The Second Maiden's Tragedy

The Second Maiden's Tragedy

"The Second Maiden's Tragedy" is a Jacobean play that survives only in manuscript. It was written in 1611, and performed in the same year by the King's Men. The manuscript that survives is the copy that was sent to the censor, and therefore includes his notes and deletions. The manuscript was acquired, but never printed, by the publisher Humphrey Moseley after the closure of the theatres in 1642. In 1807, the manuscript was bought by the British Museum. It is generally believed to be by Thomas Middleton.


The play's original title is unknown. The manuscript bears no title, and the censor, George Buc, added a note beginning "This second "Maiden's Tragedy" (for it hath no name inscribed)...". Buc was comparing the play to Beaumont and Fletcher's "The Maid's Tragedy". Buc's comment confused a seventeenth century owner of the manuscript, Humphrey Moseley, who listed the play in the Stationers' Register as "The Maid's Tragedy, 2nd Part". [Martin Wiggins, ed. "Four Jacobean Sex Tragedies" (Oxford UP, 1998), p. xxx.] Buc's title has stuck and the play is usually referred to as "The Second Maiden's Tragedy".

However, two recent editors of the play have preferred to retitle it. In his anthology "Four Jacobean Sex Tragedies", Martin Wiggins argues that since the word "second" refers to the play, not to a character (there is no "second maiden"), Buc was actually calling the play "The Maiden's Tragedy". [Martin Wiggins, ed. "Four Jacobean Sex Tragedies" (Oxford UP, 1998), p. xxx-xxxi.] In "Thomas Middleton: The Collected Works", Julia Briggs goes further: pointing out that the word "maiden" never appears in the play, she retitles it "The Lady's Tragedy", after the unnamed female protagonist. [Julia Briggs, ed. "The Lady's Tragedy: Parallel Texts" in "Thomas Middleton: The Collected Works" (Oxford UP, 2007), p. 833.]

Theatrical producers of the play have also retitled it on occasion. A 1984 production at the Upstream Theatre called it "The Tyrant", while the 1994 Hen and Chicken production in Bristol used "The Lady's Tragedy". [Martin Wiggins, ed. "Four Jacobean Sex Tragedies" (Oxford UP, 1998), p. xl.]


Thomas Middleton

The play's authorship is also contested. On the manuscript, three crossed-out attributions in seventeenth century hands attribute it first to Thomas Goffe, then to William Shakespeare, and then to George Chapman. Today, however, the scholarly consensus is that the true author was Thomas Middleton, as indicated by linguistic analysis, and by its similarity with other Middleton plays. [Julia Briggs, "The Lady's Tragedy", in "Thomas Middleton: The Collected Works" (Oxford UP, 2007), 833.] It was first published under Middleton's name in Martin Wiggins's anthology "Four Jacobean Sex Tragedies" (1998), and subsequently in the 2007 "Collected Works" of Middleton.

hakespeare and "Cardenio"

In a further complication, a professional handwriting expert, Charles Hamilton, has claimed in a 1994 book that the manuscript of "The Second Maiden's Tragedy" is in fact the lost play "Cardenio" by William Shakespeare and indeed that the handwriting is Shakespeare's. [Charles Hamilton, "Cardenio, or, The Second Maiden's Tragedy", Lakewood, Colorado: Glenbridge Publishing, Ltd., 1994.] Most literary scholars reject his argument and the position of mainstream literary scholarship is that the play is by Middleton. [Jonathan Bate, "The Genius of Shakespeare"]

However, on the rare occasions when the play has been revived on the stage, producers often name it "Cardenio" because Shakespeare's name helps to sell tickets. Although she dismisses Hamilton's claims, Julia Briggs points out that his book gave the play a new lease of life, with numerous productions in the 1990s trading on the Shakespeare association to raise awareness of this rarely staged play. [Julia Briggs, "The Lady's Tragedy", in "Thomas Middleton: The Collected Works" (Oxford UP, 2007), 835-6.]


-The TYRANT, the usurping king -GOVIANUS, the deposed king -MEMPHONIUS, SOPHONIRUS, HELVETIUS, nobles


-The LADY, daughter to Helvetius, afterwards her spirit

-VOTARIUS, friend to Anselmus

-ANSELMUS, brother to Govianus

-The WIFE to Anselmus

-LEONELLA, her waiting-woman

-BELLARIUS, lover to Leonella


-SERVANT to Govianus



-PAGE to Govianus -TWO SERVANTS to Anselmus

-Nobles, Fellows, Attendants to the Tyrant


Act 1, Scene 1: The court
The play opens as the Tyrant ousts the rightful ruler, Govianus. Govianus curses the Tyrant for betraying his friendship. The Tyrant announces that Govianus' fiancee (a woman referred to only as "the Lady") will be his future queen. The Lady's father, Helvetius, is pleased with the match. In an aside, Govianus says that he regrets losing the Lady more than he regrets losing his own kingdom. The Tyrant banishes Govianus from the kingdom. Before Govianus leaves, the Tyrant has the Lady brought in so Govianus can view the "heaven" he is about to lose before he is banished. The Lady enters, dressed in black. The Tyrant is angry to see the Lady dressed in mourning garb. He orders her to change into something more cheerful. The Lady says that she still loves Govianus, and will never consent to marry the Tyrant. The Tyrant is shocked and wounded. He begs the Lady to reconsider. She refuses. Helvetius encourages the Tyrant to force the marriage. The Tyrant says that he wants the Lady to marry him of her own free will. Revoking his decree of banishment, he orders his soldiers to place Govianus and the Lady under house arrest. Govianus and the Lady exit. The Tyrant mourns his inability to win the Lady's love. Helvetius promises to persuade his daughter to change her mind.

