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The Lamentable Tragedy of the Duke of Palermo

Henry Chettle and William Shakespeare, discovered and transcribed by Homer R. Winslow, presented by Edmund Wilson

SPOOKY: I know he is, Mother, but you have to remember his unfortunate circumstances—his birth and his early struggles. And you mustn’t forget that in the play itself, you and he are supposed to be on the same side.

The bell rings again.


In front of the curtain. Winslow, in the costume of the Duke, with his usual horn-rimmed glasses, which now give him something of the look of Greco’s portrait of the bearded and bespectacled Cardinal de Guevara. He reads, with vivacity and gusto, the prologue he has composed for the occasion.


In cold October, yet with blood aglow,
Like Borrow’s footloose vagrant Lavengro,
Undaunted by damp mists and murky mires,
I trudged through lank old England’s northern
By ways no blaring billboards had yet marred,
By gentle lanes no motor-horns had jarred,
Waked only by the hunter’s ringing halloo;
The grass still green when ours is sere and sallow;
Old houses that must harbor each its ghost;
Old cosy country inns in which mine host
Serves mellow ale and steak-and-kidney pie,
A faithful fire of coals bright burning nigh.

So faring, with a rucksack on my back,
Beyond the ignorant tourist’s beaten track,
I chanced upon a lovely town at last
That seemed a remnant from the vanished past:
No Boots, no modern bars, no petrol smell;
A faceless castle little but a shell;
A church with belfry steeple-lopped and squared,
The ravages of Cromwell scarce repaired—
Blackened without and mortal chill within,
The sacristan lugubrious and lean;
Old tombs of nobles lying blurred and chipped,
Squat Norman arches crouching in the crypt.

‘Twas here that, after supping hungrily,
On buttered scones, sardines on toast and tea,
Served by firm-breasted lasses, never slimmed,
Sloe-eyed and pert-nosed such as Hogarth limned,
I found a bookshop piled with ancient trash
Dragged from dark attics for a bit of cash;
The wheezing dealer, bleary-eyed and sad,
Dull-witted, hardly knowing what he had.
Yet, grubbing there in dust, I brought to light
These precious items, buried out of sight:
Clarissa, London, 1751,
“Printed for”—that is, by—“S. Richardson”;
A handful of Marprelate tracts that span
The comic quarrel of priest with Puritan.
And then the dealer—dimly perchance noting
My eyes agleam, my exclamations gloating—
A manuscript part-crumbled did produce:
Elizabethan loops and curlicues
Of which he could make nothing, but to me
The True and Lamentable Tragedie
Of sad Palermo’s Duke, a work unknown,
No date, no author—left for me alone!
Curbing excitement—what a day of killings!—
I bought the lot for two pounds and ten shillings;
And all night pored with ever-mounting glee,
Since years before I’d won my Ph.D.
On Henry Chettle—not an obscure hack,
As some suppose who true discernment lack,
But one who brought a touch of somber glory
To German Hoffman’s harsh and bloody story.
I recognized his favorite darkling phrases:
The purple blood, the windy blasts, where blazes
A fury of Satanic eloquence—
In Hoffman, still half-smouldering though intense
Which, in Palermo, might perchance arouse
A mounting horror that would rock the house!

This we present tonight, as best we may:
Our faults, our fallings-short forgive, we pray.
I have said that Chettle must have penned this
And yet two pens at work one plainly sees.
Was Chettle all unaided, we demand,
Or had he, then, the help of some far greater hand?

The subject of The Duke of Palermo I have found to be more or less historical: the rising of Sicily against the French—the so-called Sicilian Vespers—at the end of the thirteenth century. For the purposes of this performance, we are forced to omit the subplot, which, brilliant though it is in its way, has, nevertheless—as is often the case in the Elizabethan dramas—little relevance to the main story and which would involve us in too long an evening.

He bows and withdraws.


A trumpet call. The girl who plays Lucia, a small brunette, passes across the stage with a placard reading: “A Castle in Italy.” Half-way across she stops and displays it, then walks out at the other side.

The curtain goes up. Chuck and Terry, as Prince Giovanni di Procida and the Clown, at the front of a darkened stage. Terry-Clown holds up a lantern, and Chuck-Giovanni looks about him as if at a high spacious chamber.


Here where my father, German Conradin,
Kept kingly state and ruled with equal hand
Jerusalem and sun-bak’d Sicily;
Where once in childhood, munching sugar plums,
I frisk’d upon the flower’d terraces,
Chas’d butterflies and lov’d to play crusader
With mimic weapons, heedless of the wars
That France and Italy in hate did wage
‘Gainst one another. After twenty years
I come again, Giovanni di Procida,
A poor and petty prince, to find all dark,
Decayed and cobwebbed, smelling dank of death,
Ruin’d and robb’d by Charles the Angevin,
Vile Frank, the slayer of my noble sire.

A thunderclap.

Methinks Jove rages at th’ abhorrent deed! Hark how he thunders!

A prolonged flash of lightning illuminates the scene, revealing, on the inner stage, a banquet table, at which five of the Skeletons are sitting, two on either side, and at the head, facing the audience, the host, who lacks a skull. This skull, which wears a crown—also facing the audience—is set before the Skeleton to which it belongs. All are grasping large goblets, which rest on the table. Behind and to the right of the headless host, stands the cupbearer with his ewer. The two musicians stand, to the fore, on either side of the inner stage.


