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Groupe de recherches du Centre de Recherches Anglophones, EA 370
Université Paris Ouest Nanterre La Défense

A Yorkshire Tragedy

Stanley Wells

A Yorkshire Tragedy Revisited



Cet article retrace plusieurs travaux de l’auteur autour de A Yorkshire Tragedy, du compte-rendu d’une mise en scène de la pièce en 1982 jusqu’à sa publication d’une édition critique en 2007. Après avoir rappelé les circonstances du crime décrit dans l’œuvre et analysé la dramaturgie de cette tragédie, l’auteur estime qu’il s’agit d’une esquisse de Middleton qui aurait pu devenir une formidable tragédie à part entière.


This paper recalls the author’s several encounters with A Yorkshire Tragedy, from a 1982 stage production review to his 2007 edition of the play. After reviewing historical circumstances of the crime portrayed in the play as well as the play’s dramaturgy, the author argues that, as it has come down to us, A Yorkshire Tragedy is a vivid sketch by Middleton of what might have become a great full-length tragedy.

Texte intégral

1My first serious contact with A Yorkshire Tragedy came in 1982, when the TLS invited me to review a production of the play.1 It is short - only about 700 lines long. This compares with close on 1 800 lines for Shakespeare’s shortest play, The Comedy of Errors, and over 4 000 for the fullest text of his longest, Hamlet. Its brevity is of some importance in thinking about its provenance and the state of its text, and it also has a major effect on the circumstances of modern performance. The one that I reviewed was given by a then new group called Yorick Theatre Company which had the aim of performing “neglected classics home grown and foreign and stretching from the wealth of Elizabethan drama up to, say, Lorca and Brecht.” It played in the Old Half Moon Theatre, a small pub space in the East End of London. Characteristically of productions of this short play the company paired it with another, an early play by Chekhov called On the Great Road which he adapted from one of his own short stories and which had been banned by the Russian censor. Together the plays made a good double bill, having something in common and each with a playing time of about one hour.

2In my review I discussed briefly the ascription of A Yorkshire Tragedy to Shakespeare, pointing out that it “has Shakespearean features, possibly even echoes. Like Macbeth, its central character is a formerly virtuous man gone to the dogs yet retaining a conscience; this one”, I said, “kills two of his own children to save them from beggary and attacks his wife in scenes with some resemblances to the killing of Macduff’s “pretty chickens and their dam.” Like King Lear, the play includes a faithful servant who resists his master to his own cost.” Nevertheless, I said, “A Yorkshire Tragedy … is unShakespearean in language and structure.” I didn’t mention the ascription to Middleton, which has been much more strongly supported since that time. I drew particular attention to the play’s opening scene, calling it “a puzzle, a false start to the story which some believe to be a later addition. Though the scene is lively in style and acts well, the play would be more intelligible without it.” I found the play’s central character, the nameless Husband (historically, Walter Calverley) a potentially fascinating character, remarking that though “the dramatist identifies some of his conflicting impulses – family pride, love for brother, wife, and children, obsessive extravagance, self-loathing issuing in violence – he has not synthesized them into a credible character. Abrupt switches of tone break the mood; understandably, the audience laughed when, after the Husband had stabbed his eldest son, broken a maid-servant’s neck, stabbed his second son (an infant-in-arms), attacked his wife, overcome and trampled upon a servant, and declared that he was setting off to kill his one remaining son, “a brat at nurse”, he was met by a Master of a College with the words “How is’t with you, sir? Methinks you look of a distracted colour.” And I didn’t think that the actor of the role did enough “to invest the character with reality,” partly perhaps because he was hampered “by an awkwardly articulated, slow, over-cautious production style. Predominantly black, authentically Jacobean costumes make a drab impression before a black screen and on a dirty black playing area.” Nevertheless, I found that the actor playing the Wife achieved “pathetic intensity in a carefully controlled performance well judged to the small auditorium, and that the violence was “appropriately sickening.”

