The Text

The text of the “plot” is based, with permission, on the “diplomatic” version offered by David Kathman, which has old spelling and original punctuation (2004a, 35–8). I have modernized spelling and punctuation, but followed Kathman in respect of use of brackets: square brackets represent material crossed out – so, for instance, in Scene 1 the original plan was to have two warders, but this was later reduced to one; pointed brackets indicate best‐guess attempts to reconstruct text which has been lost to wear or damage, all of which I have accepted.

Round brackets represent my own expansion of abbreviated forms, purely to help the reader. The numbers designating the scenes are also my own, but very clearly suggested by the way the “plot” divides the action into two columns, each section of which is ruled off after a self‐contained sequence (i.e. a scene). The line of asterisks is not on the “plot” but marks where the left‐hand column ends and transitions to the right‐hand side. It seems that the items at the foot of the left column and the top of the right represent a single scene.

Authorship and Dating of the Play(s)

George Harvey attributed the “famous play of The Seven Deadly Sins” to the great comedian, Richard Tarlton, “which most deadly but most lively play I might have seen in London, and was very gently invited thereunto at Oxford by Tarlton himself” (ES, 3: 497; see p. 44). It was evidently a two‐part play, the first part of which is lost; but there is no reason to suppose that Tarlton did not write both parts. If so, they must have been written and performed (presumably by the Queen’s Men) before Tarlton’s death in 1588. As a morality / fall of princes play the Second Part does seem to belong to an earlier era than Shakespeare. Yet the Chamberlain’s Men somehow acquired a manuscript of it and saw fit to perform it as late as 1597/8; there is no record of its ever being printed. We do know, however, that the Queen’s Men sold a significant number of their plays to printers in 1594/5, at the time they lost their footing at court and became exclusively a touring operation. It is not impossible that the Chamberlain’s Men, looking to build up a repertoire of plays as quickly as possible, might have purchased one or both parts of the play then or later, with the licence to perform them.

