Home  »  Volume VI: English THE DRAMA TO 1642 Part Two  »  § 7. Edwards’s Palamon and Arcyte

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume VI. The Drama to 1642, Part Two.

XII. University Plays

§ 7. Edwards’s Palamon and Arcyte

One the following night, 2 September, the first part of Palamon and Arcyte, an English play by Richard Edwards, was acted in the queen’s presence. The report of the magnificence of the decorations, and the eagerness to see Elizabeth, drew such a vast crowd of spectators (infinita ac innumerabilis hominum multitudo) that part of the wall of the staircase leading to the hall collapsed, killing three persons and wounding others. The catastrophe, however, did not interfere with the performance or with the queen’s enjoyment of it. From the analysis of the plot given by Bereblock, it is evident that it was exactly on the lines of Chaucer’s Knight’s Tale. The first part ended with Theseus’s discovery of the two rivals for Emily’s love fighting in the wood, and his determination that the matter should be decided by a tournament. The second part, acted on 4 September, dealt with the tournament, the victory of Arcite, his sudden death and the betrothal of Palamon and Emily. The loss of the play, which anticipated by about half a century the treatment of the same theme in The Two Noble Kinsmen, is a matter of great regret. Not only was the queen delighted with it, but a party of courtiers who had seen a rehearsal of it “said it far surpassed Damon and Pithias than which they thought nothing could be better.”

The series of plays performed before the queen during this visit terminated with a Latin tragedy, Progne, by James Calfhill canon of Christ Church. The plot was drawn from the sixth book of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and dealt, doubtless on Senecan lines, with the gruesome tale of the revenge of Progne, wife of king Tereus, upon her husband for the wrongs done to herself and her sister Philomela. It is not surprising that such a work “did not take half so well as the much admired play of Palamon and Arcyte.”

But the relative merit of the pieces performed during these two royal visits to the universities is of less import than the remarkable variety of their subjects and their style. A play of Plautus, a tragedy on Dido in Vergilian hexameters, an English verse play on Hezekiah, a Latin version of the Ajax of Sophocles, a neo-Latin prose comedy, an adaptation of The Knight’s Tale, a tragedy in the Senecan manner on a Ovidian theme—here is a microcosm of the motley literary elements which, combined with features of more popular origin, went to the shaping of the Elizabethan drama. It was into academic societies in which such varied stage productions formed part of the regular ritual of social and intellectual life that, within the next two decades, Marlowe, Peele, Greene and Nashe were to enter, and it was thence that they were to carry away lessons destined to exercise a momentous influence on the future of the London theatre.

To the immediately following years, no extant university play can be assigned with certainty. But, from the register of Merton college, Oxford, we learn that performances, both in English and in Latin, were given in the warden’s house or in the college hall. On 3 January, 1566/7 Wylie Beguylie, an English comedy, was performed by the scholars, merito landandi recte agendo; and this was followed, about a month later, by the Eunuchus of Terence. In the January of the following year, the Merton scholars revived Edwards’s Damon and Pithias, and, a few days later, acted the Menaechmi of Plautus.