The overused term “Renaissance man” once had specific validity, signifying the zeal, energy, and virtu of an era as well as designating those scholars, statesmen, and poets of one of histories most glorious and adventuresome periods, especially in Great Britain. Virtu represented a concept of doing many things well, of strength and excellence and of an appreciation for the arts equally matched by martial capabilities. What today is thought of as “virtue” was, at its root meaning, that for which the complete courtier strove. Such was the Englishman Thomas Sackville, first earl of Dorset.
Born in 1536, Sackville was related to Queen Elizabeth I—for whom he served in national affairs for most his life—through Elizabeth’s mother, Anne Boleyn, a cousin to Sackville’s father, Sir Richard. It seems appropriate that Thomas, whose life represented the Renaissance spirit of virtu, would come into a world associated with political intrigues and the vagaries of fame and infamy at court by being related by blood to the mother of England’s greatest queen. When Boleyn was condemned to be executed by Henry VIII, Sackville, according to some sources, announced her death sentence to Mary, Queen of Scots, cousin and perceived threat to Queen Elizabeth. In further service to the queen, he negotiated the potential—though unrealized—marriage of Elizabeth to the duke of Anjou of France and traveled to France and Italy on diplomatic missions. Sackville closed out his life under the reign of James I, dying while at council business at Whitehall. In between, he was a poet, dramatist, courtier, ambassador, suspected spy, and royal matchmaker. When he died in 1608, he held the title of Lord High Treasurer of England, which King James had made a lifetime appointment five years previously.
Today, Sackville is remembered more for his artistic fame, as contributor to A Mirror for Magistrates, a literary anthology on the medieval and Renaissance concept of tragedy—the fall of princes—and most especially for his collaboration with Thomas Norton on the play Gorboduc, first performed in 1561 for the Inner Temple, one of the Inns of Court where students studied the law. Due to its popularity, the play was restaged at Whitehall for Queen Elizabeth a few weeks later. Only three known editions of the play existed during the lifetimes of its authors, as performances for the Inner Temple and for the queen were considered private affairs, not meant for the rude multitudes, and staged with great pomp for such events as Christmas celebrations. The first of these editions, 1565, was not “authorized,” while the second, 1570, was and had a new title appended to it: The Tragedy of Ferrex and Porrex, though, as the edition makes clear, it represents the same play as that performed for the queen. The last edition, 1590, repeats information from an earlier edition, claiming the first three acts by Norton, with the last two written by Sackville.
Gorboduc, although a hard read for most students by today’s standards—with its stately and didactic speeches, high rhetoric, and moral underpinnings combined with violent, eloquently framed descriptions and its use of the “dumb show,” wordless versions in brief of the action...