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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume VI. The Drama to 1642, Part Two.

XII. University Plays

§ 1. Medieval Drama at the Universities

IT has been pointed out earlier in this work that, while the humanist movement at Oxford and Cambridge in the sixteenth century did not result in any important contributions to classical scholarship, it was remarkable for the production of a large number of Latin plays. In the previous volume, the rise of the renascence academic drama on the continent was briefly traced, and its influence on early Tudor comedy, especially school plays, illustrated. But, in England, school plays had a comparatively limited vogue. It was at the universities that the humanist drama, written and acted by scholars, found its real home. Originating in didactic tendencies, and encouraged as has been shown, by the framers of college statutes, its aims, at first, were educational rather than literary or recreative. But, amidst the medley of plastic influences in English university life, it was inevitable that drama at Oxford and Cambridge should not remain purely academic, in the narrower pedagogic sense. The gradually increasing proportion of plays in the vernacular produced on college stages, the ceremonial visits of kings and queens and other royal personages to “shows” at the two seats of learning, the attractions, for the scholar playwrights and their audiences, of controversies, whether local and personal or of national significance—these were among the factors which speedily enlarged the bounds of university drama, and developed within it that variety of types which the following pages will attempt to sketch. But, to the last, it remained conscious, at least intermittently, of its distinctive origin and mission. Though influencing the popular stage, and being influenced by it in turn, yet, in the main, it followed an independent and diverging track, and it has both merits and limitations which are peculiarly its own.

Mummery and impersonation in their more primitive forms can be traced back at the universities to the later fourteenth century. Though Warton’s reference to “the fragment of an ancient accompt-roll of the dissolved college of Michael-House in Cambridge” (it was merged in Trinity college) containing expenditure, under 1386, on a comedia, cannot now be verified, it may reasonably be taken as authentic. The statutes of New college, Oxford (1400) and of King’s college, Cambridge (1443) expressly provide for the celebration of the favourite medieval ceremony of “the boy bishop” on the feast of the Innocents and of St. Nicholas’s day respectively. In the King’s college account-books there is an entry of expenses incurred circa ludos on Christmas day, 1582, and of a payment lusoribus in aula collegii, on the following day. Similar entries of expenditure on Christmas ludi or “disgysynges” are found in 1489, 1496, and later. The account-books of Magdalen college, Oxford, show that provision was made for “the bishop” on St. Nicholas’s day frequently between 1482 and 1530, as well as for scriptural ludi on the chief church festivals, and miscellaneous interludes and entertainments. The register of Merton college, Oxford, records the election of another mock dignitary, Rex Fabarum or king of beans, who was chosen on or about the eve of St. Edmund (19 November). In the first entry, in 1485, the election is said to be per antiquam consuetudinem, and the names of successive “kings” are given annually till 1539, when the ceremony seems to have fallen into disuse.

It was while such medieval plays and ceremonies retained a flickering vitality that humanist drama at the universities began. At Oxford, the mention in the Magdalen accounts for the first time of a comedia in 1535, and, again, in 1539, and of a tragedia in 1540, probably indicates the transition to neoclassic types. According to Anthony a Wood, the Magdalen comedy of 1535 was Piscator or The Fisher Caught, by John Hoker, a fellow of the society. In 1536, the Plutus of Aristophanes was acted in Greek at St. John’s college, Cambridge. The production in 1546 of the Athenian playwright’s Ei[char] or Pax, by John Dee the astrologer, at Trinity college, Cambridge, of which he was a fellow, seems, also, to have been in the original tongue. But these precedents were not followed, and there appears to be no record of a classical tragedy being acted in Greek on the Tudor university stage.