Forces of Hercules, The

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Anon. (1586)


Historical Records

Stow's Annals

The 23. of Aprill, the Earle of Leicester lieuetenaunt, and gouernour generall of hir Maiesties forces in the Lowe Countries of the vnited prouinces, making his residence at that time in Utricht (a great and goodly Towne vpon the frontiers of Hollande) kept most honourablie the feast of Saint George therein, the proceedings whereof being so princely performed to the honor of our nation in the view of so many thousand straungers, I could not chuse (hauing gotten the true an faithfull description, by one William Seager alias Portclose, an officer at armes in that seruice) to make some breefe remembraunce of the maner thereof …
Then began the Trumpets to sounde, and the Dutch men to carouse, to the health of hir Maiestie, the welfare of my Lord, and to the prosperities of the vnited prouinces, and nothing wanted wherein either estate, magnificence, or ioy might bee expressed. To bee breefe, the feast ended, and tables voyded, there was dauncing, vauting, and tumbling, with the forces of Hercules, which gaue great delite to the straungers, for they had not seene it before, and thus they passed the time, till euensong and then departed.
(Stow, pp. 1214-15)

Stow's source for the description of the festivities at Utrecht was William Segar, Portcullis Pursuivant, in Leicester's train. For an annotated text of the account, see Goldring 3.251-55.

Theatrical Provenance

The performance took place on 23 April 1586 in Utrecht as part of the Earl of Leicester's St. George's Day festivities.

Probable Genre(s)

Athletic Show (Harbage).

Possible Narrative and Dramatic Sources or Analogues

Although the name might imply a dramatic depiction of the labours of Hercules, the performance seems more likely to have involved displays of acrobatic skill. See Critical Commentary below.

References to the Play

(Information welcome.)

Critical Commentary


Stow's description of the performance delighting "the straungers, for they had not seene it before" has suggested to most scholars that the performers were English, with the most likely candidates being Leicester's own players (Bruce 92; Chambers 2.90; Lea 406; Bald 396; Strong and Dorsten 86; MacLean 491; Hoenselaars, "Engelse toneelspelers," 142; Hoenselaars, "Shakespeare and the World," 736; Manley and MacLean 31).

After the signing of the treaty of Nonesuch on 10 August 1585, Leicester went to the Low Countries to assume his role as governor-general of the Netherlands, arriving in December. Leicester's Men were with the earl in the Low Countries in the winter but returned to England after the Christmas season for a provincial tour (Bald 395-96; MacLean 491): Exeter paid "my lord of Lecesters players" on 24 March 1586 (REED: Devon 163). However, some or all of Leicester's Men may have been back in the Low Countries by 23 April for the St. George's Day feast. Indeed, Leicester's man William Kempe is recorded as being with the earl at Amersfoort on 6 May (Folger MS W.b.160, p. 1; qtd. Bald 396; Adams 374). Thomas King and Robert Browne (both named as musicians in the Leicester's household accounts, although perhaps the players of the same names) were paid on 30 May (MacLean 491), and a payment of £5 was given on 31 May "to your Lordship playears at arnam at ther going to the kinges of denmarkes the same daye" (MacLean 492). As MacLean notes, the gap in Leicester's account book from 14 April to 26 May means that any payments that would have indicated the return of Leicester's men to the Continent are lost (491).

Alternatively, as suggested by Strong and Dorsten, the performers on 23 April may have been the same small group of musicians and "players" (speelluiden, "entertainers") who had stayed on to accompany Leicester on his progress from The Hague, Leiden, Haarlem, and Amsterdam (83-87). Certainly the larger group of fifteen players who were part of Leicester's train for his entry into The Hague in January 1586 seem to disappear from the records, whereas the twelve musicians stay on and are recorded in Henry Goodere's 12 January list of Leicester's train (Cotton MS Galba C. VIII, f. 98v-99r; qtd. Strong and Dorsten 85), appearing subsequently in Dutch municipal records throughout the earl's progress either as recipients of billeting addresses or gratuities from the cities. Strong and Dorsten suggest that it is this group that provided the entertainment for the St. George's Day feast, "with the possible addition of Kempe, the messenger-jester, or whichever other 'player' happened to be available that day" (86). As MacLean noted, Thomas King (perhaps the player) appears in Goodere's list, although not as a musician (490). (In fact, a marginal note beside King's name appears to identify him as a "Brewer" [f. 100r].)


