Anti-Fraternal Play

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Anon. (1618?)

N.B. This lost play is untitled. The title here is offered merely for temporary convenience.

Historical Records


Orazio Busino's Anglipotrida

28 January 1618

Prendono giuoco gli Inglesi della nostra religione come di cosa detestabile et superstitiosa, né mai rappresentano qualsivoglia attione publica, sia pure tragisatiricomica, che non inserischino dentro vitii et scelleragini di qualche religioso catolico, facendone risate et molti scherni, con lor gusto et ramarico de’ buoni. Fu apunto veduto da’ nostri in una comedia introdur un frate franciscano, astuto et ripieno di varie impietà, così d’avaritia come di libidine, et il tutto poi riuscì in una tragedia, facendoli mozzar la testa in scena.

The English deride our religion as detestable and superstitious, and never represent any theatrical piece, not even a satirical tragicomedy without larding it with the vices and iniquity of some Catholic churchman, which move them to laughter and much mockery, to their own satisfaction and to the regret of the good. […] On one occasion my colleagues of the Embassy saw a comedy performed in which a Franciscan friar was introduced, cunning and replete with impiety of various shades, including avarice and lust. The whole was made to end in a tragedy, the friar being beheaded on the stage.
Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana di Venezia, Ms. It. VII, 1122 (7451), fol. 76v; qtd. Monga 568; trans. CSP Venetian XV 134. (For an earlier transcription of the Italian, see Stoll 29 and Chambers 3:511.)

Orazio Busino was the chaplain and private secretary to Pietro Contarini, the Venetian ambassador to England in 1617-18. His Anglipotrida is a collection of notes written periodically over the course of his stay from October 1617 to November 1618 for the benefit of the ambassador's brothers Zaccaria, Francesco, and Giorgio Contarini; his new-style date for the present entry, "7 febraro," corresponds to 28 January in England. (For a recent complete transcription, see Bonaldo.) The description of the friar play is immediately followed by what is likely a description of The Duchess of Malfi (see "Orazio Busino" below).

Theatrical Provenance

Performed between 3 October 1617 and 28 January 1618, presumably in London.

Probable Genre(s)


Possible Narrative and Dramatic Sources or Analogues

English chronicle histories afford some examples of beheaded friars, but these historical examples seem less relevant than the broader tradition of anti-fraternal literature most famously exemplified in Chaucer's Summoner's Tale. (An even more explicit attack on friars is Jack Upland, published by John Foxe in the sixteenth century as a Chaucerian text. For more on the medieval background, see Szittya.) Busino's description closely corresponds to what Christopher Matusiak notes are the prevalent conventions of anti-fraternal comic narratives, in which the misdeeds of lecherous mendicants are punished with "extreme forms of social humiliation and physical abuse" (such as the extravagant corpse desecration in A Mery Iest of Dank Hew Munk of Leicestre, and How He Was Foure Times Slain and Once Hanged [London, 1580]), during which the friars themselves "remain comically obstinate, as though resistant to correction, which is surely the satiric point" (212). Friar figures appear in over 60 surviving plays (Matusiak 209), often represented (as in plays like Marlowe's The Jew of Malta, Greene's Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay, and Chapman's Bussy D'Ambois) as wicked hypocrites (Voss 5-8). Indeed, the traditional anti-fraternal plot structure seems to have been adopted as the central narrative in at least two lost plays by the Admiral's company—"Friar Fox and Gillian of Brentford" (1599) and "Friar Rush and the Proud Woman of Antwerp" (1602)—although the presumed source material for neither of these plays ends with a beheading.

(Information welcome: are there any known anti-fraternal narratives that conclude with decapitation?)

References to the Play

None known.

Critical Commentary

Pechter notes the juxtaposition of both moral and generic standards of evaluation in Busino's report. "If Busino's point is merely that it is not nice to make fun of good men like Franciscan friars, then why the details about the decapitation that made the whole thing turn out to be a tragedy? He seems to have shifted ground. From saying it's not right to show nasty friars, he says it's not decorous to mix genres, to turn comedy into tragedy. For a moment Busino reveals a surprising formalist side" (297).

Voss cites Busino in his broader consideration of anti-fraternal drama (4-5). (However, his misquotation of CSP Venetian XV conflates the account of the friar with that of the cardinal; also, pace Voss, Busino was not the "Venetian Ambassador" nor did he attend the anti-fraternal play.)

Wiggins (#1832) refers to this as "Play with a Lecherous Friar" and suggests a 1617 date.

For What It's Worth


While Busino did not attend the performance of the friar play himself, he does record that it was "seen by ours" ("veduto da’ nostri"), that is, some of the Venetian embassy; presumably this occurred after Contarini and his entourage arrived in London on 3 October 1617 (13 October, new style: CSP Venetian XV 23). However, Busino perhaps refers to Venetians more generally, in which case the performance may have occurred prior to his arrival.

