George Gascoigne

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George Gascoigne Drama Analysis

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Both the state of development of drama during the 1560’s and 1570’s and the nature of George Gascoigne’s dramatic efforts, including the masques and plays, mitigated against Gascoigne’s achieving a level of art in drama equal to that in his better poems. His mastery of style may have been sufficient, if the lively prose dialogue of Supposes and the verse of his better poems are accepted as evidence, but the court masque, even at its best in the early 1600’s, has generally been considered a minor form of art, existing primarily to grace a particular occasion and to honor powerful people. As for the plays, when Supposes and Jocasta were first produced in 1566, English playwrights had not yet learned how to combine native and classical traditions in order to create great drama. Indeed, much of the impetus behind the production of plays at the Inns of Court during the 1560’s probably came from the desire of persons educated in the classical tradition to influence the development of English drama. Translations such as Jocasta and Supposes seem to have exerted a timely and beneficial influence, but the lesser art of translation, no matter how well done, does not evoke the sort of praise given creators of good original works of art. Gascoigne’s one original play, The Glasse of Governement, has artful touches but lacks theatricality. An examination of the masques and plays may help to explain how Gascoigne’s contributions to drama have earned for him a permanent place in literary history even though he is not regarded as a great playwright.

A Devise of a Maske for the Right Honorable Viscount Mountacute

Performed in October, 1572, Gascoigne’s first known attempt at the masque omits many of the conventional elements of the form, which usually included mumming, music, dance, verse spoken by more than one character, spectacular costumes and properties, and mythological characters. Of all of these elements, Gascoigne’s A Devise of a Maske for the Right Honorable Viscount Mountacute uses only spectacular costumes and verse spoken by a single character.

The writer’s preface suggests a cause for the masque’s peculiarities. Eight men of the Montague family had decided to provide a masque for the Montague-Dormer wedding and had already purchased Venetian costumes. They asked Gascoigne to write something to be spoken by a professional actor that would give a pretext for the Venetian costumes. From the Montague coat of arms he gained information that served his purpose: There was an Italian branch of the Montague family.

In the masque, a boy actor, an imaginary descendant of the English Montagues, tells of his father’s death and his own capture by Turks at the siege of Famagusta and of his rescue by Venetians, who are members of the Italian branch of Montagues. On the way to Venice their ship was driven ashore in England by a storm. After using 348 lines of poulter’s measure to explain the presence of the Venetians, the boy presents them to the wedding party in ten lines, praises the newly married couples in eighteen lines, and speaks a two-line farewell that ends the masque.

It is true, as Ronald C. Johnson points out in George Gascoigne (1972), that the narrative moves well in A Devise of a Maske for the Right Honorable Viscount Mountacute, but except for its flattery of the Montagues, the boy’s tale has little connection with the wedding. Further, the poet has relied too much on words, neglecting the dialogue, physical motion, and spectacle innate in drama, even in a form of drama as static as the masque.

The Princely Pleasures at...

(This entire section contains 2503 words.)

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Kenelworth Castle

By July 9, 1575, Gascoigne had learned more about courtly shows. The entertainment of Elizabeth commissioned by the earl of Leicester and later published as The Princely Pleasures at Kenelworth Castle was a series of presentations written by Gascoigne and five other men, each of whose compositions was identified as such in the published text. At least two of the five, as Charles T. Prouty observes, had some experience with similar entertainments at court and therefore may have given Gascoigne valuable information.

Gascoigne himself spoke the first section he had written. As a savage man draped in ivy, he met the queen in the forest as she returned from hunting and spoke poetry expressing the natural man’s admiration of the great people gathered at Kenilworth, especially flattering the queen and, fairly subtly, calling her attention to the earl of Leicester, her suitor. Although this performance still relied primarily on recitation of poetry, Gascoigne made clever use of the character Echo, presumably hidden in the woods, to produce a special effect by repetition of endings of lines spoken by the savage man.