3My next major encounter with the play came towards the end of the 1980s when Gary Taylor, my co-General Editor on the Oxford edition of the Complete Works of Shakespeare, invited me to edit A Yorkshire Tragedy for the extremely ambitious, complexly planned edition of the Complete Works of Thomas Middleton with which he was hoping to succeed the Shakespeare edition. (Actually he asked me to choose a play, and I chose this one because it is short.) It was a very different enterprise. The Shakespeare edition had been undertaken in-house — literally in a small house in Walton Crescent Oxford, close to the University Press’s main building —, by a small team of editors. First there was just me alone, still, in those days when personal computers were in their infancy, working on a small Olivetti typewriter. Then Gary Taylor was appointed, initially as assistant editor. Some time afterwards we were joined by John Jowett, and towards the end of the work, William Montgomery came onto the team to help to bring the edition to its conclusion. When we had worked ourselves out of our jobs, Gary, who had been promoted to co-General Editor, went back to North America and, with characteristic verve and ambition, soon started to plan the Middleton edition. In doing so he was able to build upon our experience in editing Shakespeare while also devising new and original ways to present the plays and other writings of a very different contemporary. It was a much needed task, and Gary’s passion for Middleton’s plays as well as his editorial brilliance made him the right man for the job.

4By this time I had become Director of The Shakespeare Institute in Stratford. I had replaced my Olivetti with an Amstrad word processor of the kind that is now found only in museums, along with Box Brownie cameras, wind-up gramophones, and Mickey Mouse watches. But I had by no means mastered its intricacies, and when I received Gary’s editorial instructions I soon began to wonder if I had been wise to undertake the task. I had long experience of traditional editing techniques, requiring study of a play’s sources, of its theatrical history, collation of its variant texts, consideration of textual variants, examination of the play’s editorial history, and thinking of possible emendations in order to establish a responsibly modernized text. I was accustomed to writing commentaries investigating a play’s language, its use of proverbs and colloquial idioms, its stage requirements, and to presenting all this material with textual and critical introductions. But I had always typed all this up in a traditional manner and then handed it over to the copy editor and the printer to transmute it into type. Now, however, I had to try to master what struck me as a highly complex system of coding in order to ensure that the keyboarding produced the correct effect on the printer and to cope with the demands of online editing. I sighed a bit and groaned a lot, and eventually I got down to the task and carried it through to the best of my ability. That was all in the autumn of 1993. The edition finally reached print 14 years later, in 2007, by which time my contribution was, I hope, truly mellowed.2

5In writing my Introduction to the edition I paid attention first to the historical circumstances that gave rise to the play. On 23 April 1605 — probably Shakespeare’s forty-first birthday (as it happens) — Walter Calverley, a young man of good family and heir to the manor of Calverley and Pudsey in Yorkshire, murdered two of his three young sons, one aged around eighteen months, the other no more than five years old, and grievously wounded their mother, his wife, in Calverley Manor.

6On the next day, examined before two justices of the peace, he confessed to the crimes. He pleaded in justification that his wife had given him cause to believe that she was an adulteress and that the children were not his: “his wife”, he said, “had many times theretofore uttered speeches and given signs and tokens unto him whereby he might easily perceive and conjecture that the said children were not by him begotten.” He also claimed to believe that his wife had threatened to murder him, saying “that he hath found himself to be in danger of his life sundry times by his wife.”3

7News of the unhappy events in Yorkshire circulated rapidly, causing a national stir and soon provoking a number of publications of varying degrees of artistry and sophistication. First, on 3 June, came a ballad based on the case which, like so many publications of its type, has not survived. Then, nine days later, on 12 June 1605, only seven weeks after the murders had been committed, there appeared an anonymous pamphlet, entered on the Stationers’ Register and called Two Most Unnatural and Bloody Murders and providing an account of the Calverley murders along with one of a different, unrelated case. Although this is journalistic in intent, it is far from a straightforward account of what happened. Already the historical events were taking on a dramatic tinge.

8In the meantime Calverley languished in prison in York. When, three and a half months after the murders had been committed, he was brought to trial, he refused to plead either guilty or not guilty. The reason for this is probably that if he had pleaded guilty his estate would have been forfeited to the crown, whereas if he refused to plead even under pain of “la peine forte et dure” – being subjected to the punishment of being laid over with heavy objects such as stones or weights that would crush him to death unless he relented, his estate would have passed to his heirs. It was a peculiarly horrible form of punishment – not technically torture, because coercion was not being used to extract information, to gather evidence, but to make the accused either to confess or to sacrifice his own life, and thus in effect to admit guilt, for the advantage of his descendants. Death could come in a matter of minutes, but might also be protracted over a long period. Calverley braved it out to the end, and was pressed to death at York on 5 August 1605, provoking the publication of another lost pamphlet, The Arraignment, Condemnation, and Execution of Master Calverley at York in August 1605.

