MSS 19 (MSS-19/01r MSS-19/02r MSS-19/03r)

This manuscript is one of six surviving stage ‘plots’ (‘platt’ is a variant spelling) that were used by acting companies in the Elizabethan public theatres; a seventh, now lost, was printed in volume 3 of the edition of Shakespeare by Samuel Johnson, George Steevens and Isaac Reed published in 21 volumes in 1803. Five now are collected in British Library MS Additional 10449, and all these belonged to the Admiral’s Men, and almost certainly were at one time among the manuscripts at Dulwich. Only one remains among the Henslowe papers, the plot of The Second Part of the Seven Deadly Sins, which names only players who were members of Lord Strange’s Men, so that it may date from a period between 1590 and 1592 when this group and the Admiral’s Men were collaborating, which would account for its presence at Dulwich. The play was probably a sequel to Four Plays in One, listed by Henslowe in his Diary (MSS-7/007r) as performed on March 6, 1592, by Strange’s Men. This title may be identified with an old play on the seven deadly sins written by Richard Tarlton for the Queen’s Men around 1585. 1 The sins, in fact, seem to have stretched to two plays, four being illustrated in Part 1, hence the alternative title Four Plays in One, and three more in the second part.

The play itself is lost, and there is no record of a performance in Henslowe’s Diary, but the plot shows that The Secound Part of the Seven Deadlie Sinnes, to use its original spelling, presented three episodes illustrating the sins of envy, sloth and lechery within a framing device involving King Henry VI and the poet John Lydgate (who in fact lived well before the reign of this king). Henry appeared asleep in a tent at the beginning, and the episodes seem to have been staged as if dreamt by him. Lydgate and Henry were to remain on stage throughout and address the audience, presumably commenting on the action, at various points. The first episode concerned the reign of King Gorboduc (played by the young Richard Burbage, not yet a sharer in the company), who handed over his authority to his two sons, Ferrex and Porrex, with a tragic outcome as the sons quarrel and attempt to kill one another. The second episode dealt with Sardanapalus, a king in ancient Assyria, noted for his luxury and idleness. The third episode had to do with the rape of Philomel by Tereus (also played by Burbage). The whole thus might have been called three plays in one.

It is perhaps surprising that any stage plots survive, since they were used for performances, subject to wear and tear, and might be discarded when a play lost its place in the repertory. Most of the surviving stage plots are damaged, and only a fragment remains of one of them (Troilus and Cressida), but they all seem to have had roughly the same form, a large sheet of paper with two columns of writing on it divided by vertical rules. These columns contain a list of the scenes in the play, each separated from the next by a horizontal rule. The entry of actors is noted for each scene, identifying the players by their own names and by the character’s name for a first entry, and thereafter usually naming the characters only.

The plot of The Second Part of the Seven Deadly Sins is unusually well preserved, having at some time been cut in two, and each half mounted on boards that were folded and jointed together with a strip of leather binding. In the centre of the top half is a square hole that was no doubt used to hang the plot on a peg somewhere in the backstage area during a performance of the play. The plot then functioned as a guide to the players, a reminder of when they would be needed on stage. No act divisions are marked, and no exits, except for a final direction for Lydgate, who ‘speaks to the Audiens and so Exitts’. The actors worked as a team, and in the absence of any equivalent of the modern director or producer, the plot served an important purpose.

The plot names fourteen actors and six boys, who played women’s parts and perhaps the sins in the dumbshows. Three actors are given the title ‘Mr’ (George Brian, Augustine Phillips and Thomas Pope), probably indicating they were sharers in the company. Phillips, Pope and Burbage later became sharers in the Lord Chamberlain’s Men (together with Shakespeare). Other named actors include William Sly, who also became a sharer in the Chamberlain’s Men, Christopher Beeston (‘Kitt’), who was a leading player in Worcester’s Men in 1602 (Henslowe's Diary, MSS-7/118r), and had a long career with several companies, and John Duke, also a sharer in Worcester’s Men in 1602. The actors playing Henry VI and Lydgate, who are on stage throughout, are not named, and may also have been sharers in Strange’s Men. One of the boys, Nick, surname unknown, seems to have become attached to the Admiral’s Men, who bought a pair of hose for him in December 1601 'to tumble in before the quen' (Henslowe's Diary, MSS-7/095v). The others appear to have belonged to Strange’s Men and later to the Chamberlain’s Men, among them one Ned, surname unidentified, but not, in this case, Edward Alleyn, who was born in 1566 and no longer a boy.

Two dumbshows are called for, with Lydgate as commentator. Otherwise the play required little in the way of properties or scenic aids. Three musicians appear in one scene, but no indications are given for music to be played. The main needs were for a tent at the beginning, then later Sardanapalus was to come on at one point ‘wth as many Jewels robes and gold as he can cary’. Philomel entered bearing ‘Itis head in a dish’ in the second dumbshow, in which Mercury also has a part.

The plot was reproduced in W. W. Greg’s Dramatic Documents from the Elizabethan Playhouses, 2 vols. (1931), with a commentary in vol.2, pp.105-22.

Footnotes

1.
E. K. Chambers, The Elizabethan Stage, 4 volumes (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1923), 3:496-7. Back to context...