Nicholas Udall Udall, Nicholas - Essay


(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

Nicholas Udall 1504-1556

English playwright, essayist, and translator.

Udall has been hailed as the “father of English comedy.” His play Ralph Roister Doister (1552), which adheres to a classical five-act structure and draws on the Roman comedies of Plautus and Terence, is credited with establishing the foundation for English Renaissance comedy, which reached a peak with writers such as William Shakespeare and Ben Jonson. In addition, Udall's translations of works by Terence and Erasmus were some of the most widely read books of the Elizabethan period.

Biographical Information

There is some conflicting information concerning his birth, but it is believed that Udall was born in Southampton sometime in December 1504. He started his studies at Oxford in 1520, and received a Bachelors of Art degree in 1524. His leanings toward Protestant beliefs are evidenced by his being named as a person receiving illicit books, including William Tyndale's English translation of the New Testament. Udall left Oxford in 1529. In 1533, verses he composed with John Leland were included in the pageant celebrating the coronation of Anne Boleyn. The following year marked a turning point in Udall's career: his book, Floures for Latine Spekynge (1534), consisting of passages from Terence translated by Udall, was adopted for use in schools to teach Latin; it continued to be an important text for fifty years. Udall was named the headmaster of Eton in 1535 but left in disgrace in 1541. The circumstances of his departure are murky, but Udall was imprisoned for a brief time, charged with disposing of chapel ornaments. Some scholars suggest that the incident indicates Udall's participation in the removal of images from churches, a more radical Protestant activity than was currently tolerated. The affair did not appear to harm his career, however; his next major work, Apophthegmes, a translation of parts of Erasmus's Apophthegemeta, was published the following year. He also began to enjoy the favor of Queen Catherine Parr, who contracted him to begin a translation of Erasmus's Paraphrase of the New Testament. Princess Mary, with help from her tutor, contributed to this work, which was published as The first tome or volume of the Paraphrase of Erasmus upon the Newe Testamente in 1548. Udall continued producing translations and scholarly works in the succeeding years, and was awarded two ecclesiastical positions. He was appointed headmaster of St. Peter's Grammar School in Westminster the year before his death in 1556.

Major Works

Udall's best-known work, Ralph Roister Doister, is regarded as a significant work in the development of English drama, among the first English plays to utilize a classical five-act structure and the first to apply that structure to a unified action following a classical design. Udall borrowed from classical writings in composing Ralph Roister Doister, adapting elements from Terence's Eunuchus and Plautus's Miles Gloriosus, and blending them with traditional English materials. This mixing of the vernacular with the classical also had a profound influence on later playwrights. Among the other plays attributed to Udall, Thersites (1537), Respublica (c. 1553-55), and Jacob and Esau (c. 1547-57) are rooted in Terentian comedy, while Jack Juggler (c. 1547-57) is adapted from Plautus's Amphitruo. Udall's interest in Terence is further seen in Floures for Latine Spekynge, which provides passages from Terence that Udall felt would be useful in not only learning the Latin language, but would also be enjoyed for the beauty of the written passages. Its wide use as a textbook meant that it became a significant avenue by which Terence's works influenced the development of later English playwrights. Among Udall's other works, The Paraphrase of Erasmus was important to contemporary audiences for providing biblical commentary in English to accompany the English translations of the Bible, which were just beginning to appear.

Critical Reception

Much of the critical attention paid to Udall through the years has focused on Ralph Roister Doister. Seen as a pioneering and innovative work, the play has been examined in the context of the development of English drama; its structure has been analyzed, its use of classical and native English materials has been investigated, and its impact on later playwrights has been assessed. Similarly, Floures for Latine Spekynge has been viewed as an important influence on subsequent generations of English writers. With this and his other translations, scholars note, Udall made a significant contribution to the development of English, demonstrating its capacity as a literary language. Furthermore, Udall's selection of materials to translate, most notably works by Erasmus, has been seen as making a valuable contribution to the spread of Reformist thought in England.

