Henry Wotton (1586)

Historical Records

Walton's "Life of Sir Henry Wotton"

The play is mentioned in Izaak Walton's biography, "The Life of Sir Henry Wotton," that prefaces the 1651 publication of Reliquiæ Wottonianæ:

There [i.e. at New College, Oxford] he continued till about the eighteenth year of his age, and was then transplanted into Queens Colledge, where within that year, he was by the Chief of that Colledge, perswasively injoyned to write a Play for their private use, (it was the Tragedy of Tancredo) which was so interwoven with Sentences, and for the method and exact personating those humours, passions, and dispositions, which he proposed to represent, so performed; that the gravest of that Society declared, he had in a slight imployment, given an early and a solid testimony of future abilities. And though there may be some sower dispositions, which may think this not worth a Memoriall, yet that wise Knight Guarina Baptista (whom learned Italy accounts one of her Ornaments) thought it neither an uncomely, nor an unprofitable imployment for his age.
(Walton, sig. b4v. Cf. REED: Oxford 202–3)

Theatrical Provenance

Performed at the Queen's College, Oxford, where Wotton was a student from 1586 to 1588.

Probable Genre(s)

Latin (?) Tragedy (Harbage)

Possible Narrative and Dramatic Sources or Analogues

There are several possible candidates for the narrative source of Wotton's play. Perhaps the most likely source is the story of Tancredi, Prince of Salerno, and his daughter Ghismonda, which is told in Boccaccio's Decameron (IV.1). After her first marriage is cut short by the death of her husband, Ghismonda realizes that her devoted father has no interest in arranging a second marriage for her. She resolves to take a secret lover and chooses Guiscardo, one of her father's valets and a young man of very low birth. The two fall in love and arrange their trysts surreptitiously. When Tancredi discovers their affair, he imprisons Guiscardo and angrily confronts his daughter, who insists on Guiscardo's merits and, rather than plead for clemency, announces that she intends to meet the same fate as her lover. The incredulous Tancredi has Guiscardo executed and sends his heart to his daughter in a golden chalice. Ghismonda, having prepared a potion from poisonous plants, laments the death of Guiscardo and, adding the lethal potion to the mixture of his heart and her own tears, she drinks from the chalice. Tancredi discovers her too late, and, with her dying breath, she asks to be publicly laid to rest beside her lover. Tancredi repents his cruelty and fulfills her wish.

Boccaccio's story was disseminated in a number of retellings, especially in French and Latin translation. In William Walter's early English translation, Guystarde and Sygysmonde (1532), the story was rendered in rhyme royal stanzas, along with interpolated verses added by Robert Copland. Perhaps most influentially, the story was translated by Painter in the first volume of his Palace of Pleasure (1566). In the following decade, the story was twice dramatized. Gismond of Salern was performed c. 1568 by the gentlemen of the Inner Temple; a version of this play revised by Robert Wilmot was published in 1591/92 (Wiggins #467). Another dramatization, possibly by Richard Farrant, was acted by the Children of the Chapel Royal c. 1577: only a song survives from this otherwise lost play (Wiggins #622). These English plays paralleled similar efforts in Italy, where the story was given dramatic adaptations by Razzi (La Gismonda, 1569), Guasco (La Ghismonda, 1583), Asinari (Il Tancredi, 1588), Torelli (Il Tancredi, 1597), and Campeggi (Il Tancredi, 1614). Boccaccio was certainly seen as an appropriate source for English university drama. Besides the Inner Temple performance of Gismond of Salern, in 1578/79 the Latin comedy of Hymenaeus was performed at St. John's College, Cambridge, the prologue of which acknowledges its source in the three-hundred-year-old Decameron ("huic comaediae dedit olim materiam plus trecentis hinc annis in Decamero Bocatius") as well as the looseness of its adaptation (Wiggins #671; Sutton, ed., "Prologus"). As a student of Italian, Wotton almost certainly would have known Boccaccio's works: by 1628 at the very latest, he was familiar with Leonardo Salviati's commentary, Avvertimenti della lingua sopra 'l Decamerone (1584-86), which Wotton found particularly interesting for its presentation of a single novella (I.9) in thirteen different Italian dialects (Smith 2:485; Salviati, I, sigs. 2Vr–2X2v; Wright 184).

