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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

§ 13. Nicholas Udall

The earliest completely extant memorial in the vernacular of the revived study of Roman comedy is the translation of Andria, entitled Terens in English, printed by John Rastell before 1530. The further step of writing an English comedy on classical lines was taken by Nicholas Udall. Born in Hampshire in 1505, Udall was educated at Winchester and at Corpus Christi college, Oxford, where he became an exponent of Lutheran views. In May, 1533, he combined with John Leland in composing some verses for a pageant at the coronation of Anne Boleyn. From 1533 to 1537, he was vicar of Braintree, and may have written the play Placidas or St. Eustace, performed there in 1534. In February, 1534/5, he issued from the Augustinian monastery in London his Floures for Latine spekynge selected and gathered oute of Terence. The “floures” picked by Udall from the Roman playwright’s hortus fragrantissimus are phrases from Andria, Eunuchus, and Heautontimoroumenos, followed by their equivalents in the vernacular. The compilation of such a handbook for his pupils, to whom it is dedicated, was an admirable training for Udall’s more important labours in adapting Roman comedy to the English school stage.

In the latter part of 1534, he had become headmaster of Eton, where he remained till 1541, when he lost his office through misconduct which involved a short term of imprisonment. On his release, he devoted himself to theological work, including a share in the English translation of Erasmus’s Paraphrase of the New Testament. His protestant attitude secured him ecclesiastical preferment from Edward VI, and even after the accession of Mary he retained the royal favour through his gifts as a playwright. In December, 1554, a letter of the queen states that he has at “soondrie seasons” shown “dilligence” in exhibiting “Dialogues and Enterludes” before her, and directs the revels office to provide him with such “apparel” as he may need for the Christmas entertainments. Before this date, he had resumed the scholastic career. In 1553 or 1554, he had been appointed to the headmastership of Westminster, which he retained till his death in 1556.

Udall was evidently a man of very versatile gifts and energies, and it is unfortunate that we have not the materials for a comprehensive survey of his work as a dramatist. The Braintree play (if it was his) is lost; the play performed before Cromwell in 1538 cannot be identified; the revels accounts for 1554 do not enable us to distinguish between “certen plaies” provided by him and the other Christmas shows: Bale’s reference (1557) to comoediae plures by him is tantalisingly vague, and the statement that he translated tragoediam de papatu is puzzling, and, perhaps, erroneous, as a version of Ochino’s drama by Ponet, bishop of Winchester, was issued in 1549; the Scriptural play Ezechias, produced posthumously before Elizabeth at Cambridge in 1564, is known to us only through the accounts of eye-witnesses.