- 1 Historical Records
- 2 Theatrical Provenance
- 3 Probable Genre(s)
- 4 Possible Narrative and Dramatic Sources or Analogues
- 5 References to the Play
- 6 Critical Commentary
- 7 For What It's Worth
- 8 Works Cited
F. 107 (Greg 1.169)
- Lent vnto [Thom] Samwell Rowley & edwarde
- Jewbe to paye for the Boocke of Samson
- the 29 of Julye 1602 the some of… vjll
Presumably Henslowe mistakenly began to write the name of Thomas Downton, the Admiral's actor to whom he frequently lent money to pay company expenses, but quickly stopped and struck through Downton's name. Like Downton, Rowley and Juby were both actors for the company at the time (for example, their names appear in the 1602 "plot" for 1 Tamar Cam). However, Rowley and another actor, William Bird, unambiguously appear in the Diary as the authors of the biblical drama Judas in December 1601.
Diary of Frederic Gerschow
14 September 1602 (Bülow 10-11)
- Auf den Nachmittag ward eine tragica comœdia vom Samsone und dem halben Stamm Benjamin agirt.
- [In the afternoon a tragic play was acted about Samson and the half tribe of Benjamin.]
Gerschow was the tutor to the young Philip Julius, Duke of Stettin-Pomerania, who visited England as part of his grand tour through Europe (Bülow 1-2). Chambers's translation of the diary text substitutes "tragicomedy" for "tragic play" (ES, 2.367).
The Admiral's Men acquired the play on 29 July 1602 for performance at the Fortune. This was plausibly the play that Frederic Gerschow and Duke Philip Julius saw on 14 September of that year.
Biblical History (Harbage)
Possible Narrative and Dramatic Sources or Analogues
The chief source for the play was likely the scriptural narrative of Samson's life found in the Book of Judges. (The following summary quotes from the 1599 edition of the Geneva Bible.) At this point, the Israelites are being oppressed by the Philistines, a punishment by God for the Israelites' wickedness (Judges 13:1). The story begins when Samson's mother, the barren wife of the Danite Manoah, is visited by an angel who tells her that she will conceive and bear a son, with the added proscription that that "no rasor shall come on his head: for the childe shalbe a Nazirite vnto God from his birth: and he shall begin to saue Israel out of the handes of the Philistinns" (Judges 13:5). After obeying the angel's dietary prescriptions and his instructions to make an offering to God, she gives birth to Samson. The biblical story of Samson's life revolves around three attempts to "search for female companionship across the border in Philistia"; each time, "the Philistines attempt to thwart the liaison, and this initiates a cycle of reprisals and counter-reprisals that inspire Samson to engage his superhuman strength against Israel's ethnic rivals" (Mobley).
The first episode involves Samson's attempt to wed a woman in Timnath, an unpopular decision that serves as a divine pretext for violence against the Philistines (Judges 14:4). After tearing apart a lion in the vineyards of Timnath, Samson poses a riddle to the Philistine guests at his wedding feast: "out of ye eater came meate, and out of the strong came sweetness" (Judges 14:14). Unbeknownst to his audience, Samson had seen bees producing honey in the corpse of the dead lion—the image upon which his riddle is based. The bemused guests, unwilling to forfeit the wager of thirty sheets and thirty changes of garments, coerce Samson's bride to get the answer from him. After they succeeding in solving the impossible riddle, Samson immediately knows of his wife's involvement ("If ye had not plowed with my heifer, ye had not found out my riddle": Judges 14:18), yet he honors his side of the wager by killing thirty men of Ashkelon, stripping them of their clothing. Furious, Samson abandons his wife with her father. When he returns, he discovers that she has been given instead to one of his companions. Newly justified to take revenge against the Philistines, Samson ties firebrands to the tails of three hundred foxes and sets them loose into the cornfields, destroying their crops. The Philistines in turn kill Samson's wife and her father, thus provoking him to even greater slaughter. They then compel the Judaeans to bind Samson and bring him to them; Samson obliges, but, upon being delivered to the Philistines, he breaks his cords and slays a thousand men with the jawbone of an ass.
In the brief second episode, Samson sleeps with a prostitute from Gaza ("Azzah"). The Gazites, informed of his presence in the city, wait through the night by the city gates to kill Samson in the morning. At midnight, Samson "tooke the doores of the gates of the cittie, and the two postes, and lift[ed] them away with the barres, and put them vpon his shoulders, and carried them vp to the top of the mountaine that is before Hebron" (Judges 16:3). Although the whole episode in Gaza constitutes a mere three verses in the biblical narrative, the memorable image of Samson bearing the city gates up the mountain (a popular subject in visual art) may well have appeared in a dramatic adaptation, and, if The Family of Love is an accurate witness to the Admiral's play, Samson's ascent would have been represented by the actor's movement "from the lower to the vpper stage" (see Critical Commentary below).
