A few weeks ago, Shakespeare made headlines once again. Or rather, Douglas Bruster did — thanks to, of all things, a Notes & Queries essay. Bruster’s piece argued that orthographic parallels between the Hand D sheets in the Book of Sir Thomas More manuscript and the additions to Kyd’s Spanish Tragedy first printed in the 1602 quarto of the play affirm a case recently made by a number of scholars: that Shakespeare wrote those additions. Bruster expanded on his arguments in a blog post for OUP; the most in-depth summary of the arguments is Brian Vickers’ 2012 essay in Shakespeare (Bruster’s N&Q piece is also currently available for free download).
Given the evidence summarized by Vickers, the work of other scholars over the last few decades, and Bruster’s new observations, the case for Shakespeare’s authorship seems persuasive enough to me — it’s not conclusive, but it’s very strong, and I’m happy to buy it. What I don’t buy are the theatre historical narratives offered (or implied) by these scholars to explain how Shakespeare may have had a hand in a play that hasn’t generally been linked to the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, the company in which he was a sharer in the years when he supposedly wrote the additions (the second half of the 1590s).
Bruster himself addresses the theatre historical conundrum only very briefly: “I believe that evidence will show that they were composed after A Midsummer Night’s Dream and before Much Ado About Nothing, and as bravura pieces for Richard Burbage, the lead actor of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men later celebrated for his portrayal of Hieronimo,” he writes in the blog post. Vickers, on the other hand, develops a fairly detailed theatre historical narrative — and sadly, it’s a total mess.
He starts with the pronouncement that the Spanish Tragedy “surely graced the stages of the new purpose-built theatres that were erected in 1579-80″ (13); a mere slip, I’m sure, but unfortunately indicative of what’s to come (those theatres were in fact built in 1576 and 1577…). “We know,” he continues, “that The Spanish Tragedy was revived by Lord Strange’s Men at the Rose theatre on 14 March 1592. Kyd’s play, with Edward Alleyn as Hieronimo, was a good earner for that company, for Philip Henslowe recorded 15 further performances by Strange’s Men up to 22 January 1593, with above-average takings. The Lord Admiral’s Men, Alleyn’s successor company to Strange’s, revived it again in 1597, performing it 13 times at the Rose between 7 January and 11 October. When Alleyn returned to the stage in 1601, after a three-year retirement, it was at the Fortune theatre, where the company revived two of his successes, The Jew of Malta in May, and The Spanish Tragedy in September” (13-14) — we don’t in fact know any of these things (more on this in a moment). Vickers then moves on to this howler: “A convenient reference point is Jonson’s play The Case is Altered, produced in 1599, two years after Jonson had himself acted Hieronimo for Henslowe” (14). Not only is there general agreement that The Case is Altered most likely dates from the first half of 1597 (before Jonson was imprisoned for The Isle of Dogs and the theatres were shut down for the rest of the year), Vickers’ suggestion that Jonson was a member of the Admiral’s Men in 1597 is novel to say the least. As adventurous as that proposal is, it’s meek compared to the notion that Jonson replaced Edward Alleyn as the Admiral’s lead actor! (Jonson may indeed have played Hieronimo — Dekker suggests as much in Satiromastix — but not at the Rose or “for Henslowe,” but on the road; and it’s unlikely that he was part of a major acting company while doing it.)
Things get worse from there: “Since The Spanish Tragedy had been played in London from about 1587 to 1588, and published in 1592 with no declaration on its title-page associating it with a theatre company, then, according to Elizabethan pragmatic practices neither Strange’s nor the Admiral’s Men could claim it as their exclusive property, and other companies were free to perform it” (16). I’m sure someone must have made this sort of claim before, but it has absolutely no historical basis. Whatever stationers chose to put on their title pages was completely irrelevant for the theatre companies who owned the playbooks. Exactly how plays moved between companies remains a bit of a mystery, but it’s clear from various entires in Philip Henslowe’s diary that companies regularly bought old playbooks from actors who had them in their possession — the most likely explanation, as far as I can see, is that only one manuscript bore the Master of the Revels’ licence, without which few established companies would have been inclined to perform a play. Not many Elizabethan plays were printed without title page attributions to acting companies; again, we don’t know for sure why that was, but presumably both companies and stationers saw the attribution as a marketing bonus. Could Vickers be right about what he claims were “Elizabethan pragmatic practices”? Sure: in which case the collected works of Robert Wilson, George Peele’s Edward I, and Robert Greene’s Orlando Furioso were free for all. As was Shakespeare’s 2 Henry VI (but hands off part 3). The only trouble is that there is absolutely no evidence whatsoever of such a practice. It’s an invention that happens to fit the vexing case of Kyd’s play.
