Samson, The Story of

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Anon. (1567)


Historical Records

Adjudication by the wardens of the Carpenters' Company, 15 July 1567
(GL. MS 4329/1; qtd here from Berry, 146)

... And that the said John brayne on Satterdaie next [19 July] ensueinge the date above written shall paye to the sayd Willyam Sylvester the some of eight pounds tenne shillings lawfull money of england & that after the playe whch is called the storye of Sampson be once plaied at the place aforesaid the said John shall deliver to the said Willyam suche bonds as are now in his custodie for the performaunce of the bargaine ...

Theatrical Provenance

"The Story of Samson" was to be performed at the Red Lion playhouse. In the complaint lodged by Brayne versus Sylvester and recorded by the Court Book of the Carpenters' Company, the location of the theatrical structure was "in the parishe of Stebinyhuthe" (Berry, 146). "Stebinyhuthe" was Stepney, "the sprawling parish east of the city in Middlesex" (Berry, 134).

Further details about the location of the playhouse are provided in a lawsuit in the Court of King's Bench in Hilary term 11 Elizabeth (1569) in which John Brayne sued a second carpenter, John Reynolds (TNA. KB 27/1229/m. 30). The site was "wythin the Courte or yarde lying on the south syde of the Garden belonginge to the messuage or farme howse called & knowen by the name of the sygne of the redd lyon … beinge at Myle end in the Paryshe of Seynt Mary Matfellon otherwyse called whyte Chappell withowte Algate of Londondsometyme called Starks House" (Berry, 147). See Ingram for further exploration of the neighborhood, plus conjectural maps (106-9).

Three features of the structure are addressed in the complaint and lawsuit collectively. One is "skaffolds," or galleries, for which Sylvester was responsible; the adjudication refers to "suche skaffolds as he the said Wm hathe made at the house called the red lyon" (Berry, 146). A second is a stage, for which Reynolds was responsible; in the lawsuit, the stage is called "one Skaffolde or stage for enterludes or playes" (Berry, 147). The third, a turret, also was Reynolds' responsibility. It is described in the lawsuit in considerable but confusing detail: "one convenyent turrett of Tymber & boords wch shall conteyne & be in heyghte from the grounde sett uppon plates thirtie foote of assyse wth A Convenyent flower of tymber & boordes wthin the same Turrett seaven foote vnder the toppe of the same Turrett" (Berry, 147).

(For further details about the architecture, finances, and use of the Red Lion, see Critical Commentary below).

Probable Genre(s)

Biblical tragedy

Possible Narrative and Dramatic Sources or Analogues

The story had to have been based on the Old Testament narrative of Samson and Delilah. In the Miles Coverdale translation quoted below (1535), the narrative begins in Judges 13.2 and continues through Judges 16.31. Its major episodes include the following:

1. Birth narrative (Judges 13.2-25)

"But there was a man at Zarga, of one of ye kynreds of the Danites, named Manoah, and his wife was vnfrutefull & bare him no children. And the angell of the LORDE appeared vnto ye woman, & sayde vnto her: Beholde, thou art baren, & bearest not: but thou shalt conceaue, & beare a sonne. Take hede therfore, yt thou drynke no wyne ner stronge drynke, and yt thou eate no vncleane thinge, for thou shalt conceaue, and beare a sonne, vpo whose heade there shal come no rasoure: for ye childe shal be a Nazaree of God, euen from his mother wombe, and shall begynne to delyuer Israel out of the hande of the Philistynes" (13.2-5). The child is subsequently born and named Samson.

2. The Woman of Thimnath (Judges 14.3-14):

Samson went to Thimnath where he saw a woman he desired. His parents were displeased: "Is there not a woman amonge the doughters of yi brethren, & in all yi people, but thou must go & take a wife amoge the Philistynes, which are vncircumcised?" (14.3) Pursuing his desire, Samson returned to Thimnath, passing on the way a raging lion that he destroyed. Returning home, he saw that a swarm of bees had made honey in the carcass of the lion. His father, Manoah, went with him to Thimnath to a feast, and Samson challenged the young men in attendance with a riddle: "Meate wente out from the deuourer, and swetenesse from the mightie" (14.14). The young men threatened Samson's woman for the answer, and after seven days of crying she coaxed it out of him. Scornful of their methods ("Yf ye had not plowed wt my calfe, ye shulde not haue founde out my ryddle" [14.18]), Samson nonetheless paid his promise of fresh raiment to the puzzle solvers, but he did so by killing 30 men in Ascalon, giving their clothing to the Thimnite men, then going home.

