Seven Wise Masters, The
To playwrights in Henslowe's diary
Fol. 67v (Greg, I. 118)
Receavd of mr hinchlowe the 1 march to paye to } harry chettell Thomas decker william hawton & John daye } xls for a boocke calld the 7 wise mrs the some of . . . . . . . . . . } W birde.
Lent vnto Samewell Rowly the 8 of march 1599 } to paye vnto harey chettell & John daye in fulle } ls payment of a boocke called the vij wisse masters } the some of . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . } Samuell Rowlye
Fol. 68 (Greg, I. 119)
Lent vnto hary chettell the 2 of march 1599 } in earnest of a Boocke called the 7 wisse } xxxs masters the some of . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . }
Miscellaneous expenses in Henslowe's diary
Fol. 68 (Greg, I. 119)
Receaued of Mr Henslowe to lay out for the playe of } the 7 wise Mrs in taffataes & sattyns the some of } xxll in behalfe of the by me Robt Shaa } Company . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . }
Receaued more of mr Henshlowe to lay out } for the play of the 7 wise Maisters in behalfe } xli of the Company . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . }
Receaued more of Mr Henshlowe to lay out } for the play of the 7 wise maisters in behalf } viijli of the Company . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . } by me Robt Shaa
The Admiral's men acquired "The Seven Wise Masters" in the spring of 1600. The company was still at the Rose playhouse, though construction of the new Fortune playhouse had already begun (Edward Alleyn bought the lease on 22 December 1599). The company moved into the Fortune in the fall. The payment of £38 for materials and other things for "The Seven Wise Masters" suggests a relatively sumptuous production.
Tragi-comedy (Harbage); the story material offers a series of paired playlets, capped by the son's tale, all framed by the story of the emperor and his second wife, who attempts to disinherit her stepson in the most drastic way possible: by having his father execute him.
Possible Narrative and Dramatic Sources or Analogues
The story cycle known variously as The Seven Wise Masters and The Seven Sages of Rome is as ancient as Sanskrit, Persian, and Hebrew, languages in which analogues existed. One story of its origin attributes it to the Indian philosopher Sindibad/Syntipas in the first century CE (Wikipedia).
Michael L. Hays compiled a list of the manuscripts and printings extant for The Seven Sages [Wise Masters] of Rome, which had been written c. 1300-1333. That by Wynkyn de Worde in 1506 appears to have been the seminal English text (Gomme, iii). Those possibly available (based on their publication date) to Chettle, Day, Dekker, and Haughton are the following:
The Stories of "The Seven Wise Masters"
The Frame: Poncianus, the emperor of Rome, marries a king's daughter with whom he has a son, Dioclesian. When the child is seven, his mother becomes ill. On her deathbed, she begs the emperor to remarry but to protect their son from the new wife's governance and power. As his mourning ends, Poncianus summons seven wise masters to undertake the education of his son: Pantyllas, Lentulus, Craton, Malquydrac, Joseph, Cleophas, and a seventh unnamed. The masters take the boy out of Rome so that his education might be undisturbed. Soon after, Poncianus remarries; when the new wife realizes that she might not conceive an heir, she plots the death of Dioclesian. Her opportunity arrives when the boy, now a young man, returns home from his schooling. She attempts to seduce him but is unsuccessful; however she tells Poncianus that Dioclesian attempted to rape her. Furious, Poncianus orders his son to be taken to the gallows and hanged (in some versions of the story, the son has sworn to the masters that he will be silent in order to avoid an "evil death" that they foresaw when the son was recalled by his father). The wise men succeed in arguing for a trial. The empress, eager to see Dioclesian executed swiftly and the seven masters discredited (if not also executed), tells the emperor a parable about a great tree that was hewed down to allow a lesser plant to flourish, the result of which was that the lesser plant died also. The emperor vows then to have his son executed without a trial, at which point the masters delay the execution with serial story-telling. The resulting structure of "Seven Wise Masters" is a pairing of stories: the masters illustrate the villainy of women (after which the emperor halts the execution), and the empress illustrates the disloyalty of sons (after which the emperor reissues the order for immediate execution).
