Nicholas Udall

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William Peery (essay date 1948)

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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...

(This entire section contains 4108 words.)

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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 procedyngs might serve Udall, as it was intended to serve Cranmer later, as a recantation. Offered by Udall for Mary, the prayer may even have been instrumental in saving him from the stake and giving him opportunity to exhibit before his queen the “diligence in settyng forthe of dyalogges & enterludes” which she was soon to commend.43

There remains, then, the troublesome phrase, the Gospell to protect. It may be only a poetic variation on the preceding faith to defende.44 I think it unlikely that it has a specialized application to Mary's work on the translation of John though that is not impossible. A general application with reference to Mary's numerous efforts against the “much false and erronious Doctrine” which “hathe bene taught preached and written”45 recently is more likely. John Harpsfield in his sermon at the convocation accompanying Mary's first Parliament states: “How many places of Scripture did they corrupt! … The Gospel, which so frequently they had in their mouths, they fought against in an hostile manner by their works and their manner of doctrine.”46 In 1552-3, indeed, it must have been hard to know with certainty what the Gospel was. As Mary herself said to Bishop Ridley, “I cannot tell what ye call God's word: that is not God's word now, that was God's word in my father's days.”47 Any Catholic in 1553 might have regarded Mary's bans upon preaching and reading the Bible as means of protecting the Gospel. To protect the Gospel from heresies, one attacked the English Bible.48

There appears, then, to be nothing in the prayer for the queen which in 1553 might not have been said appropriately by a Catholic about Mary. Had we not been misled by the evidence from date, perhaps we should have avoided applying the prayer, I believe erroneously, to Elizabeth. Baldwin and Linthicum, indeed, take it as for Mary without finding it necessary to refute scholarly opinion opposed to theirs.

The prayer itself indicates that it was composed at the very threshold of a reforming queen's reign, when all the future was decidedly doubtful. … These words have almost unmistakable application to Queen Mary's position the autumn of 1553, though they might by the barest possibility fit the first months of Elizabeth's reign, while their general sentiment, though not their peculiar phraseology, would still have been appropriate even when the play was printed. When we remember that some such prayer49 must have been written this autumn 1553, surely we cannot escape the conviction that this is it.50

Baldwin and Linthicum, however, did not settle the problems raised herein. Whereas they see in the words of the prayer “unmistakable application” to Mary, Scheurweghs says that the prayer

obviously was written during the reign of Edward VI. The mention of a ‘queen’ and the use of the pronouns she and hir do not make any difficulty, as these words can easily be changed without altering the metre; on the contrary the allusion to the ‘most worthy counsellers’ does not suit at all the reign of Queen Mary, but points to the time of King Edward, her brother, who could not reign by himself during his minority. … Edward VI was also for certain the king who had undertaken ‘the Gospell to protect.’ … No man would ever have written of Queen Mary that she was ‘the protector of the Gospel’ as it would sound like an insult; if it was a question of adapting a text written before to circumstances that had altered, it may have seemed that, after all, Mary did protect the Gospel together with the dogmas and the traditions of the Church. For the sake of changing as little as possible in the metrical text, this ambiguous compliment was left in with the obvious inaccuracy about “Hir highnesse … Counsellers' who are not said to serve her and love her, as do ‘the nobilitie’ but ‘with honour and loue of all men to minister.’ Maybe those verses had been crossed off for representations in Mary's time, and were re-inserted when the manuscript was printed in the reign of Elizabeth to whom they fully applied; for, after all, it seems hardly admissible that they are interpolated.51

Scheurweghs is here arguing several ways at once, and we would do better to follow one line of reasoning at a time. The distinction, first, between what an author would have written and what he would have allowed to stand if written earlier seems tenuous, especially since we have no bibliographical or other concrete evidence that any alteration has occurred. There seems to be a contradiction, moreover, between the assertion that “no man would ever have written of Queen Mary that she was “the protector of the Gospel’” and the assertion, “it may have seemed that, after all, Mary did protect the Gospel together with the dogmas and the traditions of the Church.” We have insufficient reason for believing that any verses were “crossed off for representations in Mary's time” or “re-inserted” in that of Elizabeth. Scheurweghs is quite right in doubting that the lines about counsellors are interpolations. He is correct, moreover, in reminding, with Child,52 that King could be changed to Queen, he to she, his to her, without altering metrics. Since our text, however, has Queen, she, and her, we should not apply the prayer to Edward unless we have good reason for suspecting alteration. The evidence from date makes the application to Edward, though possible, unlikely; and so long as the prayer contains no words and phrases which could not have been used of Mary—and we have already seen that it contains none—we should certainly follow the evidence from date to its logical conclusion, that the prayer is for Mary.

Further investigation might have kept Scheurweghs from making his point about the petition for counsellors. He fails to take into consideration that final prayers in the early drama are usually prayers not for the sovereign alone but for the several estates: the clergy, the counsellors, the nobility, and the commons.53 Prayer for counsellors, indeed, is especially frequent. In a search that was not intended to be exhaustive I note seven final prayers in sixteenth-century drama that include petitions on behalf of the nobility;54 nine that include petitions on behalf of the commonalty;55 but fourteen that include petitions on behalf of counsellors.56 The petition for the counsellors distinguishes the closing prayer in Roister Doister from other prayers even less effectively—if this sample is random—than the petitions for the nobility and commonalty. Mary's counsellors are prayed for in the closing prayer of at least two other plays of her period.57 Elizabeth's counsellors are prayed for in at least nine plays.58 Therefore it is simply not true that “the allusion to the ‘most worthy counsellers’ does not suit at all the reign of Queen Mary, but points to the time of King Edward,” or that these verses are “peculiar to the reign of Edward VI.”59

The second problem raised by the closing prayer of Roister Doister, that of authorship, should now be comparatively easy to solve. Though they take the prayer as one for Mary, Baldwin and Linthicum do not commit themselves as to who wrote it.60 Believing that the prayer is for Mary and that the text has undergone revisions, Williams and Robin almost alone among modern scholars attribute the prayer to Udall.61 Since they thought that the prayer was for Elizabeth, and since Udall died before she became queen, most scholars have assigned the prayer, with varying degrees of confidence, to another hand than Udall's.62 Their conclusion is logically drawn, but there is insufficient reason for accepting their premise.

The dating of Roister Doister near the beginning of Mary's reign removes the chief difficulties of interpretation which have led students to hypothesize an interfering hand, a meddling printer, a revision or revisions, or an early lost version. Nothing in the prayer itself definitely identifies the queen; but, contrary to what scholars generally have concluded, the words of the prayer seem to have special fitness if applied to Mary by one in Udall's position. The evidence advanced herein not only strengthens the conclusions of Baldwin and Linthicum as to date and application but also permits the conclusion that the prayer was most probably written by Udall himself.


  1. G. Scheurweghs, ed., Nicholas Udall's Roister Doister (Louvain, 1939), ll. 2020-34. My quotations from the play are from this edition.

  2. W. D. Cooper, ed. (London, 1847), pp. 3, 86; Edward Arber, ed. (London, 1869), p. 5; W. C. Hazlitt, ed., Dodsley's Select Collection of Old English Plays (4th ed.; London, 1874), III, 157; A. W. Ward, A History of English Dramatic Literature (2d ed.; London, 1889), I, 258; Ewald Flügel, ed., in C. M. Gayley's Representative English Comedies (New York, 1903), I, 193; E. K. Chambers, The Medieval Stage (Oxford, 1903), II, 452; John S. Farmer, ed. (London, 1906), p. 142; C. G. Child, ed. (Boston, 1912), p. 166; H. C. Schweikert, ed., Early English Plays (New York, 1928), p. 246; and W. W. Greg, ed. (London, 1935), viii.

  3. Sidney Lee, DNB, LVIII, 9; Scheurweghs, op. cit., lix. Scheurweghs, however, has another candidate, Edward VI, an application I discuss below.

  4. e. g., W. H. Williams and P. A. Robin, edd. (London, 1911), xii.

  5. Op. cit., pp. 3, 86; op. cit., p. 246.

  6. Op. cit., 5; op. cit., III, 157; op. cit., I, 258; op. cit., p. 142. Here Arber seems guilty of inverse logic: the prayer “can be for no other than Queen Elizabeth: and therefore, although the title-page is wanting and there is no conclusive allusion in the play, it may confidently be believed that the extant text was printed in Elizabeth's reign” (op. cit., p. 5).

  7. Op. cit., I, 193f.

  8. Medieval Stage, II, 452; op. cit., viii; op. cit., p. 166.

  9. e. g., Cooper xv-xvi; Arber, p. 6; Flügel, I, 95-7; Child, pp. 31-42; J. Q. Adams, ed., Chief Pre-Shakespearean Dramas (Boston, 1924), p. 423; and Schweikert, p. 42.

  10. J. W. Hales, “The Date of the First English Comedy,” Englische Studien, XVIII (1893), 408-421; Williams and Robin, v-vii; and Greg, vii. Scheurweghs (lv-lx) does not attempt to place the play between what he considers terminal dates, 1545-1552.

  11. A. W. Reed [“Nicholas Udall and Thomas Wilson,” RES, I (1925), 275-283] and F. S. Boas [An Introduction to Tudor Drama (Oxford, 1933), p. 24 and Five Pre-Shakespearean Comedies (London, 1934), xiii] favor 1553. T. W. Baldwin and M. Channing Linthicum [“The Date of Ralph Roister Doister,PQ, VI (1927), 379-395] would confine the date of composition to the latter half of 1553. In “A Pore Helpe and Its Printers” [The Library, n. s. IX (1929), 169-183] Miss Linthicum redates the tract by means of which Baldwin arrives at his date. Her research makes possible but does not necessitate a somewhat earlier date for the composition of Roister Doister. Alfred Harbage gives the terminal dates, “1550-1553” but treats the play under 1553 [Annals of English Drama (Philadelphia, 1940), pp. 32-33]. Unless otherwise indicated, in the remainder of this paper dates in parentheses following the titles of plays are Harbage's dates of initial production.

  12. Cf. T. H. Vail Motter, The School Drama in England (London, 1929), pp. 63f.

  13. Greg states that the play “had possibly been printed by 1553, when Thomas Wilson, in the third edition of his Rule of Reason, quoted a passage from it [A Bibliography of the English Printed Drama (London, 1939), I, 125. Cf. Arber, op. cit., p. 5; Flügel, op. cit., I, 195; and Farmer, op. cit., p. 144.

  14. A Transcript of the Register of Stationers of London, ed. Arber (London, 1875), I, 331.

  15. Greg, Bibliography, I, 125. Harbage [op. cit., p. 33] dates the edition “ca. 1567.”

  16. Apparently no replies were elicited by Frank Sullivan's query [Notes and Queries, CLXXVIII (1940), 263] about a reported second copy of Roister Doister.

  17. Op. cit., p. 5; op. cit., III, 157; op. cit., (1st ed.), I, 142 and (2d ed.), I, 258; Medieval Stage, II, 452; DNB, LVIII, 9; and Greg's ed., vii-viii.

  18. Op. cit., I, 194.

  19. Op. cit., p. 42.

  20. Ll. 1994-2004.

  21. PQ, VI (1927), 391-393. But see Scheurweghs, op. cit., lvi-lvii.

  22. Ll. 69-70.

  23. Cooper, pp. 3, 86; Hazlitt, III, 58; Flügel, I, 109; Farmer, p. 142; Williams and Robin, xii; Child, p. 158; J. Q. Adams, p. 425.

  24. Op. cit., p. 91.

  25. Scheurweghs argues that the lines of the prayer were written for Edward VI (op. cit., lviii), deleted for performances under Mary, and “re-inserted when the manuscript was printed in the reign of Elizabeth to whom they fully applied; for, after all, it seems hardly admissible that they are interpolated” (ibid., lix).

  26. Op. cit., p. 108.

  27. If the play was written in the last months of Edward and if the prayer was originally offered for that monarch and later amended to apply to a queen, other things being equal, that queen would naturally be Mary.

  28. Ll. 2020-2034. Italics mine.

  29. The Dramatic Works of Ulpian Fulwell, ed. Farmer (London, 1906), p. 53.

  30. Mary is called “Fidei Defensoris” in a number of documents; cf., e. g., The Statutes of the Realm (London, 1819), IV, 197, 199, 221.

  31. Ibid., IV, 233.

  32. NED, s. Proceeding, vbl. sb. 2 b: “Doings, actions, transactions;” cf. Shakespeare, I Henry IV: IV, 1, 65. The words godly proceedings appear in Edward VI's letter of rebuke to Gardiner [John Strype, Ecclesiastical Memorials (Oxford, 1822), II, Pt. I, 373]; in the closing prayer of Lusty Juventus (1550); and the patent giving Udall right to print and sell the works of Peter Martyr [Calendar of Patent Rolls, Ed. VI, III, 315]. To a firm believer in Divine Right, moreover, all royal acts are properly called godly proceedings.

  33. Chapter III, Book VIII, Lollardy and the Reformation in England (London, 1913), IV, 268-277.

  34. Josiah Pratt, ed., The Acts and Monuments of John Foxe (3d ed.; London, 1870), VI, 679, n. l.

  35. Ibid., p. 679.

  36. Strype, op. cit., III, Pt. I, 245.

  37. J. A. Froude, History of England (New York, 1881), VI, 195.

  38. Strype, op. cit., III, Pt. I, 393.

  39. cf. Cooper xxix-xxxi; Scheurweghs, xxxv-xlviii. Udall's translations from Peter Martyr were among the Protestant books soon to be prohibited by name [Strype, op. cit., III, Pt. I, 417f.].

  40. Quoted from Strype, op. cit., II, Pt. II, 334. Miss Linthicum, however, states that the author of A Pore Help “only pretends to be writing in favour of the Gardiner party” [The Library, n. s. IX (1929), 183.

  41. Strype, op. cit., II, Pt. I, 45f.; Scheurweghs, xxxv.

  42. Quoted in Cooper, xxviii-xxix.

  43. Documents Relating to the Revels at Court, ed. Albert Feuillerat (Louvain, 1914), p. 291.

  44. cf. Child, p. 166.

  45. Statutes of the Realm, IV, 246.

  46. Strype, op. cit., III, Pt. I, 63.

  47. Foxe, op. cit., VI, 354.

  48. cf. Standish, A Discourse, quoted in Strype, op. cit., III, Pt. I, 270-271.

  49. i. e., some prayer for Mary?

  50. Op. cit., p. 390.

  51. Op. cit., lviii-lix.

  52. Op. cit., p. 42.

  53. On the convention of closing plays with prayer see n. on Epilogue to 2 Henry IV in Reed's Shakespeare (London, 1785), V, 650-652 and W. Creizenach, The English Drama in the Age of Shakespeare (New York, 1916), p. 277. Before its final moralizing stanzas, not a prayer, The Trial of Treasure (1567) contains the direction, “Pray for all Estates” (Dodsley's Select Collection, III, 300).

  54. Lusty Juventus and Nice Wanton (1550), Jacob and Esau (1554), The Disobedient Child (1560), Appius and Virginia (1564), Like Will to Like (1568), and Mucedorus (1590).

  55. Nice Wanton, Jacob and Esau, Wealth and Health (1554), The Disobedient Child, New Custom (1563), Appius and Virginia, Like Will to Like, Common Conditions (1576), and Mucedorus.

  56. King John (1536), Wit and Science (1539); Lusty Juventus, Nice Wanton, Respublica (1553), Jacob and Esau, Wealth and Health, Patient and Meek Grissell (1559), The Disobedient Child, Cambises (1561), New Custom, Like Will to Like, Common Conditions, and Mucedorus.

  57. Respublica and Jacob and Esau. The extant edition of the latter is dated 1568, but the play had been licensed in 1557.

  58. King John, Wealth and Health, Patient and Meek Grissell, The Disobedient Child, Cambises, New Custom, Like Will to Like, Common Conditions, and Mucedorus.

  59. Scheurweghs, op. cit., lviii, 108.

  60. “Too, since Udall was dead before Elizabeth came to the throne, if these words are his, we may be certain they were written the autumn of 1553” [op. cit., p. 390].

  61. Op. cit., xii.

  62. e. g., Flügel, I, 194; Child, p. 166; Greg's ed., viii.


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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.

A. W. Plumstead (essay date 1963)

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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 techniques of Plautus and Terence to the English stage.2 Because of Udall's blending of Roman and “native” English elements, Roister Doister has now settled into a comfortable niche in surveys of Pre-Shakespearean drama as an important transitional step in the growth and structure of English Renaissance comedy which reached its peak in Shakespeare and Jonson.

There is a dimension of Roister Doister, however, which has been overlooked—one which lends more humor and meaning to the play, making it a better comedy in its own right, and one which adds further commentary on the times and the direction that English comedy was to take. References in the play to knights and chivalric conventions establish in the minds of an educated audience (as Udall's audience would surely have been)3 the ethics of courtly love: humility, courtesy, and “gentilesse,” which medieval romances such as Le Morte Darthur, Guy of Warwick, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde had absorbed from the courtly allegory tradition. The behavior of the three main characters, Merrygreek, Dame Custance, and especially Roister, viewed against this code of love ethics, becomes much funnier than when seen merely as the stock miles gloriosus, parasite, and mistress, of Roman comedy. Roister is more than a Roman knight; he tries to act like a medieval Lancelot or Troilus. Too exclusive a discussion of the play's Roman derivations has obscured its late medieval humor—the ironic incongruity of a conceited braggart trying to act like a chivalric lover. The play is a satirical parody of medieval chivalric heroes.

Moreover, in addition to its parody of chivalric romance in general, the play is perhaps a parody of Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde. There is evidence that Udall had read Chaucer, and internal evidence in the play suggests that he may have had Chaucer's story in mind when he wrote Roister Doister.4 If he did intend his audience to recall Chaucer's poem, however, it was only to serve as a general pattern or schemata of courtly love in a well-known romance, in contrast with which his own characters would appear ridiculous. Although there are several distinct echoes between the two, there is no continuous parallel, and a detailed knowledge of Chaucer's story is not necessary to appreciate Udall's parody. Even if Udall did not have Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde in mind, a comparison of the play with the poem will show the satire which is the dominant tone and theme of Udall's play. He has taken the love plots of Miles Gloriosus and The Eunuch, where they are quite subsidiary, and made them the main focus of his play. This enlargement seems to recall purposely the action of Chaucer's romance: a love-sick knight, a “friend” who will help win his lady, and the chivalric art of love.5 Udall's juxtaposition of braggart and knight in one motley character begins a long line of braggarts in love which will include Sir Andrew Aguecheek and Sir Epicure Mammon. Let us consider this achievement in more detail.


Matthew Merrygreek's first description of Roister suggests a potential courtly lover rather than a braggart. Like Troilus, Roister is conquered by the lady's “smile” and “eye.” Although he wants each of his loves for a “wife,” he “is but dead and gone / Except she on him take some compassion” (117).6 To any in Udall's audience familiar with Chaucer, “compassion” in this context would suggest courtly love.7 At the outset, Udall has alluded to the intense humility of the courtly love tradition, and he will derive much subsequent humor from the discrepancy between the true despair of a lover like Troilus, and Roister's hypocritical moaning as he tries to act the part.

Merrygreek discovers Roister in one of his love throes, and by skillful flattery maneuvers Roister into taking him on as servant and counsel. In a passage which might have been suggested by Chaucer,8 Merrygreek pretends that some passers-by in the street had enquired about the dazzling Roister, asking if he were “Noble Hector of Troy” or “Great Goliath, Samson, or Colbrand,” among others (123). Udall begins this catalogue of heroes with two famous knights of chivalric romance, whose exploits in war and love would be known by many in his audience either from direct reading or legend.9 The audience, as well as Roister, is invited to make a direct comparison.

“Who is this?” saith one, “Sir Launcelot du Lake?”
“Who is this? Great Guy of Warwick?” saith another.