The third episode is the famous liaison with Delilah ("Deliah"). Whereas Samson's bride from Timnath is compelled to betray him only after her own life is threatened, Deliliah is bribed by the Philistine princes to discover the sources of his strength and how he might be overpowered. Three times she asks Samson, and three times he gives her false information upon which the Philistines base their abortive attempts to bind him. Finally, however, Samson yields up his secret: "for I am a Nazirite vnto God from my mothers wombe: therefore [i]f I be shauen, my strength will goe from me, and I shall bee weake, and bee like all other men" (Judges 16:17). While he is asleep "vpon her knees," she has his seven locks of hair shaven, and the Philistines summarily bind and blind the Danite hero. During his captivity, Samson's hair begins to grow back. He is taken to a celebration of thanksgiving to the Philistine god Dagon, where he is bound between two pillars as "a laughing stocke vnto them" (Judges 16:25). The humiliated Samson prays to God asking for his strength to return so that he can be avenged upon the Philistines. Toppling the two central pillars of the house, his final act results in the murder of all the Philistine princes and three thousand other men and women, "so the dead which he slew at his death were moe then they which he had slaine in his life" (Judges 16:30).
If Frederic Gerschow's diary describes the Admiral's play, it is likely that the "tragic play" included the death of Samson (Astington, "Jacobean" 49). However, unlike Milton's much later dramatic poem, the Admiral's Samson play might well have capitalized on his proverbial strength (Tilley S85) to stage a range of spectacular feats throughout Samson's life such as those described by the playgoers in The Family of Love.
However, the play might not have concluded with Samson's death. Again, Gerschow's allusion to "the half tribe of Benjamin" suggests that the play continued further with the narrative of Judges and may have treated the story of the "wicked men" (marginal note: "men of beliall") raping to death the concubine of the Levite who visited Gibeah; the indignation of the children of Israel; the refusal of the Benjamites of Gibeah to deliver the perpetrators to justice; the ensuing battle between the Israelites and the Benjamites; and the tribulations of the defeated (Judges 19-21). Gerschow's expression "half tribe of Benjamin" perhaps refers to the status of the Benjamites as excluded from the tribes of Israel (Judges 21:3).
On the other hand, Wiggins speculated that the playwright may have taken liberties and integrated the two narratives—that of Samson and that of the Benjamites—which appear chronologically separated in the scriptural source (395).
References to the Play
See Critical Commentary below.
The Admiral's Biblical Plays
Samson was one of six plays (all lost) presumably based on biblical stories that the Admiral's men acquired in 1601-2. The others were Judas (1601, by Haughton, Bird, and Rowley), Pontius Pilate (1601, when Dekker was paid for a new prologue and epilogue), Jephtha (1602, by Dekker and Munday), Tobias (1602, by Chettle), and Joshua (1602, by Rowley).
Astington observes that three of these plays ("Samson," "Jephthah," and "Joshua") "portray godly warrior-heroes overcoming enemies of the chosen people with the guidance of God" and that Edward Alleyn "would have played the title roles in all these, and they may have been written with him in mind, in that Samson is a kind of Hercules, and Joshua a kind of Tamburlaine" ("Playing" 133). He also observes this "revival of Old Testament subjects for plays during the final years of the long reign of Queen Elizabeth, no doubt expressing the hope for a succession that would ensure national security and identity" ("Jacobean" 51). For Astington, this has implications for the politics of patronage: "That most of these plays were staged by the company of the Lord Admiral, Charles Howard, Earl of Nottingham, military hero of 1588 and staunch supporter of the Cecils, and hence of the succession of King James of Scotland, seems suggestive of some kind of program of public opinion formation. The virtues of the Old Testament heroes and patriarchs were to be hoped for in a new monarch who would maintain the political and religious integrity of the nation."
