Richard Crookback

Ben Jonson (1602)

Historical Records

Payments to Playwrights (Henslowe’s Diary)

F. 106v (Greg I.168)

Lent ^ vnto bengemy Johnsone at the a poyntment of E Alleyn }
& wm birde the 22 of June 1602 }
in earneste of a Boocke called Richard } xli
crockbacke & for new adicyons for }
Jeronymo the some of }

Theatrical Provenance

If the play was performed, the Admiral’s Men would have put it on at the Fortune, within months of the down payment to Jonson. The lack of firm evidence such as an additional payment in full for this script specifically makes it impossible to ascertain whether the play was indeed ever completed or staged.

Opinions differ on whether the play was performed and when

The sum paid to Jonson by Henslowe, as Evans (97)—following Collier (xii)—points out, "was substantial, suggesting either that the additions [to The Spanish Tragedy] were extensive or that Jonson's play on King Richard III was nearly complete".

Donaldson ("Richard Crookback", 183) suggests that the play may have never been completed or performed, possibly because of Jonson's illness in 1602. As Donaldson (Ben Jonson: A Life, 181) conjectures, Jonson may have been "touched by an early wave of the plague that was soon to devastate London".

Wiggins (#1337) argues for a later date of completion, since even though Jonson started writing the play in late June, "its absence from William Playstowe's 4 August acquittance to Philip Henslowe, relating to plays licensed probably in July, suggests that it was not by then complete".

Probable Genre(s)

History (Harbage); tragedy (Herford and Simpson, 33).

Possible Narrative and Dramatic Sources or Analogues

The events from the life and reign of King Richard III remained very popular throughout the Tudor era, which means Jonson had quite a wide range of dramatic and non-dramatic sources he could draw upon.

As Donaldson ("Richard Crookback", 183) usefully summarises, Jonson:

would have been familiar with Shakespeare's Richard III (probably completed by 1593) and the anonymous True Tragedy of Richard the Third, published in 1594 but probably composed a few years earlier [...]. He may also have known the Latin play Ricardus Tertius by Thomas Legge, Master of Caius College, Cambridge, acted c. 1579. He certainly studied with close attention Thomas More's influential but unfinished account of the life of Richard III, as his heavy markings in his personal copy of the 1566 Louvain edition of More's Omnia Latina opera reveal [...]. It was More who had given fullest currency to the traditional portrait of Richard III which Jonson (to judge at least from the title of this lost play) seems to have inherited.

Evans has thoroughly examined Jonson's marked copy of the Latin version of More's History of King Richard III, probably the major source of "Richard Crookback". His study enables us to make conjectures about what Jonson's play and his response to Richard might have been, especially as regards "the kinds of political issues and concerns that Richard's life may have raised for Jonson" (98). The text is very heavily marked, as "Of the roughly 3000 total lines of print [...], more than half (about 1600) are marked with pencilled vertical lines, with Jonson's distinctive flowers, with his pointing hands, and with other marks whose shapes are less easily described" (106).

The likelihood that Jonson perused his copy of More's Historia before 1602 is increased by the fact that we know that Jonson gave it to William Dakins (who was appointed Greek lecturer at Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1602) before the latter's death in 1607, and that Dakins himself had presented the book to another friend, John Blumfeild (99). In addition, while the Historia is heavily marked, Utopia in the same volume "is nearly unmarked", which seems to suggest that Jonson's "main interest at the time was in More's views of Richard's reign" (100).

Evans also argues that "Aside from its simple value as a repository of information", the playwright may have valued More's Historia "as an important model of how history could and should have been written", inasmuch as it "was less concerned with accumulating data than with teaching moral lessons", an aspect that clearly appealed to Jonson's humanist attitude towards historiography and chimed with the moralistic bent of his dramatic output (101). More's intense engagement with classical models, especially Tacitus, would have very probably engaged Jonson, who would soon be embarking on Sejanus His Fall (102).