Act 1, Scene 2: Anselmus' house
Govianus' brother, Anselmus, tells his friend, Votarius, that Govianus is very lucky because his fiancee's love has been tested and proven to be true. He expresses doubts his own wife's faithfulness. Votarius insists that Anselmus' wife is chaste. Anselmus is unconvinced. He asks Votarius to attempt to seduce his wife so her chastity can be tested. Votarius objects to the plan, but reluctantly agrees to go along with it when Anselmus pressures him. Anselmus' wife (a woman referred to only as "the Wife") enters. Anselmus stands aside so he can observe the attempted seduction. Anselmus' wife gives every appearance of being entirely devoted to her husband. She says she is worried Anselmus has become depressed following his brother's overthrow. She encourages Votarius to do whatever he can to cheer him up. Votarius promises to do his best. The Lady exits. Anselmus comes forward and scolds Votarius for his pitiful attempt at seduction. Votarius promises to try harder next time. Anselmus says he will arrange a better opportunity for seduction in the future and exits. The Wife enters again. Votarius tries to kiss her. She resists him at first, but is eventually won over by his earnest appeals and falls into his arms. Votarius kisses her, but stops himself when he realizes that he has actually fallen in love. Confused by his conflicted feelings, he pulls himself away and exits. The Wife's maid, Leonella, enters. The Wife asks Leonella if she saw Votarius. Leonella says she did. The Wife exits. Leonella expresses suspicion regarding the Wife's relationship with Votarius. Leonella's lover, Bellarius, enters. Leonella tells Bellarius that the Wife is fooling around with Votarius. Bellarius says that Votarius is his sworn enemy. The couple make plans to expose Votarius and the Wife's relationship.

Act 2, Scene 1: Govianus' house
Helvetius visits the Lady and berates her for rejecting the Tyrant. The Lady is unmoved. Switching tactics, Helvetius tells his daughter to go ahead and marry Govianus, but asks her to become the Tyrant's mistress. The Lady is shocked and repulsed by this request. Govianus enters with a pistol and shoots at Helvetius, but misses (on purpose). Helvetius falls to the floor in fear. Govianus delivers a stern lecture urging Helvetius to repent. Helvetius agrees to change his ways. Kneeling, he swears allegiance to Govianus, his rightful king.

Act 2, Scene 2: Anselmus' house
Now irreversibly in love, Votarius and the Wife meet and embrace, but are suddenly interrupted by Leonella, who warns the Wife that her husband, Anselmus, has come home. Votarius and the Wife are shocked by this news. Anselmus enters. The Wife welcomes him with a kiss. Anselmus takes Votarius aside and asks him how the seduction is coming along. Votarius tells him that, despite his best attempts, the Wife cannot be seduced. Extremely pleased by this news, Anselmus resolves to treat the Wife like a queen from that moment forward. Leonella, Anselmus, and the Wife exit. Left alone on stage, Votarius says that he can no longer stand to be in Anselmus' company. Bellarius enters and exits without noticing Votarius. Swelling with jealousy, Votarius assumes that Bellarius is also having an affair with the Wife. Anselmus enters. Votarius tells him that he has seen Bellarius sneaking around the house. Anselmus also assumes that Bellarius is having an affair with the Wife. He exits in search of Bellarius. Votarius wonders if his jealously will spell the Wife's ruin. Anselmus re-enters with Leonella. He says that he discovered Bellarius in Leonella's chamber, but Bellarius jumped out of the window before he could be apprehended. Votarius exits in pursuit of Bellarius. Anselmus erroneously assumes that Leonella is acting as the Wife's "bawd" (a person who arranges sexual encounters). He threatens her with a dagger and orders her to confess. Fearing for her life, Leonella tells Anselmus that she can reveal a far bigger secret: Votarius and the Wife are lovers!

Act 2, Scene 3: The court
The Tyrant asks Helvetius when the Lady will be coming to his bed. Helvetius says that he has turned over a new leaf, and does not wish to ast as his daughter's pimp. The Tyrant sends Helvetius to the castle to be held as prisoner. The noble, Sophonirus, offers to woo the Lady on the Tyrant's behalf. The Tyrant gives Sophonirus a jewel to give to the Lady. And, in case the jewel doesn't work, he also orders Sophonirus to round up a gang of thugs to seize the Lady forcibly from Govianus' house if need be.

