Orphans Tragedy, The

Henry Chettle (1599, 1601?)

Historical Records


To playwrights in Philip Henslowe's diary

Fol. 29 (Greg I.57)

NB: Greg I, whose edition of the diary is followed by the Lost Plays Database, did not transcribe the "heavy" brackets which enclose a block of three entries on Fol. 29, one of which is the item below dated 27 November; Foakes did transcribe the heavy brackets, which he described as signs of cancellation (lx).

stete | Receiued of Mr Henslow in earnest of the orphanes
| [Tragedy the] somme of xs. the 27th of nouember./

lent vnto harey chettell the 27 of novmbƺ }
1599 in earneste of a Boocke called the } xs
orphenes tragedie the some of xs as maye }
a peare a bowe by his hand crossed some of ... }

Fol. 65v (Greg I.114)

Lent vnto harey chettell the 27 of novmbƺ }
1599 in earnest of a Boocke called the } xs
tragedie of orphenes the some of ... }
as may a pere

Fol. 93v (Greg I.148)

Lent vnto Samwell Rowley the 24 of septmbƺ 1601 }
to paye vnto harey chettell in pt of payment } xs
for a Boocke called the orfenes tragedy some of ... }

Theatrical Provenance

The Admiral's Men paid Henry Chettle 20s. in the fall of 1599 toward a play called "The Orphans Tragedy". Unless Chettle received moneys not tabulated by Henslowe, such as relief on some loan, this play appears to have been unfinished at this time. In 1601 Chettle received 10s. more apparently for the same play-project. The language of the entry ("in p[ar]t of payment") suggests that the play was still not completed. In 1599 the company was preparing for its last year at the Rose; by 1601, it had moved to the Fortune.

Probable Genre(s)

Tragedy (Harbage)

Possible Narrative and Dramatic Sources or Analogues

Scholars have suggested that Chettle's source material might be reflected in the 1601 publication, Two Lamentable Tragedies (Yarington), the second story of which is described on the title page as one of "a young childe murthered in a Wood by two Ruffins, with the consent of his Vncle." The publication carries the name of Robert Yarington on the title page, as well as the name of the printer, Matthew Lawe. See Critical Commentary below for more detail.

The ballad familiarly known as "The Babes in the Wood" is cited by scholars as a narrative analogue of Chettle's play. Gutenburg

S. R. I, 3.3b/50 (CLIO)

xvto die Octobris./. [1595] Thomas Millington./.

Entred for his Copie vnder th[e h]andes of bothe the wardens
ballad intituled The Norfolk gent his will and Testament and howe he
Commytted the keepinge of his Children to his owne brother whoe delte
moste wickedly with them and howe GOD plagued him for it ... vjd
[Arber's note: This story is now known as The Babes in the Wood.]

References to the Play

None known.

Critical Commentary

Collier did not comment on the apparently cancelled payment of 10s for "the orphanes [Tragedy the" on 27 November 1599, but he implied a connection to Two Lamentable Tragedies by Robert Yarington in a comment on "The Tragedy of Thomas Merry," a payment for which directly precedes the cancelled "orphanes" entry(p. 92, n.3). Regarding the ""tragedie of Merie," Collier noted that it "may have been upon the same incidents as one of the plots of Yarrington's "Two Tragedies in One" (printed in 1601), which related to the murder of a person of the name of Beech by his servant Thomas Merry, and to the killing of the children in the wood." He added, enigmatically, "This double story in strangely interwoven," but he did not specifically connect Yarington's second story to "The Orphans Tragedy."

Fleay claimed that the play in the Yarington publication is the same story as in the ballad, "The Babes in the Wood," but he did not reference the S. R. entry in 1595 specifically (2.285-6). He believed that "Yarington" was a fictional name, and that Chettle in 1601 was being paid to combine his still-rough tragedy based on the ballad with Haughton and Day's "Tragedy of Thomas Merry." Fleay believed further that "The Italian Tragedy" for which John Day was paid 40s. on 10 January 1600 was somehow implicated in the shift of the orphans' ballad story (which is set in Norfolk and features two children, a boy and girl) to the story in Yarington's publication that is set in Italy and features one boy child.

Greg II agreed with Fleay that the story of "The Orphans Tragedy" was the one in the Yarington publication (see #190, p. 208, for Greg's discussion of Yarington's two stories; see # 191, p. 209 for Greg's token entry on the Chettle play specifically). He went farther, though, in designating Yarington a scribe for the two plays interwoven in the publication (Two Lamentable Tragedies). Greg was uncharacteristically complimentary of the "Orphans" segments, calling them "quite good enough to be by Chettle" (#190, p. 208). Greg knew the opinion of R. A. Law (below) but did not agree with it.

Law argued that Yarington was the author of Two Lamentable Tragedies and that Chettle's play on the orphans is not concealed in Yarington's rendering of the "Babes in the Wood" ballad (170).

Wagner found an entry for the freedom in 1603 of "Robt. Yarrington junr." in An Annuall Catalogue ... of the Company of Scrivenors of the Citty of London (Bodleian MS., Rawl. D. 51), which settled for the moment the identity of the "Rob. Yarington" on the title page of the 1601: he was a scribe, as Greg had guessed, and still an apprentice when he copied the manuscript that would be printed as Two Lamentable Tragedies.

Knutson categorizes "Orphans Tragedy" among the titles in Henslowe's diary without evidence of having been completed (p. 162).

Gurr labels "The Orphans Tragedy" (which he calls "The Tragedy of Orphenes") a lost play (248). Disentangling Chettle's project from that of "Thomas Merry," he notes that the name, "Orphenes," could point to "the story of Orphe, to whom Apollo gave the gift of prophecy but who Bacchus changed to stone" (249, n. 105).

Wiggins, Catalogue, influenced by Henslowe's use of the plural ("orphenes"), considers the link to Yarington's work "a red herring" if indeed the play featured "more than one orphan"; he notes also that the final payment for Chettle's play was in "the autumn of 1601" and thus "rather late … to be incorporated" by Yarington, whose work was published in 1601 (#1302).

Hanabusa surveys recent research on Robert Yarington and decides that Yarington was indeed a dramatist (xxvii). Laying out five candidates for the "Rob. Yarington" on the title page of Two Lamentable Tragedies, he chooses Candidate #2 as the most likely. That Yarington (or "Yarranton") was a draper "freed on 2 August 1593" (xxviii). Hanabusa notes that Matthew Law, who commissioned Two Lamentable Tragedies, was also a draper by guild membership, though a practicing stationer (xxii). In regard to the 1601 payment to Chettle, apparently for further work on the unfinished tragedy about "or fens," Hanabusa avers that Henslowe's entry should be taken literally (xxvi).

For What It's Worth

Information welcome.

Works Cited

Gurr, Andrew. Shakespeare’s Opposites: The Admiral’s Company 1594-1625. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009.
Hanabusa, Chiaki, ed. Two Lamentable Tragedies; Robert Yarington. The Malone Society Reprints, 2013.
Knutson, Roslyn L. “The Commercial Significance of the Payments for Playtexts in Henslowe’s Diary, 1597-1603.” Medieval and Renaissance Drama in England 6 (1991): 117-63.
Law, R. A. “Yarington’s ‘Two Lamentable Tragedies’, Modern Language Review 5 (1910): 167-77. JSTOR
Wagner, Bernard M. "Robert Yarrington," Modern Language Notes 45.3 (1930): 147-8). JSTOR
Yarington, Robert. Two Lamentable Tragedies. 1601 Yarington

Site created and maintained by Roslyn L. Knutson, Professor Emerita, University of Arkansas at Little Rock; updated 29 February 2016.