Richard Crookback

Ben Jonson (1602)

Historical Records

Payments to Playwrights (Henslowe’s Diary)

F. 106v (Greg I.168)

Lent ^ vnto bengemy Johnsone at the a poyntment of E Alleyn }
& wm birde the 22 of June 1602 }
in earneste of a Boocke called Richard } xli
crockbacke & for new adicyons for }
Jeronymo the some of }

Henslowe Papers

Greg, Papers (MS. I. 27, Art. 26, p. 49)

Autograph note, Robert Shaa (Shaw) to Philip Henslowe, 8 November 1599:

mr Henshlowe we haue heard their booke and lyke yt their pryce is eight poundes, wch J pray pay now to mr wilson, according to our promysse, J would haue Come my selfe, but that J ame trobled wth a seytation.
yors Robt Shaa

[on the back of Shaa's note, also in his hand]

1. Sce Wm Wor; & Ansell & to them ye plowghmen

2. Sce: Richard Q. & Eliza: Catesbie, Louell, Rice ap Tho: Blunt, Banester

3. Sce: Ansell Dauye Denys Hen: Oxf: Courtney Bourchier & Grace to them Rice ap Tho: & his Soldiors

4. Sce: Mitton Ban : his wyfe & children

5. Sce: K Rich : Catesb : Louell. Norf. Northumb : Percye

[6. C. and Q. Eliza.     7. Dauye. C. Daugr (in Memoirs, omitted in Papers).   9. C. Milton.]

Theatrical Provenance

Presumably performed by the Admiral's Men at the Fortune, possibly in late summer 1602.

The sum paid to Jonson by Henslowe, as Evans (97) suggests, "was substantial, suggesting either that the additions were extensive or that Jonson's play on King Richard III was nearly complete". Yet, the lack of firm evidence makes it impossible to ascertain whether the play was indeed ever completed or performed, pace Murph (88), who argues that it "was probably performed regularly for several years".

Riggs (98—99) argues that Jonson's play "could have been performed, but not published, like the other scripts that he had sold to Henslowe; he may have set it aside in March, when the Admiral's Men stopped giving performances; or perhaps he could not equal, let alone improve upon, Shakespeare's Richard III, and abandoned the project."

Donaldson (183) suggests that the play may have never been completed or performed, possibly because of Jonson's illness in 1602.

Wiggins (1337) argues that though Jonson started writing the play in late June, "its absence from William Playstowe's 4 August acquittance to Philip Henslowe, relating to plays licensed probably in July, suggests that it was not by then complete."

Probable Genre(s)

History (Harbage).

Possible Narrative and Dramatic Sources or Analogues

The events from the life and reign of King Richard III had remained very popular throughout the Tudor era, which means Jonson had quite a wide range of dramatic and non-dramatic sources he could look at.

As Donaldson (183) usefully summarises, Jonson:

would have been familiar with Shakespeare's Richard III (probably completed by 1593) and the anonymous True Tragedy of Richard the Third, published in 1594 but probably composed a few years earlier [...]. He may also have known the Latin play Ricardus Tertius by Thomas Legge, Master of Caius College, Cambridge, acted c. 1579. He certainly studied with close attention Thomas More's influential but unfinished account of the life of Richard III, as his heavy markings in his personal copy of the 1566 Louvain edition of More's Omnia Latina opera reveal [...]. It was More who had given fullest currency to the traditional portrait of Richard III which Jonson (to judge at least from the title of this lost play) seems to have inherited.

Evans has thoroughly examined Jonson's copy of More's works.

References to the Play

There may be a reference to the play in the memorandum from Shaw to Henslowe quoted above. As Donaldson (183—184) argues, if the memorandum and the note are roughly contemporary, the former "could refer to an earlier play on the subject of Richard III which the Lord Admiral's Men had in their repertoire, which Jonson's play was designed to replace or update. If the memorandum is of a later date, it may conceivably refer to Jonson's own play. The evidence is tantalizingly inconclusive."

On balance, however, the memorandum is more likely to have referred to Robert Wilson's 1599 "Henry Richmond, Part 2", rather than Jonson's lost play: see the entry for Henry Richmond, Part 2, where Greg's attempt at identifying the characters listed in the rough outline provided with Shaw's authorization of payment is also reported.

Anther potential reference to "Richard Crookback" is to be found in a jest-book compiled by the Caroline playwright Robert Chamberlain.

Sundry mistakes spoken publickly upon the Stage.
IN the Play of Richard the third; the Duke of Buckingham being betraid by his servant Banister, a Messenger comming hastily into the presence of the King, to bring him word of the Dukes surprizall, Richard asking him what newes he replyed:
My Liege, the Duke of Banister is tane,
And Buckingham is come for his reward.
Chamberlain, A new booke of mistakes (1637), D1v.

What this excerpt clearly indicates is the existence of an otherwise unknown Richard III play in which Banister features as a character (on Banister, see Henry Richmond, Part 2). This could be Jonson's play, although there are also other possible candidates, for instance, Wilson's "Henry Richmond, Part 2", the anonymous and undated "Richard III, or the English Prophet", or even the hypothetical 1 Henry Richmond (see Wiggins, who quotes these lines both in the entry for this play and for "Richard Crookback").