A wholly distinct possibility is that Wotton's play was based not on Boccaccio's Decameron at all but on Tasso's Gerusalemme Liberata, which had just been published in 1581. In Tasso's epic of the First Crusade, Tancredi is one of the central Christian warriors. Among the poem's many subplots is that of Tancredi's infatuation with the Muslim warrior Clorinda. At a climactic moment in the poem, the armed Clorinda is confronted by Tancredi, who, not recognizing her, challenges her to combat. She hides her identity from him until she is mortally wounded, at which point she asks to be baptized as a Christian. Tancredi is able to do so before she dies, and his grief is consoled when she appears before him in a dream to thank him for her salvation. Tancredi himself does not meet with a tragic end. It may also be worth noting that the first installment of an English translation would not appear until 1594, although Tasso did have readers in England well before then. At least by 1628, Wotton himself was familiar with Tasso's Aminta (Smith 2:485).

Yet another possible candidate is found in English chronicle history: Tancred, the twelfth-century king of Sicily, who plays a role in Holinshed's account of the reign of the English King Richard I (IV.486–91). When Richard arrives in Sicily on his way to the Holy Land, tensions with Tancred involving the inheritance of Richard's sister Joan, widow of William II of Sicily, result in the invasion and occupation of Messina. Eventually a treaty is signed and the English resume their course. Of all the possibilities, this story is probably the least amenable to dramatic adaptation as a "tragedy."

References to the Play

Wood's Athenæ Oxonienses

Wood's short biography of Wotton seems to draw on Walton's "Life" for the detail about Wotton's undergraduate essay in playwriting:

But continuing there [i.e. at New College] not long, he went to Queens coll. where, by the benefit of a good Tutor and severe discipline there practiced, he became well vers'd in Logick and Philosophy; and for a diversion now and then, he wrote a Tragedy for the private use of that house called Tancredo.
(Wood, col. 531)

Critical Commentary

Ward describes the play's subject as "characteristically derived from the masterpiece of contemporary Italian literature which the Gerusalemme Liberata so significantly typifies both in its charms and in its symptoms of beginning decay" (12). Ward also finds it "not at all likely that Wotton's play was a version of [Boccaccio's] story of Tancred and Gismunda" (12n).

Smith: "The subject was Tancredo from Tasso's Gerusalemme Liberata (published in 1581). […] The choice of subject shows that, even in his Oxford days, Wotton had some knowledge of the Italian language" (5).

Jones includes Wotton's name in a list of adaptors of Decameron IV.1, although she assigns his play to 1574 (20).

Scott comments that this play, along with Tancred and Gismunda (publ. 1592), "are probably founded on Painter's prose translation, Gismonda and Guiscardo (Palace of Pleasure, I, 39)" (151).

Weiss assumed that the play was "based on the Gerusalemme Liberata" (288n). (He also interprets Walton's wording to suggest that the play "was praised by G. B. Guarini" and that "[t]his praise by Guarini suggests that perhaps this play was written in Italian.")

Hodgkin, in addition to stating that the play was acted by undergraduates, notes that the performance took place "before the advent of Rainolds"—that is, John Rainolds, who began teaching at Queen's College in 1588 and whose strenuous objection to academic drama would soon generate Th'Overthrow of Stage-Playes (85).

Wright suggests that Wotton's acquaintance with Alberico Gentili "may well have stimulated his interest in Italian" (184). He also observes that "in later years [Wotton] was acquainted with Salviati's notes on the Decameron" (as evidenced by the list of Italian authors that Wotton drew up after 1628) "but it is impossible to establish his familiarity with them when he wrote" the present play.

Wiggins suggests both Boccaccio and Tasso as possible sources; he also notes that the Provost of Queen's College in 1586 was Henry Robinson (#777).

For What It's Worth

Wotton and Drama

While Wotton did not write any more plays after "Tancredo," theatrical conceits often figure in his other writings. His essay "The State of Christendom," completed in 1594, frames its appraisal of the contemporary world with a theatrical conceit ("I will boldly enter into this Tragical Discourse; The chief Actors whereof are" the monarchs of Europe) and draws on the language of "playing the part" throughout (State, p. 4). (He would later adopt the same conceit in some of his political letters [Reliquiæ, pp. 346, 375].) One of his posthumously published poems, "De Morte," develops the idea of Ralegh's famous poem "What is our life? A play of passion," by imagining the life of man as a five-act tragedy with a prologue and epilogue:

Mans life's a Tragedie. His mothers womb
(From which he enters) is the tyring room.
This spacious earth the theater. And the stage
That country which he lives in: Passions, Rage,
Folly, and Vice are actors. The first cry
The Prologue to th'ensewing Tragedy.
The former act consisteth of dumb showes:
The second, he to more perfection growes;
I'th third he is a man, and doth begin
To nurture vice, and act the deeds of sin.
I'th fourth declines. I'th' fifth diseases clog
And trouble him: then Death's his Epilogue. (Reliquiæ, pp. 539–40)

In the words of one biographer, Wotton "never wholly lost the instinct of dramatic composition; and apart from his fondness for drawing characters, of which instances will be found in his letters as well as his set compositions, […] he actually dramatised—doubtless in his later days—the theme of a religious meditation," viz. A Meditation upon the XXIIth Chapter of Genesis, a dramatic monologue in which Abraham grapples with his command from God (Ward 12; Reliquiæ, pp. 343–50). (Is it a coincidence that both Abraham and Boccaccio's Tancredi gain their tragic energy from the possibility of filicide?)

Wotton also retained an interest in plays and the theatrical world of London, although his diplomatic career meant that he spent much of his life abroad. In letters to Sir Edward Bacon, Wotton recorded the events surrounding the private performance in February 1613 of The Hog Hath Lost His Pearl at Whitefriars by a group of apprentices and their subsequent arrest, and later that year, details about the burning of the Globe during the performance of Shakespeare's All Is True (Reliquiæ, pp. 402–3, 425–26). Near the end of his life, Milton gave a copy of Comus to Wotton, which the latter lavishly praised: "I should much commend the Tragical part, if the Lyrical did not ravish me with a certain Dorique delicacy in your Songs and Odes, wherunto I must plainly confess to have seen yet nothing parallel in our Language" (Milton pp. 71–72). Wotton's interest in Italian drama is evident from a list of books he prepared sometime after 1628 (perhaps as recommendations for someone interested in the language), currently preserved in Bodleian Library, MS Tanner 88 (Smith 2:484–86). The short list of 36 titles includes Tasso's pastoral Aminta; the plays of the Sienese Accademia degli Intronati ("Tutte le Comedie delli Intronati di Siena," of which Gl'ingannati had served as a source for Shakespeare's Twelfth Night); as well as Cavalcanti's criticism of Speroni's Canace ("La Censura della Tragedia di Speron Speroni', a fine critical and learned piece").

Works Cited

Hodgkin, R.H. Six Centuries of an Oxford College: A History of the Queen's College 1340–1940. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1949.
Jones, Florence Nightingale. Boccaccio and His Imitators in German, English, French, Spanish, and Italian Literature. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1910. Archive.
Milton, John. Poems of Mr John Milton. London, 1645. Wing M2160.
Painter, William. The Palace of Pleasure. London, 1566. STC 19121.
Salviati, Leonardo. Degli avvertimenti della lingua sopra'l Decamerone. 2 vols. Venice, 1584–86.
Scott, Mary Augusta. Elizabethan Translations from the Italian. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1916. Archive.
Smith, Logan Pearsall. The Life and Letters of Sir Henry Wotton. 2 vols. Oxford: Clarendon, 1907. Archive.
Sutton, Dana F., ed. and trans. "Hymaneus (1578)." The Philological Museum. 11 August 2000. Online.
Water, William, trans. Guystarde and Sygysmonde. By Giovanni Boccaccio. London, 1532. STC 3183.5.
Walton, Izaak. "The Life of Sir Henry Wotton." In Reliquiæ Wottonianæ. London, 1651. Wing W3648.
Ward, Adolphus William. Sir Henry Wotton: A Biographical Sketch. Westminster, 1898. Archive.
Weiss, R. "Henry Wotton and Orazio Lombardelli." RES 19 (1943): 285–89.
Wood, Anthony. Athenæ Oxonienses… The First Volume. London, 1691. Wing W3382.
Wotton, Sir Henry. Reliquiæ Wottonianæ. London, 1651. Wing W3648.
Wotton, Sir Henry. The State of Christendom. London, 1657. Wing W3654.
Wright, Herbert G. Boccacio in England, from Chaucer to Tennyson. London: Athlone, 1957.

Site created and maintained by Misha Teramura, University of Toronto; updated 19 June 2016.