Roister is enthralled with Merrygreek's tremendous sweep of heroes, and congratulates him on making the correct—indeed, Roister probably thinks, the only possible—answer to these admirers: “Yes; for so I am,” he says—a modern Guy of Warwick, a new Lancelot du Lake.

The humorous discrepancies between the connotations of “Guy of Warwick,” “Launcelot du Lake,” and Roister are extended in Act I, scene iv. Merrygreek has arrived at the home of Roister's new love, Dame Custance, and describes Roister to Madge Mumblecrust, the Dame's nurse: “This is he, understand, / That killed the Blue Spider in Blanchepowder land” (137). Merrygreek knows enough about chivalric romance to feign the dramatic moment when the dragon is slain in a desolate, gothic setting, except that a blue spider is a long way (in the Lilliputian sense) from Guy of Warwick's Wild Boar, or Colbrond (or the Dun Cow).10 “Blanche-power” in Udall's day meant “a mixture of spices used as a condiment or dessert dressing.”11 If Tudor “blanchepowder” was in fact a white powder or salt, Udall asks us here to picture a soft powder-land, perhaps like vapory clouds, or a Sahara desert of white sand. In any event, the image implies that Roister's feat could take place only in a land of make-believe; it suggests a mock epic; it is concentrated and graphic, yet suggestive and elusive. It allows Merrygreek again to satisfy Roister's vanity, while revealing out loud that he is a fool. It is a brief high point in the Tudor interlude, a hint of things to come—such as Sir Epicure Mammon's famous lines:

I will have all my beds, blowne up; not stuft:
Downe is too hard.(12)

Merrygreek proceeds to tell of Knight Roister's life-and-death battles with elephants,13 “Belzebub,” and of a conqueror's march “from Rome to Naples,” where Roister “won towns, nurse, as fast as thou canst make apples” (137). As in the earlier catalogue of medieval, Biblical, and ancient heroes, these allusions serve a double purpose; they sustain the chivalric backdrop against which Roister looks so ridiculous, and they further trap Roister into delusions of grandeur.

Having established in the first four scenes a pattern of expectancy in which the audience is alerted to Roister's pretense to chivalry, Udall proceeds to put him through some courtly paces. Like Troilus, Roister writes a letter pleading with his lady to look favorably on him, and later he sends a ring and “a token in a clout” (143) to the Dame via his servant, Dobinet. As Dobinet searches for the house, he attests to Roister's desire to follow the correct procedures.

With every woman is he in some love's pang.
Then up to our lute at midnight, twangledom twang;
Then twang with our sonnets, and twang with our dumps. …


The sonnets and songs suggest a courtly lover (although, true to Roister's sense of his own importance, he is in love with “every woman”).14 That Udall wished his audience to recall the ethics of courtly love is made clear when Dobinet again reminds the audience of Roister's mock despair:

Then, when answer is made that it may not be,
“O death, why comest thou not by-and-by?” saith he.


Such a sentiment is not found in either Plautus' Pyrgopolinices or Terence's Thraso, who have been proposed as the closest direct sources of Roister;15 it is a parody of a medieval knight's acute sense of humility in love.

This mock love-despair becomes one of the highlights of the play. Merrygreek reports to Roister that Dame Custance refuses his suit. Both audience and suitor realize that now is the time for despair and a reluctance to live, according to the convention. Merrygreek's consolation to Roister, like Pandarus' to Troilus after the decision to send Criseyde to the Greeks,16 is that “Ye shall have choice of a thousand as good as she,” (157) but Roister (although as a braggart he is chagrined to realize he has been turned down) plays his role and replies, “I will go home and die!” Here is comic irony unlike anything in Roman comedy; for the moment, a braggart condescends to a ritual he is determined to fulfill, even though such despair is the last thing a braggart would submit to, unless as a trick. Merrygreek, eager to test the integrity of what he knows is a false front (and here he acts as the audience's spokesman), calls Roister's bluff and asks, “Then shall I bid toll the bell?” In a sharp, startled reply that would draw a laugh from the audience, Roister says “No.” For a moment he is confused; as a braggart, he does not want to die merely because he has not been able to capture his prey, or have his desire; as a medieval knight, he should want to die because life without his lady's favor is not worth living.

Merrygreek pursues his joke, Roister decides to be courtly, and the two are soon playing priest and corpse in a mock funeral which could also have been suggested by Chaucer's scenes of Troilus languishing. Again humor emerges from the discrepancy between Roister's pretense and reality. It has been pointed out that this scene may be a satire of the Roman Catholic funeral service.17 This may be so, but, interpreted as such, it is an insertion in the play, a passage of local color in the religiously confused days of Edward VI and Mary. When interpreted in the courtly love tradition, however, this scene is more richly satirical and funny within a unified play. Roister pretends to die because he cannot win (or own) his lady (and her money). But he has none of the “desperaunce” of Troilus who thought, as Criseyde approached the “sick” room, “O Lord, right now renneth my sort / Fully to deye, or han anon comfort!” (420, ll. 1754-55). Roister's despair is a mockery compared to that of Troilus who went home, after the parliament's decision to trade Criseyde for Amintor, without further will to live:

“Ne nevere wol I seen it shyne or reyne,
But ende I wol, as Edippe, in derknesse
My sorwful lif, and dyen in distresse.”

(444, ll. 299-301)

And shortly, so his peynes hym torente,
And wex so mat, that joie nor penaunce
He feleth non, but lith forth in a traunce.

(444, ll. 341-43)

Roister's funeral is a mockery of true despair and humility—a symbolic expression of his falseness. His repetition of the simple, stock phrase “Heigh-ho!” during the funeral service (158, 159) suggests that he feels nothing more. The live body pretending to be dead is the same commentary on his false sense of love as is Falstaff's apparent corpse on the battlefield a monument to his dishonor—and could be played on the stage as effectively.

After Roister's recovery, Merrygreek urges a renewal of the suit. In courtly fashion, Roister urges Dame Custance to “accept” his “service” (164), and Merrygreek reminds her that Roister has been “kind” to her, although of necessity he foregoes being more specific.

The letter scenes follow, providing a second highlight in the play. Roister had earlier dictated a love letter to a scrivener, and then made a copy of it himself, which he sent to the Dame via Madge. Roister had mis-punctuated the letter however, so that it now reads like a deliberate affront rather than a testament of affection. The ironic clashes of the two letters are comical in themselves, but they are even more delightful when seen as part of the chivalric-fool, pretense-reality motif which pervades the play.

Troilus lists three main parts to his letter to Criseyde.

First … gan hire his righte lady calle,
His hertes lif, his lust, his sorwes leche,
His blisse, and ek thise other termes alle
That in swich cas thise loveres alle seche. …

(413, ll. 1065-68)

Second, “He gan hym recomaunde unto hire grace”; and finally, he pleads for her mercy in excusing and accepting the boldness of his suit. Roister's letter conforms to the first two requirements. Roister tells his lady that she has “beauty, demeanour and wit”; she is a woman of “virtue,” and a “fine paragon” (172). He then commends himself. He will keep her “right well” as a wife. She will find him never “unkind,” and, in a very courtly phrase, he reminds her that she will find in him “much gentleness.” This all comes out in a second reading of the original draft by the scrivener who defends his work and reveals Roister's fumbling.

The scene is richly comic because Roister unknowingly becomes a victim of his stupidity. He writes his lady that he is full of “gentleness,” and in the process reveals his lack of “gentleness.” For his copy ironically reveals the real Roister—arrogant, demanding, interested in money and possession rather than the lady and selfless love. And the angle of vision which exposes Roister here is not just irony per se, but the gentle and humble art of courtly love, which stands above the play, called into it by an allusion or phrase—laughing, mocking, throwing Roister's vanity into silhouette. The two-faced letter is a symbol of Roister's motleyness. The letter he sent is a fumbling copy of the original, just as Roister is a counterfeit of chivalry.

When the Dame still refuses him, Roister becomes frustrated and more vainglorious. He reminds the Dame that she is dealing with some of England's great knights, a new version of the national patron saint of chivalry. He tells his servants to see that his “harness … target, and … shield” are “made as bright now as when [he] was last in field,” and that “all shine as bright as Saint George” (176).18 But unlike St. George, Roister confuses the monster and the lady in a complete reversal of the courtly code; frustrated to desperation, he decides that if he cannot win his lady by love, he will conquer her by force, and he prepares his knights for battle.

Before the fray begins, Trusty, a friend of the Dame's betrothed, chastises Roister for his unknightly conduct:

Yet a noble courage, and the heart of a man,
Should more honour win by bearing with a woman.


The phrase “bearing with a woman” would recall to many in Udall's audience several ladies and their knight servants—among them Lancelot and Guinevere, Guy of Warwick and Phillis, Troilus and Criseyde. Roister replies to Trusty: “Nay, I will take the law on her withouten grace” (193). How different Roister's actions are from Pandarus' advice to Troilus:

“… for nought but good it is
To loven wel, and in a worthy place;
The oughte nat to clepe it hap, but grace.”

(399, ll. 894-96)

Or, how different are Roister's intentions from King Arthur's instructions on the responsibilities of knighthood: “… allwayes to do ladyes, damesels, and jantilwomen and wydowes socour: strengthe hem in hir ryghtes, and never to enforce them, uppon payne of dethe” (italics mine).19 Udall's use of “noble courage,”20 “honour,” and “grace” in three lines brings into focus the ethics of courtly love; in attacking the Dame's house, Roister thinks he is a courageous knight, but his disregard of nobility, honor, and grace is painfully discourteous.

After several skirmishes between Roister's “knights” and the Dame's “knightesses,” her forces are victorious, and she announces in the idiom of a romance, “this field is ours.” As Roister retires, Merrygreek brings the satire full circle with a sarcastic reminder of Roister's earlier allusion to St. George. “What then? Saint George to borrow, our ladies' knight!” (196). To anyone familiar with England's patron saint of chivalry (whose story was available to Udall's audience in several romances and ballads), the incongruous comparison of cowardly Roister to one of the “two characters” who “stand out as par excellence the knights of holiness,” would be ridiculously funny.21

Northrop Frye's commentary on archetypal comedy, enlarging on Bergson's rigidity thesis in Laughter, is helpful here. Frye writes: “The principle of the humor [i. e., Ben Jonson's humor theory of comedy] is the principle that unincremental repetition, the literary imitation of ritual bondage, is funny.”22 Roister is an alazon, an imposter. From an archetypal viewpoint, his basic stupidity and vanity keep Roister in bondage; his inherent misunderstanding of chivalry keeps poking through the masks he tries to wear. In the funeral scene he submits his egotism to a mock purgation; in the letter, he tries to adopt the mask of a humble suitor; here, he reverts to the great chivalric fighter. But this last pretense is equally unstable, for Roister is also a fool at fighting. His victories will obtain only in Blanchepowder Land, and the audience delights in expectation of his losing the fight—which is what happens. In three key scenes—the funeral, the letter, and the battle, Udall has shown the disintegration of the chivalric masks of Roister Doister. And because nothing more serious than the deflation of Roister's ego is involved, the irony is high comedy.

The play ends on a happy note. Roister's foppery has been exposed, ridiculed, and forgiven. But he is far from humiliated. He attempts to regain his composure as well as his friends by putting on again the mask of a courteous knight—a masterful stroke on Udall's part. Dame Custance reminds Roister of his defeat by accusing him of being a “usurer” (204) who will not lend blows but he requires “fifteen” in return (which of course he received). Roister's reply looks forward to that great moment in the Elizabethan theatre when Falstaff replies to Hal's accusation with his “I was a coward on instinct” speech. Like Falstaff, Roister craftily slides by his adversary:

Ah, dame, by the ancient law of arms, a man
Hath no honour to [soil] his hands on a woman.


This is preposterous. I was a real knight all along, says Roister; I let you win out of courtesy; what honorable knight would dare strike a woman? (And yet, his vanity is still there; his use of “soil” suggests that he has considered himself a little superior to the whole mess all along). The audience laughs, the players shake hands, and the play closes with a tribute to the Queen.


Several conclusions may be drawn from this study. First, I suggest that Roister Doister is a more sophisticated play than has been recognized. Viewed as a parody of courtly love, the play takes on a dimension of satiric irony that looks forward to Jonson. According to Alan S. Downer, love in Roister Doister is “a perfunctory device to move the plot.”23 But it is much more than this. Udall has made the art of love the focus of his play. The love theme and the plot—especially in the three key scenes of funeral, letter, and battle—are functions of one another: the plot reveals the ambiguity of Roister's love, and the incongruity of his braggartism and his pretense of chivalry create further plot. Roister Doister is not a great play—its verse and lack of compact dialogue become monotonous—but Udall's ability to sustain two angles of vision, playing one against the other, is a sophistication in technique that had only briefly appeared previously in English drama in the Second Shepherd's Play. Udall brought the silly knight, in the tradition of Chaucer's “Sir Thopas” and the “Nun's Priest's Tale,” and Brant's Narrenschiff, adopted by Barclay in 1509 as The Shyp of Folys (see especially “Von Grossem Ruemen, of Great Boasting”), onto the English stage, and thus helped shape the tradition of comical satire. (Cervantes' Don Quixote was not written until about fifty years after Udall's play).

Second, to the old debate on Roister Doister's sources, I would add Udall's reading in medieval romance. My argument for his using Troilus and Criseyde is not conclusive, but there are enough echoes to make the hypothesis tenable, and it appears that he read and admired Chaucer. The allusions to Warwick, Lancelot, and St. George suggest that Udall was familiar with several romances besides Chaucer's.

Finally, there is the question of “classical” and “native.” The standard view is that Udall “has evolved an entirely independent English comedy in classic style.”24 There is no difficulty (although much debate) in seeing pertinent adaptations of Plautus and Terence. But the play's native characteristics, or “independent” elements are not as clear.

The native element I see in the play is its tone. English literature has no monopoly on satire, but its greatest writers have laughed at and scorned the follies of confidence men and sham pretenders: witness Chaucer on the Pardoner and Sir Thopas, Jonson on Mammon, Shakespeare on Malvolio, Dryden on Shadwell, Swift on Gulliver and Bickerstaff, Carlyle on Cagliostro. Perhaps Udall, like Jonson a few years later, saw a need to satirize the visions of knightly grandeur which many young boys and men of the day must have entertained, and which he was in a good position to appreciate as schoolmaster at Eton and Westminster, turning out young courtiers. In Udall's play, Roister does not satirize the code; the code satirizes him. Roister tries to adopt the code without wishing to understand its essential, inner spirit. His pretense to chivalry is like (to use the play's own analogy) a gnat's wish to be, and fight, an elephant; Roister has neither the physical nor ethical resources to be a great knight in the tradition of Guy of Warwick, Lancelot, or St. George. And he should know better than to try. Roister is a good example of “the common and baser sort” of fool, who, says Erasmus' Folly, is “wholly mine beyond controversy.”

How various the action of fools! … Here is a fellow dying for love of a sweet young thing, and the less he is loved in return, the more helplessly he is in love. This one marries a dowry, not a wife. … Here is a man in mourning, but mercy me, what fool things he says and does! Hiring mourners as if they were actors, to play a comedy of grief!25

In Marston's Malcontent, written approximately fifty years after Udall's play, Passarello, the fool, speaks to Malvole of the degenerate knights of Genoa.

Faith, I utter small fragments as your knight courtes your Citty widow with something of his guilt; some advauncing his high colured beard and taking Tabacco. This is all the mirrour of their knightly complements.26

As L. C. Knights has suggested, such passages in the later drama are part of the dramatists' satire of degenerate chivalry.27 Passarello's remarks recall Roister. In my reading of the play, there is enough meaning implied by Udall's satiric tone to temper Miss Bradbrook's comment that he “aimed only at amusement.”28 I am sure he did—but surely he did more. Udall's play is a gentle warning that playing at chivalry should be reserved for childhood—the Huck and Tom time of life. “Gentilesse” cannot be entered into lightly or falsely; it requires true men; and it is not a school of vanity. When Udall wrote in his “Prologue” that the Roman comedians “Under merry comedies secrets did declare, / Wherein was contained very virtuous lore” (115), perhaps he saw his own play as a mirthful interlude which would secretly declare “virtuous lore,” a laughing invitation to “yonge, fresshe folkes, he or she, / In which that love up groweth with youre age,” to look at the foibles of “worldly vanyte” (which, in a more serious and metaphysical vein, also closes Chaucer's great poem, 479, ll. 1835-36). The “native” element in Roister Doister, then, is the English acumen for a robust, satirical—and corrective—laughter, common to Chaucer, Ben Jonson, Shakespeare, Swift, and Carlyle. By means of the purgation of comedy, Udall is in his own way a humanist.


  1. Flugel, “Nicholas Udall,” Representative English Comedies, ed. Charles Mills Gayley (New York, 1912), p. 99, hereafter cited as Flugel; Nicoll, British Drama (London, 1925), p. 58.

  2. The earliest suggested date (Flugel, pp. 95-96) is 1534, the latest, 1554. 1553-54 is now most widely accepted. Cf. F. S. Boas, Five Pre-Shakespearean Comedies (London, 1950), p. xiii, hereafter cited as Boas. The Roman sources debate is summarized by Wm. Chislett, Jr., “The Sources of Ralph Roister Doister,MLN, XXIX (1914), 166. For Udall's adaptations, see Flugel and Boas.

  3. Because we cannot be positive about the date of the play, it is difficult to proceed to the circumstances of its first presentation. Sir E. K. Chambers, in The Medieval Stage (London, 1903), II, 452, suggests that “the play may have been one of those given at court in the Christmas of 1553.” Boas says that “the boys in the Bishop's school at Southwark may have created the parts of Roister Doister and Matthew Merrygreek,” p. xiii.

  4. A. R. Moon, “Two References to Chaucer Made by Nicholas Udall,” MLR, XXI (1926), 426-27. For points of comparison between Roister Doister and Troilus and Criseyde, see below, esp. n. 7, 8, 16, and 20.

  5. Flugel suggests the comparison: Merrygreek is a “character belonging to the class of Pandarus, a ‘Friend’ playing the part of kindly Fate” (p. 100).

  6. All references to Roister Doister are to Boas' edition of the play. The numbers refer to page numbers in this edition.

  7. When Palamon in “The Knight's Tale” first sees Emelya in the garden, he thinks she may be Venus, and on his knees he asks her to “have som compassioun” on his “lynage,” if she cannot free him from prison (28, 1110). Troilus, similarly struck by Criseyde's beauty, goes home and concentrates on “argumentes to this conclusion, / That she of him wolde han compassioun,” (394, 466-67). Udall's line seems an echo of Chaucer's here.

  8. Troilus and Criseyde, 401, ll. 1076-82. All quotations from Troilus and Criseyde are from F. N. Robinson's second edn., The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer (Boston, 1957). The numbers refer to page and line numbers.

    And in the town his manere tho forth ay
    Soo goodly was, and gat hym so in grace,
    That ecch hym loved that loked on his face.
    For he bicom. …
    … the beste knyght,
    That in his tyme was or myghte be.

    I agree with Clarence Griffin Child, who says in his edition of Roister Doister (Boston, 1912, hereafter cited as Child) that “the passage concerning the admiration of the ladies for Udall [sic Roister?] is plainly a reminiscence of [Miles Gloriosus, I, ll. 55-71]” (p. 158). Udall could also have recalled this passage in Chaucer, and parodied the esteem of those who “looked on his face.”

