Two Brothers' Tragedy

Wentworth Smith (1602)

Historical Records

Payments to Playwrights (Henslowe's Diary)

"'The Two Brother’s Tragedy" is known from entries in Henslowe’s Diary during October 1602. It is first mentioned at the very start of the month:

F. 116v (Greg, I.182)

pd at the apoyntment of the companye }
the 1 of Octobʒ 1602 to mr smythe in pte } xxxxs
of payment for a tragedie called the }
ij brothers the some of …. }

An unusually substantial run of seven further entries follow. The next two completed payments to the dramatist, Wentworth Smith:

F. 116v (Greg, I.182)

pd at the a poyntment of John dewcke }
vnto mr smythe in pte of payment of his } xxxxs
Boocke called the ij brothers tragedie }
the 11 of octobʒ 1602 the some of }

F. 117 (Greg, I.183)

pd at the apoyntment of John ducke }
to mr smyth in fulle payment of his Boocke } xxxxs
called the ij brothers the 15 of Octobʒ 1602 }
the some of … }

Payments for Properties (Henslowe’s Diary)

After this, the disbursements start on costumes and properties (while he is writing about costumes and properties rather than about the "Book", Henslowe inadvertently starts referring to the play as "The Three Brothers’ Tragedy"):

F. 117 (Greg, I.183)

Lent at the apoyntment of the company }
to the tyerman to by sowtedge to make } viiis
devells sewtes for the new playe of the }
ii brothers tragedie the some of … }

Lent at the apoyntment of the company }
vnto the tyerman to bye saye for the }
playe of the ij brothers to macke a wiches } 18s
gowne the some of …. }

pd for bordes & quarters & naylles for to }
macke a tabell & a coffen for the playe of } xijs iijd
the iij brothes the 22 of octob[er] 1602 some o }

F. 117v (Greg, I.184)

Lent vnto John thare the 23 of octob[er] }
1602 to paye vnto the paynter of }
the propertyes for the playe of the iij } xxs
brothers the some of …. }

pd vnto the tyer man for mackynge }
of the devells sute & sperethes & for }
the witche for the playe of the iij } xs ixd
brothers the 23 of octob[er] 1602 some of

There is no further information extant about this play.

(NB. Henslowe’s entries need some verbal annotation: ‘sowtedge’ is glossed by Foakes as ‘soutage, a coarse cloth’; sound and context confirm that ‘sperethes’ means ‘spirits’.)

Theatrical Provenance

Worcester's Men

Wentworth Smith usually worked as part of a team or syndicate for Henslowe’s companies. He worked with William Haughton on The Conquest of the West Indies in 1601; with Richard Hathaway and Haughton on Part 2 of Six Clothiers; he joined Henry Chettle, Anthony Munday and Michael Drayton for The Rising of Cardinal Wolsey (1601); Hathaway and Chettle on Too Good to be True (early 1602); Chettle for Love Parts Friendship (May 1602); John Day and Hathaway for Merry as May Be; and he wrote Albere Galles with Thomas Heywood in Sept 1602.

Having been paid for The Two Brothers’ Tragedy on October 15th, 1602, he was teamed up with Chettle, John Webster, Thomas Heywood and Thomas Dekker on 1 Lady Jane, paid for on 21st October 1602.

As another supernatural play, Smith worked on both Black Dog of Newgate plays, and on their additional scenes, with John Day, Richard Hathaway ‘and the other poet’ through November and December 1602, and on into January 1603. January 1603 was also a month when he was in a syndicate with Hathaway, Day, ‘and the other poet’ for The Unfortunate General (The French History).

Apart from The Two Brothers’ Tragedy, just two plays that seem to have been solo works came from Smith: The Italian Tragedy in March 1602, and Marshall Osric in September of the same year.

A familiar formula of combining a genre, a person, and a place in a title can be seen in this list.

John Duke was one of the players with Worcester’s Men. He does not seem to have been in the first rank of the players ("master actors"), but he made himself useful as an intermediary between the company and their landlord/banker (Henslowe). On behalf of the players, he transmits approval of Wentworth’s play.

