From the collection of Comedies and Tragedies edited by Nicholas Brylinger, Basle, 1540

Translation (C) C. C. Love, Toronto 1992


During the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries the Renaissance gradually spread from Italy through Northern Europe into England. One of the main effects in England was the creation of many new schools and the revival of many schools which had been shut down by Henry VIII.

The Reformation meant that many of these schools were no longer under the clergy but were governed by boards of local gentry, merchants, and other laymen. Most of the ushers were laymen. But Latin was retained as the main subject for study because the influence of the humanists was so strong; they had been domesticating the Latin and Greek classics for decades and, as Erasmus tells us in 1499, "full, accurate knowledge of Latin and Greek had been well advanced" by brilliant scholars such as Colet, Linacre, Latimer and More. Latin, of course, was necessary for the educated, that is, the nobility and the upper classes, because it had become the language of diplomacy, of the law, medicine and commerce, as well as continuing to be the language of the church, and it seemed that Latin would probably become the standard European language.

So the learning of Latin was not left to chance. Most of the schools included in their statutes that boys must speak Latin to each other "as well in the school as coming to and from it" (Oundle 1556), and Rivington (1566) decreed "in the School they that can must speak nothing but Latin." In most schools the boys were birched if they were caught speaking English. Similar rules were enforced on the Continent, where it is reported that Montaigne at the age of six spoke Latin at his school in Bordeaux and in his teens acted in the Latin play Baptistes, written and produced by his teacher, the Scotsman George Buchanan, in 1546-47. Later in the century Sir Philip Sidney at Shrewsbury School spoke Latin and regularly, as part of his school work, acted with his classmates in parts of plays every week in the Quarry Theatre; in his Defence of Poetry he comments that the tragedies of Buchanan "do justly bring forth a divine admiration."

In 1515 More's Utopia was written in Latin, for at first the vernacular was scorned and writers wrote their books and pamphlets in Latin so that European readers could use them; but by the end of the century the vernacular had won the day in England. Richard Mulcaster (1530-1611), Master of the Merchant Taylors' School, showed the new attitude when he wrote: "I love Rome, but London better; I favour Italy but England more; I honor the Latin but I worship the English." Lyly (1554-1606), Marlowe (1564-93), and Shakespeare (1564-1616) wrote in English, though they had almost certainly been thoroughly trained in Latin and were no doubt influenced by the Latin plays in which they had acted at school. Bacon (1561-1626), and Milton (1608-74) later, wrote much in Latin, but their best offerings were in English. In his Cambridge Manuscript, as it is now called, Milton listed scriptural plays he might write and even gave short summaries of possible plots; fortunately he chose eventually to write in English.

From about 1540 to 1580, however, the speaking and study of Latin predominated in the schools. And it was the same in the universities, where Latin texts were supposed to teach moral lessons and desirable rules for conduct. Cicero's writings on duty, friendship, and law; other writers such as Virgil and his hero "dutiful Aeneas" (of whom Sidney wrote, "Only let Aeneas be written in the tablet of your memory"); Horace, Caesar, Livy, and the contemporary Erasmus (1466- 1536) offered moral, political, and philosophical content, and the "pure Latin" of Terence was much admired and imitated.

The boys at school and the undergraduates at the universities, who were often no older than fourteen or fifteen, needed some recreation during their long hours of study and long months in residence. So parts of plays were acted during the term and, from Christmas to Epiphany, for twelve days, many plays were performed on the stages set up in the great halls of the colleges, as F. S. Boas has so well documented. It was very clear that the plays of Seneca were satisfactory, but the comedies of Plautus and even those of Terence were full of situations which no doubt the undergraduates enjoyed but which some of the Fellows found objectionable: parasites, panders, prostitutes, kept mistresses (even if they turned out to be sisters kidnapped years before), boys dressed as girls and pretending to kiss other boys--such actions did not send the proper moral message to the students. These parts of the curriculum angered some of the clergy and those later called Puritans, who thought that all drama was "vain and wicked." The perennial argument that this was life and students ought to see what they must avoid, though made, did not carry much weight. These sorts of questions are often raised in the prefatory letters to the plays when printed, and elsewhere.

Gager, for example, in 1592 defended the plays against Rainolds in a celebrated correspondence and wrote:

We contrarywise doe it to recreate owre selves, owre House, and the better parte of the Universitye with some learned Po\'91me or other; to practyse owre owne style either in prose or verse; to be well acquaynted with Seneca or Plautus; honestly to embolden owre path; to trye their voyces and confirme their memoryes; to frame their speeche; to conforme them to convenient action; to trye what mettell is in evrye one, and of what disposition thay are of; whereby never anyone amongst us, that I knowe was made the worse, many have byn much the better; as I dare reporte me to all the Universitye.

