Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Wilson, Robert (d.1600)

WILSON, ROBERT, the elder (d. 1600), actor and playwright, was one of the players who joined the Earl of Leicester's company on its establishment in 1574. He at once gained a reputation as a comic actor almost equal to that of Richard Tarlton [q. v.] Gabriel Harvey wrote in 1579 to the poet Spenser, complaining that his friends were (figuratively speaking) thrusting him ‘on the stage to make tryall of his extemporall faculty and to play Wylson's or Tarleton's parte’ (Harvey, Works, ed. Grosart, i. 125). In 1583 Wilson was chosen to be one of twelve actors who were formed into the Queen Elizabeth's company. With the queen's company he was connected till 1588. Stow remarked that among the twelve players of the queen's original company the most efficient were the ‘two rare men’ Wilson and Tarlton. Stow credited Wilson (to whom he erroneously gave the christian name of Thomas) with a ‘quick, delicate, refined, extemporal wit’ (Stow, Chronicle, ed. Howes, London, 1631, p. 698, sub anno 1583). After 1588 Wilson seems to have transferred his services to Lord Strange's company of actors, which subsequently passed to the patronage of the lord chamberlain, and was joined by Shakespeare. Wilson maintained his reputation for extemporising until the end of the century. In 1598 Francis Meres, after recalling the triumphs of Tarlton, who died in 1588, noted that his place had since been filled by ‘our witty Wilson, who for learning and extemporal wit in this faculty is without compare or compeer; as to his great and eternal commendations, he manifested in his challenge at the Swan, on the Bank Side.’ No other reference is known to Wilson's ‘challenge’ at the Swan Theatre. Meres also mentions ‘Wilson’ among ‘the best poets for comedy,’ but there he probably refers to a younger Robert Wilson (see below). Thomas Heywood, in his ‘Apologie for Actors,’ 1612, numbers the elder ‘Wilson’ among English players of distinction who flourished conspicuously ‘before his time.’

Wilson also made a reputation as a writer of plays. In 1580 Thomas Lodge replied in a ‘Defence of Poetry, Musick, and Stage Plays’ to Stephen Gosson's ‘Schoole of Abuse.’ Lodge incidentally charged Gosson with plagiarism in a lost play on the subject of ‘Catilines Conspiracy,’ and declared that he preferred to Gosson's effort ‘Wilson's shorte and sweete [drama on the identical topic], a peece surely worthy prayse, the practise of a good scholler’ (Hunterian Club edition, 1879, p. 43). No play by Wilson dealing with Catiline is extant, but on 21 Aug. 1598 the theatrical manager Philip Henslowe advanced to ‘Robert Wilson’ ten shillings on security of his play of ‘Catiline,’ which he was writing in conjunction with Henry Chettle (Henslowe, Diary, p. 132). This piece, like its forerunners, is lost, but it was possibly a version of Wilson's earlier play, revised by the younger Robert, who regularly worked for Henslowe.

The four extant plays which may be assigned to the comic actor with some confidence are loosely constructed moralities in which personified vices and virtues play the leading parts. The characters are very numerous. There is hardly any plot. The metre employed is various, and includes ballad doggerel, short rhyming lines, rhyming heroics and blank verse, besides occasional passages in prose. The earliest of the extant pieces for which Wilson may be held responsible bears the title, ‘A right excellent and famous Comedy called the Three Ladies of London. Wherein is Notablie declared and set foorth, how by the meanes of Lucar, Loue and Conscience is so corrupted, that the one is married to Dissimulation, the other fraught with all abhomination. A Perfect Patterne for all Estates to looke into, and a worke right worthie to be marked. Written by R. W., as it hath been publiquely played. At London [by Roger Warde],’ 1584, black letter, 4to. A second edition, with some variations, followed in 1592. Of the 1584 edition copies are in the British Museum, the Bodleian, and the Pepysian (Magdalene College, Cambridge) libraries. Of the second edition a perfect copy is at Bridgwater House, and an imperfect copy at the British Museum. At the end of both impressions appear the words, ‘Finis Paul Bucke.’ Bucke was probably the copyist employed by the acting company which first produced the piece; he seems to have been himself an actor. ‘The Three Ladies’ of the play are Lucre, Love, and Conscience. Love and Conscience are perverted by the machinations of Lucre and Dissimulation. A few concrete personages appear with the allegorical abstractions. One episode deals with the effort of a Jewish creditor, Gerontus, to recover a debt from an Italian merchant, Mercatore. Many expressions in these scenes adumbrate the language of Shylock and Antonio in the ‘Merchant of Venice,’ and there can be no doubt that Shakespeare was familiar with Wilson's portrayal of the Jew Gerontus (Sidney Lee, Life of Shakespeare). The clown of the piece is called Simplicity, and that rôle may have been undertaken by the author.

In 1590 there was published in continuation of ‘The Three Ladies’ a piece entitled ‘The Pleasant and Stately Morall of the three Lordes and three Ladies of London. With the great Joy and Pompe, Solemnized at their Mariages, commically interlaced with much honest Mirth, for pleasure and recreation, among many Morall observations, and other important matters of due Regard. By R. W., London’ (printed by R. Jhones), 1590 (black letter, 4to, with an engraving on the title). The volume was licensed for the press on 31 July 1590. A copy is in the Malone Collection in the Bodleian Library. The prologue is spoken by the City of London; the same three ladies as in the preceding pieces are wooed by three series of gallants, entitled respectively Lords of London (Policy, Pomp, and Pleasure), Lords of Spain (Pride, Ambition, and Tyranny), and Lords of Lincoln (Desire, Delight, and Devotion). Simplicity again figures as the clown. A tribute is incidentally paid by the author to the merits of the actor Tarlton.

