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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.

IV. Early English Tragedy

§ 9. Introduction of intermedii

It is clear that our first tragedy is very far from being a servile imitation of Seneca. Its authors took over his general scheme of five acts divided by choruses, his counsellors and messengers, his rhetorical style and grave sententious precepts; in the reflective passages, one often detects an echo of the Roman original, though there is little direct imitation of phraseology, such as came to be the fashion later. The plot bears a general resemblance to that of Seneca’s fragmentary Thebais; but the story is taken from Geoffrey of Monmouth, and, as we have seen, it is developed on independent lines. The direct stimulus to production probably came from Italian example; but the authors modified the custom of the Italian stage to suit their own ideas. It had long been the practice in Italy to enliven dramatic performances with spectacular entertainments between the acts, called intermedii. We have noted such representations above in connection with Filostrato e Panfila, and they were the invariable accompaniments of the early productions of comedy, both in Latin and in the vernacular. In tragedy, they were of rarer occurrence, choruses usually taking their place; they were almost always allegorical in character; sometimes they had relation to the subject of the play, sometimes not; and they were presented both with and without words. Though they figure largely in contemporary accounts of dramatic entertainments, they were not always included in printed editions of the plays; but Dolce published those used to adorn the performance of his Troiane (1566), and these may serve as an example of the type. After the first act of the tragedy, there was a discourse between the chorus and Trojan citizens on the misfortunes of their country; after the second, Pluto appeared with the ghosts of the Trojan slain; after the third, Neptune and the council of the gods; after the fourth, other deities, especially Venus and Juno. The spectators often paid more attention to these intermedii than to the drama, to the disgust of dramatists, who were loud in their complaints; and a contemporary critic remarks that they were of special interest to foreign visitors, who did not understand Italian. It can hardly be doubted that this Italian practice gave the authors of Gorboduc a hint for the establishment of a similar custom on the Elizabethan stage. But, here again, they showed a certain originality. They connected their allegorical dumb-shows with the subject of the tragedy, and, by making them precede each act, instead of following, as was the rule in Italy, gave them new weight and significance. They were no longer mere shows, distracting the spectator from the main theme of the drama, but helps to the understanding of it. Norton and Sackville, doubtless, were familiar with such allegorical representations at London, Coventry and elsewhere, as independent tableaux in honour of the festival of a patron saint or a royal visit, and they followed Italian example only in using them for the purposes of tragedy. In the fourth dumbshow, the three furies come “from under the stage, as though out of hell”; and this, as well as the phrase in Machyn’s diary with reference to the second performance, “ther was a grett skaffold in the hall,” seems to indicate that the stage of Gorboduc was, substantially, that of the miracle-plays. In the observance of stage proprieties, the authors follow strict classical usage, for all the events are reported, and the realism of the native drama is carefully eschewed. But, in other respects, they are more lax, or inclined to compromise. The play begins, in the conventional Senecan fashion, with an allusion to the dawn; but the practice of Italian tragedy and the precepts of the Italian interpreters of Aristotle’s Poetics are disregarded, as Sidney lamented in his Apologie:

  • For it is faulty both in place, and time, the two necessary companions of all corporall actions. For where the stage should alwaies represent but one place, and the uttermost time presupposed in it should be, both by Aristotle’s precept and common reason, but one day; there is both many dayes and many places inartificially imagined.
  • Whether this were accident or design, it secured to English tragedy from the beginning a liberty which all the efforts of Sidney’s group of stricter classicists could not do away with.

    Gorboduc seems to have found no imitators immediately: it was not published till 1565, and then surreptitiously. At King’s college, Cambridge, in 1564, the queen saw “a Tragedie named Dido, in hexametre verse, without anie chorus,” and “an English play called Ezechias, made by Mr. Udall.” At Christmas, 1564, as we have seen, Damon and Pithias by Richard Edwardes was acted at Whitehall; and, in 1566, his Palamon and Arcyte was presented before the queen in the hall of Christ Church, Oxford, as well as a Latin play, called Marcus Geminus. But, of these, only Damon and Pithias has come down to us, and its freedom from classical influence has been already noted. When, however, the members of Gray’s inn presented a comedy and a tragedy in 1566, they obviously took as their model for the latter the drama which had been acted with much applause by the gentlemen of the Inner Temple, and which had just been published.