Thursday, 14 January 2021

14 January, 1597 - Alexander and Lodowick

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

Henslowe writes: ye 14 of Janewary 1597 ... ne ... R at elexsander and & lodwicke ... lvs 

In modern English: 14th January, 1597 .. New ... Received at Alexander and Lodowick ... 55 shillings

Today, the Admiral's Men performed a new play! Alexander and Lodowick was based on a well known story about two friends who swap places. Although the play itself is lost, two other versions allow us to speculate on its content.  

An old tale

If you are familiar with John Webster's 1613 tragedy The Duchess of Malfi, you might remember a curious moment in the first act in which the Duchess, assertively wooing her surprised steward Antonio, assuages his anxiety by joking that in bed she will, "Like the old tale in Alexander and Lodowick, / Lay a naked sword between us, keep us chaste". Perhaps Webster was remembering a scene from the play performed at the Rose.

A very generic illustration accompanying the
printed text of the balled of The Two Faithful Friends
But the story of Alexander and Lodowick goes back further than this play. The unknown playwright probably found it in a popular collection of stories entitled The History of the Seven Wise Masters of Rome, which had been through several editions between 1493 and 1602.  A shorter and tidier version of the story can be found in a ballad, The Two Faithful Friends: The Pleasant History of Alexander and Lodowick (first published around 1630, but likely in existence for a long time beforehand); the play could have been based on the ballad, or vice versa. (If you would like to listen to the ballad being sung, you can, thanks to the English Broadside Ballad Archive!)

The story

The two possible sources allow us to speculate about what the Rose audience saw. The following description is based on the shorter version in the ballad, although I have noted one interesting difference between the two versions toward the end. 

Alexander, Prince of Hungary, and Lodowick, Prince of France, are at the court of the Emperor of Germany. The two young men are close friends and happen to look identical, but Alexander is the better fighter of the two. When Alexander wins the hand of the princess in a tournament, he gives her to Lodowick instead, knowing that Lodowick loves her, and having his own fiancée waiting for him back home in Hungary. 

But the evil Spanish prince Guido, disappointed at not winning the princess for himself, accuses her of being unchaste. To prove her virtue, Lodowick must fight Guido in a trial by combat. But since Alexander is the better fighter, the two adopt a cunning plan: Alexander will pretend to be Lodowick and will fight Guido for him.

But there is a problem: Alexander is supposed to be returning home to marry his fiancée. Alexander  therefore proposes that Lodowick take his place at the wedding. Lodowick must not go too far, however: Alexander requests that "Although thou wed her as thy wife, / Yet know 'tis in my name; / Let her remain a virgin pure / I do request the same."

So, Lodowick travels to Hungary and performs Alexander's role at the wedding. In order to ensure that his friend's request is followed, he sets a naked sword between himself and the puzzled bride in bed, so as to to prevent any contact between them (this is the sequence that Webster remembered in The Duchess of Malfi).

The plan works out neatly, as Alexander defeats Guido and then returns to resume his rightful place in Hungary, while Lodowick returns to his own bride. But Alexander's wife, frustrated that she has not experienced "love's pastime" with her husband, has sought comfort in another lord, and the two poison Alexander, turning him into a leper so that he is banished from his country.

Marcus Geerhaerts (1561-1636),
Portrait of Two Brothers
Alexander learns that the only cure for his affliction is to bathe in the blood of a child. He travels to Lodowick's court in France and seeks help from his friend, who now has children. In the version of the tale in The Seven Wise Masters of Rome, Lodowick's love for his friend is so strong that he slits the throats of his twin sons and cures Alexander with their blood; happily, once the cure is effected, the two sons are magically restored to life with a thread of gold around their necks. The ballad, however, tones down Lodowick's infanticidal devotion to his friend: although he still bathes Alexander in child-blood, he uses bloodletting rather than murder to acquire it, and, despite his wife's horror at his actions, the children survive.

In both versions, the cured, and angry Alexander returns home and executes his his wife and her lover. Happy ending! Or, as the ballad puts it, "Their griefs to joys converted were, / Their pleasures did transcend."

It is hard to tell whether this story would have been performed as an anguished psychological drama or as knockabout silliness. But whatever the tone, Alexander and Lodowick is a moderate success today: although it has not succeeded in filling the Rose to capacity, the crowd is still very large.


Alexander and Lodowick information

Henslowe links


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


  1. Hey, David. Not to be that guy, but that "curious moment in the first scene" is actually in the *second scene.

  2. Hi Joe, looking into this, it turns out that there is disagreement among editors as to the number of scenes in Act 1! I'll change it to "first act". Thanks!!