Comedy of a Duke of Ferrara

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Anon. (before 1597)

NB: This title is editorial. The putative play is known as 'Comedy of a Duke of Ferrara' (Wiggins 859); 'Annabella eines Hertzogen Tochter von Ferrara' (Sibley); 'Annabella, a Duke's daughter of Ferrara' (Harbage).

Historical Records


On 18 January, 1604, a group of touring actors petitioned the authorities at Nördlingen, deep in Southern Germany and on the edge of the Duchy of Württemburg, for permission to perform. They listed their repertoire of ten plays, including a play about Romeo and Juliet, and one described as 'vonn Annabella eines hertzogen tochter von Ferrara' [of Annabella, daughter to a Duke of Ferrara] (Trautmann, 1882, 625-6). This petition was rejected by the town authorities, but is recorded in their archives.

Rothenburg ob der Tauber

There are two undated petitions in the archives of the town of Rothenburg ob der Tauber, fifty miles away from Nördlingen and also on the edge of the Duchy of Württemburg. In these two documents, an unnamed group of comedians offer a total of twelve plays for performance, several of which correspond to the ten on the Nördlingen list. Among the Rothenburg titles is a play 'vonn Annabella, Eines Margraffen tochter von Montferrat' [of Annabella, daughter to a Margrave of Montferrat]. (Trautmann, 1894, 60-7). The usual scholarly assumptions are that the two Rothenburg lists result from the activities of the same group of English comedians, probably the company of Robert Browne, formerly of the Admiral's Men; that they are contemporary with the Nördlingen list, which is also Robert Browne’s company; and that the two plays about a daughter called Annabella are in fact different descriptions of the same play.


In 1597, a group of English comedians under the leadership of Thomas Sackville had performed at Strasbourg. On 25 July Baron Waldstein watched them perform Comoediae, ab Anglis factae de quodam Duce Farrari, 'comedies made by the English about a certain Duke of Ferrara' (Schrickx, 330).


In 1626, yet another group of English comedians twice performed a play recorded as 'Comoedia vom Hertzog von Ferrara' [the comedy of a Duke of Ferrara] (Herz, 66).

These four references - Nördlingen, Rothenburg ob der Tauber, Strasbourg, and Dresden - are generally "lumped" together as being plausibly to the same play. Certainly the two 1604 records, which are the most important for subsequent arguments, seem clearly to be associated with one another.


There is also a record of the play, of a sort, in an English print pamphlet, Hecatonphila: The Art of Love, or, Love Discovered in an Hundred Several Kinds (1598). After commendatory material, Hecatonphila opens with a four-page 'Argument' which begins as follows:

Vincentio Bentiuoli beeing Duke of Ferrara, a solemne contract of mariage was cõcluded, betweene Ludouico his Sonne, and faire Annabella, Daughter to the Marquesse of Mont-Ferrat. And when the tìme of the Nuptialls came to bee perfourmed, there wanted no resort of honorable Personages, nor anie magnificent cost and royall pompe, as might well beseeme a matter of such importance, as also the time so necessarily vrging it. Triumphes, Tiltes, Maskes, Barriers, were one while Companions with this gracious Assemblie, then another while stately Tragedies, and queint conceited Comedies holpe to beguile the idle howres: & when neither of these were thought expedient, then ciuill discourse and familiar conference liberally passed between the Lords and Ladies.
(Hecatonphila, A7r-A7v.)

One night, a group of these lords and ladies are waiting for one of the comedies to begin. While the actors are preparing, a gentlewoman who calls herself Hecatonphila ('a hundred loves') gets up onto the stage and delivers a long speech to the young women present, a speech which appears under a fresh heading and actually takes up the whole of the rest of the pamphlet. No further reference is made to the narrative frame, which is not present in the French and original Italian versions of the work. It appears to have been added for the English translation, and the four characters it alludes to are not historical, nor are they known from any fictional source, other than that they parallel those recorded in the traces of the lost Comedy of a Duke of Ferrara.

Theatrical Provenance

In existence by 1598 at the latest; known in England in 1598, but particularly associated with the English comedians in Germany, where it seems to enjoy a long career.

Probable Genre(s)

Comedy ending in marriage.

Possible Narrative and Dramatic Sources or Analogues

No source yet discovered, but there are (possibly) two analogues.

Tiberius und Annabella

It has long been recognized that the lost play seems to connect to an untitled extant German-language comedy called, by its nineteenth-century editor, Tiberius von Ferrara und Annabella von Mömpelgard, and often referred to simply as Tiberius und Annabella.

