Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 985
Gorboduc, written by Thomas Norton and Thomas Sackville soon after their entry into law and public life, and first presented before Queen Elizabeth I during Christmas of 1561, is a landmark in English literature for several reasons, most notably because it is the first English drama written in blank verse—that is, largely unrhyming iambic pentameter, the form used by later writers such as Christopher Marlowe, Ben Jonson, and William Shakespeare. For this reason alone, the play has a place in the English literary canon. Gorboduc is important for further reasons as well.
In addition to establishing blank verse as a language for the stage, Gorboduc set the basic pattern for the structure of English Renaissance drama. For the structure of Gorboduc Sackville and Norton turned to classical models, most notably those of closet plays of the Roman author Lucius Annaeus Seneca (closet plays are dramas that are meant to be read rather than acted) and the comedies of Titus Maccius Plautus, another Roman playwright, and so based their own drama on a five-act division, with each act subdivided into a varying number of scenes.
This simple device proved extremely important for the development of English Renaissance drama, since it provided a vehicle equally suitable for all major genres—tragedy, comedy, and history. Additionally, as Norton and Sackville demonstrated, the flexible act and scene structure allows playwrights to shift rapidly but logically from large, public settings to small, intimate ones, thus extending the range and scope of their dramas.
Perhaps Gorboduc’s most telling use of this flexibility is the dumb shows that punctuate the play and comment on its actions. These plays within plays developed from native English mystery and miracle plays, such as Everyman (1508), and are allegorical representations of Gorboduc’s plot. They emphasize and offer silent comment upon the moral of the story being enacted. The dumb shows are a highly effective combination of morality and theater.
As an example, Gorboduc opens with six wild men, characteristically dressed in leaves, who appear on stage, trying and failing to break a bundle of sticks; taking the bundle apart, each wild man easily snaps an isolated branch. This symbolic representation of the disastrous effects of disunity in a kingdom is acted out in the following scenes, as King Gorboduc divides his kingdom. The division brings disorder and anarchy, a point that is later emphasized in another dumb show in which armed men march about the stage discharging their firearms in a stylized representation of civil war.
Another way in which Gorboduc sets precedent is in its use of English history as the basis for a dramatic plot. The play, loosely based on supposed events in ancient British history, is the first of the long series of history plays that re-created for Elizabethan and Jacobean audiences the glories and sorrows of the nation’s past. This series would reach its ultimate culmination in Shakespeare’s history cycles of the English medieval monarchy.
The Gorboduc story is found in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia regum Britanniae (c. 1136; History of the Kings of Britain, 1718), a collection of loosely related accounts that chronicle the supposed development of England after Brute, the great-grandson of Aeneas, founded New Troy, or London. King Gorboduc, or Gorbogudo in Geoffrey’s version, supposedly lived in the seventh century before Christ. The Gorboduc tale is taken up in later chronicles also.
Gorboduc also set precedent in that it established the tradition of English stage productions being vehicles for commentary, discussion, and even polemics on political issues. The central political theme of Gorboduc is its intention to warn Queen Elizabeth of the dangers of leaving her realm without a single, definite heir. At the time the drama was written and produced, Elizabeth was unmarried, and although she was to remain so throughout her reign, there was constant pressure on her to contract a suitable marriage and produce an heir. Many Englishmen, Sackville and Norton clearly among them, felt that this was the only way the kingdom could escape the ravages of civil war, remembered from the Wars of the Roses, which had pitted the rival houses of York and Lancaster against one another for several generations.
Sackville and Norton were members of Elizabeth’s first Parliament of 1558, which had petitioned the Queen either to marry and produce an heir or at least to name a successor. Gorboduc articulates in dramatic form the Tudor ideal of a unified and peaceful kingdom by demonstrating, in graphic and vivid fashion, the consequences of divided power and uncertain succession. In this, it is specifically geared to the political concerns of the moment. The drama also has wider implications, demonstrating what can occur in any realm when power is dispersed instead of being concentrated in the hands of a wise prince and the prince’s trusted advisers—in the case of England, Elizabeth and Parliament. The tradition of the drama as a political vehicle would continue throughout the period.
These conventions and devices, which rapidly became an integral part of English Renaissance drama, are key elements of Gorboduc and are handled with considerable skill. Critics and scholars have sometimes noted the static nature of the play, pointing out that the true actions—such as the multiple killings that mark the progression of the plot—take place offstage and are merely recounted, rather than shown. It should be remembered, however, that the device of offstage violence is part of the Senecan tradition and, in recompense, the dumb shows that punctuate and comment upon the acts provide symbolic representation of the more violent actions.
In the end, the success of Gorboduc can be divided into two parts: its own success as an individual work of dramatic art, which offers a historical story, a political commentary, and an artistic presentation; and its triumphant role as a precursor and template for later English drama. Gorboduc succeeds for what it is and for what it prefigures.
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