The playwright would have probably appreciated "the satire, irony, and vituperation" that characterise More's retelling of Richard's story. In More's work Jonson "must have recognized a style, techniques, and the temperament he probably found congenial", which possibly made More's Historia "an even more useful and suggestive source for a tragical-ironical-satirical-vituperative-allegorical-realistic drama by Jonson—precisely the sort of thing that Sejanus shows he could write" (104). More's Historia was also appealing as a source for a play because of its intrinsic dramatic character, which made it readily susceptible to being transposed on the stage (104–105).

It is also quite clear that Jonson "turned to the Latin version of More's work rather than to the more widely known and more frequently reprinted English text—the one on which Shakespeare seems to have relied. Possibly Jonson read both versions", although evidence of his reading the English version only comes in the form of quotations in his English Grammar, which was a much later project. Apart from lending to Jonson "the possibility of displaying his sophisticated learning", the Latin version is not an outright translation of the English one; it "is more coherent and complete than the unfinished English text" (105) and, by ending with Richard's accession, it "elaborates more fully on his evil". In addition, it tends to highlight "the all-too-human motives behind political events", it "is fuller of classical allusions and conforms more closely to the patterns of classical historiography", all aspects that may have seemed appealing to Jonson, as the fact that it was "a more sophisticated, subtle, and demanding text [...] composed for a learned, international audience" (106).

As for the rationale behind the markings in the volume, Evans sums up that "Many marks simply highlight plot developments; some note new characters; others set off memorable speeches, actions, or events, while some emphasize themes. Some indicate noteworthy generalizations or moralizing comments, while others call attention to useful summaries, to character descriptions, to striking phrasing, or to conflicting interpretations of motives or conduct" (116).

As for themes, Jonson seems to have marked passages especially dealing with "such themes as deceit, hypocrisy, selfishness, factionalism, the nature of women and relations between the sexes, tyranny, excessive taxation, the supernatural, abuses of the law, abuses of language in general (and flattery in particular), liberty, love, marriage, luxury, merit vs. birth, appearance vs. reality, patriotism, the importance of concord, and the nature of playacting" (109).

References to the Play

There might be a reference to "Richard Crookback" in a jest-book compiled by the Caroline playwright Robert Chamberlain.

Sundry mistakes spoken publickly upon the Stage.
IN the Play of Richard the third; the Duke of Buckingham being betraid by his servant Banister, a Messenger comming hastily into the presence of the King, to bring him word of the Dukes surprizall, Richard asking him what newes he replyed:
My Liege, the Duke of Banister is tane,
And Buckingham is come for his reward.
Chamberlain, A new booke of mistakes (1637), D1v.

What this excerpt clearly indicates is the existence of an otherwise unknown Richard III play in which Banister features as a character (for a detailed discussion on Banister, see the entry for "Henry Richmond, Part 2"). This could be either Jonson's play, Wilson's "Henry Richmond, Part 2", the anonymous and undated "Richard III, or the English Prophet", or even the hypothetical "Henry Richmond, Part 1" (see Wiggins, who quotes these lines both in the entry for the latter and for "Richard Crookback").

Jonson himself might have referred to this play in the "Apologetical Dialogue" inserted at the end of the 1602 quarto of Poetaster, where he declares that he "will try / If tragedy have a more kind aspect. / Her favours in my next I will pursue" (ll. 210–212). This is customarily taken as an allusion to Sejanus, but Jonson may well have had "Richard Crookback" in mind, although Herford and Simpson (33) deem it unlikely that "Richard Crookback" might be part of those "'fresh strains' with which he meant to 'strike the ear of the time'—the 'something come into my thought / That must and shall be sung, high and aloof' (ll. 216, 224–225)" he alluded to at the end of the same "Apologetical Dialogue".

Critical Commentary

Why was "Richard Crookback" never published?

As for the potential reasons behind Jonson's decision not to include "Richard Crookback" (if it was ever completed) in the 1616 Folio—a decision that, for Herford and Simpson (33), "sufficiently proves that [the play] had not engaged the ripened powers of the man of twenty-nine"—Riggs (98–99) observes that "Richard Crookback" shared the same fate as "the other scripts that he had sold to Henslowe; he may have set it aside in March, when the Admiral's Men stopped giving performances; or perhaps he could not equal, let alone improve upon, Shakespeare's Richard III, and abandoned the project."