Bruce supposed The Forces of Hercules to be "an exhibition, probably of a pantomimical character" (93).

Chambers (2.90) cited a 1572 letter by Sir Thomas Smith to Burghley describing the Duke of Anjou's entertainment of the Lord Admiral (Edward Clinton, 1st Earl of Lincoln) at Paris, including "an Italian comedie, which eandid [i.e. having ended], vaulting with notable supersaltes & through hoopes, and last of all the Antiques, of carying of men one uppon an other which som men call labores Herculis" (British Library, Cotton MS Vespasian F VI, f. 99v [new foliation]; qtd. Ellis 3.20). Chambers thus suggests that although the 1586 performers were presumably English, their show may have derived from an Italian original.

Hoenselaars has described it as "een half-dramatische, half-acrobatische voorstelling" ("Engelse toneelspelers," 142), as well as "a more or less acrobatic show of strength involving the construction of a human pyramid" ("Shakespeare and the World," 736).

Manley and MacLean comment similarly: "Featuring physical dexterity, music, and dance, the show transcended language barriers" (31).


A.J. Hoenselaars says: "Leicester must have realized that on the day, which until the sixteenth century and the Reformation had been known as St George's Day, it was more appropriate to celebrate national military strength by way of the achievements of a safely classical hero like Hercules than a challenged Catholic saint" ("Shakespeare and the World," 736-37).

Manley and MacLean interpret the Forces of Hercules as part of the day's spectacle of diplomacy and prestige: "it served the dual political purposes of displaying superior English talents under Leicester's patronage and complimenting Dudley himself, the new Hercules come to lend his strength to the Dutch cause" ( 31).

For What It's Worth

Forze d'Ercole

Chambers's citation of Smith's 1572 letter describing "vaulting with notable supersaltes & through hoopes, and last of all the Antiques, of carying of men one uppon an other which som men call labores Herculis" gives us the closest available parallel to what likely happened in Utrecht in 1586. Indeed, the forze d'Ercole was (and would remain) a common appellation for acrobatic feats of strength in the Italian tradition, reaching its most spectacular form in the human pyramids of the eighteenth-century Venetian carnival. Predictably, the records in theatrical history get murky as one finds references both to the athletic forze d'Ercole and to traditional dramatic depictions of the labors of Hercules (Lea 406-7). Nevertheless, there is a discernable thread of "Herculean" physical performances. In 1545, a Privy Treasurer to Pope Paul III recorded a payment to "atteggiatori che fecero la moresca et le forze di Hercole" (Bertolotti 197; Lea 406); in 1546, the Geneva town council refused an application by a group of "joueurs des antiques et puissance de Hercules" (Roget 2.238; Chambers 1.246n); and in 1572, an Italian troupe visiting Strassburg performed "danzen, springen, fechten und andres, besonders die labores Herculis"—that is, "dancing, acrobatics, fencing and the labours of Hercules" (Trautmann 290; trans. Katritzky 223).

Although Lea was loath to discount the possibility that the origins of the forze d'Ercole may have been English (406-7), it seems to have been more often associated explicitly with Italy. A French treatise of 1586, translated into English in 1605, refers to the virtuosic performances of Italian tumblers as "forces of Hercules":

"There are some of these Tumblers and Vawters so expert in their Art, that partly by the subtiltie and nimblenes of their hands, and partly by the agilitie, strength and dexteritie of their body, and the quicknes and vivacitie of their spirit, they will doe things passing admirable. […] And as for the agilitie of the body, I will alledge no other then those Tumblers of Italie: whose perilous leaps and vawtings (which they call the Forces of Hercules) do make the simple and ignorant people to be of an opinion, that they doe them by Art Magicke and Enchauntment: although it be verie evident that there is no such matter."
(Le Loyer, Treatise, p. 73; cf. Le Loyer, IIII. livres, p. 160)

In an account of Christina of Sweden's travels in Italy (translated into English in 1658), the queen is entertained at Pesaro, where she was "pleas'd to like certain Playes, call'd the forces of Hercules, perform'd by some persons most nimbly and handsomely" (Gualdo Priorato, 271).


