A “New” Jacobean Tragedy (2019)

The restoration of The Miseries of Enforced Marriage was inspired by the work of the early 20th-century literary detective H. Dugdale Sykes (1874?-1932). Having devoured the whole of Elizabethan, Jacobean, and Carolingian drama, he applied his uncanny eye and memory to numerous questions of authorship.

In two books, Sidelights on Shakespeare and Sidelights on Elizabethan Drama,Sykes recorded his conclusions, which, almost one hundred years later, hold up extremely well. His most controversial position is the removal of Shakespeare from Henry VIII and The Two Noble Kinsman, while proving that the coadjutors of those plays are actually John Fletcher and Philip Massinger. Today we have to admit that Shakespeare only served as reviser of these plays and that his revisions were negligible.

Having looked over F. G. Fleay’s comments on A Yorkshire Tragedy and The Miseries of Enforced Marriage, Sykes decided to test Fleay’s theory that Yorkshire, really a one-act, was the original conclusion of The Miseries (A Biographical Chronicle of the English Drama, 1891,Vol. 11, 206-8). Now Fleay (1831-1909) was an indefatigable and brilliant scholar who proposed some eccentric theories which, as far as he was concerned, were the same as facts, and which mark his work as sometimes unreliable.

Sykes’s first order of business was to show that The Miseries was written by George Wilkins. In a footnote he informs us that he was unaware that the late Australian scholar Betram Dobbel (1842-1914) had anticipated him in this attribution (Notes and Queries, 10th Series, Vol. vi, 1906, p.41) though the grounds for his claim, he says, were different than Dobbel’s.

A Yorkshire Tragedy exhibits two major oddities. The first of its ten scenes is not only irrelevant but harks back and properly belongs, according to Fleay, in Act II of The Miseries. Secondly, with the exception of the servants who appear in the first scene, all of the other characters have generic names such as Husband, Wife, etc., after the manner of early pre-Shakespearean drama. We shall see why that is so.

By the same token, The Miseries, which has tragic implications throughout, has a tacked-on final scene that gives it a happy ending (in the moral sense), thereby turning the play into a comedy. It’s clear, however, that it was originally written as a tragedy, and it is described as such in the Stationers’ Register entry of July 31, 1607.

In 1605 Nathanael Butter published a tract entitled Two most unnatural and bloodie Murthers: The one by Maister Caverly [sic], a Yorkshire Gentleman, practiced upon his wife, and committed upon his two Children, the twenty of April 1605; The other, by Mistris Browne, and her servant Peter, upon her husband, who were executed in Lent past at Bury in Suffolke, 1605. The former was ostensibly written by George Wilkins, the latter probably not, but since it is not relevant to the subject at hand there will be no further mention of it.

A month after Two most unnatural and bloodie Murthers was published, there appeared A Ballad of Lamentable Murder Done in Yorkshire, as well as a pamphlet on the Calverly subject. No copy of either exists, so it is impossible to tell if they had any influence on the composition of the plays.

The enigmas surrounding Yorkshire and The Miseries are solved if we believe that the two plays are more than related. Both plays are based on the bloody violence perpetrated at Calverly Hall, Yorkshire. Indeed, the tract was the basis of both plays and both were written by Wilkins. The language is homogeneous throughout the plays; their dialogue is a mixture of verse, prose, with occasional rhyming lines. Wilkins’s verse, it may be added, consists of decasyllabic lines, lines with feminine endings, alexandrines, and lines with odd numbers of syllables. There are also a large number of broken lines indicative of cuts. This news will come as a disappointment to those who believe Yorkshire was written by Thomas Middleton

The first page of the earliest quarto bears the title All’s One, or One of the Four Plays in one, called A Yorkshire Tragedy. So there were, supposedly, three other plays performed with the piece. If so, it is reasonable to believe that they were all concerned with the story of Walter Calverly who murdered two of his three children, and attempted to murder, severely wounding his wife, and was executed at York in 1605.

