Stepmother's Tragedy, The

Henry Chettle, Thomas Dekker (1599)

Historical Records


To playwrights in Philip Henslowe's diary

Fol. 63v (Greg, I.100)

   Lent vnto Thomas Deckyers the 24th }
pd    of July 1599 at the Requeste of Samvell } xs
   Rowly & Thomas downton in earnest of }
   a Boocke called stepmothers tragedy ... }

Fol. 64 (Greg I.111)

Lent vnto harey Chettell & Thd the 23 }
of aguste 1599 in earneste of his playe called } xxs
the stepmothers tragedie the some of ... }

Lent vnto wm Birde Thomas downton & Jewbey }
the 25 of aguste 1599 to paye harye Chettell for } xxs
his Boocke called the stepmothers tragedie some }

Fol. 65 (Greg I.113)

                    this 14 October 1599
Receaued by me Robt shaa of phillip Henslowe }
to pay H. Chettle [f] in full paiment of a booke } 4li
Called the stepmothers tragedy for the vse }
of the Company iiijli J say Receaved ... }

Theatrical Provenance

The Admiral's Men paid Thomas Dekker and Henry Chettle £6 in the fall of 1599 for "The Stepmother's Tragedy." At the time they were still at the Rose, though they would move to the Fortune the following fall. Across Maid Lane from the Rose, the Chamberlain's Men were in their opening season at the newly-built Globe.

Probable Genre(s)


Possible Narrative and Dramatic Sources or Analogues

See below, For What It's Worth, the ballad entitled "The Lady Isabella's Tragedy; or, The Step-mother's Cruelty" (EBBA).

References to the Play

None known.

Critical Commentary

Greg II explained that the initial payment to Dekker for 10s. was cancelled. He noted further that "[a] play called the Cruelty of a Stepmother was acted at Richmond on 28 Dec. 1578 by the then Chamberlain's men," but he saw "no reason to suppose any connection with the present piece" (#178, p. 204). He did not mention the ballad (see below), the sub-title of which is closer to the 1578 play-title than to the 1599 one.

Clark gave a thumbnail summary of the ballad, "The Lady Isabella's Tragedy: Or, The Step-Mother's Cruelty," in connection with the offering at court by Sussex's men on 28 December 1578 entitled "The Cruelty of a Stepmother." He noted that the Roxburghe collection dates the ballad around around 1672 but adds the conjecture that "earlier versions may have existed" (2.419 [Appendix C, #1]). About Dekker and Chettle's "Stepmother's Tragedy," he pointed out the lack of " evidence to suggest that the play may be connected with the" 1578 one, but he did not address the possible connection of the ballad to the 1599 play (2.422 [Appendix C, #9]).

Knutson is not fastidious as Clark about the story connections between the ballad called "The Lady Isabella's Tragedy; or The Step-Mother's Cruelty" and the 1599 play. She suggests that Dekker and Chettle's play, if the ballad was a source, might have featured a "ghoulish meal" (p. 26) as did Titus Andronicus in the repertory of the Chamberlain's men (possibly in revival based on its reprinting in 1600). She connects the 1599 play also with "evil matrons" in other plays in the Admiral's repertory including "The Seven Wise Masters" and the two parts of "Fair Constance of Rome" (p. 29).

For What It's Worth

In the ballad, "The Lady Isabella's Tragedy; or, The Step-Mother's Cruelty," the gruesome story is presented as though an historical fact. Echoing the title, the ballad has the following heading: "Being a Relation of a most lamentable and cruel Murder, committed on the Body of the Lady Isabella, the only Daughter of a Noble Duke, occasioned by the means of a Step-Mother and [acted by] the Master-Cook, who were both adjudged to suffer a cruel death for committing the said Horrid Act."

The story is as follows.

On one of many occasions when the duke was hunting, the envious step-mother tricked his daughter, Isabella, to go to the kitchen and tell the cook that he was to "dress to dinner straight that fair and milk-white Doe/ That in the Park doth shine so bright" (ll. 15-16). The cook, who shared the step-mother's malice, grabbed Isabella with "his cruel bloody hands," and said, "'Thou art the Doe that I must dress; see here, behold my knife!'" (l. 21). Attempting a rescue, the scullery boy pleaded for the lady's life, offering himself in her place: "'make your pies of me'" (l. 28). The cook threatened the boy with death if he should reveal the crime, then proceeded with his evil task. The lord came in from hunting, and missing his daughter at the table, he called for her to join him for dinner "to carve his meat" (l. 34). The step-mother put him off, saying the daughter (who habitually spent hours at church praying) had entered a nunnery and he should forget her. But the lord refused, vowing not to eat or drink until his daughter appeared. At this, the scullery boy burst out with the horrible truth: "If that you will your Daughter see, my Lord, cut up that Pye;/ Wherein her flesh is minced small and parched with the fire'" (ll. 40-41). Naming the step-mother and the cook as accomplices in the deed, the boy said that he had offered his "'own heart's blood'" (l. 44) but failed to save her. The lord, appropriately outraged, condemned the step-mother to be burned at the stake and the cook to be boiled in lead; he rewarded the scullery boy by making him "the Heir to all his Land" (l. 48).

A four-stanza epilogue, entitled "Their Lamentation," follows the ballad. It recounts the confessions of the cook and the step-mother as they confront execution. The cook blames the step-mother for prompting him but says he deserves to die for his lack of remorse in the commission of the crime. The step-mother also accepts her punishment; she tells the throng gathered along the way as she passes from prison to the stake that she had broken laws and doomed her lord's daughter to death. The epilogue ends with the conventional sentiment that their deaths should be a warning to all.

Works Cited

Clark, Andrew. Domestic Drama: A Survey of the Origins, Antecedents and Nature of the Domestic Play in England, 1500-1540, 2 vols. Salzburgh: Institut fur Englische Sprache und Literatur, 1975.
Knutson, Roslyn L. “Toe to Toe Across Maid Lane: Repertorial Competition at the Rose and Globe, 1599-1600.” Acts of Criticism: Performance Matters in Shakespeare and His Contemporaries. Ed. June Schlueter and Paul Nelsen. 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 14 November 2009.