Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Wilkins, George (fl.1607)

WILKINS, GEORGE (fl. 1607), dramatist and pamphleteer, was a hack-writer of small account, whose works and career are rendered of interest by his professional association with great writers of the day. The burial register of the parish of St. Leonard, Shoreditch, which has been consulted by the present writer, attests that ‘George Wilkins the Poet’ died at Holywell Street, Shoreditch, on 19 Aug. 1603, and was buried in the churchyard on the same day. The entry leaves no doubt that Wilkins ‘the Poet’ was a victim of the plague. Holywell Street, where he lived, was a favourite place of residence at the time for actors and playwrights, who frequented the neighbouring Curtain Theatre. No other reference to this man has been discovered, and no extant writings can be assigned to him. ‘The Poet’ George Wilkins may have been father of the dramatist and pamphleteer. He cannot be identical with him. The latter's publications all appeared at a date subsequent to the burial entry of ‘the Poet’ in 1603, and none of them can be regarded as posthumous works.

The earliest extant book which bore the name of George Wilkins on the title-page was ‘Three Miseries of Barbary: Plague Famine, Civill Warre. With a relation of the death of Mahamet the late Emperor [i.e. Alimad Al Mansúr] and a briefe report of the now present Wars betweene the three Brothers. Printed by W[illiam] I[ones] for Henry Gosson, and are to be sold in Pater Noster Rowe, at the signe of the Sunne’ (Brit. Mus.). The tract (in prose) is without date, and cannot be traced in the ‘Stationers' Registers,’ but it probably appeared in 1604. In it frequent reference is made to the recent plague in London. The name of the author, George Wilkins, is subscribed to a dedication ‘to the right worshipfull the whole Company of Barbary Merchants.’ Subsequently Wilkins was associated as a playwright with the king's company of actors, of which Shakespeare was a leading member. He was mainly employed in revising old plays or collaborating in new ones. The first extant dramatic production in which Wilkins had a share was ‘The Travailes of the three English Brothers, Sir Thomas, Sir Anthony, Mr. Robert Shirley. As it is now play'd by her Maiesties Seruants. Printed at London for John Wright,’ 1607 (Brit. Mus.) The dedication ‘To honours fauourites, and the intire friends to the familie of the Sherleys, health,’ was subscribed ‘John Day, William Rowley, George Wilkins.’ The piece, a very pedestrian performance, is reprinted in Mr. A. H. Bullen's edition of John Day's ‘Works.’ It was licensed for publication ‘as yt was played at the Curten’ on 29 June 1607 (Arber, Stationers' Registers, iii. 354).

In the same year Wilkins co-operated with yet another dramatist, Thomas Dekker, in a catchpenny pamphlet in prose, ‘Jests to make you Merie: with the conjuring up of Cock Watt (the walking Spirit of Newgate) to tell Tales. Unto which is added, the miserie of a Prison and a Prisoner. And a Paradox in praise of Serjeants. Written by T. D. and George Wilkins. Imprinted at London by N.O. for Nathaniell Butter,’ 1607, 4to. An address ‘to the reader’ is subscribed ‘T. D. and G. W.,’ and dwells upon the caution of publishers in providing literature for the ‘Paules Churchyard walkers.’

A second play produced during the same year by the king's company was apparently Wilkins's unaided handiwork. It was licensed for publication on 31 July 1607 (Arber, iii. 357), and was published under the title of ‘The Miseries of Inforst Mariage. As it is now playd by his Maiesties Seruants. By George Wilkins, London. Printed for George Vincent,’ 1607, 4to (Brit. Mus.). The drama was based on the story of Walter Calverley [q. v.], which served about the same time for the plot of a better known drama, ‘The Yorkshire Tragedy.’ The authorship of ‘The Yorkshire Tragedy,’ which was also acted by the king's players, was fraudulently assigned by Thomas Pavier, when he published it in 1608, to Shakespeare. Its true author is not known. Wilkins's drama, although very crudely executed, proved quite as popular as its more powerful rival. His ‘Miseries of Inforst Mariage’ was reissued in new editions in 1611, 1629, and 1637. In 1677 Mrs. Aphra Behn published an adaptation of it under the title of ‘The Town Fop.’ It was reprinted in all editions of Dodsley's ‘Old Plays,’ and in the collection called ‘Ancient British Drama,’ 1810.