9The ballad and the pamphlets were ephemeral publications. Before long, however, two more substantial works treated the topic. The first to appear in print was a play, The Miseries of Enforced Marriage, by George Wilkins, entered on 31 July 1607 and published in the same year as being “now played by His Majesty’s servants.” This, of course, was Shakespeare’s company, the King’s Men. The play, a full-length tragi-comedy, appears to be Wilkins’s first. It treats the facts of the case inventively to create a social drama portraying many fictional characters, and often adopting a comic perspective. Wilkins’s career as a writer was short: all his known works date from between 1606 and 1608. After this he kept an inn in London which doubled as a brothel. He was a violent character, often in court for a variety of offences such as “kicking a woman on the belly which was then great with child”; later he was said to have “outrageously beaten one Judith Walton and stamped upon her so that she was carried home in a chair.”4 In 1612 he figured not in the dock but in the witness box in the Belott-Mountjoy case in which Shakespeare also testified, which is the subject of Charles Nicholls’s successful book The Lodger.5 By this time Wilkins had also collaborated with Shakespeare in some capacity or other on the play of Pericles and had exploited the success of that play by publishing a prose romance, The Painful Adventures of Pericles Prince of Troy (1608), described as “the true history of the play of Pericles”, which takes over whole speeches from the play word for word. The idea of Shakespeare collaborating with such a villainous character does not sit easily with the conventional image of him.

10In the following year, 1608, A Yorkshire Tragedy appeared from the publishing house of Thomas Pavier. It had been entered on the Stationers’ Register on 2 May as having been written by William Shakespeare, and the attribution appears again on the printed title page, which describes the play as “not so new as lamentable and true”, states that it had been “acted by his majesty’s players at the Globe”, and repeats the ascription to “W. Shakespeare.” The headline to the text itself reads “All’s One, or one of the four plays in one, called “A Yorkshire Tragedy” as it was played by the King’s Majesty’s players.” The twice-repeated ascription to Shakespeare seems like excellent evidence that he wrote it, evidence that is not contradicted by its inclusion in a collection of Shakespearian and pseudo-Shakespearian plays published, again by Thomas Pavier, in 1619. Pavier’s reputation is not high, however, and the 1619 collection was probably pirated. Still, so far as external evidence goes, it would be difficult to deny that the play is by Shakespeare except for the fact that it is not included in the First Folio of 1623, presumably because its compilers knew that he did not write it. (The same is true of The London Prodigal.) It was, however, one of the seven plays added to the Third Folio of 1664 only one of which, Pericles, is now generally agreed to have been written at least in part by Shakespeare (though one or two of the others, including Arden of Faversham, still flit to and fro on the fringes of the canon.)

11Throughout most of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries most commentators were unable to believe that Shakespeare wrote A Yorkshire Tragedy, rather because of its individual, non-Shakespearian dramatic style than because they thought it unworthy of him. It has frequently appeared in collections of the Shakespeare Apocrypha, in other anthologies, and as an independent publication, most notably perhaps the edition edited by Barry Gaines and A. C. Cawley for the Revels Plays (Manchester, 1986). In the later part of the twentieth century sophisticated studies of the play’s linguistic features and of its dramatic style have created strong justification for the suggestion that it was actually written by Thomas Middleton.

12In editing the text I found no reason to question the ascription to Middleton, though nothing in his output up to the date that it was written would have prepared one for the possibility that he could have written so powerful a tragedy at this stage of his career. The subtitle given to the play on publication, “All’s One”, means “it’s of no account”, “it doesn’t really matter” – “but that’s all one” sings Feste at the end of Twelfth Night. It seems entirely inappropriate to so deeply serious a play. It might conceivably have been used in an attempt to indicate some kind of overall unity for four short plays performed in sequence, but the headline presents it unequivocally as an alternative title for this particular play. Some commentators have taken the headline to indicate that A Yorkshire Tragedy was the overall title for a four-part work, but it is surely unlikely that four separate plays on this grisly topic would have been played together. The phrase “not so new” may accurately reflect a date of composition between the publication of the pamphlet and Calverley’s execution since the Wife, in her last speech, declares her intention of sueing for his pardon. Roger Holdsworth, however, arguing that A Yorkshire Tragedy echoes King Lear and influenced Timon of Athens, dates the Yorkshire Tragedy to the first two months of 1606.6

13Although all but the play’s first scene is based closely not only on the events of the case but also on the very wording of the pamphlet that records it, A Yorkshire Tragedy is no mere piece of reportage. In an introductory scene a group of servants, all of whom have personal names, gossip about their mistress’s love for a wastrel who is already married, who beats his wife, who has run through all his wealth, and who has made his brother, a university student, stand security for his debts. The tone of this episode is relaxed, even chatty. I said in my review of the 1982 production that the play would be more intelligible without it. But after this the drama makes a fresh start, unfolding in what Hamlet calls a “torrent, tempest, and …. whirlwind of passion” (Hamlet, 3.2.6-7), and giving the impression of having been written at white heat.

