We do not know much about the Elizabethan dramatist Henry Porter (including his year of birth), but it is likely that he was a young man when he died, murdered by fellow writer and Philip Henslowe employee. Porter’s body of work is slender compared with the huge output of most of his contemporaries in the Elizabethan theatre. He is remembered mainly for two works: a probable collaboration with Christopher Marlowe on one of the most famous Elizabethan plays – Dr Faustus, and a surviving solo play, The Two Angry Women of Abingdon.
If he had not died as a young man, and had continued to write for the theatre, he would have been a formidable rival of the more famous Elizabethan and Jacobean playwrights. Francis Meres, the Rutland schoolmaster who catalogued the plays and poems of the time, commented in his Pallis Tamia, that Porter was “the best for comedy amongst us,” and it is thought that the memorable comic scenes in Dr Faustus were written by him.
There are very many Elizabethan plays that have not survived and it is only due to Henslowe’s diary that we know about so many of those lost plays. According to the diary Porter wrote several plays in collaboration with Henry Chettle and Ben Jonson, including Love Prevented and Hot Anger Soon Cold in 1598, The Spencers, with Chettle in 1599, and further plays about the women of Abingdon.
It is interesting to note that Porter was one of the highest paid writers in Henslowe’s stable, showing how highly he was regarded for his comic writing. Audiences loved comedy and that was Porter’s great talent. Critics have praised The Two Angry Women of Abingdon for being much like Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor, both for its dramatic quality and its comic content. In 1599, shortly before Porter’s death, Henslowe signed a contract with him, acquiring the rights to every play he wrote or had a hand in for 40 shillings each – twice what other writers were being paid.
The Southwark Assizes records the death of Porter on 6 June 1599 by a mortal wound in the left breast by a rapier. The killer, fellow writer John Day, was charged with murder but pleaded guilty to manslaughter, claiming self defence. He did not serve a long prison sentence and was soon given a Royal Pardon.
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