  9. According to Louis B. Wright, many plain citizens in London sought escape from their “savorless and dull” everyday lives “in the copious literature of romance. An important part of the output of the early printing presses in England consisted of romances. … From the mid-sixteenth century onward, the old-fashioned tales of chivarly were gradually relegated to the more unsophisticated readers, and romances, which had begun as aristocratic works, appeared in cheap quartos. …” Middle-Class Culture in Elizabethan England (Chapel Hill, 1935), pp. 375-76. In “The Vogue of Guy of Warwick from the Close of the Middle Ages to the Romantic Revival,” PMLA, XXX (1915), 125-94, Ronald S. Crane examines in detail the editions and extensive popularity of the Guy story. There were at least two editions available to Udall's audience of 1540-55, “purely commercial ventures, intended to sell cheaply and to reach a general audience” (pp. 128-30). Lancelot's adventures were most readily available in Caxton's edition of Malory's Le Morte Darthur, first printed in 1485.

  10. In view of Ronald S. Crane's thesis that Guy of Warwick was perhaps the most popular romance in Udall's time, it is tempting to suggest that Udall's Blue Spider parodies the Dun Cow in the Guy story, because of the parallel in phrasing, reference to color, and humorous discrepancy between their sizes. But, as Crane points out (p. 152), the Dun Cow adventure first appeared in a ballad licensed in 1592. Guy's adventure with the Cow was apparently “oral tradition” around Warwick for “at least a hundred years before the ballad was published,” but Udall's London audience would not have been familiar with it. Perhaps Udall had heard of the Dun Cow, and his Blue Spider is a private laugh, or, more likely, the Spider is simply a parody of all monsters in Chivalric romance.

  11. Child, p. 160.

  12. Ben Jonson, “The Alchemist,” Works, ed. Herford and Simpson (Oxford, 1954), V, 319.

  13. Udall, editor and translator of Erasmus, would certainly have known his Moriae Encomium, and could have borrowed several suggestions for the plot and character of Roister Doister (Cf. n. 25 below). A distinct echo appears here. Merrygreek turns from his description of Roister's plucking of an elephant's tusk to his own plucking of a “fowl's feather” and “the foot of a gnat” from Roister's coat (138). Erasmus' Folly begins her self-eulogy with the rationalization that self-praise is at least better than the custom of hiring a flatterer who “adorns a crow with other birds' feathers … and, in sum, makes an elephant out of a gnat.” (Translated Hoyt Hudson, Princeton, 1941, p. 9). Earlier in Act I, Merrygreek had replied to an admirer's wondering if Roister were Hector with “No, but of the same nest … it is a bird.” Udall associates images of birds, feathers, grasshoppers, spiders, bees and gnats with Roister throughout Act I to accentuate his puniness.

  14. Troilus, pondering “what to arten hire [Criseyde] to love …” (393, l. 388), wrote a song for which Chaucer made, according to Professor Robinson, “a fairly close rendering of Petrarch's Sonnet 88” (p. 815). Perhaps some in Udall's audience had read the manuscript love sonnets of Wyatt and Surrey, soon to be published in Tottel's Miscellany, 1557. If so, Dobinet's reference to Roister's midnight sonnet writing would be rich with suggestions of courtly love.

  15. D. L. Maulsby, “The Relation between Udall's ‘Roister Doister’ and the Comedies of Plautus and Terence,” Englische Studien, XXXVIII (1907), 251-77. Cf. Wm. Chislett, op. cit. (n. 2).

  16. Pandarus says,

    “This town is full of ladys al aboute;
    If she be lost, we shal recovere an other.”

    (445, ll. 401-406)

  17. Edwin Shepard Miller, “Roister Doister's Funeralls,” SP, XLIII (1946), 42-58.

  18. Child points out (p. 164) that this passage is borrowed from Miles Gloriosus, I, i. The reference to St. George is, of course, Udall's addition. But surely this small addition removes the passage from a Roman context, and colors the whole with a background of medieval chivalry. The passage suggests that for the remainder of the play, Roister would be dressed like St. George—a visual, hilarious climax to his beliefs that he was a modern Lancelot, Guy of Warwick, and St. George.

  19. The Works of Sir Thomas Malory, ed. Eugène Vinaver (Oxford, 1954), p. 91.

  20. Udall could have borrowed this phrase from Pandarus' speech where it occurs in conjunction with “grace.”

    “For certainly, the firste poynt is this
    Of noble corage and wel ordayné,
    A man to have pees with himself, ywis.
    So oughtest thou, for nought but good it is
    To loven wel, and in a worthy place;
    The oughte nat to clepe it hap, but grace.”

    (399, ll. 891-96)

  21. The story of St. George was most readily available in Caxton's The Golden Legend (1487). See “The Legend of St. George,” The Works of Edmund Spenser, ed. Greenlaw et al. (Baltimore, 1932), I, 379-90.

  22. Anatomy of Criticism (Princeton, 1957), p. 168.

  23. The British Drama: A Handbook and Brief Chronicle (New York, 1950), p. 57.

  24. C. F. Tucker Brooke, The Tudor Drama (Boston, 1911), p. 160.

  25. The Praise of Folly, translated Hoyt Hudson (Princeton, 1941), p. 68. A colleague, Professor J. McConica, finds that Roister Doister is clearly in the “Lucianic vein” of Erasmus, and suggests that Udall's use of St. George is “classic Erasmian.”

  26. The Plays of John Marston, ed. H. Harvey Wood (London, 1934), I, 161.

  27. Drama and Society in the Age of Jonson (London, 1937), pp. 256-69.

  28. Muriel C. Bradbrook, The Growth and Structure of Elizabethan Comedy (London, 1955), p. 30.

Principal Works

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*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 L. Edgerton (essay date 1965)

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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 schoolboys than the much better known Schoolmaster, by Roger Ascham. Floures is not a scolding admonition, by a schoolmaster who never taught in grammar schools, of what should be taught; but a good example of what the Tudor schoolboy actually studied. In fact, a perusal of Floures explains to some extent that love of words and sometimes exhausting prolixity that are characteristic of Tudor writing. The careful scholarship behind the Floures is attested to by the fact that much of the book was used in a famous Latin-English dictionary of 1548: Thomas Cooper's Bibliotheca Eliotae. In a preface to this work (which was re-issued in 1552 and 1559) Cooper wrote “To the learned man Udall, by whose scholarly annotations our labors have been lightened in many places, give deserved praise and gratitude.”1

Floures has been analyzed in detail, and its place in Tudor (and especially Shakespeare's) education has been carefully spelled out by T. W. Baldwin in his Five-Acte Structure and Small Latine & Lesse Greeke.2 Suffice it here to point out briefly that Udall designed the book to accompany the study of spoken Latin and the reading of Terence by furnishing examples of locutions from Terence that it would be useful to memorize and understand. Since the most difficult constructions in Latin, as in most languages, are the idioms, it is not surprising that Udall emphasized the importance of translating Terentian idioms by avoiding meaningless literal translations, and, instead, of searching for the equivalent English idioms. Here, as in his later translations, Udall insisted on the necessity of paying close attention to the sense of the author rather than being satisfied with word-for-word translations.

A good understanding of what Udall was trying to do can be seen in the title page and preface. The title page reads:

Floures for Latine Spekynge selected and gathered out of Terence, and the same translated into Englyeshe, together with the exposition and settynge forthe as welle of such latyne wordes, as were thought nedefull to be annoted, as also of dyvers grammatical rules, very profytable & necessarye for the expedite knowledge in the latine tongue: Compiled by Nicholas Udall

Udall describes his intentions in the Preface:

I have added wherever it seemed necessary certain scholia as it were, in which both the sense of the poet is explained and the words themselves not a little more clearly declared. Where any outstanding or elegant metaphor is used, I have indicated it. Where any figure occurs, I have noted it. Where any fable comes along I am not bored to narrate it rather at length. If anything which would especially contribute to Latinity appears, I have not passed it by in silence. If anything pertains to grammar, I have not been ashamed to explain it. If any proverb is interspersed, I have illustrated it. If any formula appears a little different from the common, vulgar, and usual method of speaking Latin, I have given the reason, examples and testimonies being cited wherever the matter demands it, and quoted from the best and most approved authors. Finally, that I may make an end, whatever has been objected that seems to be able to retard boyish ability and judgement in reading, however humble or light it may be, I have sedulously noted it.

The “certain scholia” which Udall added illustrate how concerned he was with giving a lively Latin phrase its lively English counterpart. For example, Ne ille haud scit quam mihi nunc surdo narret fabulam Udall discusses in this fashion:

In faith, full little knows he how deaf I am, or how ill I can hear now in this side on which he makes all the clattering unto me. Surdo narrare fabulam—to tell a tale to a deaf body—is a proverb to be said of them that labour in vain. And it is the same that we use to speak proverbially, when we hear what we like not, saying thus: I cannot hear in that side; which may be said properly in Latin: Surdo narras fabulam, or Surdo canis. Verg.

(Floures, 128r)

I tu huic quo dignus es Udall translates like this: “Get thee hence to the devil. The words sound thus: Go hence whither thou art worthy to go (as who should say) whither thou has deserved to go. And because they are used and spoken always in indignation, they may be aptly and well Englished as afore, for that is our most used manner of speaking in English. (Floures, 128v)

But aside from the interest in Floures because of what it tells us of Tudor education, there is added interest in its foreshadowings of Roister Doister. Naturally, one would expect to find some similarities between Floures and Roister Doister, for they both are drawn largely from Terence, but what is of special interest are those sections of Floures that contain ideas which later germinated into important parts of the play. For example, a characteristic of Roister Doister is Udall's toning down of Merygreeke's activities to make him resemble more a good-natured English Vice than a self-seeking Latin parasite.

In Eunuchus, Gnatho describes a parasite's technique like this:

There is a class of men who set up for being the head in everything and aren't. It's them I track; I don't aim at making them laugh at me; no, no, I smile on them and stand agape at their intellects. Whatever they say I praise; if again they say the opposite, I praise that too; if one says no, I say no; if one says yes, I say yes. In fact I have given orders to myself to agree with them in everything. That's the trade that pays for the best nowadays.3

When Udall was interested simply in a prose translation of this passage for schoolboys in his Floures for Latine Spekynge, he translated that passage like this:

Such men do I follow at the tail, and among such persons I do not fashion myself, that they may laugh at me, but, contrary-wise, whatsoever they say or do, I show them a merry countenance of my ownself, and also make a great marvelling at their high wits. Whatsoever they say, I commend it; that if they desire the same again, that also I commend; if a man say nay, I say nay also; if he say yea, I say yea too. And for a conclusion, to be short, I master and rule myself to uphold his yea and nay, and to say as he says, in all manner of things, for that is the next way nowadays to get money enough.

(Floures, pp. 67r-67v)

Udall borrows the same passage for Roister Doister, but he plays down the parasite's greediness and has Merrygreeke put it this way:

Then must I sooth it, whatever it is,
For what he saith and doeth cannot be amiss;
Hold up his yea and nay, be his nown white son,
Praise and rouse him well, and you have his heart won,
For so well liketh he his own fond fashions
That he taketh pride of false commendations.
But such sport have I with him, as I would not lese [lose]
Though I should be bound to live with bread and cheese.

(Scheurweghs, I, i, 49-55)

Another foreshadowing of Roister Doister can be seen in an earnest grammatical discussion in which Udall provides a kind of rough sketch for the character of Christian Custance.

Non auderet hec facere uiduae mulieri, quae in me fecit. He durst not haue doone unto a wydowe, or a lone womanne, that he hathe done ageynste me. Vidua, duae is a lone woman and a wydowe, whose husbande is decesed: and bicause women (especially such as haue no husbandes to help & defende them, from iniures and wronges) for the mooste parte be nothynge sette by, but had in contempte, which no man careth for, nor fereth to delude and mocke, therefore he useth here that comparison and example.

(Floures, 193r)

Although much of the comedy in Roister Doister depends on the stout-heartedness of Christian Custance, yet her appeal to the audience stems principally from the sympathy she evokes as a misused widow. For instance, at one point (IV, iii, 1477-82) Christian shows a moment of panic and calls for her page to run for help against the blustering of Roister Doister. When Tristram Trustie comes in answer to her appeal he finds Christian in tears. After explaining how Ralph Roister Doister has threatened her, Christian says

Have I so many years lived a sober life,
And showed myself honest, maid, widow, and wife,
And now to be abused in such a vile sort;
Ye see how widows live all void of comfort.

(ll. 1581-85)

Even more than isolated passages can indicate, the appeal of Christian Custance lies in her situation as a “vidua … a lone woman and a wydowe … which no man feareth to delude and mocke.” Her helplessness as a vidua emphasizes the cowardice of Ralph Roister Doister.

Even if we did not know that Udall wrote Roister Doister, a close reading of Floures for Latine Spekynge would make us suspect strongly that the same man wrote both the book and the play.


Udall's Apophthegmes is a translation of twelve of the oral sayings of the ancients collected by Erasmus in his Apophthegemeta. Eight of the twelve names selected are Greek, the other four Roman. Udall adds many notes, and he even differs from Erasmus at times. Another humanist, Richard Taverner, had translated parts of the same book by Erasmus two years before, but Udall's is an independent work. He did, however, make use of a French translation, particularly in showing the value of Classic coins in current terms. His book is a typical Humanist attempt to bring the wisdom and humor of the ancients to a contemporary audience.4

In his preface, Udall emphasizes the importance of avoiding a word-for-word translation but, at the same time, of “keeping and following the sense” of Erasmus. He explains that he designed his book especially for “young scholars and students,” although he hopes that both the learned and unlearned reader will enjoy and profit from it. In the extracts from the preface that follow, we should note how he expresses the typical Humanist desire that his translation take the place of popular books, referring perhaps to such romances as those of Guy of Warwick, Bevis of Hampton, and Robin Hood. We note, too, that he concludes his preface with a long note that suggests how carefully he and Richard Grafton, the printer, had worked to make the book accurate.

My only will and desire is to further honest knowledge and to call away (the studious youth in especial) from having delight in reading phantastical trifles which contain in manner nothing but the seninarie [seeds] of pernicious sects and seditious doctrine unto a more fruitful sort of spending good hours, and by inviting the same youth unto the imitation of honest exercise to do good if I may … If any matter depending of some Greek or Roman chronicle has seemed needful to be expounded, if any poetical fable has come in place, if to any obscure proverb or strange history has been made some pretty allusion needful to be declared—all such things, together with the names of the persons here mentioned, you shall find set forth and added of my own noting. …

And to the intent that nothing should lack which to the ease and commodity of the unlearned reader might seem necessary, there is added also a large and plain table in order of the A.B.C. whereby to the name of any person, or to any good matter in the book contained, ready way and recourse may with a wet finger easily be found out. That if any of the premises either the interpreter or else the printer shall be found to have failed, I for my part shall not only think my labours bounteously rewarded, but also acknowledge myself highly bounden to render most hearty thanks if the gentle reader shall of his humanity and honest heart vouchsafe to set his pen and helping hand and to end whatsoever error he shall happen to espy; and in the residue so to accept both our labours as we may thereby be encouraged gladly to sustain further travail in writing and setting forth such authors as may to the reader be both pleasant and profitable.

The ancients included in Udall's Apophthegmes are (in the order in which they appear) Socrates, Aristippus, Diogenes the Cynic, Philip of Macedon, Alexander the Great, Antigonus, Augustus Caesar, Julius Caesar, Pompey the Great, Phocion, Cicero, and Demosthenes. Although Udall quotes from many authors in his notes, his favorite is Plutarch. A student of Humanism would find much in his references of special interest as to the reading of a learned man at the time; for our purpose it is enough to point out that Udall was obviously widely read in the Classics, especially those of the Greek writers, and, for that matter, may have chosen especially a preponderance of Greeks as part of his feeling, as a true Humanist, that the Greeks were more worth quoting than the Romans (always excepting, of course, Cicero). We have already quoted from this book Udall's remarks about his once having written as a student a defence of drunkenness, and his complaint that horse-keepers get more reward than school-teachers.

Twice Udall politely disagrees with Erasmus. Once, Erasmus, in referring to some words written in sand, suggests that the saying is not properly an Apophthegmes because it was written, but Udall objects: “Words after such sort and for such purpose written may have the force, strength, and place of words with tongue and voice pronounced (218 r).” In another place he corrects Erasmus' translation of a Greek word.

When Erasmus mentions Apollodorus, a friend of Socrates, Udall writes: “This Appollodorus was of Athens a poet that wrote comedies; there was another Appollodorus of the same city a teacher of grammar; there were also four more of the same name but of other countries (22 r).” In several long notes we get tantalizing suggestions of possible biographical import. For example, a long note on Thersites shows a special interest that would be likely to be found in the author of the play:

“Thersites was one of the Greeks and came among the more [among others] out of the country of Aetolia unto the battlefield of Troy: a great gentleman born, but the worst of feature, of shape, and of favour that possibly might be, and a very coward. Whom Homerus in his second volume of his work entitled Ilias (that is, of the battle of Troy) described both in words and sense, much like as follows:

Among all others, to Troy there came
An evil-favoured guest, called by name
Thersites, a prattler be you sure,
Without all fashion, end, or measure.
Whatsoever came in his foolish brain
Out it should, were it never so vain.
In each man's boat would he have an oar,
But no word to good purpose, less or more.
And without all manner would he presume
With kings and princes to cock and fume.
In feats of arms nought could he do,
Nor had no more heart than a goose thereunto.
All the Greeks did him deride and mock
And had him as their common laughing stock.
Squint-eyed he was, and looked nine ways;
Lame of one leg and limping all his days.
Crump-shouldered and shrunken so ungoodly,
As though he had but half a body.
An head he had at which to jest and scoff,
Copped like a tankard or a sugar loaf.
With a bush pendant underneath his hat,
Three hairs on a side like a drowned rat.

And not long after his arrival to Troy, for that he was so busy of his tongue, so full of chatting and prattling with every king and nobleman of the Greeks, Achilles being moved with his sauciness and importunities, up and gave him such a cuff on the ear that he slew him out of hand with a blow of his fist.”


Another note seems to refer to his disgrace at Eton, although the connection is obviously conjectural:

Neither did Socrates suppose that person worthy to be called a crafty beguiler of men, who of some foolish body (persuaded thereunto) did receive and take either money or some piece of plate which he was not able to repay; but much rather those persons he pronounced worthy to be accounted deceitful robbers of men which by fraud and guile did make each man to take upon them the rule and governance of the whole world; whereas indeed they are but villains and slaves nothing worthy to be had in estimation. This saying much nearer touches Christian princes, officers, and bishops, than the gentles [gentlefolk] of infidels.


In addition to other notes that reflect the life of the author, there are fascinating references to stage plays and interludes. One allusion, for example, shows clearly that interludes were not put on between courses in a banquet: “‘By Jupiter,’ saith he again [Socrates] ‘it grieves my stomach nothing at all if I be snapped at and bitten with merry taunts at the stage where interludes are played; no more than if it were at a great dinner or banquet where were many guests.’” Erasmus comments: “This custom and usage even yet still endures among certain of the Germans [(yea and in England also) writes Udall] that in feasts of greater resort, there is brought in for the nonce some jesting fellow that may scoff and jest upon the guests as they sit at the table; with the which jesting to be stirred to anger is accounted a thing much contrary to all courtesy and good manners” (34r).


When Udall began translating the paraphrases of Erasmus in 1543, they had already been printed in seven Latin editions since 1521, and some of them had been translated into German and French.5 These paraphrases owed their popularity to their being, as Udall described them, “a treasury, and in a manner a full library of all good divinity books.” In good Humanist fashion Erasmus had digested and turned into popular form the scholarly annotations of generations of learned commentators on the New Testament. The result was a running commentary, devoid of scholarly apparatus and schoolmen's phrases, by the most famous scholar of the day upon the most important book of the time. Translations of his commentary offered to the vast new audience of the English Bibles that were then being published interesting and enlightening glosses on difficult places in Scripture. Erasmus also offered the new Protestant clergy—woefully inept sometimes, and often possessed of more zeal than learning—a storehouse of materials for sermons. These translations also furnished reformers with propaganda because of Erasmus' none-too veiled criticisms of the Roman church.

