An anonymous play from the Renaissance humanist circle of Thomas More, Gentylnes and Nobylyte is a play as relevant today as when it was first performed and printed in the 1520s, when Henry VIII was king of England. The primary theme of Gentylnes and Nobylyte is social inequality and the chief issues in the play are twofold: first, whether ‘gentleness’ is inherent in every human being or is an inherited quality associated only with the leisure and ruling classes; and, second, whether ‘nobility’ —
and all that goes with that social position wealth, lands, social privilege, and control of the institutions of government — is earned by merit or inherited by birthright. Gentylnes and Nobylyte treats these serious debate questions in a comic way, that is, by means of a formally rhetorical comic argument in which individual representatives from the aristocracy (a knight), the middle class (a merchant), and the working class (a plowman) assert and defend their positions logically while also verbally ridiculing, and even physically attacking, their opponents. The social concerns represented in Gentylnes and Nobylyte figure prominently in Renaissance humanist thought and in the writings of humanist social critics like Erasmus and Thomas More, who published his Utopia about ten years earlier. These issues also have contemporary resonance for us, as we struggle with the growing problems of income inequality and social immobility.
The creation, production, and printing of Gentylnes and Nobylyte appears to have been something of a family affair. The play was printed in London c 1525 by John Rastell, who was Thomas More’s brother-in-law. John Rastell was a lawyer, printer, adventurer, and playwright, and as such it is possible, perhaps even probable, that John Rastell is also an author (if not the author) of Gentylnes and Nobylyte. Rastell’s son-in-law, John Heywood is a likely contributor to the play as well. Heywood himself wrote a number of comic debate plays around the later 1520s and early 1530s. According to contemporary accounts, Heywood was also a gifted musician and performer at the court of Henry VIII. John Heywood is the first person ever to appear as a ‘synger’ in royal household payment records (1519/20) and, although he was briefly jailed for unknown reasons in the early 1540s, he still served in various roles (including music teacher to the royal children), until 1564. At that time he fled to Flanders to rejoin his son, a Jesuit priest, as the Elizabethan Religious Settlement made England an increasingly dangerous place for Roman Catholics.
We cannot be certain of Gentylnes and Nobylyte’s first performance conditions. Both Heywood and Rastell arranged and produced performances of various kinds for Henry VIII and his court. Court performances, especially of ‘interlude’ plays, occurred in a palace’s (or noble house’s) great hall—a large multi-purpose room used for gatherings of household residents, retainers, and guests. These gatherings included meals, and meals frequently included dramatic and musical entertainments. Rastell has the oddly unbruited distinction of having erected the first known purpose-built public stage in London — on land he owned in Finsbury, North London, c 1524. We only know of this theatrical venture because of lawsuits surrounding it: the builder sued Rastell for nonpayment, and Rastell sued a colleague for damaging borrowed costumes. Rastell’s enterprise appears to have collapsed after that. Intriguingly, James Burbage opened The Theatre in 1576 little more than a stone’s throw from the location of Rastell’s failed stage venture. Some area residents still then alive are likely to have remembered Rastell and his short-lived public theatre of some 50 years before.
Gentylnes and Nobylyte is the Tudor Plays Project’s pilot play. The TPP team has created (and now publishes here) the first Modern English performance text of Gentylnes and Nobylyte. As you compare the c 1525 printed playbook to the new performance text, you will note certain adaptations designed to appeal to modern audiences unaccustomed to the long rhetorical speeches that were so highly valued by the play’s Tudor spectators. For instance, we have split the single Knight character and the single Merchant character into two Knights and two Merchants who interact with each other. We have, however, left the Plowman and the extra-dramatic Philosopher intact as unitary figures to deliver their own powerful messages.