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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

§ 2. The Senecan School of dramatists; Grimald’s Christus Redivivus and Archipropheta

Seneca, not Sophocles, was the pattern of the English humanist when he essayed to write tragedy. It is thus typical of the blending of old and new influences that the earliest extant university plays should be on scriptural subjects, and should be cast in approximately Senecan mould. Their author was Nicholas Grimald, born in 1519, and a member, successively, of Christ’s college, Cambridge, and of Brasenose, Merton and Christ Church, Oxford.

The first of these plays, Christus Redivivus, printed at Cologne in 1543, was written and acted at Brasenose, as Grimald relates in a dedicatory epistle, soon after his migration to Oxford in 1540. It combines a Senecan treatment of the Gospel story of the resurrection, in which Mary Magdalene plays the most effective part, with a comic underplot centring in the four Roman soldiers who guard the sepulchre, and who are cleverly discriminated types of the military braggart. Grimald’s second tragedy, Archipropheta, printed at Cologne in 1548, was written in 1547, on his election to the newly constituted society of Christ Church. It dealt with the career of John the Baptist, which Buchanan had already dramatised in his Baptistes, acted at Bordeaux a few years previously.

But, in spirit and in style, the two plays are remarkably different from each other. The Scottish humanist follows the strict Senecan model, and makes the Baptist the mouthpiece of his own political and religious opinions. In Grimald’s work, John plays a comparatively passive part. The interest centres in the voluptuous passion of Heord and his unlawful wife Herodias, which is portrayed with a lyrical intensity and opulence of phrase unmatched in Tudor drama till the time of Marlowe. Equally foreign to the scriptural theme and to the Senecan convention is the comic note struck by Herod’s fool, Gelasimus.

These two Latin tragedies of Grimald, if they were known to Roger Ascham, did not earn from him in The Scholemaster the commendation of being “able to abyde the free touch of Aristotles preceptes and Euripides example” which he reserved for Buchanan’s Jephthes and the Absalom of Thomas Watson of St. John’s, Cambridge. Watson, owing to scruples on a minor metrical point, never published the play; but it is probably that preserved in the Stowe MSS.957, which is a tragedy of the strict Senecan type. The story of the revolt in the royal house of Israel lent itself as naturally to Senecan machinery as did legendary dynastic feuds of early British kings, and Chusi’s relation to David, in act IV, of the overthrow of Absalom’s ill-armed troops and of his hapless end, is a vivid piece of narrative.