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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IV. Prose and Poetry: Sir Thomas North to Michael Drayton.

V. Early English Comedy

§ 12. Performances of Latin plays in the schools and at the Universities

The classical revival on the continent, and the consequent development of the new humanist drama, began to influence the English stage early in the sixteenth century. In 1520, Henry VIII provided “a goodly comedy of Plautus” for the entertainment of some French hostages. The boys of St. Paul’s school, under their master, John Ritwise, performed Menaechmi before Wolsey in 1527 and Phormio in 1528. Ritwise, also, at some date between 1522 and 1531, “made the Tragedy of Dido out of Virgil,” and acted the same with the scholars of his school “before the Cardinal”; and he was also responsible for an anti-Lutheran play acted in 1527 before Henry VIII. Thus, within a few years, the St. Paul’s boys, under his direction, performed classical comedy, neo-Latin tragedy and a controversial interlude. Plays at Eton can be traced back to the same decade, as there is a record of the expenditure of 10 shillings “circa ornamenta ad duos lusus” at Christmas, 1525. Eton boys acted in 1638, under Udall, before Thomas Cromwell, and, from Malim’s Consuetudinary, it is evident that, by 1560, the custom of performing both Latin and English plays was well established in the school. On Twelfth Night, 1573, Eton scholars, under William Elderton, their headmaster, acted before Elizabeth at Hampton court. The boys of “the Gramarskolle of Westminster,” where the custom of performing Latin comedies was to take permanent root, appeared before Elizabeth in Heautontimoroumenos and Miles Gloriosus in January, 1567; in one of the five English plays performed during the court Christmas festivities of 1567–8; and in Truth, ffaythfulnesse, & Mercye, apparently a belated morality, on New Year’s day, 1574. On Shrove Tuesday, of the previous year, the Merchant Taylors’ boys, under Richard Mulcaster, had made their first appearance in a play at court; in 1574, they acted Timoclia at the sege of Thebes by Alexander at Candlemas, and, on Shrove Tuesday, Percius and Anthomiris (i.e., probably, Perseus and Andromeda). So late as Shrove Tuesday, 1583, they performed Ariodante and Genevora, based on an episode in Orlando Furioso.

Nor was it only schools in or near London, and within the reach of court patronage, that produced plays. At King’s school, Canterbury, under the headmastership of Anthony Rushe, there was keen dramatic activity, encouraged by the cathedral chapter. In the treasurer’s accounts 1562–3, there is an entry of £14. 6s. 8d. “to Mr. Ruesshe for rewards geven him at settynge out of his plays at Christmas, per capitulum.” In Acta Capituli, vol. I, f. 20, relating to the period between 1560 and 1563, a payment of 56s. 8d. is recorded “to the scholemaster and scholars towards such expensys as they shall be at in settynge furthe of Tragedies, Comedyes, and interludes this next Christmas.” This practice of acting plays at the Canterbury school, which has only recently been made known, is, of course, specially interesting inasmuch as Marlowe was a pupil there.

At the opposite corner of the kingdom, in Shrewsbury, the boys of the town school gave performances under their master, Thomas Ashton, in the quarry outside the walls. In the north-east, there are records of school performances at Beverley. At Hitchin, a private schoolmaster, Ralph Radcliff, who was a friend of bishop Bale, wrote plays—jocunda & honesta spectacula—which were acted by his pupils. They included Scriptural subjects such as Lazarus, Judith and Job, as well as themes—Griseldis, Melibaeus, Titus and Gisippus—taken directly or indirectly from Chaucer and Boccaccio. Though produced, according to Bale, before the plebs, some of them, if not all, were written in Latin. Like most sixteenth century school plays, they have disappeared. But it was at Oxford and Cambridge, not at the grammar schools, that the English humanist drama attained its chief development. The products of the universities were so important and varied that they receive separate treatment. But, as evidence of the importance attached by academic authorities to the acting of plays, at first mainly in Latin, reference may be made here to regulations in the statutes of two Cambridge colleges. At Queens’ college, it was ordained (1546) that any student refusing to act in a comedy or tragedy, or absenting himself from the performance, should be expelled. At Trinity (1560), the nine domestici lectores were directed on pain of fine to exhibit at Christmastide in pairs a comedy or tragedy, while the chief lector had to produce one on his own account.