Owl, The

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Historical Records

The earliest explicit reference to "The Owl" is Daborne's bond with Henslowe, dated 10 December 1613, requiring that the play be finished by 10 February 1614; the next, dated Christmas Eve 1613, is the receipt of £7 paid to Daborne "in parte of payment of the some of tenn poundes wch I am to receave […] in full satisfacion of a plaie Called the Oule when I haue fynished and made perfect the same." Henslowe's annotations on Daborne's letters witness the payment of further installments for "The Owl": he paid 10s. on or shortly after 31 December, and another 10s. at an unspecified date. The recorded payments explicitly associated with "The Owl" total £8.

Other instances where Daborne discusses the progress of his playwriting may also refer to "The Owl." On or before 11 March 1614, Daborne sent Henslowe papers of a nearly complete play, lacking "but one short scean of the whole play," which Daborne apparently completed on 28 March ("yu hav now a full play") and for which Henslowe paid a final installment of 10s. ("[in] fulle payment of his new playe laste written"). This may have been "The Owl" (see Critical Commentary below).

The following transcriptions of documents at Dulwich College are based on those provided in Greg, Henslowe Papers, 79–83), with occasional variants.

Daborne's Bond

Robert Daborne entered into a bond with Philip Henslowe on 10 December 1613, according to which he would be indebted £40 ("in Quagraginta [sic] libris") to Henslowe unless he delivered the completed text of "The Owl" by 10 February 1614. The latter condition is written in English following the formal Latin text of the bond:

The Condition of this obligacion is such that if the aboue bounden Robert Daborne shall Deliuer or Cause to bee deliverd one plaie fullie perfected and ended Called by the name of the Oule vnto the said Phillip Henchlowe att, or vppon the tenth Daye of ffebruarie next ensuinge the Date hereof wch: the said Phillip Henchlow shall approove alowe and accept of that then and from hencefoorth this present obligacion to bee voyde and of non effect or else to remayne in full power strength and virtue
Robert Daborne
Signed Sealed and
Delivered in the presence of
Edwarde Griffin
Walter Hopkinss
Geo: Hales

Mr Dabornes
(Dulwich College, MSS 1, article 92. Cf. Greg 80)

Payments to Playwrights (Acquittance)

24 December 1613

Receaved by mee Robert Daborne gentleman of Phillipp Henchlowe Esquier the 24 of december 1613 the some of seaven poundes in parte of payment of the some of tenn poundes wch I am to receave of the said Phillip Henchlowe in full satisfacion of a plaie Called the Oule when I haue fynished and made perfect the same accordinge to a bond made by mee to the said Phillip for the same. In wittnes whereof I have hereto sett my hand the daye and yeare first above written
Rob: Daborne
(Dulwich College, MSS 1, article 93. Cf. Greg 80)

Correspondence of Robert Daborne

Whether any of the following letters reflects Daborne's progress in writing "The Owl" can be determined either by Henslowe's annotation or can be conjectured based on the date. (See Critical Commentary below.) Since Daborne's lack of punctuation obscures the syntax of his letters, the transcriptions (which adopt Greg's convention of representing the end of a sentence with multiple spaces) represent one attempt at interpreting the Daborne's meaning.

9 December 1613. To Henslowe.

Sr I wrote to yow by my wif hopinge vpon yr receipt of all my papers yt yow would haue pleasured me wth 20s if not vpon the play yow haue yet vpon my other out of yr book which I will vndertake shall make as good a play for yr publiq' howse as euer was playd for which I desyre but ten pounds & I will vndertake vpon the reading it your company shall giv yu 20l rather then part wth     sr howsoeuer my want inforces me for a tyme I shall shortly be out of it & be able to forbear a play till I can make the best     it is but 20s I desyre till yu haue mony or security to yr content for yt yu ar out of     I haue vpon my wifes words kept one all this day heer assuring my self yu would for my much good haue pleasured me this one which I beseech at yr hands though yu neuer lay out penny more in which trust I rest
Euer at yr commaund
Rob: Daborne
9 dece
Sr doe not thinke I incroch vpon yu
for god is my iudg I mean playnly &
Iustly & yu shall make yr own terms
wth me in any thinge
(Dulwich College, MSS 1, article 91. Cf. Greg 79–80)

Undated. To Henslowe.

