Dude Playwrights, Playwrights of the Past, Unknown playwrights

Thomas Sackville & Thomas Norton

This week’s post brings us back to Tudor tragedy and the seminal Gorboduc. One of the earliest English revenge tragedies, it shows its influence from Senecan tragedies. It also has a reputation for being as tediously boring as an ASVAB test.

Let’s see if that bore fruit. Har.


Gorboduc’s plot is listed pretty thoroughly at the onset on the original printing:

Gorboduc, king of Britain, divided his Realm in his lifetime to his Sons, Ferrex and Porrex. The Sons fell to division and dissention. The younger killed the elder. The Mother that more dearly loved the elder, for revenge killed the younger. The people moved with the Cruelty of the fact, rose in Rebellion and slew both father and mother. The Nobility assembled and most terribly destroyed the Rebels. And afterwards for want of Issue of the Prince whereby the Succession of the Crown became uncertain. They fell to Civil war in which both they and many of their Issues were slain, and the Land for a long time almost desolate and miserably wasted.

I can imagine modern theatre companies rejecting this because it either isn’t an entire page or a one sentence tagline. And it doesn’t speak to the company’s mission at all. Unless your compny is England and the mission is to land a man on Queen Liz (more on this later).

How Gorboduc can make you a better parent:

  1. Don’t divide your kingdom between your loser sons Ferrex and Porrex.
  2. Also, don’t name your children after metals.
  3. If your advisors say “don’t divide your kingdom because when it happened before everyone died” you should pay attention.
  4. If Ferrex hangs out with a parasitical spank-shaft named Hermon, you should stop all that.
  5. Ferrex will die.
  6. Your wife Videna will be so pissed off about this she’ll murder Porrex. You should maybe stop this.
  7. The British people will rise up kill you and her. You might want to be in another country at the time. 

After you’re dead, you don’t need parenting advice.

Why Gorboduc is important:

  1. It is the first English blank verse play. The iambic pentameter here doesn’t give up.


    Murders, mischief, or civil sword at length,

    Or mutual treason, or a just revenge,

    When right-succeeding line returns again

    See? 10 syllables to each line. Stressed-unstressed. The whole dang play is like this.

    English blank verse was started by Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey. He translated the Aeneid in iambic pentameter.

    Blank verse would see its heyday with the likes of Shakespeare, Jonson, Marlowe and Ford. You can see how it was kind of a deal. It was used in a popular play as recently as 2014.

    2. It is the first English history play.

    Gorboduc seems to be written in imitation of Senecan drama.  All the action is described by characters and not shown. I guess Tudor audiences had enough action in their lives.

    The play is pretty much a series of speeches, but hey, ya gotta start someplace.

    3. It probably influenced King Lear a bunch. King dividing the realm. Greedy kids. Did you know King Lear got turned into a Western once with the Star Trek guy, the Jaws guy and the wonderful Marcia Gay Harden?

    Let’s take a look at the dialogue speeches that make up Gorboduc. The text comes from this site.

    From Act I:


    40    Madam leave care and careful plaint for me;

    Just hath my Father been to every wight,

    His first injustice he will not extend

    To me I trust, that give no cause thereof,

    My brother’s pride shall hurt himself, not me.


    There resteth all, but if they fail thereof,

    55    And if the end bring forth an evil success

    On them and theirs the mischief shall befall,

    And so I pray the Gods requite it them,

    And so they will, for so is wont to be

    When Lords and trusted Rulers under kings

    60    To please the present fancy of the Prince,

    With wrong transpose the course of governance

    Murders, mischief, or civil sword at length,

    Or mutual treason, or a just revenge,

    When right succeeding Line returns again

    65    By Jove’s just Judgment and deserved wrath

    Brings them to civil and reproachful death,

    And roots their names and kindred’s from the earth.


    Mother content you, you shall see the end.


    The end? thy end I fear, Jove end me first.