Gurr similarly notes this "flurry of new biblical plays" acquired by the Admiral's Men in the first years of the seventeenth century (Shakespeare's Opposites, 41). However, he offers a different explanation: "It is tempting to think that the impulse came from Alleyn wishing to assert his Christian credentials. […] Conceivably he was already starting to think of his great donation, the College of God's Gift, and wanted to set out shows on stage that might counter the fuss about his most famous roles, 'that atheist Tamburlaine' and his revivals of Faustus" (41-42). Expanding on this subject in a later article, Gurr writes that the biblical plays would "have been expected to disarm some of the many criticisms hurled at playgoing as profane and irreligious," perhaps made possible by the rise of new companies alongside the "duopolistic pair of licensed companies of 1594" ("What is Lost," 58). That none of the plays was ever printed may suggest "that the company expected nobody to bother buying copies of such stories," due to their familiarity (58).
Greg: "Ward makes the common mistake of giving the names of actors authorising payment (S. Rowley and E. Juby) as those of the authors" (2.223).
Gurr attributes the play to Chettle (Shakespeare's Opposites, 41, 266).
The Family of Love (1607)
In his edition of Middleton, Bullen (3.26) drew attention to a possible allusion to the Admiral's play in The Family of Love:
- Doct. And from what good exercise come you three[?]
- Gera. From a play, where we saw most excellent Sampson excell the whole world in gate carrying.
- Dry Was it performed by the youths[?]
- Lypsal. By youths: why I tell thee we sawe Sampson, and J hope t'is not for youths to play Sampson: Beleeue it we sawe Sampson beare the Towne gates on his necke, from the lower to the vpper stage, with that life and admirable accord, that it shall neuer be equalled (vnlesse the whole new liuery of Porters set their shoulders)
- Mist. Pur. Fie fie, tis pitty young Gentlemen can bestow their time no better…
- (sig. B2v)
The Family of Love was entered in the Stationers' Register by John Brown and John Helme on 12 October 1607 as having "bene Lately acted by the Children of his Maiesties Reuelles" (Arber 3:360) and printed in 1608. The play was excluded from the new Oxford edition of Middleton in light of recent research suggesting Lording Barry as its author (Jackson and Taylor, 444-45). The same research "showed that the play could not have been written earlier than the second half of May, 1605" (444).
Creizenach, based on the description in The Family of Love, speculates on how the feat of gate-carrying would have been staged. Rather than disappearing to ascend the stairs to the elevated balcony stage, "it is possible that for this scene a ladder was specially applied to the balcony" (375).
Lawrence was skeptical of Creizenach's solution, given the awkwardness of maneuvering the large property gates on a ladder, and suggested instead that this passage provides "direct evidence concerning the existence of this outer and visible staircase" to the upper stage (20).
In Hotson's idiosyncratic vision of the Globe, the staging was solved in an altogether different way: "The muscular actor bore the gates—property ones, like the 'Canvas stone' of Hercules Furens—from the city walls of Hell at Stage Left (the lower) up the 'hill of Hebron' or Heaven above at Stage Right (the upper stage)" (216).
Empson (in a larger rejection of Shakespeare's Wooden O) claimed that "[n]obody could be charmed by the scene that Hotson describes," in which "the actor merely walked from one side to the other" (164). He ultimately sides with Creizenach: "Lipsalve insists that they saw the feat done. It would have much popular appeal, and the Fortune was still new; Henslowe might well have a ladder brought on, concealed in an imitation of a rocky bit of hillside." Empson goes on to imagine how this might have been accomplished and the effect on the audience (163-64).
Astington, in a discussion of the lost Story of Samson performed at the Red Lion in 1567, offers an assessment of the theatricality of various episodes in the Samson story and how they might be represented on stage ("A Jacobean Ghost," 48-49). Most of his observations apply just as well to the 1602 Samson, although his suggestion for the carrying of the gates scene ("a simple 'passing over' the stage by the actor bearing them—a dumb show, that is to say—would have served quite adequately as a representation of the episode") necessarily neglects the description in The Family of Love. In a later article, Astington considers the 1602 play as an offering at the Fortune, and suggests that it "might have been expected to have featured some impressive combat, displays of strength and martial valour, and the use of the stage resources, including sound effects, to represent such unusual and startling effects as the collapse of the temple and the fall of the walls of Jericho" ("Lumpers," 89).
Wiggins supported the idea that the town gates were carried "from the main stage to the upper stage" (396).
For What It's Worth
To list of the Admiral's biblical plays, one might also observe that Henslowe's Diary also records a payment on behalf of Worcester's Men in October 1602 "for poleyes & worckmanshipp for to hange absolome" (f. 116v; Greg 1.182).
On Gurr's attribution of Samson to Chettle: is this an extrapolation of Henslowe's marginal note recording a loan of five shillings to Chettle?
Site created and maintained by Misha Teramura, University of Toronto; updated 25 June 2016.