A Most Lamentable Comedy: Gorboduc as Christmas Entertainment

by Harriet Archer

Incredulous early modernists regularly round on Paul and me at conferences, insisting that Gorboduc is THE MOST BORING PLAY IN THE WORLD, or sentiments in that vein. As a seasoned scholar of the Mirror for Magistrates, I have rueful apologia down quite well by now. But, as with the Mirror, to dismiss Gorboduc as boring is to demonstrate not only insensitivity to the text itself (as we hope to show over a series of posts), but willful myopia about the circumstances of its original production. As Jessica Winston reminds us in Lawyers at Play (OUP, 2016, pp. 173-92), the work was conceived as the climax of the Inner Temple’s 1561-2 Christmas Revels. The climax to the riotous week of banqueting and entertainment between Christmas and the New Year celebrations, which saw Robert Dudley crowned Lord of Misrule on December 27, and which was accompanied by cannon fire, mock knightings (although as far as I know Princess Beatrice and James Blunt were not involved), and as much Bakhtinian carnivale as the young lawyers’ livers could handle. So, this seasonal edition of the Gorboduc Project Blog seeks to read the play as Inns entertainment. Could it even have comedic potential, beyond the inadvertent humour which plagues the Mechanicals’ ‘Most Lamentable Comedy’, Pyramus and Thisbe?

Robert Dudley, earl of Leicester, c. 1560. Attrib. Steven van der Meulen (fl. 1543-68).

Winston describes the circumstances of the Christmas Revels as follows:

They ‘involved electing a prince or lord of misrule as well as a retinue of attendants and officers – for instance, a lord chancellor, chief baron of the exchequer, and chief butler – to preside over their realms or provinces during the festival period’.

A ‘set of events surround[ed] the prince himself: banqueting, the reception of ambassadors from so-called foreign lands (members of the other inns), the creation of members as knights of the prince, visits to the court, progresses along the Thames, and the production of a play’.

‘The revels offered an opportunity for self-fashioning…They contributed to the festive character of the Christmas celebrations, since the exaggerated parody of the national court lent an air of outlandish humour to the events’. (Lawyers at Play, p. 177)

Relocating court parody at the heart of the celebrations allows us to begin to leaven Gorboduc’s stolid reputation. Winston notes that,

‘Sackville and Norton likely adapted this history expressly for the occasion. The story responds in a variety of ways to the particular circumstances of the festivities. First, the tale about the division of the empire reflects the events that led up to the revels, the dispute between the Middle and Inner Temples over the property of Lyons Inn. Second, it encapsulates the psychic and rhetorical logic of the revels, turning a local place and event into a kingdom and incident on a national and dynastic scale’. (Lawyers at Play, p. 179)

This play with scale extends to the plot itself, as Ferrex and Porrex themselves set up individual microcosmic courts, while the advice they are offered by their own corrupt counsellors offers an extreme version of the counsel Gorboduc himself receives.

I can’t promise any rolling in the aisles (unless the regulation butt of sack has already been consumed). Most of Gorboduc’s entertainment value emerges from contextual attitudes we might even prefer not to reconstruct – institutional misogyny is a glaring example. The clause in the 1570 printer’s preface, which decries the printer of the ‘unofficial’ 1565 edition for ‘getting a copy…at some young man’s hand that lacked a little money and much discretion’, sets the tone for the experience of reading Gorboduc for fun – gentle isn’t the word. As an audience member, seated on hall benches or temporary scaffolding, with the frisson of broken political taboos set against the demob atmosphere of the winter break, the tone must have been very different, again in ways we might find it hard to piece together. But bear with me, and with any luck the frog will still be alive at the end.

There is some structural slapstick to be eked out of the plot’s basic framework: the tit for tat murders of Ferrex and Porrex are comic in their pat reciprocity and, to be honest, their absurd futility. Yes, revenge tragedies can be played for laughs, and yes, there can be humour as well as pathos in the final on-stage body count (perhaps not in 2016, but it has been done and you’d need a heart of stone not to admit it). The Mirror, a central model for Gorboduc and the wider culture of the Inns, as Winston has shown, derives extensive macabre enjoyment from the misappropriation of body parts, and Latin puns on outlandish causes of death. However, this doesn’t apply in Gorboduc, whose conclusion is too viscerally destabilizing not to quash any residual amusement. It might work at a distance, but this kind of comedy is absent from the actual experience of the play – except perhaps in the series of introductory dumb shows, in which the literal slapping of sticks to represent the play’s moral could easily take on an air of the ridiculous.