John Share played a similar role to Duke in authorising payments from Henslowe on behalf of the company.

Probable Genre(s)

Tragedy, argued here to be from recent Scottish History.

Possible Narrative and Dramatic Sources or Analogues

The argument under For What It's Worth (below) speculates that the pamphlet published by Valentine Sims, The Earle of Gowries conspiracie against the Kings Majestie of Scotland At Saint John-stoun upon Tuesday the fift of August 1600 was a likely source, and that the lost play of Gowrie would have been an analogous text.

References to the Play

None known to this editor/author.

Critical Commentary

None known to this editor/author.

For What It's Worth

Firm conclusions cannot be drawn from a document as irregular as Henslowe’s Diary. However, what is recorded seems to be a push between October 1st and October 23rd, 1602 to get "The Two Brothers’ Tragedy" performed. Text, costumes and properties are assembled, with what can be assumed to be the regular company "tyreman" and painter being set to work.

We learn that this tragedy concerned two brothers (Henslowe’s slip of memory to three brothers follows after his consistent report of a "Book" about two brothers), and had a large supernatural element in it: the play had a witch, devils, and spirits. There was also an elaborate scene with a coffin and a table (maybe a bier?). Coffins were usually brought on stage for a performer to rise from them, either a character in a comedy proving that they are not dead after all, or in a supernaturally tinged tragedy, as a spirit or for some other manifestation (like Susan Carter in The Witch of Edmonton).

There may just be the possibility that Henslowe’s playwrights, usually working in teams, liked to spread their wings occasionally in a solo work, emulating the dramatists who, as company sharers or enjoying greater personal financial independence, had the luxury of more time to work alone on five whole acts. Wentworth Smith must have felt convinced that he had source material worth the longer effort. In turn, the theatre company seems to have been willing to back the play with new costumes and properties. (Henslowe’s 1598 inventory for the Admiral’s Men had included “i hode for the wech”; the witch in this play got a new gown of "say", a green twilled woollen fabric). Henslowe’s entries for "The Two Brothers’ Tragedy" form one of the completest sets of entries about a play coming into production in the diary. It just might be taken to indicate that the company were keen to do justice to the play. Smith got a full £6 payment for his text (reduced sums of £5 or £5 10 shillings were sometimes paid).


It is a reasonable speculation that this "Two Brothers’ Tragedy", with its large supernatural element, was a dramatization of the Gowrie conspiracy, and that the two brothers of the title were John, 3rd Earl of Gowrie, and his brother Alexander, Master of Ruthven. The fatal events of the purported conspiracy took place in Gowrie House, Perth, on August 5th, 1600. (For the latest account of one of the most controverted events in Scottish history, see Davies: John, 3rd Earl of Gowrie, and his brother Alexander, Master of Ruthven either intended to abduct the King, or kill him, or, as was widely believed at the time, James paid a surprise visit with the aim of setting on his servants to eliminate the brothers.)

This was the kind of "news from Scotland" for which there was a ready audience in London. Multiple editions of the official version of the events (first published in Edinburgh in 1600, and widely disbelieved there) were published in London as The Earle of Gowries conspiracie against the Kings Majestie of Scotland At Saint John-stoun upon Tuesday the fift of August 1600 went through two editions in 1600, three more editions in 1603.

This pamphlet includes an account of a charm for invulnerability found in a parchment bag on the Earl’s person, and a story that he had boasted that he was able to immobilise an adder using a cabbalistic word ("holiness", spoken in Hebrew). The Earl, an educated man of his age, had made some study of astrology at Padua.

