King with His Two Sons

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Anon. (January 1620)

NB. A King with His Two Sons is a recent assignation for this untitled play, and should be viewed as a convenience for the database.

Historical Records

A dispatch from the Venetian ambassador, dated January 10, 1620, records:

In connection with the subject of comedians I ought not to conceal the following event from your Serenity, owing to the mystery that it involves. The comedians of the prince, in the presence of the king his father, played a drama the other day in which a king with his two sons has one of them put to death, simply upon suspicion that he wished to deprive him of his crown, and the other son actually did deprive him of it afterwards. This moved the king in an extraordinary manner, both inwardly and outwardly. In this country however the comedians have absolute liberty to say whatever they wish against any one soever, so the only demonstration against them will be the words spoken by the king (il che è seguito con grande commotione et sentimento del Re, interiormente et esteriormente, se ben tenendo in questi paesi li comedianti libertà assoluta di dire ciò che vogliono contra chi si sia, tutta la dimostratione contra di loro sarà stata quella che ha fatta il Re in parole).

From: 'Venice: January 1620, 1-10', Calendar of State Papers Relating to English Affairs in the Archives of Venice, Volume 16: 1619-1621 (1910), pp. 101-111. Date accessed: 07 June 2010.

Theatrical Provenance

Prince Charles's (I) at court

Probable Genre(s)


Possible Narrative and Dramatic Sources or Analogues

Tragedies including Henry Glapthorne, Revenge for Honour; Fulke Greville, Alaham; Gervase Markham and William Sampson, Herod and Antipater (see Critical Commentary and For What It's Worth).

Possible references to the Play

None known (apart from the above).

Critical Commentary

Although this record has been known for a long time, no title has previously been proposed for the play under discussion. The title A King with His Two Sons originates with this Lost Plays Database entry, and will, I hope, facilitate further study.

W. J. Lawrence and F. T. Bowers independently suggested that this play could be identified. In each case the proposed candidate was The Parricide / Revenge for Honour, that is, the lost play The Parricide, licensed for Prince Charles's Men in 1624, which Bowers and Lawrence believed to be identical with the extant play Revenge for Honour. There is, indeed, a broad similarity of plot between this lost play from 1620 and Revenge for Honour, since that play does dramatize two feuding brothers, one of whom is executed and the other of whom commits parricide. However, this plot is not so distinctive as to be unique, and Chester Linn Shaver observes that the plot as described by the ambassador is closer to that of Fulke Greville's Alaham than to that of Revenge for Honour. Furthermore, since Lawrence and Bowers were writing it has transpired that Revenge for Honour depends upon a source first printed in 1637, meaning that it was not identical with The Parricide of 1624; and also, that it could not have been the play seen in 1620.

Nor can A King with his Two Sons be plausibly identified with the 1624 The Parricide. First of all, the prima facie reason for linking them - the supposed similarity of plot details - disappears when The Parricide is no longer identified with Revenge for Honour. Secondly, the fact that The Parricide was licensed in 1624 implies that it was previously unacted and not the play from 1620. (Bentley, 4.489-93, summarizes these debates). In short, A King with His Two Sons cannot currently be identified with any other play, extant or lost.

The lack of a title has made A King with his Two Sons, hitherto, rather invisible in play-catalogues. It is not, seemingly, listed in Harbage. Bentley refers to this play in his discussion of Prince Charles's (I) company, but does not give it a title or a separate entry in the list of plays (Bentley, 1.204, 213). It is omitted from Nicol's otherwise excellent list of the known repertory of Prince Charles's (I).

The record is obviously interesting for the processes of censorship - or rather non-censorship - implied. It is frequently suggested that the play might have offended the king because it stirred up memories of Prince Henry:

Somehow the working out of the theme brought to James's mind disturbing recollections of the ugly canard once afloat concerning the circumstances of Prince Henry's death, and aroused his anger.
(Lawrence, 814).

This seems to be something of an over-reading of the sole surviving record. Finkelpearl, "The Comedians' Liberty", offers a useful discussion of how this particular record relates to what else is known about Jacobean dramatic censorship. No record is known of action being taken against the players on this occasion, and W. J. Lawrence's suggestion that the furore caused the Prince's Men to be denied a court performance of The World Tossed at Tennis is generally thought to be baseless.

For what it's worth

Is it worth pointing out the possibility that this lost play about a pair of brothers could be connected to The Younger Brother, a lost play which is recorded in performance, probably by the Prince's Men, in 1617? This possibility is, of course, completely untestable.

Another addition to the catalogue of plays with plots similar to that described by the Venetian ambassador: Gervase Markham and William Sampson's Herod and Antipater (printed 1622) features a king who puts to death his two legitimate sons, fearing they are plotting against him. He does so at the instigation of a third son, the illegitimate Antipater. Antipater then plots to kill Herod to gain the throne himself, but disaster ensues and father and son both die in Act Five.

Works Cited

Bowers, Fredson Thayer. " The Date of Revenge for Honour", Modern Language Notes, 52 (1937): 192-196.
Finkelpearl, P. J. "The Comedians' Liberty: Censorship of the Jacobean Stage Reconsidered," English Literary Renaissance 16 (1986): 127-39.
Lawrence. W. J. "Early Substantive Theatre Masques", Times Literary Supplement (December 8, 1921), 814.
Nicol, David. "The Repertory of Prince Charles’s (I) Company, 1608-1625". Early Theatre 9.2 (2006).
Shaver, Chester Linn. "The Date of Revenge for Honour". Modern Language Notes 53 (1938): 96-98.

Page created and maintained by Matthew Steggle, Sheffield Hallam University. Revised 7 June 2010.