Principal Works

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

*Floures for Latine Spekynge Selected and Gathered Oute of Terence (prose) 1534

A New Enterlude Called Thersytes [Thersites] (play) 1537

Apophthegmes, that is to saie, prompte, quicke, wittie and sentencious saiynges of certain Emperours, Kynges Capitaines, Philosophiers and Oratours, as well Grekes, as Romaines … First gathered and compiled in Latine by the ryght famous clerke Maister Erasmus of Roterodame. And now translated into Englyshe by N. Udall [translator] (prose) 1542

A Newe Mery and Wittie Comedie or Enterlude, Newely Imprinted. Treating upon the Historie of Jacob and Esau [Jacob and Esau] (play) c. 1547-57

A New Enterlued for Chyldren to Playe, Named Jacke Jugeler [Jack Juggler] (play) c. 1547-57

The first tome or volume of the Paraphrase of Erasmus upon the Newe Testamente [translator; with Mary Tudor and Thomas Key] (prose) 1548

A Discourse or Traictise of Petur Martyr Vermill a Floretine, Wherein He Declared His Iudgemente Concernynge the Sacrament of the Lordes Supper [translator] (prose) 1550

Ralph Roister Doister (play) 1552

Compendiosa Totius Anatomie Delineatio, ære exarata per T. Geminum [translator] (prose) 1553

Respublica (play) c. 1553-55

Ezechias (play) 1564

*This work is a collection of passages from Terence, selected, translated, and annotated by Udall for use as a Latin grammar textbook.

†These works are commonly, but not universally, attributed to Udall.

‡This work is now lost.

William Peery (essay date 1948)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Peery, William. “The Prayer for the Queen in Roister Doister.Studies in English 27 (1948): 222-33.

[In the following essay, Peery considers the prayer at the close of Ralph Roister Doister, arguing that it is addressed to Queen Mary, rather than Queen Elizabeth, as is often assumed. This contention has implications for the dating of the play and the authorship of the prayer.]

The prayer for the queen and estates1 which brings Ralph Roister Doister to a close raises two problems: for whom was it offered, and who wrote it? Though these are admittedly not major issues, they have been so often clouded that they merit further study. To answer the related questions of application and authorship is the purpose of this paper.

Most scholars—including Cooper, Arber, Hazlitt, Ward, Flügel, Chambers, Farmer, Child, Schweikert, and Greg2—have held the opinion that the prayer was offered for Elizabeth. Two, Lee and Scheurweghs,3 find the prayer applicable to either Mary or Elizabeth. Only a few4 have taken the prayer as one for Mary.

Why have almost all students of Udall applied the prayer to Elizabeth? Cooper and Schweikert give no reason beyond their assumption, probably correct, that the text of the play as we have it was printed during Elizabeth's reign.5 Arber, Hazlitt, Ward, and Farmer6 state no reason though they may be basing their application on the same consideration. Flügel finds evidence for the application of the prayer to Elizabeth in “the words ‘God graunt hir as she doth, the Gospell to protect,’”7 evidence which appears to be of weight also to Chambers and Greg though not to Child.8

Under examination, however, these reasons for applying the prayer to Elizabeth seem insufficient. The facts of composition and publication of the play, so far as known, hardly warrant such application. Roister Doister seems to have been written, not as scholars long thought,9 during Udall's head-mastership of Eton (1534-1541), but, according to others, in 155210 or even between August, 1533 and January, 1554.11 Though we can not date the composition of the play precisely, it now seems agreed that the play was written a few months before, at, or a few months after the beginning of Mary's reign.12 Whether it was published in Mary's reign we do not know, though it may have been.13 The play was not entered in the Stationers' Register, however, until “ca. October, 1566.”14 The unique Eton copy appears to have been printed, possibly consequent upon this entry,15 in 1566 by Henry Denham for Thomas Hacket.16 With these facts in mind, one can hardly find convincing the argument that the prayer is for Elizabeth because of the probable date of publication of the Eton copy. If there was an edition between 1553 and 1558, and there may have been such an edition, the queen prayed for must have been Mary. Even if the Eton copy represents the first edition, if the play was written and initially produced in Mary's reign—as modern scholarship thinks it was—the queen prayed for was probably Mary.

Unless we are willing to accept the foregoing conclusion, we must advance some very dubious and complicated hypotheses. One must conjecture—with Arber, Hazlitt, Ward, Chambers, Lee, and Greg17—that the Eton copy represents a revised text and that the prayer is a later addition. Flügel postulates an “unknown hand that prepared the play for the press under Elizabeth.”18 Child goes so far as to warn, “Nor must it be forgotten that the play, as we have it, shows obvious marks of revamping to suit current conditions … in this case to make the play fit Elizabeth's reign.”19

Other than possibly the prayer, what are these “obvious marks of revamping”? To my satisfaction Baldwin and Linthicum dispose of the usury passage20 as evidence of date.21 The only other passage which seems to bear on this question is a couplet in Matthew Merygreke's opening soliloquy:

But when Roister Doister is put to his proofe,
To keepe the Quéenes peace is more for his behoofe.(22)

