers very largely catered. Munday has reason when he declares, “an they ’ll give me twenty pounds a play, I ’ll not raise my vein.” Besides Jonson’s admirable raillery, we have the equally interesting lampoon of Munday in Histrio-Mastix, an early allegorical play, revised, probably by Marston, in 1599. The sketch of the “sort” of players is a vivid picture of an Elizabethan “company,” scratched hastily together, and not quite clear whose men they are:
  • Once in a week new masters we seek,
  • And never can hold together.
  • Posthast, the “pageanter” and writer of ballads, is the poet of the company, very anxious to show his skill in “extempore” riming. There is no “new luxury or blandishment” in his style, but “plenty of old England’s mothers words.” But the writings of such “ballad-mongers” and “apprentices,” says Marston, “best please the vulgar sense.”