  • Scene 1: The tent on the stage represents Henry’s cell in the Tower of London and apparently remains throughout the play, a vantage point from which the action can be observed. (The use of the tent would seem to preclude any use of a discovery space and is perhaps further evidence that the Curtain did not have one.) The Lieutenant is a senior officer of the Tower and important prisoners, like Henry, would formally be in his charge. “Pursuivant” here could mean either a royal warrant officer or (perhaps more likely) a personal attendant. The changes represent a decision to reduce the warders from two to one, freeing up John Holland for other business. It is possible that the change had been forgotten by Sc. 24, where two players seem to be nominated for only one warder role. The secondary action of the scene represents the symbolic triumph of the three deadly sins who feature in this play over the other four, who presumably featured in the lost First Part of the Seven Deadly Sins. The familiar formula of entry “at one door, at another door” usually denotes two doors, one at either side of the tiring house wall. It was common for opposed forces to enter on opposite sides; see Ferrex and Porrex in Sc. 4.
  • Scene 2: It is unclear here whether “keeper” is being used in the same general sense as “warder” or whether it denotes another important official at the Tower of London, the Keeper or Master of the Jewel House, where the Crown jewels are kept. The way he seems to introduce Lydgate perhaps suggests the latter. It is not clear who exits and enters again – Lydgate, the Keeper, or both? – or why, but would have been known to the relevant players. The formula “passeth over the stage,” as each of the three Deadly Sins does (see Scenes 10 and 18), indicates that a character enters at one door and exits at the other, displaying herself conspicuously in the process. This opens Envy’s sequence in the play, as Lydgate presumably explains.
  • Scene 3: “Sennet”: see p. 175. The dumb show allows the players to establish the characters and their relationships, especially those within the royal family of Gorboduc, his Queen, and their two sons, Ferrex and Porrex. The councillors are probably consulted (in mime) about the decision to divide the country between the twins and advise against it. But it goes ahead anyway; the “two several seats” represent two thrones (OED, seat n. 8a). Ferrex and Porrex are then described as “evaing one another,” probably in the sense of “vie with, contend for mastery with” (OED envy, v2). The Queen and Lord depart “heavily” – sadly, in sorrow.
  • Scene 4: Presumably both Ferrex and Porrex have been crowned as kings, following Gorboduc’s decision. The drum and colors (flags with their royal emblems) indicate armies in the field.
  • Scene 5: Perhaps the original staging plan was to have Gorboduc center‐stage, with Ferrex and Porrex entering to him from either side. This was changed to the Queen and her Councillors entering first and perhaps making emotional pleas. Goboduc’s “entering in the midst” means that he ends up between the forces of his two sons.
  • Scene 6: “Alarum” = alarm: a call to arms, a warning of danger (examples elsewhere suggest it was made by drums and/or trumpets); “excursion”: “An issuing forth against an enemy; a sally, sortie, raid” (OED n. 3).
  • Scene 7: Lucius and Damasus are presumably the two Councillors mentioned in Sc. 5. Their names have no traditional association with Gorboduc. The most notable historical Damasus was a fourth‐century pope, so it is just possible that the character was a man of the church. The events of the play, however, supposedly occur in the pre‐Christian era, so this is pure speculation.
  • Scenes 8 & 9: In the original myth and play Porrex does indeed kill Ferrex. But then the Queen (Judon in the early sources, but Videna in the old play) kills Porrex in revenge for the death of her beloved elder son. This results in a civil war in which both Gorboduc and his Queen die and there is a long and devastating struggle over the succession. (In the play Dordan is Ferrex’s man.) It is far from clear how far 2 The Seven Deadly Sins carries the story. There is no record of deaths after Ferrex’s, though it may be significant that there is no mention of Gorboduc in this last section. Was his death offstage reported? The entry of “Porrex sad” could suggest that all ended on a note of repentance.
  • Scene 10: Sloth’s passing over marks the transition to the next section of the show.
  • Scene 11: The introduction here of “Giraldus” (Giraldus Cambrensis, Geoffrey of Monmouth) is puzzling. His History of the Kings of Britain was the ultimate source of the mythology that included the Gorboduc story. But it has nothing to do with Sardanapalus, the subject of the second section of the show. Possibly his function was to suggest some thematic link between the two stories. “Phronesis” is Greek for a type of wisdom, perhaps best translated as prudence. “Aspasia” was the lover and partner of the Athenian statesman, Pericles; she was apparently very influential, though very little is actually known about her. “Pompeia” was a name shared by numerous women in ancient Rome, including the daughter of Pompey the Great and the second wife of Julius Caesar; it is impossible to know which, if any, this character represented. “Rodope” was a queen in Greek mythology; her vain husband compared the two of them to Zeus and Hera, who were offended and turned them into ranges of mountains (cf. the Rhodope Mountains, which run through Bulgaria and Greece). The four between them perhaps represent pairs of good and evil female counsellors.
  • Scene 13: For Sardanapalus and Arbactus, see The Stories. No Nicanor figures in standard histories of Sardanapalus, though a Seleucid‐Syrian general of that name figures in the Bible (1 and 2 Maccabees); he died in a crushing defeat by the Jews at the Battle Adasa in 161 BC and his body was mutilated. None of that, except perhaps his name as a general, seems relevant here. It seems evident from Sc. 17 that Nicanor sides with Arbactus against Sardanapalus.
  • Scene 16: Did they attempt to represent Sardanapalus’ funeral pyre? Richard Edwardes’ Palamon and Arcite included a highly realistic pyre, but that was in very different staging conditions (see p. 3–4). Somewhat later than this the Fortune and Red Bull theatres acquired a reputation for their pyrotechnics, though perhaps more in the form of fireworks than open blazes. (See p. 255 on the Chamberlain’s Men’s own “blazing star”.) A trapdoor could certainly facilitate business with fire. In Greene’s Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay (circa 1589), for example, a stage direction reads “Here Bungay conjures and the tree appears with the dragon shooting fire” (Sc. 9, 83.1–2).
  • Scenes 18–21: Lechery’s passing over introduces the third and final section of the show. Of the named characters, it is unclear what roles are played by Julio and Panthea, whose names do not relate to the original myth. “Panthea” means “of all the gods” and someone of that name was said to be the most beautiful woman in Persia, beloved of Cyrus the Great. But that may not be relevant at all.
  • Scene 22: The dumb show may foreshadow the death of Itis.
  • Scene 23: Procne’s appearance with the sampler makes it clear that she knows what has happened to Philomela. Presumably food has been prepared for Tereus on his return from hunting, including the flesh of Itis. Only when he has eaten would Itis’ head be produced. The direction “Mercury comes and all vanish” suggests a spectacular piece of stage‐work involving a trapdoor. It brings to mind the direction in The Tempest: “Enter Ariel, like a harpy, claps his wings upon the table, and with a quaint device the banquet vanishes” (3.3.52 SD). If Will Kemp did indeed play Mercury the scene was presumably not without comedy, something which the entrance of the three Lords may have allowed to continue.
  • Scene 24: As suggested in the outline of the Induction story, this scene seems to represent the freeing of King Henry VI and restoration to the throne in 1470 by Warwick the “Kingmaker.”

