The Stories

Induction. The framing Induction focuses on the figure of King Henry VI, apparently after his deposition in 1461 by Edward IV, when he was held in the Tower of London – a fitting audience for the three tales of the fall of kings which make up the play. It seems to end with his restoration to the throne in 1470 by “Warwick” (Sc. 24), Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick, known as the “Kingmaker.” This was a brief reprieve however since Warwick was defeated and killed the following year, Henry was recaptured and murdered. It is not clear if the sequence ends with the temporary triumph or the ultimate fall; it is also not clear if the play treats Henry as a near saint and martyr, a widespread view after his death though one fading by the end of the sixteenth century. Shakespeare’s audience was familiar with a fuller version of the history in 3 Henry VI. John Lydgate was an appropriate author to present these tales to Henry, venerated at the time alongside Chaucer and Gower (cf. Pericles) as one of great poets of English antiquity; he had lived in Henry’s time (though he died before the deposition) and was famous for his enormous poem, Fall of Princes.18

Envy tells the tale of Gorboduc, one of the mythical line of early British kings including Brute, Lear, and Cymbeline, which was familiar to the Elizabethans from Holinshed’s Chronicles and from the famous old play by Thomas Sackville and Thomas Norton. Gorboduc made the fatal mistake of dividing his kingdom while he was still alive, leading to a disastrous civil war between his sons, Ferrex and Porrex (Scenes 5–9).

Sloth is the tale of Sardanapalus, a more‐or‐less mythical king of ancient Assyria, whose name became a byword for sloth and sybaritic living. He had many concubines of both sexes, though in the play they are all female. His general, Arbaces (here Arbactus) led a revolt against this decadent lifestyle (Sc.15), which Sardanapalus seemed initially to crush but which eventually overcame him at Nineveh. Rather than allow himself to be captured he and all his concubines died in a blazing funeral pyre, with all his wealth and royal trappings (hence “with as many jewels, robes and gold as he ca < n > carry,” Sc.16).

Finally Lechery tells the famous tale from Ovid and elsewhere of Tereus, married to Procne, who lusted after and raped his wife’s sister, Philomena, cutting out her tongue to prevent her from talking about it. Philomena, however, told her tale by weaving a tapestry (here “the sampler,” Sc. 23). She and Procne planned revenge, killing Tereus and Procne’s son, Itis. They baked his flesh in a pie, and fed it to Tereus, then showed him Itis’ severed head, from which he deduced what had happened (Sc. 23). Tereus tried to kill the sisters, but the gods intervened (“Mercury comes and all vanish”) and all three were turned into birds. In older versions of the tale Philomela was turned into a swallow, which has no song, while Procne became the nightingale, forever mourning her dead child. Since the most famous version of the myth, however, in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the assignation of the birds has usually been reversed, with Philomela the nightingale lamenting her ravishment. Shakespeare notably adapted part of the tale for Titus Andronicus.

As I started this section by saying, it was clearly not the purpose of the “plot” to recount these stories. It was to convey to professionals within the playhouse how they had been converted into dramatic form, in such a way that anyone consulting it could see the sequence of scenes, entrances, and exits: exactly who should be on stage at any moment in the sequence (and so should be prepared to go on ahead of time). The great majority of scenes start with an entry, often followed with indications that other characters subsequently join those who enter first, but there is rarely any indication of what actions take place and no indication at all of what the characters talk about – the players are supposed to know all that from learning their parts. The scenes that do not begin with an entry almost all relate to the Induction/framing device involving Henry VI, Lydgate and (latterly) Mercury; the first two are apparently on stage throughout, until Lydgate exits at the very end. Henry may remain in his tent to watch the action, possibly emerging when he is involved with the Lieutenant of the Tower, his warder and the pursuivant (which might here mean either a royal warrant officer or a personal attendant). It is possible that he was meant to exit with Warwick at the end of Sc. 25, but that is not indicated.

Here, then, is a transcription of the “plot” of the play.

