Robin Goodfellow

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Anon. (>1604)

Historical Records


In a letter dated 15 January 1604, Dudley Carleton (Viscount Dorchester), a politician whose career was on the upswing in 1603-4, gave his older friend and fellow gossip, John Chamberlain, the following information about goings-on at the court of the new king, James: "On New Year's night we had a play of Robin Goodfellow" (Lee 53).

Declared Accounts of the Treasurer of the Chamber

Item 115b:

To Iohn Hemynges one of his maties players vpon the Councelles warrt dated Hamptoncoute xviijou die Ianuary 1603 for his paynes and expences of himselfe and the rest of his Company in presenting sixe interludes or playes before the kinges maty and the prince viz one one St Stephins Day at night St Iohnes Day at night Innocentes Day and Newyers day at night before the kinges matie … and for two playes before the prince on the xxxth of December and the firste of Ianuary 1603 .... (Cook, p. 38)

Theatrical Provenance

"Robin Goodfellow" was performed in the Great Hall at Hampton Court on 1 January 1604 by the King's Men for their new patron and his heir, James I and Prince Henry. Carleton provides the play title (Lee 53), and the Chamber Accounts confirm the date (the date cannot be 1 January 1605, for the Revels Accounts document that the Children of the Revels/Queen's Chapel performed George Chapman's All Fools on New Year's 1605). Although the court had recessed from London to Hampton Court for the winter of 1603-4, the performance of "Robin Goodfellow" would have been the company's first opportunity to entertain their patron during the traditional holiday period at Christmastide.

Probable Genre(s)

Comedy (Harbage)

Possible Narrative and Dramatic Sources or Analogues

In 1841 under the title The Mad Pranks and Merry Jests of Robin Goodfellow, John Payne Collier published two sources of stories about Robin Goodfellow dating from 1628, but according to Collier the "matter" of Robin was well known long before. He cites as evidence one of Tarlton's jests, an allusion in an Anthony Munday comedy (1584), and one in Everard Guilpin's Skialetheia (1598) (p. vi). It is reasonable to assume that the general folklore about Robin was much older than that. Collier describes but does not reprint two woodcuts he considers "coarse"; one presents Robin as "a satyr with horns on his head, a broom on his shoulder, and a torch in his hand, dancing in a ring of pigmies, while Tom Thumb performs on his pipe in the right-hand corner, and a black cat sits on its haunches in the left hand corner" (p. xx). The other shows "a wild huntsman, with his horn and spear" (p. xx).

"The Merry Pranks of Robin Good-fellow: Very Pleasant and Witty," London, 1628 (Internet Archive)
This first of Collier's texts is set of verses. These recount the birth of Robin (ch 1) and his running away from mother and home (ch 2). He found work with a tailor, but wandered away one day into the wood; he fell asleep, and was visited by Oberon, who left him a scroll that revealed his parentage and described his special skill of shape-changing (ch 3). He crashed a wedding and wrecked havoc (ch 4). In the final poem, he tricks a lecherous old man into releasing to her sweetheart a pretty young girl he desired himself; the ending stanzas celebrate Robin's cleverness and Protean games (ch 5).
"Robin Good-fellow; His Made Pranks, and Merry Jests," London, 1628 (Internet Archive)
This second of Collier's texts comes in two parts. Part I, all prose, has a narrator who stops by an alehouse and engages the local publican and his customers in tales of Kentish folklore. One explains why Kentish men are call "Long-tails," and it goes back to their hiding short swords under their coats (slit along the side) and thus successfully defending themselves when Hengst ambushed them at a meeting (p. 4). The publican's wife then tells tales of Robin Goodfellow. These repeat the birth narrative, his truancy, the tailor, etc. but usually in more elaborate detail than the poems. One of the jests, "How Robin Good-fellow served a clownish fellow," unique to this text (pp. 11-12).
Part II, under the title "The Second part of Robin Good-fellow, commonly called Hob-goblin," tells some new stories (Internet Archive) . In "How Robin-Good-fellow helped a mayde to worke," the jest is that Robin helps her do her cloth-making, and in thanks she makes him a waist-coat ("seeing him bare in clothes" [p. 20]); he chides her for not leaving him milk or cream and leaves her to do her own work in the future. In "How Robin Good-fellow led a company of fellowes out of their way," he transforms himself into "a walking fire" and gets them lost on their way home from courting their sweethearts; they are glad nothing worse happened to them (p. 21). In "How Robin Good-fellow served a leacherous gallant," Robin prevents a rape by distracting the man, first changing himself into a hare, then a horse, then dumping his lusty rider into a thick hedge (pp. 21-2). In "How Robin Good-fellow turned a miserable usurer to a good house-keeper," Robin so frightens the man during the night by taking the shape of a raven, then a ghost, that the man turns into a liberal and honest man (pp. 23-4). In "How Robin Good-fellow love a weavers wife, and how the weaver would have drowned him," Robin wins the attention of the weaver's wife and is caught kissing her by the weaver. The husband snatches Robin from his bed, but Robin has substituted a sack of yarn. When the weaver, standing by the waterside, brags about his success, Robin, who is standing behind him, pushes the weaver in (pp. 24-6). One jest repeats the wedding story (pp. 26-9). In "How Robin Good-fellow served a tapster for nicking his pots," Robin masquerades as the tapster's brewer and gets a £20 payment, which he gives to the poor; when the brewer comes and asks for his payment, the tapster shows him what he thinks is a receipt, but it is Robin's explanation of the jest. The tapster has to pay the bill a second time (pp. 29-31). The rest of the jests concern fairy business: dancing with Oberon (pp. 31-2), night-wandering, with songs (pp. 32-8), dancing with the fairies (pp. 38-9), and the special tricks of fairies named Pinch, Pach, Gull, and Grim, plus tricks of women fairies (pp. 40-5). Hearing all these tales, the traveler turns wearily to bed where he dreams these very stories (p. 45). (Internet Archive)
"The mad merry prankes of Robbin Good-fellow," a ballad. (Internet Archive)
This ballad is still a third source. It is illustrated with two woodcuts, neither of which is one described by Collier. One features rabbits making sport in various scenes with courtiers; the other features a rough-cast and bearded fellow, suggesting some semi-human creature of nature. In the ballad Robin speaks about himself, bragging on his various skills and tricks. He emphasizes his ability to mislead travelers, shape-changing, Ariel-like mischief in having maidens wonder who is kissing them in the dark, and working through the night on tasks of husbandry such as carding flax. Part 2 of the ballad has a darker tone. Robin talks of slipping into maidens' bedrooms, exposing their nakedness, and taking sexual advantage: "twixt sleepe and wake/I doe them take" (ll. 66-7). All this is just good fun, though: "If out they cry,' Then forth flye I,/ And loudly laugh I, ho ho, ho!" (ll. 68-70).

