Thomas Sackville,
one of the authors of Gorboduc.

With Bale's Kynge Johann and Cambyses, the history play and a kind of tragedy have arrived on stage. It is only a short step to a play which illustrates neatly the importance of the morality tradition both to Shakespeare's histories and tragedies: Gorboduc, or Ferrex and Porrex, performed (as the title page informs us) before Queen Elizabeth. (Click here to see the original stage*.)

Gorboduc is known to have been performed in the Great Hall at the Inns of Court (where lawyers were trained), and before Queen Elizabeth (click to see staging at Court); it may also have been performed at the home of one of the authors, Knole House.

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Gorboduc was the first play to use the medium of blank verse--and it did so well enough to set a trend, and to be grudgingly praised by Sir Philip Sidney. It takes its story from a chronicle (the name given to early prose histories, which often mingle genuine history with legend). The plot concerns a king, Gorboduc, who divides his kingdom between his two sons, Ferrex and Porrex; the moral of the story is clear, for what ensues is civil war.

Elizabeth, Lear, and Gorboduc

Gorboduc was written for performance before Queen Elizabeth, and it is evident that the writers (two young noblemen, Thomas Norton and Thomas Sackville) were concerned to instruct the Queen tactfully in the essential business of ensuring that she left an undisputed heir to the throne.

The plot of King Lear is not far removed from that of Gorboduc though its moral direction is far less simple.

Footnotes

  1. A stage for Gorboduc

    Gorboduc is known to have been performed in the Great Hall at the Inns of Court (where lawyers were trained), and before Queen Elizabeth (click to see staging at Court); it may also have been performed at the home of one of the authors, Knole House.