W.P’s Letter to Edward Alleyn with a Copy of Verses Addressed to ‘sweete Nedd’
MSS 1, Article 6
(H. R. Woudhuysen)
MSS 1, Article 6 (MSS-1/Article-006/01r)
Your answer the other nighte, so well pleased the Gentlemen, as I was satisfied therewth, though to the hazarde of ye wager; and yet my meaninge was not to preiudice Peeles credit; neither wolde it, though it pleased you so to excuse it, but beinge now growen farther into question, the partie affected to Bently, (scornynge to wynne the wager by yor deniall), hath now giuen you libertie to make choice of any one playe, that either Bently or Knell plaide, and least this advantage, agree not wth yor minde, he is contented, both the plaie and the tyme, shalbe referred to the gentlemen here prsent. I see not, how you canne any waie hurte yor credit by this acc’on; for if you excell them, you will then be famous, if equall them; you wynne both the wager and credit, yf short of them; we must and will saie Ned Allen still.
Yor frend to his power
Deny me not sweete Nedd, the wager’s downe
and twice as muche, commaunde of me or myne:
And if you wynne, I sweare the half is thyne;
and for an ouerplus, an English Crowne.
Appoint the tyme, and stint it as you pleas,
Your labor’s gaine; and that will proue it ease. /
[Addressed:] To Edward Allen
Unlike the vast majority of manuscript items in the Henslowe-Alleyn papers at Dulwich, this letter with its verses is not only relatively legible, but beautifully written. It is, however, difficult at first reading to understand what the letter and the poem are about. W. P. seems to be acting as an intermediary in a wager made between someone (‘the partie’) and Alleyn in front of various ‘Gentlemen’. Alleyn is to choose a play in which either Bently or Knell had a part; it seems as if the Gentlemen are to judge whether Alleyn’s performance is better than, or as good as or not as good as, Bently’s or Knell’s performance in a part. If the outcome is that Alleyn is judged not as good as either of them, he will lose nothing but will still be known as ‘Ned Allen’. The familiar form of his name is alluded to in the verses, which are written as if by Alleyn’s challenger, and offer a crown or five shillings, if the actor wins, as an extra inducement to join in the wager. In addition to this, W. P. refers to a meeting ‘the other nighte’ at which he seems to have said something unintentionally disobliging about Peele to which Alleyn responded cleverly, thereby amusing the assembled company.
Except for Edward Alleyn himself, the identities of those concerned in this matter are by no means certain. The Peele whose credit was not being impugned by W. P. is usually taken to have been the poet and playwright George Peele (1556–96), but if his name was invoked here in relation to acting (rather than, say, as a playwright), it is remarkable that there is no other firm evidence that he himself performed on the stage. If the stage plot of Peele’s play The Battle of Alcazar was ever at Dulwich (it is now in the British Library), it would represent one of the few definite links between its author and Henslowe and Alleyn. Bently and Knell seem to be identical with John Bentley and William(?) Knell, both members of the Queen’s Men in the 1580s. Knell must have been dead by 1588, as his wife remarried in that year. Both men attracted a few contemporary references, and Thomas Nashe in Pierce Penniless (1592) associated them with Alleyn and Richard Tarlton. 1
The identity of W. P. is equally uncertain. He is an accomplished scribe who decorates the letter with characteristic flourishes beneath his initials, on three sides of the verses, and beneath the address. He has also added oblique strokes in otherwise blank parts of the letter, which serve both as decoration and to stop other handwritten material being inserted in it. In each line of the letter, apart from the first and the last, the scribe leaves one gap, and in the penultimate line two significant gaps, between parts of its text; these gaps, whose function or meaning is obscure, follow commas and semi-colons as well as full stops. The well-formed secretary hand in which most of the letter is written is complemented by a fine italic, used for names in the letter, his initials, the verses and the address; in the verses, ‘English Crowne’ is written in an almost Roman inscriptional hand. In the letter ‘Ned Allen’ and in the verses ‘sweete Nedd’ and ‘English Crowne’ are all written in gold ink. This sort of calligraphic exuberance and showmanship are relatively unusual in private documents of the time and suggest the work of a writer of some skill: the clubbed ascenders and descenders in the verse are characteristic of writing dating from the 1590s and 1600s. One possible candidate for the writer of the letter might be the scrivener William Panke who published his own writing manual in 1591. 2 In 1595 Panke was involved in a wager for a handwriting competition for a golden pen which the celebrated scrivener Peter Bales won. Unfortunately, there are no links known between Panke and the theatrical world.
The playful obscurity of the letter is characteristic of other Elizabethan records of wagers, such as the one with Edmund Spenser recorded by Gabriel Harvey in his letter-book. There seems to be some sort of joke involved in calling Alleyn ‘Ned’; this is how Nashe refers to him in his two tracts of 1592, Pierce Penniless and Strange News of the Intercepting Certain Letters. In the latter, Nashe states that ‘his very name (as the name of Ned Allen on the common stage) was able to make an ill matter good’. By then, Alleyn was about 26 and already had a reputation as a great actor. It seems unlikely that the joke refers to being over-familiar with his first name, but its significance is otherwise unknown. The involved syntax of the letter is far removed from the rather pedestrian verses, although in the last line, the play on work and leisure is quite deftly done. The subscription to the letter (‘Yor frend to his power’) is a common salutation, especially during the seventeenth century.
W. P.’s undated letter, first published in the 1821 Boswell Variorum Shakespeare, is unlike much of the material in the Henslowe-Alleyn papers: it is familiar but not domestic; it is beautifully and legibly written, but not easy to understand or to date. A highly attractive document, it links the world of fine writing to the gossipy, competitive milieu of the theatre. It proved irresistible to the nineteenth-century scholar and forger John Payne Collier: the following item in the manuscript consists of seventeen lines of verse, addressed as if to Alleyn, beginning ‘Sweete Nedde nowe wynne an other wager’, and in which the author refers to ‘Willes newe playe’. Although written in a plausible secretary hand, the uneven inking of the verses and their rather extravagant orthography led to their exposure as a forgery within twenty years of their first publication in Collier’s Memoirs of Edward Alleyn (1841). 3
- See E. K. Chambers, The Elizabethan Stage, 4 volumes (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1923), 2:303, 327-8. Back to context...
- H.R. Woudhuysen, Sir Philip Sidney and the Circulation of Manuscripts, 1558–1640 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996), p. 34. Back to context...
- See Arthur Freeman and Janet Ing Freeman, John Payne Collier: Scholarship and Forgery in the Nineteenth Century, 2 vols (New Haven, Conn., and London: Yale University Press, 2004), 2:1137. Back to context...