Evans (97–98) thinks Jonson may have never published the play because it may have been a collaborative effort, as did Collier (xii), or because he was more generically "dissatisfied with the work", possibly because he regarded Shakespeare's offering as superior to his own.

In a note (132n21), however, Evans (drawing on work by Arthur N. Kincaid) remarks that a more favourable view of Richard's character and reign "was beginning to gain acceptance among [...] historians in the early decades of the seventeenth century", among whom William Camden, Jonson's mentor, must be numbered. Therefore, "by the time he came to assemble the 1616 folio edition of his Workes, Jonson may have become increasingly dubious about the accuracy or justice of More's account of Richard" and decided not to publish his play.

The relationship between Jonson's and Shakespeare's plays may have been, in Wiggins's interpretation, the cause of the play's exclusion from the 1616 Folio, which looks like an anomaly, insofar as "Richard Crookback" was neither an early play nor a collaborative effort, as were all the other plays he suppressed from the Folio. Could Jonson, wonders Wiggins, "have deemed it a simple failure, perhaps too much like Shakespeare, too little like himself, and so worthier of burial than praise?" (#1337)

Dutton (93–94) conjectures that Jonson's decision not to include "Richard Crookback" (as well as the other plays he had written for the Admiral's Men: "Robert II, King of Scots", "Hot Anger Soon Cold" and "Page of Plymouth") in that "highly selective sampling" of his works that the 1616 Folio is may have depended from his resolution to exclude "items which did not have predominantly royal associations" and that he did not regard as "represent[ing] his real literary skill".

What might "Richard Crookback" have been like?

Barton (9) points out that "The emphasis of the title suggests that the play itself, had it survived, would offer little comfort to modern defenders of the dignity of that much-maligned king." Later, in a discussion on the supernatural element in Jonson's plays, Barton (223) remarks that, as "Richard Crookback" is lost, "there is no way of telling whether Jonson's king, like Shakespeare's, was frightened by shadows before Bosworth and, if so, how convincing the dramatist made them."

Riggs (91) contends that "The tragedy of King Richard III satisfied the criteria that were now uppermost in Jonson's mind. It included the most famous case of infanticide in English history, it featured a whole chorus of grieving parents, and gave him an opportunity to imitate, and improve upon, Shakespeare's Richard III—just as Shakespeare had improved upon the work of his predecessor, the anonymous author of The True Tragedy of Richard III. Unlike the comedy of humors and the comical satires, Jonson's new project put a premium on imitation and competition rather than 'strangeness' and originality. [...] Jonson's Richard III promised to add an entirely new dimension both to the Poet's Quarrel and to the competition between the Admiral's Men and their rivals at the Globe".

Knutson (168–169) remarks that "A rather far-fetched but possible instance of duplicate plays sharing the same market involves Richard III and Richard Crookback. Shakespeare's company revived Richard III long before 1602, if the title-page of the quarto in 1597 is accurate, and therefore long before the debut at the Fortune of Ben Jonson's Richard Crookback around June in 1602. Yet Richard III was reprinted in 1602, which is the same year that [John] Manningham heard an anecdote about [Richard] Burbage in the role of Richard III; and if it had been revived, it could have been on stage at a time near the production of Jonson's version of Richard III's story by the Admiral's men."

Wiggins (#1337) argues that Jonson probably wanted to outshine Shakespeare and wonders "whether he was trying to do it by being like Shakespeare or by doing something distinctly his own", with the latter possibility striking Wiggins as "more plausible at this stage in his career", when he was developing Sejanus and would be soon start working on Volpone. That "Richard Crookback" must have been significantly different from Shakespeare's Richard III is also made likely in Wiggins's view by the potential commercial logic behind the investment the Admiral's Men were making. It would have been commercially unwise to commission a play that was too similar to one the Lord Chamberlain's Men might easily revive "as spoiler tactic and, at best, split the market".