Together, this had been enough to serve King James’s purposes, and one of the King’s chaplains was set on to discredit the earl and his brother in the eyes of the Kirk by spreading stories of the Earl’s sorcery in De execrabili et nefanda fratrum Ruvenorum, in serenissimi Scotorum Regis caput conjuratione, apud Perthum Augusto mense an. 1600. vera ac dilucida narratio Cui praemissa est prefationis loco velitatio cum lectore in fide & assensu commodando paulò religiosiore. His accessere ad Regem soteria, carmine heroïco. Edinburgi: Excudebat Robertus Charteris typographus, 1601. Patrick Galloway also said in a denunciatory sermon on August 11th that:

one of our religion he was not, but a deep dissembling hypocrite, a profane Atheist, and an incarnate devil in an angel’s coat, as is evident both by his traitorous fact that he attempted, and by the things we have learned from his familiars, and most near intimate friends. The books which he used plainly prove that he was a studier of magic, and conjurer of devils, and had them in some way at his command.

Gowrie’s tutor, William Rind, who had travelled with him to Padua, had in fact heroically denied such imputations under appalling torture (‘the boots’, used to crush his legs).

But what more did the stage need? A conspiracy against a king, two noble brothers bloodily killed, apparent proofs of sorcery that could be expanded upon. A witch, spirits, and devils were possibly deployed in a scene shaped after the Bible episode of Saul and the Witch of Endor. (Possibly the Earl of Gowrie’s dead father was raised from the coffin to predict the success of his sons.)

If the company’s play was an eager endorsement of the official line about the events at Perth, sensationalising Gowrie’s occult studies into sorcery, it might have been known to some better informed people in London to represent just one side of the story. In Scotland, there was disbelief in the king’s claims. A printed "Vindication" of the Gowrie brothers had been published in Edinburgh, but suppressed. King James even set about removing the very name of Ruthven from Scotland - innocent parties who happened to share that name were required to assume another.

Other accounts of what happened were in circulation in England, where Gowrie himself had connections and advocates. Gowrie, fresh from three months stay with the reformer Theodore Beza, had been in London for some weeks in April 1600, and had been warmly received by the Queen at court. So on November 15th, 1600, Sir Henry Neville, who as Ambassador in Paris had met Gowrie on his travels, and was thereafter pre-disposed in his favour, reported in a letter from London that “Out of Scotland we hear” that the King had sprung a trap on the Ruthven brothers because Alexander Ruthven (the younger brother) had cuckolded him, and that this was “the truest cause and motive of all that tragedy”. Neville’s word "truest" indicates a wider range of speculation, by no means taking the King’s side of the story.

If this suggestion is accepted as plausible, "The Two Brothers’ Tragedy" would have been a play falling into that broad early modern category that brought together "News" and history, prompted by London printing of the official account and other unofficial stories about James VI. Plays about Scotland could probably have been perceived as reliably bloody, and having some relevance to the question of the succession to the English throne. Henslowe had paid £5 to one Charles Massey on 18th April in 1602 for a play of Malcolm, Kynge of Scottes.

"The Two Brothers’ Tragedy" then would become an antecedent play for one of the most interesting of all the lost plays, the play about the Gowrie conspiracy that the King’s Men risked in 1604. It has been argued by the present author that Lawrence Fletcher, who had led actors from the King’s Men to Scotland (to the horror of the Kirk), perhaps thought the personal relationship with James VI he had established up in Edinburgh gave the company sufficient latitude to think that they could get away with bringing "King James" on stage (see Booth). To that argument could now be added the possibility that the company might also have felt that as a play about the conspiracy had been done before, why shouldn’t they do theirs? The "Gowrie" play was performed on 18th December 1604, and quickly suppressed.

Macbeth is always connected to that lost text: after the debacle, the senior dramatist of the company steered tragedy back into remoter Scottish history. If there had been two plays about the Gowrie conspiracy, they, along with Massey’s play of King Malcolm, might be claimed to be a little rush of Scottish plays precedent to Macbeth: supernatural in bias, violent, ostensibly black and white in moral stance, but in the end morally opaque and troubling.

Works Cited

Booth, Roy. "Standing within the Prospect of Belief: Macbeth, King James, and Witchcraft", in John G. Newton and Jo Bath (eds), Witchcraft and the Act of 1604 (Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2008)
Davies, J. D. Blood of Kings (Shepperton, Ian Allen Publishing, 2010)

Site created and maintained by Roy Booth, Royal Holloway College, University of London; updated 08 August 2016.