Dead Man's Fortune, The
Knowledge of this play and its production is based solely on the manuscript titled "The plotte of the deade mans fortune" now held in the British Library (Ms. Add. 10449). It is reproduced in Greg BEPD 133-35 (Internet Archive)
Strange's? (Harbage); Admiral's (Greg)
Romantic Comedy (Harbage)
Possible Narrative and Dramatic Sources or Analogues
W. W. Greg, the standard older authority on playhouse documents, was of the opinion that the plot had a "rather primitive character," but it is in fact clearly written and laid out, and a reasonably comprehensive account of the action of the play can be inferred from the skeleton version of scenes and character entries it records; E. K. Chambers and Greg jointly did so, offering a description of the romance plot, featuring lovers and jealous fathers, and a course of true love somewhat smoothed by magical intervention.
A chief interest of the play is its interwoven secondary plot, which owes something to the Italian commedia dell' arte: it includes a leading figure called Pantaloun, around whom a domestic intrigue unfolds. His wife, Aspida, has a lover, Validore, and the household servants, the maid Rose and Pantaloun's man Peascod, are involved in the dynamics of jealousy and deceit. Attempts to link this action with the scenarios of Flaminio Scala ("The Jealous Old Man," for example) are not entirely compelling, although the analogies are of interest.
References to the Play
Theatrical annotations in the plot give details of its other properties and some costumes, show breaks with music after each act, and identify five performers mostly in minor parts, one by title, a "tyre man" playing an attendant in one scene, and the others by name: (Robert) Darloe, Robert Lee, "b samme" (Samuel Rowley?), and (Richard) Burbage. The combination of these names in one cast is the chief basis for the very tentative proposal of Greg, that the play was performed by the Admiral's company in about 1590. He also proposed that Burbage's name, in the sole place it appears, was a slip for the character he was playing, Urganda, whom he calls a "magician." Urganda's magic certainly has an important place in The Dead Man's Fortune, but the character, drawn from the Amadis and Palmerin romances, is an enchantress, "Urganda the Unknown," a generally beneficent protrectress of the chivalric heroes. If Greg is right about the casting, then, he is unlikely to be right about the date; Burbage was twenty-one in 1590, and past his days of taking female roles. If indeed he played Urganda the performance connected with the plot is likely to have taken place in the middle 1580s.
For What It's Worth
Chiefly, the title of the play is not clearly explicable from what the plot reveals about its action, but it probably is bound up with a final revelation involving a stage property: "Enter the panteloun & causeth the chest or truncke to be broughte forth." The puzzle of the dead man and his fortune no doubt was resolved when it was opened, in the last moments of the play.
W. W. Greg, Dramatic Documents from the Elizabethan Playhouses, 2 vols. (Oxford, 1931).
Flaminio Scala, trans. H. F. Salerno, Scenarios of the Commedia dell' Arte (New York, 1967).
Site created and maintained by John Astington, University of Toronto; updated 16 Feb 2010.