Thursday, 26 May 2016

26 May, 1592 - The Tanner of Denmark

Here's what Lord Strange's Men performed at the Rose playhouse on this day, 424 years ago...

Henslowe writes: Ne ... R at the taner of denmarke the 14 23 of maye 1592 ... iijll xiijs vjd

In modern English: New. Received at The Tanner of Denmark, 26th May, 1592 ... £3, 13 shillings and sixpence

Today's entry in Henslowe's Diary is very mysterious. It tells us that Lord Strange's Men premiered a new play entitled The Tanner of Denmark, and that it was an enormous success: its box office takings probably represent an almost packed theatre. But the play is now lost, and it is hard to imagine what its subject matter might have been. And stranger still, the company seems never to have staged it again - at least, it never again appears in Henslowe's Diary. Why did they stop performing it if it was so successful?

A solution to the mystery of The Tanner of Denmark has been proposed recently. It rests on slender evidence, but it's better than nothing, so let's walk through the logic, step by step...

1. A tanner ... or a tamer?

A German tanner from Die
Hausbücher der Nürnberger

Zwölfbrüderstiftungen (1609)
A tanner is an artisan who specializes in treating animal hides to turn them into leather. But despite the best efforts of scholarship, no-one can explain why a Danish tanner might have been the subject of a play. There are no such characters in the literature of the time. There is a tanner of Tamworth in Thomas Heywood's history play Edward IV (1599), in which King Edward disguises as a commoner to test the tanner's loyalty. But tanning itself isn't important to this story, so it gives us no clues as to what The Tanner of Denmark might have been about.

But what if it wasn't about a tanner at all? In their book on Lord Strange's Men, Sally-Beth MacLean and Lawrence Manley ask whether Henslowe in fact intended to write The Tamer of Denmark. They admit that the word on the page looks like "taner", but they observe that Henslowe sometimes failed to distinguish 'n' from 'm' clearly.

So, what might a play called The Tamer of Denmark have been about? MacLean and Manley suggest that such a title would apply rather well to a mysterious play called Edmund Ironside, which may be linked to Lord Strange's Men but does not appear in Henslowe's records. This play is about a temperate Anglo-Saxon king who defeats a rash and boastful Danish rival and ultimately forges peace; as such, he could justifiably be called a 'tamer of Denmark'. This is quite a leap of scholarly imagination, but let us, with one eyebrow cautiously raised, look more closely at how this theory works...

2. Was it Edmund Ironside?

Edmund Ironside depicted in a
14th century genealogy of
English kings
Edmund Ironside the English King, or War hath Made All Friends is a play that survives only in a single manuscript now held by the British Library. It tells the story of King Edmund's war with the Danish invader Canute during the eleventh century. No-one knows who wrote this play, or when, or for which playing company. But it has become better-known that it might otherwise have been because a few writers have claimed it to be an early work by Shakespeare. Most notably, in a remarkably acerbic 1985 book, Eric Sams pointed to lines in the play that seem similar to lines in Shakespeare. Most Shakespeare scholars are unconvinced by this claim, seeing these lines as imitations or memories of other plays rather than proof that Shakespeare wrote it.

The plays that Edmund Ironside seems most closely related to include the Henry VI plays, especially the first of them, and Titus Andronicus, but it also seems to have inspired elements of the anonymous A Knack to Know a Knave (which will premiere at the Rose in a couple of weeks). Since The First Part of Henry VI and Knack were performed by Lord Strange's Men, MacLean and Manley see a hint that Ironside might have been too.

Canute depicted in a
English kings
In support of this suggestion, they point out an intriguing passage in Thomas Nashe's satirical prose work Piers Penniless's Supplication to the Devil (1592). We've already encountered this book before, because it contains an apparent description of The First Part of Henry VI in performance, and shows some familiarity with the work of Lord Strange's Men. But elsewhere in the book, Nashe includes a satirical description of Danish people, whom he condemns as "gross and senseless proud dolts" who only respect braggart soldiers with giant battleaxes. Some of the language in his description is reminiscent of that used by the swaggering Canute in Edmund Ironside, and this leads MacLean and Manley to propose that Nashe was inspired by a performance of that play. If they're right, then we may get a glimpse of Edward Alleyn in the role of Canute here:

Thus walks he up and down in his majesty, taking a yard of ground at every step, and stamps on the earth so terrible as if he meant to knock up a spirit ... [but] if an Englishman set his little finger to him, he falls like a hog's trough that is set on one end.

This does sounds like the tall Alleyn, who was famed for prowling the stage with his long strides. So, MacLean and Manley knit together all these threads to suggest that maybe Edmund Ironside was performed by Lord Strange's Men under the title The Tamer of Denmark, which ended up in a garbled form in Henslowe's Diary.

