Notes and Queries, June 1993 v40 n2 p226(2)

'The Noble Spanish Soldier' and 'The Spanish Contract.' Bose, Tirthankar.

Abstract: 'The Noble Spanish Soldier' is attributed to Thomas Dekker but its composition date is unknown and so is estimated between 1601 and 1631. 'The Spanish Contract' could be an alternative title for 'The Noble Spanish Soldier' but 'The Spanish Contract' was billed as a comedy while the other is a tragedy. Plot similarities suggest a link between 'The Welsh Ambassador' and 'The Noble Spanish Soldier.' Since the first is a comedy and later is a tragedy, 'The Spanish Contract' could be a draft of the transition between the two versions before the Spanish setting changed.

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The Noble Spanish Soldier has been attributed severally to Dekker, Day, and Samuel Rowley but is now generally taken to be by Dekker, most likely written around 1622, although other dates between 1601 and 1631 have been suggested.(1) The play was entered in the Stationers' Register on 16 May 1631 for John Jackman under the hands of Sir Henry Herbert and Master Felix Kingston.(2) Fleay thought the play was written in 1601 because he identified it as The Spanish Fig,(3) for which Henslowe had made a part payment to an unnamed dramatist on 6 January 1601.(4) Fleay's identification rested upon the argument that the king in The Noble Spanish Soldier is poisoned with a |Spanish fig'.

Textual support for Fleay's identification is frail, for the |Spanish fig' in The Noble Spanish Soldier is not so important a plot device that the play should be named after it. The phrase is used only once. The queen in the play has been plotting the death of her rival Onaelia, and when her accomplice Malateste puts poison in Onaelia's cup of wine the queen asks, |Is't speeding?' Malateste replies, |As all our Spanish figs are'.(5) The figs seem to be no more than a convenient but unimportant piece of allusion, part of the current fashion of attributing to Spaniards a violent vengefulness whereby the |Spanish fig' becomes an apt metaphor for any dangerous object or plot. Dekker's Match Me in London has a similar usage. In that play Cordolente is robbed of his wife by the King of Spain. Upon being summoned to the court Cordolente exclaims, |Now doe I looke for a fig' (V.iv. 17), meaning that he must watch against a threatening move. Malateste uses the expression similarly when he says that the poison is as potent as all his other dangerous stratagems. This casual use of the metaphor makes Fleay's identification and the consequent dating of The Noble Spanish Soldier most debatable.

G.E. Bentley rejects Fleay's identification but suggests that The Noble Spanish Soldier may be a revised version of an older play.(6) Bentley's is an unsupported though plausible conjecture, but there is indeed a clue in contemporary theatrical records to suggest an intriguing chain of relationships within which we may place The Noble Spanish Soldier.

In April 1624 the Lady Elizabeth's Company was touring the provinces. When the players arrived at Norwich the Mayor refused them permission to play.(7) On 24 April one of the principal actors, Francis Wambus, left the Mayor's court breathing defiance for he had the King's patent to perform in the provinces. On the 26th one Wakefield reported that the players had put up a bill announcing |an excelent new Comedy cafled the Spanishe Contract'. As a consequence Wambus was jailed for a month and his company prevented from playing at Norwich. Bentley remarks that The Spanish Contract may be |an alternative title for some play now known by another name', and that the players were trying to cash in on the contemporary excitement surrounding Prince Charles's proposed Spanish marriage. I suggest the Norwich play was an alternative title for The Noble Spanish Soldier.

That the plays may be the same is a conjecture strengthened by what we know of Dekker's connection with the Lady Elizabeth's men in the early 1620s. On 3 March 1623 they had The Sun's Darling licensed for performance at the Revels Office,(8) and Dekker's The Welsh Embassador was theirs too in all probability, for it was their scribe who prepared the manuscript of that play.(9) Also, they were playing Dekker's Match Me in London in 1623.(10)

An objection to identifying The Spanish Contract with The Noble Spanish Soldier might be that The Spanish Contract is described in the Norwich document as a comedy. But how far ought we to trust the bill-writer's critical perspicuity? Commenting on theatrical bill-posting in that age both W. J. Lawrence and Karl J. Holzknecht say that the players ordinarily made no distinction between dramatic genres.(11) It is quite possible that a play such as The Noble Spanish Soldier, which ends in the death of the villainous king and the discomfiture of his wicked queen, appeared to the players as a comedy of sorts, especially as the central figure in the play is not the king but the noble soldier Baltazar, who brings about the triumph of virtue.

There is, however, another possibility, a more interesting one. The Noble Spanish Soldier and The Welsh Embassador have very similar plots except that the first is a tragedy and the second a comedy. It seems that the first is the earlier play and that for a variety of reasons Dekker decided to alter its tragic ending to a comic one and so produced The Welsh Embassador.(12)) Could it be that The Spanish Contract represents a stage in the process of that rewriting, standing midway between The Noble Spanish Soldier and The Welsh Embassador as a partial revision, with the ending changed but not the Spanish setting?

No hard evidence is available to support this conjecture but on the basis of the few facts about Dekker and the Lady Elizabeth's men that we do have it seems reasonable to see some connection between the The Noble Spanish Soldier and The Spanish Contract even if we do not accept that the two are in fact one and the same play.

(1) G.E. Bentley, the Jacobean and Caroline Stage (Oxford, 1956), iii.260.

(2) E. Arber (ed.), A Transcript of the Registers of the Company of Stationers of London (London: Privately printed, 1875 7), iv.219.

(3) F. G. Fleay, A Biographical Chronicle of the English Drama (London, 1891), i.128.

(4) R. A. Foakes and R. T. Rickert (eds), Henslowe's Diary (Cambridge, 1961), 187.

(5) The Noble Spanish Soldier V.iv. 48. All references to the plays are to Fredson Bowers (ed.), The Dramatic Works of Thomas Dekker (Cambridge, 1953-61).

(6) Bentley, iii.260.

(7) Bentley, i.197, v.1455-6. See also J.T. Murray, English Dramatic Companies 1558-1642 (London, 1910), i.257-8, ii.348-9.

(8) J. Q. Adams (ed.), The Dramatic Records of Sir Henry Herbert (London, 1971), 25.

(9) Adams, 30; W. W. Greg, Dramatic Documents from the Elizabethan Playhouses (Oxford, 1931), ii, |Commentary', 282.

(10) Adams, 25.

(11) W.J. Lawrence, |The Origin of the Theatre Programme', in The Elizabethan Playhouse, 2nd ser. (Stratford-upon-Avon, 1913), 63; Karl J. Holzknecht,|Theatrical Billposting in the Age of Elizabeth', Philological Quarterly, ii, 4 (October 1923), 267-81.

(12) I have discussed the relationship between the two plays extensively in The Gentle Craft of Revision in Thomas Dekker's Last Plays (Salzburg, 1979).