Cradle of Security, The
Our only knowledge of this play is contained in the spiritual autobiography Mount Tabor, or Private Exercises of a Penitent Sinner, by R. Willis (London 1639). In the book Willis reminisces about "a stage play which I saw when I was a child," being taken by his father to a performance at the Bothall in Gloucester, "and [he] made me stand between his legs, as he sat upon one of the benches where we saw and heard very well." Assuming the younger Willis was then aged between six and ten, the occasion recalled occurred between 1570 and 1574. "The sight took such impression in me," Willis writes, that when I came to man's estate, it was as fresh in my memory as if I had seen it newly acted."
The play he describes featured "a king or some great prince" led astray by evil counsellors, particularly three ladies (Pride, Covetousness, and Luxury/Lust), who induce the king to lie down "in a cradle upon the stage," rocking him to sleep with a sweet song, "that he snorted again." His face is transformed into that of a swine, with a theatrical mask, with "three wire chains fastened thereunto," held by the vices. Then, "there came forth of another door at the farthest end of the stage," two old men, one dressed in blue as a sergeant at arms (the End of the World), and the other in red, bearing a sword (the Last Judgement). First passing over the stage "in a soft pace" they arrive at the cradle, "and then the foremost old man with his mace struck a fearful blow upon the cradle," making the courtiers and ladies vanish, stripping the mask from the face of the king as they do so. His laments unavailing, the sinful king, like Faustus, "was so carried away by wicked spirits."
Troupes visiting Gloucester in the earlier 1570s included, in order of frequency, Sussex's, Worcester's, the Queen's, Leicester's, and Essex's players, with single appearances by three other minor companies. Any of these might have had The Cradle of Security in their repertory; the play as described calls on six principal players, three of them boys who can sing, with up to another four players to take roles as courtiers and devils. The Bothall, in Westgate Street, Gloucester, was the chief site of civic assembly in the sixteenth century, and commonly used for performances by touring players.
Possible Narrative and Dramatic Sources or Analogues
No direct source is known, but "the cradle of security" is a common proverbial moral quoted in printed sources from the 1570s until roughly a hundred years later, including the title of a sermon by the anti-theatricalist John Stockwood (1584). Its point is made in the rather lame verses by Sir John Davies published in 1590: "This world is such a Syren sweet, enchanting with her voice,/ Her laies and warbling Lullabies, our sleeping souls rejoice,/ Her pleasures rockes vs fast on sleep, in cradle of security,/ Whilst Sathan lurkes in shape vnseene, to take his opportunity." The telling stroke of the stage play was to literalise the cradle as an amusing, presumably oversized, stage property.
Moral dereliction demonstrated in being led by the nose like an animal is a common motif in moralising prints and other illustrations. The damned led in chains is common in medieval ecclesiastical art; the pig is the emblematic animal often accompanying the allegorical figure of Gula, or Gluttony. Captive sensualists, with rings in their noses, are led in triumph in the fifteenth woodcut illustrating Stephen Bateman's A Christall Glasse of Christian Reformation (1569).
References to the Play
In the play, Sir Thomas More, "The Cradle of Security" is listed among the offerings of the troupe who entertain More and his guests (the Lord Mayor, aldermen, and their wives); it is not the play chosen (Jowett, 9.60).
Some of the later uses of the phrase "the cradle of security," like that quoted by Davies above, may include some recall of the stage play.
A useful summary is given by Wilson, The English Drama 1485-1585 (1969).
The text of Willis, with discussion and notes, as well as full coverage of contemporary dramatic activity in Gloucester, are provided by Douglas and Greenfield in the REED volume Cumberland Westmorland Gloucestershire (1986), Appendix 2.
Pearlman gives an extended analysis of Willis's anecdote, putting it in the context of the rhetorical purpose of Mount Tabor. He emphasizes the ways in which Mount Tabor is "a gallimaufry of reminiscence, prayer, religious confession, poetry, meditation, and commonplace" (363) that is deeply influenced by Willis's late-life conversion. Consequently, "Willis … read the concerns of his last years into the play" (367). From being merely a remembrance of seeing a play, Willis "reinterpreted a play about works into a play about grace" (367). Pearlman suggests that Willis's recall of the play is "layered—an Elizabethan-Jacobean or perhaps even Catholic-Calvinist palimpsest" (367). In addition to putting the memory in the context of religious conversion, Pearlman puts it in the context of Willis's adult professional life. Willis was an executive secretary to men of power in government from the Elizabethan to Caroline periods. As such, he was witness to the moral behavior of great men as well as his own. Pearlman suggests that Willis's life experience influenced his memory of the morality of the play he saw with his dad so many years before.
See also Wiggins serial number 532.
For What It's Worth
Willis was born in the same year as Shakespeare, and one might be drawn to think that Hamlet's "fell sergeant, Death," "strict in his arrest," draws on some similar early theatrical experience. This connection with Hamlet is noted by Harold Jenkins in his Arden edition of the play (1982).
Site created and maintained by John H. Astington, University of Toronto; updated 05 December 2010.