The words “the Quéenes peace” scholars have explained in a manner consonant with their views on the application of the prayer: as an alteration of “the King's peace.”23 In one passage Scheurweghs rightly states: “It is evident that the metre does not indicate whether Queenes was originally intended or changed from Kinges.24 In another, he conjectures an involved history of alteration25 which he later regards as established: “the masculine pronouns and the title King were changed, but verses which were peculiar to the reign of Edward VI. could not be altered, and were left in to tell the tale.”26

All of these hypotheses—involving interpolation, deletion, emendation, and restoration—are possible; but none of them is based upon bibliographical or other acceptable internal evidence, and in the light of current belief as to the date of Roister Doister none is necessary to the explanation of the phenomena. If the play dates from the beginning of Mary's reign,27 consistent application of the evidence from date should lead us to the conclusion that the queen prayed for is Mary. Unless the prayer contains material which indicates indisputably that it could not have been offered for Mary, we can only accept its application to her.

The second reason, as we have seen, why scholars have taken the prayer as one for Elizabeth is that they have thought certain words and phrases in it more appropriate to Elizabeth than to Mary. Let us put the prayer before us.

          The Lord preserue our most noble Quéene of renowne,
And hir vertues rewarde with the heauenly crowne.
          The Lorde strengthen hir most excellent Maiestie,
Long to reigne ouer vs, in all prosperitie.
          That hir godly procéedings the faith to defende,
He may stablish and maintaine through to the ende.
          God graunt hir as she doth, the Gospell to protect,
Learning and vertue to aduaunce, and vice to correct.
          God graunt hir louyng subiects both the minde and grace,
Hir most godly procedyngs worthily to imbrace.
          Hir highnesse most worthy counsellers God prosper,
With honour and loue of all men to minister.
          God graunt the nobilitie hir to serue and loue,
With all the whole commontie as doth them behoue.


Most of the details in this prayer are so conventional that they might be used in a prayer for any queen. Long rule, for example, is besought for the monarch in Gentleness and Nobility (1527), King John (1536; prayer 1558=), Thersites (1537), Respublica (1553), and Patient and Meek Grissell (1559) as well as other plays. In Like Will to Like (1568) God is asked “To advance virtue and vice to overthrow,”29 though the vice seems to be among the commons rather than the nobility or royalty. In the final prayer of Roister Doister, only those words and phrases which I have italicized, I believe, have seemed to scholars more readily applicable to Elizabeth than to Mary. One of those, moreover, “the faith to defende,” should not have proved a problem. Doubtless deriving from Henry VIII's title, Fidei Defensor, these words were with propriety used of both Mary and Elizabeth.30 Though the others are perhaps more difficult, they are all applicable to Mary. Her godly procedyngs might refer to some of her less bloody religious activities, such as her making ordinances for the government of cathedral and collegiate churches,31 or the phrase might have been used in only a very general sense.32 More likely, however, Mary's godly procedyngs to Udall or any other good Catholic in 1553 were her efforts to restore the Roman faith. James Gairdner saw fit to title one of his chapters on such efforts “The Queen's Proceedings.”33 John Foxe glosses the phrase in the sixteenth century: “The papists call all their trumpery the queen's proceedings.”34 The lawyer Foster used it against Rowland Taylor of Hadley when the latter attempted to interrupt a mass in his church: “Wilt thou traitourlye heretic! make a commotion, and resist violently the queen's proceedings?”35 Mary herself speaks of efforts “to hinder our godly purpose,”36 i.e., to restore Catholicism. Wotton wrote in cipher of Mary's “godly purpose and Catholic doings.”37 The possible importance of the phrase godly procedyngs in Mary's time may be indicated by its having been used in the third of Thomas Cranmer's prepared “recantations.” Cranmer subscribed himself “content to submit myself to the King's and Queen's Majesties … most humbly without murmur or grudging against any of their godly proceedings.”38 From the modern vantage ground godly procedyngs may seem less appropriate to Mary's than to Elizabeth's measures, but in 1553 the term might have come most happily from one in Udall's position. Since he had been an active controversialist against Papists in the time of Edward,39 in the first months of Mary's reign his future must have seemed doubtful. In A Pore Helpe Gardiner is reported as warning

That, if the world shal turn,
A sort of you shal burn.(40)

What might save Udall? He had collaborated with Mary as princess on Erasmus' Paraphrase of the New Testament41 and paid high tribute to her learning in his preface to John.42 Perhaps she would remember. Public recognition of her religious measures as godly...

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A. W. Plumstead (essay date 1963)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Plumstead, A. W. “Satirical Parody in Roister Doister: A Reinterpretation.” Studies in Philology 60, no. 2 (April 1963): 141-54.

[In the following essay, Plumstead reads Ralph Roister Doister as a parody of medieval chivalric heroes.]