The story of the first master, Pantyllas:
- A knight had a young son whom he adored, as well as a beloved greyhound and falcon. A lover of tournaments, the knight hosted one that attracted great crowd, including his wife and the baby's nurses, who left the boy in his cradle guarded by the greyhound and the falcon. A serpent, seizing the opportunity, crept out of his hole to attack the child, but the falcon made such a racket that the greyhound awakened and killed the snake, upturning the cradle and bloodying the floor in the fight. Exhausted, he lay down by the child to lick his wounds. The nurses returned from the tournament, saw the cradle and bloodied dog, and told rhe wife (as she returned) that the dog has killed the child. At that moment, the knight returned, and the wife told him what the nurses had said. The dog, hearing his master, came forward to greet him, but the knight in anger struck off his head. Only then does the knight check the cradle, find the child safe, and see the dead snake. Broken-hearted at his error in believing his wife's word, the knight splintered his sword and left for wars in the Holy Land.
The counter-story of the empress:
- An emperor wanted a boar in his forest destroyed, so he offered his daughter's hand in marriage as well as his kingdom to anyone who could kill it. The only taker was a shepherd who saw a chance to advance himself and his family. Armed only with his staff, the shepherd entered the forest, aroused the boar, and scrambled up a tree to avoid being killed. To stop the boar from knocking down the tree, the shepherd dropped fruit from the tree on the boar, who ate so much that he fell asleep. The shepherd then came down from the tree, cut the boar's throat, married the daughter, and took over the kingdom when his father-in-law died.
The story of the second master, Lentulus
- An old man married a young woman who sneaked out at night to see her lover. In this town, anyone caught outside when the morning bell was rung was humiliated publicly by being pilloried. One night the old man awoke, found his wife missing, and locked the door against her. When she returned before dawn to sneak into the house, he cursed her and said she had to stay outside until "the wakers" came. Threatening to drown herself in the nearby well, she instead threw in a great stone, but the old man was fooled and came running out, leaving the door of the house open. The wife now locked him out and left him to the mockery of the town as the wakers put him in prison and then on the pillory.
The counter-story of the empress
- In the time of Octavian, there was a knight who squandered his fortune on hunting and tournaments. He confided his poverty to his son, grieving also that his daughters would be penniless, and the son persuaded him to steal from Octavian's Tower of Gold, over which the knight had charge. Father and son then successfully tunneled into the tower and escaped with a fortune, which the father soon squandered. When the keeper of the tower discovered the theft, he devised a trick to catch the thief: he positioned a vessel of pitch at the hole where the thieves had entered. When the father and son returned for more gold, the father fell in the pitch. Unable to escape and eager to protect his son, the father insisted that his son behead him to conceal his identity. The son complied. Octavian, to find the thieves, ordered that the body be bound to the tail of a horse and dragged through the city; he told his men to arrest anyone who cried out at the sight of the mutilated corpse. The son and daughters were in the crowd, and the daughters shrieked and wept at the sight of their father; the son, however, cut himself in the mouth to deceive the officers into thinking that his wound was the reason the women were crying. He succeeded in this ruse, and the father's body was the only one displayed on the gallows.
The story of the third master, Craton
- A rich man had pie (magpie) that he loved and taught to speak Latin and Hebrew. He also had a young wife who slipped out of the house to meet her lover whenever the husband was away on business. The pie told the master what his wife was doing, and he believed the bird, knowing it could not lie. When the husband was next out of town, the wife brought her lover to the house. She had a plan to prove the pie a liar: she faked a gigantic storm by pelting the bird with stones and water through a hole she had made in the roof above the birdcage. When the husband returned, the pie told him about the visit from his wife's lover as well as the near-deadly storm. However, the husband knew the night to have been calm, so he broke the pie's neck for lying. Only then did he look up and see the hole in the roof and realize the truth. Disconsolate at the rash killing of his beloved bird, the husband exiled himself, leaving everything behind.