Plays that strung multiple stories together were quite common. Four Plays in One was in the repertoire of Strange’s Men at the Rose in 1592; some have supposed it to be 1 The Seven Deadly Sins (see p. 213). A Yorkshire Tragedy declares itself to be “One of the four plays in one” performed togther under that title (p. 204). Overall, 2 The Seven Deadly Sins tells familiar tales of the falls of four princes: Henry VI, Gorboduc, Sardanapalus, and Tereus, the latter three destroyed by Envy, Sloth, and Lechery, as Lydgate doubtless moralized. But the fact that the play ends on an apparently positive note, with the restoration of Henry VI to his throne (albeit, historically, only briefly) does raise questions about the overall tone of the piece. The entry of Porrex “sad” does leave open the possibility of remorse and reconciliation which is not part of the traditional tale. The tale of Sardanapalus is counterpointed by the comic presence of Will Fool and the final emphasis is not on his death but on the triumph of the generals who restore his kingdom’s moral compass. The tragedy of Tereus, Procne, and Philomela is prevented from an even more tragic conclusion by the intervention of the gods – in the form, apparently, of Will Kemp. All in all it contrives to be a tragicomic piece, with lots of scope for flamboyant costumes, action (battles, chases), sententious speeches, comic diversions, and perhaps two spectacular set‐pieces: Sardanapulus’s funeral pyre and the “vanishing” with which the Lechery sequence ends.

I have dwelt at such length on this play because I believe that I am the first person writing on the Chamberlain’s Men and their theatres to pick up on David Kathman’s cogent argument for locating its “plot” in 1597/8, rather than several years earlier. It gives us unique insights into the personnel, roles, and staging practices of the company quite early in its existence. It also demonstrates that they were still performing plays of an earlier era and theatrical fashion than the sophisticated histories and comedies that Shakespeare was writing for them while they were housed at the Curtain.

The folio text of Jonson’s Every Man In His Humour, as we have already partially seen, gives us one last substantial piece of information about the company during their time at the Curtain (p. 199ff). It lists the “principal comedians” who performed in the original, quarto version; and this reinforces what we have inferred from the “plot” of 2 The Seven Deadly Sins. These appear in two columns: on the left, William Shakespeare, Augustine Phillips, Henry Condell, William Sly, and William Kemp; on the right, Richard Burbage, John Heminge, Thomas Pope, Christopher Beeston, and John Duke. The principles on which Jonson compiled these lists are far from clear and attempts to correlate actors with particular roles are usually pure speculation. As mentioned earlier, neither Beeston nor Duke was ever a sharer with the Chamberlain’s Men, though they were successful – in Beeston’s case spectacularly successful – with other companies. All the others were certainly sharers. One name missing from the original line‐up is George Bryan, who had left for his position at court (see p. 157). Another missing name is that of Richard Cowley (see p. 141). His omission here may only prove that he did not take any major role, though he may have taken a number of smaller ones, the apparent practice with Armin in most of Jonson’s plays for the company while Armin was with them (see p. 150). If we omit Beeston and Duke from Jonson’s list and add Cowley I suspect we have a tally of all the sharers in 1598.

