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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

§ 22. King James at Cambridge; Ruggle’s Ignoramus

On 7 March, 1615, James himself, with prince Charles, came to Cambridge, and stayed at Trinity for four nights. As the sovereign had not visited the university since Elizabeth’s “progress” in 1564, elaborate preparations were made to celebrate the event. The days were devoted to learned disputations and the evenings to plays. The first piece, Aemilia, a Latin comedy written by Edward Cecil of St. John’s, was not very successful; but ample amends were made on the following evening when, in the hall of Trinity, Ignoramus was launched on its triumphant career. Its author was George Ruggle, fellow of Clare hall, who had formerly been a scholar of Trinity, and the actors were chosen from various colleges, difficulty being found in filling suitably the female parts. On one side, Ignoramus is linked with the group of Latin adaptations of Italian comedies mentioned above, for it is founded on G. della Porta’s Trappolaria. But Ruggle transformed his original by extensive additions, and by a fundamental change in the central character, converting him out of a soldier into the lawyer who gives his name to the play. Thus metamorphosed, the typically southern comedy became the climax of Aristophanic attacks by gownsmen upon the town and its officials. The title part is a merciless caricature of the detested recorder, Brackyn, who had already been ridiculed in The Returne from Pernassus, Part II. The animus against him as a common lawyer had been intensified by public events. The law dictionary The Interpreter, published in 1607 by John Cowell, regius professor of civil law, had been suppressed on the demand of the House of Commons, because its tendency was to exalt the royal prerogative at the expense of common law. The civilians of the university and the king himself were, therefore, delighted when Ruggle brought upon the stage a burlesque figure talking a barbarous jargon of bastard Latin and the technical terms of common law. It is the novelty of this conception and the gusto with which it is developed that give the play its unique character. In the course of its intricate plot, Ignoramus goes through a variety of humiliating and painful experiences. On a visit to Bordeaux, he falls in love with the heroine, Rosabella, and engages to pay 600 pieces of gold for her hand. But, through the stratagems of Antonius, the favoured suitor of the girl, Ignoramus obtains possession instead of the heavy-handed virago, Polla, who belabours him soundly. Amazed at his incomprehensible outcries, she thinks he is bewitched and goes to fetch her husband and a monk, who, in a scene of richly farcical humour, exorcise the evil spirits out of him and carry him off, shrieking, to a monastery for his final cure. Rosabella, of course, is finally united to Antonius, and a mystery attaching to her birth is cleared up.

Ignoramus, with its mixture of learning and horseplay, was exactly suited for captivating James. The play presented on the following night, Albumazar, though adapted by Tomkis, author of Lingua, from another comedy of della Porta, L’Astrologo, was less successful. But it contains two amusing characters in Albumazar, the rascally astronomer, and Trincalo, the rustic whom Albumazar “transforms” into his absent master, Antonio, with ludicrous consequences when the latter unexpectedly returns home. In its printed form, the play was fortunate enough to attract both Dryden and Garrick, both of whom revived it on the London stage. But, on its production, it seems, from a contemporary account, to have been less appreciated not only than its predecessor, Ignoramus, but than its successor on the following evening, Melanthe, a Latin pastoral drama from the pen of Samuel Brooke, whose Adelphe and Scyros have been mentioned above. The king could not stay to see the last play prepared for his entertainment, Sicelides, by Phineas Fletcher; but it was acted a few days later. He thus missed seeing the first English “piscatory” on the stage, as he had already seen at Oxford, in 1605, the first English pastoral drama. The main plot of Sicelides, dealing with the romantic love stories of Perindus and Glaucilla and Thalander and Olinda, is, apparently, original, though episodes and motives are derived from classical and Italian sources. One underplot centres round Cosma, the typical “light nymph” of “Messena,” and the other round Cancrone and Scrocca, low-comedy fishermen whose talk is largely a farrago of “malapropisms” and topical allusions. The machinery of the play is unduly intricate and perplexing, and the characterisation is not vivid. But the work has real charm in its delicate delineation of emotions, in the graceful imagery of its descriptive passages and in the lyric sweetness of its choruses.