Extracts from ‘The Sad Shepherd’

Towards the end of his life Ben Jonson wrote The Sad Shepherd, his only ‘pastoral drama’, which possibly due to his death in 1637, was never completed. In the play, which consists of about two and a half acts out of a projected five, Johnson combines the rustic characters of Robin Hood and his men with shepherds and shepherdesses, and also with supernatural figures such as the witch Maudlin, her son Lorel, and her daughter Douce. The setting is the Vale of Belvoir in the forest of Sherwood, and the action begins with Robin Hood asking Maid Marian and Friar Tuck to prepare a feast of venison, to which shepherds and shepherdesses have been invited. Robin hears that the Sad Shepherd, Aeglamour, has lost his beloved Earine, whom he believes has drowned in the river Trent. Marian returnes and greets Robin, and in the hunt that follows, suspicion is voiced that the witch of Papplewick, Maudlin, had been present in the form of a raven. Scathlock mentions that he has seen her boiling venison that was thrown to the raven. After they have left, Maudlin appears in the shape of Marian, sends away the venison that has been prepared, and insults Robin. It is disclosed in the second act, that Maudlin was also responsible for the disappearance of Earine, whom she had imprisoned in a hollow tree to serve the purposes of her son Lorel. We may gather from the preliminary argument of the incomplete third act, that this plot was to be foiled, but not before the witch caused more confusion. The Sad Shepherd contains allusions to contemporary incidents and persons: Belvoir Castle, near where the action of the play takes place, was the seat of the Earl and Countess of Rutland, who may have served as models for the parts of Robin and Marian. On another level, Friar Tuck’s speech against the ‘sourer sort of Shepherds’ in the first act, is an attack by Jonson on Puritan reformers of his day. The play was revived in the 1780s when it was re-edited with a continuation and conclusion, by FG Waldron of the Drury Lane Theatre,(1) however Jonson’s influence on the Robin Hood legend has remained limited.   

1. Ritson, 1846, p. 21; Gable, No 412, p. 61.

Source: Ben Jonson, ed. C H Herford, Percy and Evelyn Simpson (Oxford, 1925-52), Vol. VII, pp. 8, 15, 21-2, 24-6, 42-3. First printed in the second volume of the Folio edition of Ben Jonson’s plays under the title The Sad Shepherd: or, A Tale of Robin-Hood and with the date 1641.

Extract: Rymes of Robyn Hood, Dobson and Taylor, pp. 231-236.