A typical paraphrase is Erasmus' commentary on Luke 2:8-14 [I have modernized the Great Bible text, inserted by Udall, and his translation of the commentary by Erasmus]:

And there were in the same region, shepherds watching their flocks by night. And lo! the Angel of the Lord stood hard by them, and the brightness of the Lord shone round about them, and they were sore afraid. And the Angel said unto them: “Be not afraid, for behold! I bring you tidings of great joy that shall come to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a savior, which is Christ the Lord. And take this for a sign: ye shall find the child wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger.” And straightway there was with the Angel a multitude of heavenly soldiers praising God and saying: “Glory to God on high, and peace on the earth and unto men a good will.”

The paraphrase of Erasmus, as Englished by Udall, reads:

Hearken now in what sort this humble poorness of birth is altogether full of princely royalty. There was a tower not far from Bethlehem called in the Hebrew tongue the Tower of Ader (as if you should say in English, the Tower of the Flock), and it was so named because, by reason of the good pasture ground that lay in those parts, there was a very great store of sheep and other cattle pastured. And, indeed, of this Tower of Ader the Prophet Micheas also makes mention, as he does of Bethlehem. There were therefore in those quarters divers shepherds that watched abroad in the night season for safeguard of their flocks. Verily even of the thingself giving a good lesson, what bishops ought of their bounden duty to do for the health of the people committed to their spiritual charge, if they will follow the example or steps of Christ the Prince and Head of all shepherds. And in the night time was that same most bright son of righteousness born, which should on every side put away the darkness of the world. And His pleasure was first of all to have his birth known rather to men of low degree, because He was born after a poor sort, and to shepherds, because he himself was a ghostly pastor, rather than to emperors, to kings, to rulers or deputies of countries, to Pharisees, to Scribes, to Bishops. And lo! suddenly the Angel Gabriel stood on high directly over their heads, and beside him also a strange light suddenly flushed and shone round about the shepherds, which was neither the light of the sun, nor of the moon, nor of any candle.

Udall gives a glimpse of his theory of translating when he describes his method of working on the paraphrases. In his Preface to Luke, addressed to Queen Catherine Parr and dated 1545, Udall writes:

And forasmuch as I consider it to be a paraphrase; that is to say, a plain setting forth of the sense of the text with as many words as the circumstances thereof for the better linking of one sentence to another requires, I have not so precisely bound myself to every word and syllable of the letter, but I have taken more respect to the explanation and declaring of the sense, than to the number of the Latin syllables. In translating of the very text I think it requisite to use some scrupulosity (and if the translators were not altogether so precise as they are, but had some more regard to expressing of the sense I think in my judgment they should do better), but in a paraphrase, which of itself is a kind of exposition and commentary, I think it nothing needful to be so precise in the words, so the sense be kept. And this I dare avouch, that if an interpreter should in some place be as brief in the English translation as the author is in the Latin, he should make thereof but a dark piece of work.

The first tome or volume of the Paraphrase of Erasmus upon the New Testament bears on the title page the date January, 1548, but the calendar year date is January, 1549. Normally printers in the sixteenth century dated books according to the calendar year, beginning January 1, rather than the legal year, beginning March 25; but legal, religious, and learned works seem to have been exceptions.6The second tome or volume of the Paraphrase of Erasmus upon the New Testament appeared in April, 1549. This second volume was chiefly the work of Miles Coverdale (who translated an early edition of the Bible, and whose versions of the Psalms are still part of the Book of Common Prayer), John Olde, Leonard Coxe, and Edmund Allen. (Since Erasmus had not paraphrased Revelations, a paraphrase by Leo Jude was translated by Allen “out of the high Douche.”)

The first volume, however, was largely Udall's work. It included the Gospels and Acts. He finished translating Luke, the longest paraphrase by Erasmus, in 1545, and translated Matthew and the Acts later. Thomas Key translated Mark, and Princess Mary (later Queen Mary) began translating John, but early turned the task over to her chaplain, Dr. Francis Malet. In Udall's preface to Matthew he defended the paraphrases against such detractors as Stephen Gardiner. “And truly whomsoever I perceive to be an eager adversary to Erasmus' writings, I (as my poor judgement leadeth me) cannot but suppose the same to be an indurate enemy to the Gospel, which Erasmus doth according to the measure and portion of his talent faithfully labour to set forth and promote.”

A second edition of The Paraphrase of Erasmus bears the date on the title page “January, 1551.” Udall, however, after describing how he worked on the new edition during the preceding summer, dates his preface “according to the common reckoning” January, 1552.

Even before the work was completed, the royal injunctions of 1547 directed “that every parson, vicar, curate, chantry-priest, and stipendiary, being under the degree of a bachelor of divinity, shall provide and have of his own, within three months after this visitation, the New Testament both in Latin and English, with the Paraphrase upon the same of Erasmus, and diligently study the same, conferring the one with the other. … Also, that they shall provide … within one twelve months next after the said visitation, the Paraphrasis [sic] of Erasmus also in English upon the Gospels, and the same set up in some convenient place within the said church that they have care of, whereas their parishioners may most commodiously resort unto the same.”7 This admonition was repeated in the royal injunctions of 1559.

There is abundant evidence to prove that the royal injunctions providing for a Paraphrase of Erasmus in every parish were generally complied with. A Dutch traveller in 1551 recorded in his journal that “the regular church service usually consists of a chapter or two from the English Bible and the Paraphrase of Erasmus in English translation.”8 An inventory taken in 1552 of property owned by London churches shows that fifty of the eighty-four parishes whose records are extant reported owning a copy of the Paraphrases. Many of the thirty-four not reporting the work may have owned it, but their reports are either illegible or obviously perfunctory.9

What happened to the Paraphrases in the churches during Mary's Catholic reign we do not know; but, as mentioned above, the royal injunctions of 1559 repeated the 1547 injunctions concerning their purchase and use in every parish. Visitation articles and injunctions throughout Elizabeth's reign continued to insist that the clergy procure for themselves and their parishioners a copy of the Paraphrase.10 In 1569 Archbishop Parker's visitation articles enjoined the procurement of the Paraphrase, and his example was followed by visitation authorities in other dioceses in the years 1577, 1581, 1582, 1583, 1584, 1585, 1586, and 1599.11 In 1610 the Archbishop of Canterbury mentioned in a letter—as a precedent for urging parishes to buy a copy of Bishop Jewel's works—the fact that “in the late queen's time of worthy memory, every parish was driven to buy Erasmus Paraphrase upon the New Testament.”12 There can be little doubt but that, as W. P. M. Kennedy writes in Parish Life under Queen Elizabeth, “side by side in the churches lay a copy of the English Bible, of the prayer book, and the Paraphrase of Erasmus.”13 As late as 1843 a copy of the Paraphrase of Erasmus was still chained in two churches in England.14

The influence of this work on the thought and language of the Elizabethans is incalculable, but it must have been important. It is possible, for instance, that a re-examination of Shakespeare's Bible knowledge will show that much of his familiarity with the Bible may be traced to Udall's Paraphrase of Erasmus. In one small emendation I have been able to trace “‘It is as hard to come as for a camel / To thread the postern of a small needle's eye.’” [Richard II V, iii, 16-17] to a paraphrase of the Biblical passage in the Paraphrase of Erasmus.

The subject-matter of the Paraphrase of Erasmus must have been part of many Elizabethans' stock of knowledge concerning the Bible. Just as the knowledge of any widely known book of this period is important for an understanding of the language and ideas of the Elizabethans, so must students of the period take into account this almost forgotten work on which Udall's reputation, both in his lifetime and after, was largely based.


  1. See DeWitt T. Starnes, Renaissance Dictionaries (Austin, Texas, 1954), p. 71

  2. See T. W. Baldwin's William Shakespeare's Five Act Structure (Urbana, Ill., 1947), especially p. 380; but both that book and his Small Latine, in passim. I have used his translation of Udall's preface (“Epistle”) from Small Latine, I, 744-45.

  3. See “Eunuchus” in Terence, translation by John Sargeaunt, Loeb Classical Library (London, 1921), I, 257-59.

  4. This book was published in 1542 and again in 1564. In 1877, R. Roberts, of Boston, Lancashire, published a reprint: The Apophthegmes of Erasmus, translated into English by N. Udall. Literally reprinted from the edition of 1564. See Charles R. Baskervill, “Taverner's Garden of Wisdom and the Apophthegemeta of Erasmus,” Studies in Philology XXIX (1932), 155, n. 10. Udall quotes the French translation on p. 61v. See Les Apophthegmes … translatez … par … Macault (Paris, 1540), 99v.

  5. See P. S. Allen and H. M. Allen, Opvs Epistolarum Des. Erasmi Roterodami, Tom. III (Oxford, 1913), 136-7; also Helmuth Flexner, Des Einfluss des Erasmus auf die englische Bildungsidee (Berlin, 1939), p. 87. The German translations had appeared in 1523 and 1530; the French version of the Paraphrase of the Epistles was published in 1543.

  6. See my “The Calendar Year in Sixteenth-Century Printing;” Journal of English and Germanic Philology LIX (1960), 439-49. Note also that in his Preface to Matthew addressed to King Edward, Udall refers to “Quene Katerine late wife of your moste noble father, and now of your ryghte dere beloued unkle Syr Thomas Seimour knight, Lorde Seimour of Sudley and high admiral of your Seaes.” Catherine married Seymour sometime between the third and seventeenth of March, 1548, and died September 7, 1548; therefore the book could not have come out on January 1548 according to the calendar year.

  7. Walter H. Frere Visitation Articles and Injunctions of the Period of the Reformation (Vols. II and III edited with the assistance of W. P. M. Kennedy) (London, 1910), III, 10. The 1559 injunctions appear on the same page.

  8. W. D. Hobson-Scott, “Josua Maler's Visit to England in 1551,” Modern Language Review, XLV (1950), 348.

  9. H. B. Walters, London Churches at the Reformation, With an Account of Their Contents, S.P.C.K. (London and New York, 1939). See pages 77-78; 87; 94; 101; 111; 115; 121; 136; 140; 147; 152; 162; 179; 189; 199; 205; 213; 222; 237; 268; 286; 293; 298; 319; 328; 333; 349; 350; 361; 368; 387; 400; 427; 430; 437; 456; 459; 463; 469; 475; 486; 488; 508; 514; 520; 525; 536; 541; 546; 560; 573; 600; 613; 624.

  10. Edward Cardwell, Documentary Annals of the Reformed Church of England (Oxford, 1839), I, 320.

  11. W. P. M. Kennedy Elizabethan Episcopal Administration (London, 1924). II, 57, 111, 125, III, 147, 150, 162, 188, 210, 237, 318.

  12. Cardwell, II, 126.

  13. (London, 1914), p. 58.

  14. “Volumes in Fetters,” Book-Lore, VI (June-November 1887), 47-8.

Arthur H. Nethercot (essay date 1971)

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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” would seem to many historians of English drama to mean that it followed the established classical rules or principles.

Sometime between July 22, 1566, and July 22, 1567, the Register of the stationers, printers, and booksellers of London recorded a fee of fourpence as “Recevyd of Thomas hackett for his lycence for pryntinge of a play intituled Rauf Ruyster Duster, etc.” Since Briggs's copy lacked either a title page or a colophon, it was fortunate that Thomas Wilson, an old Etonian pupil of Nicholas Udall's, in the third edition of The Rule of Reason, Containing the Art of Logic (1553), had printed, as an example of the vast difference punctuation can make in the meaning of a text, the garbled letter which Ralph Roister Doister had carelessly copied from his scrivener and sent to the object of his suit, Dame Christian Custance. Wilson had stated that this letter was “taken out of an entrelude made by Nicolas Vdal.” (Udall had already written a few introductory lines for Wilson's The Art of Rhetoric in the same year.) Roister Doister then dropped out of sight until Thomas Tanner mentioned it in his Bibliotheca Britannica-Hibernica in 1748. Then it again disappeared until 1813, when Philip Bliss alluded to Tanner's reference in his re-edition of Anthony à Wood's Athenae Oxonienses. It remained for J. P. Collier in his 1825 Select Collection of Old Plays to put these fragments together and determine authorship. However, the play had already been printed in 1818 by its discoverer, Thomas Briggs, an old Etonian, who had then loyally deposited it in the Eton College library, where it still lies. The history of this playbook became so romantically famous that on April 22, 1922, a correspondent signing himself simply C. K. S. (Clement K. Shorter) wrote to The Nation and Athenaeum in London that a complete copy of the play, with the missing title page, had just been discovered behind a modern grate in a chimney corner by the unidentified owner of a country house; but a note in Notes and Queries as late as 1940 was unable to elicit any further information about this probably fictitious copy.

Nicholas Udall (the name also appears as Owdall, Owdale, Woodall, Wodale, Uvedale, Vuedale, and so on) was born in the parish of the Holy Rood, Southampton, about Christmastime in 1504, 1505, or 1506. (The records are incomplete and the references contradictory.) He got his early education at St. Mary's College (really a “school,” according to today's terminology), Winchester. (Winchester's modern archivist, Herbert Chitty, has unearthed many new facts from the records of the school and town, made use of by G. Scheurweghs in his painstaking and elaborate edition of Nicholas Udall'sRoister Doister, Vol. XVI of the Bang-DeVocht Materials for the Study of the Old English Drama (Louvain' 1939). Nicholas's father, or at least a close relative, may have been Thomas Wodale (or Owdal), a notary who from 1510 to 1525 resided in or owned a tenement in Kingsgate Street near the school. The boy was entered in St. Mary's register in 1517 and remained at least until January 15, 1520. Instead of going to New College, Oxford, as Winchester boys generally did, he was admitted to Corpus Christi by its founder, Richard Fox, Bishop of Winchester, on June 18, 1520, although he did not take up residence until 1521. After a time he was appointed lecturer for the younger students and received a small stipend for teaching in 1526-7 and 1528-9. Finally, after being elected a Fellow, he was given his B.A. degree in 1526, as “Nicolaus Woddallys.” During his stay at the University he displayed the first sign of rebelliousness and unconventionality, for he got into trouble with the authorities because of his involvement with one Thomas Garet, who was suspected of Lutheranism, a dangerous persuasion during these early days leading to the Reformation. He left Oxford in 1529, but in 1534 declared that he had studied outside it for five years.

Sometime before May 1533, he got an appointment as a teacher in a London grammar school, possibly St. Anthony's. About Whitsuntide of that year he and his fellow-Oxonian John Leland, recently appointed King's Antiquary, composed verses and songs to be used in various pageants at Queen Anne Boleyn's coronation. Udall's first important literary and educational work, however, came in the next year: Flowers for Latin Speaking, Selected and Gathered out of Terence, and the Same Translated into English. Although this textbook was often reprinted during the sixteenth century, when Udall later “supplicated” for and received his M.A. in 1534, the University authorities for some unknown reason asked him not to translate any more Latin works into English. As might be expected, the independent young teacher paid no attention to this recommendation, and within a few years achieved a high reputation as a classical scholar and author.

In June 1534 he was made a “headmaster” at Eton College, which meant simply that he was engaged as a teacher of the humanities. Part of his job was to oversee the production of school plays, one of which was given before Thomas Cromwell himself, Cardinal Wolsey's favorite and the secretary of the Privy Council. Although Udall soon became noted for both his learning and his severity in punishment, he also revealed the kind of anomalous streak which marked so many Renaissance men of talent: his public and private lives were quite different things. He quickly fell into a morass of debts, and on November 25, 1538, was actually outlawed from the city of London until he paid them. Only after several court appearances and a final settlement (discussed by H. J. Byrom in “Some Lawsuits of Nicholas Udall” in Review of English Studies [RES,] 1935) was he able to take advantage of the 1544 Act of General Pardon. In 1537 he was appointed Vicar of Braintree, London, although he never took holy orders or even resided there. It is suspected that he paid a curate to perform his parochial duties and pocketed the rest of this income. He kept this vicarage until December 1544, although in 1541 he, along with his servant and two late scholars at the college, was suspected of being involved in a theft of silver plate and other articles from the school. While apparently not guilty of the actual theft, he was committed to the Marshalsea prison for some months and dismissed from his job. Even a long and repentant letter to Sir Thomas Wriothesley of Titchfield, one of the Secretaries of State and a friend of his friend John Leland, was unsuccessful in regaining his position. In this letter, as Scheurweghs puts it, he “humbly owns that he has led up to then an unruly life, doing his work very carelessly, neglecting study and teaching, losing his time in laziness and indulging in riotous pleasure,” including “buggery” with one of the students; and so on.

In spite of these misadventures, Udall continued his scholarly interests and in 1542 published his Apophthegms, a translation of Erasmus's Apothegmata. Although he was still heavily in debt, he lent money to his friends as well as borrowed it, and by 1545 even owned a “tenement” in the Greyfriars district in London, which he was fined for keeping in very bad repair. He was still in and out of the courts for his financial transactions, but had friends in high places and later received aid from Queen Catherine Parr. It was at her request that in 1545 he accepted the translation of Erasmus's paraphrase upon the gospel of Luke in his Paraphrases of the New Testament, and when in 1547 the Privy Council ordered that copies of Erasmus's work, in English, were to be set up in all the churches, the editing of the first volume, containing the Gospels and the Acts, was entrusted to Udall. In his preface to his translation of the Luke paraphrase he showed increasing allegiance to the Reformation in all its phases and informed the Queen of his desire to translate into English all the best Latin works conducive to the New Learning so that they could be brought within the range of the ordinary reader. Because of these intentions he was granted patent letters by the Lord Chancellor to print, in 1550, his translation of Peter Martyr's Tractatio de Sacramento Eucharistiae and other works. For these educational and cultural contributions he was highly praised by leaders such as John Bale (bishop, militant Protestant reformer, and author of several morality and mystery plays), and was commonly designated as “generous,” or “gentleman,” in official documents.

Udall was still living in London in 1550. By June 1552 his income had considerably improved, but his financial troubles made him no stranger to the civil courts, whose records preserve a great deal of what is known of his private affairs. At the end of 1551 he was appointed a prebendary of the Royal Chapter of St. George within Windsor Castle and moved to Windsor, but apparently did not work too hard to earn his special stipend by preaching. Nevertheless, in March 1553 he was made rector of Calborne, Newport, on the Isle of Wight, but probably never went there. Back in London by the Easter Term of 1554, he was once more arrested for not paying for a ring he had acquired several years before. Yet on December 16, 1555, he was made a master at St. Peter's Grammar School (better known unofficially as Westminster School), which was affiliated with the Abbey. A “Nicholas Yevedale” was buried in St. Margaret's Church, Westminster, on December 23, 1556.

As an author Udall's interests were by no means confined to classical translations and religious works. Bishop Bale, in his important Scriptorum Illustrium Majoris Britanniae … Catalogus, or Catalogue of Illustrious Writers of Great Britain (1557), listed as one of the items in Udall's bibliography: “Comoedias plures, Lib. I.” This volume of “Several Comedies” has never been discovered, but many traces of Udall's interest in the drama and in theatrical performances remain. He directed school plays at Eton and many scholars, such as Willi Bang, Leicester Bradner, Laurie Magnus, A. R. Moon, W. H. Williams, and E. K. Chambers, attribute to him many anonymous plays, such as Placidas,Jacob and Esau,Jack Juggeler,Respublica, and Thersites. Jules E. Bernard, Jr., in The Prosody of the Tudor Interlude (Yale Studies in English, 1939), has found what he regards as metrical support for Udall's authorship of Respublica and Jack Juggeler, but not for Thersites. It is known, too, that Udall wrote a play entitled Ezekias (i.e., Hezekiah, obviously not a comedy) and that it was performed before Queen Elizabeth on her visit to Cambridge University in 1564. But the play is not extant. During the reign of the violently Roman Catholic Bloody Mary, with whom he managed to stay on friendly terms in spite of his Erasmian Protestantism (see William L. Edgerton, “The Apostasy of Nicholas Udall,” Notes & Queries, [NQ,] 1950), Udall established a connection with the court theater. Payments for “certen plaies made by Nichols vdall” were made by the Clerk of the Revels between December 13, 1554, and January 6, 1555, and the Master of the Revels was ordered by the Queen to “delyuer or cause to be delyuered to the said vdall … soche apperel for his Auctors as he shall thinke necessarye and requisite for the furnishing and condigne setting forth of his Devises before vs and soche as may be semely to be shewid in our Royall presens,” and to continue this coöperation “from tyme to tyme. …” Scheurweghs, however, thinks that these orders do not prove any permanent appointment with the court theater and certainly do not show any clear association with the court masques.