Professor Ewald Flugel has called Nicholas Udall “the father of English comedy,” and according to Allardyce Nicoll, Ralph Roister Doister is “the first complete English comedy designed for public performance in London.”1 Critical discussions of the play, however, have been largely concerned with its date, its sources, and its adaptation of the characters and...

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William L. Edgerton (essay date 1965)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Edgerton, William L. “Floures for Latine Spekynge,” “Apophthegmes,” and “The Paraphrase of Erasmus.” In Nicholas Udall, pp. 68-81. New York: Twayne Publishers, Inc., 1965.

[In the first essay below, Edgerton analyzes Floures for Latine Spekynge in terms of what it reveals about Tudor education and as its relationship to Ralph Roister Doister. In the second and third essays, he examines Udall's intentions and style in his translations of Erasmus.]


Floures for Latine Spekynge probably gives a better understanding of what actually was studied by Tudor...

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Arthur H. Nethercot (essay date 1971)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Nethercot, Arthur H. “Nicholas Udall.” In Elizabethan Plays, edited by Arthur H. Nethercot, Charles R. Baskervil and Virgil B. Heltzel, pp. 1-4. New York: Holt, Rhinehart and Winston, Inc., 1971.

[In the following essay, Nethercot discusses Udall's career and examines his major work, Ralph Roister Doister.]

One day in the early nineteenth century the Reverend Thomas Briggs attended a public auction of books and came away with what has so far turned out to be a unique copy, in black letter, of Roister Doister, which shares with Gammer Gurton's Needle the somewhat misleading designation of “the first regular English comedy.” “Regular”...

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Marie Axton (essay date 1982)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Axton, Marie. “Thersites.” In Three Tudor Classical Interludes: Thersites, Jacke Jugeler, Horestes, edited by Marie Axton, pp. 5-15. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1982.

[In the following essay, Axton examines the drama Thersites and compares Udall's work with earlier versions of the story.]

Thersites [hereafter abbreviated as T] has plenty of action but little plot. The cowardly anti-hero sets off for war with swaggering words and a Herculean club, browbeating Mulciber into forging him some armour. Loftily resisting his Mother's entreaties to stay at home, he shows his valour in combat with a passing snail, but soon takes refuge in...

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Howard B. Norland (essay date 1985)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Norland, Howard B. “Roister Doister and the ‘Regularizing’ of English Comedy.” Genre 18, no. 4 (1985): 323-34.

[In the following essay, Norland examines Ralph Roister Doister in light of its innovation and mode of story telling.]

Roister Doister is traditionally considered to be “the first regular English comedy.”1 This designation seems to result primarily from the play's observance of the five-act structure and its perceived imitation of Latin comedy. It is not, of course, the first English comedy; England's first extant secular play, Medwall's Fulgens and Lucres, performed more than fifty years earlier, has...

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Elizabeth Pittenger (essay date 1994)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Pittenger, Elizabeth. “‘To Serve the Queere’: Nicholas Udall, Master of Revels.” In Queering the Renaissance, edited by Jonathan Goldberg, pp. 162-89. Durham: Duke University Press, 1994.

[In the following essay, Pittenger examines material connected with Udall and attempts to gain insight into his suspected relationships with his pupils.]

Thence for my voice, I must (no choice)
Away of forse, like posting horse,
For sundrie men, had plagards then,
          such childe to take:
The better brest, the lesser rest,
To serve the Queere, now there now heere,
For time so spent, I may repent,
          and sorrow make.

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Greg Walker (essay date 1998)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Walker, Greg. “Dramatic Justice at the Marian Court: Nicholas Udall'sRespublica.” In The Politics of Performance in Early Renaissance Drama, pp. 163-95. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

[In the following essay, Walker provides an overview of Udall's life and career as well as an in-depth analysis of Respublica.]


Born in Southampton in 1504, Nicholas Udall attended Winchester College from 1517 and went up to Corpus Christi College, Oxford in 1520. After a period as a Fellow of Corpus and university lecturer in Logic, he left Oxford in 1529 and made a living as a writer and freelance scholar before being...

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Further Reading

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))


Edgerton, William L. “Nicholas Udall in the Indexes of Prohibited Books.” Journal of English and Germanic Philology 55 (1956): 247-52.

Discusses the condemnation of Udall's works by the Catholic Church through the years.

Maulsby, D. L. “The Relation Between Udall's Roister Doister and the Comedies of Plautus and Terence.” Englische Studien 38 (1907): 251-77.

Demonstrates the influence of Plautus and Terrence on the writing of Ralph Roister Doister.

Miller, Edwin Shepard. “Roister Doister ‘Funeralls’.” Studies in Philology 43 (1946): 42-58.


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