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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

§ 17. Tomkin’s Lingua

To us, the Parnassus trilogy is without an equal among academic plays in the combined intimacy and breadth of its appeal. But contemporary taste seems to have been hit more successfully by another Cambridge drama, Lingua, or The Combat of the Tongue and the five Senses for Superiority. This comedy, first printed in 1607, went through six editions before the Restoration. Its date is uncertain, though it must be later than 1602, which is mentioned in one of the scenes. Its author, as we learn from a memorandum by Sir John Harington, a high authority on the university plays of his day, was Thomas Tomkis of Trinity college, who graduated in 1600–I, and whose name appears on the title-page of Albumazar, acted before James I, at Trinity in 1615. Lingua falls in with the contemporary fashion of personifying or allegorising the parts and faculties of man, which finds its chief expression in Phineas Fletcher’s Purple Island. The scene “is Microcosmus in a Grove,” and the plot is concerned with the attempt of Lingua, the tongue, to vindicate her claim to be a sixth sense. To breed strife among the five recognised senses, she leaves in their path a crown and a royal robe with the inscription:

  • He of the five that proves himself the best,
  • Shall have his temples with this coronet blest.
  • Tactus first finds the royal emblems, and invests his “brows and body” with them. Thereupon, the other senses dispute his sovereignty, and make preparation for deadly combat. But Communis Sensus, the vicegerent of queen Psyche, undertakes “to umpire the contention” and orders them “their arms dismissed to appear before him, charging everyone to bring, as it were in a shew, their proper objects, that by them he may determine of their several excellencies.” Visus’s show includes Lumen, Coelum, Terra and Colour, whom he “marshaleth about the stage, and presents before the bench.” Auditus afterwards leads in Tragedus and Comedus, whose likeness and unlikeness are delineated in words of admirable critical insight. Olofactus presents “the mighty emperor Tobacco, king of Trinidado, that, in being conquered, conquered all Europe, in making them pay tribute for their smoke.” Gustus has in his train Bacchus and Ceres; but Tactus has to appear alone, because his show was to have included “a nice gentlewoman,” and in five hours a dozen maids have not had time to attire a boy for the part. Finally, Communis Sensus delivers judgment. On not very cogent grounds, he assigns the crown to Visus and the robe to Tactus, while the three other senses are consoled with appointments to high offices under queen Psyche. Lingua’s claim to be a sense is rejected—with a significant reservation:
  • The number of the Senses in this little world is answerable to the first bodies in the great world: now, since there be but five in the universe, the four elements and the pure substance of the heavens, therefore there can be but five senses in our Microcosm correspondent to those … wherefore we judge you to be no sense simply: only this much we from henceforth pronounce, that all women for your sake shall have six Senses, that is, seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling, touching, and the last and feminine sense, the sense of speaking.
  • Lingua, enraged at being proclaimed “half a sense,” revenges herself by making the senses drink a drugged wine at a supper to which Gustus invites them. Their wits become deranged, and strife threatens to be renewed among them; but Somnus charms them, and the mischief-maker Lingua, into sleep. In her sleep, Lingua confesses her trickery, and is punished by being committed “to close prisin, in Gustus’s house … under the custody of two strong dons, and … well guarded with thirty tall watchmen, without whose licence she shall by no means wag abroad.”

    It is not, however, in the plot, ingeniously worked out as it is, that the chief attraction of the play lies. Its distinguishing excellence is the style, or variety of styles, in which it is written. In the prose scenes, Tomkis proves himself a master of polished and flexible dialogue, which has often a curiously modern note. The wit is sparkling and unforced, but lacks the Aristophanic pungency of Club Law and the Parnassus plays. In the few verse passages where the author aims at a serious effect, he writes with scholarly grace. But most of the metrical speeches are in a vein of burlesque, or are parodies of lines in plays of the day. Thus, there are intentionally ludicrous imitations of famous speeches in Kyd’s Spanish Tragedie, besides what appear to be caricatures of phrases or situations in several Shakespearean dramas. A hundred and one incidental allusions show the width of the author’s reading, and the remarkably detailed stage directions prove his interest in matters of costume and heraldry. The statement made in 1657, and elaborated by later tradition, that Oliver Cromwell acted in the play, is, probably, a bookseller’s figment, but might, conceivably, be true if a revival took place about 1617, when the third edition of the work appeared.