Plays and the May Festivities 2

Remarkably, Robin Hood played a prominent part in the springtime festivities of Scotland (not necessarily always in May) where he came to dominate the Scottish May Games, and according to Dobson and Taylor, even more than their English counterparts. This is less surprising due to the interest displayed in the outlaw hero by the Scottish chronicler Walter Bower, together with the appearance of a ship called ‘Robyne Hude’ or ‘ly Robert Hude’ at Aberdeen  as early as 1438. ‘Robertus Hod’ is first recorded at Edinburgh in 1492; and within a very few years he had displaced his rivals, the abbots of Bonacord and Unreason, as ‘lord or the May Game’ not only there but also in Aberdeen in 1508, and also in Perth. Even more than in most English communities, Robin Hood seems to have presided over a variety of ‘danssis, farsiis, playis, and gamis’, in which neither the Morris dances nor Maid Marian played a part. Official opposition to ‘ryetouss and sumpteous banketing’ on these occasions led to the Scottish parliamentary statute of 1555 which ‘ordanit that in all tymes cummyng na maner of persoun be chosin Robert Hude nor Lytill Johne, Abbot of unressoun, Quenis of Maii, nor otherwise, nouther in Burgh nor to landwart in ony tyme to cum’.(1) In the face of religious disapproval and perhaps the changes in popular taste, Robin Hood’s role in the English May Festivities was in decline by the end of the sixteenth century. Although he continued to appear in village plays for some time to come, he had ceased to dominate popular pastimes to the same degree that he had done so throughout most of the Tudor period. Robin also found his way into the mummers plays, which were recorded by R. J. E Tiddy.

The late Elizabethan dramatists helped to transform the legend, and although Shakespeare never wrote a Robin Hood play he was familiar with the traditional theme of the English greenwood, to which As You Like It in particular owes an obvious debt. (2) Another Elizabethan play on the subject, ‘a pastorall plesant commedie of Robin Hood and Little John’ entered in the Stationer’s Register on 14 May 1594 is now unfortunately lost; and a similar fate has befallen the mysterious ‘Robin Hood’s Penn’orths’ (apparently a play title) mentioned in Henslowe’s diary at the end of the century.(3) George Peele’s popular Edward the First, sirnamed Edward Longshanks (first printed in 1593) actually incorporates a Robin Hood game and borrows heavily from the ballad of the outlaw’s contest with the potter. Another ballad Robin Hood and the Pindar of Wakefield, probably provides the basis for much of the action in George a Green, the Pinner of Wakefield (1599), a comedy in which the hero, located in the reign of Edward IV, fights Scarlet, Much and Robin Hood in turn before inviting the latter to a banquet at his home.(4) There is also the nearly contemporaneous A Pleasant Commodie called Looke About You (1600) which has the entry on to the stage of ‘a gallant youth, a proper gentleman’ in the person of Robin Hood, the young Earl of Huntington. (5) This anonymous play obviously owes a debt to the recently completed pair of plays written by Anthony Munday: ‘The Downfall of Robert, Earl of Huntington’ and ‘The Death of Robert, Earl of Huntington’ (1597-8). Other plays followed, such as The Sad Shepherd, c. 1637, Robin Hood and his Crew of Souldiers, acted at Nottingham in 1661, and The Foresters, first published in 1892.

1. Most of the Scottish references are collected in Chambers, Medieval Stage, II, 330-6; but also see Accounts of the Lord High Treasurer of Scotland (Scottish Record Office, 1877-1916), II, 377; V, 432-3; VIII, 282; IX, 73-4, 316, 393; X, p. lxxxii.

2. A. H. Thorndike, ‘The Relation of As You Like It to the Robin Hood Plays’ (Journal of English and German Philology IV (1902), 59-69). In As You Like It (I, I ), the old Duke and his ‘merry men . . . live like the old Robin Hood of England . . . as they did in the golden world’; in King Henry IV, Part I (III, 3) Falstaff tells Mistress Quickly that ‘Maid Marian may be the deputy’s wife of the ward to thee’; and in King Henry IV, Part II (V, 3) he hears ‘And Robin Hood, Scarlet and John’, the refrain of The Jolly Pinder of Wakefield; in The Two Gentlemen of Verona (IV, 1) there is an allusion to ‘the bare scalp of Robin Hood’s fat friar’; and in The Two Noble Kinsmen (Prologue) Shakespeare and Fletcher fear that their treatment of Chaucer’s ‘famed works’ may prove ‘lighter than Robin Hood’ (Dobson and Taylor, p. 43).

3. E. K. Chambers, The Elizabethan Stage (London, 1923), III, 446-7; Henslowe’s Diary, ed. W. Greg (London, 1904), II, 215.

4. George Peele, The Famous Chronicle of King Edward the First, ect. (Malone Society Reprints, Oxford, 1911); The Comedy of George a Green (Malone society Reprints, 1911); Ritson, 1846, p. 14; Child, III, 129-30.

5. Looke about You (Malone Society Reprints, 1913); Ritson, 1846, p. 6; Chambers, Elizabethan Stage, IV, 28.