Home  »  Volume V: English THE DRAMA TO 1642 Part One  »  § 14. Ralph Roister Doister

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

§ 14. Ralph Roister Doister

Thus, Ralph Roister Doister is the sole work which remains to illustrate Udall’s dramatic powers. The single extant copy of the play is undated, but it probably belongs to the edition entered to Thomas Hacket in the Stationers’ register in 1566/7. The evidence in favour of its having been written in 1553–4 is very strong. Thomas Wilson, who had been at Eton under Udall, published in 1550/1 The Rule of Reason; a second edition appeared in 1552, and a third in 1553 or, possibly, 1554. In the third edition only, Wilson uses as an illustration Roister Doister’s mispunctuated love-letter in act III, sc. 4. The inference is that the play had been performed for the first time between 1552 and 1553/4, probably by the Westminster boys. That it is in any case later than 1546, and, therefore, cannot have been written when Udall was headmaster of Eton, is suggested by his frequent use of phrases which appear in John Heywood’s Proverbs, published in the above year. Apart from its evidential value, this is an interesting link between the two dramatists. But, though Udall could borrow proverbial phrases from his predecessor, he has scarcely a trace, as far as Roister Doister shows, of Heywood’s genius for incisive and pregnant expression or of his mordant wit. Nor is any figure in his play drawn with the vitalising art which, in a few scenes, makes of Johan Johan a being of flesh and blood. But, far inferior to Heywood in spontaneous literary gifts, Udall, partly through his scholastic occupations, and partly through a happy instinct, was led to direct English comedy into the path on which, in the main, it was to advance to its later triumphs. In imitation of Plautus and Terence, he substituted for the loosely knit structure of the English morality or dialogue or of French farce, an organic plot divided into acts and scenes. Within this framework, he adjusted figures borrowed from Roman comedy but transformed to suit English conditions, and mingled with others of purely native origin. Miles Gloriosus, supplemented, especially in later scenes, from Eunuchus, suggested the theme of a love-sick braggart’s wooing of a dame whose heart is given to another suitor. But Udall condensed into a single plot episodes connected with the two frail beauties in the Plautine play, and lifted the whole action into a less pagan atmosphere. Roister Doister is as vainglorious and credulous as Pyrgopolinices, and he covets dame Custance’s “thousande pounde” rather than herself. So confident is he that the lady will yield at once, that he woos her at first by deputy, sending, in turn, her old nurse with his love-letter, his servant with a ring and his companion, Mathewe Merygreeke, to bring back her instant assent “to be wedded on Sunday next.” Her refusal so overcomes him that he declares he must die; but, after a mock requiem has been said over him, he revives at Merygreeke’s suggestion to try the effect of a personal interview with Custance. It does not even need Merygreeke’s preverse misreading of the love-letter in Roister Doister’s presence to make the widow “fume and frette and rage.” The braggart is again overcome by his second repulse, and begins to “blubber,” till his companion prompts him to seek revenge. After much mockheroic preparation, he makes a grand assault upon Custance’s house, only to be put to shameful rout by her Amazonian legion of maids. Throughout the play, these maids, with their high spirits, their gay loquacity and their love of song, form one of its most attractive and original features. They are closer studies from life than are the semi-Plautine leading figures. Yet, in the person of Merygreeke, Udall succeeded, to some degree, in anglicising a classical type or combination of types. The first suggestion for the character comes, of course, from Artotrogos, the parasite in Miles Gloriosus. But the parasite appears only in the opening scene, and takes no part in the action of the play. It is Palaestrio, the captain’s servant, who cajoles and tricks him, as Merygreeke does Roister Doister. Yet, though Merygreeke makes of Roister Doister his “chiefe banker both for meate and money” he follows and serves him less for gain than for fun. He is a light-hearted and whimsical mischief-maker, after the fashion of the Vice of the late moralities, who plays, in turn, upon every weakness of his patron, but who, unlike the Plautine plotter, bears his victim no real illwill. It is a touch of true dramatic irony that the person whom his foolery brings, for the moment, into serious trouble is not Roister Doister, but the virtuous Custance, whose loyalty to her betrothed comes under unjust suspicion. When she lifts a prayer to the same Lord, who helped “Susanna” and “Hester” in their need, to vindicate her innocence, Udall, in the true spirit of romantic drama, lets a graver strain mingle with the sprightly tones of the comedy. But, on his return, Goodluck is soon convinced that she is still “the pearle of perfect honestie,” and, in bluff seafaring fashion, brings about a general reconciliation between the former combatants—a suitably edifying close to a play written for schoolboys.