Tiberius und Annabella is a text of uncertain date which survives in a single manuscript (Gdansk Stadtbibliothek: MS 2421, fos. 65-86) and which was published in a scholarly edition by Johann Bolte in 1895. It appears in the Gdansk manuscript alongside a play which adapts Gervase Markham's The Dumb Knight, a play known to have been acted by the Englische Komödianten. It has striking similarities to what we can see of 'The Comedy of a Duke of Ferrara', similarities that are made all the clearer by the Hecatonphila reference. Tiberius und Annabella features a Duke of Ferrara; a Margrave; and Annabella, daughter of the Margrave, who ends up marrying the Duke of Ferrara's son. These four characters map well onto the four characters known in connection with the 'Comedy of a Duke of Ferrara'.

In this play the widowed Duke of Ferrara sends his son, an avowed bachelor, to Mömpelgard, to woo the daughter of the Margrave on his father's behalf. Unknown to anyone, the Duke follows on, taking on the disguise of an old soldier named Bartholomaeus, and watches developments. The Margrave welcomes the young man and introduces him to his daughter to conduct the wooing, but very quickly, Annabella falls in love with the young man, and he with her. Alongside this action, there are a series of comic scenes, containing the clown Hans Leberwurst, a staple of plays associated with the Englische Kömedianten and traceable from around 1615 onwards.

In the face of parental opposition, Annabella disguises herself as a man and elopes with her lover. The disguised Duke of Ferrara then intervenes, taking on a new disguise as a hermit and inviting them into his cave, under the pretext of carrying out their marriage ceremony. In fact he takes the opportunity to kidnap Annabella. The lovers escape again by a dancing trick, only to drown, as it appears, while crossing a river. The Duke and Margrave lament their loss, before it transpires that the lovers survived the accident, and all are reconciled.

The play's location, according to several references early on, is the city of Mömpelgard, modern Montbéliard in Eastern France. But close examination shows that this location is a late and half-hearted revision to the German play. Mömpelgard was never a Margravate, and there is no reason for the play to make it one. Also, the denouement takes place on the river Susa, which is a great deal closer to Montferrat than to Montbéliard. Tellingly, as the play goes on, references to Mömpelgard peter out and the dialogue itself starts to refer to the location not as Mömpelgard but as Montferrat. Indeed, 5.11 refers to the Margrave himself as 'der Marckgrave von Montferar'.

Marston, The Fawn

Another complicating factor here is the German play's relationship with an English comedy of 1604 or 1605, John Marston's The Fawn, also referred to in some criticism by its alternative title, Parasitaster.

Marston's play too features a recognizable foursome of central characters led by the Duke of Ferrara. The name of his son is nearly the same too - Tiberio rather than Tiberius. Its 'away' location is not Montferrat or Mömpelgard but that quintessentially Italian city Urbino, and the love interest here is named not Annabella but Dulcimel. In The Fawn, as in Tiberius und Annabella, the widowed Duke of Ferrara sends his avowed bachelor son to a neighbouring court to woo a bride on his father's behalf. This time, the bride in question is Dulcimel, the witty and passionate daughter of the foolish Duke of Urbino. As in the German play, the Duke of Ferrara follows along, this time disguising himself as an intelligencer and taking the name Faunus. As in the German play, the two young people fall in love with each other even while the son is trying to represent his father’s suit. In the course of the play the clever daughter (this time with the disguised Duke of Ferrara's help) finds a way to outwit her father and marry Tiberio.

The Fawn is similar, then, to Tiberius und Annabella in its setup, and it even has some passages strikingly parallel to the German. Both plays, for instance, include a scene in which the Duke of Ferrara explains his plan and appoints a deputy to look after the country in his absence (The Fawn, 1.1: Tiberius und Annabella, 1.4). Both have a scene where Annabella/Dulcimel's father receives the young man and introduces his daughter. And in both plays the young man produces his father's portrait, only to find that Annabella/Dulcimel falls in love with him instead, in dialogue which, as Blostein and Steggle both note, is strikingly similar. From Act 2 onwards, though, the plots of the two plays radically diverge, with Marston using a plot from Boccaccio which is not at all present in the German version.

References to the Play

None known beyond those listed elsewhere in this entry.

Critical Commentary

For an extremely comprehensive survey of the uses of Ferrara in early modern English literature, see Gary Taylor, "Shakespeare's Mediterranean Measure for Measure".

The state-of-the art essay about English performers in Germany is Drábek and Katritzky.

The German records, and the possible relevance of Tiberius und Annabella to them, were first discussed by Wilhelm Creizenach in the nineteenth century. Tiberius und Annabella was transcribed and discussed by Johannes Bolte, who argues that the play may be mid-seventeenth-century in date, and that it is connected to the lost play records.

Sibley (196) clumps together the four German records, and calls the resulting play 'Annabella eines Hertzogen Tochter von Ferrara'. Harbage (214) describes it as '"Annabella, a Duke's daughter of Ferrara" (usually identified as Marston's Parasitaster)'.

David A. Blostein's 1978 edition of Marston's Parasitaster concedes the possibility of some influence on Marston from the lost play, but also suggests that material from The Fawn could have been reintroduced into the German adaptation. Blostein also discusses Marston's sources for other elements of the play, notably Boccaccio.

