Seven Wise Masters, The

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Henry Chettle, John Day, Thomas Dekker, William Haughton (1600)

Historical Records

Payments to Playwrights (Henslowe Diary)

F. 67v (Greg, I. 118)

Receaved of mr hinchlowe the 1 march to paye to
harry chettell Thomas decker william hawton & John daye
for a boocke calld the 7 wise mrs the some of ………. xls
W birde.

Lent vnto Samewell Rowly the 8 of march 1599
to paye vnto harey chettell & John daye in fulle
payment of a boocke called the vij wisse masters
the some of ………. ls
Samuell Rowlye

F. 68 (Greg, I. 119)

Lent vnto hary chettell the 2 of march 1599
in earnest of a Boocke called the 7 wisse
masters the some of ………. xxxs

Payments, Miscellaneous (Henslowe's Diary)

F. 68 (Greg, I. 119)

Receaued of Mr Henslowe to lay out for the playe of
the 7 wise Mrs in taffataes & sattyns the some of
in behalfe of the …….. by me Robt Shaa
Company ………. xxll

Receaued more of mr Henshlowe to lay out
for the play of the 7 wise Maisters in behalf
of the Company ………. xli

Receaued more of Mr Henshlowe to lay out
for the play of the 7 wise maisters in behalf
of the Company ……….. viijli
by me Robt Shaa

Theatrical Provenance

The Admiral's men acquired "The Seven Wise Masters" in the spring of 1600, their first full year at the new Fortune playhouse. The payments of £38 for materials and other things suggests a relatively sumptuous production.

Probable Genre(s)

Tragi-comedy (Harbage); the story material would indicate a series of generically mixed playlets bound by the frame story of the seven masters and their tales, the stepmother's tales, and the son's tale.

Possible Narrative and Dramatic Sources or Analogues

The story cycle known variously as The Seven Wise Masters and The Seven Sages of Rome is as ancient as Sanskrit, Persian, and Hebrew, languages in which analogues existed. One story of its origin attributes it to the Indian philosopher Sindibad/Syntipas in the first century CE (Wikipedia).

Michael L. Hays compiled a list of the manuscripts and printings extant for The Seven Sages [Wise Masters] of Rome, which had been written c. 1300-1333. That by Wynkyn de Worde in 1506 appears to have been the seminal English text (Gomme, iii). Those likely to have been available to Chettle, Day, Dekker, and Haughton are the following:

* Purfoot, 1576 (STC 21299.3): Thomas Purfoot's title page, which calls itself the Seven Wise Masters, advertised that it was a new edition of an old printing on the title page: "Now newly corrected with a pleasant stile, &purged from all old and rude wordes and phrases which were lothsome or tedious to the reader". The Purfoot edition was printed again twice in 1602 (STC 21299.5, 21299.7), perhaps evidence of the perennial popularity of the story set.

* Ross, 1578 (STC 21254): The title page of the edition by John Ross or Rolland (for Henry Charteris) called itself the "Seven Sages" and advertised that it was translatit out of prois in Scottis meter; it also advertised the rich compendium of stories available: "ane moralitie efter euerie doctouris tale, and siclike efter the Emprice Tale, togidder with ane louing and laude to euerie doctour efter his awin tale [and] ane exclamation and outcrying vpon the empreouris wife efter hir fals contrusit tale."

* Smith, 1592 (STC 21255): The title page advertisement of the edition by Robert Smith echoes that of Rolland's in using Sages and being in Scots meter; it carries an abbreviated version of Rolland's claims of moral commentary on the doctors' tales (praise) and that of the Emperor's wife (condemnation).

Gomme summarized the frame story as follows:

A young prince, falsely accused by the wife of the king, his father, of having attempted to offer her violence, is defended by seven sages, who relate a series of stories to show the deceits of women, the queen at the same time urging the death of the accused prince by the example of stories told by herself.

References to the Play

Information welcome.

Critical Commentary

Foakes notes (as Greg does not) that the entry on 1 March 1600 (above) is entirely in Birde's hand; that the signature for the entry of 8 March is Rowley's; and the second entry above for £8 is entirely in Shaa's hand (131, 132).

Knutson notes that "The Seven Wise Masters" shared the spring repertory in 1600 with the two-part "Fair Constance of Rome," which has not one but two wicked mothers (mothers-in-law, in Constance's case). She notes other Admiral's plays in the genre of tragedy with the stepmother motif: Ferrix and Porrex' and The Stepmother's Tragedy (29). Linking the "Masters" play further with its repertory makes, Knutson notes that the two-part "Constance" as well as yet another lost play, "The Golden Ass and Cupid and Psyche," are serial or co-joined plots, the latter probably also mixed in generic design. Taking a name commonly associated with the prince in the source stories, Knutson calls the young man 'Diocletian.'

For What It's Worth

In Gomme's 1885 edition of Wynkyn de Worde's seminal version, the ruler's name is Poncianus and his son is Dyoclesian (1). The masters are named Pantyllas, Lentulus, Craton, Malquydrac, Joseph, and Cleophas (the seventh master is unnamed); the stepmother is called "Empress" (5-6).

Gomme (iv) calls attention to the German woodcuts in de Worde's edition and cites an essay by W. M. Conway on the "history of the woodcuts of the Lubeck edition of the Seven Wise Masters" (Bibliographer, vol. 2, p, 70).

Works Cited

Gomme, George Laurence (ed.) The History of The Seven Wise Masters of Rome. London: The Villon Society, 1885.
Hays, Michael L. "A Bibliography of Dramatic Adaptations of Medieval Romances and Renaissance Chivalric Romances First Available in English through 1616," RORD [Records of English Drama], 28 (1985): 87-109, esp. 93.
Knutson, Roslyn L. "Toe to Toe across Maid Lane: Repertorial Competition at the Rose and Globe, 1599-1600." in June Schlueter and Paul Nelsen (eds.) Acts of Criticism: Performance Matters in Shakespeare and His Contemporaries. Madison & Teaneck: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2005, 21-37.

Site created and maintained by Roslyn L. Knutson, Professor Emerita, University of Arkansas at Little Rock; updated 30 October 2009.