Mr Hinchlow I acquaynted yow wth my necessity which I know you did in part supply but if you doe not help me to tenn shillings by this bearer by the living god I am vtterly disgract     one ffryday night I will bring you papers to the valew of three acts     Sr my occation is not ordynary that thus sodeynly I write to you whearfor I beseech you do this for me as ever yu wisht me well which if I requite not heaven forget me
Yrs at commaund
Rob: Daborne
[Note in Henslow's hand:]
Lent vpon this bille xs
dd to the fencer vpon the
(Dulwich College, MSS 1, article 95. Cf. Greg 81)

31 December 1613. To Henslowe.

Sr I yeeld yu many thanks for yr last kindnes which did me infinite pleasure     I hav bin very ill this week of an extream cold ells I had come this night vnto you     I will request no farther curtesy at your hands vpon any occation till yu hav papers in fully to yr content     only the other tenn shillings which I requested ag[ain]st this day being a tyme yt requires me beyond my present meanes     Sr think not yr curtesy can loose by me I will be any thing rather then Ingratefull to so much love as I hav receaved from yu as yu hav donn what I can desyre in doing this, so now look for my honnest care to dischardge my bond     I will not truble yu wth many words     god send yu many hapy new years & me no otherwise then I approv my self honnest to yu
Yrs ever at commaund
Rob: Daborne
31 dec
one munday I will come to yu
& appoynt for the reading
the old Book & bringing in
the new /
[Note in Henslowe's hand:]
pd vpon this bille
toward the owle xs
(Dulwich College, MSS 1, article 94. Cf. Greg 80–81)

11 March 1614. To Henslowe.

Sr if yu doe not like this play when it is read yu shall hav the other which shall be finished wth all expedition for befor god this is a good one & will giv yu content     howsoever yu shall never loose a farthing by me whearfor I pray misdoubt me not but as yu hav bin kynd to me so continew it till I deserv the contrary and I pray send me ten shillings & take these papers which wants but one short scean of the whole play so I rest
Yrs at commaund
Rob: Daborne
[Note in Henslowe's hand:]
pd vnto your
dawghter the 11
mrche 1613… xs
(Dulwich College, MSS 1, article 96. Cf. Greg 82)

28 March 1614. To Henslowe.

Mr Hinchlow yu hav now a full play     I desyr yu should disburse but 12l a play till they be playd     I mean to vrdge yu no farther for if yu like not this yu shall hav another to yr content     befor god yu shall hav the full play now & I desyr but 20s to serv my ordynary turn till I hav finished one yt yu may hav yr choyse for I would hav yu know I can hav mony for papers though I hav cast my self vpon yu wth a purpose to deserv yr love     as for mr Pallat is much discontented wth your neglect of him I would I knew yr mynd to giv him awnswer     Sr if yu deny me this reasonable kyndnes it will forc me to ingage a play which yu will miss     so desyring yr awnswer I rest
Yrs at command
R: Dab:
28 march
[Notes in Henslowe's hand:]
dd vnto mr Daborne the 2
of aprell 1614 in earnest of
the shee saynte at his owne
howsse the somme of… viijs
Lent of this bille the 29
of Mrche [in] fulle payment
of his new playe laste
written the summe of… xs
(Dulwich College, MSS 1, article 97. Cf. Greg 82–83)

Theatrical Provenance

Robert Daborne sold the play to Philip Henslowe, who he assumed would sell it to "your company" at the "publiq' howse," perhaps intending Lady Elizabeth's Men at the Swan. The play was completed in 1614.

Probable Genre(s)


Possible Narrative and Dramatic Sources or Analogues

Unknown. See Critical Commentary below.

References to the Play

None known.

