Gorboduc represents an extraordinary series of ‘firsts’ in early modern drama:
‘It remains the first recorded play in blank verse, the first recorded play to use dumb shows, one of the earliest English tragedies, one of the earliest adaptations of Senecan drama, the first adaptation of the material used by authors of the Mirror for Magistrates (1559) in dramatic form, and the first play in a series of plays sparked by succession questions of the period’ (Winston, Lawyers at Play (2016), p. 187).
It confronted the most pressing political taboo of its day, the succession question, through the relatively safe medium of dramatic allegory, and pressed obliquely for the involvement of parliament and the Inns of Court in state decisions.
Drawing on Geoffrey of Monmouth’s legendary history of ancient Britain, Historia Regum Britanniae (c. 1136), the play dramatised the violent results of a divided kingdom and an uncertain succession.
King Gorboduc has decided he’d like to retire, and pass on his regal responsibility to his sons. He thinks that splitting the kingdom of Britain across the middle, giving the southern part to his elder son Ferrex, and the northern to the younger, Porrex, is a good idea, but gathers some counsellors to advise him. Arostus, Philander and Eubulus all have different takes on the problem, and suggest that division could be catastrophic for the kingdom, but eventually Gorboduc decides to go with his original plan, and divides his land anyway.
Ensconced in their separate courts, the newly ennobled Ferrex and Porrex receive bad advice of their own. Ferrex is convinced that, as first born, he should inherit the entire kingdom, not just a paltry half, while Porrex’s paranoia is stoked – what if his brother’s jealousy and ambition drive him to murder? Porrex decides that he’d better act first.
News reaches Gorboduc and the queen Videna that their younger son has murdered the elder. Gorboduc confronts Porrex, who explains his reasons, but later meets his own death offstage when Videna kills him to avenge Ferrex. In response, the people of the kingdom rise up and kill Gorboduc and Videna, leaving themselves vulnerable to the competing claims of foreign rulers. A bloody and destructive civil war follows. Eubulus concludes the play by suggesting that God will ultimately restore peace, in the form of a lawful successor to the crown who, more importantly, would be able back up the authority of parliamentary rule (parliament, too, could have averted this disaster by appointing an heir, he argues). ‘But now, O happy man whom speedy death| Deprives of life, ne is enforced to see| These hugy mischiefs and these miseries’.
The play was first performed as part of the Inner Temple’s Christmas Revels of 1561-2, in front of members of the Inns, the court and Privy Council, and Robert Dudley, dubbed Lord of Misrule for the festivities. It was acted again on 18 January, 1562, for Elizabeth I at Whitehall.
The first edition of the play was printed in 1565, supposedly without the authors’ knowledge or consent. An ‘official’ version was produced in 1570, which claimed to be of far superior quality, although the differences are fairly minor. The play was printed again in 1590, alongside John Lydgate’s Serpent of Division, a prose account of the assassination of Julius Caesar and the Roman civil war.