The Miseries

This was George Wilkins, the man in whose house Stephen and Mary Belott came to live, in the summer of 1605, bringing with them that meagre cartload of ‘houshould stuffe’ for which - he later asserted - he would not have given a fiver. We do not know if he already ran the tavern-cum-brothel on Turnmill Street, which is first referred to in 1610: it is anyway unlikely that the Belotts would be lodged there. The more likely location, for reasons already given, is St Giles parish (which was only ten minutes’ walk from Clerkenwell - all this story is tightly confined). But, wherever it was, we have a strong suspicion it was a seedy or shady sort of house where women of negotiable virtue could be found and hired.

The arrival of the Belotts in Wilkins’s house marks the first known connection between Wilkins and Shakespeare. They may have known one another before, but this is the first visible link. The connection is a simple, human one. Two young people well known to Shakespeare - his landlord’s apprentice, his landlady’s daughter - have gone to live with Wilkins. But it has complications. They are young people in whose welfare Shakespeare has been involved. The circumstances are unhappy. One thinks particularly of Mary, exiled from her family home, caught in this terrific cross-fire of antagonism between her father and husband, and now insalubriously lodged in the house of a pimp.

And here is a synchronicity. It is more or less exactly at this time, in the summer of 1605, that there begins an identifiable literary connection between Wilkins and Shakespeare. At this point, as far as the evidence remains, Wilkins was an unknown and unpublished author. But some time in or shortly after June 1605 he began work on a play for Shakespeare’s company, the King’s Men.

The play was Wilkins’s best and most characteristic work, The Miseries of Enforced Marriage (see Plate 26). We can be fairly sure about the dating because the play was based on real events - a shocking murder-case in Yorkshire, in which two young children were killed by their father, Walter Calverley, a well-born man who had spiralled into debt and dissipation and, it seems, insanity. Calverley also attempted to murder his wife, Philippa, but she survived. The killings happened on 23 April 1605, and public interest in the case was further whetted by a news-pamphlet, Two Unnatural Murthers, which gave a detailed account of the affair.13 This pamphlet, registered at Stationers’ Hall on 12 June and published shortly afterwards, was certainly used by Wilkins when writing the Miseries.

One of the things that emerged from the Unnatural Murthers pamphlet was that as a young man Calverley had been betrothed, but had been unwillingly forced by his guardian to marry another woman. Thus the glimmerings of a love-story lie behind the grim facts of his decline and fall. In the final version of Wilkins’s play - there was more than one - it is this back-story which holds centre-stage. It becomes a study (if that is not too spruce a term for a Wilkins play) of a man sinking into drunkenness and vice to escape the ‘miseries’ of an unhappy and enforced marriage.14

Wilkins wrote fast (and, as some bungled lines in the printed text suggest, none too legibly). The play was probably onstage at the Globe in early 1606. In May of that year an Act to Restrain Abuses of Players came into force, forbidding use of the names of God, Christ, etc, onstage. Oaths and casual blasphemies are scattered liberally through the Miseries, suggesting that it had been performed before this clean-up.15 The play was apparently still packing them in when it was published the following year - the title-page of the 1607 quarto reads, ‘The Miseries of Inforst Mariage. As it is now playd by his Maiesties Servants’. This long run shows it was a success, and three further editions (1611, 1629, 1637) show that it continued to be popular.

The Miseries is one of a series of hotly topical plays of the time which gave the stage an edge of journalistic reportage. And it seems the King’s Men had a particular interest in the Calverley case - or thought their public would have a particular interest in it - for there is another dramatic treatment of it in their repertoire, the brief and bleak Yorkshire Tragedy. This was published in 1608. It belongs in lists of the ‘Shakespeare apocrypha’, being ascribed to him on the title-page of two early editions, and in the entries relating to them in the Stationers’ Register. The publisher, Thomas Pavier, was a noted pirate, and the play was not included in the Folio, so this attribution is not generally credited. Shakespeare may have added some touches, but the main authorship was not his. Various authors have been proposed - Thomas Heywood, John Day, Wilkins himself - but the most plausible candidate is Thomas Middleton, who was collaborating with Shakespeare on Timon in c. 1605.16

The Miseries does not have the intensity of the Yorkshire Tragedy but its lack of artistry makes it valuable in another sense - we hear Wilkins and his world throughout it. The central character is not so much the Calverley figure, William Scarborrow (Scarborough), as the parasitic ‘gallant’ Sir Francis Ilford, one who, in his own words, ‘live[s] by the fall of young heirs as swine by the dropping of acorns’ (1054-5). There is every sign that the play was printed from Wilkins’s ‘foul papers’ - his working draft of the play - and so I give a representative scene in original spelling - Wilkins’s spelling. It is a tavern scene, nominally in the Mitre in Bread Street, but it has the rough timbre of Wilkins’s own tavern as we discern it in those court cases listed above. This is how Sir Frank Ilford orders his drinks -

ILFORD: Where be these Rogues here: what, shall we have no Wine here?

DRAWER: Anon, anon, sir.

ILFORD: Anon, goodman Rascall, must wee stay your leysure? Gee’t us by and by, with apoxe to you.

SCARBORROW: O do not hurt the fellow.

Exit Drawer

ILFORD: Hurt him, hang him, Scape-trencher, star-waren [stair-warden?], Wine spiller, mettle-clancer, Rogue by generation. Why, dost thou heare Will? If thou dost not use these Grape-spillers as you doe theyr pottle-pots, quoit em down stayres three or fouyre times at a supper, theyle grow as sawcy with you as Sergeants, and make bils more unconscionable than Taylors.

Enter Drawer

DRAWER: Heres the pure and neat grape Gent. I hate [have it] for you.

ILFORD: Fill up: what ha you brought here, goodman Roge?

DRAWER: The pure element of Claret sir.

ILFORD: Ha you so, and did not I call for Rhenish you Mungrell? Throws the wine in the Drawers face.

SCARBORROW: Thou needst no wine, I prithee be more mild.

ILFORD: Be mild in a Taverne? Tis treason to the red Lettyce, enemy to their signe post, and slave to humor:

Prethee, lets be mad, 

Then fill our heads with wine, till every pate be drunke, 

Then pisse i’ the street, jussell all you meet, and with a Punke, 

As thou wilt, do now and then. (1057-84)

There are hints in this scene that Wilkins has seen or read the Falstaff comedies,17 but for the most part no literary influence needs to be invoked. This is Wilkins in propria persona, writing what he knows best: the rough badinage of alcohol and violence, the jostling and pissing of drunken young hoorays. He knows it from the inside, and there is a poignant self-reflection in Scarborrow’s words -

Thus, like a Fever that doth shake a man 

From strength to weakness, I consume myself. 

I know this company, their custom vilde, 

Hated, abhorr’d of good men, yet like a child

By reason’s rule instructed how to know 

Evil from good, I to the worser go . . . (1118-23)

And on the title-page of the Miseries he appends a hopeful Latin tag: ‘Qui alios seipsum docet’ - he who teaches others teaches himself.

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