Contemporary Praise for North as Tragedian and Records Documenting North as Playwright

Multiple records confirm Thomas North began writing plays early, starting at Lincoln’s Inn, and continued to do so throughout his life. By 1560, the year North turned 25, Jasper Heywood placed him at the top of a list of the best tragedians at the Inns of Court. Records also confirm he continued writing plays, mostly for the Earl of Leicester’s Men, at least into the 1580s. Robert Dudley, the Earl of Leicester, was North’s patron and the best friend of his older brother, Roger, 2nd Lord North. Quoting Thomas North’s 1555 Travel Journal: From Italy to Shakespeare:

That this (North’s career as a playwright) was not discovered until now should not be surprising. There were far more plays and playwrights in the Tudor/Stuart era than many commonly suppose. In their introduction to Lost Plays in Shakespeare’s England, David McInnis and Matthew Steggle estimate that, between 1567 and 1642, roughly 3,000 plays were staged in the commercial theaters, and of that number, only 543, or a little more than 18%, survive.[1] The main reason so many plays are now lost is not that they were published and then perished but that they were never published in the first place. But as low as this number is, it is inflated by the percentages of the first half of the seventeenth century, when plays became increasingly popular. If we focus just on the sixteenth century, the percentage of printed plays is lower. The business records of the Elizabethan theater manager Philip Henslowe, for example, show that only 30 of the 280 plays that he recorded between 1592 and 1603—a shade over 10%—are extant.[2] If we examine the decades in which North mostly wrote—from the 1550s to the 1580s—we find the percentage of printed plays was even lower. Of course, if thousands of plays from the era have been lost, then a number of early playwrights have been lost as well.

In 1557, Thomas North became Master of Revels at Lincoln’s Inn, which placed him in charge of entertainments. J. Christopher Warner notes that this indicates that, beside serious translations, North “could also indulge in songs and plays.”[3]

Three years later, Jasper Heywood would place Thomas North at the top of a list of the best tragedians. Specifically, in a preface to his translation of Seneca’s Thyestes (1560), Heywood spoke of how the ghost of Seneca visited him and urged him to translate his tragic plays into English. Heywood responded that a group of young tragedians at the Inns of Court would be far worthier for the task. Heywood placed North at the top of the list, marking him first among writers who had a “painful pen,” writers who, it would seem, Melpomene, the Muse of tragedy, “had taught them for to write”:

In Lincoln’s Inn and Temples twain, Gray’s Inn and other mo’
Thou shalt them find whose painful pen thy verse shall flourish so,
That Melpomen, thou would’st well ween, had taught them for to write
And all their works with stately style and goodly grace t’indite.
There shalt thou see the self-same North, whose work his wit displays,
And Dial doth of Princes paint, and preach abroad his praise. …[4]

Here is a modern translation

At Lincoln’s Inn, Inner and Middle Temple, Gray’s Inn and others
You, Seneca, shall find writers whose painful pen (whose skill at tragedy) would be best suited to translate your tragedies.
Indeed, you would think that Melpomene (the muse of tragedy) had taught them how to write
And did imbue their works with stately style and grace.
There you will see just such an example, North, whose work reveals his wit (intellect)
And whose Dial of Princes earns him praise abroad.

North here is clearly being lauded as part of a group of tragedians at the Inns of Court and for his first translation. Again quoting: Thomas North’s 1555 Travel Journal: From Italy to Shakespeare

Heywood’s foreword seems to have influenced the young writers whom he praised. The next three students Heywood mentions after North—Thomas Norton, Thomas Sackville and Christopher Yelverton—would all end up helping craft neo-Senecan tragedies. In 1561, Norton and Sackville would write Gorboduc (1561), and Yelverton would be credited with the epilogue to George Gascoigne’s Jocasta (1566) and the dumb shows for The Misfortunes of Arthur (1588).

Similarly, in a 2014 paper for Shakespeare Survey 67, we provided evidence that in 1560-61, North also wrote his own Senecan-styled tragedy, Titus and Vespasian, the source play for Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus. As we proposed, North likely wrote the play for the same reasons fellow students Norton and Sackville wrote Gorboduc: due to the renewed attention Heywood brought to Seneca and to please Robert Dudley by advising against Elizabeth’s marriage to Erik XIV, King of the Swedes and Goths.[5] This explains why the detestable villains of Shakespeare’s tragedy are the Goths—and why the play underscores, in a horrific manner, the disastrous consequences that befall a nation when a monarch marries one. It also explains why the end of the tragedy pays homage to Heywood’s Thyestes, the very work that gave North his first known, favorable review.

