Merchant of Emden, The

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Anon. (1594)

Historical Records

Henslowe’s Diary, F.9v (Greg I. 18):

ye 30 of Julye 1594 ne R[d] at the marchant of eamden . . . iijli viijs

Theatrical Provenance

The play is the fourth “ne” offering by the Admiral’s Men on their return to the Rose in June of 1594 from the 10-day run at Newington. Its combination of high receipts and solo performance has aroused scholarly curiosity.


Realistic T. C. [tragicomedy] ? (Harbage)

Possible Narrative and Dramatic Sources or Analogues

Greg credits John Payne Collier with the identification of the play with a ballad, “A Most Sweet Song of an English Merchant, borne at Chichester” (Greg II. 166, Item 48).

The ballad tells the story of a rich English merchant from Chichester, who quarrelled with and killed a German in “Emden Towne.” The merchant was tried, found guilty, and taken to a scaffold in the market square to be beheaded. A large crowd gathers, where there is considerable sympathy for the condemned man among the women in the crowd but also among the merchants, whose offer of £2000 to set him free is denied. The merchant, dressed in fine clothes, delivers a scaffold speech full of remorse for having killed the man. He offers compensation of £100 each to the widow and two children, asking only that they speak well of Englishmen, even though he has committed this crime. Ten young women in the crowd then step forward, citing a local law that allows his death sentence to be cancelled if he would choose one of them for his love. They jockey among themselves for the opportunity to save him, but he turns them down, saying he is unworthy. In his refusal, he says the law cannot touch his goods, and he has a chest with £1000 of gold, which he gives to them all. At this, another young woman steps forward and woos him with a kiss. He chooses her. The crowd cheers while she solicits the duke, who grants her wish. In an epithalamic progress to the scaffold to claim her groom, the bride leads the merchant straight to the church; they marry and live happily ever after.

Giving the post-1594 provenance of the ballad also, the headnote to the ballad in the Roxburghe collection (vol. 1, p. 319) cites the following entry on 22 March 1594 in Arber:

Abell Jeffes./.
Entred for his Copie vnder th[e h]ande of Master Cawood a ballad entituled a moste sweete songe of an Englishe merchant that :killed a man in Guidine and was for the same Judged to lose his head and howe in th[e] ende a mayden saved his lyfe by T. DELONEY

References to the Play

Greg II. 166, Item 48, thinks it “just possible” that a reference to “the signiory of Emden” in Doctor Faustus could be related to this play.

The headnote to the ballad in the Roxburghe collection suggests tenuous connections between the ballad and the Famous Historie of Fryer Bacon, with a song to the tune of “A Rich Merchantman,” and from that source to Robert Greene’s play, Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay.

Critical Commentary

The headnote to the ballad in the Roxburghe collection cites the diary of John Manningham for its three entries relating to the European custom of scaffold marriages (Manningham, 12 December 1602). Manningham phrases the custom thusly: “yf anie notorious professed strumpet will begg for a husband a man which is going to execution, he shal be reprieved, and she may obteine a pardon, and marry him, that both their ill lives may be bettered by so holie an action” (as qtd. in Roxburghe, vol. 1, p. 319). The headnote quotes more of Manningham, including a popular joke in which a man and woman exchange insults over his criminality and her undesirability.

Mann, in a note on the Deloney ballad (p. 599), capitalizing on the information in the headnote to the ballad in the Roxburghe collection, adds further a reference to the custom in the Dictionnaire Universel (sub Mariage), plus a use of the custom by Balzac. Mann adds that he does not know how the custom or the Chichester merchant became associated with Emden, “the flourishing German seaport of the sixteenth century,” but he thinks it unlikely “that Deloney chose these localities out of mere caprice” (p. 600).

Gurr lists the play as one of the oddities of solo performances despite high receipts (p. 94).

For What It’s Worth

(information needed)


Thomas Deloney, merchants, Emden, ballads, scaffold speeches, scaffold marriages, John Manningham

Works Cited

Gurr, Andrew. Shakespeare’s Opposites: The Admiral’s Company 1594-1625. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009. Print. Mann, Francis Oscar. The Works of Thomas Deloney. Oxford: Clarendon, 1912. Print. Roxburghe Ballads, vol. 1, 318-25.

Site created and maintained by Roslyn L. Knutson, Professor Emerita, University of Arkansas at Little Rock; updated, 25 August 2009.