Nicholas Udall would almost certainly have seen mystery and morality plays presented in his community as he was growing up. Traveling companies brought English drama to communities throughout England, including Southampton. When, beginning at the age of twelve, he attended St. Mary’s College, Winchester, he most likely would have studied Aristotle’s De poetica (c. 334-323 b.c.e.; Poetics, 1705), the major plays of the Greek dramatists, and the Roman comedies of Plautus and Terence, especially those of Terence. Although no records exist to indicate specifically which plays might actually have been performed at Winchester while Udall was a student, it is known that Greek and Roman plays were presented at other grammar schools in England at that time, and later in his life Udall demonstrated an analytical knowledge of the works of Terence. Further familiarity with the elements of drama would have come from his participation in, or at least his knowledge of, the ceremony of the Festival of the Boy Bishop, which was celebrated annually at Winchester. The ceremony involved having students take the parts of ecclesiastical officials in presenting divine services at the school. If Udall did not actually participate in such ceremonies, he would certainly have observed them.
Udall probably wrote a number of plays presented during and after his lifetime both in the schools as pedagogical exercises and at court for entertainment. John Bale, the notable Protestant spokesperson, credits Udall with commaediae plures (many comedies). The only play that, in addition to Ralph Roister Doister, can definitely be attributed to Udall is Ezechias (c. 1546), a play acted before Queen Elizabeth at Cambridge in 1564, but no longer extant. In this play, which perhaps belonged to Udall’s Eton period, Hezekiah was portrayed as a reformer sent by God “to roote up al Idolatry,” as Udall wrote in The Paraphrase of Erasmus upon the New Testament, comparing King Henry VIII to Hezekiah in that regard.
Two other plays are sometimes thought to be by Udall, but inadequate evidence exists to make such an assertion: Thersites (1537), an interlude whose title character is a braggart soldier in the vein of Ralph Roister Doister, and Respublica (wr. 1553, pb. 1866), a piece of dramatic propaganda illustrating how Roman Catholicism is beneficial to a nation. Still two more plays are occasionally mentioned in connection with Udall, mainly because the authors are unknown and because the plays resemble Ralph Roister Doister in some ways. In Jacob and Esau (entered in the Stationers’ Register in 1557), the household servants of Esau are reminiscent of those in the household of Dame Christian Custance in Ralph Roister Doister. In Jack Juggler (pb. 1562), a Plautine plot is given English dress, again as in Ralph Roister Doister.
Ralph Roister Doister
Most scholars believe that Ralph Roister Doister was written in 1552, at the time the author was canon of St. George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle. Udall’s purpose was apparently to provide a Christmas comedy for the students of some London school. The plot of the play is simple enough. Ralph Roister Doister is a roistering, bullying coward who, like William Shakespeare’s Sir Andrew Aguecheek in Twelfth Night: Or, What You Will (pr. c. 1600-1602) is nothing but bluster. He is constantly in love with some woman or another. As the play opens, he is infatuated with Dame Christian Custance, a rich and virtuous widow betrothed to Gawin Goodluck, a merchant who is away on business. Ralph sees himself, quite inaccurately, as God’s gift to women and sees no reason why Dame Christian should not be delighted to wed him. In his misapprehension, Ralph is aided by the sycophantic Matthew Merrygreek, who avows that people often mistake Ralph for Launcelot, Guy of Warwick, Hector of Troy, Sampson, Alexander, and others. Merrygreek assures Ralph that he is indeed “the tenth worthy.” Thus encouraged, Ralph sends a love letter to Dame Christian.
Using flattery and promises of gifts, Ralph persuades Dame Christian’s servant Madge Mumblecrust to take the letter to her mistress. Dame Christian refuses even to open the letter, however, and chastises Madge, ordering her to bring “no mo letters for no man’s pleasure.” When Dobinet Doughty, Ralph’s servant, brings a ring as a present for Dame Christian, Madge, therefore, refuses to deliver it. Dobinet turns to other servants: Tom Truepenny, Tibet Talkapace, and Annot Alyface, who are anxious to take the gift to their mistress. Their reward, however, is a severe scolding from Dame Christian.
Sent by Ralph to learn the effects of his letter and gifts, Merrygreek praises Ralph to Dame Christian, who rejects Ralph utterly, calling him “a very dolt and lout.” When he hears of the rejection, the courtly lover Ralph insists...
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