Although in general it is fruitless to speculate who played what role (especially Shakespeare) an exception can be made for Kemp, since it was always likely that he would take one of the more distinctive comic roles. There are two of these in Every Man In His Humour, Bobadilla and Cob. Bobadilla is, as we have seen, a braggart soldier, a type which does not align itself with any other role Kemp is suspected of playing. But Cob readily compares with Bottom or Dogberry and I concur with David Wiles in seeing it as Kemp’s role in the play:

The clown’s part is manifestly that of Oliver Cob. The part owes nothing to the theory of humours, everything to the clown tradition … Kemp’s clowning is rooted in festival. “Cob” identifies himself as a herring cob [head] – that is, an emblem of Lent. But Cob loathes fasting days, because herring then are eaten, so Cob becomes, paradoxically, the embodiment of Carnival … Cob’s English name distances him from the Italian world of the play, and he is English enough to deal in shillings and pence. A virtuoso mime routine is given him when he performs a balancing feat with his tankard to the nonsense words: “Helter skelter, hang sorrow, care will kill a cat, up tails all, and a pox on the hangman.”

The central feature of Cob’s clowning is that the audience do not know whether they are laughing at or with him. On the face of it, he is set up as the fall guy to be cudgeled, scratched, knocked on the head by a door, and duped into thinking he must go to prison. Yet at the same time he remains in control of the humour of every scene in which he appears. (1987, 94–5)

Kemp was also at this time, while resident at the Curtain, at the height of his fame for his jigs. John Marston in his satirical Scourge of Villainy (1598) declares that “the orbs celestial will dance Kemp’s jig” (Sat. 11, line 30), while Everard Guilpin’s Skialetheia that same year says “Whores, beadles, bawds and sergeants filthily chaunt Kemp’s jig, or the Burgonians’ tragedy” (Sat. 5). Dancing, singing and bawdry – some of it impromptu – seem to have parts of his stock‐in‐trade, and such jigs often closed an afternoon’s performance.

Box 5.2 The Jig

As we have seen, Shakespeare may have been familiar with the jigs of the original master of the form, Richard Tarlton. But he certainly knew those of Will Kemp, the principal comedian of the Chamberlain’s Men between 1594 and 1599. They were one of the company’s selling points, an attraction over and above the show of the day. But it is very difficult for us to recapture the full flavor of these items, since they obviously depended for their effect on boisterous activity, spontaneity, unscripted bawdy – on action and song over written text. Yet we need to try, if we are to have a real sense of the theatrical experience in 1590s London.

It will help us to understand them if we recognize that they have their roots in forms of folk drama, such as those which survived (and to an extent still survive) in the morris dance. By the late sixteenth century these typically focused on the wooing by a fool of a man–woman figure known as “Maid Marian” – in which we may see something of the origins of the distinctively English tradition of the transvestite pantomime dame. Thomas Nashe describes such a morris:

the Maid Marian trimly dressed up in a cast gown and a kercher of Dame Lawson’s, his face handsomely muffled with a diaper napkin to cover his beard, and a great nosegay in his hand … [The fool] dances round him in a cotton coat, to court him with a leathern pudding and a wooden ladle.19

Four texts of jigs ascribed to Kemp have survived, two in English and two in German – the jig was enormously popular in Germany, where English actors had toured since the 1580s.20 David Wiles offers this account of one of the English ones:

The jig of Singing Simpkin appears in the Stationers’ Register in 1595 as “a ballad called Kemp’s new jig betwixt a soldier and a miser and Sim the clown” … Simpkin keeps up a running commentary to the audience, even when hidden inside a chest, and the final line is repeatedly his to exploit. A sample will illustrate the nature of the material. In the husband’s absence, a soldier (Bluster) has interrupted the wife’s seduction of the servant (Simkin). Simkin is now hidden inside the chest.


