281. The Tragedie of Gorboduc (aka Ferrex and Porrex) by Thomas Norton and Thomas Sackville (1561)

See them obey, so shall you see them rule:

Who so obeyeth not with humbleness,

Will rule with outrage and with insolence.

Philander, Act 1, Scene II, lines 232-234.

A historical tragedy with overtones of political advice to the newly crowned Queen Elizabeth I, this play tells of the dangers of interfering with the succession of the firstborn to the throne, as the tired King Gorboduc splits Britain in two and assigns half to each of his sons Ferrex and Porrex, to rule as separate kingdoms. Whisperers and sycophants spread evil rumours that soon set the two brothers’ hearts against each other, and murder and civil war results. Perhaps a comment on recent comings and goings on the English throne post-Henry VIII?!

Source :  Again from the online database Elizabethan Drama.org http://elizabethandrama.org/the-playwrights/plays-of-historical-importance/gorboduc-by-thomas-norton-and-thomas-sackville/

Thoughts :

Each act is preceded by a “dumb show” where the themes of the play in the coming act are depicted visually : Unity of the Realm vs Disunity, Murder, Revenge, and Civil War. Also, like classical drama, each act ends with a chorus to drive home the point, and all the excitement happens off stage and is described by messengers to the King or nobles. Despite this limitation, the first three acts successfully build the tension, only to have the last two acts descend into rather tedious and lengthy speeches that repeat the dooms of civil unrest and rebellion. Since Norton is believed to have written the first three acts, and Sackville the last two, I know who I’d be commissioning for my latest stage show.

Ferrex, the older brother, who by rights, should have inherited the whole realm, is given the southern half, with its milder climate, richer soils, bigger cities and trade status, which is all cited by his father’s advisor as proof of his father’s greater love for him. Seems the north/south divide existed even then! Porrex is quite ready to believe Ferrex is discontent and wastes little time in invading the south and confronting his brother. Then the Queen weighs in to avenge Ferrex, the people arise and rebel, and soon it becomes a free-for-all.

On a happier note, this play ushers in the use of blank verse (ie no more forced rhyming necessary) Thank goodness!

Favourite quotes/scenes:

All my favourite quotes come from the repeated warnings and misgivings of the King’s advisors regarding the danger and folly that this decision will cost the Realm. And all penned by Norton.

“Arm not unskilfulness with princely power”

Philander, Act 1, Scene II, line 330

“Was this not wrong? Yea, ill-advisèd wrong

“To give so mad a man so sharp a sword,

To so great peril of so great mishap,

Wide open thus to set so large a way”

Hermon, Act 2, Scene I, lines 71-74

“Then traitorous counsel now will whirl about

The youthful heads of these unskilful kings.”

Dordan, Act 2, Scene I, lines 219-220


Personal rating:  4/10

… but despair ye not, for now we enter the last two decades of the 16th century, and have reached the plays of Christopher Marlowe, Ben Jonson and “that upstart crow” William Shakespeare. Huzzah huzzah!

In the years 1541-1560:

  • Henry VIII has his fifth wife Catherine Howard executed, and marries #6, Catherine Parr, 1542. James V of Scotland dies, leaving the Scottish throne to his daughter Mary, aged 6 days old. Henry offers to marry his son Edward to Mary but the Scots refuse, 1543.
  • Benvenuto Cellini is making gold salt cellars for Francois I of France and gathering material for what will become a very immodest and popular autobiography, 1543.
  • Nicolaus Copernicus proposes that the Earth revolves around the Sun, 1543. He dies immediately after the last pages of his work are printed, thereby cleverly escaping the wrath of both the Church and his fellow astronomers.
  • Henry VIII dies 1547, succeeded by son Edward VI. Francois I of France dies, succeeded by Henri II. Ivan the Terrible assumes rule of Russia, taking the title Tsar.
  • Jesuit Missions to Japan and Brazil, 1549.
  • Edward VI names Lady Jane Grey as Queen and then dies, 1553. She rules for nine days before being replaced by Mary I. Jane is executed the following year, 1554, as Catholicism is restored in England, and Protestants are persecuted, 1555.
  • Mary I of England dies, 1558, and her half-sister Elizabeth succeeds to the throne. The Church of England is re-established and England breaks with Rome again, 1559.

from The Book of Key Facts, Paddington Press, 1978


  1. Greetings, I am very pleased to have come across your website, I wish I had found it long ago when you were just getting started. I am also sad to see you are considering giving it up, just when you are really getting deep into the stuff that you can read in the original language!

    I am also the owner of elizabethandrama.org, and I must tell you I had a good laugh when I read your thoughts that the plays are generally over-annotated. I cannot tell you how much sleep I have lost over the years worrying about whether I should scale back the commentary. In the end, the reality is that there are not too many people like yourself who, for example, read poems by Henry Howard just because, so naturally the 16th century’s language is no stranger to you!

    I hope you continue your literary journey further, and I will hope to join you in reading some of those classics that I otherwise would never have thought to pick up.


    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Peter, Thanks so much for your kind words.
      I must admit I find it very hard to ignore or skim footnotes and annotations as I read, I always feel I am missing something important if I do. I remember reading the annotated complete stories of Sherlock Holmes and stopping constantly to read the notes. I felt I knew every detail about Hansom cabs in London c.1890 by the end. 🙂
      You’re right when you say that a lot of the language is familiar for me (at least enough that I can get the gist without interrupting the flow of the story) so its my own fault that I feel torn between reading and skipping the annotations. What I should do is offer my thanks and praise on your own fantastic website which provides access to these wonderful works in as accessible a format for all. Lose no more sleep – you’ve done a great job.
      As for continuing the blog, I am still undecided. I will definitely continue the reading quest in the manner I have started, but whether I continue blogging is the real question. Having almost reached Shakespeare, I wonder what I can possibly say that thousands before me haven’t already said much better?
      Thanks again,
      Warren (aka Chronolibrarian)


      • Dear Warren, I thank you too for your complimentary words.
        You have indeed painted yourself into a bit of a corner, by committing to read ALL the classics – you can’t skip Shakespeare after all! Thus, what option do you have, if you continue the blog, but to squarely face the oppressive proposition of having to come up with new or better ways to write something about his works?!
        Anyway, I have an idea that may or may not help you with your decision about your blog; rather than take up your public space, I would be pleased if you would contact me by my email.


  2. Hurrah for Shakespeare! As to this one, it might be a bit early but I wondered if it was the beginning of the subliminal messages around the union of Scotland and England which I believe became quite a major feature of plays later in the century, especially when Elizabeth kept refusing to name an heir. But since Henry was already trying to achieve Union through marriage then I think it’s a possibility…

    Liked by 1 person

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