John Day Essay - Critical Essays

Day, John


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.

Principal Works

The Conquest of Brute, with the First Finding of the Bath [with Henry Chettle] (play) 1598

The Spanish Moor's Tragedy [with William Haughton, Thomas Dekker, and John Marston] (play) 1599

Cox of Collumpton [with Haughton] (play) c. 1599-1600

*Thomas Merry [with Haughton] (play) c. 1599-1600

The Seven Wise Masters [with Dekker, Haughton, and Chettle] (play) 1600

The Golden Ass, or Cupid and Psyche [with Dekker and Chettle] (play) 1600

The Blind Beggar of Bednal Green [with Chettle] (play) c. 1600-01

The Second Parte of Strowde (Part 2 of The Blind Beggar of Bednal Green) [with Haughton] (play) c. 1600-01

The Third Parte of Strowde (Part 3 of The Blind Beggar of Bednal Green) [with Haughton] (play) c. 1600-01

Six Yeomen of the West [with Haughton] (play) 1601

The Conquest of the West Indies [with Haughton and Wentworth Smith] (play) c. 1601-02

Friar Rush and the Proud Woman of Antwerp [with Haughton] (play) c. 1601-02

The Bristol Tragedy (play) 1602

As Merry as May Be [with Smith and Richard Hathaway] (play) 1602

The Black Dog of Newgate [with Smith and Hathaway] (play) 1602

The Second Part of the Black Dog [with Smith and Hathaway] (play) 1603

The Boss of Billingsgate [with Hathaway] (play) 1603

The Unfortunate General [with Smith and Hathaway] (play) 1603

Law-Trickes, or Who Would Have Thought It (play) c. 1604

The Isle of Gulls (play) 1606

The Travels of the Three English Brothers [with William Rowley and George Wilkins] (play) 1607

Humour Out of Breath (play) c. 1607-08

Guy of Warwick [with Dekker] (play) c. 1620

The Bellman of London [with Dekker] (play) c. 1623

Come and See a Wonder (play) 1623

The Parliament of Bees (dialogues) 1641

The Works of John Day. 2 vols. (plays and poetry) 1881

*This work is also known as Beech's Tragedy.

†The date given for this work is of its first publication. Several scholars suggest that it was composed sometime between 1634 and 1640.

‡This edition of Day's works contains the first published version of Peregrinatio Scholastica, which was likely written between 1617 and 1625.


A. H. Bullen (essay date 1881)

SOURCE: Bullen, A. H. “Introduction.” In The Works of John Day, edited by A. H. Bullen, pp. 639-67. London: Holland Press, 1963.

[The following essay is taken from a reprint of Bullen's 1881 edition of Day's works. In this introduction, Bullen focuses on the dating of Day's works and appraising his level of talent. He offers praise for the author's delicacy and sweetness, singling out Parliament of Bees and Humour out of Breath as works reflecting Day's poetic strengths.]

In this age of reprinting, when so much pious care is being spent in preserving fresh and sweet the memories of our good old English writers, it is somewhat curious that the author...

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Arthur Symons (essay date 1888)

SOURCE: Symons, Arthur. “John Day.” In Studies in the Elizabethan Drama, pp. 195-210. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1919.

[In the following essay, written in 1888 and included in his 1919 collection, Symons asserts that Day's modest gift was for light, fanciful verse rather than drama in the mode of Shakespeare or Ben Jonson. Nonetheless, he finds Day's comedies lively and entertaining, if not always consistent or substantial.]

John Day, “sometime Student of Caius College, Cambridge,” a “base fellow” and a “rogue” according to Ben Jonson, a good man and a charming writer if the evidence of his own plays may be credited, seems to have come down to posterity in...

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A. C. Swinburne (essay date 1919)

SOURCE: Swinburne, A. C. “John Day.” In Contemporaries of Shakespeare, pp. 213-32. London: William Heinemann, 1919.

[In the excerpt below, Swinburne evaluates Day's talent as reflected in his poems and plays, concluding that Day's moderate genius was likely better suited to light verse than drama.]

One of the very greatest poets that ever glorified the world has left on record his wish that Beaumont and Fletcher had written poems instead of plays; and his wish has been echoed by one of the finest and surest critics of poetry, himself an admirable and memorable poet, unequalled in his own line of terse and pathetic narrative or allegory. I am reluctant if not...

(The entire section is 5471 words.)

