Anthony Munday Critical Essays


(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

Anthony Munday 1560-1633

(Also Mundy) English poet, essayist, playwright, translator, and fiction writer.

In his long career as a writer, Munday produced works in a remarkable range of genres, from translations to poems to journalistic pamphlets. He collaborated on plays with a number of other writers, including Henry Chettle, Thomas Dekker, Michael Drayton, and Thomas Middleton, and composed a series of civic pageants celebrating the installation of several Lord Mayors of London. He recounted his experiences at the English College in Rome in The English Roman Life (1582), a work valued for its historical interest and as a piece of travel literature. He also produced a prose fiction work, Zelauto: The Fountaine of Fame (1580), that is considered an important effort in the early development of the novel. Taken together, Munday's writings provide an extensive record of Elizabethan and Jacobean England.

Biographical Information

Munday was born in October 1560. He was orphaned at a young age, and in 1576 he was apprenticed to the stationer John Allde. Two years later Munday made his literary debut with a poem contributed to the miscellany Gorgeous Gallery of Gallant Inventions. That same year he left the book trade and traveled to Rome, where he stayed until 1579. While in Rome he attended the English College, a Catholic institution, in order to spy on English recusants—in his words, to “undermine them and sift out their purposes.” In the decade following his return to England, Munday produced an impressive variety of works, including The English Roman Life, relating his experiences abroad, particularly in Rome; volumes of poetry; Zelauto; translations of French and Italian works; and a series of anti-Catholic pamphlets. In the 1590s Munday turned to writing for the stage, composing a number of successful plays alone or in collaboration with a series of partners. A manuscript survives of Sir Thomas More (1598), written in Munday's own hand; the manuscript includes revisions by four other playwrights, one of whom has been identified as William Shakespeare. From the late 1590s until at least 1623, Munday wrote many of the pageants with which Lord Mayors of London celebrated their entry into office. He devoted many of his last years to A Survey of London, expanding a work originally published by John Stow. Munday had published his first continuation of this historical and topographical examination of the city in 1618; a second enlargement was issued in 1633, shortly after Munday's death.

Major Works

Among Munday's varied output, The English Roman Life and Zelauto are considered his most important nondramatic works. Critics have found The English Roman Life to be entertaining and a valuable source of contemporary social history. His only original work of prose fiction, Zelauto, is seen as occupying a seminal position in the development of the novel, full of exciting tales of its main character's journeys and composed in a very relaxed conversational style. Munday's greatest popular success was achieved in the theater. John a Kent and John a Cumber (c. 1594) and his two Robin Hood plays, The Downfall of Robert Earl of Huntington (1598) and The Death of Robert Earl of Huntington (1598), are notable for their use of elements of English folklore and intricate plots. Both Robin Hood plays were highly popular in Munday's day, and The Downfall was selected for performance at Court.

Critical Reception

Munday's contemporaries appear to have been divided in their opinions of him. His onetime collaborator Thomas Middleton dismissed him as an “impudent common writer,” and Ben Jonson and John Marston each lampooned him in a play. On the other hand, William Webbe admired his love lyrics as “well worthy to be viewed, and to bee esteemed as very rare Poetrie.” Francis Meres praised him as “the best for comedy amongst us.” Meres' further characterization of him as “our best plotter,” however, has been seen as sly thrust at Munday's activities as a spy. Until the twentieth century critics consistently viewed Munday as a hack writer. Beginning with M. St. Clare Byrne in 1921, modern commentators have come to consider Munday a figure of considerable interest. Jack Stillinger and Paul A. Scanlon have reassessed Zelauto, placing it in the romance tradition and exploring its underlying structure. Both have characterized it as a neglected and undervalued work. A number of critics, including John C. Meacher, J. M. R. Margeson, and Jeffrey L. Singman, have analyzed The Downfall of Robert Earl of Huntington and The Death of Robert Earl of Huntington, judging them important works in the development of the Robin Hood legend and clearly reflective of Elizabethan popular taste. David M. Bergeron has studied the contribution of Munday's civic pageants to the growth of the form and their possible influence on stage drama. While modern scholars do not place Munday in the top rank of Elizabethan and Jacobean writers, the impressive number of his works and the remarkable variety of their genres and subjects have led critics to accord him a measure of respect and to value the picture of Renaissance literary and social life that emerges from a study of his works.