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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

§ 12. Hymenaeus; Laelia

A more ingenious and skilful adaptation from the Italian than Victoria, though from The Decameron and not, from a play, is the anonymous Hymenaeus, acted at St. John’s, Cambridge, probably in March, 1578/9. The list of actors, which included Fraunce, is virtually identical with that which took part in Richardus Tertius, except that the latter has a considerably larger cast. Boccaccio tells of the remarkable experiences of a gallant called Ruggieri, who makes love to the beautiful young wife of an aged doctor of Salerno, and who swallows a sleeping draught by mistake. In Hymenaeus, the young wife is the daughter of an elderly father, with three suitors—a doctor, a drunken German, and a young Venetian whom she favours. It is the Venetian who drinks the potion prepared by his rival, the doctor, for the heroine’s father, and who, in consequence, goes through a series of adventures which nearly ends on the gallows, before he succeeds in winning his mistress’s hand. To the same group of Latin comedies in Italian style, though no immediate source of them has been hitherto traced, belong several St. John’s college plays of somewhat later date. These include the pastoral Silvanus (January, 1597), with resemblances of situation to the SilviusPhoebe-Rosalind love-complication in As You Like It, and with a Latinised echo, in the closing song, of the August roundelay in The Shepheards Calender; and Machiavellus (December, 1597), in which the bearer of the title rôle, and a Jew, Jacuppus, carry on a contest with a remarkable series of disguises, plots and counterplots, for the hand of heroine, till her betrothed, who is suppossed to have been killed in the wars, returns just in time to claim her once more as his own. Two comedies which can be traced to their Italian sources are Leander (1598 and 1602) and Labyrinthus (1602), performed at Trinity college, Cambridge, and written by Walter Hawkesworth, fellow of the college, who acted the chief part in both plays. Their popularity is evidenced by the number of manuscripts in which they are still extant; but they were merely Latin adaptations of La Fantesca and La Cintia respectively, both by G.B. della Porta, the Neapolitan playwright. Of all these Cambridge versions of Italian comedies, the most important is the anonymous Laelia, acted at Queens’ college in 1590, and revived in 1598. It is founded on Gl’ Ingannati (1531), and its action is similar to that of the main plot of Twelfth Night. The source of Shakespeare’s play has always been doubtful, though Rich’s Apolonius and Silla and Emanuel Ford’s Parismus have features in common with it. Nor is it safe, as has been attempted by W.H. Furness and F.E. Schelling, to identify Laelia as the direct original of Twelfth Night, though it is just possible that it may have been. In any case, the university play and the Shakespearean comedy present an instructive contrast of methods, the advantage not being all on one side. Laelia lacks the lyric beauty, the delicate, imaginative charm of Twelfth Night, without hint of its superbly humorous underplot; its characters are of the conventional southern type, including the stock figures of a pedant and a nurse. But the plot of Laelia is a very deft piece of stagecraft; and, by representing Flaminius (Orsino) as having loved Laelia (Viola), before he transferred his affections to Isabella (Olivia), it makes more plausible the final union of hearts between hero and heroine.

The plays dealt with hitherto in this chapter are academic in the sense that they were written and acted by university men within college walls, and that, whether English or Latin, they were influenced, almost without exception, by the classical or Italian models which were of paramount authority in learned societies of the renascence period. We now have to deal with a group of comedies which deal with the studies and the experiences of scholars young and old, with the notable figures of contemporary university life, with the immemorial feud of town and gown.

Of these plays, chiefly connected with Cambridge, probably the earliest extant, as it is one of the most diverting, is Pedantius, a Trinity college comedy. Though not published till 1631, it probably dates from the winter of 1580 or spring of 1581. Nashe, in Strange Newes, ascribes it to “M. Winkfield,“ i.e. Anthony Wingfield, fellow of Trinity, who, in March, 1581, was a successful rival of Gabriel Harvey for the office of public orator. Nashe, who matriculated at St. John’s in October, 1582, cannot well have been mistaken, though claims have been made on behalf of Edward Forcet or Forsett, fellow of Trinity, who is named as author in a Caius college manuscript of the play.