Tasso's Melancholy

Anon. (1594)

Historical records

Performance Records

Playlists in Henslowe's diary

F. 9v (Greg I. 18)

ye 11 of aguste 1594 ne…. Res at tassoes mellencoley ………. iijll iiijs
ye 18 of aguste 1594 ………. Res at tassoes mallencoley ………. xxxxvijs

F. 10 (Greg I. 19)

ye 3 of septembȝ 1594 ………. Res at Tasso ………. xxxxvjs
ye 18 of septembȝ 1594 ………. Res at tasso ………. xxvijs vjd
ye 8 of octobȝ 1594 ………. Res at tasso ………. xxvijs

F. 10v (Greg I. 20)

ye 23 of octobȝ 1594 ………. Res at tasso ………. xxiijs
ye 12 of novembȝ 1594 ………. Res at tasso ………. xxvs
ye 3 of desembȝ 1594 ………. Res at tasso ………. vjs

F. 11 (Greg I. 21)

ye 11 of Jenewary 159[4]5 ………. Res at tasso ………. xxs
ye 21 of Jenewary 1595 ………. Res at tasso ………. xxxvjs
ye 15 of febreary 1595 ………. Res at tasso ………. xixs

F. 11v (Greg I. 22)

ye 14 of maye 1595 ………. Res at tasso ………. xxs


Philip Henslowe's papers in the Dulwich College Libary

Greg, Papers (Appx. I, art. 1, p. 117. l. 75)

Under the heading “The Enventary tacken of all the properties for my Lord Admeralles men, the 10 of Marche 1598”:

Item, ... Tasso picter ...

Under the heading “The Enventorey of all the aparell of the Lord Admeralles men, taken the 13 of Marche 1598, as followeth”:

Item, Tasoes robe.

Payments to Playwrights (Henslowe’s Diary)

F. 96 (Greg I.153)

Lent vnto Thomas deckers at the a }
poyntment of the company the 16 of }
Janewary 1601 toward the alterynge of } xxs
tasso the some of ..... }

F. 108 (Greg I.171)

Lent vnto my sone E Alleyn the 3 of novembȝ 1602 }
to geue vnto thomas deckers for mendinge of the } xxxxs
playe of tasso the some of ..... }

F. 108v (Greg I.172)

Lent vnto wm birde the 4 of desembȝ 1602 }
to paye vnto thomas deckers in pt of pay } xxs
ment for tasso the some of ..... }

Theatrical Provenance

Henslowe records performances by the Admiral's Men at the Rose in 1594-5.

The records of payment to Thomas Dekker for revisions in 1602 suggest that a revival by the Admiral's Men at the Fortune was at least planned (Wiggins, Catalogue #963).

Probable Genre(s)

Tragedy (?) (Harbage)
Romance (Wiggins, Catalogue #963)

Possible Narrative and Dramatic Sources or Analogues

The poet Torquato Tasso (who died in 1595, the year after the play premiered) suffered from mental illness, and there are many legends about his behaviour. These include his concealed love for a noblewoman named Leonora, a duel with a man who revealed his secret love, his talking with spirits, his knife attack on a servant he suspected of spying, and his confinement for that crime by Duke Alfonso. In one story, he escapes confinement and travels to his sister's house in Sorrento, disguised as a shepherd; there, he pretends to be a messenger bringing news that he is in danger, but when his sister responds with great anxiety, he reveals his identity. Later, he returns to court but his madness returns and he is chained in a cell of the hospital of St. Anna for seven years, where he continues to write (Brand 18-31, 205-9).

However, most of these legends did not appear in print until 1621, when Giovanni Battista Manso published his Vita di Torquato Tasso (Brand 207). Brand (206) writes that the author of Tasso's Melancholy "could well have had access to several volumes containing letters of Tasso which had appeared; in particular the two volumes of Lettere familiari published by Licino in 1588. But he may have known little more than that Tasso was generally held to have been mad."

There are only a few references to Tasso's madness in English writing before 1594, and none is detailed enough to have served as a source for the play. Lea and Gang (28) note a brief mention of Tasso's madness in John Eliot's Ortho-Epia Gallica (1593):

Torquato Tasso, a fine scholer truly, who is yet living, the last Italian Poet who is of any great fame in our age, but worthie of the first honour; besides that he is a divine Poet, he is also a most eloquent Oratour and Rhetoricyan, as his missive Epistles do shew very well. This Youth fell mad for the love of an Italian lasse descended of a great house, when I was in Italie. (G3v)

They also note Gabriel Harvey's allusion in Pierce's Superogation (1593), which refers to the "surmounting rage of Tasso in his furious angoy [sic]" (D2r)

Wiggins (#963) notes an undated epigram by Sir John Harington that offers a more detailed description of Tasso's activities during his madness:

43 to Itis, alias Ioyner, an vcleanly token, conuayed in cleanly tearmes.
Torquato Tasso, for one little fault,
That did perhaps deserue some small rebuke,
Was by his sharp and most vngratefull Duke,
Shut vp close prisoner in a loathsome vault;
Where wanting Pen and Inke by Princes order,
His wit, that wals of Adamant could pierce,
Found meanes to write his mind in excellent verse:
For want of Pen and Inke, with pisse and ordure.
But thy dull wit damn'd by Appollos crew,
To dungeon of disgrace, though free thy body,
With pen, nay Print, doth publish like a noddy
Base taunts, that turn'd vpon thy selfe, are true.
And wanting salt thy wallowish stile to season,
And being of uncouth tearmes a senslesse coyner,
Thou call'st thy selfe vnproperly, a Ioyner,
Whose verse hath quite disseuer'd rime and reason:
Deseruing for such rayling, and such bodging,
For this, Torquatos Inke, for that, his Lodging. (Harington 201-2)

