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Lanseloet van Denemerken (Lancelot of Denmark)

± 1400, drama
Lanseloet Cover Lanseloet

As one of the so-called abele spelen (noble plays), Lancelot belongs to the earliest plays in the Dutch language. It is remarkable that these first plays are secular in content rather than religious. Specifically, Lancelot is a courtly romance both in its substance and its style.    

In a time of predominantly religious and moralising literature, the abele spelen were remarkably progressive for the Elizabethan age. Comparisons have been made between the weak figure of Lancelot and that of Hamlet (the other irresolute prince of Denmark), but that is perhaps too flattering to the rather stiff abel spel. However, the abele spelen were not only thematically innovative but also of a very high dramatic and literary quality for their time. While language and style are paramount, there is no lack of the necessary liveliness. The characters are believably and impressively drawn, the action is admirably to the point – the performance will have only lasted an hour – and it is written with an eye for drumming up excitement.

The Danish prince Lancelot is head over heels in love with Sanderijn, a maid from his mother’s court. The queen, who had a very different sort of wife in mind for him, is dismayed. She tries in vain to make her son see reason. Lancelot replies that equal birth is of no importance when it comes to love: love is about the real spiritual harmony between two people.

The queen immediately puts this high-minded discourse on love to the test. She promises that she will ensure that Sanderijn comes to his room that night so that he can “do what he desires” with her. The only condition is that afterwards he must berate her and say that he has had enough of her and is as sick of her as if I had gorged myself on seven roast pigs. Lancelot thinks that is a terrible thing to say but he cannot resist the temptation.

The audience does not get to see what happened in the room that night, but Sanderijn enters the stage in a terrible state. She feels dishonoured and decides that she must flee and put as much distance between herself and the Danish court as possible. Fate is kind to her. In Africa, she meets a rather unsophisticated but good-natured knight who asks her to marry him. For Lancelot of Denmark, things are going badly: he regrets that he forfeited the love of Sanderijn and when it turns out that he cannot get her back, he dies of grief.

In contrast to the other abele spleen, Esmoreit and Gloriant, Lancelot ends badly for the eponymous hero. This makes the play also the earliest tragedy in the revived secular theatre of the Middle Ages. This gripping, tragic character may help to explain why Lancelot was even more of a success than the other “noble plays”. Aside from one medieval manuscript, Lancelot of Denmark survives in a number of prints from the fifteenth to the eighteenth centuries.

The play has belonged to the living theatre repertoire for centuries. The most recent evidence of a performance prior to the literary-historical revival of interest in the Middle Ages, refers to the early eighteenth century. On a handwritten document of the Sanderijn role, someone noted that “dese rolle” (this role) was still being played in 1720. The play has also been performed in our time, frequently and with success, including in an opera adaptation by Renaat Veremans.