Wiggins (859) collects the four German records, connecting them cautiously to Tiberius und Annabella. He notes the problem around the relationship to The Fawn:

If the play in the records is the one which survives at Gdansk, then it or its English original must be the direct source of The Fawn; but if the Gdansk play is taken to be an adaptation of The Fawn, it cannot be the same play that was performed in 1597 or 1604, before The Fawn was written.
(Wiggins, 859)

In work undertaken in connection with the Lost Plays Database, Steggle draws attention to the hitherto unnoticed reference in Hecatonphila. He also argues that Tiberius und Annabella is inconsistent in its handling of location, several times referring to itself as happening in Montferrat, not Mompelgard. This makes it possible to construct a table of correspondences between all these records, featuring the Duke of Ferrara, his son, his future daughter-in-law, and her father:


Steggle argues, therefore, that Tiberius und Annabella cannot be an imitation of The Fawn. Rather, both are, to some extent, adaptations of the play recorded in England in 1598 and in performance in Germany in 1604 and at other dates. Synthesising all these records together, Steggle proposes the following narrative:

In the 1590s, there was a successful English love comedy featuring the Duke of Ferrara; his son; the Marquess of Montferrat; and his daughter. The Duke of Ferrara’s son is sent to woo the Marquess’s daughter for his father, and she falls in love with him instead while the disguised Duke of Ferrara, visiting Montferrat incognito, watches events unfold. A version of this play went to the Continent with the English comedians, and we see traces of it in performance in Southern Germany in 1604 - indeed, probably in 1597, 1604, and 1626. That version mutated through its life, acquiring the clown Hans Leberwurst and being relocated to Mömpelgard, on its way to being preserved, to some extent, in the much later German Tiberius und Annabella. Meanwhile, back in England, the play was remembered in 1598 in the Argument to that courteously modest celebration of female desire, Hecatonphila. In 1604 or 1605, Marston returned to the old play and in effect cannibalized elements from its opening sections to be the starting-point for another quite different comedy.

For What It's Worth

Measure for Measure

As Steggle notes, the Hecatonphila reference includes a Duke of Ferrara called Vincentio. This is separately of interest, because the Duke of Shakespeare's 'Measure for Measure' also bears the first name 'Vincentio', or at least he is given that name in the dramatis personae appended to the text as published in the First Folio of 1623.

In recent years, it has been proposed by Gary Taylor and others that Shakespeare's play was originally set in Ferrara, before being relocated to Vienna in later revisions which lie behind the Folio text on which our knowledge of the play depends. Up till now, no previous example has been known of a historical or fictional Duke of Ferrara being given the name "Vincentio". But this passage from Hecatonphila does indeed supply such an example. It confirms that around the original date of Measure for Measure 'Vincentio' is indeed a plausible name for a fictional Duke of Ferrara. And it offers evidence that Ferrara might indeed, in the early modern English imagination, be seen as a location fit for serious discussion of the turbulent and mysterious nature of desire, love, and marriage, particularly from the perspective of women.

Works Cited

Alberti, Leon Battista. Hecatonphila (London, 1598).
Bolte, Johannes. Das Danziger Theater im 16. und 17. Jahrhundert (Hamburg and Leipzig, 1895).
Creizenach, Wilhelm. Die Schauspiele der englischen Komödianten (Berlin and Stuttgart,1889).
Drábek, Pavel, and M. A. Katritzky. "Shakespearean Players in Early Modern Europe" in Bruce R. Smith, ed. The Cambridge Guide to the Worlds of Shakespeare (Cambridge, 2016), 1527–1533.
Herz, Emil. Englische Schauspieler und englisches Schauspiel zur Zeit Shakespeares in Deutschland (Hamburg: Leopold Voss, 1903).
Marston, John. Parasitaster: Or, The Fawn, ed. David A. Blostein (Manchester, 1978).
Taylor, Gary. 'Shakespeare's Mediterranean Measure for Measure', in Shakespeare and the Mediterranean, ed. Tom Clayton, Susan Brock, and Vicente Forés (Newark, 2004), 243–69.
Trautmann, Karl. ‘Die Älteste Nachricht über eine Aufführung von Shakespeares Romeo und Julie in Deutschland (1604)’, Archiv für Litteraturgeschichte, 11 (1882): 625–6.
Trautmann, Karl. ‘Englische Komödianten in Rothenburg ob der Tauber’, Zeitschrift für vergleichende Literatur, 7 (1894): 60–7.
Schrickx, Willem. Foreign Envoys and Travelling Players in the Age of Shakespeare and Jonson (Wetteren: Universa, 1986).
Steggle, Matthew. "The 'Comedy of a Duke of Ferrara' in 1598", Early Theatre 19.2 (2016), 139–156.

Site created and maintained by Matthew Steggle, University of Bristol; updated 18 January 2018.