The only extant play, therefore, that can be confidently assigned to Udall is Roister Doister. This comedy in its simple, almost naive, indigenous English features might not at first seem to have emanated from a playwright with such a life and background. But classical and humanistic elements, clearly present, could easily have come from this quill. Although early students of the play assigned it to Udall's Eton period, it is now generally assigned to the last years of his life. From topical references in the play itself, Scheurweghs concludes that it must have been written between 1545 and 1552. He prefers the later date because of the final prayer. He believes the prayer was originally addressed to Edward VI, but that pronouns were changed to fit Mary, during whose reign Udall died. (See also William Peery, “The Prayer for the Queen in Roister Doister,University of Texas Studies in English, [UTSE,] 1948, and Edgerton, op. cit.) The play was apparently composed as a Christmas comedy for the boys at some London school. (Herbert T. Webster in “Ralph Roister Doister and the Little Eyases,” NQ, 1951, discusses several episodes which “seem to be addressed to a childhood world which had been rarely invoked in Udall's time.”)

For his plot Udall obviously drew on several classical comedies which would have been familiar to his audience, both youthful and adult: the general “braggart soldier” motif from Plautus's Miles Gloriosus; the story of Roister Doister's wooing from Terence's Eunuchus; and perhaps the idea of imagining oneself to be dead from Terence's Phormio. The parody of the burial service was probably suggested by the poem “On the Death of the Duke of Suffolk” on May 3, 1450, or perhaps some intermediate imitation of this poem by John Skelton, Alexander Barclay, or Erasmus. Edwin S. Miller discusses the liturgical aspects of the scene in “Roister Doister's Funeralls” (Studies in Philology, [SP,] 1946) and suggests that its satirical or nonsatirical tone would depend on the date; that is, on whether the Roman liturgy was or was not in favor. In From “Mankind” to Marlowe: Growth of Structure in the Popular Drama of Tudor England (Harvard, 1962), D. M. Bevington concludes that the recurrence of certain classical structural elements in early Tudor drama, including courtly and humanistic plays performed by schoolboys and college students as in Roister Doister, goes to prove that “the elite never lost contact with the native stage.” Scheurweghs points out that, although the setting has the complete unity of place of classical comedy, the action covers almost three days and thus stretches the unity of time. He also believes that Udall did not intend his play to be divided into scenes because no regular principle of scene division seems to be followed. He attributes the present state of the text, with the two songs relegated to a sort of appendix, to the surmised fact that they existed in separate leaflet form and that the whole play had been handled freely in manuscript form by choirmasters, stage directors, and copyists before being finally turned over to a rather incompetent printer after Udall's death.

Aspects of the play which would give it an appeal to more mature and sophisticated audiences have also been noted. In “The Elizabethan Dramatic Parasite” (SP, 1935) E. P. Vandiver has maintained that the character type which began with Merrygreek was essentially a composite of the classical parasite, the Vice of the morality plays, the Italian parasite of the commedia erudita and the commedia dell'arte, and the parasite of the Teutonic school-drama, in which he was “regarded as a very opprobrious character.” In “Satirical Parody in Roister Doister: A Reinterpretation” (SP, 1964) G. W. Plumstead has directed attention to another overlooked dimension of the play: its parody of the chivalric love ethic of humility, courtesy, and “gentilesse,” which makes the principal characters much funnier than mere imitations of the stock braggart soldier, the mistress, and the parasite of Roman comedy. Finally, in “Ralph Roister Doister: Miles vs. Clericus” (NQ, 1960) Nan Cooke Carpenter has related the situation to the medieval debate, the play being a sort of dramatization of the question of who is the ideal lover—the soldier or the scholar—and deciding it in favor of neither, but giving the answer to a member of the rising wealthy merchant class.

Of the several modern reprints of the play, the text of Ewald Flügel in C. M. Gayley's Representative English Comedies has been generally followed, even to the extent of beginning a new line for each speech. In the original, however, the speeches, if short or irregular in length, were run along on the same line until a rhyming word was reached (the prosodic form), after starting with a limping rhyme royal, and becoming in general a rough Alexandrine or iambic hexameter.

Further Reading

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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.

Considers the significance of the funerals in Ralph Roister Doister and the rituals that surround them.

Additional coverage of Udall's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Dictionary of Literary Biography Vol. 62; Literature Resource Center; and Reference Guide to English Literature.

Marie Axton (essay date 1982)

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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 Mater's skirts when an honest English soldier appears. A letter comes from Ulysses, delivered by his son, Telemachus, begging his old enemy to intercede with Mater: her aid is sought in curing Telemachus of the worms. Thersites now berates his Mother, knocking her about the stage till her curses change to blessings and she undertakes the successful cure of the well-behaved boy. Ungrateful and preposterous as ever, her own son Thersites launches into a Skeltonic tirade against the old ‘witch’ until he is finally apprehended by the return of the English soldier and runs off leaving his club and sword. Miles points the moral.


To take such an ignominious legendary figure as the subject and make this fragment a full-blown literary entertainment was the sort of challenge to delight a humanist teacher of writing. Leonard Cox (c. 1524) wittily proposes the topic of Thersites:1

Homere in his Iliade describeth one Theristes / that he was moste foule and evyll favored of all the Grekes that came to the batayle of Troye / for he was both gogle eyed / and lame on the one legge / with croked and penched shuldres / and a longe pyked hede / balde in very many places. And besyde these fautes he was a great folysshe babler / and ryght foule mouthed / and ful of debate and stryfe / jacrynge alwayes agaynste the heddes and wyse men of the armye. Nowe if one wolde take upon hym to make an oracion to the prayse of this losel whiche mater is of little honesty in itselfe / he muste use in stede of a preface an insinuacion.

(fols Bb4v-5r)

The first author to give Thersites a play of his own was a Frenchman, Ravisius Textor (c.1480-1524).2 His Thersites is the scholarly parent of the English interlude. The original Latin text, together with my English translation is printed in Appendix I. Textor was a humanist teacher and writer of distinction, master of the Collège de Navarre in Paris and subsequently rector of the University. His dramatic writings, performed by his university students, were collected after his death and published in Paris in 1530. But Textor's reputation beyond Paris had been well-established by his earlier publications. Some idea of his impact in England may be given by a review of the editions now in the University Library in Cambridge. A copy of his Epithetorum (Paris, 1518) bears the name of Thomas Wriothesley, Udall's patron.3 This book, an aid to young Latinists suggests appropriate epithets for famous characters and terms for decorative amplification: ‘Mulciber: flamneus, igneus, fulminosus; Thersites: proteruus, obscoenus’. Textor's Cornucopiae (Paris, 1519) is a kind of dictionary, which Thomas Elyot might have found invaluable in compiling his own (1538). His Epistolae (Paris, 1529) teaches the art of letter writing with 149 sample epistles. These works went into many sixteenth-century editions and the copies securely in college libraries attest the wide diffusion of his work. Textor's plays may even have exceeded the seventeen editions recorded by his biographer Vodoz.4 That some of his dialogues were political satires we know from one of his private letters in which he complains of Francis I's repressiveness and his own imprisonment.5 There were three Parisian editions of the Dialogues between 1530-36. The first surviving English edition is Bynneman's of 1581. Unlike the great folios of Textor's other works the tiny volume of twenty-four dialogues is rare today. Much handled, these texts probably suffered the vicissitudes of other play scripts. There are none in the Cambridge libraries although we know that Textor was performed there. The Magnum Journale of Queens College Cambridge records on 15 January 1542/3 ‘actio dialogi textoris’ where on 22 February 1542/3 eight-pence was spent ‘pro picto clipeo quo miles gloriosus usus est in comoedia’.6 That this refers to Textor's own Latin play we can be sure because English Thersites, an even more incompetent warrior, forgets to ask Mulciber for a shield.

English adaptations of Textor appeared almost at once: John and William Rastell printed a version of his Pater, Filius et Uxor sometime between 1530 and 1534.7 Ralphe Radcliffe, student and then grammar master of Jesus College Cambridge in the same decade, translated three of Textor's dialogues into prose and dedicated the manuscript to Henry VIII.8 Radcliffe, who was tutor to the children of the Marquess of Dorset, subsequently ran a school at Hitchin in the buildings of the dissolved Carmelite Friary, where Bale admired his ‘very fine theatre’ made in one of the lower rooms for the use of his boys. There is a world of difference between the earnest, lifeless prose of Radcliffe's worthy efforts and the lilting irreverence of the printed Rastell fragment. This single folio leaf with its easy English idiom and added comic touches is in language and spirit closely akin to our English Thersites.

I can have lovers mo then one or two
That shall make my housbande without fayle
To have xx hornes more then a snayle.
The devyll cast wylde fyre in thy tayle. …


… I can understande no laten, I was never at Oxynby
No, nor yet in Cambrydge nor other instevynste.
Syr ye sholde say universyte, not instevynste.
I praye you good syr, holde me excused
For to such ropperype termes I am not used.
Well felow let me thy faggottes bye
And here is for them a peny
Ye shall have them mayster, with all my harte;
But tell me your name before you departe.
My name is Robyn ren awaye,
An hosteler that maketh the bottels of hey,
Dwellynge the nexte house to the cocoldes horne
Not farre from the place that your father was borne:
Jynckyn jumbler,
Rafe rumbler,
Philyp flumbler,
Thomkyn tumbler,
Stephyn stumbler,
Henry humbler.


With this alliterative boast, so similar to the romping Skeltonics of Thersites, the fragment ends. Thomas Ingelond's Disobedient Child (printed c. 1570) is another version of Pater, Filius et Uxor and shows the selective respect for relevant classical allusion found in Thersites, sharing with earlier English verse adaptation an exuberance of dramatic language.9

Among the non-dramatic ‘portraits’ of Thersites in early Tudor English, the most vivid is that added by Udall to his translation of Erasmus' Apophthegmes. This passage constitutes one of the strongest arguments for Udall's authorship of the play. Its couplets might serve admirably as a prologue to the comedy:

Emong all others, to Troye there came
An eivill favoured geaste, called by name
Thersites a pratleer be ye sure,
Without all facion, ende or measure.
Whatsoever came, in his foolishe brain,
Out it should, wer it never so vain.
In eche mannes bote, would he have an ore,
But no woorde to good purpose, lesse or more:
And without all maner, would he presume
With kynges and princes, to cocke and fume.
In feactes of armes, naught could he dooe,
Nor had no more herte, then a gooce therunto.
All the Grekes did hym deride and mocke
And had hym, as their commen laughying stocke.


The grotesque description which follows contains many specific details helpful to putting this ancestor of Richard Crookback on stage:

Squynt yied he was, and looked nyne wayes.
Lame of one leg, and hympyng all his dayes.
Croump shouldreed, and shrunken so ungoodly,
As though he had had but halfe a bodye.
An hedde he had (at whiche to jeste and scoffe)
Copped like a tankarde or a sugar lofe.
With a bushe pendente, undernethe his hatte,
Three heares on a side, like a drouned ratte.


Udall tells the story of Thersites' life in a few lines of prose:

And not long after his arrivall to Troye, for that he was so buisie of his toungue, so full of chattyng and pratleyng with every kynge and noble manne of the Grekes, Achilles beeyng moved with his saucynes and ymportunitee, up and gave hym suche a cuff on the eare, that he slewe hym out of hande, with a blowe of his fist


The high point of Textor's comedy is the snail combat. This amplification of the theme of cowardice draws upon a proverb native to both France and England.10 A whimsical tradition of marginal manuscript illustration can be traced from the end of the thirteenth century in northern France and subsequently in Belgian and English manuscripts.11 Apart from its timid self the snail has been made to signify a variety of things. Tardif, the snail in the Roman de Renart is attacked with sticks, maces, flails, axes, swords and forks and is shown sympathetically speaking in its own defence. The opponent of the snail in marginal warfare is identified as early as the twelfth century as a Lombard, a prototype of bourgeois or anti-chivalrous man; they were commonly known as usurers and as Papal collecting agents.12 The revival of interest in the snail combat at the end of the fifteenth century in France and therefore its inclusion in Le Compost et Kalendrier des Bergers is said to have been due to a desire to ridicule the recently established peasant militia. Undoubtedly the best known version of the encounter is in Le Compost and its many English offspring.13 The woodcut used by Guy Marchant suggests a possible staging. The snail dialogue continued to appear in English versions of the Calendar throughout the sixteenth century. The following version was translated from Marchant's by Robert Copland. It makes a charming little ‘play’, complete with stage directions:14

The woman speketh with an hardy courage.
          Go out of this place / thou right ugly beest
          Whiche of the vynes / the burgenynges dothe ete
          And buddes of trees / bothe more and leest
          In dewy mornynges / agaynste the wete.
          Oute of this place / or I shall the sore bete
          With my distaffe / bytwene thy hornes twayne
          That to departe thou shalt be fayne.
The men of armes with theyr fyers countenaunce.
          Horryble snayle / lightly thy hornes downe lay
          And frome this place / out faste loke that thou ryn
          Or with oure sharpe wepons / we shall the fray
          And take the castell / that thou lyest in.
          We shall the flee / out of thy foule skyn
          And in a dysshe with onyons and peper
          We shall the dresse / and with stronge vyneger.
          There was never venycyen nor lumbarde
          That dyd the ete / in suche maner of wyse
          And breke we shall thy house [stronge] and harde.
          Wherefore gette the hense by oure advyse
          Out of this place / of so ryche edyfyse
          We the requyre / yf it be thy wyll
          And lette us have this towre / that we come untyll.
The Snayle speketh.
          I am a beest / of ryght greate marvayle
          Upon my backe / my house reysed I bere.
          I am nother flesshe ne bone to avayle,
          Aswell as a grete oxe / two hornes I were.
          Yf that these armed men / approache me nere
          I shall them soone vaynquesshe everychone,
          But they dare not / for feare of me alone.

(sig. T 8)

The interlude Thersites expands Textor's 267-line dialogue to 915 lines. In this amplification Thersites and Mater are recreated as an English ‘ruffler’ and a folk-play ‘dame’ or ‘witch’.15 Newly invented are Thersites' opening monologue (T 1-21), Ulysses' letter (T 534-80), and Telemachus' worm cure (T 595-764); they are conceived entirely within the native comic tradition, though they allude albeit mock-heroically to episodes in the Iliad.16 To judge from Textor's dialogue and Epithetorum, he did not consider either Ulysses or Telemachus as ripe for comic deflation. In the English interlude this effect is achieved by a lowering of literary reference in the manner of Chaucer's Sir Thopas: Thersites threatens to quell Guy of Warwick and Sir Libeus Disconius and, when he has finished emptying out this rag-bag of classical and popular romance heroes, he proposes to harrow hell, purge purgatory and filch St Peter's keys. Whether this satire stays genially within the safe traditions which More and Heywood enjoyed is a moot point. Mater seems a sweet, foolish old thing: she mumbles her charms only under duress. But they are clearly more heathen than Christian. The relics she uses, absurd as they strike us, can be found catalogued in the Vatican Palace itself.17 Her practises undoubtedly breach the statute against witchcraft, promulgated in 1542, which states that only Biblical phrases may safely be used to effect a cure.18

The idiom of English Thersites is full of interest, allied, as has already been suggested, to the helter-skelter, would-be ‘popular’ verse of Skelton and to the school of early humanists, including Udall, who despised inkhorn terms and sought out native expression that was lively and colloquial. Textor's more recondite allusions—as study of the Notes will show—have been dropped by the English playwright or rendered homely: aerias ornus ‘lofty mountain ash’ (taken from Valerius Flaccus Argonautica) is changed to the local ‘oke’ (T 226); ‘Libyan lion’ becomes ‘raumpinge lyon’ (T 85); Mount Olympus shrinks to ‘Malverne hylles’ (T 114); ‘flints of Pyrrhus and lances of Hercules’ make way for ‘Bevis of Hampton, Colburne and Guy’ (T 116). These changes make the play immediately accessible to all, while enough allusion is added to delight those familiar with the story in the Iliad. Thersites' few Latin phrases are not actually literal importations from Textor: condatur mihi galea (T 31-32) has been rephrased; and ‘on thy hedibus’ (T 133) is the comic dog-Latin current in plays since Mankind. Detailed discussion of words and phrases may be pursued in the Notes. Worth mention in this context are ‘persecute’ for follow—a rare Latinism, and the nonce-word ‘intellimente’ (T 641) a Latinist's version of the more usual ‘intendiment’. More appetising to the non-specialist are the first recorded usages of ‘solybubbe’ (T 656), the creamy dessert which is to be served by Penelope at a party, and ‘Nevermas’ (T 826) for a holiday that never comes.

Neither the language nor verse of Thersites show much polish. Many lines seem more like rhymed prose than recognizable verse. Formal rhyme royal stanzas are used for the first 21 lines but eight-ninths of the play is couplets, triplets and monorhymed quatrains. Line length varies greatly. In the longer lines there may be from seven to fifteen syllables; iambic pentameters are rare and seem accidental:

Yf Malverne hylles shoulde on thy shoulders light

(T 114)

and lines can have four, five or six stresses. Triplets and monorhymed quatrains are frequent (23 and 17 respectively). Skelton's influence (Philip Sparrow) is heard particularly in Thersites' double-rhymed complaint of his Mother, with its good-natured and facile disgust:

About the house she hoppeth
And hyr nose ofte droppeth
When the wortes she choppeth.

(T 798-800)

Five quatrains with alternating rhyme are used. Three passages of tail-rhyme, cast in six-line stanzas are reminiscent of medieval verse romances (as in Thersites' heroic boast T 326-37).

The syntax is marked by the simple inversions and humble fillers necessary to achieve rhyme: ‘at a woorde’, ‘greate and small’. It is sometimes stiffened up by its Latin.

But I woulde have some helpe of Lemnos and Ilva
That of theyr stele, by thy crafte, condatur mihi galea

(T 30-31)

though there is no attempt (as there is in the later Horestes) at syntactical complexity.

Thersites, the miles gloriosus, is not really a Vice figure, but his off-colour sallies with the audience come from that stable:

Fye! blushe not, woman, I wyll do you no harme …
I praye you, shew how longe it is sence ye were a mayd.
Tell me in myne eare. Syrs, she hathe me tolde
That gone was her mydenhead at thrustene yeare olde.
Byr ladye! she was lothe to kepe it to longe.
‘And I were a mayde agayne’ nowe maye be here songe.

(T 254-60)

Here, (as at T 638) the punning is stressed and related to a familiar topos of popular song.19 Mater commends the importance of good education by means of homely proverbs:

A chylde is better unborne then untaughte.

(T 771)

It is good to set a candell before the devyll.

(T 777)

The play's wisdom is simple and formulaic, even in the mouth of the hardy soldier from Calais, the only serious character:

Be ye merye and joyfull at borde and at bede.
Imagin no traitourye againste youre prince and heade.

(T 906-07)


The single edition of Thersites is not dated. There is no entry for the play in the Stationers' Register. Its Lombard Street colophon places it in the period 1561-63.20 No other play texts printed by John Tysdale have survived and none is registered. His lack of experience in printing plays (and in the editorial adjustments often made for print) may account for his fortunate retention of the prayer for Henry VIII, Edward and Queen Jane, or he may have wished in retaining it to give some indication of the period in which the interlude was performed.