A compromise was reached early on that Latin plays on scriptural subjects would be acceptable. At first most of the texts for these plays had to be brought over to England from the Continent, though the plays of George Buchanan, the Scotsman, perhaps the best of the writers of scriptural Latin plays, and those of Nicholas Grimald, the Englishman, for example, were well known and were played on English stages as well as on the Continent. State boundaries, it seems, were easy to cross in those days. Later on there were other writers in England who produced very good Latin plays: Legge, Gager, Wingfield and others, but they were at the end of this phase of scriptural Latin drama (1580-85) and were turning to other topics such as history: for example, Richardus Tertius, by Legge. When the Elizabethan playwrights, especially Marlowe and Shakespeare, began using the vernacular, it meant the end of viable Latin drama in England. Many Latin plays, of course, continued to be written well on into the next century, especially in the Catholic schools and universities of the Continent, but after the arrival of Shakespeare they are in England of merely antiquarian interest.

In the 1540s statutes were soon in place to ensure that moral scriptural stories were being written and produced in England. Henry VIII's statutes for St. John's College, Cambridge (1545), are still extant and enumerate the duties of the Fellows: they require that every Fellow should in turn at Christmas "act the Lord and that the other [four] comedies and tragedies to be acted between 12th day and Lent should be provided by the several lecturers and examiners." A heavy fine was to be imposed on any Fellow who failed to carry out his duties. Similarly at Trinity College, Cambridge (1560), the statutes decreed that the nine lecturers should put on five plays in the twelve days of Christmas. So it was at Christ Church, Oxford, though most of the records there are lost.

The scriptural Latin drama, then, flourished in Northern Europe and somewhat later in England in the sixteenth century. These plays helped to fill the gap left when Queen Elizabeth discouraged the productions of the miracle plays. The traditional plays performed by professional actors, the shows, interludes, masques, and farces, were scorned and eventually banned from the universities in 1584. Gager's comment (c. 1580) shows the attitude of the authorities to the actors and their plays:

They come upon the stage ... of a lewd, vast, dissolute, wicked, impudent, prodigall, monstrous humor, whereof no dowte ensued greate corruption of manners in themselves to say nothinge heere of the behoulders ... and to compare owre Playes to no better than these thinges, it exceedeth the compasse of any tolerable resemblance. I could have wisht that such comparison had byn forborne ...

There is no doubt that the great majority at both universities were at first enthusiastic supporters of the college stage. It will be remembered that when Leicester, as Chancellor of Oxford, in 1584 approved the statute forbidding "common stage Players" to come into the universities, he expressly declared that he did not mean thereby "that the Tragedies and Comedies and Shows ... set forth by Universitye men should be forbedden ... but accepting them as commendable and great furderances of Learning [they should] be continued at set times and increased."

Queen Elizabeth, in her progresses to Oxford and Cambridge, always strongly supported the plays and asked that they be produced for her. In 1566 she enjoyed the four plays at Cambridge (in one of which "a goodlie sight of hunters with full crie of a kennel of hounds" ran through the quadrangle); in 1568 the two plays at Oxford, all in Latin (in which she was more than proficient thanks to her tutor, Roger Ascham); and again in 1592 two Latin plays at Oxford: Hutten's Bellum grammaticale and Gager's Rivales. When she heard that Rainolds had spoken against the theatre, it is reported that on her last morning, speaking in Latin at a conference of all heads of houses and doctors, she "schooled Dr. John Rainolds for his obstinate preciseness, willing him to follow her laws, and not run before them." When she left the city by the East Gate she once again enjoyed using her Latin before the company of scholars and said, "Farewell, farewell, dear Oxford, God bless thee and increase thy sons in number, holiness and virtue."

Despite such leadership, however, the objections to the plays did not stop. Beaumont, the Vice Chancellor of Cambridge, had reported to Bishop Parker as early as 1568 that "some in Trinity College think it is unseeming that Christians sholde play or be present at any prophane comedies or tragedies." The plays which were printed usually in the prefatory letters defended their use. But the views of Rainolds and the growing number of Puritans eventually prevailed, and the theatres were closed down in 1642.

It should be noted perhaps that the times of the plays were times of great celebrations and high spirits, often called "revels," and the damage done to the halls and other parts of the colleges, especially to the windows, was considerable, as can be seen from the bursarial accounts which have survived at a few colleges. A generation later in 1610-11 the same sort of trouble had reached such a state that the Trinity men threw rocks down on the St. John's men from the top of their gate tower and the Johnians replied by pulling down the wall that divided the two colleges and used the stones as ammunition. J. W. Clark, in The Riot at the Great Gate of Trinity, gives a readable account of this and shows that the whole university was soon engaged in a serious investigation over that evening. Ironically, the name of the play is unknown. The ringleaders of the undergraduates were suspended from degrees. Four townsmen were sent to prison till Saturday and then brought out and put in the stocks.

How important it is then in the history of drama that for forty years (from approximately 1540 to 1580) the scriptural Latin drama flourished and set high standards of dramatic writing and of theatrical technique. It was certainly one of the movements that helped to start the great age of English drama.

Toronto 1992 C. C. Love
Copyright 1996 C.C. Love.

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