Samuel Schoenbaum (essay date 1953)

SOURCE: Schoenbaum, Samuel. “John Day and the Elizabethan Drama.” In Boston Public Library Quarterly 5, No. 3 (July 1953): 140-52.

[In this essay, Schoenbaum argues that Day's reputation as a mediocre hack is undeserved. Although he acknowledges Day's limits as a poet and dramatist, the critic praises his skill in writing to please his audience, and suggests that Day's works are undervalued because these light comedies were written in an era when dark tragedies dominated the stage.]

Of all the dramatists of the Elizabethan age, John Day has been perhaps the most neglected. Treated rather poorly by his contemporaries, he has fared even worse in the judgment of...

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William Peery (essay date 1961)

SOURCE: Peery, William. “The Noble Soldier and The Parliament of Bees.Studies in Philology 48 (April 1961): 219-33.

[In this essay, Peery argues that Day's Parliament of Bees predates Thomas Dekker's The Noble Soldier, clearing Day from the charge that he adapted, and in the process debased, Dekker's work.]

Characters 4 and 5 of John Day's The Parliament of Bees contain extended passages significantly parallel to passages in The Noble Soldier, a play attributed to Day's friend and collaborator, Dekker. Day's editor, A. H. Bullen, in 1881 proposed the following explanation of this phenomenon:


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William T. Cocke III (essay date 1979)

SOURCE: Cocke, William T., III. “Introduction.” In A Critical Edition of John Day's The Parliament of Bees, pp. xi-xxviii. New York: Garland Publishing, 1979.

[In the excerpt below, Cocke offers an overview of Day's life and work, and focuses on issues of dating Day's work.]


John Day was born about 1574 at Cawston, Norfolk, the son of “Walter, a husbandman.” He attended school at Ely under a Mr. Speight, and on October 24, 1592, when he was eighteen years old, entered Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, as a sizar. After only six months, on May 4, 1593, he was expelled from the college for stealing a book. These...

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Raymond S. Burns (essay date 1980)

SOURCE: Burns, Raymond S. “Introduction.” In John Day's The Isle of Guls, A Critical Edition, edited by Raymond S. Burns, pp. 1-45. New York: Garland Publishing, 1980.

[In the following excerpt, Burns offers a brief account of the publication history of The Isle of Guls, explicates the play's satire of the court of James I, and examines its sources and background.]


John Day (c. 1574-c. 1640)1 is a shadowy figure whose name appears with some regularity in the pages of Henslowe's Diary from 1598 to 1603. Of the score or more plays in which he had a hand during this time,...

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John Pitcher (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: Pitcher, John. “‘Fronted with the Sight of a Bear’: Cox of Collumpton and The Winter's Tale.Notes and Queries 41, No. 1 (March 1994): 47-53.

[In this essay, Pitcher uses an account of the staging of Day's Cox of Collumpton to illuminate how Elizabethan audiences might respond to the sight of a bear in Day's play and others.]

The challenge of how to show the bear in Act III of The Winter's Tale continues to put modern directors to the test. Roger Warren, in his account of Sir Peter Hall's production at the National Theatre in 1988, reports that Hall thought that the bear

should be...

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Anthony Parr (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: Parr, Anthony. “Introduction.” In Three Renaissance Travel Plays, edited by Anthony Parr, pp. 1-54. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1995.

[In the excerpt below, Parr describes the context for travel plays such as Day's Travels of the Three English Brothers, particularly stressing the mixture of fear and fascination felt by the English for the foreign and alien.]

And when, after the long trip, I arrived in Patagonia I felt I was nowhere. But the most surprising thing of all was that I was still in the world—I had been travelling south for months. The landscape had a gaunt expression, but I could not deny that it had...

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Further Reading


Bentley, Gerald Eades. “John Day.” In The Jacobean and Caroline Stage, Volume III: Plays and Playwrights, pp. 238-40. Oxford: At the Clarendon Press, 1956.

Provides a brief biography along with a bibliography of surviving works by Day.

Chambers, E. K. “John Day.” In The Elizabethan Stage, Vol. III, pp. 284-89. 1923. Reprint. Oxford: At the Clarendon Press, 1965.

Offers a descriptive primary bibliography. Includes a listing of lost plays by Day.


Borish, M. E. “A Second Version of John Day's Peregrinatio Scholastica.Modern...

(The entire section is 204 words.)