In these two plays Robin Hood appears in the prestigious panoply of Elizabethan historical tragedy. Anthony Munday should have most of the credit. Philip Henslowe's diary records that he paid Munday the substantial sum of £5 for a Robin Hood play in February 1598. Both the diary note and internal evidence indicate that this was to be a single work -- line 2229 predicts "Robins Tragedie" at the end of the current play. However, plans were changed, probably because there was too much material for one play, and The Death
is attributed by Henslowe to both Munday and Henry Chettle. As Chettle was also paid 10/- for "the mending of The First Part of Robart Hoode" on 25 November 1598, it is likely that Chettle revamped Munday's over-long play draft, providing an end for The Downfall
, moving the death of the hero into the second play, and, probably in conjunction with Munday, completing it with an extensive sequence about Prince John's designs on Matilda and her own tragic and honorable death. This material was drawn largely from Michael Drayton's poem "Matilda the faire and chaste daughter of the Lord R. Fitzwater," which Munday had already used in The Downfall
. The likelihood of joint authorship could account for the patchwork quality of various portions of both plays. Some of the overlaps and repetitions could be due to the compositor, who might have been working from multiple copies, including acting scripts.
Produced by the Admiral's Men in 1599 and kept in their repertoire for some time, the two plays were clearly successful. The company offered as a follow-up Looke About You
, which makes the gentrified hero central to a disguise-obsessed farce in King Richard's days, and it is presumably no accident that the house author for the rival Chamberlain's Men, one W. Shakespeare, produced in 1602 his own outlaw play As You Like It
, with a casual reference to Robin Hood in the first act.
In creating this high-theater Robin Hood, Munday fulfilled the trend towards gentrification that had been clear in the chroniclers Major and Grafton (see Section I). Yet if it was simple for a chronicler to recast the hero as a gentleman, to provide enough material for a full play was another matter -- and it may well be that Munday's inventive energies in this respect were excessive, so generating the need for Chettle's play-doctoring. Munday takes an approach different from several contemporaries who had included the outlaw in plays, though not creating a Robin Hood play as such. George Peele's Edward I
(1593) contains one scene where the Welsh rebels play a Robin Hood disguising game; Richard Greene almost certainly wrote George a Greene
(by 1592), in which Robin plays second fiddle to the heroic Pinder of Wakefield: these plays are discussed fully by M. A. Nelson (1973). The writers were adapting popular traditions for the stage as so many others did in the period, and this was presumably also the case in the lost plays Robin Hood and Little John
(1594) and Robin Hood's Penn'orths
Munday, however, made a decision not to rely on the wide range of popular Robin Hood material that must have been available to him. It would have been easy to adapt the action of the Gest
to the period of Richard I, as many novels and films have done in the modern period, and Copeland's well-known edition of the Gest
(c. 1560) had two robust plays at the end featuring Robin, his friends, and enemies. Munday, however, sought a higher tone in setting and content, and made very little use of the popular tradition. In scene vii he clearly uses the theme of the ballad Robin Hood Rescuing Three Young Men
; the Prior of York and Sir Doncaster come at some remove from the Gest
and there may well be reference to Robin's orders to the outlaws in the Gest
when Little John administers the Sherwood Articles of behavior (Downfall
, lines 1329-59); the hostility between Little John and the sheriff may also derive from the Gest
; and there is a review of Robin Hood related characters and places in Downfall
lines 1279-89, which includes ballad material but also presents apparently new ideas and unusually specific reference to villages in the Sherwood area.
These links with the earlier popular material are of little weight, and Munday's principal resource is to take Major's idea about a distressed gentleman in the period of King Richard and Prince John and flesh it out with new plot and contemporary aristocratic concerns. The enemies here are not the threatening local sheriff or voracious provincial clerics, as in the ballads and the Gest
. The politics of the play, like so many other historical dramas of the period, operate across the complex quadrilateral of crown, clergy, barons and bureaucrats, a force field which is evidently late sixteenth century in its reference. Prince John himself is not the villain that in more personalized modern dramas he has become: hot-tempered though he is, having taken power he is easily dislodged and in fact takes to the forest himself, fights a "joining the band" duel with the friar, and plays the role of Marian's somewhat over-enthusiastic admirer.