    Seems Videna is rather fatalistic. Remember that speechiness? 

    Here’s Arostus in Act I, Scene 2:


    And this is much, and asketh great advice,

    But for my part my Sovereign Lord and king

    This do I think your Majesty doth know,

    80    How under your Justice and in peace,

    Great wealth and Honour, long we have enjoyed

    So as we cannot seem with greedy minds

    To wish for change of Prince and governance,

    But if ye like your purpose and device,

    85    Our liking must be deemed to proceed,

    Of rightful reason, and of heedful care,

    Not for ourselves, but for our common state:

    Sith our own state doth need no better change

    I think in all as erst your Grace has said:

    90    First when you shall unload your aged mind,

    Of heavy care and troubles manifold,

    And lay the same upon my Lords your sons

    Whose growing years may bear the burden long

    And long I pray the Gods grant it so:

    95    And in your life while you shall so behold

    Their rule, their virtues and their noble deeds,

    Such as their kind behighteth[46] to us all,

    Great be the profits that shall grow thereof,

    Your age in quiet shall the longer last

    100  Your lasting age shall be their longer stay,

    For cares of kings, that rule as you have ruled

    For public wealth and not for private joy,

    Do waste man’s life and hasten crooked age,

    With furrowed face and with enfeebled limbs,

    105  To draw on creeping Death a swifter pace.

    They two yet young shall bear the party reign

    With greater ease, than one now old alone

    Can wield the whole, for whom much harder is

    With lessened strength and double weight to bear

    110  Your eye, your Council, and the grave regard

    Of Fathers, yea of such as father’s name,

    Now at beginning of their sundered reign,

    When it is hazard of their whole success

    Shall bridle so their force of youthful heats,

    115  And so restrain the rage of insolence,

    Which most assails the young and noble minds,

    And so shall guide and train in tempered stay

    Their yet green bending wits with reverent awe.

    As now inured with virtues at the first.

    120  Custom, O king, shall bring delightfulness

    By use of Virtue, Vice shall grow in hate,

    But if you so dispose it, that the day

    Which ends your life shall first begin their reign,

    Great is the peril, what will be the end,

    125  When such beginning of such liberties

    Void of such stays as in your life do lie,

    Shall leave them free to randon of their will.

    An open prey to traitorous flattery,

    The greatest pestilence of noble youth:

    130  Which peril shall be past, if in your life,

    Their tempered youth with aged father’s awe

    Be brought in ure of skillful staidness.

    And in your life, their lives disposed so,

    Shall lengthen your noble life in joyfulness.

    135  Thus think I ý your grace hath wisely thought

    And that your tender care of common weal,

    Hath bred this thought, so to divide your Land

    And plant your sons to bear the present rule

    While you yet live to see their ruling well,

    140  That you may longer live by joy therein.

    What further means behooveful are and meet

    At greater leisure may your Grace devise

    When see have said, and when we be agreed

    If this be best, to part the realm in twain,

    145  And place your sons in present government;

    Whereof, as I have plainly said my mind,

    So would I hear the rest of all my Lords.

    I wish the covers on all my scripts looked this badass. I did write a play with pictures of hotdogs once.

    So Philander starts a speech-measuring contest. 


    In part I think as hath been said before,

    In part again my mind is otherwise.

    150  As for dividing of this Realm in twain

    And lotting out the same in egal parts,

    To either of my Lords, your Grace’s sons,

    That think I best for this your Realm’s behoof,

    For profit and advancement of your sons,

    155  And for your comfort and your honour eke:

    But so to place them while your life do last,

    To yield to them your Royal governance,

    To be above them only in the name

    Of father, not in kingly state also,

    160  I think not good for you, for them, nor us.

    This kingdom since the bloody civil field

    Where Morgan[55] slain did yield his conquered part

    Unto his Cousin’s sword in Camberland

    Containeth all that whilom[56] did suffice,

    165  Three noble sons of your forefather Brute;

    So your two sons, it may also suffice,

    The moe[58] the stronger, if they agree in one:

    The smaller compass that the realm doth hold

    The easier is the sway thereof to weld,

    170  The nearer Justice to the wronged poor,

    The smaller charge, and yet enough for one.

