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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

§ 10. Gager’s Meleager and Dido

The Senecan school of university dramatists produced its most important figure in William Gager, who is included in Meres’s list (1598) of the chief dramatists of the day, though, strange to say, among writers of comedy. Born between 1555 and 1560, he entered Christ Church, Oxford, in 1574, graduated in 1577 and became a doctor of civil law in 1589. During his long residence, he took the lead in writing plays for performance by members of his college. With the exception of his single comedy, Rivales, no longer extant, they were Latin tragedies on classical subjects. The first of these, Meleager, was produced in 1581, and revived, three years later, in the presence of the earl of Leicester, chancellor of the university, and Sir Philip Sidney. The author of An Apologie for Poetrie, as he watched the performance, must have rejoiced that there had arisen a dramatist who carried out to the letter his critical precepts, preserving the unities in the strictest fashion, and taking care not to match “hornpipes and funerals.”

In 1583, before another visitor of distinction, Albertus Lasco, prince palatine of Poland, two other plays by Gager were acted, the comedy Rivales already mentioned, and “a verie statelie tragedie,” Dido, in the preparation of which George Peele took part. For this tragedy, which was produced with “strange, marvellous, and abundant” scenic effects, Gager, like Halliwell at Cambridge twenty years before, drew the chief situations and much of the dialogue (though cast into Senecan form) from the Aeneid. Another of the Christ Church dramatist’s tragedies, Oedipus, of uncertain date, is only partly extant in manuscript. But the last and finest of his classical plays, Ulysses Redux, was printed a few months after its production in February, 1591/2, when Rivales also was revived. Ulysses Redux, though Senecan in form, is far from being a lifeless piece of classical imitation. Drawing its subject from the later books of the Odyssey, it is not unworthy of its source. The incidents are skilfully grouped, and many of the scenes, including the fight between Irus and Ulysses, and the efforts of the suitors to bend the bow, are full of dramatic vigour. The conjugal effection of Penelope for her lord is provided with an affective foil in the passion of the handmaid Melantho for Eurymachus—an un-Homeric episode which Gager develops in the spirit of romantic drama.

But of greater permanent value than Gager’s tragedies is his masterly defence of academic plays and players contained in a letter to John Rainolds of Queen’s college, afterwards president of Corpus, a puritan antagonist of the drama. Of both sides of the correspondence an account is given in a later chapter of this volume. The arguments with which Gager meets Rainolds’s objections to the impersonation of women by men in feminine attire, and to Sunday performances, are full of interesting references to contemporary college life, and he sets forth eloquently the aims and ideals of academic playwrights and actors.

  • We doe it to recreate owre-selves, owre house, and the better parte of the Universitye, with some learned Poeme or other; to Practyse owre owne style eyther in prose or verse; to be well acquantyed with Seneca or Plautus… to trye their voyces and confirme their memoryes, to frame their speeche; to conforme them to convenient action; to trye what mettell is in everye one, and of what disposition they are.