MacLean and Manley acknowledge that this is highly speculative, and I must say that I'm not fully convinced, due to the large number of 'ifs'. It might be true if Henslowe meant to write 'tamer' and if  the play of Edmund Ironside was known as The Tamer of Denmark, and if it was written for Lord Strange's Men, and if Nashe was remembering it when he satirized Danes. But we can't prove any of those things. And they admit that an apparent borrowing from Shakespeare's poem Venus and Adonis (1593, a year after Henslowe's entry) needs to be shrugged off if their theory is to work.

So, I'm not sure I buy it. And yet...

3. Why was the play performed only once?

Despite being held together with thin strands of evidence, MacLean and Manley's Edmund Ironside theory is still tempting because they propose that it helps solve the other mystery surrounding The Tanner of Denmark: why was it only performed once?

Christian IV, King of Denmark, 1588-1648;
his boozy boorishness fitted the English
stereotype of  Danes rather well
They point out that Nashe's satire Piers Penniless was brought to the attention of the Privy Council as a politically dangerous work precisely because it made fun of foreigners such as Danes. What's wrong with laughing at Danes? Well, among other things, King James of Scotland, the likeliest heir to the English throne, had recently married Anne of Denmark, and there was a strain of hostility among the populace about the idea of these foreigners inheriting the English throne. A paranoid politician might have seen Nashe's joking about Danes as contributing to that hostility.

MacLean and Manley thus propose that in this context, a popular play that encouraged its audience to cheer as proud Englishmen beat back a Danish invasion of their nation might have raised alarm bells and could have been suppressed by the authorities. Again, this is all unproven (which MacLean and Manley fully admit), but it does at least make for a tidy solution to the puzzle surrounding Henslowe's entry.

I'm still only half-convinced. But since the alternative is to give up and return to the fruitless subject of tanning in Denmark, let's briefly look at the play of Edmund Ironside itself...

If the play was Edmund Ironside ...

Edmund Ironside the English King, or War hath Made All Friends tells the story of two men who both have claims to the English throne. Edmund Ironside is the son of King Ethelred of England. But the Danes have conquered England and Prince Canute is claiming the crown too. Edmund assumes the role of king and encourages the English people to resist Danish rule.

Battles ensue. In the first, Canute beseiges London, but Edmund's forces rescue the city and push the Danes north. The second battle is inconclusive. In the background of all this lurks a machiavel, the bastard Edricus, who shifts between both sides, and manages to convince both Edmund and Canute that he is spying for them. Edricus plays off the rival kings against one another, while plotting to gain power for himself and gloating to the audience in smug soliloquies.

The battle between Edmund Ironside and Canute, from the Chronica Majora of Matthew Paris (14th century)

In the climax, Edricus persuades Edmund and Canute to end the stalemate with single combat. Edmund wins the fight. But because Canute surrenders honourably, Edmund agrees they will divide England between them. The former enemies leave to celebrate peace. As they go, Edricus expresses pleasure at this amicable ending:
                             'Tis meet it should be so.
Thus hand in hand and heart in heart we go,
And, till occasion fits them, sleeping wink.
But then he turns aside and says to himself,
But I have sworn and I will keep my vow:
By heaven, I'll be revenged on both of you!
And with this ominous conclusion, the play sets up a sequel, which, so far as we know, never got written...

If you would like to read Edmund Ironside, the most widely available edition is Eric Sams' Shakespeare's Lost Play: Edmund Ironside (1985) but Sams' over-egged claims about Shakespeare's authorship and his pompous dismissal of contrary evidence make for an irritating and misleading read. Harder to find, but a lot more useful, is Randall Martin's edition of Edmund Ironside and Anthony Brewer's The Lovesick King (1991).

But what about tanners?

I've given a lot of space to MacLean and Manley's Edmund Ironside hypothesis, but it's still entirely possible that this play really was about a tanner of Denmark. Let's conclude, therefore, with a celebration of the ancient craft of tanning, and you can decide whether it has any dramatic potential.


Tanner of Denmark and Edmund Ironside information

  • Eric Sams, Shakespeare's Lost Play: Edmund Ironside (Fourth Estate, 1985)
  • Randall Martin, Edmund Ironside; and Anthony Brewer's The Lovesick King (Garland, 1991)
  • David McInnis, "The Tanner of Denmark", Lost Plays Database (2009). 
  • Will Sharpe, "Authorship and Attribution", William Shakespeare and Others: Collaborative Plays, ed. Jonathan Bate and Eric Rasmussen (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013).
  • Martin Wiggins, British Drama, 1533-1642: A Catalogue, vol. 3 (Oxford University Press, 2013), entries 929 and 1064.
  • Sally-Beth MacLean and Lawrence Manley, Lord Strange's Men and their Plays (Yale University Press, 2014), 149-56.

Henslowe links


Did I make a mistake? Do you have a question? Have you anything to add? Please post a comment below!

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