Four Sons of Aymon, The

Robert Shaw (Shaa)? (1602)

Historical Records

Payments to Playwrights (Henslowe's Diary)

The first evidence of an English play with this title is contained in Henslowe's Diary. In late 1602 the actor Robert Shaw signed a memorandum acknowledging a loan of two pounds against a copy of " a booke Called the fower sones of Aymon," offered to the Admiral's men as an option for performance at the Fortune within the following twelve months (F. 112). Henslowe had entered this payment on 10 December 1602 in the context of other expenditures (F. 109).There is no subsequent evidence in Henslowe's records that the play was in fact produced, but Shaw died before the term of the agreement was complete, and Henslowe probably retained the manuscript, having in effect bought it.

F. 109 (Greg, I.173)

Layd owt for the companye the 10 of desember 1602
vnto Robarte shawe for a boocke of the 4 sonnes
of amon the some of … xls

F. 112 (Greg, I. 176)

Memorandum that J Robert Shaa
have receaued of mr Phillip Henchlowe
the some of forty shellinges vpon a booke
Called the fower sones of Aymon wch booke
if it be not playd by the company of the
fortune or noe other company by my [apoynt] leave
I doe then bynd my selfe by theis prsentes to
repay the sayd some of forty shillinges
vpon the delivery of my booke att Christmas
next wch shall be in the yeare of our Lord
god 1603 & in the xlvjth yeare of the
Raighne of the queene
per me Robt Shaa

Heywood, An Apology for Actors (1612)

A decade later, in An Apology for Actors (1612), Thomas Heywood wrote about the performance of a play with the same title acted (in English, presumably) in continental Europe:

at Amsterdam in Holland a company of our English Comedians (well known) travelling those Countryes, as they were before the Burgers and other the chiefe inhabitants, acting the last part of the 4 sons of Aymon, towards the last act of the history, where penitent Renaldo, like a common labourer, lived in disguise, vowing as his last pennance, to labour & carry burdens to the structure of a goodly Church there to be erected . . . [His diligence arouses the resentment of the other workers, and they plot to kill him while he sleeps.] Having spy'd their opportunity, they drave a nail into his temples, of which wound immediatly he dyed. EEBO (30-31)

The stage scene triggers a confession to a similar murder from a member of the audience, providing one of Heywood's instances of the moral force of theatre.

A dozen years after the publication of Heywood's book his former colleague Ellis Worth, acting for Prince Charles's company, brought a text to the Revels Office for licensing, recorded by Sir Henry Herbert as "The Four Sons of Amon, . . . being an olde play tho' never allowed of before, nor of a legible hand." Legible or not, Herbert passed it for performance, and it presumably was shortly thereafter performed at the Red Bull, in the early part of 1624. Internet Archive

Theatrical Provenance

Admiral's at the Fortune; Prince's in 1624.

Probable Genre(s)

Romance (Harbage)

Possible Narrative and Dramatic Sources or Analogues

It is impossible to say whether the historical records refer to a single document, passed from Shaw to Henslowe, rented by Henslowe or Alleyn to a touring troupe, and finally licensed for English performance twenty-odd years later, or whether they indicate three distinct treatments of a well-known story deriving from a medieval French chanson de geste, Quatre fils Aymon, translated into English and published by Caxton in 1504. Caxton's translation was reissued in 1554; that version was probably the source for the anonymous dramatist(s) who adapted it for the stage. The subject is chivalric romance featuring the knights of Charlemagne; the prose version is very long, and it would have been selectively adapted for stage performance. The scene described by Heywood corresponds to the end of the story of the leading, and surviving, son, Renaut (Renaldo), although the details of his murder are not recounted with the grim detail of the stage enactment Heywood reports .

References to the Play

See Historical Records above for Heywood's reference.

Critical Commentary

Roslyn L. Knutson notes the modest payment of 40s. for The Four Sons of Aymon and suggests the script might have been secondhand (119).

In Early Theatre, under the rubric of Issues in Review: Popular Theatre and the Red Bull, John Astington examines the repertory of Red Bull playhouse and its north London companion, the Fortune, focusing primarily on resident companies and selected players in the 1610s-1630s. One thread of his argument is that "The jibes about the terrible tear-throats at the northern playhouses miss the point; it wasn't that the actors didn't know better, but they were quite deliberately keeping alive a broader, showier, declamatory tradition," or "fashion for retro" (131). He discusses also the possibility that the fashion for biblical plays continued past 1603: "in fact ... the national, religious, and moral applications of stories of heroism and military victory, blessed by divine approval, fitted very well into the robust, 'manly' aspect of taste of the northern playhouse audiences" (134). In this context he considers the 1624 appearance of The Four Sons of Aymon and Ellis Worth, who had a history with Queen Anne's men and Christopher Beeston at the Cockpit as well as Prince Charles's men at the Red Bull. Unwilling to identify the play as identical to the text sold to Henslowe by Robert Shaw (Shaa) December 1602, Astington does observe that the company "at the Red Bull in 1624 [were certainly performing] a piece with a long history of dramatisation, and possibily with a legendary reputation" (136).

For What It's Worth

The story and its leading figures were well known throughout Europe into the seventeenth century. In the 1540s the Bruges ommegang featured procession figures of the Four Sons of Aymon, with Charlemagne and the magic horse Bayard. In 1616 the Four Sons appeared in a festival entry in Stuttgart, in the presence of the Elector Palatine Frederick and his English wife, Princess Elizabeth. They are amusingly illustrated, all sitting on one horse, in the festival book published for the occasion, Repraesentatio Der Furstlichen Aufzug und Ritterspil (Stuttgart, 1616).

Henslowe's records indicate that Shaw (Shaa) was selling this play to the Admiral's men, where he had been a player from October 1597 to February 1602, having come over to the company from the dissolved company of Pembroke's men at the Swan. In December 1602, however, he had moved to the company of Worcester's men. During 1602-3, Henslowe kept records of payments for both companies, one at the Fortune (Admiral's) and the other at the Rose (Worcester's). It is therefore curious that Shaw specified the Admiral's men, his former company, as the recipient of the play, not his current company of Worcester's. Shaw was himself a player, not a dramatist. This play is the only title associated with his name as possible author.

Works Cited

Astington, John H. "Playing the Man: Acting at the Red Bull and the Fortune." Early Theatre 9.2 (2006), 130-43.
Bawcutt, N. W. The Control and Censorship of Caroline Drama (Oxford, 1996).
Heywood, Thomas. An Apology for Actors (London, 1612).
Knutson, Roslyn L. "The Commercial Significance of the Payments for Playtexts in Henslowe's Diary, 1597-1603." Medieval and Renaissance Drama in England (1991), 117-63.
Mulryne, J. R., H. Watanabe-O'Kelly, and M Shewring, ed., Europa Triumphans. Court and Civic Festivals in Early Modern Europe, 2 vols. (Aldershot, 2004).
Tydeman, W., ed., The Medieval European Stage 500-1500 (Cambridge, 2001).

Site created by John H. Astington, University of Toronto; updated Roslyn L. Knutson, 3 August 2010.