So let’s have a look at that case.
What do most scholars agree on? The likeliest year of its first performance is 1587, though it may be as early as 1585 or as late as 1590. It’s in Henslowe’s diary, first as performed by Strange’s Men (at least 16 times between March 1592 and February 1593) and after that, by the Admiral’s Men (13 times between January and October 1597). In September 1601 and June 1602, the Admiral’s Men paid Ben Jonson substantial sums for additions to the play. Somewhat confusingly, it also appears that by 1601, Richard Burbage, the lead actor of the Chamberlain’s Men, may have been known in the role of Hieronimo (as the academic satirical play The Second Returne from Parnassus portrays him instructing a novice in the part). Certainly by the time of Burbage’s death in 1619, “ould Heironymoe” was one of the roles most closely associated with him — the character will die with him, a famous elegy proclaims, as will “young Hamlett,” “kind Leer,” and “the greved Moore.” Rather remarkably, The Spanish Tragedy thus was the only non-Shakespearean play the author of that lament thought to identify as uniquely linked to Burbage. In 1604, John Webster’s induction to Marston’s The Malcontent seems to suggest that the boys’ company that owned the original version of Marston’s play, the Children of the Queen’s Revels, had acted “Jeronimo” although an adult company, possibly the King’s Men, had “interest in it.” The King’s Men revising and staging The Malcontent is quid pro quo.
The generally accepted facts are tricky enough, then: it seems that The Spanish Tragedy was one of the handful of plays that moved from Strange’s Men to Admiral’s Men between 1593 and 1597. In 1601 and 1602 the Admiral’s Men invested a significant sum to update the play (possibly up to £6, or almost as much as a brand new play would have cost: 40 shillings in September 1601 and perhaps as much as £4 in June 1602, when Henslowe lent Jonson an extraordinary and unprecedented £10 “in earnest” of a new play about Richard III and new additions to The Spanish Tragedy. Playwrights normally received between £6 and £8 for a new play). And yet, at the same time Burbage, not a member of the Admiral’s Men, was associated with the role of Hieronimo in 1601, and by 1604 a “Jeronimo” play seems to have long belonged to the King’s Men.
If we now add the theory that Shakespeare wrote the additions, and wrote them in or around 1596 or 1597, the picture gets even more complicated: just around the time when the Admiral’s Men revived The Spanish Tragedy, it seems, the Chamberlain’s Men’s leading playwright revamped the same text, presumably with the intention of launching a rival revival.
In light of these apparently conflicting facts, Vickers’ fiction seems like an inspired solution: once a play was published without company attribution, anyone could perform it. Therefore, as of 1592, the play may well have been in the repertories of both Admiral’s and Chamberlain’s Men. Why the King’s Men might object to the Children of the Revels performing the play then seems a bit of a puzzle, but perhaps “Elizabethan pragmatic practices” also dictated that boys’ companies were to be treated differently.
Here’s the thing, though. There is a largely unacknowledged problem with the received account: Henslowe’s diary does not in fact mention The Spanish Tragedy at all. Not once. What’s more, there is not a single early modern reference to Edward Alleyn in the role of Hieronimo (he’s linked to Marlowe’s Barabas, Faustus, and Tamburlaine, to Orlando Furioso, and other characters, but never to Kyd’s play). If the Admiral’s Men chose The Spanish Tragedy as one of the plays to revive in order to celebrate Alleyn’s return from retirement they did so not when the Fortune Theatre opened in 1600, but a year later (why?); and they chose a play whose main character lacked, as far as we can say now, a strong association with the iconic lead actor.
What Henslowe mentions, over and over, is a play he calls variously “Jeronemo,” “Joroneymo,” “Joronymo,” or “Jeronymo,” at least once it becomes an Admiral’s Men play in 1597. During Strange’s Men’s run at the Rose, there’s also a string of performances of “Jeronymo,” but it’s frequently paired with stagings of “the comodey of Jeronymo” (which may or may not be the same play as “spanes comodye donne oracio” and “the comodey of doneoracio”). In the Strange’s Men’s repertory, the two plays feature on consecutive days or within two days of each other 6 times; “Jeronymo” alone is listed another 9 times, the comedy on its own only once.
There is a range of possible explanations for what the diary lists, but it seems fairly indisputable to me that the Strange’s Men’s “Jeronymo” looks rather unlike the Admiral’s Men’s: the former seems to have been conceived of as part of a two-play package — more easily staged on its own than its comedic counterpart, but not an entirely independent offering. The later version of “Joronymo,” on the other hand, had lost its funny friend. That’s not evidence of much, to be sure: at best, it suggests that the Admiral’s Men thought of “Joronymo” in different terms than their predecessors at the Rose.