14 In the body of the play, none of the characters has a personal name – they are Husband, Wife, Master of a College, and so on. This is a characteristic of Middleton’s playwriting style. The long-suffering Wife laments her “half mad” Husband’s prodigality and cruelty, and the Husband, brutalized into hatred of his wife and children by his passion for gambling and for women, demands yet more money from her, declares that his three sons are “Bastards, bastards, / Bastards begot in tricks”, and says he has never loved her. But he is portrayed as a victim as well as an oppressor, expressing anguished consciousness of sin in both prose and verse speeches of rare psychological complexity. Though there are no direct verbal links, I find it difficult not to think of Macbeth as one hears the Husband’s guilt-ridden soliloquies.

Why sit my hairs upon my cursèd head?
Will not this poison scatter them? O, my brother’s
In execution among devils that
Stretch him and make him give, and I in want,
Not able for to live nor to redeem him.
Divines and dying men may talk of hell,
But in my heart her several torments dwell,
Slavery and misery. Who in this case
Would not take up money upon his soul,
Pawn his salvation, live at interest?
I, that did ever in abundance dwell,
For me to want exceeds the throes of hell. (4. 82-93)

15And the portrayal of the crazed man’s murder of his sons has a pathos that recalls the slaughter of Lady Macduff and her family and anticipates Mamilius in The Winter’s Tale.

SON. What ail you, father, are you not well? I cannot scourge my top as long as you stand so. You take up all the room with your wide legs. Puh, you cannot make me afeard with this. I fear no visors, nor bugbears.

Husband takes up the child by the skirts of his long coat in one hand and draws his dagger with th' other.

HUSBAND. Up, sir, for here thou hast no inheritance left.

SON. O, what will you do father? - I am your white boy.

HUSBAND (strikes him). Thou shalt be my red boy. Take that!

SON. O, you hurt me, father!

HUSBAND. My eldest beggar. Thou shalt not live to ask an usurer bread, to cry at a great man’s gate, or follow ‘good your honour’ by a crouch, no, nor your brother. ’Tis charity to brain you.

SON. How shall I learn now my head’s broke?

HUSBAND. Bleed, bleed ,rather than beg, beg! (4. 93-107)

16The Son’s innocent prattle here is not a world away from that of Macduff’s son (who also – like Lady Macbeth – has no personal name.) Could it be that Middleton’s share in Macbeth is even greater than is sometimes supposed?

17The dramatic situation in A Yorkshire Tragedy is if anything even more horrific than in Macbeth in that here the killer is not an impersonal murderer acting at a tyrant’s behest, but the child’s father. If the play was indeed written before Calverley was pressed to death, and if there is any influence from one dramatist to another, then Shakespeare is likely to be indebted to Middleton rather than the other way round.

18For most scholars, the puzzle about who wrote the play has been solved with the attribution to Middleton. But other puzzles remain. If the statement about Shakespeare is untrue, can we believe the other claims made for it on the titlepage of the first edition? The claim that the play had been performed by the King’s Men as part of a four-part entertainment is not inherently implausible, but there is no evidence of such a work at this date, nor has it been possible to identify any of the other three parts. Certainly, if Middleton’s authorship is accepted, some association of the play with the King’s Men, for whom he seems to have written The Revenger’s Tragedy in 1606 and to have collaborated at some uncertain date with Shakespeare on Timon of Athens, is possible, but it may imply only that he hoped they would put on the play, or indeed it could be a fraudulent attempt on Pavier’s part to capitalize on the company’s high reputation. No other short plays that might have been acted along with it survive. It is said to have been one of “four plays in one.” There is no record of a four-part play having been acted by the King’s Men, or by any other company, around the time that A Yorkshire Tragedy was written. Still, at least one such entertainment is known to have existed. There is a work of uncertain date, possibly 1613, and possibly written for a boys’ company, called Four Plays, or Moral Representations in One which is printed in the Beaumont and Fletcher Folio of 1647. But this is not it. A clue about the origins of the play may lie in the fact that, as I have said, the opening scene is written in so different a style from the rest of the play as to seem detached from it. It has in fact been omitted in later performance. The named servants who appear in it have no function in the rest of the play. This episode could easily have been written independently of the rest of the play. Is there anything we may deduce from this about the manuscript from which the play was printed? There are many signs that it is what is known as a foul papers text, that it represents the author very much in the process of hasty composition, writing with the source pamphlet on the table before him, not stopping to polish his verse, and leaving decisions crucial to the play’s staging to be resolved at a later point.


