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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

§ 4. Gammer Gurtons Nedle

The first edition of this comedy was not published till 1575, but its printer Colwell had obtained, in 1562/3, a licence to issue Dyccon of Bedlam. As “Diccon the Bedlem” is the leading figure in “Mr. S.’s” play, the licence probably refers to it, and there are bibliographical grounds for the conjecture that the work was printed long before it was put on sale. A reference to arrest “in the kings name” in act V suggests that the comedy was written before the death of Edward VI in July, 1553. If Stevenson were its author, it would thus appear to have been composed between 1550 and 1553, and, if the titlepage is to be trusted, revived later, probably in 1559–60. However this may be, Gammer Gurtons Nedle is of enduring interest as the earliest university play in English which has come down to us. At first sight, it shows little trace of scholarly influences. The “fourteener” in which it is mainly written is a rough and tumble metre; and the dialogue, often coarse in strain, is, as a rule, in that south-western dialect which became the conventional form of rustic speech on the Elizabethan stage. The plot turns on the complications produced in a small village society by the loss of the gammer’s needle, and the characters are typically English, including Diccon, who combines the roles of a Vice and a vagrant Tom of Bedlam. But, on closer examination, the effect of classical models is seen. The comedy is divided into acts and scenes, and the plot has a real organic unity. The parts played by the different personages in the village community, from “Master Baily” and the curate downward, are neatly discriminated. The triumpth of pastoral convention had not yet blurred for English humanists the outlines of genuine English country life.