As you may have gathered by now, I’m working my way through a collection of plays, ten in all (to start with), Shakespeare & Others: Collaborative Plays and I’ve now reached play number eight – that’s right after today there are only two more to go. The series has already featured Arden of Faversham, Locrine, Edward III, The Spanish Tragedy (Extended edition), Thomas Lord Cromwell, Sir Thomas More and The London Prodigal. Today I’ve come to A Yorkshire Tragedy – perhaps better known than some in the collection, as far as knowledge of Renaissance plays goes. There’s hot debate surrounding the authorship of this play, and it tends either to be attributed to Shakespeare or Middleton with both crowds vying for the play for their respective early modern playwright. It’s short, clocking in at only nineteen pages in this edition, and given the rather long umm summaries which have made up the last couple of plays I will endeavour to keep this to no longer than the play itself..
The title declares the play as follows (clearly in retro style): A YORKSHIRE TRAGEDY. Not so New as Lamentable and True. Acted by His Majesty’s Players at the Globe. Written by W. Shakespeare
And it’s a small cast too, only seven characters in all and probably even less actors. It’s worth bearing in mind that the story in this play is based on true events (the story of Walter Calverley) but I won’t give too much away, so on with the play!
The play opens with two servingmen on stage, Oliver and Ralph. Oliver reports that his mistress is not happy because her man is absent and she wants to enjoy him, since as Ralph says this is normal with women if the man they like does not materialise they become increasingly promiscuous to satisfy their urges. Oliver agrees that’s common but inquires where this man is who went to London, they’re also waiting for their friend Sam.
Cue Sam, and they’re desperate for gossip from him. He’s not treated his horse well and hopes it won’t fall sick because of it though knows if it does then it would serve him right. He has news for them – it turns out the bloke Oliver’s mistress has been pining for was married long ago, and he beats his wife and has two of 3 kids with her, she had more kids after the beating, obviously. This bloke has clearly gone off at the deep end as Sam reports he has ‘consumed all’. The lady had a lucky escape it seems from this rogue who is strangely reminiscent of the son we met in the opening scenes of The London Prodigal wasting his money and now he’s indebted to everyone and anyone it seems.
Sam’s also brought pot-sticks, and they’re got the exotic factor because they’ve come from London and he promises to teach them a new drinking style he learnt in London ‘knighting’ i.e. drinking on your knees.
Wife opens the next scene with laments and fears of what will become of her and her family since her husband wastes their money. He’s gone mad and isn’t sorry in the slightest. Her Husband enters and she attempts to cheer him up and change his ways but he’s just mad she exists and wants shot of her.
He’s violent and refuses to listen to reason. He’s acting like a man possessed. He berates marriage and the fortunes of his sons, all of whom will inherit nothing (because he’s squandered it) and must live like criminals.
She fails to believe that this is the real reason for his behaviour and so enquires again. He replies in true ABBA fashion: ‘Money, money, money’ and then has the cheek to ask her for some. She agrees but urges him to think of his sons. He dismisses them as bastards, she reminds him of his brother but again he’s not interested. He kicks her and she threatens to not touch him in bed again and to use her dowry to please herself and not finance his lurid habits.
It’s all turning a bit Jeremy Kyle Show material. He’s angry at the day he ever married her and she walks out:
I hate the very hour I chose a wife:
A Trouble, trouble!
Three children like three evils hang upon me.
Fie, fie, fie!
Strumpet and bastards, strumpet and bastards!
Three gentlemen enter on hearing the noise and offer their opinion on the situation and the husband’s mental state. They are dismissed. A servant enters to relay that the wife was met by her Uncle and has officially left her husband.
A fourth gentlemen appears to ‘chide’ the husband and he gives him a right old talking to once they’re alone:
Thou’rt fond and peevish
An unclean rioter: thy lands and credit
Lie now both sick of a consumption.
I am sorry for thee: that man spends with shame
That with his riches does consume his name:
And such art thou
And that’s just an excerpt. If you’re looking for tips of disciplining a wild or unruly pal why not check out the lines of gentlemen 4 for some advice, he certainly packs a few punches! The husband thinks the gentlemen is here because he is a friend of his wife’s (given that he defends her) but he corrects him. Soon after they fight (the husband thinks the gentlemen has a fancy for his wife) and the husband is injured, fighting continues and husband falls down but the gentlemen is sorry he has had to hurt him and hopes the husband will now see sense – he had no intention of killing the husband, ‘my sword’s not thirsty for your life’ and after advocating virtue and for the husband to think of the honourable line he is from, he leaves. Husband vows revenge and argues it is his wife who has caused the quarrel and his wound and she must pay the price.