 Within this chest I”ll hide myself,

If it chance he should come.


Oh no, my love, that cannot be –


I have bespoke the room.


I have a place behind here,

Which yet is known to no man.


She has a place before, too,

But that is all too common.

Old man within.

Old Man

Wife, wherefore is the door thus barred?

What mean you, pray, by this?


Alas! It is my husband.


I laugh now till I piss.


Open the chest, I’ll into it;

My life else it may cost.


Alas, I cannot open it.


I believe the key is lost.

While remaining notionally unseen, the clown is as free to participate in the conversation as he is to jest with the audience. The behaviour of the other characters, by contrast, is governed by the logic of the plot. In accordance with a dramatic mode that is primarily physical and mimemtic, Simkin’s passions are strictly physical, with no hint of sentiment.21

It is the stuff of farce and fabliaux, as are other jigs associated with Kemp, with a stock cast of characters: lustful wife, braggart (but cowardly) soldier, duped old husband (senex) – and a clown who can rise to every occasion.

In this respect the jig seems to offer a counterpoint to the roles which Shakespeare crafted for Kemp in his comedies (see p. 103–5).22 With the limited exception of Peter, none of these characters takes control of the situation in which he finds himself; they are swallowed up in the plot, figures of fun emitting malapropisms rather than demonstrating superiority over others (despite their pretensions). Only Bottom inadvertently finds himself in a romantic situation, though he proves the most supine of lovers and later has only the dimmest memory of his time with Titania. There is certainly much bawdy in the comedies – The Merchant of Venice even ends with a bawdy pun (“I’ll fear no other thing / So sore as keeping safe Nerissa’s ring”) – but sex is subservient to a romantic ethos and focused on the sanctity of marriage as the foundation of family and society. And the clown is never party to such outcomes. But the jigs have no such sentimental illusions. Sex is simply a physical appetite, and one which the clown will use his superiority over all competitors to gratify. It is a complete reversal of his role in the romantic comedies and perhaps a deliberate change of pace and tone for dramatic effect, akin to the satyr‐plays that were performed alongside ancient Greek tragedies. The jig is an important reminder that the live experience of Elizabethan theatre was a long way removed from the reading of the the play‐texts it has left behind.

On October 1, 1612 the bench of nineteen Middlesex Justices – who had authority over the amphitheaters north of the river – made an Order for Suppressing Jigs at the End of Plays, explaining “by reason of certain lewd jigs, songs and dances used and accustomed at the playhouse called the Fortune in Golden Lane, divers cutpurses and other lewd and ill‐disposed persons in great multitudes do resort thither at the end of every play, many times causing tumults and outrages whereby his majesty’s peace is often broke and much mischief like to ensue thereby: it was hereupon expressly commanded and ordered … that all actors of every playhouse [under their jurisdiction] utterly abolish all jigs, rhymes and dances after their plays” (ES, 4: 340–1). This therefore only applied to the Fortune and the Red Bull, playhouses that kept the tradition of the jig alive after the death of Kemp (then with Worcester’s Men) in 1603. The suggestion is that the jigs attracted all kinds of undesirables who “do resort thither at the end of every play” – as if, perhaps, entrance late in the show was at a reduced rate.

The jig was certainly a feature of Chamberlain’s Men’s shows at the Theatre and the Curtain; if it was to be abandoned at the Globe, it may explain why Kemp left Shakespeare’s company and “danced out of the world” (see p. 226–7).

Cob, however, was to be one of Kemp’s last new roles for the Chamberlain’s Men. As I shall explain, he left them before they moved to the Globe. But before we consider that major transition we need to consider events of 1597 and 1598 which did not centrally involve the Chamberlain’s Men but had a major impact on their future.

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