The counter-story of the empress
- A Roman emperor had seven wise masters who ruled him so completely that he never challenged their authority. To maintain their power, they bewitched him so that he could see only when he was in the palace but was blind when he went out. This condition lasted many years, and the seven masters enriched themselves by running a dream-interpreter's business at the palace. Finally the emperor became weary of being blind and asked his wife's advice. She told him to challenge the masters to find a remedy. The masters, confounded, went out in the city where they observed a child interpreting a dream about an orchard and its springs. Impressed, the masters asked the child (name: "Merlin") to solve their dilemma with the emperor. He (Merlin) returned with them to the palace and there told the emperor to lead him into the bedchamber where he had the bed stripped to reveal a well with seven springs. Merlin then said that the emperor would remain blind as long as the springs were unquenched; the way to quench the springs was to behead each of the masters. The emperor had the masters beheaded, and his sight was restored.
The story of the fourth master, Malquydrac
- An old childless knight, on the counsel of his friends, took a young wife with whom he was soon besotted even though she was apparently barren. The wife, discontented with her husband's lovemaking, decided she wanted to take a priest to bed and asked her mother how she should proceed. The mother told her to test her husband by a series of offenses—cutting down his favorite tree, slamming his favorite dog against the bedroom wall so that he soiled the rich bedcovers, and disrupting a feast-day meal attended by important guests. The husband forgave her the first and second offenses but not the third. He hired a barber to punish her by letting blood from each of her arms. Chastened, the wife vowed (even to her mother) not to love anyone but her husband.
The counter-story of the empress
- There was an emperor in Rome (Octavian) who loved gold. In the city also, there was a magician (Virgilius) who created a tower that contained an image (figure?) for every province in the country; each figure held a golden ball in one hand and a bell in the other. When there was rebellion in a given province, the bell sounded the alarm. Having finished this marvel, the magician made a light that burned eternally for the poor, as well as two baths for the populace: one hot, for washing; the other cool, for drinking. After some years a clerk, suspecting some treasure under the light, struck it down and it (along with the baths) vanished. Seeking redress, the poor took their grievances to a council, where four knights stepped forward to destroy the tower and its images (as well as get the gold for themselves). Aided by an elaborate ruse that involved drowning the figures, gold, and dreams, the knights undermined the tower and rode away with the gold. When the senators saw how the emperor had been deceived, they punished him by pouring molten gold down his throat. Soon after Rome was invaded and everyone was destroyed.
The story of the fifth master, Joseph
- A physician named Ypocras had a nephew named Galienus who learned the science of physic so well that his uncle became jealous. When the king of Ungary summoned a physician to cure his son, Ypocras sent Galienus, expecting him to fail. Galienus, arriving at the king's palace, checked the child's vitals and asked the queen (in private) to identify the father of the sick boy; she answered, "Who should be the father but my lord the king?" Then, having secured Galienus's promise to keep her secret, the queen confessed that the father was the king of "Burgondyen." Satisfied, Galienus fed the child beef and oxen water, and he was healed. For differing reasons, both the queen and king rewarded Galienus for saving the child. Ypocras, however, was furious and took an opportunity when they were harvesting herbs to stab Galienus to death. Shortly after, Ypocras grew ill but was unable to heal himself. He died, confessing to all that he had murdered Galienus, who, were he alive, could have cured him.
The counter-story of the empress
- A king, with the ambition to attack Rome and claim the bodies of Peter and Paul, was disfigured and thus unable to attract a wife. He asked his servant to find him a woman who would sleep with him for a thousand florins. Desiring the money himself, the servant coerced his wife to attend the king. The next morning, when the servant came to claim the woman, the king would not let her go; confessing his ruse to regain his wife, the servant instead so enraged the king for having "sold" her that the king exiled the servant and kept the wife, whom he indulged in every way. Returning to the plan to attack Rome, the king assembled an army and successfully stole the apostles' bodies. The citizens of Rome appealed to seven wise masters for help. They conceived a ruse in which one of them donned a flamboyent costume (peacocks' tails) and climbed to the highest tower in Rome, waving two bright swords. The attackers read this vision as Jesus come to protect the apostles' bodies, and they retreated; the Romans followed after and killed many of the attackers.