Jonson himself might have referred to this play in the "Apologetical Dialogue" in the 1602 quarto of Poetaster, where he declares that he " will trie / If Tragoedie have a more kind aspect. Her favours in my next I will pursue". This is customarily taken as an allusion to Sejanus, but Jonson may well have had "Richard Crookback" in mind.

Critical Commentary

Riggs (91) contends that "The tragedy of King Richard III satisfied the criteria that were now uppermost in Jonson's mind. It included the most famous case of infanticide in English history, it featured a whole chorus of grieving parents, and gave him an opportunity to imitate, and improve upon, Shakespeare's Richard III—just as Shakespeare had improved upon the work of his predecessor, the anonymous author of The True Tragedy of Richard III. Unlike the comedy of humors and the comical satires, Jonson's new project put a premium on imitation and competition rather than 'strangeness' and originality. [...] Jonson's Richard III promised to add an entirely new dimension both to the Poet's Quarrel and to the competition between the Admirals Men and their rivals at the Globe".

Knutson (168—169) remarks that "A rather far-fetched but possible instance of duplicate plays sharing the same market involves Richard III and Richard Crookback. Shakespeare's company revived Richard III long before 1602, if the title-page of the quarto in 1597 is accurate, and therefore long before the debut at the Fortune of Ben Jonson's Richard Crookback around June in 1602. Yet Richard III was reprinted in 1602, which is the same year that [John] Manningham heard an anecdote about [Richard] Burbage in the role of Richard III; and if it had been revived, it could have been on stage at a time near the production of Jonson's version of Richard III's story by the Admiral's men."

Wiggins (1337) argues that Jonson's probably wanted to outshine Shakespeare and wonders "whether he was trying to do it by being like Shakespeare or by doing something distinctly his own", with the latter possibility striking Wiggins as "more plausible at this stage in his career", when he was developing Sejanus His Fall and would be soon start working on Volpone. That "Richard Crookback" must have been significantly different from Shakespeare's Richard III is also made likely in Wiggins's view by the potential commercial logic behind the investment the Admiral's Men were making. It would have been commercially unwise to commission a play that was too similar to one the Lord Chamberlain's Men might easily revive "as spoiler tactic and, at best, split the market".

In addition, Wiggins connects the Admiral's Men's decision not to revive "Henry Richmond" and rather commission a new play focusing on Richard III to the company's "ongoing response to the Lord Chamberlain's Men's development of the history play in the late 1590s, when Shakespeare effectively discontinued the 'tragical histories' of earlier in the decade and substituted a mode of 'comical history' in the Henry IV plays", a tendency that is apparent in the production of the Lord Admiral's men of the last years of the sixteenth century (with such plays as Look about You", Sir John Oldcastle and The Blind Beggar of Bethnal Green.

As the emergence of tragicomedy was close in 1602, Wiggins hypothesises that "Richard Crookback" might "have attempted to steer the history play further down the mixed genre route, comical-tragical-historical, with Richard perhaps conceived as a prototype for Volpone", with the result that "Jonsons's Richard could well have turned out more similar to Shakespeare's than he bargained for".

The relationship between Jonson's and Shakespeare's plays may also have been, in Wiggins's interpretation, the cause of the play's exclusion from the 1616 Folio, which looks like an anomaly, insofar as "Richard Crookback" was neither an early play nor a collaborative effort, as were all the other plays he suppressed from the Folio. Could Jonson, wonders Wiggins, "have deemed it a simple failure, perhaps too much like Shakespeare, too little like himself, and so worthier of burial than praise?"

Dutton (93—94) conjectures that Jonson's decision not to include "Richard Crookback" (as well as the other plays he had written for the Admiral's Men: "Robert II, King of Scots", "Hot Anger Soon Cold" and "Page of Plymouth") in that "highly selective sampling" of his works that the 1616 Folio is may have depended from his decision to exclude "items which did not have predominantly royal associations" and that he did not regard as "represent[ing] his real literary skill".

For What It's Worth

Content welcome.

Works Cited

Chamberlain, Robert. A new booke of mistakes. London: N.O., 1637.
Donaldson, Ian. "Richard Crookback (lost play)." The Cambridge Edition of the Works of Ben Jonson. Ed. David Bevington, Martin Butler and Ian Donaldson. 7 vols. Cambridge: CUP, 2012. 2:183—184.
Dutton, Richard. Shakespeare, Court Dramatist. Oxford: OUP, 2016.
Evans Robert C. "More's Richard III and Jonson's Richard Crookback and Sejanus." Comparative Drama 24 (1990): 97-132.
Knutson, Roslyn L. The Repertory of Shakespeare's Company, 1594—1613. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1991.
Murph, Roxane C. Richard III: The Making of a Legend. Metuchen: Scarecrow, 1977.
Riggs, David. Ben Jonson: A Life. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1989.

Site created and maintained by Domenico Lovascio, University of Genoa; updated 16 April 2017.