Orazio Busino

Although he was only in England for a little more than a year, Busino preserves a remarkably rich trove of information about the English stage. As he observed, "in London, as the capital of a most flourishing kingdom, theatrical representations without end prevail throughout the year in various parts of the city" (CSP Venetian XV 110). Busino's dispatches to Venice provide vivid descriptions of Middleton's Lord Mayor pageant The Triumphs of Honour and Industry (29 October 1617) and Jonson's masque Pleasure Reconciled to Virtue (6 January 1618). (For recent translations of Busino's accounts, see, respectively, Levin and Britland et al., "Pleasure Reconciled to Virtue 19," Masque Archive.) One of his letters, dated 8 December 1617, describes a visit to a theatre, where he ignored the advances of an opulently dressed woman sitting next to him as a tragedy was being performed on stage ("Diaries and Despatches," 228-29 [which identifies the playhouse as the Fortune on unknown evidence]; CSP Venetian XV 67).

The passage on the lost friar play in his Anglipotrida appears in the context of a description of English hostility towards Catholicism, and, as a Catholic chaplain himself, Busino had reason to be sensitive to the English's stage mockery of ecclesiastical figures. (His account of English Protestantism and its origins is predictably withering: "The religion of this kingdom is at least that of Jesus Christ, but disastriously [sic] modified, as is well known, after Henry VIII by unbridled lust for a woman named Anna Boleyn, had repudiated his lawful wife, he separated himself from the ancient Roman church from which he had before his apostacy, received the title of Defender of the Faith for a book against Luther" [CSP Venetian XV 133].) Following Busino's description of the friar play is an account of the depiction of the Cardinal in what appears to be Webster's The Duchess of Malfi:

Another time they represented the pomp of a Cardinal in his identical robes of state, very handsome and costly, and accompanied by his attendants, with an altar raised on the stage, where he pretended to perform service, ordering a procession. He then re-appeared familiarly with a concubine in public. He played the part of administering poison to his sister upon a point of honour, and moreover, of going into battle, having first gravely deposited his Cardinal's robes on the altar through the agency of his chaplains. Last of all, he had himself girded with a sword and put on his scarf with the best imaginable grace. All this they do in derision of ecclesiastical pomp which in this kingdom is scorned and hated mortally. (CSP Venetian XV 134; first noticed in "Diaries and Despatches," 232n.)

As Busino notes elsewhere, his linguistic limitations diminished his appreciation of the plays that he witnessed: "we saw a tragedy performed there, which moved me very little, especially as I cannot understand a single word of English" (CSP Venetian XV 67).

Venetians and Stage Friars

It may be worth mentioning an earlier anecdote, recorded in a letter dated 12 August 1613 written by Antimo Galli, a friend of the Florentine ambassador to England Ottaviano Lotti, in which Galli describes the Venetian ambassador and frequent playgoer Antonio Foscarini attending a performance at the Curtain. Standing as a groundling at the end of the play, Foscarini heard the crowd chanting for "Friars, Friars" (that is, the play that they wished to see performed the next day) and attempted to join them, at which the other playgoers, "thinking him to be a Spaniard," whistled at Foscarini to his great humiliation (Chambers, "Gleanings," 186 [Italian text]; Orrell 171 [date]; Wickham, Berry, and Ingram 415–16). Apparently fraternal themes were still in popular demand as late as 1613, and one wonders whether Foscarini's reaction to the "Friars" play would have been similar to Busoni's.

Works Cited

Bonaldo, Franca. "L'Anglipotrida di Orazio Busino (1618). Pietro Contarini e il suo cappellano alla corte di Giacomo I." Studi Veneziani 56 (2008): 229–70.
Britland, Karen, Martin Butler, Katharine Craik and Maria Dongu. The Masque Archive. In The Cambridge Edition of the Works of Ben Jonson Online. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2014.
[CSP Venetian XV] Calendar of State Papers Relating to English Affairs in the Archives of Venice. Volume 15, 1617-1619. London: HMSO, 1909.
Chambers, E.K. "Elizabethan Stage Gleanings." RES 1 (1925): 75–78, 182–86.
"Diaries and Despatches of the Venetian Embassy at the Court of King James I., in the years 1617, 1618." The London Quarterly Review [American Edition] 102 (1857): 218–40.
Levin, Kate D., trans. and ed. "Orazio Busino's Eyewitness Account of The Triumphs of Honour and Industry." Thomas Middleton: The Collected Works. Ed. Gary Taylor and John Lavagnino. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2007. 1264–70.
Matusiak, Christopher. "Lost Stage Friars and Their Narratives." Lost Plays in Shakespeare's England. Ed. David McInnis and Matthew Steggle. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014. 208-228.
Monga, Luigi. "La Londra secentesca nell' "Anglipotrida" (1618) di Orazio Busino." Annali d'Italianistica 14 (1996): 553–74. Online.
Orrell, John. "The London Stage in the Florentine Correspondence, 1604–1618." Theatre Research International 3 (1978): 157–76.
Pechter, Edward. "Of Ants and Grasshoppers: Two Ways (or More) to Link Texts and Power." Poetics Today 9 (1988): 291–306. Reprinted in The Rhetoric of Interpretation and the Interpretation of Rhetoric. Ed. Paul Hernadi. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 1989. 39-54.
Stoll, Elmer Edgar. John Webster: The Periods of His Work as Determined by His Relations to the Drama of His Day. Boston: A. Mudge, 1905.
Szittya, Penn R. The Antifraternal Tradition in Medieval Literature. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1986.
Voss, Paul J. "The Antifraternal Tradition in English Renaissance Drama." Cithara 33 (1993): 3–16.
Wickham, Glynne, Herbert Berry, and William Ingram. English Professional Theatre, 1530-1660. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2000.

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