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A Yorkshire Tragedy is not one of Shakespeare’s better known plays. It was listed in the Stationers’ Register in 1608 as a play by William Shakespeare first performed by the King’s Men at the Globe Theatre. It differs from Shakespeare’s other plays in two ways.
One is its length, just one act consisting of ten scenes.
The other is its subject, which today would be called domestic violence. A man called Walter Calverley, lord of a small manor in Yorkshire, an alcoholic and gambling addict, had murdered two of his children, attempted to murder his wife and was on his way to murder the third child when he was arrested. The events were well documented at the time and the play sticks faithfully to the facts. Calverley was executed in 1605.
Its full title, in the original printed text, was All’s One, or one of the four plays in one called a Yorkshire Tragedy. The other three plays in the All’s One quartet have not survived. If they had, it might have been easier to make more of the play that remains.
Scholarly opinion today is that the play was actually written by Thomas Middleton. But then Shakespeare’s complete works have all been attributed at one time or another to somebody else. The only substantive evidence of its authorship is in the Stationers’ Register. The rest is speculation, scholarly or otherwise.
Thought is free, as Maria said to Andrew Aguecheek. So why not bring our hands to the buttery bar, as she went on to say, and speculate.
What if each play in the quartet took a different angle on the story, each contributing something to the whole?
The extant play begins with Oliver and Ralph, two servants at Calverley Hall, waiting for Sam, another servant, to return from London, where he has been with their master. Sam shocks them with the revelation that the master has another wife.
“Why,” says Sam, “did you not know that till now? Why, he’s married, beats his wife, and has two or three children by her: for you must note that any woman bears the more when she is beaten.”
“Aye, that’s true,” says Ralph, for the benefit of Oliver and anyone in the audience who doesn’t get it, “for she bears the blows.”
What if one of the four plays was set in London where, as well as keeping another wife, Walter Calverley has drunk and gambled away his inheritance?
What if another one was a flashback to when Walter’s father was still alive, Walter already getting into debt, his younger brother preparing for college and a life of good works? We might then see for ourselves how he was persuaded to stand surety for Walter, a good deed for which he is later to pay dearly.
“Oh, you have killed the towardest hope of all our university!” the Master of the college says to Walter in scene IV. “Your brother, a man who profited in his divine employments, might have made ten thousand souls fit for heaven, now by your careless courses cast in prison which you must answer for; and assure your spirit it will come home at length.”
What if the quartet ended with a trial scene? Is Walter’s repentance, which he makes in the surviving play, genuine? If it is, how will it help him in a court of law? Will he be forgiven in this world or only in the next?
All’s One, made up of four plays, each telling a different part of the story, would make a more satisfying whole than one play on its own. The play we know as A Yorkshire Tragedy is, for that reason, rarely performed. But there are some fine speeches in it which we miss, among them Walter’s soliloquy in scene IV, which begins in prose —
Oh thou confused man, thy pleasant sins have undone thee, thy damnation has beggar’d thee!
and ends in verse —
I that did ever in abundance dwell,
For me to want, exceeds the throes of Hell!
Written at the time when Shakespeare was writing his four late plays, Pericles, Cymbeline, A Winter’s Tale and The Tempest, with their common themes of repentance and forgiveness, A Yorkshire Tragedy could claim his authorship, whatever the scholars say, by its treatment of just those themes.
In the last scene, Walter sees the bodies of the murdered children.
Here’s weight enough to make a heartstring crack!
Oh, were it lawful that your pretty souls
Might look from heaven into your father’s eyes,
Then should you see the penitent glasses melt,
And both your murders shoot upon my cheeks!
In her last speech, his wife forgives him and pleads for his life to be spared.
Dearer than all is my poor husband’s life.
Heaven give my body strength, which yet is faint
With much expense of blood, and I will kneel,
Sue for his life, number up all my friends
To plead for pardon my dear husband’s life.
An unfinished symphony, by William Shakespeare and friends.