A Yorkshire Tragedy

In 1560, Amy Robsart, wife to Robert Dudley, afterwards Earl of Leicester and favourite of the Queen, died after a fall down the stairs at Cumnor. While Leicester was cleared of blame at the subsequent inquest, his absence at the funeral and at the inquest no doubt added fuel to the rumour perpetrated by his enemies that his wife was pushed at his instigation so that the widowed Leicester would be available to marry the Queen. For reasons to do with religion, the Queen’s partiality, politics, and Leicester’s management of some of his estates during his wardship, the Earl of Oxford was Leicester’s inveterate foe. Oxford has been credited with the splendid scurrilous libel (or was it?) entitled, Leycester’s Commonwealth, detailing the favourite’s many sins and character deficiencies. Now consider this extract from A Yorkshire Tragedy:

Husband (to maidservant): ‘Are you gossiping, prating, sturdy queane ?
Ile break your clamor with your neck: down staires!
Tumble, tumble, headlong !’ – throws her down
So! The surest waie to charme a woman’s tongue
Is break hir neck: a politician did it.

-Scene V, ll.10-14

“Politician” is a particularly rude word in Shakespeare.

A Yorkshire Tragedy was published in 1608 with “Written by W. Shakspeare” on the title leaf, a year after a play on the same subject was published by Thomas Wilkins. Both were ostensibly followed by a pamphlet detailing a crime of 1605 involving a wife attacked by her husband, a Mrs. Calverly, and the murder of two of their children. The contents of the pamphlet have been closely analysed by Nina Green in the Edward de Vere Newsletter, who clearly identifies the inconsistencies in the pamphlet, in particular where it refers to the Calverly murders of 1605, and believes, instead, it borrows from the play.

Personally, I believe the play is as old as the original version of Arden Of Feversham, called Murderous Michael, which was performed at Court at Shrovetide in 1577-8. Michael was Arden’s body servant, and his membership in the conspiracy to murder Arden must have been particularly shocking to the Court. The two professional murderers were George Shakebag and Black Will. The signing off speech of Black Will is well known to Oxfordians, with its links to the Gads Hill incident in Henry IV Part I and The Famous Victories. The ending speech of George Shakebag reads as below – and I hope I am not being too fanciful in linking A Yorkshire Tragedy’s use of the word ‘charme’ to “widow Chambly:”

The widow Chambly, in her husbands dayes,
I kept; and now he’s dead, she is growne so stout
She will not know her ould companions.
I came thither, thinking to haue had
Harbour as I was wont,
And she was ready to thrust me out at doores;
But whether she would or no, I got me vp,
And as she followed me, I spurnd her down the staires,
And broke her neck, and cut her tapsters throat …

– Act V, Scene ii lines 1-9

A letter specifically linking the 1577-8 performance of Murderous Michael with Oxford is discussed in my book, Edward de Vere and the Making of Shakespeare (pg. 87).

How could the writers of these two plays – and I think the young Oxford was author of both – get away with such clear references to Amy Robsart’s death unless, like Oxford, he had a high position at court and supporters to enable him to take the obvious risks? Leicester, and in particular his family after his death in 1588, would be desperate for revenge and the suppression of the plays. Perhaps the plays were deliberately omitted from the 1623 folio at the instance of the “incomparable pair” of brothers, the Earls of Pembroke and Montgomery, Leicester’s great-nephews, who were otherwise quite willing to lend their names to its production, perhaps for political anti-Spanish marriage reasons, although Montgomery was also Oxford’s son-in-law.

Both plays, Arden of Feversham and A Yorkshire Tragedy, should take their places in the canon as examples of the early works of ‘Shakespeare.’ While Swinburne rules in favour of Arden, he is recorded as being against the Yorkshire Tragedy, but Professor DuncanJones thinks there is good argument for ascribing the play to Shakespeare. Bate and Rasmussen appear happy to ascribe it to Middleton, however.

Yet there is a wider point. Both plays should take their places as part of Wolfgang Clemen’s thesis that certain plays, The Famous Victories of Henry V, The Troublesome Reign of King John, The True Tragedy of Richard the Third, Thomas of Woodstock and King Leir and His Three Daughters are the stepping stones by which drama in England evolved into the glory that is Shakespeare, though which I would suggest are the stepping stones by which Shakespeare learnt his art. To this list can be added A Yorkshire Tragedy, Arden of Feversham, Edmund Ironside, Edward III, Horestes and Sir Thomas More. Clemen makes the point that these were not an evolution, but “something new and entirely unexpected.” He names no authors and does not even suggest Marlowe, Peele, Kidd, Nashe or Greene for authorship.

One of the new developments in these plays is the treatment of the dramatic lament speeches, which becomes more ‘reviews of the situation,’ and quotes examples from Leir and Thomas of Woodstock. There are four good examples of this type in A Yorkshire Tragedy (scene II, lines 1-24; scene III, lines, 86-103; scene IV lines, 65-93; and scene X, lines, 37-50). This last speech includes the lines from the husband, who sees the corpses of his little sons whom he has murdered:

Oh, were it lawfull that your prettie soules
Might looke from heaven into your father’s eyes
Then you should see the penitent glasses melt,
And both your murthers shoot upon my cheekes.
But you are playing in the angells lappes
And will not looke on me
Who void of grace kild you in beggery

Young Shakespeare indeed.


Quotations from C.F.Tucker Brooke: The Shakespeare Apocrypha, Clarendon 1918

  1. J. Bate and E. Rasmussen (ed): William Shakespeare And others – Collaborative Plays: Palgrave Macmillan 2013.
  2. Wolfgang Clemen: English Tragedy Before Shakespeare, Methuen 1961. For the plays not mentioned by Clemen, see Malim below and the credits given in my book to the Oxfordian researchers in it.
  3. K. Duncan-Jones: Ungentle Shakespeare: Arden Shakespeare 2001: p.209-212, commending the favourable opinion of recent editors of A Yorkshire Tragedy, Cawley and Gaines: Manchester 1988. She does not mention Arden.
  4. Nina Green: Edward de Vere Newsletter, no.21 – November 1990: This essay has not attracted as much attention as it ought.
  5. L. Hopkins: ‘A Yorkshire Tragedy and Middleton’s Tragic Aesthetic,’ Early Modern Literature Studies 8.3 – January 2003. She astutely picks up the similarity of the quotations as regards Leicester (for which I am grateful), but not, of course, the Black Will / George Shakebag and the Arden / Henry IV Part I Gads Hill connotations. Now that would be a slippery slope.
  6. R.C.W. Malim: The Earl of Oxford and the Making of ‘Shakespeare,’ McFarland 2011: Addenda for p.285 n.11 expands some of Nina Green’s argument. De Vere Society website (www.deveresociety.co.uk DVS Publications).
  7. C. Skidmore: Death and the Virgin, Weidenfeld and Nicholson 2010 – does everything but bring in a verdict of guilty against Leicester for the Amy Robsart murder.
  8. A. Swinburne: A Study of Shakespeare, Heinemann 1920: pp 132 – 141.

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