    And when the Region is divided so

    That Brethren be the Lords of either part,

    Such strength doth nature knit between the both,

    175  In sundry bodies by conjoined love

    That not as two, but one of doubled force,

    Each is to other as a sure defense,

    The Nobleness and glory of the one

    Doth sharp the courage of the other’s mind

    180  With virtuous envy to contend for praise,

    And such an egalness hath nature made,

    Between the Brethren of one Father’s seed,

    As an unkind wrong it seems to be,

    To throw the other Subject under feet

    185  Of him, whose Peer he is by course of kind,

    And nature that did make this egalness,

    Oft so repineth at so great a wrong,

    That oft she raiseth by a grudging grief,

    In younger Brethren at the elder’s state:

    190  Whereby both towns and kingdoms have been razed

    And famous stocks of Royal blood destroyed:

    The Brother that should be the Brother’s aid

    And have a wakeful care for his defense,

    Gapes for his death, and blames the lingering years

    195  That brings not forth his end with faster course

    And oft impatient of so long delays,

    With hateful slaughter he prevents the fates

    And heaps a just reward for Brother’s blood,

    With endless vengeance on his stock for aye:

    200  Such mischiefs here are wisely met withall:

    If egal state may nourish egal love,

    Where none has cause to grudge the other’s good,

    But now the head to stoop beneath them both,

    Ne[61] kind, ne reason, ne good order bears.

    205  And oft it hath been seen, that where Nature

    Hath been perverted in disordered wise

    When Fathers cease to know that they should rule

    And Children cease to know they should obey,

    And often our unkindly tenderness,

    210  Is Mother of unkindly Stubbornness:

    I speak not this in envy or reproach,

    As if I grudged the glory of your sons,

    Whose honour I beseech the Gods to increase:

    Nor yet as if I thought there did remain,

    215  So filthy Cankers in their noble breasts,

    Whom I esteem (which is their greatest praise)

    Undoubted children of so good a king.

    Only I mean to show my certain Rules,

    Which kind hath graft within the mind of man

    220  That Nature hath her order and her course,

    Which (being broken) both corrupt the state

    Of minds and things even in the best of all.

    My Lords, your sons, may learn to rule of you

    Your own example in your noble Court

    225  Is fittest guider of their youthful years,

    If you desire to seek some present Joy

    By sight of their well ruling in your life,

    See them obey, so shall you see them rule,

    Who so obeyeth not with humbleness

    230  Will rule with outrage and insolence

    Long may they rule I do beseech the Gods,

    But long may they learn ere[63] they begin to rule.

    If kind and fates would suffer, I would wish

    Them aged Princes and immortal kings:

    235  Wherefore, most noble king, I well assent,

    Between your sons ý you divide your Realm.

    And as in kind, so match them in degree

    But while the Gods prolong your Royal life

    Prolong your reign, for thereto live you here,

    240  And therefore have the Gods so long forborne

    To join you to themselves, that still you might

    Be Prince and father of our common weal:

    They, when they see your children ripe to rule,

    Will make them room, and will remove you hence,

    245  That yours in right ensuing of your life

    May rightly honour your mortal name.

    BTW, “ý” = that 

    Scenes get are cushioned with “dumb shows”

    The Order and signification of
    the dumb show before the second Act.