in 1576, George North, likely a cousin, wrote another “favorable review” in the dedication to his manuscript essay, “Brief Discourse of Rebellion and Rebels,” offering praise for Thomas, who, he stated, excelled “both for invention and translation” and “for copy, eloquency, and good method, may claim palm and place with the best.”[6] And invention can only refer to original work and is clearly distinguished from translation. George dedicated the manuscript to Thomas’s brother, Roger, 2nd Lord North, also mentioning that “I knew your L[ord] to take great delight” in Thomas’s works — a comment that makes the most sense for North’s plays. In 2018, June Schlueter and I published a book confirming that George North’s signed, unpublished essay, always kept at the North family library, was a significant source for the Shakespeare canon — a discovery that made the front page of The New York Times and news reports around the world.

In 1577, before North published Plutarch’s Lives, Holinshed’s Chronicles lists Thomas North among the greatest writers of Elizabethan England. The text, which served as an important source for the English history plays, introduced the list as follows:

“The history mentioning of such writers of our nation, as lived in the days of other Princes, I have thought good to write also the names of some of those that have flourished in the time of the peaceable reign of our sovereign Lady Queen Elizabeth… Of which writers as there are many some departed and others yet living, so the great number of works, Treatises, Poesies, Translations, and Pamphlets by them published to the world, may fully witness the flourishing state of the Muses in these days of peace, in the which learning is both cherished, and the studious enjoy their wished quietness, the better to encourage them to utter their talents.” (1874)

Also, Roger North’s household account book mentions his younger brother several times, linking him with Leicester’s Men, at times documenting payments to both Thomas and the theater troupe after a performance.[7] For 9 and 10 November 1578, Roger records paying both Leicester’s players and his brother the same amount, 40 shillings.[8] In the following January, Roger documents Thomas’s bringing apparel for minstrels and a player to London (see left).[9]

In one very important receipt, in 1580, Roger pays both Thomas and Leicester’s Men for a play performed at court, giving Thomas the traditional fee and reward, down to the very penny, granted to playwrights and producers of court plays.

Specifically, Lord North gave the theater troupe 40 shillings, his standard payment for a performance, and Thomas £3.6s.8d. (Stowe MS 774, pt. 1, 126v). This followed an earlier payment to Thomas of £6.13s.4d. (Stowe MS 774, pt. 1, 125v). These two specific payments—£6.13s.4d. with an additional reward of £3.6s.8d.—are the exact amounts given to the playwrights and producers of court plays, including Sebastian Westcott, Richard Farrant, William Elderton, Richard Edwards, William Hunnis, Richard Mulcaster, Robert Wilson, John Lyly, Anthony Munday, and William Rowley. Each of them received his fees of £6.13s.4d. for his play, and some also earned a reward of £3.6s.8d. Also, in his magisterial British Drama 1533-1642, Martin Wiggins indicates that within the “drama-related expenses” for the Queen’s 1574 progress “the authorities of Bristol paid [Thomas] Churchyard £6.13s.4d. for writing the text.” Likewise, in 1591, Robert Greene notoriously sold his play of Orlando twice: first to the Queen’s Men for a fee of £6.13s.4d., then to the Admiral’s Men for the same price. Finally, the Revels records a payment to Shakespeare, Kemp, and Burbage for two comedies performed at court at Greenwich on 26 and 28 December 1594 for £13.6s.8d. with a reward of £6.13s.4d. in total. This again amounts to a payment of £6.13s.4d. and a reward of £3.6s.8d. for each play. As Lord North places both the payment for Leicester’s Men’s play performance and North’s reward together in a single receipt and adds them up, there is no doubt the payment was for North’s work on that court play.[10]

Leicester’s Men’s performed seven times at court from January 1577 to 1583, each warranting a payment of £6.13s.4d., and six of the seven generating an additional reward of £3.6s.8d.[11] See example on left of “Philemon and Philecia,” the source-play for The Two Gentlemen of Verona. In all but one of those times, the playwright-producer actually collecting that money is never identified. But, as we saw above, with the Leicester’s Men’s performance at court in June 1580–which was a play that Lord North, himself, was presenting — that playwright was identified: Thomas North.


Finally we end with a final quote from Thomas North’s 1555 Travel Journal: From Italy to Shakespeare:

Robert Dudley first began supporting a theater troupe even before he became Earl of Leicester, as early as 1559. His players then continued performing—in London, in the suburbs, at court, on tours throughout the English countryside, and even in continental Europe—until their patron’s death in 1588. But what plays were they staging over those nearly 30 years, and who was writing them? Sadly, as Terence Schoone-Jongen remarks, “little information about Leicester’s repertory survives.”[12] Nonetheless, sixteenth-century documents support what all other evidence reveals: Thomas North was not only a translator; he also wrote plays, first for Lincoln’s Inn and then for Leicester’s Men.

