Robert Daborne's Contracts to Write Plays for Philip Henslowe (1613) - MSS 1, Article 70

MSS 1, Article 70 (MSS-1/Article-070/01r)

Grace Ioppolo

Memorandum tis agreed between phillip hinchlow Esq & Robert Daborn gent, yt [i.e., that] ye said Robert shall before ye end of this Easter Term deliuer in his Tragoedy cald matchavill & ye divill into ye hands of ye said phillip for ye summ of xxty pounds, six pounds whereof ye said Ro=bert aknowledgeth to hau receaued in earnest of ye sayd play this 17th of Aprill & must hau other four pound vpon delivery in of 3 acts & other ten pound vpon deliuery in of ye last scean perfited. In witnes hearof the said Robert Daborne hearvnto set his hand this 17th of April 1613.

per me Rob: Daborne

Robert Daborne’s theatrical career can first be documented on January 4, 1610 when he received a royal patent to become a co-manager of the Children of the Queen’s Revels, who usually performed at Whitefriars theatre. However, he may have joined the theatrical profession in some capacity by at least 1608. By 1613, Daborne had begun writing plays for the adult company of the Lady Elizabeth’s Men, which had amalgamated that year with the Children of the Queen’s Revels, and which played at the Whitefriars, the Swan, the Rose, and the Hope theatres, among other venues. Also in 1613, Henslowe took over the management of the Lady Elizabeth’s Men, including the debts of the company’s members. Between 1613 and 1614, Henslowe contracted Daborne to write at least five plays, including Machiavel and the Devil, The Arraignment of London, The Bellman of London, The Owl, and The She Saint. None of these plays survives in manuscript or printed form, yet all but The She Saint are recorded by Henslowe as having been completed.

This 1613 memorandum entirely in Daborne’s handwriting offers fascinating insight into ways in which dramatists could negotiate their terms of employment with acting companies and their agents such as Henslowe. Daborne’s name does not appear in Henslowe’s Diary, which records very few business dealings in the last years of Henslowe’s life, so at the end of his career Henslowe may have kept this set of documents and numerous personal letters from Daborne as a substitute account book. After the composition of this memorandum, a formal Latin contract, Article 71 (MSS-1/Article-071/01r), with an English translation on the verso, was copied out by a professional scribe. It was then signed by Daborne and witnessed by the lawyer Edward Griffin.

Another formal Latin contract, Article 92 (MSS-1/Article-092/01r) dated December 10, 1613, between Henslowe and Daborne calls for Daborne to write The Owl and was similarly witnessed by Griffin, along with two other men, and signed by Daborne; it also has an English translation on the verso. If the contract for The Owl was preceded by a memorandum, it no longer survives. Although some dramatists in the period were on long-term contracts, Daborne appeared to be on a per-play, or short-term, contract, probably because, as he hints in his letters, he thought he could increase his fees with each new play completed. Whether the contract was short-term or long-term, it was supposed to be exclusive, even though dramatists threatened to take their finished play-texts to another company for a higher fee, as Daborne eventually did in Article 81 (MSS-1/Article-081/01r).

Because Daborne’s contract to write Machiavel and the Devil began as his own memorandum, he may have proposed in whole or in part its terms and obligations. This play may have been based in some way on the Lord Strange’s Men’s Machiavel play for which Henslowe lists receipts in March, April and May 1592 (MSS-7/007r MSS-7/007v). However the memorandum suggests that Daborne sees his play as his own composition. Daborne is to write the play in the four weeks between April 17 and May 17, the end of the ‘Easter’ law term in 1613. He will receive a total of ‘xxty’ (i.e., 20), pounds for writing this play, with £6 ‘earnest’ money (i.e., an advance against the total) paid upon the completion of the memorandum, with £4 to be paid when Daborne submits the first three acts. The final £10 will be paid upon his delivery of ‘ye last scean perfited’, that is, when he submits all of the final two acts. In numerous of his letters to Henslowe, Daborne makes clear that to ‘perfit’ (or ‘perfect’) a play means to write out a ‘fair copy’, that is, a copy of the original foul papers (or first draft) that would be easily legible and therefore ready to be used by the company 'book-keeper', who kept track of the company’s master ‘book’ (now termed a ‘prompt-book’). Henslowe, who contracted over three hundred and twenty-five plays during his association with acting companies, apparently took no responsibility for commissioning or reimbursing scribes to make fair copies of play-texts. Instead he apparently expected dramatists to ‘perfit’ a play themselves or to pay scribes to do so.

If Henslowe did use this type of formal contract for dramatists before 1613, they do not appear to survive. However in his ‘Diary’ Henslowe seemed to have used a consistent system of notation for his payments, including those made to dramatists. In most entries, Henslowe wrote out in his own handwriting the titles and authors of contracted plays. In a few cases, Henslowe wrote out the entry when contracting a dramatist but left blank the name of the author; eventually he had the author sign his name in the blank space. Perhaps Henslowe decided on these occasions to contract a specific play, rather than an author, and thus had the author sign his name upon being hired.

However, these signatures, and especially those at the conclusion of entries that Henslowe has written out himself, seem to indicate that Henslowe needed an author’s signature for particular reasons and that the contract had to be drawn up with the dramatist present. In some entries, Henslowe has his payees, including dramatists, write the entire receipt themselves, as in Robert Wilson’s entry for The Second Part of Henry Richmond (MSS-7/065r). This type of entry in the Diary in the dramatist’s hand, as well as those in Henslowe’s hand subscribed with dramatists’ signatures, probably offered not simply a memorandum but a legally binding contract. Whether informal or formal, these contracts, including Daborne’s memorandum, suggest that the author is negotiating his terms and conditions, not simply acquiescing to those of Henslowe, who seems keen to oblige.[1]


1.For further discussion of the relationship between dramatists and playhouse personnel, see Grace Ioppolo, Dramatists and their Manuscripts in the Age of Shakespeare, Jonson, Middleton and Heywood: Authorship, Authority and the Playhouse (London: Routledge, 2006). Back to context...