    First, the Music of Cornets began to play, during which came in upon the Stage a king accompanied with a number of his Nobility and Gentlemen. And after he had placed himself in a Chair of estate prepared for him: there came and kneeled before him a grave and aged Gentleman and offered up a Cup unto him of Wine in a glass, which the king refused. After him comes a brave and lusty young Gentleman and presents the king with a Cup of Gold filled with potion, which the king accepted, and drinking the same, immediately fell down dead upon ý stage, and so was carried thence away by his Lords and Gentlemen, and then the Musick ceased. Hereby was signified, that as Glass by nature holdeth no poison, but is clear and may easily be seen through, ne boweth by any Art: So a faithful Counsellor holdeth no treason, but is plain and open, ne yieldeth to any undiscreet affection, but giveth wholesome Counsel, which the ill-advised Prince refuseth. The delightful gold filled with poison betokeneth Flattery, which under fair seeming of pleasant words beareth deadly poison, which destroyeth the prince ý receiveth it. As befell in the two brethren Ferrex and Porrex who, refusing the wholesome advise of grave Court fellows, credited these young Parasites and brought to themselves death and destruction thereby.

    [more on the dumb shows later] 

    Gorboduc rightly freaks out when his whole “let’s divide my kingdom amongst my sons” plan doesn’t work out too well. 


    1      O Cruel fates, O mindful wrath of Gods

    Whose vengeance neither Simois’ strained streams

            Flowing with blood of Trojan Princes slain

            Nor Phrygian fields made rank with Corpses dead

    5      Of Asian kings and Lords can yet appease,

    Ne Slaughter of unhappy Priam’s race

    Nor Ilion’s fall made level with the soil,

    Can yet suffice: but still continued rage,

    Pursue our lives, and from the farthest Seas

    10    Doth chase the issues of destroyed Troy:

    Oh no man happy, till his end be seen

    If any flowing wealth and seeming joy

    In present years might make a happy wight,

    Happy was Hecuba the woefullest wretch

    15    That ever lived to make a Mirror of

    And happy Priam with his noble sons

    And happy I till now, alas I see

    And feel my most unhappy wretchedness:

    Behold my lords, read you this letter here

    20    Lo! It contains the ruin of our Realm

    The poetry gets so much more vivid, bloody and better in the later acts. 

    Act IV, Scene 1. Videna gets all vengeful. 



    15    So had my bones possessed now in peace

    Their happy grave within the closed ground

    And greedy worms had gnawed this pined heart

            Without my feeling pain. So should not now

    This living breast remain the ruthful tomb

    20    Wherein my heart yielded to death is graved:

    Nor dreary thoughts with pangs of pining grief

    My doleful mind had not afflicted thus,

    O my beloved son: O my sweet child,

    40    Thy cruel tyrant’s thought but death and blood

            Wild savage beasts mought not (your) slaughter serve

            To feed thy greedy will, and in the midst

            Of their entrails to stain thy deadly hands

            With blood deserved, and drink thereof thy fill?

    45    Or if nought else but death and blood of man

            Mought please thy lust, could none in Britain land

            Whose heart he torn out of his loving breast

            With thine own hand, or work what death thou wouldest

            Suffice to make a Sacrifice pease

    50    That deadly mind and murderous thought in thee?

    But he who in the self-same womb was wrapped

    Where thou in dismal hour received life?

    Or if needs, needs this hand must slaughter make

    Moughtest thou not have reached a mortal wound

    55    And with thy sword have pierced this cursed womb?

    That thee accursed Porrex brought to light

    And given me a just reward therefore.

    So Ferrex, yet sweet life might have enjoyed

    And to his aged father comfort brought,

    60    With some young son in whom they both might live

    But whereunto waste I this ruthful speech

    To thee that hast thy brother’s blood thus shed

    Shall I still think that from this womb thou sprung

    That I thee bear or take thee for my son

    65    No traitor, no; I thee refuse for mine,

    Murderer I thee renounce, thou are not mine:

    Never, O wretch, this womb conceived thee,

    Nor never bode I painful throes for thee:

    Changeling to me thou art, and not my child

    70    Nor to no wight, that spark of pity knew,

    Ruthless, unkind, Monster of Nature’s work.

