Pierce of Exton

Thomas Dekker, Michael Drayton, Henry Chettle and Robert Wilson (1598)

Historical Records


To playwrights in Philip Henslowe's diary

Fol. 45 (Greg I.85)

Lent vnto the company to geue mr willsone dickers }
drayton & cheatell in pte of payment of a boocke } xxxxs
called perce of extone the some of . . . . . . . . }

Theatrical Provenance

If it were performed, it would have been by the Admiral's at the Rose in the Spring of 1598. The partial payment of £2, and the absence of this title in the inventory list of playbooks subsequently drafted by Henslowe, casts some doubt over whether "Pierce of Exton" was completed. It may well have been, and the playwrights may have been paid the balance owed to them by some means other than Henslowe.

Probable Genre(s)

History (Harbage).

Possible Narrative and Dramatic Sources or Analogues

As Wiggins, Catalogue notes, the central protagonist's identity is relatively clear, but what aspect of his life the dramatists chose to depict is ambiguous:

The central incident was presumably the one for which the title character was known: his murder of King Richard II, seemingly at the instigation of King Henry IV. But this alone would not provide enough incident to be the basis of a play. The key, unknowable issue is whether the murder was the plot's climax, fulcrum, or initiating event: the play might have presented his crime as the eventual outcome of a scapegrace's life; it might have taken a cue from the Tudor chroniclers' emphasis on his remorse after the event, and presented his tormented wanderings abroad after his rejection and banishment by Henry IV, the beneficiary of the murder; or it might have done both. (#1118)

References to the Play

Information welcome.

Critical Commentary

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

McInnis, following Wiggins' caution over whether the play would have dramatised events leading up to or following the murder of Richard II, notes that, if that latter, there may be an intra-repertorial connection to the "Earl Godwin" plays:

Exton’s banishment at the hands of Henry IV may have some analogy with Godwin’s various exiles, and indeed the dramatization of Exton’s political assassination may also have attracted playgoers who had witnessed Godwin’s brutal attack on the young prince Alfred. The Exton play may have been an attempt to revive interest in the Wars of the Roses material that had been so popular for the Admiral’s competition throughout the 1590s.

For What It's Worth

Sir Piers of Exton's banishment by Henry IV was Shakespeare's invention (Forker, ed., 5.6.34-44n). In Holinshed (517), Exton is the only one to respond to Henry's open lament that none of his friends would take it upon himself to kill the imprisoned Richard II. At Pomfret, Richard valiantly defends himself against Exton and eight other armed men but is ultimately "felled with a stroke of a pollax which sir Piers gaue him vpon the head." As Holinshed reports: "It is said, that sir Piers of Exton, after he had thus slaine him, wept right bitterlie, as one striken with the pricke of a giltie conscience, for murthering him, whome he had so long time obeied as king." Only in Shakespeare's Richard II does Henry repudiate and banish Exton for the assassination: "The guilt of conscience take thou for thy labour, / But neither my good word nor princely favour. / With Cain go wander thorough shades of night, / And never show thy head by day nor night" (Forker, ed., 5.6.41–44). It may have been that the Admiral's play was informed by Shakespeare's treatment of the historical character.

Works Cited

Forker, Charles R., ed. King Richard II by William Shakespeare. London: Arden Shakespeare, 2002.
Holinshed, Raphael. The Third volume of Chronicles. London, 1587. STC 13569.
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.
McInnis, David. "Robert Wilson and Lost Plays". Performance as Research in Early English Theatre Studies: The Three Ladies of London in Context. http://threeladiesoflondon.mcmaster.ca/contexts/DavidMcInnis.htm

Site created and maintained by David McInnis, University of Melbourne; updated 03 June 2015.