The story of the sixth master, Cleophas
- An emperor of Rome had three favorites among his knights. Another knight (an old man) had a young wife with a beautiful voice and an eye for the main chance. One by one the emperor's favorite knights came to her window, fell in love with her singing, and agreed to pay 100 florins for a night of lovemaking. The old knight (persuaded by his cunning wife that they could get away with taking the money) killed each suitor and stored the bodies in a secret chamber. He then became fearful that the knights would be missed, so his wife persuaded her brother to get rid of Body #1, persuading him that the man had quarreled with her husband and gotten killed in the resulting fight. When the brother returned after having disposed of the body, the wife cried out that the body had arisen, so the brother this time dumped Body #2 in the sea with a great stone. The wife tricked him again with Body #3, which he took to the woods and burned. Returning this time to the city, the brother saw a knight who had come for a tournament; mistaking him for the three-in-one bodies he had destroyed, he killed the knight and his horse, burning both. Not long after, the old knight and his wife quarreled so loudly that they were overheard and taken to court, where the wife blamed everything on her husband, but both were condemned, tied to horses' tails, and dragged to the gallows where they were hanged.
The counter-story of the empress
- A king loved his queen so much that he locked her up in his castle. In a distant country, a knight had a dream of the most beautiful woman imaginable; that same night the queen dreamed of a mysterious knight. The knight, searching the world for his dream-woman, walked by the castle at the very moment the queen was looking out of her tower; they saw one another and knew the vision had come true. They expressed their desire (he sang to her, she floated a letter down to him), and he developed a strategy by which he would be invited to her kingdom. Ingratiating himself with the king, he asked the king to build him an adjacent tower so that he would be readily available to serve. The knight then hired a workman (whom he subsequently killed) to build a secret entrance to the queen's rooms. The two became lovers, and she gave him a ring given her by the king. When the knight was hunting with the king, the king saw the ring and later questioned his wife about it, but the knight had given the ring back. Next the knight invited the king and queen to a banquet at his place to celebrate his supposed beloved (the queen in disguise); nonetheless, the king recognized her voice and manner, so he hastened to the tower where he found the queen (hastily returned from the banquet) who assured him that the tower was fast. Finally, the knight arranged for the king to assist in his wedding to the apparent beloved; the king, ignoring again what he could see, gave the queen away to the knight, even accompanying them to the ship, where he told the bride to be "true and obedient" to her husband. Back at the castle, discovering the queen's empty tower, the king called himself a fool for putting more trust in the knight's word than in his own eyes.
The story of the seventh master (unnamed in the de Worde edition of the story-complex)
- A knight and his fair young wife were playing chess, and she accidentally cut her finger on a knife he was holding. Greatly upset, the knight fainted and shortly died and was buried. The wife refused to leave his burial plot, and her friends built her the protection of a little house at the gravesite. Some time later, a sheriff, bound by law to stay at the gallows of hanged men to prevent their bodies from being stolen or forfeit his own life and fortune, came to the execution site, which was adjacent to the graveyard. The night was cold. The sheriff sought comfort from the fire the widow had built in her little house, and he stayed the night. In the morning, he returned to the gallows and found that indeed the body he was supposed to have watched was gone. Panicked, he asked the widow what he should do. She not only propositioned him (he said "yes") but offered a solution: he should dig up her husband's body as replacement for the stolen gallows-corpse. After the husband was exhumed, the sheriff told the wife that the thief's body had been disfigured: two teeth were missing, so she knock out her husband's corpse's teeth (because the sheriff won't do it); next he said the thief had a head wound and missing ears, so she imitated these wounds on the corpse using the sheriff's sword; finally, he said the thief's "stones" were missing, so she castrated her husband's corpse. Horrified, the sheriff beheaded her.