            Thou never sucked the milk of woman’s breast

            But from thy birth the cruel Tiger’s teats

            Have nursed, nor yet of flesh and blood

    “greedy worms had gnawed this pined heart”

    Good Lord. Note the old use of “ruthfull,” which we have lost, but still use “ruthless.”


    “Changeling to me thou art, and not my child

    70    Nor to no wight, that spark of pity knew,

            Ruthless, unkind, Monster of Nature’s work.”

Wight = person. She really doesn’t like her son. Probably because he killed her other son. 

Act IV, Scene 2


25    Even Nature’s force doth move us to revenge

By blood again: But Justice forceth us

To measure Death for Death, thy due desert,


O silly women I, why to this hour,

Have kind and fortune thus deferred my breath

180  That I should live to see this doleful day

Will every wight believe that such hard heart

Could rest within the cruel mother’s breast,

With her own hand to slay her only son

But out (alas) these eyes beheld the same,

185  They saw the dreary sight, and are become

Most ruthful records of the bloody fact.

Porrex, (alas) is by his mother slain,

And with her hand a woeful thing to tell,

While slumbering on his careful bed he rests

190  His heart stabbed in with knife is bereft of life.


O Eubulus, oh draw this sword of ours,

And pierce this heart with speed. O hateful light,

O loathsome life, O sweet and welcome Death,

Dear Eubulus work this we thee beseech.

Perhaps one reason the 2nd part is more appealing is that another writer scribbled it. The division between writers is right on the cover:

Screen Shot 2019-06-03 at 11.27.10 AM
From here.

Thomas Norton was a lawyer, politician, writer and playwright.

His life’s highlights include: marrying Thomas Cranmer [who, by the way, was a character in A Man for All Seasons]’s daughter Margery. He then married Margery’s cousin Alice.

He also carried the title Rack-master and tortured Catholics. Because he sucked. This also opens up a debate about art vs. the artist. Norton’s play started Tudor/Elizabethan drama as we know it – but he tortured his fellow human beings for being the wrong religion….

"He complained to Walsingham on 27 March 1582 about being known as the "Rackmaster General".

So if you torture people on a rack and people call you “Rack-master” and you throw a hissy, you got some serious white privilege.

Thomas Sackville was a statesman and writer. In his role as statesman, in 1586 he was chosen to tell Mary, Queen of Scots she was gonna get executed. He also got locked up in his own home for being a crappy diplomat. I don’t think he tortured any Catholics.

One More Fascinating Thing

Hot damn, we have a review of the initial performance!!!!! How wild is that????

Screen Shot 2019-06-01 at 10.13.15 AMScreen Shot 2019-06-01 at 10.15.39 AM

This is from an academic article here.

A couple of takeaways from this:

  1. The play served as some sort of warning to Elizabeth about marriage. This is interesting because the printed version of the play doesn’t talk much of marriage. Concern about Elizabeth’s marital state was totally a thing. But it does emphasize the civil war Britain suffers in the play.
  2. The reviewer is more impressed with the dumb show than the speeches/dialogue. Probably because it the static action is broken up by pantomined pageantry.

Just one more thing….

Gorboduc has been revived recently up in Soviet Canuckistan Canada (home of previously profiled playwright Makrenna Sterdan).

Shakespeare BASH’d is an actor initiative that seeks to take ownership of their own creativity by producing Shakespeare’s plays in social settings, creating a relaxed, exciting environment for the audience.

Their mission is to present Shakespeare’s plays as they were written: with simple staging, clear and specific language, and an emphasis on the words and characters telling the story.

Shakespeare BASH’d seeks to synthesize the traditional with the modern, to look at the plays from a place of curiosity, fun, excitement, truth, professionalism, and love.”

The reading’s director Daniel Briere as well as actor David Mackett (Gorboduc) were kind enough to answer some questions for us!!!

