Modelled on the master

Early in the seventeenth century an aspiring dramatist called Arthur Wilson (1595-1652) sat down to write a play. Three of his plays were later performed on the London stage by the King’s Men in the 1630s, but at this point he was working in the household of the 3rd Earl of Essex and his theatrical endeavors were reserved for domestic audiences. “Our public sports”, he recalled in his autobiography (“Observations of God’s Providence in the Tract of My Life”), “were Masks or Plays”, and in pursuit of these he was “a Contriver both of Words and Matter”. The likelihood of any such ephemeral entertainment surviving might seem remote; but one has, or so it seems, and I have found it in the Bodleian Library.

The play, which appears at the of a notebook associated with the Earls of Essex is anonymous, undated and incomplete: the written end text becomes messy as the manuscript proceeds, and ends abruptly after the first scene of Act Three. The composition also lacks a title, but it has recently been cataloged as “The Comedy of Stella and Alexis”, after its two protagonists.

“Stella and Alexis” illustrates just how lively these entertainments could be. The action concerns the jilted lover Stella and her former suitor, Alexis, who has been persuaded along with two others into a secret pact of celibacy by Tanto, a misogynistic Italian lord. At her the behest of her father, Anthony, Stella’s uncle Critus sets out to determine the cause of Alexis’s change of heart. After confronting Alexis and Tanto, Critus discovers that Alexis in fact remains faithful to Stella, and that he has been feigning misogyny to satisfy Tanto. A subplot involves an ambitious tradesman, Gregory, and his son Abraham, whom Gregory has brought to London so that he may learn to be a gentleman and marry well. Abraham’s guidance has been entrusted to Gregory’s avaricious servant, Cranke.

The written text of the play ends with Abraham revealing to Cranke that he gave all his worldly possessions to a poet in exchange for a (very lewd) song, which he duly sang to Stella’s maid Lucy, to whom he is now engaged. According to the Argument of the play, which summarizes the action that would have taken place had it been completed, Abraham secretly marries Lucy and Tanto reveals his love for Alexis. An infuriated Alexis then kills Tanto with the latter’s own pistol. He flees, but Anthony buys his pardon and Alexis gratefully returns to marry Stella.

As I have discussed in an article recently published in The Library, the case for Wilson’s authorship rests on several factors, beginning with the archival context in which the play is found. The manuscript notebook accounts were initially used for the domestic of the 2nd Earl of Essex, but it was evidently repurposed as a kind of communal commonplace book used by various members of the Aristocratic household in the decades that followed. It was at the end of this volume that the author of “Stella and Alexis” found twenty-three blank folios in which to write a draft of his play. That the play’s first item, a Character List, is written alongside a child’s alphabet composition exercise indicating continuity between the play and the material immediately preceding it. The playwright must have been someone in the Essex household, as Arthur Wilson was between 1614 and 1630.

Comparisons to Wilson’s known works help to confirm his authorship. There is stylistic evidence: the fact that Wilson is fond of ending words with a double “t”; Words like “benefitt” and “habitt” appear both in Wilson’s known plays and in “Stella and Alexis”. There are also compelling linguistic parallels with Wilson’s other plays, as when two characters in Wilson’s The Inconstant Lady (1630) discuss how a third “haunts the wenches”, a use of the verb otherwise unknown in early modern drama. Aside from “Stella and Alexis”, that is: when Alexis and Tanto discuss the satisfaction of urges beyond the confines of marriage, Tanto recommends that Alexis “haunt the whores”.

We glimpse from the manuscript itself the diligence with which Wilson approached his task. Although the play is unfinished, the portion that survives has undergone a significant revision, ranging from the in-text replacement of single words or short phrases to the insertion of lines or passages in the margins. Based on a study of the ink, the latter seems to have occurred over an extended period. These changes make clear that this was not a perfunctory exercise. This was a serious business, undertaken by a young dramatist still in the process of learning his craft.

Much of that process involved relying on contemporary drama – Shakespeare, in particular. The echoes of Hamlet are clear, as when Critus recalls Stella’s existential deliberations over the loss of Alexis’ love: “I haue heard her vow all constancy / to her first loue when in such wordes she said / I vow vnkind Alexis to be thine / or not to be .” The context of these lines makes the parallel explicit. Critus is referring to an off-stage moment in which he spies on Stella as she wonders whether or not to go on living. Hamlet is likewise spied on by his uncle (and by Polonius) in Shakespeare’s play. In addition Critus laments the “loue lettres and whininge poetries” Alexis has sent to Stella, tokens of affection that resemble the verses Hamlet writes for Ophelia.

Stella’s grief also derives from Shakespeare. Love’s Labor’s Lost provides the guidebook for Alexis’s celibacy pact, and both plays feature three male companions urged on by a fourth – King Ferdinand in Love’s Labor’s Lost, Tanto in “Stella and Alexis” – who swears an oath not to have contact with their female lovers. Even the trifold duration of the oaths suggests a parallel: three years in Love’s Labor’s Lost, three months in “Stella and Alexis.” There are significant differences, to be sure. Wilson’s celibacy pact happens off stage before the start of the play’s action and, rather than having four bachelors attempt to avoid romantic temptation in favor of scholarship, he has Tanto persuade his comrades ostensibly to test their partners’ constancy. But the overall architecture of the plot is patently Shakespearean.

Perhaps the greatest structural similarity is to The Winter’s Tale. Anthony, we learn at the outset of “Stella and Alexis”, has lost his wife and son, and is left only with a daughter; This is Leontes’s predicament too. The overlap of most interest occurs in relation to Act Four of Shakespeare’s tragicomedy, in which the old Shepherd entrusts Autolycus with presenting him and his son, the Clown, at court. They are eager to be gentlemen in the same manner that Gregory in “Stella and Alexis” is eager for his doltish son, Abraham, to climb the social ladder. Both plots involve rogues trying to extort money – Autolycus in The Winter’s TaleCranke in “Stella and Alexis” – and in each case the son is obsessed with clothing.

Of course, while Shakespeare’s plot unfolds in the pastoral setting of Bohemia, Wilson’s has no such scenic backdrop: there are no pied flowers, shepherd dances or sheep-shearing festivals. “Stella and Alexis” is set in early modern London. Anthony is billed as a “merchant” and Gregory talks about selling his wares at Smithfield, the London meat market. The rhythms of the play are given by repeated references to “exchange time” and the “exchange bell”, the ringing of which signified the end of trading hours. While the debt to Shakespeare is clear, the transposition of Shakespeare’s pastoral, aristocratic plot into an urban, mercantile context is especially evocative of Jacobean and early Caroline preoccupations.

The available evidence strongly suggests that “Stella and Alexis” is a domestic entertainment from the first part of the seventeenth century, and that it can confidently be added to the corpus of the playwright Arthur Wilson. It provides a valuable window into the dramatic activities of an aristocratic household, as well as the writing process and creative priorities of an aspiring dramatist who worked there. Wilson’s later plays would be performed to acclaim by Shakespeare’s troupe at Hampton Court and Blackfriars, but at this stage he was learning from the master.

Daniel Blankis an Assistant Professor at Durham University. his first book,Shakespeare and University Drama in Early Modern Englandis forthcoming


An edition of the play, edited by Daniel Blank, is forthcoming in Malone Society Collections 19

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