- Poncianus laments that his son will not defend himself, and the masters promise that he will speak on the morrow. They visit the boy in prison, free him from his promise of silence, dress him in purple and cloth of gold, and escort him to his father (two walk ahead, two walk on either side of him, and three follow behind). The son tells his father that his stepmother attempted to seduce him. He offers to tell a story to prove himself, offering further to abide by his father's sentence when the story is concluded. Poncianus agrees, and Diocletian tells the story of "Alexander and Lodowick."
The story of Dioclesian
- A powerful man sent his precocious son, Alexander, to a master in a faraway country to be educated. After seven years, the father called the son home; the day after his return, the father and the boy listened to a nightingale, and the boy angered his father by interpreting the birdsong, which foretold that the son would become greater than the father. The father cast Alexander into the sea, but he was rescued by sailors who sold him to the king of Egypt. He won the king's favor (with another avian riddle) and was adopted. Grown into manhood and seeking adventure, he traveled to the court of the emperor, leaving in wait the king's daughter, his promised bride.
- At court, Alexander soon ingratiated himself with the emperor. After a time, Lodwyck, the king of France's son, arrived at court and was similarly embraced. Curiously, Alexander and Lodwyck looked so much alike that they seemed twins, except that Alexander was masculine in manner and deeds whereas Lodwyck was feminine and courtly. One evening, the emperor sent a dish to his daughter, Florentyne; he thought he was sending the dish by Alexander but mistakenly he sent Lodwyck, who fell in love immediately with Florentyne (who knew him to be Lodwyck). Alexander wooed Florentyne for Lodwyck by buying her gifts, and she asked for Lodwyck to be sent that night to her bedchamber. The lovers attempted to keep their romance a secret but word got out. Alexander was called home by the death of his father; meanwhile, a stranger knight—Guido—came to court, discerned the secret romance of Florentyne and Lodwyck, and betrayed them to the emperor. Lodwyck protested his innocence, and the emperor decreed a battle between him and Guido. The lovers, knowing only Alexander could defeat Guido, agreed on a switch: Alexander would fight Guido and Lodwyck would go to Egypt, stand in as Alexander in marriage, but not bed the late king's daughter; indeed, he laid a sword between them. Meanwhile, Alexander defeated Guido, beheaded him, and sent the head to Florentyne. The emperor rejoiced and readily permitted Alexander (thinking him Lodwyck) to go home, thus enabling the men to switch places again. Alexander now took his bride to bed. She was still angry about his earlier lack of ardor, however, and poisoned him in collusion with a lover.
- Back in Rome, Lodwyck and Florentyne were wed. Alexander, barely alive and unrecognizable, returned to Rome, identifying himself by a ring he and Lodwyck had exchanged. Doctors were summoned, but their prescription was dire: Lodwyck must slay his two sons (twins) with his own hand and wash Alexander in their blood. Lodwyck cut his sons' throats, applied the blood, and cured Alexander. He tried to conceal these events from Florentyne by re-engineering Alexander's arrival, but she in fact exclaimed that she'd have slain ten sons if necessary to heal Alexander. When they all go into the nursery, they find the boys playing and singing hymns (where their throats were cut, there is a golden thread). They then assemble an army and regain Alexander's kingdom, burning the queen and her lover into powder. Alexander then married Lodwyck's sister. In control now of Egypt, Alexander turned his attention to Egypt and his birth parents. They mistook him for a grand stranger, and when he asked if they had had children, they lie, saying no. Alexander said that he knew better and if they'd tell the truth, he would protect them. And so they confessed, telling the story of the bird song and its consequences (Alexander thrown into the sea). Alexander rejoiced and took them to his kingdom where they lived out their lives in joy and mirth.
The Frame Concluded: Having finished his story, the son asks his father if he understands its message that a son is not a threat to his father; the father understands. The empress is burned and her accomplice quartered, the parts scattered for hounds and birds. When the emperor dies, the son inherits, rules well, and keeps his masters by his side.
