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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

§ 16. The Parnassus Trilogy

Broadly contemporary with Club Law is the Parnassus trilogy, which, in originality and breadth of execution, and in complex relationship to the academic, literary, theatrical and social life of the period, ranks supreme among the extant memorials of the university stage. Both the first and second parts of the trilogy remained in manuscript till 1886, when they were published by W.D. Macray. The third part had appeared in quarto in 1606, with the title The Returne from Pernassus: Or the Scourge of Simony: Publiquely acted by the Students in Saint Johns Colledge in Cambridge. Internal evidence proves that this third part must have been written before the death of Elizabeth, and indicates Christmas, 1602, as the probable date of the performance. On similar evidence, The Pilgrimage to Parnassus, and Part I of The Returne from Parnassus (as the recovered plays have been named), may be assigned, respectively, to 1598 and 1601. The writer of the trilogy is unknown, for, though he throws out tantalising clues in the prologue to Part I of The Returne, they are not sufficient to identify him. The ingenious argument in support of the authorship of John Day is open to serious chronological and other objections. But, whoever he may have been, the St. John’s playwright was a man of singularly penetrating intelligence, acute observation and wide reading. His mordant wit disdained to flow in the conventional academic channel of Italianate comedy, where a “lisping gallant” and his “wench”, or a “sire” acknowledging “his lost son,” were the stock figures. He struck out on a path of his own, with increased vigour and boldness at each stage.

The Pilgrimage is an allegory, in dramatic framework, of the difficulties and temptations that beset the scholar in his pursuit of learning. Two cousins and fellow students, Philomusus and Studiosus, are plodding to Parnassus by the well worn track of the trivium. In Logic land, “much like Wales, full of craggie mountains and thornie vallies,” they encounter Madido, a votary of the wine cup, who tells them that “Parnassus and Hellicon are but the fables of the poets: there is no true Parnassus but the third lofte in a wine taverne, no true Hellicon but a cup of browne bastard.” Thence they pass to the “pleasant land of Rhetorique,” where “shrille Don Cicero” sings sweetly, and where they are overtaken by Stupido. He is a type of the narrowest puritanism, who declaims against the “vaine arts of Rhetorique, Poetrie and Philosophie; there is noe sounde edifying knowledg in them. Why they are more vaine than a paire of organs or a morrice daunce.” But the fiercest trial is in the land of Poetry, where Amoretto, a voluptuary who perverts the muse into an agent of sensual passion, bids them “crop the joys of youth,” and allures them for a time from their path. But, before it is too late, they realise that wantonness is “sourelie sweete,” and they press on to the land of Philosophy. Here they meet an old schoolfellow, Ingenioso, who is hurrying away “in a chafe,” and who cries to the pilgrims “What! I travell to Parnassus? why I have burnt my bookes, splitted my pen, rent my papers, and curst the cooseninge harts that brought mee up to noe better fortune.” These words, and others that follow, are taken, with some modification, from Nashe’s pamphlet Pierce Penilesse (1592), in which he bewailed the miseries of the life of a man of letters. The bitter cry of so gifted a member of the college must have come home to the St. John’s audience, some of whom may have been present at the performance of Terminus et non terminus in the previous decade. But the pilgrims turn a deaf ear and fare blithely on to the “laurell mounte,” where, for a time, they lie with “Phoebus by the muse’s springes.”

In Part I of The Returne, the playwright is in more sombre mood, and his satire is more incisive. He drops almost entirely the allegorical scheme, and, in a series of realistic genre pictures, portrays the miserable shifts to which scholars, when their course is completed, are reduced to earn a living. Philomusus goes through pitiful experiences as a parish clerk and sexton till he is dismissed for incompetency. Studiousus, who tries to find consolation in the moral commonplaces of Senecan tragedy, leads a dog’s life as tutor to an idle and unruly “dandipratt” in a vulgar household. But he is sent packing, because he will not yield precedence to a servant at table, and the two friends, as a last hope, resolve to seek their fortunes under another sky, at “Rome or Rheims.” Here, however, they fare as ill as at home and they hurry back, feeling

  • That it ’s as good to starve mongst English swine
  • As in a forraine land to beg and pine.
  • But the adventures of Philomusus and Studiosus furnish only one of the themes in this part of the trilogy. Another is found in the relations of Ingenioso to Gullio, a vainglorious pseudo-patron of letters, modelled in part on Nashe’s portrait of “an upstart” in his Pierce Penilesse. Gullio, who is “maintaining” Ingenioso in most niggardly fashion, bids him personate his mistress, Lesbia, that he may rehearse amorous speeches afterwards to be addressed to her. These speeches are mainly variations on lines in Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis and Romeo and Juliet. Gullio afterwards commissions Ingenioso to write specimen verses for his lady “in two or three divers vayns, in Chaucer’s, Gower’s, and Spenser’s and Mr Shakspeare’s.” He quotes the opening lines of Venus and Adonis as the preferable model, and cries sentimentally:

  • O sweet Mr Shakespeare! I’le have his picture in my study at the courte.
  • When Ingenioso submits his poetical exercises for approval, the lines in “Mr Shakspeare’s vayne” are instantly preferred:
  • Ey marry, sir, these have some life in them! Let this duncified worlde esteeme of Spencer and Chaucer, I’le worshipp sweet Mr Shakespeare and to honour him will lay his Venus and Adonis under my pillowe.
  • But the lines, accompanied by a Latin epistle of Gullio’s own composition, fail to move Lesbia, and Ingenioso is dismissed by his indignant patron.