The Plat (Plot) of The Second Part of the Seven Deadly Sins

  1. A tent being placed on the stage for Henry the Sixth. He in it, asleep; to him the Lieutenant, a pursuivant, R(ichard) Cowley, John Duke, and [2] 1 warder [s], [John Holland], Robert Pallant. To them Pride, Gluttony, Wrath and Covetousness at one door, at another door Envy, Sloth and Lechery. The three put back the four. And so exeunt.
  2. Henry awaking, enter a Keeper, John Sincler; to him a servant, Thomas Belt; to him Lydgate and the Keeper. Exit then enter again. Then Envy passeth over the stage. Lydgate speakes.
  3. A sennet. Dumb show. Enter King Gorboduc with 2 Councillors; Richard Burbage, Master (George) Bryan, Thomas Goodale. The Queen with Ferrex and Porrex and some attendants follow; Saunder (Alexander Cooke), Will Sly, Harry (Condell), John Duke, Kit (Christopher Beeston), Robert Pallant, John Holland. After Gorboduc hath consulted with his Lords he brings his two sons to two several seats. They evaing one another, Ferrex offers to take Porrex his crown. He draws his weapon. The King, Queen and Lords step between them. They thrust them away and, menacing [ecc] each other, exit. The Queen < and Lords depart > heavily. Lydgate speaks.
  4. Enter Ferrex crowned, with drum and colours and soldiers, one way; Harry (Condell), Kit (Beeston), R. Cowley, John Duke. To them, at another door, Porrex, drum and colours and soldiers; W Sly, R. Pallant, John Sincler, J. Holland.
  5. Enter [Gorb] Queen, with 2 Councillors; Master Brian, Thomas Goodale. To them Ferrex and Porrex several ways with [his] drums and powers. Gorboduc, entering in the midst between. Henry speaks.
  6. Alarum with excursions. After Lydgate speaks.
  7. Enter Ferrex and Porrex severally, Goboduc still following them. Lucius and Damasus; Master Bryan, Thomas Goodale.
  8. Enter Ferrex at one door, Porrex at another. They fight, Ferrex is slain. To them Videna, the Queen; to her Damasus; to him Lucius.
  9. Enter Porrex sad with Dordan, his man; R(obert) P(allant), W Sly. To them the Queen and a Lady, Nick (Tooley?), Saunder. And Lords, R. Cowley, Master Bryan; to them Lucius running.
  10. Henry and Lydgate speaks; Sloth passeth over.
  11. Enter Giraldus, Phronesius, Aspatia, Pompeia, Rodope; Richard Cowley, Thomas Goodale, Robert Gough, Ned (Shakespeare?), Nick (Tooley?).
  12. Enter Sardanapalus, Arbactus, Nicanor and captains, marching; Master Phillips, Master Pope, R(obert) Pallant, Kit (Beeston), John Sincler, John Holland.
  13. < Enter > A captain with Aspatia and the ladies. Kit (Beeston).

* * *

Lydgate speak.

  1. Enter Nicanor with other captains; R. Pallant, J. Sincler, Kit (Beeston), J. Holland R. Cowley. To them Arbactus; Master Pope. To him Will Fool; J. Duke. To him Rodope; Ned (Shakespeare?). To her Sardanapalus like a woman, with Aspatia, Rodope, Pompeia, Will Fool. To them Arbactus and [2] 3 musicians; Master Pope, J. Sincler, (Thomas?) Vincent, R(ichard) Cowley. To them Nicanor and others; R. Pallant, Kit (Beeston).
  2. Enter Sardanapalus, with the ladies. To them a messenger; Thomas Goodale. To him Will Fool, running. Alarum.
  3. Enter Arbactus, pursuing Sardanapalus, and the ladies fly. After enter Sardanapalus with as many jewels, robes and gold as he ca < n > carry. Alarum.
  4. Enter Arbactus, Nicanor and the other captai < ns > in triumph; Master Pope, R. Pallant, Kit (Beeston), J. Holland, R. Cowley, J Sincler.
  5. Henry speaks and Lydgate; Lechery passeth over the stage. Enter Te < reus>, Philomele, ; R Burbage, Ro < R Pall.>, J < Sink > .
  6. Enter Procne, Itis and Lords; Saunder (Cooke), Will (Ostler? Eccleston?), J. Duke, W(ill) Sly, Harry (Condell).
  7. Enter Philomele and Tereus; to them Julio
  8. Enter Procne, Panthea, Itis and Lords; Saunder (Cooke), T(homas) Belte, Will (Ostler? Ecclestone?), W. Sly, Harry (Condell), Th(omas) Goodale. To them Tereus with Lords; R. Burbage, J. Duke, R. Cowley
  9. A Dumb Show. Lydgate speaks.
  10. Enter Procne with the sampler. To her Tereus from hunting with his Lords. To them Philomele with Itis’ head in a dish. Mercury comes and all vanish. To him 3 Lords; Th(omas) Goodale, Harry(Condell), W(ill) Sly.
  11. Henry speaks. To him Lieutenant, pursuivant and warder; R. Cowley, J. Duke, J. Holland, John Sincler. To them Warwick; Master Bryan.
  12. Lydgate speaks to the audience and so exits.


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