Dent found it likely that the performance of The Forces of Hercules would have been accompanied by "the widely current Italian mime-tune 'Le forze d'Ercole'" (142), which is preserved in British Library, MSS Royal App. 59-62, f. 25 (Hughes-Hughes 3.203; printed in Morrow 2.20), as well as many other sixteenth-century printed collections (Morrow 2.vii; Ward 1.123n), such as Bianchini's 1546 Intabolatura de Lauto (sig. B4, converted from tablature to staff notation in Ward 2.168). An arrangement of the tune can be heard here.

Works Cited

Adams, Simon, ed. Household Accounts and disbursement books of Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, 1558-1561, 1584-1586. Cambridge: Cambridge UP,1995.
Bald, R.C. "Leicester's Men in the Low Countries." RES 19 (1943): 395-97.
Bertolotti, A. "Speserie segrete e pubbliche di Papa Paolo III." Atti e memorie delle RR. deputazioni di storia patria per la provincie dell'Emilia, n.s. 3, pt. 1 (1878): 169-212.
Bianchini, Dominico. Intabolatura de Lauto. Venice, 1546. (PDF)
Bruce, John. "Who Was 'Will, my Lord of Leycester's Jsting Player?'" The Shakespeare Society's Papers 1 (London, 1844): 88-95. Internet Archive.
Dent, Thurston, "English Music and Musicians in 17th-Century Holland." Kongress-Bericht, Internationale Gesellschaft für Musikwissenschaft. Utrecht 1952. Amsterdam: G. Alsbach, 1953. 139-45.
Ellis, Henry, ed. Original Letters, Illustrative of English History. Second Series. 4 vols. London, 1827. Internet Archive.
Goldring, Elizabeth, et al., eds. John Nichol's The Progresses and Public Processions of Queen Elizabeth I. 5 vols. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2014.
[Gualdo Priorato, Galeazzo.] The History of the Sacred and Royal Majesty of Christina Alessandra Queen of Swedland. [Trans. John Burbury.] London, 1658.
Hoenselaars, A.J. "Engelse toneelspelers voeren in Utrecht De werken van Hercules op." Een theatergeschiedenis der Nederlanden: Tien eeuwen drama en theater in Nederland en Vlaanderen. Ed. R.L. Erenstein et al. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 1996.
Hoenselaars, A. J. "Shakespeare and the World." The Oxford Handbook of Shakespeare. Ed. Arthur F. Kinney. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2012. 735-51.
Hughes-Hughes, Augustus. Catalogue of Manuscript Music in the British Museum. 3 vols. London: British Museum, 1906–9.
Katritzky, M. A. The Art of Commedia: A Study in the Commedia dell'Arte 1560-1620 with Special Reference to the Visual Records. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2006.
Le Loyer, Pierre. IIII. livres des spectres ou apparitions et visions d'esprits, anges et demons. Paris, 1586.
Le Loyer, Pierre. A Treatise of Specters or straunge Sights, Visions and Apparitions appearing sensibly vnto men. [Trans. Zachary Jones.] London, 1605.
Lea, K.M. Italian Popular Comedy: A Study in the Commedia dell'Arte, 1560-1620. 2 vols. Oxford: Clarendon, 1934.
MacLean, Sally-Beth. "Leicester and the Evelyns: New Evidence for the Continental Tour of Leicester's Men." RES n.s. 39 (1988): 487-93.
Manley, Lawrence, and Sally-Beth MacLean.Lord Strange's Men and Their Plays. New Haven: Yale UP, 2014.
Morrow, Michael, ed. 44 Italian Dances of the Sixteenth Century. 2 vols. London: London Pro Musica, 1978.
Roget, Amédée. Histoire du peuple de Genève. 7 vols. Geneva, 1870-83.
Strong, R.C. and J.A. van Dorsten. Leicester's Triumph. Leiden: Sir Thomas Browne Institute at the University Press, 1964.
Trautmann, Karl. "Italienische Schauspieler am bayerischen Hofe." Jahrbuch für Münchener Geschichte 1 (1887): 193-312.
Ward, John M. Music for Elizabethan Lutes. 2 vols. Oxford: Clarendon, 1992.

Site created and maintained by Misha Teramura, Reed College; updated 6 March 2015.

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