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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

§ 26. Damon and Pithias

The fusion of classical with native elements appears very clearly in Richard Edwards’s Damon and Pithias, a “tragical comedy,” as he calls it, which was almost certainly acted before the queen in 1564. The plot is drawn from the annals of Syracuse, and such figures as Carisophus, the parasite, Eubulus, the good counsellor, Stephano, the slave-servant, and Dionysius, the tyrant, are borrowed from the Roman stage. Many classical quotations are introduced into the dialogue, which in the frequent use of [char] and of rhetorical moral commonplaces shows the influence of Seneca. Yet in spite of its debt to Latin drama Damon and Pithias is not an academic product, but is, in form and spirit, predominantly of native English type. It is not divided into acts after the classical manner; and in its deliberate mixture of pathos and farcical humour, and in its violation of the unity of time, it runs counter not exactly to the precedents of the classical stage, but to the current renascence perversion of them. The Syracusan court at which the action is laid is modelled upon the Elizabethan, and the rivalries of Aristippus and Carisophus had their counterpart in the intrigues among the virgin queen’s train, though the author protests against any topical interpretation of his “courtly toyes”:

  • We doo protest this flat,
  • Wee talke of Dionisius Courte, wee meane no Court but that.
  • Even more unmistakably English is the character of Grim the collier, who hails from Croydon, though he never mentions his birthplace, and shows remarkable familiarity with Syracusan affairs. There is genuine, if coarse, vernacular humour in the episode of the shaving of him by the saucy lackeys, Will and Jack, who pick his pockets on the sly, while they chant the refrain “Too nidden and toodle toodle too nidden.” And the episode, though in itself grotesquely irrelevant, is due to the playwright’s true instinct that comic relief is needed to temper the tragic suspense while the life of Pithias, who has become hostage for Damon during his two months’ respite from the block, trembles in the balance. The high-souled mutual loyalty of the two friends and the chivalrous eagerness with which each courts death for the other’s sake are painted with genuine emotional intensity. Though lacking in metrical charm or verbal felicity, Damon and Pithias has merits which go some way towards accounting for the acclaim with which, as contemporary allusions show, it was received; and the play possesses an importance of its own in the development of romantic drama from a combination of forces and materials new and old. As Roister Doister and Misogonus, based on Latin or neo-Latin plays, had by the incorporation of English elements gravitated towards a type of comedy hitherto unknown, so Damon and Pithias, an original work by a native playwright, showed the strong influence of classical types and methods. Starting from opposite quarters, the forces that produced romantic comedy are thus seen to converge.