Tanner of Denmark, The
Playlists in Philip Henslowe's diary
Fol. 7v (Greg I.14):
ne . . . Rd at the taner of denmarke the  23 of maye 1592
. . . . iijll xiijs vjd
Performed as a new play by Strange’s Men at the Rose on 23 May 1592. Despite the high takings, no further performances are recorded.
History (?) (Harbage), “a craft play” (Knutson, “Playing Companies” 185); “gild or citizen’s play” (Knutson, Repertory 43); foreign history or romance (McInnis 96-101).
Possible Narrative and Dramatic Sources and Analogues
References to the Play
Dollerup suggested that given the Danish context, when a reference is made in Hamlet (Act 5, scene 1) to a tanner’s corpse lasting nine years in the grave before it began to rot, “Shakespeare’s lines refer to this old play [The Tanner of Denmark]” (157). The Arden 3 editors do not engage Dollerup, but Harold Jenkins did note, in his Arden 2 edition, that “[i]t is difficult (as desired by N&Q, CCXXI, 156) to see more than coincidence in a nine-year-old play, The Tanner of Denmark” (5.1.162n). Indeed, it seems that tanners proverbially had thick skins. In Holyday’s Technogamia, for example, Poeta’s skin is described as “inchanted” and “farre tougher than a Tanners” (Act 4, scene 4).
Malone did not venture a guess as to the identity of the tanner or his narrative (p. 292). Collier, who restored the manuscript spelling of "taner," was silent on the character and story of the play, but he did opine on its value as a commercial offering by noting that the play was apparently "a failure" because it was not given subsequent performances despite its substantial receipts of 73s 6d (p. 27). Fleay, BCED made no comment on the play (2.298 #116).
Although there is no reason, beyond the coincidence of the word “tanner”, to conflate these plays, there is a common tendency to assume that Henslowe meant the tanner of Tamworth (from Heywood’s 1 & 2 Edward IV). Thus Ethel Seaton conjectured that “[t]he unknown ‘Tanner of Denmark’ (1592) may be no alien, but a homeborn tanner of Tamworth” (322) and G. K. Hunter entertained an early date of 1592 for Heywood’s plays (instead of their printing date of 1599) on account of “some perceived relation with The Tanner of Denmark” --- though he concedes that he “cannot see anything more than an adventitious connection, and so would prefer to put the play at the later end of the range” (253).
Manley and MacLean explore the possibility that a handwriting error has confused scholars: that Henslowe meant to write the letter 'm', not 'n', and that the play should properly be known as 'the tamer of Denmark', which they propose could be an alternative name for the extant manuscript play, Edmund Ironside (151).
McInnis, noting that John Baret’s An Alvearie (1580) includes a headword entry for ‘tanner’ explaining its proverbial use as applied to ‘those that are of hautie behauiour, and vaunt of their doings, a though they had harrowed hell’, explores the possibility that the 'taner of Denmark' was a 'haughty' Dane. He offers two plausible alternatives:
- (i) that the haughty Dane might be Horwendile, the pirate king and father of Hamlet (and who may be alluded to in Marlowe's reference, ‘[t]he haughty Dane commands the narrow seas’, in Edward II): 'A play about Hamlet’s father would provide Strange’s Men with repertorial competition for the lost ‘Hamlet’ performed by the Admiral’s Men' (c.1587-89) (99);
- (ii) that the haughty Dane might be Colebrand, the proud giant from the Guy of Warwick legend: the Guy of Warwick play printed in 1661 seems to date to the late-16th or early-17th century, and the lost 'Brandimer' play (also Strange's, 1592) potentially featured another giant killed by Guy of Warwick (100-01).
He concludes: 'the ‘taner of denmarke’ may have referred to one who is haughty in behaviour rather than one who tans hides for a living. Either of the options that I explore above, involving sea-faring piracy or giantslaying would accord well with the penchant for spectacle in the Lord Strange’s Men’s repertory' (101).
See also Wiggins, Catalogue #929.
For What It's Worth
In Act 2, scene 1 of Edward Sharpham’s 1607 play, Cupid’s Whirligig, Nan perceives the knight’s heart beating so rapidly that she likens him to “the Denmarke Drummer.” The allusion passes without explanation, which implies it was in currency at the time. Could Henslowe have confused or mistakenly written “tanner” for “drummer”?
Site created and maintained by David McInnis, University of Melbourne; updated, 03 August 2021.