3. Samson's revenge (Judges 15.1-20):

After a time cooling off from the insult, Samson returned to the woman of Thimnath, only to find that her father had given her to another man. In retaliation Samson tied firebrands to the tails of 300 foxes and burned the harvest. Learning what had happened, the Philistines "wente … vp, and brent her and hir father also with fyre" (15.6). They extended this revenge by waging war on Samson's people in Juda. Timorous, the men of Juda sought out Samson, who had gone to Eram; they tied him up and delivered him to the Philistines as the price of peace. But Samson broke free of the bonds and wrecked havoc with his would-be captors: "And he founde the cheke bone of a deed asse: then put he forth his hande, and toke it, & slewe a thousande men therwith: And Samson sayde: With an olde asses cheke bone, yee eue with the cheke bone of an asse haue I slayne a thousande men (15.15-16]). Following this victory, Samson "iudged Israel in the tyme of the Philistynes twetye yeare" (15.20).

3. Dalilah (Judges 16.4-31)

Returning to Canaan, Samson "fell into the loue of a woman by ye broke of Sorek, whose name was Dalila" (16.4). The Philistine men bribed her to discover the secret of his strength, and after giving her three false answers, he finally complied: "There came neuer rasoure vpon my heade, for I am a Nazaree of God fro my mothers wombe. Yf I were shauen, my strength shulde departe fro me, so that I shulde be weake, and as all other men" (16.17). The Philistines then took him, bound him, blinded him, and "made him to grynde in the preson" (16.21). On the feast day of their god Dagon, the Philistine princes called for Samson to be brought forth for their sport. After he had endured their taunts awhile, he asked his guide to put his hands on the two pillars that held up the temple. He then "called vpon the LORDE, & sayde: O LORDE LORDE, thynke vpon me, & strength me but this once O God I beseke the, yt for both myne eyes I maye auege me on the Philistynes. And he toke holde of ye two mydpilers, that the house stode vpon & was holden by, the one in his righte hade, & ye other in his lefte, 30 & saide: My soule dye wt the Philistynes, & he bowed him selfe mightely. Then fell the house vpon the prynces & vpon all the people that were therin, so that there were mo of ye slayne which dyed in his death, the he slewe whyle he lyued" (16.28-30). His family and the people of Juda claimed his body and buried him with his father. (16.31)

References to the Play

The only known reference is in the court minutes of Carpenters' Company on 15 July 1567, in which the wardens respond to the complaint by John Brayne against the poor workmanship of William Sylvester. The wardens determine that Brayne is to pay Sylvester the £8 10s due him on the following Saturday (19 July) after the performance of "The Story of Samson" ("Historical Records," above).

Critical Commentary

Marsh, Chambers

Bower Marsh provided the initial transcription of the Brayne-Sylvester adjudication, in time for E. K. Chambers to generate an entry for the Red Lion in The Elizabethan Stage. Including it as the earliest of the London inns, Chambers recognized Brayne, whom he knew to be a grocer, as "the same who financed his brother-in-law, James Burbadge, in the far more important enterprise of the Theatre in 1576" (II, 380).


Loengard published the proceedings of the lawsuit of Brayne vs. Reynolds, thus providing (in Berry's words) "the other shoe" to the Carpenters' Adjudication in the details of construction of the playhouse (134). In addition to providing transcripts of the plea roll entry (in Latin) and the condition (in English), she confirms that the proceedings were in every way normative; although there was no "afterwards" recorded to indicate the judgment of the jurors ordered to settle the case, she is reasonably confident that "the matter ended without further legal proceedings" (304). Concerning the content of the suit, Loengard is emphatic that "Brayne was not converting an inn ... [but] building virtually de novo" (305). Loengard confines conjecture to the following points: to what degree did Brayne lend "not only his capital but also his well-tested and not insubstantial expertise to the designing of the Theatre itself" (299), and "[w]as his famous brother-in-law, James Burbage, working with him?" (304). On the latter question she points out that Burbage's name is on none of the documents, yet coincidentally Brayne and Burbage were engaged together in "an action of debt" against a lorimer during the same Hilary term as the Brayne-Reynolds suit (304). On the former question, she is tempted by "Brayne's meticulous measurements, his detailed but matter-of-fact descriptions, and the tone of evident mastery of stagecraft" to believe that Brayne relied entirely on someone else's "expertise about theatre building and design" (306).

