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...
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