Three Plays in One
Chrystmas, Twelftyde & Shrouetyde and making choyse 5 of plaies Anno Regni Regine Elizabethe: xxvijo 1584
- The Charges of those tymes viz. betwene the laste daie of October 1584. Anno xxvjto Regni Regine Elizabethe and the —— of ffebruary .1584. Annoque Regni Regine Elizabethe predicte xxvijo did rise aswell by meanes of attending making choyse, reforminge and altering of suche plaies Comodies maskes and inventions as ere prepared sett furth and presented before her maiestie at the tymes aforesaid. ...
An Inuention of three playes in one prepared to haue ben shewed before her highnes on Shroue sondaye at night and to haue ben enacted by her maiesties servauntes at Somerset place. But the Quene came not abroad that night. yet was ymployed on the same one howse & a battlement.
The Queen's players, formed in March 1583, began immediately to dominate the performance calendar at court in terms of adult companies. In 1583-4 they gave four performances (plays unnamed); in 1584-5 they gave five. The accounts of the Revels Office, unusually detailed in 1584-5, indicate not only the titles of the plays given through that holiday season but also the date and venue of performance. The Queen's players had Three Plays in One ready for the festivities at Somerset House on Shrove Sunday (21 February), 1585, but the performance was cancelled due to the queen's decision not to make a public appearance.
Moral (Harbage) NB: In making this assignment of genre, Harbage was assuming that Three Plays in One was The Second Part of the Seven Deadly Sins by Richard Tarlton. For the network of arguments on such an identification, see Critical Commentary, below.
Possible Narrative and Dramatic Sources or Analogues
None known; however, much has been conjectured. See Critical Commentary, below.
References to the Play
None known, but a popular conjecture among scholars is that an exchange between Gabriel Harvey and Thomas Nashe refers to the play (or, more literally, its putative ur-version, The Seven Deadly Sins). For the argumentative network that created the identification of Three Plays in One with Richard Tarlton and The Seven Deadly Sins, see Critical Commentary, below.
In the third of four letters (1592), Harvey exhausts his abuse of Robert Greene long enough to turn on Nashe, whom he styles Greene's "sworn brother," and to identify Nashe by way of his proxy character, Pierce Penniless. Thinking of Nashe's moralistic caricatures in Pierce Penniless His Supplication to the Devil, Harvey declares it "botched-vp ... according to the stile, and tenour of Tarletons president, his famous play of the seaven Deadly sinnes: which most-dealy, but most liuely playe, I might haue seen in London ..." (EEBO, 29).
The lengthy riposte by Nashe in Strange Newes, Of the intercepting certain Letters ... (1592) is excerpted here: "Hang thee, hang thee, thou common coosener of curteous readers, thou grosse shifter for shitten tapsterly iests, haue I imitated Tarltons play of the seauen deadly sinnes in my plot of Pierce Peniless? ... was sinne so vtterly abolished with Tarltons play of the seuen deadly sins, that ther could be nothing said supra of that argument? ... Is there any further distribution of sins, not shadowed vnder these 7. large spreading branches of iniquity, on which a man may worke, and not tread on Tarletons | heeles? If not, what blemish is it to Pierce Pennilesse to begin where the Stage doth ends, to build vertue a Church on that foundation that the Deuill built his Chappell?" (McKerrow, I, 304-5)
Fleay is credited with connecting the various Three/Four/Five Plays in One to Tarlton's The Seven Deadly Sins. In A Chronicle History of the London Stage, he focused on the Plot of The Second Part of the Seven Deadly Sins and and the entry of Four Plays in One in Henslowe's playlists for Lord Strange's players (6 March 1592) and reasoned as follows:
As the only play in the Lord Strange's list in Henslow which can be identified with this one [i.e., the plot of the second part of The Seven Deadly Sins] is that of the Four Plays in One, which name suits it admirably (there are three sin plays and an induction in the plot), and as this identification so perfectly agrees with the names of the plays acted at Court under Tarleton himself by the Queen's men in 1585, viz., Five Plays in One for the first part (four sin plays and induction), and Three Plays in One (the three other sin plays), I venture to assume 1592, March 6, as the exact date for this performance [i.e., the performance to which the Plot of The Second Part of the Seven Deadly Sins pertains] (83).