Berry, Ingram

Berry discusses the life span of the playhouse and its cost, but he treats the design of the Red Lion and its functionality in most detail. On cost, Berry tabulates the sum owned to Sylvester for the galleries (£8 10s) and the amount of the bond with Reynolds (£13. 6s. 8d.), which he thinks was probably half what Reynolds was actually to be paid. He figures in variables such as "the use of the yard" and "small sums" for this and that, deciding that Brayne "might have laid out £20 in the summer of 1567" (136-7). He calls attention to the modesty of this outlay compared to the £700 spent by Brayne and Burbage on the Theatre (145). On life span, he points out that the performance was dated 17 June 1567 and that Reynolds and Sylvester were already at work. He considers Brayne "in a hurry," and in fact Reynolds completed his work ahead of schedule (20 June). Sylvester apparently finished his by the inspection date of 19 July named in the Adjudication. Berry decides that "Brayne must have abandoned the Red Lion by the fall of 1568" (144).
Berry's treatment of the design is too detailed to be summarized helpfully here, but a few key points bear mention. For one, he interprets the details of the stage to indicate that it was 5 feet high and 40 feet by 30 feet (137), and he suggests that it might "have stood in the middle of the yard" (142). He notes that it was "higher than other stages are often thought to have been," though there are no comparable measurements in documents for other playhouses (137). In fact the Red Lion stage "is the only one of the whole period for which all the main dimensions are available" (138). Berry uses the Boar's Head as comparison with the galleries at the Red Lion and decides that Brayne "got for his money less than a third" of the room at the later playhouse (142). The drift of his analysis suggests that the galleries did not wrap completely around the stage and were "of one story, on the ground, and, perhaps, unroofed" (143). The turret is the most unusual and unfamiliar of the structures Reynolds was hired to build (138-42). It was 30 feet tall, 25 feet of which were above the stage; there was a room with a floor in the top 7 feet (138). The turret may have covered a trap, for the bond calls for "a certeyne space or voyde parte" of the stage but doesn't specify where this space would be (137).
As Berry had done briefly, Ingram considers the location of the Red Lion in terms of audience and is not particularly impressed with the local population, occasional musters, or recreations at nearby greens being sufficient for commercial success (110-11). He pushes the conjecture that Burbage might have had a connection with this playhouse with a reminder that Burbage was one of Leicester's players in 1572 and likely had been for some time (111-2). He sums up the venture of the Red Lion by surmising that "Brayne and Burbage confirmed their earlier belief that there was a substantial audience ready to support such a playing establishment; ... [but] the road to Mile End was the wrong place for such an enterprise" (111).

For What It's Worth

Berry conjectures that "Brayne put more money into his galleries than into his stage, probably because the arrangement common in 1576 and after was already established: the financier had the taking in the galleries, and the players those in the yard" (137).

Berry (135) and Ingram (103-4) comment on the probable competence of William Sylvester as a carpenter. Berry points out that he had already had eighteen years free of his apprenticeship in 1567; Ingram notes that he subsequently became a warden of the company. From this work history, both scholars deduce that Sylvester's work was deemed satisfactory by the four-member team of wardens who went to inspect it and that Brayne paid the £8 10s by 19 July 1567, as the wardens declared he should do.

Berry comments in contrast that John Reynolds "was a novice, out of his apprenticeship only" ten months in the summer of 1567 (135).

Works Cited

Berry, Herbert. "The First Public Playhouses, Especially the Red Lion," Shakespeare Quarterly 40.2 (1989): 133-48.
Ingram, William. The Business of Playing. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1992.
Loengard, Janet S. "An Elizabethan Lawsuit: John Brayne, his Carpenter, and the Building of the Red Lion Theatre," Shakespeare Quarterly 34 (1983): 298-310.
Marsh, Bower, ed. Records of the Worshipful Company of Carpenters. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1913-16. Vol. III, 95-6.

Site created and maintained by Roslyn L. Knutson, Professor Emerita, University of Arkansas at Little Rock; updated 16 June 2011.

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