Love God, and feare him, and after him youre kinge
Whiche is as victorious as anye is lyvinge.
Praye for His Grace, with hartes that dothe not fayne,
That longe he maye rule us withoute grefe or paine.
Beseche ye also that God maye save his quene,
Lovely Ladie Jane, and the prince that he hath send them betwen
To augment their joy and the comons felicitie.
Fare ye wel, swete audience, God grant you al prosperite. Amen.

This concluding prayer for Henry VIII and for young Prince Edward and his mother (one of the first prayers for the sovereign in English drama), pins at least one performance of Thersites to a period of days between 12 October 1537 and 24 October when Jane Seymour was alive. Performance need not have been at court, although a payment to Udall by Cromwell in February 1537/38 has been taken as evidence.21 The cluster of allusions to Oxford and environs suggests that the interlude was first intended for performance there (‘proctoure and his men’ T 154; ‘Broken Heys’ T 155; ‘Cumner’ T 660; ‘Gyb of Hynxey’ T 745). Reference to winter (‘all the herbes are dead’ T 37, ‘I wyll geve the somewhat for the gifte of the newe yeare’ T 478) support the traditional dramatic season, the Christmas holidays, but may be conventional. An Oxford origin seems most likely, with student actors (‘little Telemachus’ T 324) taunting the proctors and threatening to break term to ‘stalk’ the streets of London.22 There were women in the audience (‘Fye! blusshe not, woman, I wyll do you no harme’ T 254); this is not inconsistent with information available about audiences at Christmas performances at colleges or Inns of Court.23

The stage directions are in English and give unusual help with the actors' gestures. Staging in a college hall seems appropriate. The playing place must be large enough for skirmish and chase, and sallies into the audience. Mulciber has a shop ‘made in the place’.24 He must be able to disappear entirely into it and its contents are kept hidden. It might be carried in or be in place when the play begins. A humble setting is part of the mock-heroic fun; Mulciber is more smith than god and, despite contemporary iconography which puts him in a cave, probably should have a craftsman's stall or booth.

The snail combat may be staged by reference to the Guy Marchant woodcut illustration in this edition. The isolated pillar about four feet high is quite big enough to conceal a person. The snail may appear slowly ascending from the back, animated as a large glove puppet, its horns moved by two fingers or, alternatively, inflated as children's curled party blowers are; both methods make the final retraction of horns an easy matter. Alternatively a small person may creep in wearing a shell in the manner of Sir Politic-Would-be.

Mater has ‘a place which is prepareth for her’ (T 380). It should be some distance from the central playing place to allow a good chase and time for Thersites to hide. There is nothing to suggest it is a house, but it may be provided with equipment used in her charming. At T 839 Thersites refers to her falling from a ‘forme’; if her place were provided with a bench this might be used in the mime and would give more space for Thersites to hide under the spread of her skirts as she sits. After his fright Thersites returns to the neutral ‘place’ where he receives the letter when Telemachus ‘cometh in’. They journey to Mater's place (T 584+) where the expulsion of worms is effected. Telemachus might lie on the bench, making the conjuration more visible to the audience. He ‘must lay hym down with his bely upward and she muste blesse hym frome above to beneath’ (T 696); this is easier to do if he is raised off the ground.

Entries are all made through the audience. Miles may disappear into the audience at T 507+ or leave the hall to await re-entry at T 875+. Telemachus (T 764), Mater (T 781+) and finally Thersites (T 885+) leave the hall. The triumphant English soldier remains, master of the place.

Suggestions for costume occur in the dialogue and may be eked out by reference to iconographic descriptions in Tudor writing. Thersites enters with a tall story about losing his ‘harnes’ (armour and arms) in a fire at the siege of Troy (T 9). Those in the audience who have read ‘In Homer of my actes’ (T 5) will suspect he has been beaten and stripped of his clothing by Ulysses (Iliad II.243-77). He might therefore enter almost naked with his club over his shoulder or, more preposterously, wearing the lion skin of Hercules to match the club.

Udall's translation of Erasmus describes a coward thus:

To a felow that took hymself for no small foole, because he jetted about the stretes with a lyons skynne on his backe, Diogenes said, ‘Thou feloe, wilt thou never leave puttyng the mantell or gaberdyne of manhhood and prowesse to shame?’

and comments:

He thought it a ful uncomely thing, that a persone effeminate (and suche a sheepe that durst not shewe his face emong menne, but was more like to crepe into a bench hole [my italics] then dooe any manly acte), would usurpe the wearyng of the wede of Hercules. The selfe same maye bee saied of those persones that with monstreous disguysyng of their vesture professen holinesse.

Thersites has a large, stiff black beard. Further details may be taken from Udall's description. Such armour as he receives from Vulcan should probably belong to an English foot soldier of the 1530s. Miles should have the same sort but should carry a shield and give the appearance of a ‘regular’ (see Note to T 411).

Mater needs a copious garment in which her son might hide and out of which she could take some of the more absurd ingredients for her charm. Telemachus would be dressed as the son of a nobleman; a short academic gown might suggest his exemplary nature.

Mulciber might be costumed according to Stephen Bateman's instructions: ‘Vulcan is figured lympinge, wyth a blew hat on his head, a hammer in his hand, prepared to the forge lyke a smyth.’


  1. The arte or crafte of rhethoryke [London, 1524]. Describing Thersites Cox paraphrases The Iliad, II. 216-19.

  2. The permutations of his name make Textor a catalogue nightmare; he was born Jean Tixier, seigneur de Ravisi but can be listed as Joannes Ravisius or Ravisius Textor.

  3. On Udall's patrons see Scheurweghs RRD, p. xxv and Edgerton Udall, p. 116.

  4. J. Vodoz, Le Théatre Latin de Ravisius Textor.

  5. Quoted by M. E. Cougny in Etudes historique et littéraires … des representations dramatiques … de la comédie politique dans les collèges (Lyons, 1868), pp. 43-44.

  6. Master Perne is paid two shillings and seven pence for expenses ‘circa actione dialogi textoris’ (Queens College, Magnum Journale III, fols 99r, 100v).

  7. Collections I.i, ed. W. W. Greg, MSR (Oxford, 1907). The folio leaf was used as end papers in a binding of Claudii Altissiodorensis Epistolam ad Galatas enarratio (Paris, 1542).

  8. University of Wales MS Brogyntyn 24 contains The Good Man and the Church, The Poor Man and Fortune and Death and the Goer by the Way translated by Radcliffe.

  9. Continuing esteem for Textor's Dialogues is suggested by the inclusion of his Earth and Age in Thomas Heywood's Pleasant Dialogues and Dramas (1637).

  10. ‘They resemble hym that dare not entre in to the path or waye for fere of the snayle that sheweth his hornes’ Caxton, Royal Book (London, 1484), fol.D5v.

  11. Lilian M. C. Randall, ‘The Snail in Gothic Marginal Warfare’, Speculum (1962), pp. 358-67. See also Folklore Studies in the Twentieth Century, ed. Venetia J. Newall, (Ipswich, 1980).

  12. Randall, ‘The Snail’, p. 366.

  13. First printed by Guy Marchant in Paris in 1491; Vérard printed a Scottish translation (Paris, 1503); publication in England spanned the period 1506-1631; see STC 22407-22423.

  14. STC 22411 was printed about 1528 and is ascribed to Wynkyn de Worde.

  15. See R. Axton, ‘Folk play in Tudor interludes’ in English Drama: forms and development, ed. M. Axton and R. Williams (Cambridge, 1977), pp. 11-12.

  16. In the Iliad II. 224-42, Thersites reviles Agamemnon for his treasure and women; in response Ulysses vows to strip and beat Thersites. Latin translations of both the Iliad and the Odyssey were made in the first century a. d. by Attius Labeo. A Latin translation of the Iliad was printed in Rome in 1497. The Ilias Latina, a paraphrase by an unknown author, was printed in Venice in 1476 as De bello Troiano. Before 1450 nine manuscripts of Homer in Greek can be traced in Italy (R. R. Bolgar, The Classical Heritage, pp. 458, 499-500). The first Greek edition of the Iliad was printed in January 1488/9 in Florence. The first English translation of the Iliad was made from French; ten books were printed in 1581.

  17. See Jonathan Sumption, Pilgrimage (London, 1975), pp. 222-23.

  18. Statute 33 Henry VIII:viii was repealed in 1547 under Edward VI and repromulgated by Elizabeth (5 Elizabeth I:xvi). To distinguish a good charm from a wicked one there must be: No suggestion or words of any pact with the devil; no unknown names; nothing untrue; only ritual signs of the cross; no credence in the manner of writing the charm or wearing it; Biblical phrases might be used only in their original context; there must be assurance that efficacy depended on the Will of God; for safety only standard prayers should be used. Keith Thomas distinguishes between the traditional Catholic denunciations of magic and idolatry and the Protestant desire to abolish magical rituals and sacred objects from ecclesiastical use (Religion and the Decline of Magic, p. 305; see also pp. 78, 213-14).

  19. The music for this song is transcribed in J. E. Stevens, Music at the Court of Henry VIII (London, 1962), pp. 78-79.

  20. John Tysdale was printing between 1558 and 1563; ten of the surviving twenty-four books bearing his colophon have no date of publication. He used the Lombard St. address from 1561 onwards. Thersites is conjecturally dated 1562 by the editors of STC.

  21. PRO E/36/256 fol.119v. I think it perhaps more likely from the large sum of money that the performance might have been the lost Ezechias. Whereas Lord Cobham's players were given 20 shillings in that same season, Udall was given £5. ‘Woodall the scolem[aster] of Eton: The seconde of February gyven to hym by my Lorde comaundement for pleying by fore hym v. li.’ For further information about Udall's lost play Ezechias which was performed for Queen Elizabeth in 1564 by the students of King's College Cambridge see John Nichols The Progresses of Queen Elizabeth, 3 vols. (London, 1823) I, 186, and ‘Regina Literata’ by Abraham Hartwell (I, 18-19) in Progresses, 2 vols (London, 1788) and Scheurweghs, RRD, pp. xxxv-xxxviii.

  22. Boas, (University Drama in the Tudor Age, p. 20) suggests that choirboys might have performed it.

  23. Nelson, The Plays of Henry Medwall (Cambridge, 1980), p. 6. M. Axton, ‘Robert Dudley and the Inner Temple Revels’, Historical Journal XIII, 3 (1970), pp. 373-74.

  24. For other staging ideas see R. Southern, The Staging of Plays before Shakespeare, pp. 209-304.


Axton, Richard, ‘Folk play in Tudor Interludes’, English Drama: forms & development, ed. M. Axton & R. Williams, Cambridge, 1977.

Boas, F. S., University drama in the Tudor age, Oxford, 1914.

Bolgar, R. R., The Classical Heritage, New York, 1954.

Edgerton, William, Nicholas Udall, New York, 1965.

Southern, Richard, The Staging of Plays before Shakespeare, London, 1973.

Thomas, Keith, Religion and the Decline of Magic, London, 1971.

Vodoz, J., Le Théatre Latin de Ravisius Textor, Winterthur, 1898.

List of Abbreviations

RRD: Nicholas Udall's Roister Doister, ed. G. Scheurweghs, Louvain, 1939.

STC: A Short Title Catalogue of Books Printed in England, Scotland and Ireland 1475–1640, ed. A. W. Pollard 1926; 2nd edn. revised and enlarged by W. A. Jackson, F. S. Ferguson, K. F. Pantzer, vol. 2, I-Z, London, 1976.

Howard B. Norland (essay date 1985)

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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 a better claim to that title. And it is not the first play in England to use the five-act structure; Grimald's Archipropheta, composed in 1546-47, adopted it. It may also not be the first English play to imitate Latin comedy; Jacke Juggeler which announces in its prologue its indebtedness to Plautus's “first commedie,” Amphitruo, may precede Roister Doister by a year or two. Roister Doister may be the most fully developed comedy to be produced in England before the reign of Elizabeth; however, it is not as “regular” a comedy nor as “English” as Baldwin and other critics believed.

Though some earlier scholars thought the play was written during Nicholas Udall's tenure as headmaster of Eton between 1534 and 1541,2 it is now generally accepted that the play was completed between 1551 and 1553. This is based on the fact that Roister Doister's mispunctuated letter is included in Thomas Wilson's third edition of Rule of Reason in 1553 as an example of ambiguity, but the letter is not included in the editions of 1551 and 1552.3 It is also in this reference to the play that Udall, Wilson's former schoolmaster, is identified as the author of Roister Doister. The question still remains as to whether the play was performed before the end of Edward VI's reign or after Mary came to the throne. Scheurweghs and Edgerton argue that the play was presented to young Edward in late 1552; Edgerton specifically sets the first performance in September 1552 at Windsor Castle.4 However, Baldwin and later Bevington believe the play was performed after Mary's coronation, perhaps as a part of the Christmas festivities in 1553.5The Annals of English Drama simply notes that the auspices of the play are unknown,6 but recent scholars generally assume the play was produced by choristers, perhaps from Bishop Gardiner's school, because of the five songs and mock-requiem in the play.7 The music and mirth, emphasized in the prologue and manifested throughout the play, point to a festive occasion, if not the celebration of the Lord of Misrule, perhaps a presentation at court.

The subject of the play, Roister Doister's wooing of Christian Custance, would be especially appropriate for Mary, whose marriage with Philip of Spain was negotiated in the fall of 1553. The attentions of unwelcome suitors, which Mary must have inevitably faced as an unmarried princess and queen, are here dispelled with laughter. This is not to suggest that Udall is singling out Edward Courtney, whom Udall tutored in the Tower, or any other contemporary candidate for Mary's hand. Udall, who also apparently wrote Respublica for Mary's court at about the same time, was much too adept at making his way in the new reign to create unnecessary enemies.8 Rather the wooer is created from literary precedents; the wooing is reduced to burlesque; and in the resolution, as at the end of Respublica, reconciliation prevails. Perhaps the humorous treatment of wooing led to the licensing of the play in 1566/67 and a possible revival for Elizabeth, the object of many suits during her earlier years as queen.

Whatever the particular occasion for composition or performance, the prologue indicates a self-conscious design for the play as it reveals its author's critical perspective. In the first fourteen lines the word “mirth” appears eight times in a defense of mirth as the appropriate effect of comedy because it lifts spirits and promotes good fellowship, but the prologue also emphasizes that the mirth the audience is about to witness is without abuse and is “vsed in an honest fashion” (8), for it is “mixed with vertue in decent comlynesse” (13)9. Assuring spectators that the play will not offend, the prologue expresses a moral aim. This joining of profit with pleasure is to be expected from the old schoolmaster Udall, well versed in Horace's principle of “utile et dulce.” Udall, also a translator of Terence, a standard school author taught in the second through the fourth forms at Eton,10 expresses in the third stanza of the prologue his orientation toward classical comedy:

The wyse Poets long time heretofore
          Vnder merrie Comedies secretes did declare,
Wherein was contained very vertuous lore,
          With mysteries and forewarnings very rare.
Suche to write neither Plautus nor Terence dyd spare,
Whiche among the learned at this day beares the bell.
These with such other therein dyd excell.


This stress on the didactic message of Latin comedy reflects Udall's grounding in the commentaries on Terence by Donatus and Renaissance humanists published with the texts of the plays in sixteenth century editions. Melanchthon especially emphasized the moral implications in his commentaries first published in 1525 and reprinted in many later editions including the influential De Roigny edition published in Paris in 1552.11 The identification of “secretes,” “mysteries” and “forewarnings very rare” in the “vertuous lore” could refer to the intrigue upon which many of Plautus's and Terence's plots depend, but Udall adds that these two authors “with such other therein dyd excell.” He does not identify what other authors he had in mind, but in the context of ancient comedy that Udall is considering, the only other extant classical comic dramatists were Menander, whose works were known only in fragments, and Aristophanes, who was recommended by Erasmus to be read before Homer and who was identified as a model of comedy by Vives.12 However, because the earlier part of the prologue had repudiated “scurilitie” (5), a quality particularly associated with Aristophanes, Udall may have deliberately avoided naming the Greek dramatist. Certainly the didactic purpose of the “Comedie … Which against the vayne glorious doth inuey” (25), as explained in the last stanza of the prologue, resembles Aristophanic satire more than the intrigue comedies of Plautus and Terence. The identification of Roister Doister's “humour,” which “the roysting sort continually doth feede” (26), suggests the dramatic emphasis is on comic exposure rather than the knot of errors characteristic of Latin comedy.13

Udall's adoption of the classical five-act three-part structure, explained by Donatus in his commentary on Terence, has long been recognized by scholars of early Tudor drama. Acts I and II introduce the principal characters and the principal action, the wooing of Custance, in accordance with the functions of the protasis. The division between Acts I and II appears arbitrary with the first act being approximately twice the length of the second. Act III begins the epitasis, “the business of the play” according to Ben Jonson,14 as Roister Doister's suit to Christian Custance and her response are dramatically portrayed. Acts III and IV, which are nearly equal in length, are clearly divided at the beginning of the fourth act by the complication that Custance's fidelity may be misperceived. Act IV ends with Roister Doister's ludicrous attempt to revenge Custance for spurning him, a climax to the wooing plot that compares to Renaissance commentators' designation of the summa epitasis or catastasis in Terentian comedy.15 Act V resolves the complication regarding Custance's virtue and provides reconciliation for the opposing parties, which is the function of the catastrophe in Donatus's structural analysis. Latin comedy as interpreted by Donatus and Renaissance humanists clearly served as the external model for Roister Doister, though as Udall's old schoolmaster at Oxford, Vives, believed, the classics should be regarded not as masters but as guides;16 and Udall took as his guides not only Plautus and Terence but also Aristophanes as he adapted classical materials to a contemporary context.

Plautus's Miles Gloriosus and Terence's Eunuch have traditionally been perceived to be the sources of Roister Doister, yet as Maulsby pointed out at the beginning of this century, Udall's indebtedness to Roman drama has been exaggerated.17 Hinton may be right in seeing The Eunuch as the essential source of the play, Roister Doister18, but Terence's popular comedy was more a source of inspiration than a model of imitation for Udall. The motif of an unwanted lover threatening violence after being spurned may owe something to Thraso's response to Thais in The Eunuch, but the differences in the circumstances of the two plays are very great. Thais is, of course, a wily prostitute who had entertained the braggart soldier on many occasions, and she rejects him only to protect the girl given her by Thraso earlier when she realizes the girl is in fact freeborn and the sister of a Roman gentleman. When Thraso prepares his attack, he means to recover the girl and punish Thais. Thais's counterpart in Roister Doister is an exemplar of feminine virtue, whose “courage, charity, and firm materialism” were, Bevington believes, meant to please the newly crowned Mary.19 Christian Custance, whose name suggests piety and constancy, engages in battle only for sport as she helps to create the liveliest comic scene of the play. In The Eunuch the threatened battle does not in fact occur.

The character of Roister Doister may have been suggested by Thraso and may owe something to Plautus's Miles Gloriosus, but the braggart soldier was so well-known a comic type that “Thraso” had become an insulting epithet traded by religious polemicists, including Luther and Thomas More.20 This familiar stock character of Roman comedy may have as early as the sixteenth century merged with the swaggering heroes of folk drama. Certainly the exploits recounted by St. George and his rivals in the hero combat texts savor of the type, and in the wooing folk plays the braggart is cast as a wooer, as in Roister Doister.21 Udall may have observed contemporary representations of the bragging suitor before his creation of Roister Doister, and if Udall is responsible for the short interlude, Thersites, as some scholars believe,22 he had previously drawn a caricature of the cowardly braggart. However, the most distinctive aspect of Roister Doister's character is his image as a mock-hero of chivalric romance who is compared to “Sir Launcelot du lake” and “greate Guy of Warwike” (I.ii.188-89) as well as to classical and biblical heroes. In his role as the love-sick knight, he recalls Chaucer's Troilus, as Plumstead notes,23 but the parody also pokes fun at contemporary sonneteers who had rediscovered Petrarch's love poems. Roister Doister is a complex portrait created from both ancient and contemporary sources.