If we believe that Yorkshire is the conclusion of The Miseries, it is possible to state the plots of the other three plays. First is Calverly’s betrothal and desertion of Clare Harcop on account of his forced marriage to his guardian’s niece; the second is Calverly’s ruination at the hands of the diabolical trio Frank Ilford, Wentloe. and Bartley, as well as that of his penurious brothers who succumbed to committing a robbery; and third, the comeuppance of Ilford being conned into a marriage with the Calverlys’ destitute sister. With the addition of Yorkshire the four plays are accounted for.

The chain of dramatic and literary events is likely as follows. The Miseries was published in 1607 “as it is now played by the King’s Majesty’s Servants.” But in order to present it, the censor, Edmund Tilney, required alterations. The painful recent events were thought to be offensive to the influential Calverly family. If Wilkins had used the Calverly name, that would have to be changed. In any case, the family name in the quarto is Scarborrow. The ending of the play with its gruesome child murders would have to be rewritten as the actual events could not be shown on the stage. The revision was carried out and the play performed by Shakespeare’s company in that condition as the received text shows.

During the following year, apparently, the prohibition against showing the murders was lifted, since it had been three years since the crimes were committed, and they were no longer a topic of public discussion. Wilkins thus took the opportunity to issue the original final scenes of The Miseries, as a new play, The Yorkshire Tragedy, adding the irrelevant opening scene and giving the characters generic names to be safe. There is a slip however, as one of the scenes is stated to take place at “Calverly Hall.”

The three other plays of the Four Plaies in One are not extant. They may actually have never been published. Thomas Pavier, the publisher, known for unscrupulous business practices, probably did the right thing in this case. If so, he recognized that the other three plays, the name changes notwithstanding, had already been published in The Miseries.


The Miseries, as it stands, has a large amount of padding, repetition and, evidently, rewriting. Since the original conclusion was excised, the new abrupt ending could not fill the space of the nine scenesthat were eliminated. First on my editing agenda was to eliminate the chaff.

I have cut whole lines, parts of lines, whole speeches, parts of speeches, whole scenes, parts of scenes, and generally fitted the play back together. These changes sometimes necessitated moving text around, but I have retained as much of the original dialogue as possible. In deference to audiences of possible contemporary production, I removed obscure words and phrases. Occasionally a line could be saved with a modern word substituted for the archaic one, a word that would not call attention to its use. Some lines had to be cut for lack of intelligibility.

Wilkins has left a plot thread dangling. We learn that Thomas Calverly has been imprisoned for an unpaid debt. Since nothing more is said about this, I cut the line in which the mention appears for a very good reason. There is no information about the impact of the robbery on the perpetrators though there has been a confession. We can only surmise that Thomas and John Calverly, and Master Blake were apprehended. A robbery of £300 in 1605 probably would have been punished with hanging. I have patched the information gap by inserting a few words in one of Walter’s late speeches: “…his brothers and steward/Ruthlessly hanged for their robbery;”

Numerous stage directions, including mentions of where many scenes take place, are missing. These omissions had to be reconstructed from hints and actions in the text. Some of these processes were more difficult than others. For example, one understands on first reading that Clare Harcop dies. Does she die of a broken heart (as I first thought) or does she commit suicide? On closer inspection of the text, we notice the reference to “red spots” in one of her father’s speeches over her body. So it’s clear that she commits suicide. Since there are no weapons around how does she do it?

Well, where is she? We are not told. But dinner is being served and she is summoned three times. So Clare is in a room, say a parlor, adjacent to the dining room. What is the cause of her delayed exit to the dining room? It’s the fatal letter from Calverly telling her that he was forced to marry another.

I imagined that this parlor had a small table with writing implements. Clare can now go the table and pick up a letter opener to open the seal on the letter in order to read it. If she moves away from the table, she can go back with the letter, pick up a quill, and scrawl her note to Calverly on it. Finally, at the appropriate moment, she picks up the letter opener and stabs herself.

In another kind of example, Calverly leaves the house hurriedly after the murders. For his next entrance we have a stage direction to the effect that he crawls onstage after being thrown from his horse. So it’s obvious that some sound effects are required: first, when he leaves the house we need to hear a horse galloping away; later we must hear a whinny from the horse followed by a thud and cry when Calverly is thrown to the ground

I have added some other effects including an accelerating rainstorm, punctuated with lightning and thunder, which enhances the violence of the murder scene.

