Thomas Hughes; Nicholas Trotte; Francis Bacon; Christopher Yelverton; William Fulbecke; Francis Flower; John Lancaster; Master "Penroodocke"


28 February 1588

'The first English play to treat on the Arthurian legend.'

a synoptic, alphabetical character list


Angharat is the sister of Gueneuora, Arthur's wife. When the queen gives up her initial plan to assassinate Arthur upon his return and then decides that her only course is to kill herself, Angharat convinces Gueneuora to accept what has happened, especially the queen's affair with Mordred, as the work of fate and to conclude that suicide is not the solution. By the end of their conversation, Gueneuora gives up the thought of killing herself, but she determines to withdraw from the world and enter a convent.


A "ghost character." Twin sister of Arthur and Mordred's mother.


Arthur is King of Great Britain. Before the action of the play, his father, Uther Pendragon employed the power of Merlin the magician to seduce Igerna, the wife of the Cornish king Gorlois. The union produced Arthur and a twin sister Anne, with whom Arthur later has an incestuous relationship, one that results in the birth of the villainous Mordred. Arthur's nine-year absence fighting on the Continent is the occasion for an affair between Mordred and Arthur's wife Gueneuora and for Mordred's attempt to seize his father's throne. The play begins with Arthur returning to Britain. Arthur is at first unwilling to attack Mordred, but he is finally convinced by his father-in-law Cador of the need to confront Mordred. The subsequent battle in Cornwall between the armies of father and son results in Arthur's killing Mordred, but only after Mordred has delivered a blow to Arthur's head that itself will prove fatal.


When Arthur decides to confront Mordred, the Danish king Aschillus joins the King of Norway in promising to aid Arthur. He is killed by Mordred during the battle in Cornwall.


The Bareheaded Man, wearing Irish clothes and sporting a dagger, appears in Dumb Show Two, driving the King in the dumb show into the area on the stage designated "Mordred's house." The Bareheaded Man signifies Mordred's fury and his desire for revenge after Arthur's successful return to Britain.


Cador is the Duke of Cornwall, Gueneuora's father, and Arthur's father-in-law. When the king seems determined to avoid a war against Mordred, Cador encourages Arthur to take arms against his son using the argument that anyone who winks at sin is in fact encouraging it. Cador is badly wounded by Mordred's ally Gilla during the last battle, but he manages to slay Gilla, the earl to whom Mordred had promised the dukedom of Cornwall.


Cheldrichus is the King of the Saxons. He allies himself with Mordred in return for the promise of all the land between the Humber River and the land of the Scots, and for as much of Kent as was held by Horsa and Hengist (the Anglo-Saxon leaders who first aided the Celtic king Vortigern and later turned on him to lead their troops against the Celts). Cheldrichus is beheaded by Arthur in combat during the final battle in Cornwall.


The Chorus of four men enters as the play begins. The members provide commentary as follows:
  • Between Acts One and Two they comment upon the ultimate origin of Arthur's current trouble, viz. Uther Pendragon's affair with Igerna,
  • Between Acts Two and Three on the mass destruction sure to follow from Mordred's decision to oppose Arthur,
  • Between Acts Three and Four on the great burdens laid upon princes, and
  • Between Acts Four and Five on the peculiar horrors attendant upon civil wars.
In the first scene of Act Five, the Chorus actually engages in conversation with Cador and the dying Arthur, and after the exit of Arthur and Cador from that scene, its members deliver concluding commentary on the transitory nature of human life.


Mordred's good adviser, Conan urges Arthur's son not to oppose his father. He argues that fighting Arthur will most likely lead to the destruction of the realm.


This unnamed leader of the Picts is allied to Mordred and is promised the crown of Albany, that held by Gawin, if the rebels are successful.


The unnamed speaker of the epilogue concludes the play with a discourse upon the consequences of ambition, the dangers inherent in the pursuit of pomp and rule, and the transitory nature of all human achievements.


In the first act, Fronia, a lady-in-waiting to Gueneuora, counsels the queen not to continue the affair with Mordred. She further urges her to seek reconciliation with her husband and to give up thoughts of assassinating Arthur upon his return to Britain.


Three Furies appear in the First Dumb Show. Although only one is later named, Alecto whose name means "Never Ceasing," there were only three Furies (or Erinys) in mythology according to Virgil. The other two are Megaira ("Grudger") and Tisiphone ("Avenger of Blood"). In the course of the First Dumbe Show
  • The first carries a snake in her right hand and a wine cup with a snake across it in the left, signifying the banquet at which Uther Pendragon was smitten with lust for Igerna, the wife of Gorlois, and Uther's ultimate poisoning by the Saxons.
  • The second Fury carries a torch in one hand and a Cupid in the other, signifying Uther's lust for Igerna.
  • The third Fury carries a whip in her right hand and a representation of Pegasus in the other, signifying the cruelty and the political ambition that will contribute to Arthur's misfortunes and his death.
As three Nuns arrive, the Furies move to the place on the stage designated "Mordred's house," thereby indicating his fated role in the tragedy that follows.