Few scholars have been willing to question whether Henslowe’s “Jeronymo” does in fact refer to The Spanish Tragedy. Is it worth taking that skeptical position seriously? To my mind, the diary sustains at least three quite distinct interpretations:
a) “Jeronymo” is The Spanish Tragedy. Whoever owned that play before 1592 is uncertain, but that year it was staged by Strange’s Men, who had also acquired a comedic pre- or sequel. The play then made it into the Admiral’s Men’s repertory, either via Henslowe, or Alleyn, or another actor. They continued to own and revise the play into the early seventeenth century, possibly longer.
b) The Strange’s Men’s “Jeronymo” is The Spanish Tragedy. When they left the Rose, they took both it and the comedic counterpart with them, and both became part of the Chamberlain’s Men’s repertory. In 1597, the Admiral’s Men acquired their own Hieronimo play (their first performance of “Joronymo” is marked “ne” in the diary, very unusually for a play previously listed), and revised that text extensively in 1601 and 1602; the revised version may well have remained in their repertory thereafter.
c) None of Henslowe’s “Jeronymo” plays refers to The Spanish Tragedy. The Chamberlain’s Men acquired Kyd’s play, but we don’t know from whom or how.
On the basis of the diary alone, it’s difficult to weigh these options. It does seem to me that the “ne” marker for the Admiral’s Men’s first performance of “Joronymo” is a strong indication that this may not be the same play as that performed by Strange’s Men, but that’s fairly shaky evidence. It would be very unusual for Henslowe to refer to two different plays by the same title, even if their entries are years apart (or at least we think that would be unusual — of course we don’t really know).
However, if we add all the other pieces of evidence I’ve discussed above into the mix, option (a) begins to look, at least to my eyes, increasingly weak:
- Kyd’s play was rewritten in 1596-98 by the Chamberlain’s Men’s leading dramatist
- Kyd’s main character was associated with Richard Burbage, weakly by 1601, very strongly by the time of his death
- The King’s Men got into a rather public (if humorous) spat with the Children of the Revels over the latter’s seemingly illicit performance of a “Jeronimo” play
That last bit may be the most significant. There is, after all, a text that might fit the bill better than The Spanish Tragedy: the anonymous First Part of Jeronimo, published in 1605. It’s a strange and rather short play that makes much of Jeronimo’s short stature, which is why it’s been linked to the boys’ companies by some scholars. It’s also a comedic companion piece to The Spanish Tragedy. What, then, if the play that Webster writes about in the induction to The Malcontent is not in fact Kyd’s Spanish Tragedy, but the anonymous “spanes comodye” that Strange’s Men liked to stage together with their “Jeronymo”? What if that comedy made it into the Chamberlain’s Men’s repertory, at least for a while? And what if the text that was printed in 1605 is the version of that play misappropriated (and altered) by the Children of the Revels?
If that’s not completely unconvincing conjecture, I think the scenario that would fit all the available information best, without inventing “Elizabethan pragmatic practices,” goes something like this:
- Strange’s Men owned Kyd’s tragedy in 1592/3; they also owned the comedic “First Part”
- Both plays became part of the Chamberlain’s Men’s repertory when Strange’s Men transformed into that company in 1594
- Shakespeare reworked the tragedy between 1596 and 1598, possibly with Burbage in mind
- Around the same time that the Chamberlain’s Men launched their revamped Spanish Tragedy, the Admiral’s Men commissioned their own Hieronimo play. This decision suggests that Hieronimo had at that point become the kind of iconic dramatic figure that could be repurposed in the works of different dramatists and the repertories of different companies, a principle that’s been described fairly exhaustively by theatre historians such as Roslyn Knutson. Think Chamberlain’s Men’s Richard III vs Admiral’s Men’s Richard Crockback. If Jonson is working more closely with the Admiral’s Men at this point than with the Chamberlain’s Men, perhaps that’s why he mocks people who prefer the original Hieronimo in the “Praeludium” to Cynthia’s Revels (1600/1). Or perhaps he’s just being Jonson.
- By 1601, Burbage is well established as the Hieronimo. The Admiral’s Men continue to bolster their own take on the figure and pay Jonson big money to pull it off.
- In or around 1602, the Children of the Queen’s Revels stage the Chamberlain’s Men’s “comodey of Jeronymo,” possibly because it hadn’t been performed by the adults for a while. Or perhaps simply because.
- Around 1604, the now King’s Men retaliate by staging one of the boys’ own plays, though they rewrite it quite significantly.
- Burbage continues to perform as Hieronimo, who knows in what sort of text. It becomes one of the four or five roles for which he remains famous when he dies in 1619.
Are these the facts? I have no idea. Does it work as a narrative? It does for me.
Thoughts? Comments? Please!
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