Greg accepted completely Fleay's connection of the Three/Four/Five Plays in One with Tarlton, The Seven Deadly Sins, and the Plot. He expressed this opinion in his edition of the diary (II, Item 13, p. 153); and he laid the arguments out more fully in Dramatic Documents from the Elizabethan Playhouse (109-13). He raised a valuable question about how Strange's players would have gotten Tarlton's play from the Queen's men but answered himself by citing a few other Queen's plays he believed they had acquired (Friar Bacon, Orlando Furioso). He then challenged the connection of Strange's Four Plays in One with the Plot (with an assist from Chambers's Elizabethan Stage, II.125, 307). His arguments concern the need to date the Plot before 1592 because of the supposed quarrel between the Alleyns and Burbages, a thread that is not directly relevant to the Queen's court play, Five Plays in One, but does illustrate how tricky it is to fit all these pieces into a satisfactory argument. Greg finally decided that the Queen's Five Plays in One is not the same as the play represented by the Plot, but he retained the identification with Three Plays in One:
Surely then it is evident that we have in the Plot nothing but what it purports to be, namely the Second Part of The Seven Deadly Sins, that is presumably the original Three Plays in One. It would hardly have occurred to any one to question this had it not been for the red herring of the Four Plays in One that Fleay drew across the trail (112).
McMillin dissects Fleay's argument as well as Greg's. First, he challenges Fleay's attribution of Five Plays in One and Three Plays in One to Tarlton, then he challenges the math:
Fleay's basic postulate was that Tarlton's play on the Seven Deadly Sins, mentioned by Harvey and Nashe, lies behind the titles "Five Plays in One" and "Three Plays in One" listed for the Queen's men on the Court schedule for 1585. There is nothing to indicate that the Court plays were about the Deadly Sins or were written by Tarlton. There is nothing to indicate that Tarlton wrote a two-part play or that he wrote anything Called "Three Plays in One" or "Five Plays in One." There is only the arithmetical ingenuity of getting Five Plays and Three Plays to equal Seven Deadly Sins. This Fleay accomplished by imagining that Tarlton's supposed two-part play had an induction of some length, which joined to seven playlets about the sins would make eight units in all, divided into five and three for the Court performances (58-59).
Pressing Fleay's claims further, McMillin points out that Fleay used the Plot of The Second Part of the Seven Deadly Sins as a precedent for the induction which makes "Five Plays in One" when subtracted from the Plot and its three playlets and reassigned to the other four playlets. McMillin then turns to Greg. He gives Greg credit for noticing that the Induction in the Plot of The Second Part of the Seven Deadly Sins "is fully integrated with the playlets that follow" (60). He notes that "Greg was in position to doubt Fleay's entire hypothesis" but he did not; he "preserved the connection between the Plot and the Five-plus-Three court performances of 1585, which happens to depend on the same mistake about the induction" (60). Greg did so, in McMillin's opinion, because of "the economy of storytelling" by which he was able to connect "the greatest names of the Elizabethan theater—Tarlton, Alleyn, Burbage, Shakespeare's fellow actors—into one story" (60).
MacMillin and MacLean call the identification of Three Plays in One with Tarlton's Seven Deadly Sins "not secure" (49). They specifically warn that Three Plays in One is "[n]ot to be confused with the extant plot of 2 Seven Deadly Sins" (92).
For What It's Worth
For slightly variant treatments of the arguments surrounding Three Plays in One, see also entries for Five Plays in One, The Seven Deadly Sins, the Plot of The Second Part of the Seven Deadly Sins, and Strange's Four Plays in One. There is another lost play called Five Plays in One in the repertory of the Admiral's players in April 1597, but it seems not to have been absorbed into the scholarly conversation about the plays of the Queen's men (perhaps because it is marked with Henslowe's enigmatic "ne").
Whatever the narratives of Three Plays in One, the accounts of the Revels Office reveal that one house and a battlement were part of the scenery.
Site created and maintained by Roslyn L. Knutson, Professor Emerita; updated 26 March 2012.