Look there! What do I see?


A deadmen’s banquet, by’r lady! Let’s hence ‘fore
they ask us to drink with them!


Draw nigh and light this grisly spectacle.

Terry-Clown holds up the lantern but does not approach too near.


What hollow sconces and dull orbs are these
That, mouldering, sit mumchance in this place?
What vacant cheer and dismal revelry?
Sure Charles of Anjou rigged this ghostly show,
Made thus our banquet hall a charnel-house,
In mockery of my father’s majesty.
There sit the guests, there stands the cupbearer,
There the musicians with their tuneless strings,
As many an evening, creeping from my bed
And peeping from the arras, I have seen
A richly clad and courtly company,
Wittily jesting as the wine went round,
My father leading all in lofty discourse.


I’ faith, were those fleshless chaps to drain a cup,
‘twould splash bare ribs and never bring a belk!

Thunder and lightning.


But look: that skull doth bear a rusted crown!
Draw nigher.
   Terry-Clown reluctantly does so.
‘Tis the crown my father wore!
His lordly head, lopped by the Angevin—
Faith’s temple, wisdom’s tower. But he bore it
Too high for such a crouching beast to brook.

Thunder somewhat fainter.


My son, first scion of my loins.


It speaks.


If I must be with bones, godsookers, I would rather
they kept silence!


Be still. (To the Skull) Speak on.


My son, thou knowest well
How, worsted by French Charles at Tagliacozzo,
Because our gluttonous troops had turned to plunder,
Leaving me ill-defended, I was ta’en,
Condemned as a base traitor and beheaded.
But now this head, dissever’d from its frame,
Set here for scorn, doth still defy its foe
And bids its seed take vengeance. Let no even
Her curtains draw on our fair Sicily
That brings you not the nearer to just vengeance
Against her ravisher and my murderer.
Now swift away! Seek out Palermo’s Duke,
Who Charles’s insolence would fain rebuke—
Our friend, who mid these ills which others whelm
Our honor guards in Charles’s bloodied realm.
Avenge, avenge, avenge!

THE SKELETONS (raising their goblets, as if to drink to Giovanni’s success):

Avenge, avenge!


Father, I fly to seek the Duke’s support.
A sennight sees me at Palermo’s court!

He picks up the Crowned Skull.

And thou poor head, be ever at my side
To look upon those deeds no Frenchman dare

Thunder. The stage goes dark. Spotlight on Tisdale and Creech. Tisdale, now angry with Creech, is prepared to take an opposite line from him.

TISDALE: Conradin had no issue. He was the last of the Hohenstaufens. Giovanni di Procida was not his son. But of course the Elizabethans were careless about such matters.

CREECH: What’s much more serious is that the expression “godsookers” isn’t found as early as Chettle. It first occurs in Buckingham’s Rehearsal: 1672.

TISDALE: Buckingham can’t have invented it, though. It’s the same thing as “gadzooks,” which is all through the Elizabethans.

CREECH: It is not the same thing. And what’s that Alexandrine at the end?

TISDALE: They did write them as early as that.

CREECH: Not like that at the end of a scene.

TISDALE: Wouldn’t the Spenserian stanza perhaps set a precedent for doing so?

No reply from Creech.


Lucia crosses the stage with a placard which reads:

Palermo, Palace of the Duke.”
The Duke is seen at his writing table.


In what cribb’d crush’d condition do I dwell
Beneath these coffer’d roofs which hous’d my sires,
Behind gates, gilded with our ducal arms,
That now we scarce dare pass lest some foul insult
From jeering Frank deride our ducal state.
They flout us and degrade us. We are slaves.
We slink like timid mice that fear grimalkin
Who preened as fierce as falcons in our pride.
Our nobles must run errands for low strangers;
The flower of our youth, clapp’d in dark pantries,
Must turn the spit like scullions, fetch rare cates
For gibbering fribbles, while they sup themselves
On scraps and orts. They must e’en comb the fens
For creaking frogs, the fields for slimy snails
That furnish the pale Franks their filthy fare.
They rob the poor and pill the rich, ransack
All Sicily for the coin to pay their riots
And sate their lusts. They search the very huts
Of those sweet shepherds of Theocritus
Who pipe to their placid flocks beside the sea.
—Ah, would Enceladus, the swarthy Titan
Who sleeps in Etna’s bowels might belk forth
His burning hail and bury with these tyrants
All that was once most great in Sicily
And now is brought to measliness! Or might
Some young and molten-marrowed champion,
Whose fiery words could blister men like lava,
Break forth and spur our people to rebel!
I am too old to fulminate this foray.

A Servant enters.


A friar would have speech with you, my lord.


Whence comes he?


From Messina, my good lord.


A friend or foe? What thinkest thou?


I know not.
His dark eyes burn like coals, his breath comes
As if he were a-fevered.


Search him well.
Perchance he flees Messina, where the French
Do now most mightily prevail. If so,
I must protect him. But make sure he be not
Some fell assassin in a friar’s garb.

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