17th century

Ben Jonson’s “The Sad Shepherd; or, a Tale of Robin Hood” (1641)

Ben Jonson (1572-1637)

Ben Jonson (1572-1637)

Ben Jonson (1572-1637) was England’s first poet laureate, and is generally regarded as England’s second most important playwright after William Shakespeare.

Major works of his include:

  • A Tale of a Tub (1640)
  • Bartholomew Fair (1631)
  • The Alchemist (1612)

Among many others. For me, however, the writings of Jonson are significant because he began work on a Robin Hood play entitled The Sad Shepherd; or, a Tale of Robin Hood, printed in 1641. The play remained unfinished due to his death, but it presents a very different type of outlaw life to the one we are used to seeing on film and television today.

The play is what is known as a ‘pastoral’. What, you might ask, is a pastoral?

The pastoral is a literary style or type that presents a conventionalized picture of rural life, the naturalness and innocence of which is seen in contrast to the corruption and artificiality of city and court. Although pastoral works are written from the point of view of shepherds or rustics, they are always penned by highly sophisticated, urban poets.- Ed. Lawrence J. Trudeau

Pastorals appeal mainly to urban audiences, and in the 17th century, with London as squalid as it was, the play would have gone down well with audiences living within the environs of the capital.


Ben Jonson’s The Sad Shepherd; or, a Tale of Robin Hood [Edited] With a Continuation, Notes, and an Appendix [by F. G. Waldron] (1783)

It is the most gentle and sentimental Robin Hood story I’ve yet come across. The plot is as follows:

Robin Hood, has invited all the shepherds and shepherdesses of the vale of Bevoir to a feast in the forest of Sherwood, then he learns that the shepherd, Aeglamour, fears his has drowned in the river. In the meantime, Marian appears to have been possessed by an evil witch, named Maudlin, whom, it is speculated, is also responsible for the disappearance of the Shepherd’s beloved.

It is not known how Jonson intended to finish the play, for he died before he could complete it, however:

Ann Barton* suggests that as, among the cast is one ‘Reuben, the Reconciler’, Jonson would have had the witch and her children at the final delayed banquet of venison. She sees in the text ‘a strong suggestion’ that this would have been the ending. If so, it would have been reMariankable. Note also Barton’s suggestion that ‘There is no sense of cosmic evil surrounding Maudlin’. Do you agree? Note that she also suggests that Alken, the sage old shepherd, is the last of Jonson’s many self-portraits (and he leads the witch hunt). – (Dr. Roy Booth)

This isn’t a type of Robin Hood story that we’d expect in this day and age – it seems all to surreal and peaceable.

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Thomas Bewick, ‘Robin Hood and the Tanner’ ed. by Joseph Ritson, Robin Hood: A Collection of All the Ancient Poems, Songs, and Ballads, Now Extant, Relative to that Celebrated English Outlaw (1795).

A version was revived in 1783 by Francis Waldron, as the 1780s, according to Linda V. Troost, were a time of tax raises and stories about an outlaw that stole from the rich and gave to the poor proved to be popular during that time. In both versions, however, Robin is a very inactive hero, which is reminiscent of Munday’s plays.

It has been argued by most Robin Hood scholars that Jonson had little effect upon the overall legend of Robin Hood – he is, these days, not some ‘gentle master’ as he was called in Jonson’s play, but an action hero.

Yet I can’t help wondering if maybe Thomas Bewick had read this play and taken inspiration for his Robin Hood prints from this play for Ritson’s Robin Hood (1795)…

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