Monday, 3 December 2018

3 December, 1594 - The Wise Man of West Chester

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

Henslowe writes: ye 2 of desembȝ 1594 ... ne ... R at the wise man of chester ... xxxiijs 

In modern English: [3rd] December, 1594 ... New ... Received at The Wise Man of Chester ... 33 shillings.

View of Chester, by William Smith (1585)
Today, the Admiral's Men premièred a new play that is now sadly lost, but will become a major fixture of Henslowe's Diary. He records its title here as The Wise Man of Chester, but in later entries the setting will instead be called 'West Chester' (the two names are synonymous, both referring to the town of Chester in northern England).

Who was this wise man? That depends on whether the play really is lost. Some scholars believe that it survives under a different title, John a Kent and John a Cumber. In this play by Anthony Munday, which exists only in a single manuscript, two magicians (one Welsh, the other Scottish) compete for supremacy in Chester. So it is indeed a play about a wise man (well, actually two wise men) of Chester.

A man, who might possibly be
wise, carved on the choir
stalls of Chester Cathedral
But is it the same play? One piece of evidence, put forward by Andrew Gurr, is that the John a Kent and John a Cumber manuscript is in the handwriting of a professional scribe who worked a lot for the Admiral's Men. However, as Martin Wiggins points out, that scribe worked with other companies too, so it doesn't prove a lot.

The other evidence is that Henslowe's 1598 inventory of props includes "Kent's wooden leg", implying the existence of a character called Kent in one of the Admiral's Men's plays. However, no wooden leg is mentioned in  John a Kent and John a Cumber, so this too is very slender evidence.

This issue is further confused by an enigmatic date on the John a Kent manuscript, which could be read as 1590, 1595 or 1596. And although Munday did work for the Admiral's Men later, it's not known whether he did this early.

Given the almost non-existent evidence, I am not convinced that The Wise Man of West Chester was the same play as John a Kent and John a Cumber. It is quite possible that one was imitating the other by creating a rival Chester-based wizard play, perhaps about the same characters (we have already seen that there were two rivals plays about another wizard, Friar Bacon).

Whatever the play's subject, today's performance was very disappointing for a première. The theatre was only half full, so the promise of a northern sage appears to have been a turn-off. Watch this space though - things may get interesting later on...


The Wise Man of West Chester information

  • Roslyn L. Knutson, 'Play Identifications: The Wise Man of West Chester and John a Kent and John a Cumber; Longshanks and Edward I', in Huntington Library Quarterly 47 (1984), 1-11
  • Andrew Gurr, Shakespeare's Opposites: The Admiral's Company, 1594-1625 (Cambridge University Press, 2009), 106, 212.
  • Roslyn L. Knutson, "Wise Man of West Chester, The", Lost Plays Database (2014). 
  • Martin Wiggins, British Drama, 1533-1642: A Catalogue, vol. 3 (Oxford University Press, 2013), entries 866 and 976.
  • Douglas H. Arrell, 'John a Kent, the Wise Man of Westchester', Early Theatre 17.1 (2014), 75-92.
  • Tom Rutter, Shakespeare and the Admiral's Men (Cambridge University Press, 2017), 77-9

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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