Notes:


[1] David McInnis and Matthew Steggle, “Introduction: Nothing Will Come of Nothing? Or, What can we Learn from Plays that Don’t Exist?”, in Lost Plays in Shakespeare’s England, ed. David McInnis and Matthew Steggle (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), 1.

[2] Neil Carson, A Companion to Henslowe’s Diary (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), 82-84.

[3] J. Christopher Warner, The Making and Marketing of Tottel’s Miscellany, 1557: Songs and Sonnets in the Summer of the Martyrs’ Fires (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2013), 22.

[4] Jasper Heywood, Preface to The Seconde Tragedie of Seneca entituled Thyestes faithfully Englished by Jasper Heywood fellowe of Alsolne College in Oxforde (London: In Fletestrete in the hous late Thomas Berthelettes, 1560). Citation follows Elizabethan Seneca: Three Tragedies, MHRA Tudor and Stuart Translations, vol. 8, ed. James Ker and Jessica Winston (London: Modern Humanities Research Association, 2012), 142-43.

[5] Dennis McCarthy and June Schlueter, “A Shakespeare/North Collaboration: Titus Andronicus and Titus and Vespasian,” Shakespeare Survey 67 (2014): 85-101.

[6] See Dennis McCarthy and June Schlueter, “A Brief Discourse of Rebellion and Rebels” by George North: A Newly Uncovered Manuscript Source for Shakespeare Plays (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer in association with the British Library,2018), 101.

[7] Roger North, Lord North’s Household Book, 1576-1589, British Library, Stowe MS 774, pt. 1, fols 79v, 80r, 126v; pt. 2, 40r.

[8] Roger North, Lord North’s Household Book, 1576-1589 (9-10 November 1578), pt. 1, 80r: “given my L. of Lesters plaiers 40s … to my brother 40s.” See also fols 79v, 126v; pt. 2, 40r.

[9] Roger North, Lord North’s Household Book, 1576-1589: (11-13 January 1578-9), pt. 1, 85v. Roger writes “to my brother going to London in money viii li beside apparel to minstrels ii s to player ii s vi d.” Roger’s use of the words in money and beside necessarily confirms that he considered the apparel for the minstrels (and likely player) as part of North’s gift. As an example, for Tuesday, 29 June, 1585, Roger writes, “Sent my brother to London by the carrier on Tuesday velvet hose, a satin gown guarded w[ith] velvet and a mare cost v li and in ready money v li” pt. 2, 93v. Again, here Roger obviously considers the gown, hose, and mare as part of a gift given to Thomas—along with the “money.” The word “play” below Thomas North’s initials though, likely refers to Roger North’s gambling games — and not a “play.”

[10] See Martin Wiggins, British Drama 1533-1642: A Catalogue, Volume 2: 1567-1589 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 106, 109, 115, 160, 162-63, 212 -15, 221-23, 244-49, 257-58, 308, 310, 311, 313. See also Martin Wiggins, British Drama 1533-1642: A Catalogue, Volume 5: 1603-1608 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), 36, 78, 218. See also John Tucker Murray, English Dramatic Companies, 1558-1642 (London: Constable and Company, 1910), 1:106. Charles William Wallace, The Evolution of the English Drama Up To Shakespeare (Berlin: Georg Reimer, 1912), 219, 221-4. Wallace records the reward values as lxvi s viiid , which equals iiili vis viiid.

[11] These peculiar sums for entertainment-production began with Henry VIII, when the King typically paid his court dramatist and entertainment-manager, the Lord of Misrule, 20 nobles (i.e., £6.13s.4d. — which is also equal to ten marks) for his Christmas season productions. Although no monarch coined another noble after 1544, this amount remained a traditional payment for a new play at court into the Jacobean era, eventually augmented by a reward of ten nobles (or five marks: £3.6s.8d.). This reward became customary in the 1570s. Interestingly, early modern payments in many different categories often followed strict traditional guidelines. For example, dowries and feudal fines were also likewise paid according to values of marks and nobles –and this continued throughout the sixteenth century and later.

[12] Terence Schoone-Jongen, Shakespeare’s Companies: William Shakespeare’s Early Career and the Acting Companies, 1577-1594 (Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing, 2008), 175.

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