John Day Critical Essays


(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

John Day c. 1574-c. 1640

English playwright, poet, and prose writer.

Day was among a group of professional playwrights who, singly or in collaboration, produced scores of works for the London playhouses in the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods. His works have been of interest to poets and scholars, both as documents of theatrical history and as examples of elegant, refined verse. A careful follower of audience tastes, Day varied the themes and subjects of his plays to suit the preferences of the spectators, whether they were a small group of aristocrats at a private theater or a large crowd of commoners at a public playhouse. His life and works, therefore, reveal much about the theaters of his era, the composition and interests of the audiences, and the career of a theater craftsman.

Biographical Information

Very few details of Day's life are known. The Biographical History of Gonville and Caius College (Cambridge) reports that he was born in Norfolk around 1574, the son of Walter Day (or Dey). He was admitted to Cambridge in the fall of 1592, at around the age of eighteen, and was expelled the next spring for stealing a book. By 1598 Day had begun writing for the theater; an entry dated that year in the Diary of Philip Henslowe, owner of the Rose Theatre, indicates that Day sold The Conquest of Brute, with the First Finding of the Bath, which he had written with Henry Chettle, to the Admiral's Men, a company that regularly performed at the Rose. Day's next six plays were for the Rose as well, and he collaborated with other writers working for Henslowe, including William Haughton—who was to become a frequent writing partner—as well as Thomas Dekker and John Marston. It seems clear that while Day was a productive writer, he was never financially successful: Henslowe's Diary records twenty-two plays to which Day contributed, but it also mentions several advances and loans to Day. After 1603 Day was connected with the private Blackfriars and Whitefriars theaters, writing for the boys' companies the Children of the King's Revels and Children of the Queen's Revels. The Isle of Gulls was first performed at the Blackfriars in 1606. Day began work on his prose treatise, the Peregrinatio Scholastica, some time between 1617 and 1625. His activities after 1625 remain unknown, although some scholars believe that Day composed the collection of dialogues The Parliament of Bees (published 1641) between 1634 and 1640. The latter date is generally fixed as that of Day's death; in that year John Tatham published his collection Fancies Theatre, which includes an elegy for Day.

Major Works

Day wrote plays not to create timeless works of art, but to please specific audiences. His earliest surviving work, The Blind Beggar of Bednal Green (c. 1600-01), written with Chettle, clearly appealed to the common folk at the public theaters. Although the comedy has been faulted for its lack of coherence—plot lines are not followed through, characters disappear from the story—its simple-minded country hero, Tom Strowd, was featured in two sequels written by Day and Haughton. Law-Trickes, or Who Would Have Thought It (c. 1604), the earliest extant work written by Day alone, was first performed at the Blackfriars. A satirical comedy designed for a sophisticated audience, it is set in Italy and presents of world of lust, intrigue, and threatened violence. The play is noteworthy for the development of the character Emilia, the first of Day's portraits of charming, high-spirited female figures. Day's most famous play, The Isle of Gulls, was also written for the Blackfriars. In the Induction Day enumerates the qualities of a play necessary to please courtiers like those attending the Blackfriars: insults and abuse, bombastic language, and sexual humor. He then proceeds to satisfy those requirements in the play proper. Adapted from Philip Sidney's Arcadia, The Isle of Gulls combines the romance of Sidney's work with satire aimed at a number of targets, including lawyers, Puritans, and, most controversially, the court of James I. The allusions to James provoked an official reaction and several of those involved in the production were imprisoned. Humour Out of Breath (c. 1607-08), another work presented at Blackfriars, is often regarded as Day's best play. Lighter and more fanciful than his previous presentations at the theater, this romantic comedy was influenced by early Shakespearean comedies, especially As You Like It. The depiction of Florimell in Humour Out of Breath is commonly regarded as the culmination of Day's sketches of witty but tenderhearted young women. The sole surviving example of Day's nondramatic verse is the posthumously published Parliament of Bees (1641). A series of twelve dialogues in rhymed verses, it has often been hailed as his finest poetic achievement.

Critical Reception

Day's works have long suffered from neglect, a condition A. H. Bullen sought to rectify with his 1881 edition of Day's plays and poetry. To that end, Bullen carefully pointed out the beautiful verse and attractive (if, in his judgment, underdeveloped) characters of Day's drama. This approach led Bullen to view the nondramatic The Parliament of Bees as Day's greatest work. Freed of “the sombre action of that little world of the Elizabethan drama,” Bullen argued, in The Parliament of Bees Day reveals his true gift: lyric verse. A. C. Swinburne, Arthur Symons, and other early twentieth-century critics concurred. Samuel Schoenbaum, however, stressed Day's abilities as a playwright. In his estimation, Day's facility for moving between the public and private theaters demonstrates a great deal of skill and careful observation of his audiences. Because Day's plays are so topical and, especially in the case of his plays for the private theaters, rich with allusions, they often inform modern scholars about wider social concerns as well as contemporary theatrical techniques. As John Pitcher has suggested, information gleaned from Day's works can be used both to understand other plays of the period and to design modern productions. Anthony Parr has praised The Travels of the Three English Brothers (1607) for the insights it provides regarding English views of foreign travel and foreign cultures. Parr has also deemed the play a serious work of literature, noting Day and his collaborators' careful handling of source material, their sensitivity to cultural issues, and their political acumen. Raymond S. Burns, judging Day a figure more of historical than literary interest, has explored in detail Day's satire of the court of James I and other contemporary events and figures in The Isle of Gulls. According to Burns, this play aimed at a jaded Blackfriars audience indicates the “moral anarchy” that was increasingly pervading the plays of the period and would lead to the closing of the London theaters in 1642.