Instead, the wry delivery of precisely those elements of the play which earn its accusations of tediousness – verbosity, repetition, grandiloquence – render its topical history knowing and satirical rather than stultifying. Composed by, and performed by and in front of, students of rhetoric, the laborious laying out of logical cases which takes place might well mirror not the right conduct of parliamentary debate, but the more familiar practise of these skills at Inns moots. The success of bad counsel and the failure of good, while of nail-biting concern for the national interest, must also have resonated with the audience’s own more parochial successes and failures in their studies, played out in costume by their peers. King Gorboduc’s proto-Pandaemonian counsel scene, in which his advisors Arostus, Eubulus and Philander set out at length their contrasting recommendations, shudders to a halt after some 300 lines when Gorboduc rejects their advice and announces that ‘In one self purpose do I still abide’, an anti-climactic moment built up to such a degree that its bathos would surely elicit groans. Meanwhile, the three parallel scenes of counsel provoke so much fist-chewing dramatic irony – the original ‘he’s behind you’ trope – that the cuts from one to another accumulate despair to an absurd degree. Before the situation descends into murderous chaos, the transparent machinations of Ferrex and Porrex’s advisors, Hermon and Tyndar, evoke the pantomime villainy of medieval vices, and they present their evidence with laughable dissimulation: Tyndar claims that he brings ‘Letters from those that both can truly tell| And would not write unless they knew it well’. Dramatic irony, and familiarity with the monumental unfolding of Galfridian dynastic history, also makes for grim humour in the delivery of lines like Gorboduc’s ‘Jove slay them both and end the cursed line!’ and Ferrex’s earnest, erudite, and largely disingenuous outpouring,

The wreakful gods pour on my cursed head

Eternal plagues and never-dying woes,

The hellish prince adjudge my damned ghost

To Tantale’s thirst, or proud Ixion’s wheel,

Or cruel gripe to gnaw my growing heart,

To during torments and unquenched flames,

If ever I conceived so foul a thought,

To wish his end of life or yet of reign.

(He subsequently orders the preparation of an army to deal with Porrex, just in case.)

The classical ‘messenger speech’ scene, in which Inns-men would, of course, be well-versed, is undercut in the play by its delivery by Marcella, a shrill maidservant who describes how Porrex was murdered by his mother Videna to avenge his murder of his brother Ferrex, but then won’t stop. The classism and sexism which might make Marcella a figure of fun could limit the scene’s appeal for modern audiences, but it is possible to see the exchange as a joke at Arostus, and, by extension, classical humanism’s expense, when Arostus tries to sum up Marcella’s report with the aphoristic ‘Never did age bring forth so vile a fact’, before Marcella starts up again with ‘O hard and cruel hap’, ‘O queen of adamant’, etc. Arostus attempts to silence her, stating ‘Madam, alas, in vain these plaints are shed;| Rather with me depart’, but it takes eight further lines before Marcella will leave the stage – at the end of such an elaborate and lengthy passage, her ‘let us go’ in her penultimate line has the ironic ring of Guiderius’s ‘let me end the story’ during Cymbeline’s outrageous narrative denouement. Performed at an occasion orchestrated to mock the authority of institutions to whom the lawyers in training would usually defer, here a set piece scene straight off the Senecan stage is skewered by a labouring-class woman’s interjections. Further anticipating Cymbeline’s reflexive mockery of expository excess, Gorboduc’s Clotyn commends a 90-line speech by Eubulus on the grounds that it ‘Hath well abridged the tale I would have told’. Later, Eubulus reflects damningly on the success of political counsel, but also perhaps archly on the Inner Temple’s students’ scholarly aptitude, when he laments that

though so many books, so many rolls

Of ancient time, record what grievous plagues

Light on these rebels aye, and though so oft

Their ears have heard their aged fathers tell

What just reward these traitors still receive,

their warnings are ignored.


(This passage also alludes to the subtitle of the Mirror for Magistrates (1553), ‘wherein may be seen by example of other, with howe greuous plages vices are punsihed’ – only one book so far, in 1561, but nevertheless something of an exemplary bludgeoning, with which we know Gorboduc’s authors and audiences were familiar.)

To be clear, I don’t think that the play’s original audiences would have found its subject matter – the failure of political counsel, and ultimately civil war – remotely funny, nor would I argue that that was anything close to Norton and Sackville’s intention. But the play’s status as festive entertainment was hardly incidental to its topical impact. The performance exploited the hierarchical instability instigated by the context of the Christmas Revels to transform Inner Temple scholars into political counsellors. We are missing something if we read the play with our minds closed to the possibility of comedy as part of the disruptive medium for its bleak message.

George A. Boulender, 1889 (Linnaeus, 1758),

Best wishes for your own festive wassails from all at the Gorboduc Project.

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