Home  »  Volume V: English THE DRAMA TO 1642 Part One  »  § 8. Gorboduc and its political significance: its advance on Senecan Tragedy and early Tragicomedy

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

§ 8. Gorboduc and its political significance: its advance on Senecan Tragedy and early Tragicomedy

No student of our drama, from Sir Philip Sidney onwards, has failed to recognise the enormous step in advance made by Thomas Norton and Thomas Sackville in Gorboduc, first acted, before Queen Elizabeth, in January, 1562. Its imitation of Seneca’s form and style is obvious; yet it shows independence, not only in the choice of a native theme, but in the spirit in which it is treated. Sidney praised it not only as “full of stately speeches, and well sounding phrases, clyming to the height of Seneca his stile,” but also as “full of notable moralitie, which it doth most delightfully teach, and so obtayne the very end of Poesie.” It is significant that the publisher of the third edition in 1590 printed Gorboduc as an annex to Lydgate’s politicomoral tract, The Serpent of Dissension. A modern critic says that “the play is rather a political argument than a simple tragedy.” This overstates the case; but the didactic intention of the dramatists is obvious enough. The “argument,” after recounting the tragic fate of the principal characters, continues:

  • The nobilitie assembled and most terribly destroyed the rebels. And afterwards for want of issue of the prince, whereby the succession of the crowne became uncertaine, they fell to civill warre, in which both they and many of their issues were slaine, and the land for a long time almost desolate and miserably wasted.
  • To these consequences for the realm at large, the whole of the last act is given up; and, from the very beginning of the tragedy, its political significance is insisted on. The first dumb-show is directed particularly to this end.
  • Hereby was signified, that a state knit in unitie doth continue strong against all force. But being divided, is easely destroyed. As befell upon Duke Gorboduc dividing his land to his two sonnes which he before held in Monarchie.
  • Nearly all the dialogue of the play—for the incidents occur off the stage—is delivered in the council chamber. The opening scene, it is true, consists of a private conversation between Ferrex and his mother; but the longest passage in it is an elaborate political commonplace. After this short introductory scene, containing less than seventy lines in all, we have, in the first act, nothing but discussions in the king’s council, his decision to divide the realm between his two sons being all that can properly be described as action. Ferrex and Porrex, each with his good and his evil counsellor, occupy the whole of act II. In act III, we are back in Gorboduc’s council chamber, and the only incident is recounted by a messenger. With act IV, according to the printer of the first edition, Sackville’s part begins; and this division is borne out by the fact that the remaining acts show greater power of thought and vigour of versification, more variety of tone and richness of character and incident. The speech of Porrex in his own defence has more dramatic significance than anything the English stage had yet known; the incident of the attempted poisoning, introduced by the dramatist into the story for the first time, and not mentioned in acts I–III, and the young prince’s remorse at his brother’s death, engage the sympathy of the audience for his own untimely end, which is recounted with many natural and moving touches by Marcella, an eye-witness of the assassination, and, therefore, able to communicate more passion than the conventional messenger. But, with act V, we are once more in the dull round of political disquisition, broken only by the soliloquy in which Fergus reveals his ambitious designs. The tragedy ends with obvious allusion to the political situation of the day:
  • Such one (my lordes) let be your chosen king,
  • Such one so borne within your native land,
  • Such one preferre, and in no wise admitte
  • The heavie yoke of forreine governaunce:
  • Let forreine titles yelde to publike wealth.
  • One wonders how the queen took this, and, still more, how she received the advice directed to her in the concluding speech:

  • This, this ensues, when noble men do faile
  • In loyall trouth, and subjectes will be kinges.
  • And this doth growe when loe unto the prince,
  • Whom death or sodeine happe of life bereaves,
  • No certaine heire remaines, such certaine heire,
  • As not all onely is the rightfull heire
  • But to the realme is so made knowen to be,
  • And trouth therby vested in subjectes hartes,
  • To owe fayth there where right is knowen to rest.
  • Alas, in Parliament what hope can be,
  • When is of Parliament no hope at all?
  • Which, though it be assembled by consent,
  • Yet is not likely with consent to end,
  • While eche one for him selfe, or for his frend,
  • Against his foe, shall travaile what he may.
  • While now the state left open to the man,
  • That shall with greatest force invade the same,
  • Shall fill ambicious mindes with gaping hope;
  • When will they once with yelding hartes agree?
  • Or in the while, how shall the realme be used?
  • No, no: then Parliament should have bene holden,
  • And certeine heirs appointed to the crowne,
  • To stay the title of established right,
  • And in the people plant obedience
  • While yet the prince did live, whose name and power
  • By lawfull sommons and authoritie
  • Might make a Parliament to be of force,
  • And might have set the state in quiet stay.
  • At the beginning of her reign, Elizabeth had given orders that “common Interludes in the Englishe tongue” should refrain from handling “either matters of religion or of the governaunce of the estate of the common weale,” “beyng no meete matters to be wrytten or treated upon, but by menne of aucthoritie, learning, and wisedome, nor to be handled before any audience but of grave and discrete persons.” Presumably, the queen thought that these conditions were fulfilled at the Christmas revels of the Inner Temple in 1561–2; for, a few days later, the tragedy was repeated before her in her own hall; and, in 1563, Norton presented the same arguments as those of the passage cited above on behalf of a committee of the House of Commons in a petition for the limitation of the succession to the crown.