About the same period as he was engaged on ‘The Miseries of Inforst Mariage,’ Wilkins was probably brought into literary relations with the greatest of all his contemporaries, Shakespeare. There is a likelihood that two late Shakespearean plays, which in their present condition are obviously the result of collaboration, were based by Shakespeare on the rough and unedifying drafts of a playhouse hack. The greater part of each was completely rewritten or reconstructed by Shakespeare. The two plays are ‘Timon of Athens’ and ‘Pericles,’ both of which came into being in 1608. Many of the indifferent passages in ‘Timon of Athens,’ which are not by Shakespeare, may have come from Wilkins's pen (Delius in Shakespeare Jahrbuch, 1867). There is less doubt that Wilkins is largely responsible for the inferior scenes of ‘Pericles.’ To that play Shakespeare contributed acts iii. and v., and part of iv., which together form a self-contained whole, and do not combine satisfactorily with the remaining scenes. Most of those may safely be allotted to Wilkins. His trick of promiscuously interspersing rhyme in blank-verse speeches, which is characteristic of his ‘Miseries of Inforst Mariage,’ is not uncommon in the non-Shakespearean parts of ‘Pericles.’ The presence of a third hand in ‘Pericles’ has been suspected; it is probably that of William Rowley, one of Wilkins's collaborators in ‘The Travaile of the Three English Brothers’ (cf. Delius in Shakespeare Jahrbuch, 1868, pp. 175–200; Boyle in Transactions of New Shakspere Soc. 1880–5, pt. ii. pp. 323–40).

The play of ‘Pericles’ was published surreptitiously in 1608. Immediately afterwards Wilkins based on it a novel called ‘The Painful Adventures of Pericles, Prynce of Tyre, being the True History of the Play of Pericles as it was lately presented by the worthy and ancient Poet, John Gower. At London. Printed by T. P. for Nat. Butter,’ 1608, 4to. Two copies of the novel are in existence—one, imperfect, in the British Museum; the other, complete, in the public library of Zürich. The Zürich copy, which was reprinted at Oldenburg by Professor Tycho Mommsen in 1857, with a preface by John Payne Collier, has the dedication, which is wanting in the British Museum copy; it is addressed to ‘Maister Henry Fermor, J. P. for Middlesex.’ There is much in the novel that does not appear in the play, but at some points the novel follows the play verbatim. Taking advantage of the exceptional popularity of the play on the stage, Wilkins, as an enterprising hack-writer, doubtless sought extra profit by elaborating a prose version of the plot. It has been argued that Wilkins's novel was undertaken in a spirit of hostility to Shakespeare, and was issued in order to diminish public interest in the play, which, although it embodied contributions by Wilkins, was published as Shakespeare's sole work. But the appearance of the novel might not unnaturally be expected to excite additional interest in the theatrical representation of the piece. In any case, the rivalry between the published novel and the published play was not destined to cause Shakespeare any pecuniary injury. The play of ‘Pericles,’ as the corrupt text proves, was published surreptitiously, without Shakespeare's approval or assent, and from the publication he derived no profit.

[Tycho Mommsen's and Collier's Introductions to Mommsen's reprint of Wilkins's Adventures of Pericles, Oldenburg, 1857; Collier's Bibliographical Cat.; Ward's History of English Dramatic Literature, 1899; Fleay's Life of Shakespeare; Lee's Life of Shakespeare; Fleay's Biographical Chronicle of the Stage.]

S. L.