20I suggest that questions about the anomalous nature of the play’s opening scene may be illuminated by a brief consideration of Wilkins’s play on the same subject, The Miseries of Enforced Marriage (1606). This is a full-length drama of genuine accomplishment - surprisingly so considering that Wilkins’s only other work for the stage seems to have been his share in The Travels of the Three English Brothers, of around 1608, on which he collaborated with John Day and William Rowley, and however much he wrote of Pericles. Although it lacks the emotional intensity and narrative drive of A Yorkshire Tragedy, it provide the freest, most inventive treatment of all the writings based on the case. Wilkins takes the basic situation depicted in the pamphlet, of a man whom he calls Scarborough – a Yorkshire place name – contracted to a girl he loves but then forced into a loveless marriage for financial reasons – as the starting point for a social drama portraying many invented characters, all of them with fictional names, and often adopting a comic perspective on the action. Initially the husband is sympathetically depicted, and although his beloved kills herself, events end happily for him as his guardian, dying, acknowledges responsibility for the forced marriage and leaves his wealth to Scarborough and his family. No one is murdered in this version of the story.

21The author of A Yorkshire Tragedy, by contrast, sticks remarkably closely to the events of the pamphlet for all his play except for the opening episode. From Scene 2 all the characters come from the pamphlet, and no characters of any consequence are added. The pamphlet’s sequence of action is followed with only one significant change: the account of the Wife’s visit to her uncle and guardian in London, narrated in the pamphlet at a point corresponding to her exit at in Scene 2, is advanced to form the opening episode of Scene 3, in which we see her immediately on her return. This change effects greater concentration of action and place. The Wife’s speeches here pick up words uttered in the pamphlet by her uncle. Through most of the play until the closing scene speeches in the play are closely indebted to the wording of the pamphlet. An example is the Wife’s self-defence:

Only my friends
Knew of your mortgaged lands, and were possessed
Of every accident before I came.
If thou suspect it but a plot in me
To keep my dowry, or for mine own good
Or my poor children’s – though it suits a mother
To show a natural care in their reliefs –
Yet I’ll forget myself to calm your blood.
Consume it as your pleasure counsels you,
And all I wish e’en clemency affords. (3. 58-67)

22Although this is regular blank verse, it draws closely on the corresponding passage in the pamphlet:

‘My friends are fully possessed your land is mortgaged. If you think I have published anything to him with desire to keep the sale of my dowry from you, either for mine own good or my children’s, though it fits I have a motherly care of them, you being my husband, pass it away how you please, spend it how you will, so I may enjoy but welcome looks and kind words from you.’

23Even stage directions take over the pamphlet’s wording – “spurns her” (3.48) comes from “his first thanks he gave her was a spurn”; “Tears his hair” (4.81) – “sometimes he would tear his hair”; “throws her down” ((5.12) – “threw the good woman down”; “catches up the youngest” (5. 15)– “she caught up the youngest” are among many examples; and a revealing tiny detail is the Wife’s interrupted speech “And – ” (2, 76) stimulated by the pamphlet’s “But as she would have gone forward he cut her off.”

24In spite of these and other examples it would be wrong to give the impression that Middleton’s dependence on the pamphlet is slavish. So, for example, the episode in Scene 3 in which gentlemen reprove the Husband is considerably expanded and developed from a few hints in the source, and one of the Wife’s speeches in Scene 3, indebted to the formal conventions of the dramatic lament, finds words for the “long-fetched sigh or two” with which Calverley’s Wife “eased her heart.” Although the dramatist was working primarily from a clearly defined source, his play may be located too within the conventions of domestic tragedy (such as the anonymous play Arden of Faversham, which for some years now has been hovering on the fringes of the Shakespeare canon), and of various “patient wife” plays.

