Other Literary Forms

Thomas Norton contributed verse to the miscellany of Richard Tottel, Songs and Sonnets (1557), one of the most widely read collections of English poetry in the entire Renaissance. In 1561, Norton translated John Calvin’s final version of Institutes of the Christian Religion, completed only a few years before, and in 1562, he turned twenty-eight psalms into metric versions for the collection of Thomas Sternhold and John Hopkins. Norton also wrote a number of religious pamphlets. As a writer, however, he is remembered almost exclusively for his part in Gorboduc.

Thomas Sackville showed considerable early promise as a poet. For the second edition of the famed A Mirror for Magistrates (1563), Sackville provided the “Induction” and one of the tragic laments, “Complaint of Henry, Duke of Buckingham.” Both poems are in rhyme royal, a stanza of seven lines of iambic pentameter rhyming ababbcc.

The “Induction” recounts a Dantesque journey into Hell. As a bitterly cold night falls on a desolate winter countryside, Sackville, pondering the mutability of all living things, muses particularly on the tragic falls of great men in England and wishes that someone would describe their tragedies in order to warn the living to avoid the mistakes of the dead. Suddenly, the pitiful figure of Sorrow, a goddess, appears to lead him into the underworld, where they pass such allegorical figures as Remorse, Misery, Sleep (for whom Sackville composes some of his most beautifully poetic lines), Death, and War before reaching the area where they encounter the ghost of Henry Stafford, duke of Buckingham. The second poem, Buckingham’s lament, begins at this point; in it, the duke admits to the crimes he helped Richard III commit on his way to the throne, but he says that he turned against the tyrant and tried to overthrow him. The failure of his enterprise he furiously blames on the common people who deserted him, and he utters terrible curses against one of his own men, Humphrey Banaster, who ultimately betrayed him to Richard. Then, his energy almost spent, Buckingham warns magistrates to learn a lesson from his fall and to rule their subjects wisely and well.


The only achievement of Thomas Norton and Thomas Sackville in drama consists of their collaboration in Gorboduc, first performed at one of the Inns of Court, the Inner Temple, on January 6, 1561, where it was enough of a success to gain a second performance, before Queen Elizabeth, on January 18, at Whitehall. The title page of the first printed edition (1565) credits Norton with the first three acts and Sackville with the final two. Although that volume was a piracy, most modern scholars accept the ascription with the reservation that, based on internal evidence, Sackville appears to be the more likely author of the opening scene of act 1 and Norton, the more probable author of the final scene in the play.

The influence of Gorboduc is evident from the fact that a second blank-verse tragedy, the Jocasta (pr. 1566) of George Gascoigne and Francis Kinwelmershe, appeared at one of the Inns of Court, Gray’s Inn, during 1566, the next year after the initial publication of Gorboduc. Within the next thirty years, English writers would produce many other tragedies, and a large number of these would contain the unrhymed iambic pentameter first introduced into drama by Norton and Sackville; blank verse would also appear in hundreds of comedies, histories, and other types of plays.

In addition to being a tragedy, Gorboduc is also a history play, for the English accepted the story of King Gorboduc, which had...

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Baker, Howard. Induction to Tragedy: A Study in a Development of Form in “Gorboduc,” “The Spanish Tragedy,” and “Titus Andronicus.” Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1939. This standard work considers the tragic form from two viewpoints: artistry and moral significance. Baker discusses the authorship question of Gorboduc and the possible Senecan influence and also considers native English dramatic influences to be very strong. Pays some attention to the historical criticism of the play.

Berlin, Normand. Thomas Sackville. New York: Twayne, 1974. Contains discussions of Sackville’s life and his work on A Mirror for Magistrates, in addition to a substantial chapter on Gorboduc, which precedes a plea that Sackville should be more appreciated for his substantial artistic merits. Investigates Gorboduc for its political intent, for the mixture of Senecan and native influences, and for the likely division of parts between the coauthors. Useful annotated bibliography.

Graves, Michael A. R. Thomas Norton: The Parliament Man. Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell, 1994. This biography examines the life of Norton, as well as his writings. Bibliography and index.

Walker, Greg. The Politics of Performance in Early Renaissance Drama. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998. Walker examines Norton and Sackville’s Gorboduc, among other works, in terms of its political implications. Bibliography and index.

Whall, Helen M. To Instruct and Delight: Didactic Method in Five Tudor Dramas. New York: Garland, 1988. Finds Gorboduc consciously designed for artistic effects, and its authors—unlike John Bale in King Johan (pb. 1538)—unsatisfied with simply delivering a powerful message. Shows evidence of their artistic concerns in the elaborate dumb shows, the patterned divisions of the five acts, and their innovative verse. Compares Gorboduc frequently with King Johan.