“Today we think of Shakespeare as a ubiquitous author within the modern university: his works are read in countless classrooms, his plays performed by innumerable collegiate theater troupes,” writes Daniel Blank in the introduction to Shakespeare and University Drama in Early Modern England, published in March by Oxford University Press.
“Yet,” he continues, “this familiarity obscures the difficult process by which those plays were brought into the university, the precarious position they initially held, and the role that dramatic performance itself played in lowering the boundary between commercial theater and academic culture.”
Daniel Blank is Assistant Professor in Early Modern Literature, 1500-1700 at Durham University. Read the full excerpt below.
In 1602, a group of students at St. John’s College, Oxford put on a play. Over the course of the previous century, student drama had become commonplace, and theatrical performances within the university were usually based on classical stories from authors like Homer, Virgil, and Ovid. But on this occasion, the students turned to a different sort of text: a recently published edition of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. They were particularly fond of the end of Shakespeare’s play, in which a group of “rude mechanicals” put on a laughably poor performance of Pyramus and Thisbe, a story drawn from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. The students at Oxford also chose to tell an Ovidian story, calling their play Narcissus in reference to its classical origins. But in reality, their production drew its language and its themes from Shakespeare. Just as Shakespeare’s amateur players ask their audience to imagine Wall and Moonshine (represented, respectively, by a person and a lantern), so too does a character listed in the dramatis personae as The Well place a bucket as a metonymic representation of the body of water in which Narcissus will find his reflection. The play was in English rather than the more traditional Latin, and The Well explains the stage setup in rudimentary rhyming couplets: “And thus least you should have mistooke it, / The truth of all I to you tell: / Suppose you the well had a buckett, / And so the buckett stands for the well” (ll. 506–9). The academic playwright—whose identity, as is often the case, remains unknown to us—channels the same brand of comic over-explanation as the rude mechanicals, along with much else from Midsummer. This was no ordinary collegiate entertainment. The performance of commercial drama was strictly prohibited within the university at this time, so this seemingly mundane act of imitating Shakespeare actually represented a radical departure for the university stage.
Narcissus was not unique, however, in owing a debt to Shakespeare. Between roughly 1598 and 1601, three satirical plays, known collectively as the Parnassus trilogy, were written and performed at St. John’s College, Cambridge. The trilogy’s first installment, The Pilgrimage to Parnassus, follows the allegorical journey of two university students, Philomusus and Studioso, as they proceed through the undergraduate course, avoiding a number of temptations and distractions along the way. Having received their degrees, they optimistically venture forth from the academy, yet the two Parnassus sequels, known respectively as The First Part of the Returne from Parnassus and The Second Part of the Returne from Parnassus, dramatize the scholars’ struggle to find gainful employment after graduation. Their attempted careers are wide-ranging, but the most striking scenes, and those best known to modern scholars, occur when Philomusus and Studioso seek jobs as performers on the public stage. They audition before the famed early modern actors Richard Burbage and Will Kempe, who appear as characters in The Second Part of the Returne from Parnassus. After the students’ audition, Philomusus laments that they must seek employment in “the basest trade” (IV.iv.1846). Before they enter the audition room, however, Kempe similarly expresses to Burbage his annoyance at the prospect of hiring academics: “Few of the university men pen plaies well, they smell too much of that writer Ouid, and that writer Metamorphoses, and talke too much of Proserpina and Iuppiter. Why heres our fellow Shakespeare puts them all downe” (IV.iii.1766–9). These lines certainly represent a satirical jab at professional actors, as Kempe and Burbage—the leading comic and tragic actors, respectively, of Shakespeare’s troupe, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men—are portrayed as too uneducated even to know the difference between the author and the title of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. But this portion of the Parnassus plays also attests to the university stage’s connection to the commercial theater—a connection that, along with university drama itself, has been largely neglected in modern scholarship. At the same time, while the Parnassus trilogy references a number of contemporary poets and playwrights, this passage highlights the plays’ particular interest in poking fun at Shakespeare.
Shakespeare’s presence within the early modern university sphere becomes even clearer as the interaction continues. During the course of the audition, Burbage comically identifies Philomusus’ suitability for one of Shakespeare’s plays:
BURBAGE: I like your face and the proportion of your body for Richard the 3.,
I pray [you] M. Philomusus let me see you act a little of it.
PHILOMUSUS: Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by the sonne of Yorke, [&c.] (IV.iv.1835–9)
In 1584, the University of Oxford had passed a statute under the leadership of Robert Dudley, the Earl of Leicester, in his capacity as chancellor, prohibiting professional players from performing within university precincts; this decree followed in the wake of similar prohibitions at Cambridge. But in this remarkable interaction, the academic playwright has given voice to Burbage and Kempe, animating two of the “common” stage players who had been explicitly banned. The playwright also goes a step further by having one of the student actors perform in character the opening monologue from Shakespeare’s Richard III. In his prohibition on professional playing, Leicester had gone to great lengths to exempt academic plays, drawing a firm distinction between the entertainments performed by students and those performed by the likes of Shakespeare; the Cambridge prohibitions expressed a similar attitude. In this instance, however, the academic play itself becomes a kind of loophole: the Parnassus author has brought both the people and the language of the commercial stage inside university walls. In the process of satirizing Shakespeare and his theatrical colleagues, he broadcasts Shakespeare’s work—not only to those already familiar with his writing, but also to those hearing Richard III for the first time. This is an extraordinary occurrence, as it represents the earliest known instance of Shakespeare’s words being performed before a live audience in an academic setting. Today we think of Shakespeare as a ubiquitous author within the modern university: his works are read in countless classrooms, his plays performed by innumerable collegiate theater troupes. Yet this familiarity obscures the difficult process by which those plays were brought into the university, the precarious position they initially held, and the role that dramatic performance itself played in lowering the boundary between commercial theater and academic culture.
While Narcissus and the Parnassus plays render obvious the universities’ awareness of Shakespeare, we need to consider a variety of factors in establishing Shakespeare’s awareness of the universities. He had no formal affiliation with Oxford or Cambridge, but he must have known them fairly well: Shakespeare’s acting company performed in Cambridge in 1594/5, and when London was overtaken by plague near the end of his career a decade and a half later, his troupe brought Othello to Oxford. The earliest printed version of Hamlet declares on its title page that the play was performed at “the two Vniuersities of Cambridge and Oxford”; the play also makes explicit reference to university drama in the form of Polonius’ recollection of his days as a student actor. The majority of Shakespeare’s colleagues in London were university graduates, most notably the “University Wits”—a group consisting of Christopher Marlowe, Robert Greene, Thomas Nashe, Thomas Lodge, John Lyly, and George Peele—for whom Shakespeare’s lack of an academic degree made him something of an outsider. Furthermore, local tradition holds that Shakespeare stayed in Oxford on journeys between London and Stratford. He apparently lodged at the Salutation Tavern (later known as the Crown Tavern) on Cornmarket Street, an establishment owned by New College and run by Shakespeare’s friends John Davenant, a vintner, and his wife Jennet. Even if this story is apocryphal, it still represents a longstanding association between Shakespeare and one of England’s two early modern university towns. Whether he saw university plays in person, read them in print, or simply heard about them through word of mouth will remain uncertain; but to think that a playwright as savvy and perceptive as Shakespeare lacked any knowledge of the fact that students were regularly performing original plays—plays in which he was sometimes mentioned and his works referenced explicitly—is to neglect a considerable body of circumstantial evidence.
From Shakespeare and University Drama in Early Modern England by Daniel Blank. Copyright © 2023 by Daniel Blank and published by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved.
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