Robert II, King of Scots (The Scot’s Tragedy)

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Henry Chettle, Thomas Dekker, Ben Jonson, "other Jentellman" (1599)


Historical Records

Payments for Playwrights (Henslowe's Diary)

F. 64 (Greg, I. 111)

Lent vnto Thomas downton the 3 of Septmber }
1599 to lend vnto Thomas deckers Bengemen }
Johnson hary chettell & other Jentellman in earneste } xxxxs
of a playe calle Robart the second Kinge of scottes }
tragedie the some of … }
Lent vnto Samwell Rowley & Robart shawe }
the 15 of septmber 1599 to lend in earneste of a }
Boocke called the scottes ragedti vnto Thomas } xxs
dickers & harey chettell the some of … }
Lent hary chettell the 16 of septmber 1599 }
in earneste of a Boocke called the scottes } xs
tragedie the some of … }

F. 64v (Greg, I.112)

Lent into wm Borne the 27 of }
Setmber 1599 to lend vnto Bengemen }
Johnsone in earneste of a Boocke called } xxs
the scottes tragedie the some of … }

Theatrical Provenance

The Admiral's men made four payments "in earneste" for the play in September 1599 apparently for performance at the Rose playhouse. No payments for apparel or divers things confirms that the play was brought into production.

Probable Genre(s)

History (Harbage); Tragedy (Henslowe)

Possible Narrative and Dramatic Sources or Analogues

In Shapiro's opinion, "Elizabethan dramatists collaborating on the 'tragedy' of Robert II would probably have turned to Holinshed, the most readily available and extended account of the reign" (440). Shapiro adds that behind Holinshed are sources there cited—"Froissart, Hector Boece, and John Major" (440). Shapiro marginalises "Stow, Camden, and Fabian" as having "little information" (440).

References to the Play

None known.

Critical Commentary

Shapiro focuses on narrative, political, and theatrical questions raised by a play on Robert II of Scotland.

Narrative Material

Considering the popular appeal of the history of Robert II, Shapiro asks, "what associations "Robert II" might have had for Elizabethan theatregoers," and decides "not many" (439). Elaborating, Shapiro observes that "Robert II does not figure largely in any famous myths, was not celebrated for any great military victories, and ranked low in standing among Scottish monarchs" (439). Nevertheless, he was "the first of the Stuart monarchs, and as such James's lineal ancestor" (439). That word "lineal" is key, both as help and hindrance. It was a help in that Robert II "fathered twenty-one children"; it was a hindrance in that only "four were indisputably born in wedlock" (Shapiro [443] here quotes Ranald Nicholson, Scotland: The Later Middle Ages [1974], 185). Characterizing Holinshed's version of Robert's domestic history (Chronicles 245), Shapiro summarizes the result as "a dramatic narrative of adultery, illegitimacy, old love rekindled, fortuitous and timely deaths of unwanted spouses, and fraternal struggle for succession" (444).

Political Matters

On the question, "why the Admiral's Men would have commissioned a play about the first Stuart king in the fall of 1599" (429), Shapiro considers the growing anxiety in England in 1599 about the succession of James to the English throne. He points to Scotland's dubious role in both the Irish Rebellion (against which the earl of Essex was leading a campaign) and the "threat of a new Spanish Armada," which Scotland was also supporting (431-2).

Theatrical Consequences

On the question, "what might [the commissioning of "Robert II"] tell us about the theatre's intervention in both the debate about royal succession and the uncomfortable issue of Anglo-Scottish relations" (429), Shapiro notes that other plays c. 1599 had topical appeal such as "The Overthrow of Turnholt," Henry V, and the publication of The Scottish History of James the Fourth (433). He notes also that correspondence between George Nicholson and Lord Burghley about distress among the Scots that their king and nation were treated poorly in plays on the English state (430) and James's contrary support of English players on tour in Scotland (434).

In sum, Shapiro confesses to being stumped at the dramatic appeal of the story of Robert II except as the first of the Stuart line, and he finds only "slight but provocative clues" on the willingness of playing companies (here, specifically the Admiral's men) to use the stage as venue for querying "England's political fortunes" (449).

For What It's Worth

The fact that the King's men acquired a play called "Gowrie" in 1604, when the politics of the Stuarts were now those of the English, suggests that the theatrical world was not completely risk averse when it came to issues of succession and royal legitimacy.

Works Cited

Shapiro, James. "The Scot's Tragedy and the Politics of Popular Drama." English Literary Renaissance 23 (1993): 428-49.

Site created and maintained by Roslyn L. Knutson, Professor Emerita, University of Arkansas at Little Rock; updated 29 February 2016.

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