1. How did your opinion of the play change from before to after the reading?

Briere: I was struck by how powerful and emotional the play can be.  Videna’s speech after she discovers Porrex has murdered his brother is full of such gloriously earthy, rich language, as she vows to kill her son.  At the same time, I also came to love how the characters’ thoughts are ordered, how linear and logical their arguments.

Mackett: I initially viewed the play as a bit of a curiosity and I thought it would be a hard slog for the audience – it’s a very wordy play, with lots of rhetoric and long speeches. There’s not much action: if I recall correctly, all the deaths happen off stage.  As a result, the characters can come across as a bunch of “talking heads.”  It might have been a bit of a slog, but I found the audience was fully engaged and right with us to the end, which gave me a greater appreciation for the writing and the play.

Daniel Briere
Director of the reading.

2. What was your favorite line or scene?

Briere: “Know ye, that lust of kingdoms hath no law.”  Possibly the worst piece of advice ever given.

Or when Marcella enters, having seen Videna murder Porrex–

“Oh where is ruth? or where is pity now?

Whither is gentle heart and mercy fled?

Are they exiled out of our stony breasts,

Never to make return? Is all the world

Drowned in blood, and sunk in cruelty?”    How beautiful and haunting an image is that?

Mackett: Divided reigns do make divided hearts”

3. How did you explain Gorboduc to your friends and/or family? 

Briere: I usually mentioned it was the first play written in blank verse in English.  That the story is similar to King Lear–a King divides the Kingdom for his sons, and then everybody dies.

Mackett: I told them it was the first English play written in blank verse, so it was interesting from a historical perspective, and also mentioned that Shakespeare used it as a basis for King Lear.  Plot wise, I told them it was a story about an ancient British King, who decides to take early retirement, and divides his kingdom between his two sons, who don’t get along.  Then bad things happen.

4. What is it about Gorboduc that can connect to a modern audience?

Briere: With our workshop reading, we were attempting to highlight the verse in hope that it would make the language more clear and accessible to a modern audience.  I think we were relatively successful.  But as in any of Shakespeare’s plays, or other playwrights to follow Norton and Sackville, the themes of this play are all still very human: ambition, jealousy, family, right, influence.

Mackett: Certainly the problems associated with succession are relevant to a modern audience.  I’m the thinking mostly about family-run businesses.  How often do we see a successful business, which was started by the parents, left to the children, who then make a mess of things – either because they weren’t qualified or as a result of infighting?

5. What was the audience’s reaction to your reading?

Briere: People joked that it was a bit dusty, but it is tough to get away from that when pretty much every speech in the play is three pages long.  We took advantage of the dumb shows written in between scenes to have some action and movement.  Maybe even a bit of comedy.  I think generally, though, people were excited to hear a play that no-one in the room had ever heard, let alone knew much about.

Mackett: See answer to Question #1.

David Mackett
David Mackett, the man who would be Gorboduc.

6. What parenting advice would you give Gorboduc and Videna? 

Briere: Be careful who your kids make friends with; peer pressure is a real thing.

Mackett: Choose your heirs wisely.

7. Besides Gorbodork and Gorbodouche, what would be some fun parody titles? 

Briere: We were calling it Gord the Duck and the Adventures of ManDude (our favourite duke).

Mackett: Gord the Duck

8. How can we rescue Gorboduc from obscurity? 

Briere: Read it, talk about it, do it.  Things only go into obscurity when they are forgotten.

Mackett: Stage a full production.  Casting it with high-profile actors would help.

The full text of Gorboduc can be found here.

Shakespeare BASH’d’s reprise is here.

Rackmaster Norton’s Wikipedia page is here.

Sackville (hehe)’s page is here.

Thanks so much for reading. Expect a hot new monologue on Monday and an even hotter (possibly) playwright next Thursday.

A very special thank you to Shakespeare BASH’d. 

2 thoughts on “Thomas Sackville & Thomas Norton”

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