Matthew Merrygreek has traditionally been linked to Gnatho, the parasite in The Eunuch, whose name like Thraso's had become generic for his character type. In his introductory soliloquy, Merrygreek identifies himself as a parasite who lives off “Lewis Loytrer,” “Watkin Waster,” “Dauy Diceplayer,” and other such idlers, but his “chiefe banker, / Both for meate and money, and [his] chiefe shootanker” (I.i.19-30) is Roister Doister. He thus establishes his relationship with his host as a parasitical one. Yet as the play proceeds his manipulation of Roister Doister more closely resembles the role of the witty slave of Roman comedy than the parasite. His energy and propensity for mischief may suggest the vice of the morality, but he lacks sinister intent. His motivation is sport, and like the comic servants of the cycle plays he promotes laughter at the expense of fools. His essential relationship to Roister Doister is that of guller to gull, and the effect of his words and actions is to expose the folly of his host. In the words of the prologue he “feeds” the “humour” of Roister Doister, thus fulfilling the play's purpose: “against the vayne glorious [to] inuey” (25). This role as an instrument of satire may be inspired by Aristophanes whose works along with Terence's were popular sellers in Oxford in 1520, when Udall was an undergraduate there, according to sales records of John Dorne.24 The name Merrygreek usually glossed simply as “merry fellow,” though “a Greek” also meant a “cheat” or “sharper” (OED), may allude to the Aristophanic connection, for Merrygreek is indeed more Greek than Roman.

An examination of the action of the play reveals that Aristophanic comic exaggeration prevails over Terentian intrigue. The precedent for misinterpreting Christian Custance's loyalty may be found in Terence, where misunderstandings of actions and characters' identities are often the foundations of the plots, but in Roister Doister this misapprehension is introduced only at the beginning of Act IV and is quickly resolved in Act V. It becomes hardly more than a momentary consideration as the play focuses on Roister Doister's gulling.25 Gulling is, of course, a motif in Roman comedy as the witty slave in aiding his young master misleads and diverts the hard fathers, grasping pimps, and foolish rivals. However, when Syrus misdirects Demea and ironically praises his “well-beloved” son, Ctesipho, in The Brothers, or when Gnatho flatters Thraso in The Eunuch, these actions are but means to an end, which is the triumph of youthful desire over constraining or blocking forces. Gulling is, however, often a primary action in folk tales and folk drama as well as in farce. Perusal of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, the chapbooks of “merry tales” associated with Tarlton, and farces such as Heywood's Johan Johan, demonstrates how pervasive and how central gulling as a comic motif is in popular entertainment in late Medieval and early Renaissance England. Many native literary and dramatic precedents of gulling plots were available to Udall, but most were more comic than satiric. Aristophanes offered a model of a satiric structure which often depended on gulling and which also employed the mode of burlesque. Aristophanes' fools like Strepsiades, justifiably beaten by his son with his newly learned logic in The Clouds, and Cinesias, teased by his sex-striking wife in Lysistrata, are comic butts, but most important they demonstrate the satiric point of the action. The satiric design coupled with the burlesque mode, which distinguishes Udall's gulling plot from both Roman and contemporary precedents, could have been found in Aristophanes.

The didactic purpose—“against the vayne glorious [to] inuey”—expressed in the prologue to Roister Doister determines the design of the play. The character of Roister Doister is described by Merrygreek in his opening monologue as the image of vainglory in the realms of both combat and love, for not only is Roister Doister a cowardly boaster as a swordsman, but also he believes that any woman who looks at him must love him. Merrygreek then explains how easily he can manipulate Roister Doister. The play thus opens with an exposition of the roles of Roister Doister as an object of ridicule and Merrygreek as the ridiculer. However, Roister Doister's first words indicate another dimension as he declares, “Come death when thou wilt, I am weary of my life” (I.ii.71). This melancholic association of death with love, anticipated in Merrygreek's description of Roister Doister's despair if his love is not returned, introduces the burlesque treatment of the lover that prevails throughout the play. Merrygreek's later identification of Roister Doister with “sir Launcelot du lake” and the “tenth Worthie” (I.ii.188 and 196) is extended into a parody of the hero of the popular romances. After purposely mistaking the old toothless Madge Mumblecrust as Roister Doister's new love, Merrygreek contends that Roister Doister

… killed the blewe Spider in Blanche pouder lande
… he bet the king of Crickets on Christ masse day,
… he wrong a club
Once in a fray out of the hande of Belzebub.
… He conquered in one day from Rome, to Naples.


This iteration of Roister Doister's imaginary feats is significantly similar to the boasts of St. George and other combatants in the folk drama texts collected in the last two centuries.26 Whether the sixteenth century versions of the folk plays burlesqued popular romance and provided a model for Udall is not known.

The burlesque spirit becomes more fully developed in Roister Doister as the action proceeds. After Roister Doister's tokens of love are refused by Christian Custance, Merrygreek reports that she has called Roister Doister “such a calfe, such an asse, such a blocke” (III.iii.900) that Roister Doister determines to “go home and die” (931). This prompts the most extensive parody of the play as Merrygreek takes Roister Doister at his word and proceeds with the death service. Scholars have suggested several possible sources for the mock-funeral here, including Skelton's Philip Sparrow and the poem “On the Death of the Duke of Suffolk, May 3, 1450,” in which parts of the service are put in the mouths of Henry VI's courtiers27; but it appears that the precedent in Aristophanes has been overlooked. At the end of the agon in Lysistrata, Lysistrata, furious with the Magistrate whom she has been debating, tells him “'tis time [he] were dead … an urn shall be bought,” and she will bake him a funeral cake. Her attendant women offer fillets to wear and a chaplet for his hair, and the metaphor continues with Lysistrata shouting, “What are you waiting for? / Charon is staying, delaying his crew, / Charon is calling and bawling for you.”28 This does not, of course, re-enact a funeral service in detail, but it employs in parodic form several elements associated with the rites of death in the ancient Greek world.

The death service is elaborated in Roister Doister, but the comic exaggeration is Aristophanic. The mock requiem printed at the end of the extant text of the play appears to have been inserted at different points in the dialogue in performance so that the lines of the Catholic rites, accompanied by Merrygreek's sermonizing, are occasionally interrupted by conversations between Merrygreek and Roister Doister for comic effect. Following Merrygreek's recitation of the Psalmodie praying for Christ's mercy and expressing woman's cruelty,29 Roister Doister moans, “Heigh how, alas, the pangs of death my hearte do breake.” Merrygreek rebukes him, “Holde your peace for shame sir, a dead man may not speake,” and then continues, “Nequando: What mourners and what torches shall we haue” (III.iii.938-40). The service proceeds with an alternation of solemn ritual and impromptu intrusions that break the illusion of the funeral. When Roister Doister responds, “None,” to the above question, Merrygreek intones:

Dirige: He will go darklyng to his graue,—
Neque lux, neque crux, neque mourners, neque clinke,
He will steale to heauen, vnknowing to God I thinke.
A porta inferi, who shall your goodes possesse?


The effect of this elaborate burlesque that concludes with the peal of bells is to satirize the lover, whose metaphor of “dying for love” is acted out literally. The Catholic rites are not themselves satirized, as E. S. Miller notes30; Udall merely uses them as a means to ridicule the posturing lover, which is further elaborated in Roister Doister's mispunctuated letter.

This letter, an example of ambiguity in Wilson's Rule of Reason and a precedent for the mechanicals' mispunctuated prologue to their Pyramus and Thisbe play in Midsummer Night's Dream, inverts a well-established convention of love. Dependence on a scrivener to provide an expression of love indicates not only Roister Doister's vacuous mind but also the emptiness of the convention. Whether Roister Doister is responsible for mispunctuating the love letter as he copied it or whether Merrygreek purposely misreads it—and evidence in the play supports both interpretations31—the letter when read to Custance turns compliment into insult and promises misery rather than joy in marriage:

… If ye mynde to bee my wyfe,
Ye shall be assured for the tyme of my lyfe,
I will keepe ye ryght well, from good rayment and fare,
Ye shall not be kepte but in sorowe and care.
Ye shall in no wyse lyue at your owne libertie,
Doe and say what ye lust, ye shall neuer please me,
But when ye are mery, I will be all sadde,
When ye are sory, I will be very gladde.
When ye seeke your heartes ease, I will be vnkinde,
At no tyme, in me shall ye muche gentlenesse finde.


The lover's honey-tongued promises of marital bliss become a warning against marriage. The mockery of the letter is interpreted by Custance to be directed against her, though in the context it is the wooer Roister Doister rather than the wooed who is mocked as well as the love convention he is representing. Roister Doister's response to Custance's angry dismissal of his suit is to weep, and another convention—that of the unrequited lover—is ridiculed, but it is Roister Doister's secondary response, revenge prompted by Merrygreek, that provides the burlesque climax for the vainglorious lover.

Dame Custance and the audience are prepared for the burlesque battle by Merrygreek, who insists that all is done in “mockage” for “pastance” and “sport” (, and as a result Custance joins with Merrygreek in Roister Doister's final exposure. She initially flees in supposed terror when Roister Doister approaches in battle array, which prompts a manifestation of hubris, but when she returns with her household of women ready for the fight, Roister Doister's true colors are shown. The scene quickly turns into a battle of the sexes as Roister Doister decked out with a cooking pot for a helmet is urged on by Merrygreek who purposely misdirects his blows on Roister Doister's head. Roister Doister and his men ignominiously flee before the courageous women in a farcical display of male cowardice that resembles more the confrontation of old men and old women in Aristophanes' Lysistrata than Terence's Eunuch, for Thraso leaves the field without doing battle. In Lysistrata the boasting chorus of old men threaten the old women with torches, but they are quickly dispersed when the women extinguish the men's phallic torches as well as their courage. In Lysistrata this confrontation between the male and female halves of the chorus reduces the conflict between the sexes to absurdity and foreshadows the feminine victory at the end of the play. In Roister Doister the burlesque battle makes the vainglorious lover even more ludicrous as it demonstrates the independence and courage of Christian Custance. As in Lysistrata, the burlesque action compliments women at the expense of the men, a judgment not to be missed by the newly crowned Mary, England's first ruling queen, or by her sister Elizabeth, if indeed the licensing of the play in 1566/67 signalled a royal revival.

The reconciliation that follows Roister Doister's comic exposure may be comparable to the typical endings of Terence's comedies, but in spirit it is more like the conclusion of Respublica.The Eunuch, Udall's supposed source, ends with a cynical accommodation of Thraso's fleshly appetites as Phaedria agrees to share Thais's favors with his rival. However, in Udall's play the chastened but not changed Roister Doister seeks to salvage his honor in a Falstaffian manner, as he pleads courtesy rather than instinct as the source of his cowardice: “… by the auncient lawe of armes, a man / Hath no honour to foile his handes on a woman” ( 1974-75). He is then invited to sup by his rival Gawin Goodluck, and he joins his new-made friends in song. The serious threat to Custance's reputation is quickly dismissed as forgiveness and good fellowship prevail in the spirit of Misericordia, who directs the resolution of Respublica, and in the spirit most appropriate for the festive occasion on which Roister Doister was first performed. The prayer for the queen and the “commontie” with which the play ends may indicate the presence of the queen at the performance, and the appeal that “God graunt hir as she doth, the Gospell to protect, / Learning and vertue to aduaunce, and vice to correct” ( 1999-2000) echoes the role of Nemesis (symbolizing Queen Mary) at the end of Respublica. Regardless of how one might feel about the militant Protestant Udall's accommodation to the new Catholic reign, one must remember Mary's role in translating Erasmus's Paraphrase of the gospel John under the direction of Udall in the late 1540's. This may be a gentle reminder by Udall of their earlier association as well as an appeal to be prudent and judicious, which is also the message of Respublica. If the play were revived for Elizabeth, the advice would be appropriate to her as well, for like Mary she was perceived as “the protector of the faith,” though the faith had changed, and the other royal missions to advance learning and virtue and to correct vice would be as much her responsibility as queen as it was Mary's.

In either case the play provides a message along with the entertainment as the prologue had promised, but in merging profit and delight in accord with Horace's advice, Udall has developed a structural satire “against the vayne glorious” that may owe more to Aristophanes than was earlier realized. Udall's adoption of the burlesque mode in his integration of native elements with classical models anticipates the major traditions of Elizabethan comedy, for both Shakespeare's romantic parody and Jonson's humour comedies develop motifs explored by Udall. Roister Doister is a more innovative experiment in comic form than its conventional designation as “the first regular English comedy” suggests.


  1. T. W. Baldwin among others makes this designation in Shakspere's Five-Act Structure. Shakspere's Early Plays on the Background of Renaissance Theories of Five-Act Structure from 1470 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1947), p. 380.

  2. J. Q. Adams in a note to his edition of the play in Chief Pre-Shakespearean Dramas (Cambridge, Mass.: Houghton Mifflin, 1924), continues to favor Udall's Eton years as the period of composition (p. 423).

  3. See A. W. Reed, “Nicholas Udall and Thomas Wilson,” Review of English Studies [RES], 1 (1925), 282.

  4. Nicholas Udall's Roister Doister, ed. G. Scheurweghs (Louvain: Librairie Universitaire, 1939), Materials for the Study of Old English Drama, 16, lv-lx; and William L. Edgerton, “The Date of Roister Doister,Philological Quarterly [PQ,], 44 (1965), 555-60.

  5. Baldwin, Five-Act Structure, p. 381; and David Bevington, Tudor Drama and Politics. A Critical Approach to Topical Meaning (Cambridge, Mass., 1968), p. 121.

  6. Alfred Harbage, Annals of English Drama 975-1700, rev. S. Schoenbaum (London: Methuen, 1964), p. 30.

  7. See Baldwin, Five-Act Structure, p. 381; Edgerton, “Date of Roister Doister,” p. 559; and Bevington, Tudor Drama and Politics, p. 121.

  8. Udall's adaptation to Mary's reign is the subject of considerable controversy. See especially William Peery, “Udall as Timeserver,” N & Q, 194 (1949), 119-21 and 138-41; W. L. Edgerton, “The Apostasy of Nicholas Udall,” Notes & Queries [N & Q,], 195 (1950), 223-26; and W. L. Edgerton, “Nicholas Udall in the Indexes of Prohibited Books,” Journal of English and Germanic Philology [JEGP], 55 (1956), 247-52.

  9. Roister Doister, ed. W. W. Greg (Oxford: The Malone Society Reprintings, 1935). All subsequent references are to the text of this edition.

  10. T. W. Baldwin, Shakspere's Small Latine & Lesse Greeke (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1944), I, 641.

  11. De Roigny's “variorum” edition, which Baldwin notes would incorporate most of the structural analysis of Terence (Five-Act Structure, p. 398), would have been available to Udall during his composition of Roister Doister, but as a veteran schoolmaster and former translator of Terence, he clearly knew earlier editions with their commentaries as well.

  12. Erasmus, De ratione studii, trans. Brian McGregor, Collected Works (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1974-), 24, 669; and Vives, De disciplinis in Opera omnia, ed. Gregorio Mayans de Siscar (Valencia, 1782-90), VI, 364. See my articles: “Vives' Critical View of Drama,” Humanistica Lovaniensia, 30 (1981), 103; and “The Role of Drama in Erasmus' Literary Thought,” Acta Conventus Bononiensis, Proceedings of the Fourth International Congress of Neo-Latin Studies (Binghampton, N.Y.: Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies, 1985), 549-57.

  13. Donatus in his commentaries on Terence's plays emphasizes error as the basis of the comic intrigue plots.

  14. See the summary of Act III in Jonson's “Argument” prefacing The New Inn.

  15. See Marvin T. Herrick, Comic Theory in the Sixteenth Century (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1964), pp. 119-22.

  16. De disciplinis in Opera, VI, 7.

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

  18. J. S. Hinton, “The Source of Roister Doister,Modern Philology [MP], 11 (1913-14), 273-78.

  19. Tudor Drama and Politics, pp. 121-24.

  20. See my article, “The Role of Drama in More's Literary Career,” Sixteenth Century Journal [SCJ], 13:4 (1982), 73.

  21. St. George, or King George, as he is sometimes called, typically introduces himself with an account of his exploits; other combatants and wooers often follow the same pattern.

  22. See Three Tudor Classical Interludes, ed. Marie Axton (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1982), pp. 2 and 5-10.

  23. A. W. Plumstead, “Satirical Parody in Roister Doister: A Reinterpretation,” Studies in Philology [SP], 60 (1963), 142.

  24. Ian Lancashire, Dramatic Texts and Records of Britain: A Chronological Topography to 1558 (Toronto-Buffalo: University of Toronto Press, 1984), p. xxiv.

  25. Robert R. Willson in ‘Their Form Confounded.Studies in the Burlesque Play from Udall to Sheridan (The Hague: Mouton, 1975) says the “testing of Custance [is] more of an occasion for rhetorical posturing than a crucial focus of the action” (p. 20).

  26. Beelzebub appears in several of the folk plays carrying a club or a frying pan.

  27. Udall's Roister Doister, ed. Scheurweghs, p. lxx.

  28. Aristophanes, III, trans. B. B. Rogers (London: William Heineman, 1924), 11. 599-607.

  29. The text indicates the insertion of the Psalmodie printed at the end of the text with the note “vt infra” following line 937.

  30. “Roister Doister's ‘Funeralls,’” SP, 43 (1946), 56-57.

  31. Note Merrygreek's admission that he read the letter “in a wrong sense for daliance” ( 1581). See also A. W. Plumstead, “Who Pointed Roister's Letter?” N & Q, n.s. 10 (1963), 329-31.

Elizabeth Pittenger (essay date 1994)

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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.
From Paules I went, to Eaton sent,
To learne streight waies, the latin phraies,
Where fiftie three, stripes given to mee,
          at once I had:
For fault but small, or none at all,
It came to pas, thus beat I was,
See Udall see, the mercie of thee,
          to me poore lad.(1)

The Authors life of his owne penning,” written by Thomas Tusser for the introduction to his Fiue hundred pointes of good Husbandrie (1573), is a generic example of autobiographical writing that recalls the experiences of a schoolboy.2 The conventional topics—being selected for the choir (“Queere”), going on from Petty school to higher forms (St. Paul's and Eton), the lessons in grammar (“the latin phraies”) and discipline (“fiftie three stripes”)—convey the boy's fraught relation to school and to his master, and go well beyond merely playing on the topos of “the best schoolmaster and the greatest beater.” Moreover, Fiue hundred pointes was reprinted in nearly twenty editions up to 1638; it thereby enhanced and perpetuated the reputation of Tusser's teacher, Nicholas Udall, as a fierce flogger.3 Udall (1504-56) was headmaster of Eton from 1534 until his dismissal in 1541. The obviously lasting impression he made on Tusser (and, presumably, on other pupils as well), is not my main concern in this essay.4 Rather, I juxtapose the two stanzas from Tusser's poem in order to raise questions about the relation of the eruptive violence of the pedagogic scene to the quiet eroticism of the choice of boys “to serve the Queere.” Illegitimate, anachronistic, irresponsible as it might be, if we hear a pun on “queer,” it draws attention to the ways in which the lines acknowledge and displace the attractiveness of boys, encouraging us to treat with suspicion the assertion that men's interest in boys is due to their capacity to sing, “the better brest, the lesser rest.” After all, it's hard to imagine what would happen in choir practice to provoke so much remorse: “For time so spent, I may repent, / and sorrow make.” Or why being pressed into “Queere” service—“Thence for my voice, I must (no choice)”—registers simultaneously pride and shame, the need to be apologetic though victimized. In the pages that follow, I will be pursuing this nexus of guilt, repentance, and punishment in much of the material connected to Nicholas Udall. Through him, I will be exploring the relationship that Tusser's poem also displays: the relationship between what may and may not be said and the registers for occluding and acknowledging male-male desire.


