Singer's Voluntary

John Singer (1603)

Historical Records

Payments to Playwrights (Henslowe’s Diary)

F. 109r (Greg I.173)

pd at the apoyntment of the companye 1602 [i.e. 1603]
the 13 of Janewarye vnto John Syngger for his
playe called Syngers vallentarey the some of … vll

Theatrical Provenance

Presumably performed by the Admiral's Men at the Fortune in early 1603.

Probable Genre(s)

Improvisation (?) (Harbage)

Possible Narrative and Dramatic Sources or Analogues

The title seems to be a pun on Singer's name and "voluntary" in the sense of "[a] musical piece or movement played or sung spontaneously or of one's free choice, esp. by way of prelude to a more elaborate piece, song, etc." (OED, C.2b). It is unclear, however, to what extent this musical sense provides insight into the play's narrative. It may be that the play's content had nothing to do with music: perhaps the eponymous "voluntary" was used in the distinct sense (in "very frequent use from 1600 to 1645") of "[one] voluntarily, and usually without pay, serving as a soldier in a campaign, battle, etc." (OED, C.9).

References to the Play

None known. (Content welcome.)

Critical Commentary

Collier (II.209): "What the precise meaning of that title may be we do not pretend to be able to explain, but it was clearly not a mere 'jig,' or brief performance of singing and dancing, because it is distinctly denominated 'a play' […] Our belief is that it was, as the same implies, a 'voluntary,' or extemporal, performance on the part of Singer."

Fleay (BCED, II.249): "This must have been more than a mere jig; but from Day's Humour out of breath, iv. 3, I find that a 'voluntary' means a song to music."

Hazlitt (211): "This must have been a piece of some importance, or, at any rate, commercial value, or Henslowe would not have given £5 for it.

Greg (II.227): "I suppose that Singer put his own name into the title of some topical piece which he had either written or bought."

Chambers (ES, II.177): "I take 'vallentarey' to mean 'valediction'." (See also III.492.)

McMillin (67): "We know that the Admiral's men […] did on occasion have their Clown do a 'voluntary' (the Elizabethan word for improvisation—Henslowe once paid Singer five pounds for his 'vallentarey')."

For What It's Worth

The clown John Singer was a player with the Admiral's Men and seems to have been the same as the Singer who had been a member of the Queen's Men (Berry). This is the last appearance of Singer in Henslowe's Diary.

Works Cited

Berry, Herbert. "Singer, John (fl. 1583–1603)." ODNB.
Collier, John Payne. A Bibliographical and Critical Account of the Rarest Books in the English Language. 2 vols. London, 1865.
Hazlitt, W. Carew. A Manual for the Collector and Amateur of Old English Plays. London, 1892.
McMillin, Scott. "The Book of Sir Thomas More: Dates and Acting Companies." Shakespeare and "Sir Thomas More": Essays on the Play and Its Shakespearian Interest. Ed. T. H. Howard-Hill. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1989. 57-76.

Site created and maintained by Misha Teramura, University of Toronto; updated 24 December 2016.