Act 3, Scene 1: Govianus' house
Sophonirus goes to Govianus' house and offers the Lady a jewel from the Tyrant. Govianus stabs Sophonirus though the stomach with his sword. As he dies, Sophonirus taunts Govianus and tells him that the house is surrounded by armed men. Laughing, he predicts that the Lady will be in the Tyrant's bed before midnight. He dies. The Lady asks Govianus to kill her before the Tyrant's men can seize her. Govianus runs at her with his sword, but faints before he can perform the deed. Taking matters into her own hands, the Lady grabs his sword and stabs herself in the heart. Govianus awakens to find the Lady dead. The Tyrant's men break into the house and order Govianus to hand the Lady over. Pointing towards the lady's corpse, Govianus tells them that she has gone to a place where the Tyrant can never reach her. The Tyrant's men exit. Govianus kisses the Lady's dead lips and makes plans to bury her in his family's tomb.

Act 4, Scene 1: Anselmus' house
Votarius begs the Wife to forgive him for suspecting that she was having an(other) affair with Bellarius. The Wife eventually forgives him. They kiss. The Wife lays out a plan to assure her husband (Anselmus) of her faithfulness. According to this plan, Anselmus will be instructed to hide in a closet as Votarius bursts into the Wife's bedroom and attempts to seduce her. The Wife will reject Votarius fiercely, thereby regaining her husband's trust. Votarius agrees to go along with the plan and exits. Leonella enters. The Wife scolds her for carrying on with Bellarius in every room of the house. Leonella haughtily replies that she will continue to sleep with Bellarius wherever and whenever she pleases. The Wife is shocked by Leonella's tone. Leonella threatens to expose the Wife's relationship with Votarius. Seriously frightened by this threat, the Wife gives Leonella a jewel and offers to make up. Leonella accepts the jewel. The Wife tells Leonella about her plan to stage Votarius' attempt at seduction while Anselmus waits in the closet. She decides to add a new detail to her plan: Votarius should wear some armor under his clothes so the Wife can stab him when he tries to seduce her. The Wife asks Leonella to place a sword in her room so she will have something to stab Votarius with. She also asks Leonella to tell Votarius to wear some armor under his clothes so he will not be harmed when she stabs him. Leonella agrees do as the Wife has asked. The Wife exits. Bellarius enters. Leonella tells Bellarius about the Wife's plans. Recognizing a chance to kill Votarius (his sworn enemy), Bellarius tells Leonella that she should not tell Votarius to wear armor under his clothes. To make Votarius' death even more certain, Leonella says she will poison the sword before placing it in the Wife's room.

Act 4, Scene 2: The court
The Tyrant is mad with grief over the Lady's suicide. Raving, he makes plans to remove her from her tomb.

Act 4, Scene 3: A cathedral, before the Lady's tomb
The Tyrant orders his soldiers to open the Lady's tomb. They refuse for fear of ghosts. The Tyrant opens the tomb himself. The soldiers lift the body out. The Tyrant takes the body in his arms and kisses it. Struck by the Lady's beauty, he makes plans to have the body preserved so he can have sex with it. The soldiers replace the lid of the tomb so no one will know the body has been taken.

Act 4, Scene 4: The Lady's tomb
Govianus visits the Lady's tomb. The Lady's ghost appears and tells him the Tyrant has stolen her body and plans to have sex with it. Govianus promises to thwart the Tyrant's plans.

Act 5, Scene 1: Anselmus' house, the Wife's bedchamber
Votarius tells Anselmus to hide in the closet so he can observe the staged seduction attempt. Bellarius observes the action from a discreet location above. The Wife enters with Leonella. Leonella hangs the poisoned sword on the wall. The Wife (loudly) complains to Leonella that Votarius has tried to seduce her on several occasions. Votarius bursts into the room and attempts to kiss the Wife. The Wife seizes the sword and attacks him. Votarius dies. Anselmus bursts out of the closet. Now absolutely convinced of the Wife's faithfulness, he grabs the sword and stabs Leonella for daring to accuse the Wife falsely. Leonella dies. Shocked to see his lover murdered, Bellarius comes down from his hiding spot above and challenges Anselmus with his sword. They fight. The Wife runs between them and is killed by both. Anselmus and Bellarius continue fighting and wound each other fatally. Govianus enters to discover the bloody scene. With his dying breath, Bellarius explains how all the carnage came about. Anselmus is shocked to learn that the Wife was, indeed, unfaithful--just as he had originally suspected. He curses his Wife and dies. Govianus orders his servants to bury the bodies.

Act 5, Scene 2: The court
The Lady's corpse is brought into the Tyrant's court. It is dressed in a black velvet gown and a pearl necklace. The Tyrant kisses the corpse's hand. He says that he has contracted a painter to paint the Lady's face so she will appear to be alive. Govianus enters disguised as a painter. He starts painting the corpse's face and finishes quickly. The Tyrant is very pleased with the results. He takes the corpse into his arms and kisses it on the lips. Govianus triumphantly casts off his disguise and tells the Tyrant that he painted the corpse's lips with poison. The Tyrant curses Govianus and threatens revenge--but it is already too late. The Lady's ghost enters and observes as the Tyrant dies. Govianus reclaims his rightful place as ruler of the kingdom, and the play ends.


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