The second section composed by Gascoigne is a full-scale masque. It employs spectacular costumes, music, song, elaborate stage effects, and mythological characters that express a meaning. Diana, goddess of chastity, and four of her nymphs are passing through the forest when Diana remembers Zabeta, a favorite nymph who has abandoned her. Fearing that Juno has won Zabeta away from chastity, Diana sends her nymphs to find the lost follower. Through the help of Mercury, Diana learns that Zabeta is not yet committed to Juno. After Diana leaves, content to allow Zabeta to use her own judgment, Iris descends to earth and ends the masque by urging Zabeta to wed. The masque was never performed, perhaps because its meaning was too clear: Zabeta was Queen Elizabeth, and she was being urged to marry the earl of Leicester.

By order of the earl, Gascoigne also wrote a performance bidding the queen farewell. Again Gascoigne relied primarily on recitation, this time a prose tale spoken extemporaneously. As Sylvanus, god of the woods, Gascoigne met the queen as she went out to hunt and told her the story as he walked beside her horse. Sylvanus’s tale concerns the gods’ sorrow at her departure and the good things they will shower on Kenilworth if she remains. An abrupt shift to the subject of a goddess who changes her followers into trees and shrubs leads to a holly bush from which Deep Desire speaks verse entreating the queen to stay, concluding the performance with a song lamenting her determination to leave. The end of the presentation thus incorporates elements other than recitation, but Gascoigne as Sylvanus has depended on words to the point of excluding other desirable elements of the masque or pageant.


Gascoigne’s place in the history of drama, however, was earned roughly nine years before the entertainment of Kenilworth, in 1566, when the translations Jocasta and Supposes were produced at Gray’s Inn. The title pages of the plays, first published in A Hundreth Sundrie Flowres Bounde Up in One Small Poesie, provide the year and location of production, but there is no indication of precisely when the translations were done or of the order in which the plays were staged.

The tragedy Jocasta—its second, third, and fifth acts translated by Gascoigne, the first and fourth by Kinwelmershe—has much historical importance. Even though the title page states that the play is a tragedy written in Greek by Euripides “translated and digested into Acte,” the translators actually worked from Lodovico Dolce’s Giocasta. Still, Jocasta was the first Greek tragedy presented in England. By following the earlier Gorboduc in the use of five-act structure, blank verse, dumb shows before each act, and Senecan emphases, the play reinforced modes in tragedy that later served playwrights such as Thomas Kyd (1558-1594) and Christopher Marlowe.

The translation of the particular play may have had bad as well as good effects on Gascoigne’s development as a dramatist. As Johnson comments, Jocasta appealed to Elizabethans for several reasons, some of which are its concern with strife over succession to the throne, its use of dumb shows and long set speeches and its dwelling on accounts of violence and horror. There is no shortage of subject matter: The tragedy covers almost all the events in Sophocles’ trilogy on the Oedipus myth. Scene by scene, the play shifts the focus from one major character to another, emphasis falling at different times on Jocasta, Servus, Antigone, Polynices, Eteocles, Creon, Tyresias, Meneceus, and Oedipus. The shifting causes a lack of focus; moreover, the play’s use of long speeches may have encouraged a similar tendency in Gascoigne, primarily a maker of poems. The play, true to its origins in classical tragedy, persistently narrates action instead of showing it onstage.


Ariosto’s I suppositi was a much better choice for translation than was Dolce’s tragedy, and Gascoigne’s treatment of the play reflects much skill with language. Carefully unified, Ariosto’s comedy imitates Plautus’s Captivi (The Captives, 1767) and Terence’s Eunuchus (161 b.c.e.; The Eunuch, 1598) by having a master and slave exchange identities so that the master can enter the house of an attractive girl as a household servant. The young master (really Erostrato) comes to Ferrara from his home in Sicily in order to study at the university, bringing his servant Dulypo with him. Seeing the beautiful Polynesta, Erostrato exchanges roles with his servant and enters service in the house of Damon, Polynesta’s father. Using the nurse Balia as an intermediary, Erostrato secretly becomes intimate with Polynesta and wishes to marry her, but her father is inclined to give her hand to Cleander, a rich but miserly old lawyer who offers a large marriage settlement. In order to delay the marriage, Erostrato has his slave pretend to court Polynesta, outbidding Cleander for her hand, but Damon demands that the younger suitor’s father guarantee the arrangements. The crafty slave contrives to have a Sienese traveler pose as Philogano, the father of Erostrato. Just as the real Philogano arrives in Ferrara to pay a surprise visit to his son, the real Erostrato has been caught in intimacy with Polynesta and has been imprisoned. Through Pasiphilo, the parasite, the confusion about the father’s and the son’s identities is resolved, and Cleander discovers his lost son in Dulypo, the crafty slave. No longer needing a marriage to beget an heir, Cleander is happy at the end of the comedy when Philogano and Damon agree on a marriage between Erostrato and Polynesta. The comic resolution is complete and satisfying.