(The King’s men would have rolled cannon balls on the floor of the upper stage to create thunder if they wanted it.) The scene following the robbery is difficult to stage believably in “daylight,” for Blake tells the brothers to hide in “the bushes.” I imagined that Blake now enters with a torch, the stage cloaked in darkness, while the brothers carry the money bags, retire upstage, and lie down. 

The five-act structure of plays written during the Renaissance is not useful today.

Dramatists eventually reduced five acts to four and later to three. Today plays are generally performed in two acts. So I’ve reduced the five acts of The Miseries to two. I have also numbered the scenes consecutively throughout the play with 18 scenes in all.

There are several Scarborrows in The Miseries and I have changed their names back to Calverly as in Two Unnatural Murthers. The butler, called Butler, is too important a character to have that position. Since the Calverlys were a wealthy family, I have upgraded his status to steward, the highest position for a retainer, which he undoubtedly had, a position which bore much responsibility. I have named him Master Blake.

The Calverlys’ sister is a supporting role and I have dropped the generic “Sister” in favor of “Diana.” I have replaced a generic “Knight” in the final scene with Sir John Savill, who was a participant in the Two Unnatural Murthers account of the crime.I have deleted various “Gentlemen” and a useless Clown. There are only three names provided in Two Unnatural Murthers, the rest were invented by Wilkins.

Katherine, Calverly’s saintly wife, was actually the daughter of Sir Henry Cobham, a lineal descendant of that Sir John Oldcastle who was the prototype of Falstaff. The Cobhams were a nationally known high-ranking family and Wilkins could not have used their name in Two Unnatural Murthers or in the play. Instead, Wilkins named the unfortunate woman Katherine and made her the niece of a “Lord Faulconbridge,” Calverly’s guardian. I have allowed that name to stand since making the change would have required rewriting which I was anxious to avoid.

With the restoration of The Miseries of Enforced Marriage, we have a “new,” powerful, and moving domestic tragedy from the Jacobean period. And it is a tragedy in the classical sense: A good, kind young man of eighteen is thwarted by tradition and the law, and corrupted by forces of evil, which drive him to madness whereby he kills two of his children and attempts the murder of his wife.

For a bonus, there is surely some Shakespeare in the play. Calverly has a speech or two that are patently beyond the power of Wilkins. One that scholars have always credited to the master is the long speech of self-revelation (now in Scene 15) beginning “O confused man…”

But we might search for other speeches with the Shakespearean ring and imagery.

We can find a clue to these in Pericles, a Wilkins play revised in acts III, IV, and V by Shakespeare. In acts I and II the dialogue is in verse except for Thaliard’s in I.3 who speaks both prose and verse. Why? Shakespeare’s hand may show here, for in revising the work of others he sometimes recast a verse speech in prose improving it in the process. The prose of the fishermen in II.1 is normal for lower-class characters, and is likely Wilkins’s, though Shakespeare may have intervened here as well. Some of the imagery might be just too good for Wilkins.

By the by, it may be remarked that Shakespeare could hardly resist applying master touches to any play presented by his company. Scholars find him in Arden, of Feversham, while I believe he has also put a finger in Mucedorus among others.          

While in the main The Miseries lacks Shakespeare’s poetry (who is his equal?), numerous critics throughout history have testified to the dramatic effectiveness of The Yorkshire Tragedy, the sine qua non of The Miseries. Tucker Brooke, Collier, Hermann, Ulrici, von Schlegel, Baldwin Maxwell, A. P. Rossiter, and Madeline Doran have all sung its praises. Swinburne speaks for them when he declares it

full to overflowing of fierce animal power, and hot as with the furious breath of some caged wild beast….It is and must always be unsurpassable for pure potency of  horror; and the breathless heat of its action, its raging rate of speed leaves actually no breathing-time for disgust; it consumes our very sense of repulsion with fire. ‘Tis a very excellent piece of work. 

According to William Kozlenko (Disputed Plays of Shakespeare, 117), the true material of tragedy is the fate of the man in the middle (in the Aristotelian sense), “The hero who is allowed no unsullied choice, but is torn by conflicting impulses and is forced to act, to suffer, to bear the load of guilt, and finally to attain self-knowledge.” This describes Walter Calverly to a T.

Donato Colucci