Next scene opens with the wife and servant and she reveals that her Uncle guessed straight away when he saw her at her husband’s behaviour yet her Uncle is willing to offer her husband a position so that he may restore his previous wealth and hopefully his marriage.
Husband enters and demands the money, giving her little time to respond. She begs for patience and says she’s got better news than having sold her dowry, her uncle will give him a position. Her husband is not impressed: ‘Out on thee, filth! Over and over-joyed, when I’m in torments?’ and it continues full of threats, curses, and anger. He kicks her after yelling. She begs that she truly wishes he would listen her intentions were good and she meant no harm nor did she mean to keep her dowry selfishly but rather to help her husband.
The husband utters the ABBA lines once again and draws his dagger (it reminds me of the movie the kid in Home Alone plays when he’s ordering a pizza, particularly the line “leave the money on the chair and get the hell out of here. I’m gonna give you until the count of ten […] before I pump your guts full’a lead”). Money or else it looks like. At this point on the Jeremy Kyle Show special forces would have come in to remove the violent husband, but this is Renaissance drama and there’s no protective gear here. A servant enters and the husband is not pleased to be interrupted, he threatens him but then, on the servant’s message of a visitor for him, he exits.
The wife saved by the servant is horrified at how her husband has taken the news and now, of course fears for her life.
Next scene opens with the husband and master of the college who brings news that the husband’s brother (because he must suffer his brother’s debt) cannot progress in his studies as he should. Clearly this brother has plenty of talent but it’s being hampered by the husband’s misuse of money. The master makes plain this is unfair and not a way to win friends ‘no man loves you’. The husband agrees this is not fair for his brother. He sends the master off for a walk in the gardens and promises an answer upon the master’s return.
Husband soliloquises about his life, the situation he finds himself in, and considers many what-ifs, he tears his hear and considers the religious consequences of the life he’s led. His little son enters, he is saddened by how his father looks, but before you can blink his father has hit him and then stabs him, suggesting it is better that way since his son has no inheritance. Jeremy Kyle would be citing Childline and having a field day at this point no doubt, in tandem with the police.
In the face of doom the husband exits with his son and these defiant lines (which sound almost like Edmund of King Lear): ‘Fates, my children’s blood/Shall spin into your faces, you shall see/How confidently we scorn beggary’.
Scene 5 opens in sharp juxtaposition with a maid and a child in her arms, a ‘pretty boy’. The husband enters with the body of the son he has just stabbed, the maid cries murder as he struggles to get hold of the child she holds. He wife wakes as his son cries ‘Mother, mother: I am killed, mother!’ His wife grabs the youngest and is horrified to find the sons bloody, the husband stabs at the son in her arms and grabs him, she is hurt. The servants enter horrified, and the husband lashes out at one of them, attempting to kill.
Calm and collected (well just about) the husband meets the master.
The master re-enters with two servants and is horrified at the bloodbath he sees, the husband’s offering to help his brother, in the centre of which lies the husband’s wife – her infants bleeding beside her. The master vows to raise the town against the husband for these deeds. The wife awakens and a doctor is summoned, she exits with prophetic lines: ‘Murder has took this chamber with full hands/And will ne’er out as long as the house stands’.
The next scene opens with the fleeing husband being thrown off his horse, as cries of his pursuers are heard in the distance. They catch up with him and take him away to the Justices.
Scene 7 features a knight and gentlemen discussing the rumours about the husband, and what he has become. The knight captures the disapproval and horror felt by all in these lines:
I am sorry I e’er knew him,
That ever he took life and natural being
From such an honoured stock, and fair descent:
Till this black minute without stain or blemish
The husband enters claims he was being compassionate destroying his foul line of descent, sad he didn’t get to kill off his youngest. He’s sent to jail. He begs to speak with his wife who is still kind to him despite everything, in the distance his bleeding boys are laid out to see him. Finally he’s repentant and begs for forgiveness, he even seeks to kiss those which lines earlier he sought to kill. The wheel of fortune has come full circle. His wife prays for her husband to be forgiven, he is to be sentenced to death.
There endeth the play, not quite as bloody as say Titus Andronicus but for a play of only eight scenes it’s pretty tragic, the Yorkshire Tragedy captures more than the violent tendencies of a man and his suffering family which sadly (if domestic violence figures are anything to go by) remains contemporary, more than that it explores the sad story of a man consumed by greed willing to do anything for money, money, money and a rich man’s world.