25Thematically the dramatist’s main development of his source material lies in the notion that the Husband’s actions result from demonic possession. This theme was probably suggested by the talons on the hands and feet of the dark figure of an old man which is depicted beside the murder on the titlepage of the pamphlet. The theme emerges slowly, as if it grew in Middleton’s mind as he worked. In the opening speech of the second scene the Wife speaks of her husband as “half mad / His fortunes cannot answer his expenses.” (2, 13-14) Later she declares that his transformation from his former self is “As if some vexed spirit had got his form upon him.” (2.39) The Husband himself begins to see his condition as that of one who has sold his soul to the devil shortly before first attacking one of his sons:

Divines and dying men may talk of hell,
But in my heart her several torments dwell,
Slavery and misery. Who in this case
Would not take up money upon his soul,
Pawn his salvation, live at interest? (4, 87-91)

26Curiously, the first two lines of this speech are taken verbatim from the first page of Thomas Nashe’s pamphlet Piers Penniless, published in 1592, some 13 years before the play was written. This fact should act as a caution against underestimating the literary origins of what is too often taken to be a largely documentary drama. But the most explicit, and dramatically powerful, expression of the idea of demonic possession comes in the Husband’s speech of repentance to which he is moved in the final scene by his Wife’s forgiveness, when he feels the devil losing possession of his body:

thou hast devised
A fine way now to kill me, thou hast given mine eyes
Seven wounds apiece. Now glides the devil from me,
Departs at every joint, heaves up my nails.
O, catch him new torments that were ne’er invented,
Bind him one thousand more, you blessèd angels,
In that pit bottomless, let him not rise
To make men act unnatural tragedies,
To spread into a father and, in fury,
Make him his children’s executioners,
Murder his wife, his servants, and who not?
For that man’s dark where heaven is quite forgot. (8, 16-27)

27This eloquent speech, with its heightened language, its use of rhyme and half-rhyme, its vivid physical imagery, its self-conscious rhetoric comparable to Faustus’s great final speech in Marlowe’s play, shows the dramatist writing at the height of his power. A similar degree of expressiveness informs the Husband’s reaction to the sight of his two dead children “laid for the upon the threshold”:

Here’s weight enough to make a heartstring crack.
O were it lawful that your pretty souls
Might look from heaven into your father’s eyes
Then should you see the penitent glasses melt
And both your murders shoot upon my cheeks.
But you are playing in the angels’ laps,
And will not look on me
Who, void of grace, killed you in beggary. (8, 35-42)

28And he refers once again to the influence of the devil:

O, ’twas the enemy mine eyes so bleared. (8.46)

29Not all the writing in the play is on this level of imaginative power, as is only to be expected of a text which is so clearly printed in the main from working papers in an unrevised state. The Husband’s final words retreat from the immediacy of what has gone before to draw a generalized moral:

Let every father look into his deeds,
And then their heirs may prosper while mine bleeds. (8, 59-60)

30But while the bulk of the play, from Scene 2 onwards, reads as if it were written at white heat, the dramatist himself possessed by the challenge of transforming the pamphlet into a drama, the opening scene, as has long been recognized, has an entirely different quality. Only here, as I have said, do the characters have personal names. Here too the raw material of the scene, which is only slightly indebted to the pamphlet, is treated with a relative degree of expansiveness, a freedom of invention, which is more akin to the manner of Wilkins’s play, The Miseries of Enforced Marriage, than to anything in the rest of A Yorkshire Tragedy.

31Many attempts have been made to explain the anomalies of this scene, which are such that it has been omitted from some modern productions. The editors of the Revels edition, Barry Gaines and A. C. Cawley, go so far as to say that “it seems safe to infer that scene 1 was added later by another playwright.” (pp.13-15) But their inference that because the scene lacks the close relationship with the pamphlet of the rest of the play its author did not know the pamphlet, and therefore had not written the rest of the play, is unnecessary. This scene makes clear allusions to the grief of the servants’ “young mistress” “for the long absence of her love” which is eloquently described in the pamphlet. When I edited the play I at first hypothesized that Middleton, working with frenzied inspiration, sketched the play from what is now the opening of the second scene, found that it came out too short for independent performance, and then made a fresh start, intending to turn it into a full-length play with the same kind of freedom that Wilkins was to adopt. I guessed that he embarked upon a process of expansion by writing an introductory scene in a more relaxed manner, decided that this didn’t work, and as a way of cutting his losses turned the whole play over to the publisher who agreed to put it into print provided that he could say it was by Shakespeare, but for unknown reasons abandoned the attempt. This conjecture did not convince my General Editor so I had to tone it down, but I repeated it when I wrote my book Shakespeare & Co7 and I offer it to you as one way of explaining the play’s anomalies. It has the advantage at least of accounting for the absence of any trace of the alleged other three plays supposed to have made up Four plays in One.