    It is certainly not with complimentary intent that the author makes Shakespeare the favourite poet of the shallow and affected courtier. Further light is thrown on his attitude in act I sc. 2 of Part II of The Returne. In this famous scene, the Cambridge dramatist, under the thin disguise of Judicio, reviews the merits of a number of the contemporary poets from whom selections had been included in Bodenham’s Belvedere, an anthology issued in 1600. Shakespeare is briefly dealt with:

  • Who loves not Adons love, or Lucrece rape?
  • His sweeter verse contaynes hart throbbing line,
  • Could but a graver subject him content
  • Without loves foolish lazy languishment.
  • The critic, while recognising the beauty of language and versification in Shakespeare’s two early poems, evidently considered that he was misusing his talents in producing luscious studies of amorous passion, though they might move Gullio and his kind to sentimental raptures. His qualified tribute to the actor-poet contrasts with his panegyric on Spenser and his generous praise of Drayton, Nashe and other writers of the day.

    In the later scene of Part II of The Returne, the St. John’s writer again deals with Shakespeare, not as a poet, but as a dramatist and an actor. The references, doubtless, are inspired by reminiscences of a recent visit of the lord chamberlain’s company to Cambridge. Owing to the competition of the boy actors at the Blackfriars theatre, Shakespeare and his fellows had had to go on tour probably in 1601. That they visited Oxford and Cambridge, we know from the title-page of the first quarto of Hamlet (1603), where the play is said to have been acted “in the two Universities.” With its scholarhero, and semi-academic atmosphere, the surmise is plausible that it was adapted from Kyd’s earlier play with a special view to its being acted in the university towns. It was a fresh mortification to the St. John’s dramatist, embittered by the woes of scholars, to see low-born actors from the capital make a triumphal entry into Cambridge.

  • England affords those glorious vagabonds
  • That carried earst their fardels on their backes,
  • Coursers to ride on through the gazing streetes,
  • Sooping it in their glaring Satten sutes,
  • And Pages to attend their Maisterships:
  • With mouthing words that better wits have framed,
  • They purchase lands, and now Esquiers are namde.
  • It is thus in a spirit of fierce mockery that he represents Philomusus and Studiosus, by way of a last resource, becoming candidates for the professional stage, and being tested by Burbage and Kempe, who make merry over the deficiencies of scholars both as actors and as dramatists.
  • KEMPE. The slaves are somewhat proud, and besides it is a good sport in a part to see them never speake in their walke, but at the end of the stage, just as though in walking with a fellow we should never speake but at a stile, a gate, or a ditch, where a man can go no further.…
  • BUR. A little teaching will mend these faults, and it may bee besides they will be able to pen a part.
  • KEMPE. Few of the University [men] plaies well, they smell too much of that writer Ovid, and that writer Metamorphosis, and talke too much of Proserpina and Juppiter. Why heres our fellow Shakespeare puts them all downe, I and Ben Jonson too. O that Ben Jonson is a pestilent fellow, he brought up Horace giving the poets a pill, but our fellow, he brought up Horace giving the poets a pill, but our fellow Shakespeare hath given him a purge that made him bewray his credit.
  • The whole purport of this well known passage is misunderstood unless it be recognised that it is written in a vein of the bitterest irony. The gownsman is holding up to scorn before an academic audience the judgment of illiterate boors who think that Metamorphosis is a writer, and that their fellow Shakespeare puts to shame the university playwrights, and has had the upper hand in a duel with Ben Jonson, the protagonist of classical orthodoxy in dramatic art. With the relations of Shakespeare and Jonson in “the war of the theatres” we are not here concerned; but it is profoundly significant that the anonymous author of the Parnassus trilogy, perhaps the ablest of all the academic dramatists, should have singled out Shakespeare in his mid-career for his satiric shafts. The foremost representatives of the academic and the professional stage stand revealed in this brief illuminating flash, sundered by an impassable gulf of class-prejudice and divergent ideals of art. Nor could the scholar-playwright have been expected to see that the supreme master of irony, Time, would turn back his ridicule with crushing effect upon himself.

    In other scenes of Part II of The Returne, which account for the sub-title, The Scourge of Simony, the feud between town and gown finds as bitter expression as in Club Law. But the satire is now particularly directed against Francis Brackyn, deputy recorder of Cambridge, who had taken a leading part in asserting the claims of the burgesses against the university. The feeling against Brackyn was intensified by the fact that he stood for common law, while the academic jurists, at this time, were striving to revive the influence and authority of civil law. Under the name of the Recorder, Brackyn figures in the play as one of a confederacy who out of greed and spite, bestow the cure of souls on moneyed blockheads instead of on poor but deserving scholars. The other members of the gang are Sir Frederick, a dissoulte and rapacious patron of livings, and his son Amoretto, an affected braggart. Academico, who has been a college contemporary of Amoretto and used his talents on his the boorish son of a country bumpkin, is preferred to the benefice because his father can give one hundred “thanks” in current coin. The Recorder approves the patron’s choice, and seizes the occasion for a malignant outburst against the scholars and their colleges:

  • But had the world no wiser men than I,
  • Weede pen the prating parates in a cage;
  • ······.
  • Knights, Lords, and lawyers should be log’d and dwel
  • Within those over stately heapes of stone
  • Which doting syres in old age did erect.
  • But, later, the scholars prove themselves the Recorder’s match in vituperation, and we get a forestaste of the yet more overwhelming ridicule of Brackyn in Ignoramus.