Critical Commentary


Greg (81) argued that Daborne's undated letter (article 95) was written chronologically between the 24 December receipt of £7 (article 93) and the 31 December letter (article 94). The promised delivery of "three acts" on "ffryday night" then refers to Friday, 31 December, at which time Daborne postponed delivery until "munday" (i.e. 3 January). Greg (82) assumed that the unnamed play ("this play") to which Daborne refers in his letter c. 11 March (article 96) is "The Owl," which was in turn completed by 28 March (article 97), at which point Henslowe made his final payment for it. These two letters from March record payments totaling £1: adding this to the payments of £8 explicitly associated with "The Owl," there is £1 lacking from the full £10, so Greg (82n) writes that Daborne "received another 20s. probably between Arts. 94 and 96."

Chambers (ES, 3:272) and Wiggins (399) endorse Greg's chronology.

Source and Content

Daborne's letter of 9 December 1613 (a day before his formal bond with Henslowe) apparently refers to "The Owl" when Daborne mentions "my other [play] out of yr book which I will vndertake shall make as good a play for yr publiq' howse as euer was playd for which I desyre but ten pounds." In an earlier letter dated 5 November 1613, Daborne desired that Henslowe "send me the Book yu promysd" (Dulwich College, MSS 1, article 87; Greg 77).

Collier (71) thought that Daborne's play written "out of yr book" was based on a narrative found in a volume provided by Henslowe, such as that lent to Daborne on 5 November.

Greg (79) argued that since Daborne "only asks £10 for this it is clearly a case of revision," one made "out of the 'Book' Henslowe had sent him."

Wiggins (399) proposes both possible interpretations of the phrase "out of yr book." He also suggests that the play's title (as with Jonson's Volpone) might indicate a "central character represented in terms of some of the traditional characteristics of the eponymous animal," such as wisdom or nocturnal activity. Michael Drayton's satire The Owl (published 1604) is a poor candidate for dramatic adaptation.

Genre and Publication

Hazlitt (172) identified the play as a comedy, since "Owle" is listed as such in Edward Archer's 1656 "An Exact and perfect CATALOGUE of all the PLAIES that were ever printed" (see here). Hazlitt's observation also necessarily implies that the play was printed.

Greg (BEPD, 2:976) showed that the appearance of "Owle" in Archer's list seems to have been an error. When the right to Drayton's The Owl was transferred from Elizabeth Aldee to Richard Oulton on 22 April 1640, it was mistakenly described as "a play," which error seems to have been repeated in a printed advertisement of books sold by Jane Bell and, again, in Archer's list.

For What It's Worth

Based on Greg's reconstruction of events, Daborne must not have fulfilled the terms of his bond (which required "The Owl" to be completed by 10 February 1614) and thus would have been indebted to Henslowe for £40. (Perhaps the debt was cancelled, but there is no indication of this in the extant bond.) The documents indicate that £8 was paid towards "The Owl" before 1 January 1614 (assuming that the undated letter predates that of 31 December) and that approximately three acts were completed shortly thereafter. Greg's reconstruction then allows for almost three more months before the play was finished and the remaining £2 paid. Might it be possible that Daborne did in fact finish "The Owl" before 10 February and that whatever play was completed on 28 March was a different one? (There are no extant articles in the Dulwich archives from January and February 1614, and Greg's reconstruction already assumes that payments during that time totaling £1 are unrepresented.)

As Brett D. Hirsch has shown, the owl took on a host of negative associations, such as folly and ignorance; ill omen and misfortune; death and mourning; uncleanliness, sin, and turpitude; Judaism, Catholicism, and Puritanism (Hirsch).

Works Cited

Collier, J. Payne, ed. The Alleyn Papers. London, 1843.
Hazlitt, W. Carew. A Manual for the Collector and Amateur of Old English Plays. London, 1892.
Hirsch, Brett D. "From Jew to Puritan: The Emblematic Owl in Early English Culture." 'This Earthly Stage': World and Stage in Late Medieval and Early Modern England. Ed. Brett D. Hirsch and Christopher Wortham. Turnhout: Brepols, 2010. 131–72.
Wiggins, Martin, in association with Catherine Richardson. British Drama 1533–1642: A Catalogue. Volume VI: 1609–1616. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2015.

Site created and maintained by Misha Teramura, University of Toronto; updated 29 March 2016.