Gorboduc, king of Britain and last of the line beginning with the legendary Brute, decides that he will not wait until his death before handing over the rule of his kingdom. In addition, he decides that he will set aside the rule of primogeniture and divide Britain between his two sons, Ferrex and Porrex. To Ferrex, the older, he plans to give all lands south of the Humber River; to Porrex, the younger, he intends to give those lands north of the Humber.
Calling in his chief advisers, Gorboduc tells them what is in his mind. Arostus is in complete agreement with the king’s wishes, but Philander and Eubulus warn of the dangers of the plan. Although they admit that the king will be able to aid his sons in the early years of their reigns, they feel that the sons might not be willing to take advice from their father after he places power in their hands. The advisers also warn that when the authority of the kingdom is divided, the allegiance of the people might be divided, and they point out that Ferrex might very well resent having to share the kingdom with a younger brother, since custom made it the rule that the firstborn son inherited the entire kingdom. Last of all, they warn Gorboduc that history has proved a kingdom divided is easier prey to foreign conquest.
Gorboduc listens to his counselors. When they finish speaking, however, he tells them his mind is made up, that he feels the advantages to be gained by dividing the kingdom during his lifetime outweigh the disadvantages. Accordingly, he sets his plan in operation, not knowing that his queen, Videna, is extremely jealous of her older son’s prerogatives and hates the younger son for receiving a part of the kingdom that she feels rightfully belongs in its entirety to Ferrex.
Gorboduc sends trusted advisers of his own with each of the princes when they take over their separate domains, but before long both sons begin to disregard their father’s counselors. Instead, they listen to young men who prey upon their vanities. Ferrex seeks the advice of a parasite named Hermon, a man who flatters the young ruler’s ego. Hermon tells Ferrex that as the older son he should not have been given such a meager part of Britain and that, according to custom and his own ability, Ferrex should have been made ruler of the entire domain.
More than flattering Ferrex, Hermon tells him that the younger king beyond the Humber is jealous of the older brother and is plotting to invade the kingdom of Ferrex. Dordan, the elderly counselor sent to Ferrex by Gorboduc, prevails enough on the young man so that Ferrex makes only secret preparations against a possible attack by his brother.
Meanwhile, north of the Humber, the same situation develops. Porrex, the younger son, scorns the wise advice of his father’s counselor and turns to a flattering parasite, who tells Porrex about the secret plans being made for war by Ferrex. Porrex, who distrusts his brother, decides that a preventive war is the best solution to the problem, and he sets out to invade the kingdom south of the Humber. Dordan sends a letter to Gorboduc advising him of the state of affairs between the two brothers. The aged father-king calls his trusted men about him to ask their advice. While the council meets to seek a solution, word comes that Porrex has invaded the older brother’s kingdom and has murdered Ferrex with his own hand.
Queen Videna, when she hears what has happened to her...
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beloved older son, swears she will seek revenge on Porrex. She declares that he is no longer a son of hers but a criminal to be punished for his evil deeds. Porrex, sent for by his father, appears at Gorboduc’s court and readily admits invading his brother’s kingdom and murdering his brother. Porrex says that he is genuinely sorry that the deed had been committed, but that he still feels the murder justified. He swears that Ferrex tried to have him poisoned and that he killed Ferrex in order to save his own life. Gorboduc, not knowing what to do until he investigates the situation further, sends Porrex from his sight until he should send word that he wants the young man’s presence.
Scarcely has the young man left his father when he is killed by his mother, who thereby avenges the murder of Ferrex. The Britons, outraged at such conduct on the part of their rulers, then rise up in arms and murder both Gorboduc and Queen Videna.
The nobles of Britain, left without a leader, try to put down the uprising of the common people. They fear that if they do not quell the revolt at once, the country will be weakened and left prey to some invading power. The nobles see themselves, their families, their lands, and the whole country threatened by the horrible mistake that destroyed the royal house. The nobles, however, cannot agree on a course of action.
When a number of them meet in a solemn conclave to organize against the uprisen rabble, they learn that the duke of Albany, filled with ambition to become ruler, has raised an army and set out on a campaign to make himself master of Britain. King Gorboduc’s counselors advise the other nobles to join together to put down the duke, since he wishes to usurp the throne. Faced by a common danger, they at last choose a new king for Britain, the old line having become extinct with the deaths of Gorboduc and his two sons.