Unlike the masques and Jocasta, Supposes has sufficient action to appeal to a large audience, and Gascoigne’s translation is in light, idiomatic style. He had access to both prose and verse versions in Italian but had the good judgment to opt for prose in English, influencing large numbers of later comedies. In addition, Supposes brought the first Italian adaptation of Roman comedy to the English stage, which would make use of many of Roman comedy’s type characters and of such devices as disguise, mistaken identity, and love intrigue. If Supposes had been Gascoigne’s original creation, the play would have earned for him literary immortality as a playwright.

The Glasse of Governement

Unfortunately, Gascoigne’s one original play, The Glasse of Governement, lacks theatrical appeal even though it has interesting touches in characterization and structure. The first of Gascoigne’s moralistic writings, the play is written in the tradition of the prodigal-son plays popularized by Dutch Humanists, a tradition to which Gascoigne was probably exposed during his military service in the Low Countries.

Structured in five acts, the story line Antwerp, Phylopaes and Philocalus, have two sons each, paired by age with the sons of the other. Anxious for their sons to go to the university but wanting the boys to be prepared both morally and academically, the fathers entrust their sons to the teacher Gnomaticus, who teaches in accordance with the ideals of Christian Humanists. The two elder sons learn very quickly but are soon bored. They are easily lured to the house of Lamia the harlot by the parasite Echo. The two younger sons are slower to learn but eager to understand their morally based instruction.

Learning that their elder sons have been seen in bad company, the fathers consult Gnomaticus, who agrees that the four sons should be sent to the University of Douai so that the elder boys will be separated from evil company. Accompanied by the evil servant Ambidexter, the boys go to Douai. Quickly the elder sons neglect their studies and, with Ambidexter, frequent taverns and brothels. The younger sons study. Hearing news of the elder sons’ conduct, the fathers send the good servant Fidus to help them, but Fidus arrives too late. He returns with news that one elder son has been executed for robbery at the Palsgrave’s court in the presence of his successful younger brother, who is now secretary to the Palsgrave. Another elder son has been publicly whipped and banished from Geneva for fornication, even though his younger brother, now a famous preacher there, tried to intercede on his brother’s behalf. Thoroughgoing in its use of poetic justice, the play ends after all the evil characters have been punished by the law and the virtue of the two younger sons has been rewarded by social advancement.

For a play of its time, The Glasse of Governement has many good features. It is well organized by five-act structure, and the dialogue is in clear prose. Its greatest strength, however, lies in its characterization, which avoids mere stereotypes. The fathers are concerned and sympathetic; Gnomaticus is a kind and tolerant teacher with little practical knowledge of human nature; Severus is an officer of the law who refuses to punish offenders without firm evidence against them; and Lamia is a girl from a prosperous family who drifted into prostitution because she rejected her society’s stifling restrictions on the conduct of proper young ladies.

Despite its virtues, the play seems not to have been produced, perhaps because of its untheatrical qualities. Its use of paired characters—fathers, sons, and servants—offers theatrical possibilities through comparison and contrast, but there is little differentiation between the individuals in the sets of pairs. The play’s heavy-handed didacticism poses more serious problems: It creates a mood more appropriate to a pulpit than to the stage, leads to the oversimplified morality of poetic justice, and results in static scenes in which Gnomaticus and, less frequently, the good sons recite extremely long and moral speeches. Finally, the focus of the action depicted onstage is misdirected. The elder sons’ wild behavior and the younger sons’ triumphs are merely narrated, whereas the lectures of Gnomaticus take place onstage. This misdirected focus prevents the conflict between good and evil from coming alive in the play.

Gascoigne’s tendency to rely on long recitations in drama may suggest a weakness in his sense of the dramatic, or more likely may reflect the immature state of English drama during his time. In any event, George Gascoigne created no original work of lasting fame, but through his translations, particularly his Supposes, he did help to make possible the greatest age of English drama.


George Gascoigne Poetry: British Analysis