Gorboduc, or the Tragedy of Ferrex and Porrox

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Gorboduc, or the Tragedy of Ferrex and Porrox

by Clare Rider, IT Archivist 1998-2009

In February 2002, to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the first recorded performance of William Shakespeare's Twelfth Night in the Middle Temple Hall, the Globe Theatre players staged an authentic version of the play in its original location, using an all-male cast. For those fortunate to be present at one of the few Middle Temple performances, it was a memorable occasion. However, readers of the Yearbook may not be aware of a first performance which took place forty years earlier, in the Inner Temple Hall, of a play which was more significant in the development of English drama. Gorboduc, otherwise known as The Tragedy of Ferrex and Porrox, was performed at the Inner Temple as part of the Christmas and New Year festivities of 1561-62, in which Queen Elizabeth I's favourite, Lord Robert Dudley, presided as Lord Governor of the Christmas revels.1 The play was subsequently performed before the Queen at Westminster, on 18th January 1562, by 'the gentlemen of the Inner Temple' and was subsequently printed in two editions, an unofficial version in 1565 and an authorised version in 1571. Its authors, the Queen's cousin, Thomas Sackville, and the Protestant Parliamentarian, Thomas Norton, were both members of the Inner Temple, and its significance as the first known English tragedy and the first English drama composed in blank verse should not be underestimated.

Gorboduc recounts the legend of Gorboduc, King of Britain, who divided his realm during his lifetime between his two sons, Ferrex and Porrox, against the advice of his principal advisors. The elder son, Ferrex, aggrieved at being denied half his inheritance and suspicious of his younger brother's ambitions, set about raising soldiers to defend himself against Porrox. On hearing of Ferrex's military preparations, Porrox sent his own troops against his elder brother and had him killed. Queen Videna, to avenge the death of her favourite elder son, brought about the murder of Porrox. The people, moved by these cruel and unnatural deeds, rose in rebellion and slew both King and Queen. In the vacuum of power, the nobility united to destroy the rebels. However, since the succession remained uncertain, the nobles soon divided and fell into civil war, in which both they and most of their offspring were destroyed, leaving the throne open to foreign claimants. At the end of the tragedy, Eubulus, wise counsellor and former secretary to King Gorboduc, predicted 'the woeful wrack and utter ruin of this noble realm' for want of an established heir. Having drawn a bleak picture of murder, rape and pillage, Eubulus brings the drama to an end on a more optimistic note:

Of justice, yet must God restore This noble crown unto the lawful heir: For right will always live, and rise at length, But wrong can never take deep root to last. After all that has occurred, his optimism is unconvincing.

The text of Gorboduc has been studied by scholars of early English drama and of Tudor political history. Dramatists have emphasised its importance as the first tragedy in English which was not a translation of a Greek or Latin text, and as the first English drama composed in blank verse rather than the rhyming quatrains of ten and fourteen syllables used by translators such as Jasper Heywood.3 Other points of interest are the 'dumb shows' or mimes performed to music at the beginning of each of the five acts and the use of a Greek-style chorus, in this case composed of 'four ancient and sage men of Britain', to illuminate the meaning of the drama. Another classical device employed by Sackville and Norton was the 'nuntius' or messenger used to narrate events. Indeed, the play seems unnecessarily static to the modern reader, with the principal action taking place off-stage, following the tradition of Greek tragedy. Perhaps the innovative use of mimes in Gorboduc was designed to counteract the lack of movement during the acts that followed.