References to the Play

Wiggins (#963) speculates that Antony Scoloker's Daiphantus, or the Passions of Love (1604), which compares Tasso's madness with that of Hamlet, might incorporate memories of the play:

Now with his fingers, like a Barber snaps,
Playes with the fire-pan, as it were a Lute,
Vnties his shoe-strings, then his lips he laps,
Whistles awhile, and thinkes it is a Flute:
At length, a glasse presents it to his sight,
Where well he acts, fond loue in passions right.
His chin he strokes, sweares beardles men kisse best,
His lips anoynts, sayes Ladyes vse such fashions,
Spets on his Napkin; termes that the Bathing Iest,
Then on the dust, describes the Courtiers passion.
Then humble cal's: though they do still aspire,
"Ladies then fall, when Lords rise by Desire.
Then stradling goes, saies Frenchmen feare no Beares
Vowes he will trauaile, to the Siege of Brest,
Swears Captaines, they doe all against the heare:
Protests Tabacco, is A smoke-dride Iest,
Takes vp his pen, for a Tabacco-pipe;
Thus all besmeard, each lip the other wipe.
His breath, he thinkes the smoke; his tongue a cole,
Then calls for bottell-ale; to quench his thirst:
Runs to his Inke-pot, drinkes, then stops the hole,
And thus growes madder, then he was at first.
Tasso, he finds, by that of Hamlet, thinkes.
Tearmes him a mad-man; than of his Inkhorne drinks.
Calls Players fooles, the foole he iudgeth wisest,
Will learne them Action, out of Chaucers Pander:
Proues of their Poets bawdes euen in the highest,
Then drinkes a health; and sweares it is no slander.
Puts off his cloathes; his shirt he onely weares,
Much like mad-Hamlet; thus as Passion teares. (E4r-v)

Critical commentary


Fleay, BCED states that Dekker was probably the original author (2:302). Greg (II.267 ) insists, however, that the original author is unknowable.

Plot and staging

Based on the references in Eliot, Harington and Scoloker, and on later facts and legends about Tasso's madness (see above), Wiggins (#963) constructs a speculative summary of the play's plot. Tasso falls in love with a high-born lady but is driven to melancholy because she is unattainable. He undresses in public, drinks his own ink, and attacks with a knife a servant whom he suspects of spying on him. He is imprisoned and is denied ink and paper, but continues to write his poems using the filth in the dungeon. He then escapes and, disguised as a shepherd, returns home, but his sister fails to recognize him. He tells her that her brother is dead; when she faints, this proves her love for him, so he reveals his identity. This synopsis implicitly assumes the playwright had prior knowledge of stories that were not published until 1621 (see above).

Gurr (50) assumes that Tasso was played by Edward Alleyn.

Wiggins (#963), following Henslowe's 1598 inventories, lists a robe and a picture among the props used in the play. Greg (II.267 ), questions whether the picture was connected to the play, however, given that there is no evidence of a revival between 1595 and 1602. Wiggins also lists as necessary props (based on his own speculative plot summary) a knife, drinkable ink, a shirt, and a shepherd costume.

Fleay, BCED wonders whether Dekker's 1602 revisions were intended for performance at court during Christmas (2:302).

Madness in theatre

The play is sometimes assumed to have been part of a vogue for stage madness. Neely (41) includes the play among the "intertextual tradition" of plays about madness in the 1590s, along with The Spanish Tragedy, Orlando Furioso, the Ur-Hamlet and Antonio's Revenge. Lee (182-3) writes of the 1602 revival that "the playgoer of Elizabethan London was thus offered during the same theatrical season an opportunity of contrasting in mimetic representation the pathetic melancholia of Tasso with the no less moving melancholy of Shakespeare’s Prince of Denmark."

Tasso and English drama

Some scholars suggest that the play was part of a fashion for Tassovian material in the 1590s. Wiggins (#958), dfiscussing a possible source in Tasso for the lost Galiaso, is presumably referring to Tasso's Melancholy when he notes that "the Admiral's Men had a dramatist who was interested in contemporary Italian literature, and Tasso in particular". Lawrence (8-9) connects the existence ofTasso's Melancholy with the allusions to Tasso in The Four Prentices of London and with the lost play Jerusalem.

Works Cited

  • Brand, C.P. Torquato Tasso: A Study of the Poet and of his Contribution to English Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1965.
  • Gurr, Andrew. Shakespeare’s Opposites: The Admiral’s Company 1594-1625. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009.
  • Harington, Sir John. The Letters and Epigrams of Sir John Harington. Ed. Norman Egbert McClure. Philadelphia: University of Philadelphia Press, 1930.
  • Lawrence, Jason. Tasso's Art and Afterlives: The Gerusalemme Liberata in England. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2017.
  • Lea, Kathleen M. and T.M. Gang, eds. Godfrey of Bulloigne: A Critical Edition of Edward Fairfax's Translation of Tasso's Gerusalemme Liberata Together with Fairfax's Original Poems. Oxford: Clarendon, Press, 1981.
  • Lee, Sidney. "Shakespeare and Tasso's England". Elizabethan and Other Essays. Ed. F.S. Boas. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1928. 169-83.
  • Neely, Carol Thomas, Distracted Subjects: Madness and Gender in Shakespeare and Early Modern Culture. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2004.

Site created and maintained by David Nicol, Dalhousie University. Last updated 21 July, 2018.