Gawin is the King of Albany and the son of Arthur's twin sister Anne. As Mordred's half-brother, he attempts to reconcile the king and his son, but he is unsuccessful. Fighting for Arthur, he dies in Cornwall at the hand of Mordred.


In Dumb Show Five, four Gentlemen arrive. They are dressed in black, and two are armed.
  • The first Gentleman holds in one hand the shaft a spear, on which are displayed a helmet, a sword, and a gauntlet, representing the trophies of war. In his other hand, he carries a small shield on which is depicted a bleeding heart, topped with a crown and a laurel garland. The Latin inscription En totum quod superest ("Behold the whole which remains") signifies that this Gentleman represents the King of Norway who has spent himself in Arthur's cause.
  • The second Gentleman enters with a silver vessel in one hand; it is filled with gold, pearls, and gemstones. His other hand holds a shield on which is painted an elephant and a dragon in combat. The dragon is wounding the elephant from below, but as the elephant falls dead from his wounds the dragon is crushed. The Latin inscription Victor, an Victus ("Victor or victim") indicates that this figure represents Aschillus, the King of Denmark, who has died at Mordred's hand, but only after he has destroyed most of the usurper's army.
  • The third Gentleman comes in bearing a "pyramid" or pyramidal stanchion in one hand. It is crowned with a laurel wreath and represents victory. In his other hand, the Gentleman bears a shield, on which is depicted a sleeping man about to be attacked by a snake. A lizard fights with the snake, is wounded, and then awakens the sleeping man, who when he sees the dying lizard, pursues the snake and kills it. The Latin inscription Tibi morimur ("We die for you") signifies that this picture represents Gawin, King of Albany, who, while defending Arthur, has died by the hand of his own half-brother Mordred, who is later killed by Arthur.
  • The fourth Gentleman arrives carrying a broken pillar, at the top of which is a crown and a scepter, both of which are broken. This represents Arthur's victory over the usurper Mordred. The small shield in the Gentleman's other hand bears the picture of two gamecocks, one dead, the other horribly wounded but crowing over the fallen bird. The inscription Qua vici, perdidi ("Where I conquered, I ruined") indicates that this represents Cador of Cornwall who is mortally wounded but triumphs over Gilla.


Dumb Show Three opens with the arrival of Six Gentlemen.
  • The first pair brings a table, carpet, and cloth. On the table, they place incense at one end and banqueting dishes at the other.
  • The second pair of Gentlemen arrives with swords that they then place across the table.
  • The final pair of Gentlemen, richly dressed, arrives, smells the incense, and tastes the banquet.
The first pair represents the servants of peace, the second pair symbolizes the servants of war, and the third pair stands for Arthur and his adviser Cador of Cornwall. When a Messenger delivers letters to them, the last pair of Gentlemen fling the food away, grab the swords from the table, and depart hastily, signifying Arthur's decision to defy Mordred.


During the Introduction, Five Gentlemen Students from Gray's Inn are charged by the Muses with contempt of "poesie." One of the Grayans delivers a defense, alleging that their service to Queen Elizabeth, dispenser of justice in the realm, necessitates their adherence to the linguistic conventions of their profession, but he adds that as devoted servants of the queen, they will undertake anything she might desire. He concludes that the men of Gray's Inn will offer their play to Elizabeth, even though it is a tragedy, because since her accession to the throne, all real tragedies have been banished from the state to the stage.


Gildas is a British nobleman who chides Conan for failing to restrain Mordred. Conan defends himself by observing that even the most persuasive of advisers are sometimes ineffective.


Gilla is a British earl allied to Mordred. Having been promised the dukedom of Cornwall if the rebellion succeeds, he fights for Mordred in the battle against Arthur, wounds Cador, the current duke, during the battle, and is then killed by him.


The Irish king Gillamor aids Mordred against Arthur in return for lifting the tribute that the British have been exacting from him. He admits that part of his support for the usurper stems from a desire to see Arthur disgraced. During the battle in Cornwall, Gillamor kills Howell, the king of Brittany, and is himself slain by Arthur.


The ghost of Gorlois, Duke of Cornwall, appears at the beginning and at the end of the play's action. Like the ghost of Andrea in The Spanish Tragedy, he has been sent from the infernal regions to witness the final misfortunes of an enemy. In this case, Arthur's troubles and ultimate death at the hands of Mordred are presented as recompense for Uther Pendragon's having seduced Gorlois' wife Igerna and having caused his death. At the play's end, he returns to the underworld satisfied with the outcome, promising never to return to Britain, and predicting that the country would in the distant future find itself an "Angels' land" presided over by a "goddesse" (Elizabeth) possessed of all heavenly virtues.


Gueneuora, daughter of Duke Cador of Cornwall, is Arthur's wife. During the king's long absence from Britain, she engages in an affair with Arthur's son Mordred, and upon learning of her husband's impending return, she is forced to confront the reality of her position. Her first response is to plan Arthur's assassination, but her lady-in-waiting Fronia dissuades her from that course. Her next decision is to commit suicide, but her sister Angharat convinces her that what has happened is the work of fate and urges her to stop contemplating suicide. Gueneuora is finally convinced, but she determines that the only acceptable course of action is to retire from active life, so she enters the cloistered world of a convent.