32Although the brevity of the surviving text renders A Yorkshire Tragedy unsuitable for conventional solo performance it is not a complete handicap. In fact the play has a fuller history of performance than many Jacobean dramas, including The Miseries of Enforced Marriage. In 1720 Joseph Mitchell adapted it into a sentimental one-act tragedy, The Fatal Extravagance. This is turn was adapted into, surprisingly, a sentimental, comedy, The Prodigal, by F. G. Waldron in 1794. A Yorkshire Tragedy itself received what appears to be its American premiere in 1847 as part of a triple bill in Boston. The Revels editors note performances of a Russian translation in 1895 and, apparently, 1904, but record no English performances until the 1950s. Since then it has received a number of amateur and professional performances some by out-of-the way groups in obscure circumstances, but others of a more prestigious nature. It even reached London’s National Theatre in 1987, though only for a single performance in its studio auditorium, the Cottesloe. The play probably achieved its largest audiences in two BBC radio productions, in 1955 and 1957.

33Though the ascription to Shakespeare no doubt formed part of the motivation for many of these performances, those involved must have had enough faith in the script’s inherent stageworthiness and dramatic power to put it to theatrical test; and some directors have seen modern parallels to the play’s action. One group adapted it into “a play on the subject of domestic violence against women in modern Yorkshire”; and a group called Tough Theatre Company concentrated rather on the murders of children when it put on the play in a small London pub theatre in 2010. Peter Kirwan wrote a long review of the production which can be read on the internet, and in which he tells us that “as the Husband was dragged back on stage to kneel before the audience, news reports of the recent Christopher Foster scandal [a crime of a similar nature] were played over the sound system, the two stories sharing a disquieting level of commonality.” Moreover the production was advertised with a video trailer also drawing modern parallels which may be seen on Youtube.8


35The concentration with which A Yorkshire Tragedy tells its story gives it great pace, and the unsentimentality with which the dramatist presents even those episodes that afford most opportunity for pathos, such as the sufferings of the Wife and the terror of the little boy on being attacked by his father, is genuinely affecting. But it is above all the role of the Husband, with its fluctuations in style from staccato prose, anguished in its repetitions, to elevated verse, that gives the play its fascination, facing the leading male actor with the challenge of synthesizing the character’s conflicting impulses of family pride, love for brother, wife, and children, obsessive extravagance, and self-loathing issuing in horrendous violence. As it has come down to us, A Yorkshire Tragedy is a vivid sketch of what might have become a great full-length tragedy if Middleton had completed the revision on which I believe he embarked.


1 Times Literary Supplement, 12 February 1982, p. 161.

2 A Yorkshire Tragedy, in Thomas Middleton, The Collected Works. General Editors Gary Taylor and John Lavagnino. Oxford, 2007, pp. 452-466. Quotations are from this edition.

3 Introduction, p. 452.

4 See Stanley Wells, Shakespeare & Co. (London, Penguin Books, 2006,p. 257)

5 Charles Nicholl, The Lodger: Shakespeare on Silver Street (London, Penguin Books, 2007)

6A Yorkshire Tragedy and the date of Timon of Athens’ (privately circulated, 1993).

7 Pp. 179-180.


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Stanley Wells, «A Yorkshire Tragedy Revisited», Quarto [En ligne], Publications, Apocrypha Redivivus, A Yorkshire Tragedy, URL :
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Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. Stanley Wells is a Life Trustee and Former Chairman of The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust (1991-2011), Emeritus Professor of Shakespeare Studies of the University of Birmingham, and Honorary Emeritus Governor of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. He edited A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Richard II, and The Comedy of Errors for the New Penguin Shakespeare and King Lear for the Oxford Shakespeare. He has edited The New Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare Studies and is General Editor (with Gary Taylor) of The Complete Oxford Shakespeare and co-author of William Shakespeare: A Textual Companion.