References to the Play

After January 1604, any revival of A Midsummer Night's Dream would have alluded to this play's main character of Robin Goodfellow through the five instances of calling Puck by that name: 2.1.osd, 34; 3.2.355; 4.1.180; 5/1/438. Unfortunately, no revivals of are on record.

Robin Goodfellow is a significant character in Wily Beguiled (1606). The name, "Puck," is not used in that play even once.

Critical Commentary

Chambers popularized the identification of "Robin Goodfellow" with A Midsummer Night's Dream, apparently on the basis of Puck/Robin as a memorable character from Shakespeare's play (1.362).

Knutson discusses "Robin Goodfellow" as a repertorial mate with The Merry Devil of Edmonton, which was apparently new early in 1603 and which enjoyed a long stage history (it was revived in 1612-3, 1638-9, and 1661-2). She suggests that it would have captured the spirit of madcap matchmaker as in the play about the merry devil, Peter Fabell (113-4).

Wiggins, Catalogue presumes that, "[i]f this was a play in its own right," the "action dramatized Robin's mischievous pranks on country wenches" (#1399).

For What It's Worth

Biographies of Dudley Carleton (Oxford DNB) and John Chamberlain (Oxford DNB) provide insight into their credibility as witnesses of activities at court.

Someone wanted there to be a play starring Robin Goodfellow in the repertory of Worcester's Men. Two entries in Henslowe's Diary were doctored to insert the words "Robin hoodfellowe" on 7 September 1602, where Henslowe left a blank, and "Robin goodfellowe" in a similar blank in an entry for 9 September. In both cases, the forger drew through the word "tragedie" in the entries and inserted "playe" (Foakes, p. 216). Since Malone did not see these entries but Collier did (Mad Pranks, vii-viii), he is vulnerable to a charge of forgery here to accompany his many others.

There was a tune called "Robin Goodfellow" to which at least one ballad, "The Downfall of Dancing," was sung. (EBBA)

Works Cited

Carleton, Dudley. Oxford DNB
Chamberlain, John Oxford DNB
Chambers, E. K. William Shakespeare: A Study of Facts and Problems. 2 vols. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1930.
Collier, John Payne (ed.) The Mad Pranks and Merry Jests or Robin Goodfellow. London: Percy Society, 1841. Internet Archive
Cook, David and F. P. Wilson. Dramatic Records in the Declared Accounts of the Treasurer of the Chamber 1558-1642. Malone Society Collections, 1961 (1962).
Hindley, Charles (ed.) The Roxburghe Ballads. vol 2, p. 387. Internet Archive
Knutson, Roslyn Lander. The Repertory of Shakespeare's Company, 1594-1613. Fayetteville, AR: University of Arkansas Press, 1991.
Lee, Maurice, Jr. (ed.) Dudley Carleton to John Chamberlain, 1603-1624. New Brunswick, N. J.: Rutgers University Press, 1972.

Site created and maintained by Roslyn L. Knutson, Professor Emerita, University of Arkansas at Little Rock; updated 10 February 2010.