In addition, Wiggins connects the Admiral's Men's decision not to revive "Henry Richmond, Part 2" and rather commission a new play focusing on Richard III to the company's "ongoing response to the Lord Chamberlain's Men's development of the history play in the late 1590s, when Shakespeare effectively discontinued the 'tragical histories' of earlier in the decade and substituted a mode of 'comical history' in the Henry IV plays", a tendency that is apparent in the Lord Admiral's Men's production of the last years of the sixteenth century (with such plays as Look about You, Sir John Oldcastle and The Blind Beggar of Bethnal Green).

As the emergence of tragicomedy was drawing near in 1602, Wiggins hypothesises that "Richard Crookback" might "have attempted to steer the history play further down the mixed genre route, comical-tragical-historical, with Richard perhaps conceived as a prototype for Volpone", with the result that "Jonsons's Richard could well have turned out more similar to Shakespeare's than he bargained for".

For What It's Worth

Another potential reference to "Richard Crookback" might be found in the following memorandum found from the back of a 1599 note from Robert Shaa (Shaw) to Henslowe:

Greg, Papers (MS. I. 27, Art. 26, p. 49)

Autograph note, Robert Shaa (Shaw) to Philip Henslowe, 8 November 1599:

mr Henshlowe we haue heard their booke and lyke yt their pryce is eight poundes, wch J pray pay now to mr wilson, according to our promysse, J would haue Come my selfe, but that J ame trobled wth a seytation.

yors Robt Shaa

[on the back of Shaa's note, also in his hand]
1. Sce Wm Wor; & Ansell & to them ye plowghmen
2. Sce: Richard Q. & Eliza: Catesbie, Louell, Rice ap Tho: Blunt, Banester
3. Sce: Ansell Dauye Denys Hen: Oxf: Courtney Bourchier & Grace to them Rice ap Tho: & his Soldiors
4. Sce: Mitton Ban : his wyfe & children
5. Sce: K Rich : Catesb : Louell. Norf. Northumb : Percye
[6. C. and Q. Eliza.     7. Dauye. C. Daugr (in Memoirs, omitted in Papers).   9. C. Milton.]

As Donaldson ("Richard Crookback", 183–184) argues, if the memorandum and the note are roughly contemporary, the former "could refer to an earlier play on the subject of Richard III which the Lord Admiral's Men had in their repertoire, which Jonson's play was designed to replace or update. If the memorandum is of a later date, it may conceivably refer to Jonson's own play. The evidence is tantalizingly inconclusive."

On balance, however, it seems more likely than the memorandum referred to Robert Wilson's 1599 "Henry Richmond, Part 2", rather than Jonson's lost play: see the entry for "Henry Richmond, Part 2", where Greg's attempt at identifying the characters listed in the rough outline provided with Shaw's authorization of payment is reported.

Works Cited

Barton, Anne. Ben Jonson, dramatist. Cambridge: CUP, 1984.
Chamberlain, Robert. A new booke of mistakes. London: N.O., 1637.
Collier, J. Payne. Introduction to The Ghost of Richard the Third: A Poem. London: Shakespeare Society, 1844. v–xv.
Donaldson, Ian. "Richard Crookback (lost play)." The Cambridge Edition of the Works of Ben Jonson. Ed. David Bevington, Martin Butler and Ian Donaldson. 7 vols. Cambridge: CUP, 2012. 2:183–184.
Donaldson, Ian. Ben Jonson: A Life. Cambridge: CUP, 2011.
Dutton, Richard. Shakespeare, Court Dramatist. Oxford: OUP, 2016.
Evans Robert C. "More's Richard III and Jonson's Richard Crookback and Sejanus." Comparative Drama 24 (1990): 97-132.
Herford, C. H., and Percy Simpson, eds. Ben Jonson: Volumes I & II: The Man and his Work: The first Volume. Oxford, Clarendon P, 1925.
Jonson, Ben. Poetaster, or His Arraignment. Ed. Gabriele Bernhard Jackson. The Cambridge Edition of the Works of Ben Jonson. Ed. David Bevington, Martin Butler and Ian Donaldson. 7 vols. Cambridge: CUP, 2012. 2: 1–181.
Knutson, Roslyn L. The Repertory of Shakespeare's Company, 1594–1613. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1991.
Riggs, David. Ben Jonson: A Life. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1989.

Site created and maintained by Domenico Lovascio, University of Genoa; updated 25 April 2017.