Authorship and Sources of "Gentleness and Nobility": A Study in Early Tudor Drama, Together with a Text of the Play Based on the Black-Letter Original

Authorship and Sources of "Gentleness and Nobility": A Study in Early Tudor Drama, Together with a Text of the Play Based on the Black-Letter Original

Authorship and Sources of "Gentleness and Nobility": A Study in Early Tudor Drama, Together with a Text of the Play Based on the Black-Letter Original

Authorship and Sources of "Gentleness and Nobility": A Study in Early Tudor Drama, Together with a Text of the Play Based on the Black-Letter Original

Excerpt

THE BACKGROUND AND SOURCES OF GENTLENESS

Two recent studies-- Mohl The Three Estates2 and Kelso The Doctrine of the English Gentleman3--have fundamental importance in any examination of Gentleness,4 for they reveal and interpret the vast literature of which it is a part and caution the source-hunter against making hasty decisions. The questions which the play attempts to answer were so common throughout the Middle Ages and Renaissance in all countries5 that even specialized researches cannot exhaust the literary resources.6 Evidence, moreover, for the wide-spread oral discussion of the estates and their responsibilities is also abundant.7 The clergy discussed Nobilitas in their sermons;8 philosophers analyzed it in treatises;9 and statesmen assigned it space in books of law.10 Continental farces satirized all classes and challenged the law of primogeniture.11 A rich quarry for all writers was Jean de Meun's contribution to the Roman de la Rose12 because of its thoughts on nobility and its stimulating discussions of the Golden Age, the origin of wealth and social classes, the inheritance of property,13 ability vs. birth, the sufficiency of animals, the uniqueness of man, the decay of the human race, and the necessity for all mankind to work.

The dominant note of Gentleness is the familiar admonition that in nobility "virtue is ever the thing principal." To list the mediaeval and Renaissance works in which the sentiment appears would require several volumes. Smythe-Palmer's collection14 of excerpts gleaned from the authors of nineteen centuries is, therefore, representative rather than exhaustive,15 but it should reveal with what lack of originality Boccaccio,16 Vincent de Beauvais,17 Chaucer,18 John Herolt,19 and hundreds of contemporaries treated the subject.20 Various interpretations of the word "virtue" did exist, to be sure, but few writers--least of all the author of the interlude--troubled to define terms. This fact accounts for the surprising agreement in principle among the contenders in Gentleness and at the same time their strong antipathies; it is also the basis for the side-splitting laughter, which arises as much from the rude ploughman's interpretation of terms and the deductions which he makes, as from the verbal and physical victories which he achieves over a crafty merchant and a knight who has had service in the field. The play really contains so little to distinguish it from the vulgate doctrine of the Renaissance-- to be found neatly classified in the work of Heywood's contemporary, Josse Clichtove,21 in Elyot Gouernour,22 and in The Boke of Noblenes23--that the scholar has only a few clues to guide him in his search for actual sources. The preponderance of the commonplace, the exaggeration for humorous effect and the probability of court presentation, moreover, taken together, . . .

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