Thomas Norton and Thomas Sackville are two extremely interesting men who wrote an extremely imporant play, Gorboduc. The play was the first regular English tragedy, the first English drama of any type to be written in blank verse, and one of the first English history plays. It was written in collaboration by two young, wealthy, well-educated men, trained in law, who had already served as members of Parliament. The authors performed their play before Queen Elizabeth in the troubled early years of her reign. They had no original intention of publishing their play but were forced to do so after a pirated first edition appeared with various corrupt readings. All of these factors lead to highly interesting points of analysis.
Norton and Sackville wrote Gorboduc with one definite purpose in mind: to offer political advice to Elizabeth Tudor, the young relative of Sackville who then sat on the throne of a country sharply divided by political and religious differences. The whole play is an urgent plea for Elizabeth to do everything in her power to keep the nation united.
To dramatize their political statements, the two playwrights made significant changes in the story told by Geoffrey of Monmouth of an ancient British king. In Geoffrey’s account, when King Gorboduc grows old, his two sons, Ferrex and Porrex, both desire the Crown. Porrex kills his brother but then is slain by his own mother, Widen, in revenge for Ferrex. Civil war breaks out, and the country is torn apart, eventually being divided into five different kingdoms before it is reunited under one strong leader. The horrors of a divided kingdom and of civil war were already evident in the story, but Norton and Sackville carefully altered other details to make their political arguments clearer and more emphatic, to make their play, in effect, a mirror for one magistrate. The play stresses the necessity of a ruler’s heeding wise counsel, distinguishing between flatterers and good advisers, keeping control over the unruly commons, settling all questions of succession to the throne, summoning Parliament at the proper time, and ensuring that the realm will not fall to a foreign ruler.
The political messages begin in the play as early as possible, in the well-known dumb show that precedes act 1. To the music of violins, a group of savages enters with a bundle of sticks, which they try, first individually and then with their combined strength, to break. They fail—until they begin to pull the sticks out one at a time, and then they can snap them easily. The interpretation is clear: Unity is strength; division is weakness. The act that follows contains two scenes. In the first, Queen Videna (Geoffrey’s Widen) sorrowfully informs her elder and favorite son that his father plans to divide Ferrex’s inheritance and give half of the realm to Porrex. The second scene shows her statement to be true. King Gorboduc, whose mind is already decided on the question, nevertheless asks three of his counselors for their opinions of his plan. The first two, Arostus and Philander, agree to the division of the country, though Philander argues that it should not happen while the king is still living. Only Eubulus, whose name means “good counselor,” argues against the dangerous plan, but he is ignored by Gorboduc. After the act has ended, a chorus of four ancient sages of Britain enters to voice their condemnation of the foolish decision of the king.
The tight organizational scheme of the authors is apparent: They begin with a dumb show that clearly relates to the events in the act that follows; then, the chorus comments on the action preceding it and connects that action thematically with the dumb show. The pattern will continue for all five acts, with the exception that there is no chorus after the fifth act.
Before the second act, the music of cornets ushers in a dumb show set in a royal court. A king refuses wine offered him in a glass but accepts liquid offered in a golden goblet. The king falls dead, killed by the poison within the goblet. The dumb show indicates the difference between an honest counselor whose advice is open and plain and a bad counselor who speaks with the poison of flattery.
In act 2, another aspect of the play’s structure becomes apparent: Balance and contrast, while present in act 1, are much more obvious in act 2. Again there are two scenes, and in each scene there are three characters, a prince and two advisers, one good and one bad. Ferrex listens to his bad adviser, Hermon, a flattering parasite, and decides to raise an army for defense in case his brother should attack. Dordan, a wise counselor sent by Gorboduc to stay with Ferrex, has spoken against Hermon’s counsel, but to no avail. He immediately writes a letter to inform Gorboduc of his son’s foolishness.
Scene 2 repeats the pattern of its predecessor. Porrex agrees with Tyndar, another flatterer, who has advised him to invade his brother’s realm; they ignore the outspoken opposition of Philander, a good counselor assigned by Gorboduc to stay with Porrex. In dismay, Philander hastens to inform Gorboduc in person of Porrex’s invasion plans. The chorus enters to lament that unbridled youth would neglect the good advice of able counselors and listen instead to poisonous words from flattering mouths.
Before act 3, the music shifts from the loud measures of the first two dumb shows to the softer notes of flutes. With this change, another element in the artistry of the play becomes apparent: The instruments have been selected so that the music will provide as appropriate an accompaniment to the dumb show and as appropriate a prelude to the act that follows as are possible. For example, the sad music of the flutes—which, centuries before Christ, had accompanied the elegiac verse of Greece—accompanies a group of mourners, dressed in black, who march thrice around the stage, indicating the sorrow that will soon come on the realm. In the act that follows, first Dordan’s letter and then the personal report of Philander cause Gorboduc great concern, but he still has hope that he can intercede and make peace between his sons. Then, however, the type of character who frequently bears the worst of news in classical drama, the Nuntius or messenger, rushes in to tell of Porrex’s invasion of his brother’s land and the act of fratricide that has resulted. Gorboduc is left to mourn the death of Ferrex. The chorus then laments the mistakes of Gorboduc and of his children, which have brought black floods of mourning to the land.
The clear connection of the music with the content of the play continues throughout. For act 4, the wild music of hautboys (oboes) introduces the terrifying figures of the Furies, and before act 5 the martial music provided by drums and flutes precedes scenes of warfare. According to his chaplain, Sackville...
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