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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

§ 8. Rickets’s Byrsa Basilica; Legge’s Richardus Tertius

Byrsa Basilica by J. Rickets, a play of unique character suggested by the foundation of the Royal Exchange in 1570, appears, from the epilogue, to be of university origin, though it deals in fantastic fashion with the career of Sir Thomas Gresham, and, with various aspects of London commercial life, in bizarre combination with the figures and machinery of southern comedy. The political and dynastic, instead of the economic, aspect of the national annals furnished material for another play of somewhat later date, which attained unusual popularity and which is of special interest as illustrating the Senecan treatment of a theme which afterwards became the basis of a Shakespearean chronicle history play. This work, preserved in a number of manuscripts, is Richardus Tertius, by Thomas Legge, master of Caius college, Cambridge, and twice vice-chancellor. It was acted at St. John’s college in the spring of 1580, and in two of the manuscripts the list of performers is given. It ranges over the long period from the death of Edward IV to the battle of Bosworth field, and, hence, is in tripartite form, consisting of three actiones performed on successive evenings. It thus departs from the strict Senecan model in its comprehensive sweep and in its disregard of the unities of time and place. It also dispenses with the moralising chorus. Otherwise, it is a typical Senecan tragedy, in metre and language, in motives and situations and in the general conception of a royal tyrant akin to Nero in Octavia and to Atreus in Thyestes. It has the characteristic faults of the school to which it belongs—monotony and an excess of wiredrawn declamation—but Legge had genuine skill in technique and expression, and taught the lesson that structural design and rhetorical embellishment are essentials in a historical play. Greene, who took his B.A. at St. John’s in 1578, was still in residence at Cambridge when the play was produced, and Marlowe entered the university in the following year. There can be little doubt that Legge’s drama was known to them, and that, at least indirectly, it also influenced Shakespeare in Richard III. The Senecan series of reverses of fortune in Shakespeare’s play, the passages of semi-lyrical declamation, the dialogues in [char], the peculiarly sombre colouring of the work and the two wooing scenes, which have no source in Holinshed but are anticipated in Legge’s tragedy, all point strongly to this conclusion.