Academic journal article Medieval & Renaissance Drama in England

Philip Henslowe's Artificial Cow

Academic journal article Medieval & Renaissance Drama in England

Philip Henslowe's Artificial Cow

Article excerpt

All scholars of early modern theater history know Philip Henslowe's "Enventary tacken of all the properties for my Lord Admeralles men, the 10 of Marche 1598". (1) This wonderfully evocative and much-discussed list of stage properties includes several objects which are linked to Thomas Dekker's lost play "Phaethon," and one which sounds particularly strange: "Item, j hecfor for the playe of Faeton, the limes dead." (2) The entry is a longstanding puzzle in theater history, which has been variously called "mysterious," "unexplained," and even "inexplicable." (3) This paper is narrowly focussed on that single entry: it reopens the question of what this property was, and reconsiders what it was for.

The Inventory

The "Enventary" is of a group of related lists left by Henslowe and first studied by Edmond Malone. The manuscript document, however, has been lost since Malone's time, with the result that we are exclusively dependent upon Malone's transcription of it. The list appears to represent the contents of some storage room, except that, as Michael J. Hirrel perceptively observes, that room is not the tiringhouse of the Rose Theatre, since the most common properties--tables and chairs--are conspicuous by their absence. But whatever and wherever this room is, it is filled with props of different types and sizes, from small to large, and associated with several different named plays, all jumbled together.

Three lines of the inventory mention the play "Phaethon," and are therefore particularly relevant here. They run as follows:

   Item, viij lances, j payer of stayers for Fayeton ...
   Item, j hecfor for the playe of Faeton, the limes dead ...
   Item, j lyone skin; j beares skyne; & Faetones lymes, & Faeton
   charete; & Argosse heade.


"Hecfor" is generally modernized as "heifer," that is, a young cow which has not yet calved. (4) A fresh look at this question, with the aid of EEBOTCP, confirms that "hecfor" occurs in this sense in our period, and has no obvious possible other meanings.

It is occasionally suggested that Henslowe is describing a set of severed limbs from an actual dead heifer, to be used to represent severed human limbs when these were required in plays such as "Phaethon" and Dr Faustus. (5) But there are numerous problems with this idea. It would seem a tortured interpretation of Henslowe's word order; as a theatrical expedient, cow limbs are not obviously plausible representations of human ones; and to have such items decomposing in a storage room would surely be insanitary even by early modern standards. The idea is also incompatible with the rest of the listing, which, as seen above, identifies "Faetones lymes" as an item distinct from the heifer's limbs. This heifer, then, is unlikely to be a real heifer. Instead, like everything else in this slippery document, it is a representation of the thing named: an artificial prop of some sort that depicts a heifer. "The limes dead" is a description of part of it, and we shall return later in the paper to the question of what this troubling phrase means.


What was this heifer used for? Several other records survive to do with the lost play to which it is attached, a play whose title is generally standardized as "Phaethon." Payments to Thomas Dekker in connection with its writing are recorded by Henslowe on January 8 and 15, 1598. Its script is among those recorded by Henslowe in an inventory of play books, dating from summer or early autumn 1598. In records dating from December 1600 and January 1601, Henslowe paid Dekker a further 2 [pound sterling] to revise the play, and spent another twenty shillings on "diverse things" for a performance of the play at court. Such a performance indeed took place, in front of an audience which "presumably included Elizabeth I." (6)

In addition to the properties already mentioned--a pair of stairs, a heifer, Phaeton's limbs and chariot--other properties associated with the play are preserved in Henslowe's various inventories. …

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