Robert, Earl of Huntington, is in the tense opening scenes betrayed by his uncle the Prior of York and by his own steward, Warman, conceived initially as a Judas figure. For renaissance aristocrats like those who owned the play-companies, living on lands taken from the Catholic church and fearful of the unreliability of those he had to trust, Munday could hardly find a more gratifying pair of villains. In accordance with this socially conservative reconstruction of the myth, Munday's own career was that of a semi-official agent of the state. His activities hovered between fact-finding missions and outright espionage, and his literary work was consistently close to the interests of the powerful and wealthy: he was a writer of political essays, a well-known balladeer, a highly successful translator of romances, and a writer of city pageants, one of which was another Robin Hood drama, a masque called Metropolis Coronata, The Triumphs of Ancient Drapery or Rich Cloathing in England
(1615), in which both author and outlaw praise to the point of servility the drapers for whom it was written. (Munday's father, it should be noted, had been a draper.)
But Munday was an artist as well as a political author, and he made the elegant decision to set the play itself at the court of Henry VIII. That monarch had himself been involved in Robin Hood activities, as Hall's chronicle reports (Knight, 1994, pp. 109-10) and he -- father to Elizabeth I -- is the ultimate validator of this play. In the opening scene and elsewhere through the play, John Skelton, who will play Tuck, debates with Sir John Eltham, a typical new-age diplomat who plays Little John, concerning the nature of the play. Eltham remarks (lines 2210-13) that he sees none of the traditional elements; Skelton who, for all his intellectual power (he was Henry's tutor), was remembered as a popular comedian, states firmly (as Friar) that the king himself has approved this new material and plot (lines 2219-20), and so Skelton presides over the rejection of popular material he himself by tradition represents, in favor of the appropriation into nobility of the material and the hero. (See also lines 2787 ff.)
In dramatic terms the play suffers from this decision, as did the eighteenth-century ballad operas that palely followed it: almost all the exciting action of the myth has gone because judged too vulgar; the only fight that occurs is between Prince John and the friar; the final recognition and re-establishment scene beloved of stage and screen is here simply that of Robin, not the returning King; the forest is never seen as a world of freedom and possible resistance, just as a site of aristocratic shame: Robin's "downfall" is his degradation from noble status and having to take to the woods. In terms of action, the fighting outlaw has become as passive as King Arthur at his most nobly inactive. At times the set pieces almost make up for this -- Robin's fine speech about making the woods into a surrogate stately home (lines 1366-81) has reverberated through to Tennyson's The Foresters
, and in The Death
the hero's funeral scene, mournful as it must be, still has real dramatic power, especially in its musical context (lines 848-59).
There remain some signs of haste and incomplete editing, even after Chettle "mended" The Downfall
. Matilda is called Marian too early (perhaps a sign that Munday discovered Michael Drayton's poem after he had begun his work); her father is at first Lacy and then Fitzwater; the Earl of Leicester is either two unrationalized characters or a villain who becomes suddenly loyal without explanation of the change (see note to The Downfall
, line 782 for further discussion). These are no doubt slips in drafting or the result of inconsistently recording performance versions: less easily explicable is the origin of the hero's title. Munday is the first to name him Earl of Huntington, as he spells it, or as the town and former county are now spelled, Huntingdon. One suggestion that has been offered, without much confidence, is that a wordplay on "hunting" is the key. Bevington linked the name with the puritan Earl of the earlier sixteenth century, and also argued that the play had a strongly puritan anti-church and aristocracy theme (1968, pp. 295-96). Neither case seems convincing. It is conceivable that Munday derived the name from the existence of such an earl in the time of King Richard: the well-informed historian John Stow was a friend of Munday's, and it seems likely that he might have had a hand in the ideas for the play, including this name (Knight, 1994, p. 131).
Rarely performed, the two "big" Robin Hood plays have an importance in the tradition and an impact that surpasses their limited artistic standing. The semi-gentrified ballads and lives of Robin Hood created in the seventeenth and eighteenth century derived, directly or indirectly, from these plays. They created the authorizing narrative of gentrification and much as the 1938 Warner Brothers film makes film-makers remember that Robin Hood is a theme that can always make money, so the Munday-Chettle plays gave status to the myth that both stimulated more adaptations -- like Ben Jonson's tantalizingly unfinished The Sad Shepherd
-- and also assisted the perseverance of the popular tradition both in association with and sometimes in resistance to the newly dignified dramatic hero.
Go To The Downfall of Robert, Erle of Huntington
Go To Excerpts from The Death of Robert, Erle of Huntington