The ‘Three Ladies’ and the ‘Three Lords and Three Ladies’ were reprinted by Mr. J. P. Collier in a volume entitled ‘Five Old Plays’ issued by the Roxburghe Club in 1851. They reappeared in Dodsley's ‘Collection of Old English Plays’ (ed. W. Carew Hazlitt, 1874, vi. 244–502).

Wilson also wrote an interlude or morality which was licensed for the press to Cuthbert Burby on 7 June 1594, and was published in that year (being printed by John Danter) under the title of ‘The Coblers Prophesie. Written by Robert Wilson, gent.’ Most of the characters are allegorical, and include personifications of Contempt, Newfangledness, Folly, and the like, but many of the gods and goddesses of classical mythology also figure in the dramatis personæ. Copies of this rare quarto are in the libraries of the British Museum, the Bodleian, Bridgwater House, and the Pepysian Collection at Magdalene College, Cambridge. John Payne Collier described a copy in which a few lines had been supplied in manuscript by George Chapman (Notes and Queries, 3rd ser. ii. 422). A similar production, licensed for the press to Thomas Creede on 13 May 1594, and published anonymously next year under the title of ‘The Pedlers Prophesy,’ may on internal evidence be attributed to Wilson. Copies are in the British Museum and Bodleian libraries.

Mr. Fleay, for reasons that are not convincing, assigns to Wilson the play of ‘Fair Em, the Miller's Daughter of Manchester; with the love of William the Conqueror,’ of which the first known impression appeared in 1631. The piece was in existence before 1591, when it was denounced by Robert Greene, in his ‘Farewell to Folly,’ for reflecting on himself (cf. Simpson, School of Shakspere, vol. ii.).

There is little doubt that Wilson the actor and playwright was identical with ‘Robert Wilson, yoman (a player),’ who was buried at St. Giles's, Cripplegate, on 20 Nov. 1600.

Another Robert Wilson (1579–1610), one of the hack-writers regularly employed by the theatrical manager Henslowe from 1598 to 1600, was probably the comedian's son, and was baptised at St. Botolph's Church, Bishopsgate, on 22 Sept. 1579. The ‘Wilson’ mentioned by Meres among the ‘best’ writers of comedy of the day figures in Meres's list in close conjunction with Chettle, Hathaway, Munday, and others of Henslowe's hack-writers. The reference was doubtless suggested by the dramatic work done by the younger Wilson in Henslowe's service. Only one of the pieces in which Robert Wilson, Henslowe's drudge, had a hand survives, and that—‘The First Part of Sir John Oldcastle’—has no resemblance in style to the moral interludes that are assignable to the comic actor. The first and second parts of ‘Sir John Oldcastle’ were completed for Henslowe on 16 Oct. 1599 by Wilson in collaboration with Drayton, Hathaway, and Munday. It was suggested by the puritan protest raised against Shakespeare's plays of ‘Henry IV,’ in which the character Falstaff originally bore the appellation of Sir John Oldcastle. The first part—an historical drama—is alone extant. It was published in two editions by T[homas] P[avier] in 1600, and was impudently described on the title-page of one edition as the work of Shakespeare. ‘Catiline's Conspiracy,’ which Wilson and Chettle prepared for Henslowe in August 1599, may be based on the earlier effort by the elder Robert Wilson, of which Lodge makes mention. In many other productions the younger man's collaborators were Chettle, Dekker, and Drayton; but his contributions seem to have been the smallest of the four. Lost pieces for which Robert Wilson and these three colleagues were paid by Henslowe were called ‘The first part of Godwin and his three sons’ (25 and 30 March 1598); ‘Piers of Exton’ (28 March 1598); ‘Black Batman of the North’ (22 May 1598); and the second part of ‘Godwin’ (May–June 1598). Wilson's collaborators in ‘Richard Cœur de Lion's Funeral’ were Chettle, Drayton, and Munday (June 1598); in the second part of ‘Black Batman,’ Chettle (June–July 1598); in the ‘Madman's Morris,’ in ‘Hannibal and Hermes, or one Worse Feared than Hurt,’ and in ‘Piers of Winchester,’ Dekker and Drayton (June–July 1598); in ‘Chance Medley,’ Dekker and Munday (19–24 Aug. 1598); and in ‘Owen Tudor,’ Drayton, Hathaway, and Munday (10 Jan. 1599–1600). On 8 Nov. 1599 Henslowe paid Wilson for a piece called ‘Henry Richmond,’ which he seems to have produced single-handed (cf. Warner, Dulwich Catalogue, p. 16). Wilson was usually in pecuniary distress. He owed Henslowe money in June 1598, and borrowed ten shillings of him on 1 Nov. 1599; a receipt for this loan in his autograph is extant at Dulwich (Henslowe, Diary, ed. J. P. Collier, passim). He appears to have married Mary Eaton at St. Botolph's Church, Bishopsgate, on 24 June 1606, and to have died on 22 Oct. 1610, being buried in the church of St. Bartholomew the Less.

[Collier's Introduction to Five Old Plays (Roxburghe Club), 1851, reprinted in Dodsley's Old Plays, ed. Hazlitt, pp. 3 seq.; Collier's Memoirs of the Principal Actors, p. xviii; Collier's History of Dramatic Poetry; Ward's English Dramatic Literature, 1898; Fleay's Chronicle of the English Drama; Lee's Life of Shakespeare.]

S. L.