In the second act, this herald accompanies Gawin, King of Albany, on the mission to convince Mordred not to oppose his father Arthur.


In the third act, the herald conveys Mordred's threat to kill Arthur.


Howell (or Hoel) is the king of "little Brittaine" who, along with Cador of Cornwall, urges Arthur to use military force against Mordred. He argues that Arthur's attempt to avoid conflict with his usurping son is unbecoming a monarch, whose first duty should be to country, not family. Fighting on Arthur's side in Cornwall, he is slain by the Irish king Gillamor, one of Mordred's allies.


A "ghost character." Mother to the twins Arthur and Anne by Uther Pendragon, who came to her with Merlin's help in the shape of her husband, Gorlois.


The King, in a bloodstained black harness, enters supported by two heralds in mourning dress. One of the heralds bears a coat of arms depicting Mars, the god of war, the other has Arthur's coat of arms. This signifies that Arthur is victorious but has received a mortal wound from Mordred.


The King in Dumb Show Four enters wearing a crown and walks about the stage. The same Soldiers who attacked the Lady in this dumb show attack the King, throw his crown down, and then drag him away. This foreshadows the end to Mordred's attempt to steal Arthur's throne.


The King comes from the part of the stage designated "Mordred's house" and walks about until he is encountered by Nymphs who offer him a cornucopia, a golden olive branch, and a sheaf of wheat. The King rejects them scornfully. The items represent Arthur's offer of peace, an offer rejected by Mordred.


The unnamed King of Norway joins Aschillus, King of Denmark, in offering support to Arthur in the conflict with Mordred.


The lady in Dumb Show Four enters in courtly dress and carries a doll representing a human child. As she walks about the stage, four Soldiers attack her, take the "child," and fling it against the wall, thereby indicating that war does not spare man, woman, or child.


A "ghost character." The famous magician changed Uther Pendragon's shape, making Igerna believe that Uther was her husband, Gorlois, and thus paving the way for the birth of Arthur and his twin sister Anne.


The Messenger delivers letters to the final pair of Gentlemen in Dumb Show Three. After the Gentlemen (symbolizing Arthur and Cador) read the letters, they throw away the food on the banquet table, grab the swords that were placed there, and exit in haste. This represents Arthur's decision to defy Mordred's attempt at usurpation.


Mordred is Arthur's son by his twin sister Anne, and he is thus half-brother to Gawin, King of Albany. During Arthur's nine-year absence fighting on the Continent, before the action of the play, Mordred had an affair with Gueneuora, his father's wife, and eventually seized the throne, thus forcing Arthur to assert his right as the lawful king of Britain. During the final battle in Cornwall, Mordred dies after hurling himself on Arthur's sword, but not before he deals the king a blow to the head that later proves fatal.


During the Introduction (composed by Nicholas Trotte for the performance of the play before Queen Elizabeth at Greenwich), three Muses entered leading five "Gentlemen Students," representing the members of Gray's Inn. One Muse alleges that the lawyers have shown contempt for the "poesie" so much encouraged by Her Majesty, preferring instead their own barbaric legal jargon. This charge is met by a counter-statement from one of the Gentlemen Students who defends the practice of his profession, while acquiescing in anything the queen might command the lawyers to do.


Three nuns enter in the First Dumb Show and make their way to the part of the stage designated the "Cloister." This symbolizes Gueneuora's despair over her divided loyalties (to Arthur and to Mordred) and her eventual decision to retire to a convent.


The Nuntius of Arthur's Landing opens Act Two with a description of Arthur's victory over Tiberius, his having sent the Roman's corpse to the Senate in lieu of British "tribute," and the king's return to Britain to deal with Mordred.


The Nuntius of the Last Battle appears in the IV.ii. There he describes for Conan and Gildas the great slaughter in Cornwall, Arthur's victory over Mordred, and the deaths of the king and his evil son.


In Dumb Show Two, three Nymphs appear out of the part of the stage designated "Arthur's house." They approach the King in the dumb show and offer him a cornucopia, a golden olive branch, and a sheaf of wheat, signifying Arthur's offer of peace to Mordred. The King scornfully rejects the offerings.


In Dumb Show Five, a Page enters with a small shield upon which is painted a pelican ripping her breast in order to feed her young, after which she dies. The inscription Qua foui, perii ("Where I fostered, I perished") signifies Arthur's overindulgence of Mordred, and ultimately the king's death at the hands of his evil son.


Four Soldiers enter in Dumb Show Four, attack the courtly Lady, take her "child" (represented by a doll), and fling it against a wall. They then attack the King who is walking about the stage, throw his crown on the stage, and drag him away. This betokens the ultimate failure of Mordred to steal Arthur's throne.


A "ghost character." Merlin changed Uther's shape to fool Igerna into believing he was her husband, Gorlois. In this disguise, Uther fathered the twins Arthur and Anne.