The Origins of the Stage Assassin I: 1558–1587

Martin Wiggins

in Journeymen in Murder

Published in print November 1991 | ISBN: 9780198112280
Published online October 2011 | e-ISBN: 9780191670749 | DOI:
The Origins of the Stage Assassin I: 1558–1587

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The early history of the assassin in Elizabethan drama can be traced to Thomas Preston's tyrant-play Cambises (c.1561), which includes two episodes in which the protagonist employs a pair of killers, identified allegorically as Murder and Cruelty. The problem of lost plays makes it hard to trace the character's development thereafter: his next known appearance on the public stage was in Anthony Munday's Fedele and Fortunio (1583–1584), and then in Thomas Kyd's The Spanish Tragedy (1587). There are also hired murderers in two academic plays dating from the intervening quarter-century: the Inner Temple's Gismond of Salerne (1563) and the third play in Dr Thomas Legge's Latin trilogy Richardus Tertius, performed at St John's College, Cambridge in March 1580. By 1592, the assassin had become an established figure in the repertory, if he was not one already. Preston found no assassins in his principal narrative source, Richard Taverner's The Garden of Wisdom (1539). What he found was the same sort of elliptical expression we have already encountered in prose fiction.

Keywords: Thomas Preston; drama; Cambises; assassins; Anthony Munday; murderers; Thomas Kyd; Thomas Legge; Richard Taverner; The Garden of Wisdom

Chapter.  7881 words. 

Subjects: Literary Studies (Plays and Playwrights)

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