References to the Play
Foakes notes (as Greg I does not) that the entry on 1 March 1600 (above) is entirely in Birde's hand (p. 131, n.2); that the signature for the entry of 8 March is Rowley's (p. 131, n.3); and the second entry above for £8 is entirely in Shaa's hand (p. 132, n.3).
Knutson observes that "The Seven Wise Masters" shared the spring repertory in 1600 with the two-part "Fair Constance of Rome," which has not one but two wicked mothers (mothers-in-law, in Constance's case). She notes other Admiral's plays in the genre of tragedy with the stepmother motif: "Ferrex and Porrex" and "The Stepmother's Tragedy" (p. 29). Linking the "Seven Masters" play further with its repertory mates, Knutson notes that the two-part "Constance" as well as yet another lost play, "The Golden Ass and Cupid and Psyche," are serial or co-joined plots, the latter probably also mixed in generic design. Taking a name commonly associated with the prince in the source stories, Knutson calls the young man 'Diocletian.'
Stretter writes that it "seems likely that Alexander and Lodowick’s friendship would have featured in it, given both the popularity of the stand-alone play three years earlier as well as the prominence of the story as the final tale in the prose Seven Wise Masters that probably served as the source text" (p. 342). Stretter thus places the play in the context of the Admiral's 1590s repertory, which featured multiple plays (both extant and lost) celebrating male friendship, their "well-known stories all suggest[ing] a nostalgia for a lost age of 'true' friendship defined by loyalty, sacrifice, and a prioritization of homosocial values" (p. 343). Stretter argues that Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice and Much Ado About Nothing offer "a critique of the kind of triumphalist male friendship that appears in the legends of friends such as Alexander and Lodowick, stories in which the needs of the male friends take priority over wives, children, and sometimes even traditional notions of truth and morality" (p. 332).
For What It's Worth
- How might the dramatists have crafted a stage play from the narrative materials of The Seven Wise Masters? Might they have replicated the structure of "Five Plays in One" (only with seven plays) or cherry-picked a few using the model of "Seven Days of the Week, Parts 1 and 2" and the two parts of "The Seven Deadly Sins"? (Wiggins, Catalogue #1241 suggests the term, "anthology.") The company had already acquired a play featuring the "star" of the story-set, "Alexander and Lodowick," which they had played to significant profit three years earlier (15 performances, Jan-July 1597).
- The Admiral's men bought "Alexander and Lodowick" from Martin Slater in May 1598 (final payment in July 1598). Would they have revived that play to run in tandem with their new "The Seven Wise Masters" in the waning months of their tenure at the Rose in 1600 or in the fall when they opened the Fortune?
Character names in print editions
- • In Gomme's 1885 edition of Wynkyn de Worde's seminal version, the ruler's name is Poncianus and his son is Dyoclesian (1). The masters are named Pantyllas, Lentulus, Craton, Malquydrac, Joseph, and Cleophas (the seventh master is unnamed); the stepmother is called "Empress" (5-6).
- • In a chapbook of The Seven Wise Masters, the seventh master's name is Diocles (The Famous History of the Seven Wise Masters of Rome: containing Many Excellent and Delightful Examples, with their Explanation and Modern Signification .... London [1760?].
Visuals in print editions
- Gomme (iv) calls attention to the German woodcuts in de Worde's edition and cites an essay by W. M. Conway on the "history of the woodcuts of the Lubeck edition of the Seven Wise Masters" (Bibliographer, vol. 2, p, 70).
Theatrical details in print editions
- • Characterization
- Beyond those in the frame story, the only characters with some development belong to the story of "Alexander and Lodowick." There are, however, a number of animals of significance: for example, dogs, birds, a serpent, a boar, and horses.
- • Costumes
- There are numerous sumptuous materials such as cloth of gold for ::wedding apparel and royal robes.
- • Properties
- A sample from the story-set includes trees, towers, large vessels, wells, banquet tables, bedcovers, the bodies of Peter and Paul, money, letters, rings, poisons, corpses, and swords.
Site created and maintained by Roslyn L. Knutson, Professor Emerita, University of Arkansas at Little Rock; updated 30 October 2009; updated 7 July 2020.