To begin, I turn to a curriculum vitae of sorts compiled by John S. Farmer, in his edition of Udall's comedy Ralph Roister Doister (1552): “Nicholas Udall … was a man of many parts in his time—public scholar, University man, heretic, recanter, Latin versifier, dictionary maker, potential monk, schoolmaster, suspect, Marshalsea man, theological translator and author, prebend, playwright, and Director of the Revels.”5 Amid the predictable and largely commendable activities of a Tudor humanist, two roles stand out: “suspect” and “Marshalsea man,” oblique references to some crime or infraction beyond those that are named, “heretic” and “recanter.”6 Though Udall spent much time in litigation over debt and other financial problems, the crime Farmer does not name is the incident that brought Udall to the attention of the Privy Council. On March 14, 1541, one day after Thomas Cheyney confessed to robbing articles of silver, the record reads:

Nic. Vuedale, Schoolmaster of Eton, beying sent for as suspect to be of councail of a robbery lately commited at Eton by Thomas Cheyney, John Hoorde, Scolers of the sayd scole, and … Gregory, seruant to the said scolemaster, and hauing certain interrogatoryes ministred vnto hym, toching the sayd fact and other felonious trespasses, wherof he was suspected, did confesse that he did commit buggery with the said cheney, sundry times heretofore, and of late the vjth day of this present moneth in the present yere at London, whervpon he was commited to the marshalsey.7

The record seems to leave little doubt: Udall confessed to committing buggery with his pupil, Thomas Cheyney, several times in the past and as recently as a week before the “interrogatoryes.” Immediately following, Udall was dismissed as headmaster of Eton and committed to the Marshalsea prison. While this would seem to indicate his guilt, the resolution of the case is not that clear. Udall's punishment is a rather mild one considering that 25 Henry VIII c. 6 made the crime of buggery a felony punishable by death.8 Indeed, as many scholars remark, the case hardly marked Udall's downfall, and in the decade following he enjoyed a distinguished career, prominent publications, financial rewards, and even favor at court.

The perplexing nature of the case, even as it is represented in the records of the Privy Council, asks us to start again and raise the most basic kinds of questions: what crime, if any, was committed? What relations obtain between the charges of burglary, debauchery, and buggery in the Privy Council record? How might these relate to the facts of the case, but also to the various representations of them that can be found in Udall's writing? Or indeed, in the explanations offered by modern scholars?

In his monograph on Udall, William Edgerton treats the case as a paradox.9 He argues that there would be no doubt about the charges if Udall had disappeared from the map. But Udall went on to thrive, an oddity, according to Edgerton, given the “unsavory character” of the crime (38). Edgerton draws the “obvious conclusion” that Udall had powerful friends at court and on the Privy Council, who “kept his offenses and trial secret.” Thomas Wriothesley, perhaps his patron, sat on the Privy Council and heard Udall's case. The situation was even more tangled because the Eton boy, Thomas Cheyney, was a relative by marriage to Wriothesley; thus there were other motivations for keeping the matter hushed. Plausible as this is, however, it will not explain why others in power would have had an interest in Udall. Nor will it account for the fact that even before the trial Udall's writing harps on being falsely accused and damaged by rumor.10

Udall's associations with well-connected men might explain why his career was left undamaged, but Edgerton argues that the “theory … leaves unexplained not only the Council's leaning over backward later to befriend Udall, but also why, if it was so anxious to keep the matter secret, it allowed his case to become a matter of record in the first place. Historians are only too aware that the Privy Council included in the register only matters it felt like recording” (38-39). Though it is not clear to me what Edgerton wants to claim about Udall's innocence or guilt, his language conveys an insinuating gesture: with the image of the Privy Council bending over backwards to help a sodomite out and then not too anxious about keeping the matter secret, Edgerton places both Udall and his Privy friends in compromising positions. Yet he continues oddly, coyly, to hedge “if the offense had really been buggery.”

Edgerton throws up his hands and opts for an answer that would make a room of editors proud: “There is one solution, although it means cutting the Gordian knot, and that is to suppose that an error was made in recording Udall's confession in the register” (39). He cites an article by E. R. Adair, who argues that the record is full of mistakes.11 The Clerk of the Council, William Paget, took rough notes and later transcribed them. His handwriting starts to deteriorate midway through the case. Thus “buggery” was accidentally confused with “burglary,” which, Edgerton reiterates, are near enough orthographically to be mistaken (40). What does it mean that textual error can be used to explain (away) the problems raised by this case, that guilt is transferred from records that are supposed to be accurate to the “corruption” of a recorder, whose handwriting “deteriorates”?12 And even if we entertain the textual emendation as a possibility, the correction still leaves questions unanswered; for how then do we understand the confession of repeated theft: “he did commit [burglary] with the said cheney, sundry times heretofore, and of late the vjth day of this present moneth in the present yere at London”?

One answer might be to note the way in which the questions surrounding Udall may belong to a more generalizable set of reactions stirred by legal cases that create the desire to know what really happened precisely because that knowledge is obscured or inaccessible. To operate within the problematic of these questions requires a constant negotiation of both historical and interpretive assumptions, a negotiation complicated in this case by sexual politics since the desire for evidence, both legal and historical, is exacerbated by the nature of the charges: the case insinuates but never openly pronounces that Udall was a pedagogue turned pederast. It suggests that any way of handling these oblique cases will have to be attentive to not only the circuitousness of the material but also the multiple ways that the material can and has been interpreted. Here, I would turn to the work of two readers of Renaissance “homosexuality,” Alan Bray and Jonathan Goldberg.13 Though they spend little if any time on Udall, I think they contribute the most to our historical and, in different ways, theoretical understanding of the elusive category of sodomy.

Alan Bray's account of the incident occurs during his sketch of the social structures that framed sodomy—households, pedagogy, prostitution, and theater.14 He presents “evidence that homosexuality was institutionalised” in the educational system and that the “limited effect which complaints about this had” reveals how “deep-rooted the institution was.”15 This explanation accounts for why Udall seems to have escaped unscathed and goes much farther in “cutting the Gordian knot” than Edgerton's textual fudging. To paraphrase Bray, as long as hierarchic and patriarchal institutions surrounded sodomy, and as long as it didn't disturb the peace, there was little impetus to pursue it as a crime (76-77). Strangely enough, there may be something to that laughable emendation: there is no buggery until there's burglary in the sense that sodomy is rarely prosecuted on its own but follows in the wake of other crimes, to which it's added or which it symbolizes.16

Bray's analysis of Udall is brief, less than a paragraph, yet he draws a powerful conclusion from the case: “it is indicative of the degree to which homosexuality was effectively tolerated in the educational system” (52). But the word “tolerance” is tricky since what he means is a reluctance to recognize, what he calls “sluggishness” later (75-76). Bray's move to attribute “tolerance” signals the framework of his own historically determined position in a post-Stonewall generation. Slippages resembling this one are simultaneously productive and damaging for the case Bray makes. For instance, notice that the particular way he words his account of Udall actually moves it away from the institutionalized context of pedagogy: “In 1541 Nicholas Udall, who was headmaster of Eton at the time, was involved in a scandal because of the homosexual relationship he had had with one of his former pupils. The events are somewhat mysterious, but the affair seems to have come to light during an investigation by the Privy Council into the theft of some school plate in which the boy had been involved” (52; emphasis added). He distances Udall's contact with the boy, a “former” pupil whom the master “had had” an interest in. Bray's account clashes with the Privy Council records, which make it clear that the boy was currently a pupil and the “relationship” ongoing. More important, since the Privy Council may not be the final word on the case, Bray's description clashes with his own account of “homosexuality.” He wants to hold that pederastic relations occurred in school yet he simultaneously fades out the image of a headmaster buggering a pupil by portraying a more familiar scenario: the “somewhat mysterious” “events” of the “affair” involve the “scandal” of a “homosexual relationship.” I hope I'm not alone in thinking that this sounds much more like the case of Oscar Wilde than it does that of an early sixteenth-century humanist.

The extent to which Bray operates out of a particular modern configuration is felt in the little ways he skews evidence, which are unavoidable and not necessarily problematic, except as they point to something more significant: Renaissance “homosexuality” is constructed on a model particular to the twentieth century. Two interconnected paradigms are deployed: Bray's historical method alternates between cruising and outing, both involving larger assumptions. He brings them together in his advice to others who might embark on the same itinerary: “In such circumstances historians should be watchful for signs, however difficult to detect, that for someone involved in a homosexual relationship the nature of that relationship might not have been as obvious to him as it is to them” (68). But the closet this presupposes is curious: at some level he has to put them there first, though he might argue that you don't always need an id to get in.17 The individuals who have been cruised and/or outed by Bray are “practically unconscious” that they are “involved in a homosexual relationship.”18 Even though Bray's essay on friendship in this volume attempts to claim the “open path” between the sodomite and male friend, he emphatically remains in the closeted world, frequently using the language of shadow and darkness to indicate male intimacy: “the shadows on the edge of social life” (40), “that hidden road” (47), “a darker interpretation” (51), and so on.

My point is not to Bray bash but to show, as others have, that the closet model is collapsible. More important, that to place “homosexuality as the dark secret at the heart of the symbolic world” (23) is also to place “sexuality” there, a problematic move given recent historical critiques of universalism and feminist critiques of essentialism and identity. The glitches in Bray's work raise two historical and theoretical issues, both centered on the concept of misrecognition: on the one hand there's the claim that one can see clearly through the misrecognitions of the early modern subject to a real sexual identity, a displacement that is itself a misrecognition. On the other hand, there's the claim that one can see clearly through the misrecognitions of the evidence to a real sexual practice.

The problem of identity, whether identity politics or essentialism, is too large to go into for the simple point I want to make: indeed, that it is a problem in Bray's work has already been pointed out by Goldberg in his “Familiar Letters.” To review briefly, Goldberg argues that Bray's account of Renaissance “homosexuality” presupposes a “modern ‘deployment of sexuality’ (in Foucault's term)” that “the deepest secret of the self is its sexuality” (113). Goldberg radicalizes Bray's and other historicist readings by arguing that “there were no homosexuals in Renaissance England” (113). Rather, addressing homosexual acts, he argues: “Such acts do not prove their actors homosexual; likewise, texts like … [Spenser's] Januarye eclogue (or Barnfield's classical pastorals) will never tell us whether their authors slept with boys. But they may, in the very exorbitancy that I have been reading, tell us about the ‘place’ of homosexuality in Renaissance England; not least if, as Bray contends, it had no place, was not a site of recognition of sexual identity” (114). In fact, as Goldberg goes on to point out about Bray's argument, recognition is systematically blocked by the widespread circulation of stigmatized stereotypes that fostered an effective dissociation (“disconnection,” “cleavage,” “disparity” 67-68) of the “monstrous” image of a sodomite from the “everyday” practices that involved sexual acts with other men or boys. But this and Goldberg's emphasis on texts, on representation, leads us to the second problem of misrecognition. In other words, the stereotypes work to enable the very practices they mock or condemn because they provide the mechanism for systematic misrecognition, “a mechanism that required a certain amount of self-delusion” (66). However, because Bray valorizes “evidence” as traces of what really happened, what they really did, he slights most forms of representation, textual and cultural, as factually worthless, as exaggerations, “downright distortions,” and “intensely frustrating.”19 Perhaps the conflict becomes clearer if we consider the double standard Bray applies to literary texts. For example, he cites John Marston frequently as one of the many satirists who built and perpetuated the distorted image of “the sodomite.” Yet he reads other passages characterizing pederastic pedants at face value, as reflections and evidence of the real practices between masters and pupils.20 The concept of misrecognition that he deploys (without using the term) does not presuppose a stable distinction between actual reality and mere representation, world and text; rather it presupposes that representation enables the world to go on as it does precisely because of the failure to translate text to world. And here I am using the language of Goldberg, who makes this argument elegantly:

It has become commonplace in certain critical practices that are called “new historicist” to argue that “love is not love” or that pastoral otium is really negotium. This essay shares with such work the desire to read texts into the world. But in describing the trick mirror that the Shepheardes Calender holds up to the world … it seems to me important not to allegorize and thematize the text so entirely that its sole function is to read the world at the expense of the text, to decide beforehand that the world is real and that the only reality that a text might have would be its ability to translate the world in terms that need to be translated back into the social, historical, or political.


Rather than engaging in a pursuit of sodomy, the untranslatable hidden behind the evidence, Goldberg pursues the “teasing play between revelation and reveiling” that “has the structure of the open secret” (115).21 In refusing to privilege negotium over otium, in refusing the distinction, he entertains what he implies is an erotics of the letter. And this is to lead us out of the closet that encloses Bray and frustrates the political and sexual investments of his project. Goldberg's notion of the complicities of an open secret better accounts for the case of Udall even though it may put into play problems similar to those of Bray's model. But before I pursue that point, I would turn from the supposed hard evidence of the Privy Council to the world of letters.


Because interpretations of the case raise doubts about the nature of the charges and about the conclusion that Udall actually committed buggery, scholars turn to another piece of evidence that seems to reflect Udall's own point of view, a letter he wrote shortly after his dismissal in which he represents himself in need of pardon from the “singular good master” he addresses.22 More than a dozen paragraphs long, the letter is a highly crafted piece of writing, maneuvering through appropriate topoi and anecdotes, peppered with Latin and Greek citations from highly regarded authors, and anchored by various expedient tropological figures.23 The overall aim seems clear: it is a mea culpa performance that moves from confession to ask for pardon by promising to amend. But the letter doesn't follow this straightforward trajectory and instead introduces, in its many digressions, paths leading away from its purported destination.

For instance, though the presumption of the address is a profession of guilt, the letter never delivers a confession. Udall hedges: “I trust ye shall finde that this your correpcion shallbee a sufficient scourge to make me, during my lif, more wise and more ware utterly for ever to eschewe and avoid all kindes of all maner of excesses and abuses that have been reported to reigne in me” (3; emphasis added). Udall never actually confesses to anything in particular; furthermore, he takes it all back by insisting that the allegations are precisely that, rumor, report, talk and nothing more.

He combines his bracketed confessions with equally dubious promises to mend his ways: “if ever I shallbee found again to offend in any suche kind transgressions as at this tyme hath provoked and accended your indignacion against me, I shall not oonly bee myn own judge to bee accoumpted for ever moste unworthie the favor and good will either of your maistership or of any other honest frend, but also to bee moste extremely punished to theensample of all others” (3; emphasis added). The initial qualification not only secretes the matter of his initial guilt, but it also deviously dares to be caught again and then takes the high moral ground of remorse and promised self-punishment.

But the real trick to the letter is the way he implicates his master, indicts him in the complicities of the open secret. For example, he models the language of his master's disdain on that of penetration:

Noo siknes, noo losse of worldly goodes, none ympresonyng, noo tormentes, no death, noo kind of other mysfortune could have persed my herte, or made in it soo deepe a wound as hath this your displeasure, whiche wound, if it might please your goodnes with the salve of your mercifull compassion to bryng for this oon tyme ad cicatricem, ye should not neede in all your life again to feare ne quand mea culpa vitioque recrudesecret [lest my fault and vice take root again].

(3; emphasis added)

In this economy of displeasure, one that provides undisguised rhetorical pleasure, for the master to withhold pardon is for him to become a partner in crime.24 But yielding pardon, the response Udall wants and gets, means the master loses as well, not only because he gives in; in the circuitous language of the letter, for the crimes to be forgiven they cannot be forgotten. Indeed, to overlook them is to reinscribe them:

All vices of which I have been noted or to your Maistership accused, being oons by the rootes extirped, and in their places the contrary vertues with counstaunt purpose of good contynuance in the same depely planted, I trust ye wold become better maister unto me aftir myn emendyng and reformacion then if I had never in suche wise transgressed.

(4; emphasis added)

Udall sticks his master between a rock and a hard place. The language of piercing, wounds, and insemination registers sodomitical penetration that the master will further both by withholding his pardon and by delivering it. The complicities of the open secret force the master to entertain the vices of his servant in order to become a better master, the displeasure at the prodigal son acknowledged as an instrument for greater pleasure. The resonance of the scenario with more familiar practices of mastery comes from its heavy-handed moralized and scripted quality. The letter parades the prodigality of rhetorical moves available to the language of castigation:

Accepte this myn honest chaunge from vice to vertue, from prodigalitee to frugall livyng, from negligence of teachyng to assiduitee, from playe to studie, from lightnes to gravitee … persuade yourself that the same repentaunce shall still remein within my brest as a contynuall spurre or thorne to pricke and to quicken me to goodnes from tyme to tyme as often as neede shall require.

(7; emphasis added)

The letter is signed, “Your most bounden oratour and servaunte, Nicolas Udall,” and it comes, as he claims, “from the botom of my herte” (7).

If the bounds of the letter can be extended to include Udall's overall position as a humanist, both teacher and writer, vis-à-vis influential members of Tudor society, the proper relation between master and servant appears to be similar to an improper, sodomitical one. Whether patron, pedagogue, or pater, the rules apply: straight service is marked by queerer ways. The complicity, discussed by Bray in his “Signs of Male Friendship,” points to “that network of subtle bonds amongst influential patrons and their clients, suitors, and friends at court … A concept so necessary to social life was far removed from the ‘uncivil’ image of the sodomite, yet there was still between them a surprising affinity, as in some respects they occupied a similar terrain” (42). And later he asks impatiently, “What distinguished this corruption from the normal workings of friendship? What distinguished, in effect, the bribes of the one from the flow of gifts and the ready use of influence of the other?” (56). Udall's need to curry favor, throughout his career but especially at times of crisis, kept him busy dangling a sense of secrecy about what was really at the bottom of his heart. The duplicity of his every move was felt so strongly that he was also accused of being a “timeserver,” that is, a flatterer, sycophant, parasite, changing sails at every wind.25 Of course it has to be pointed out that if you consider the reigns of Henry VIII through Mary, Udall was navigating in turbulent and treacherous waters.

It shouldn't be a surprise, then, that the letter of pardon brackets access to evidence of sodomy and that if Udall plays at anything he plays at (not) playing the sodomite.26 The letter, with its rhetorical tricks, multilinguistic play, and exemplary anecdotes, resists all the modes it seems to engage: confession, sincerity, penance; it leaves little that can be traced as evidence. It doesn't deliver. However, if as Edgerton suggests, Udall's career had ended here, we wouldn't have to search far to find ways to wrap up the case. We might read the circumlocutions of the letter as testimony to “things fearful to name” and to the unspoken recognition of the pedant tutor's vice. However, just the opposite is the case: the very qualities of Udall's writing that might deliver this evidence are the same ones acknowledged as exemplary. More than ten years after Udall's dismissal, his former student Thomas Wilson (1523-81), in the third edition of his well-known handbook for logic, Rule of Reason (1553), singles out his master's writing as an example of writing letters that never seem to mean what they say. Wilson, that is, offers the letter for its exemplary dissimulation. Not the letter of remorse, to be sure, but another prevaricating text from Udall's hand, a literary love letter taken from Udall's comedy, Ralph Roister Doister. Two versions of a letter with nearly identical words yet nearly opposite meaning are reproduced as an “example of soche doubtful writing, whiche by reason of poincting maie haue double sense, and contrarie meaning, taken out of an entrelude made by Nicolas Vdal.”27 Wilson's textbook enjoyed a wide circulation; thus the mastery of “ambiguitie,” imitated by later writers, most notably in the mechanicals' play of A Midsummer Night's Dream, was taught in the schools through the example of Udall's circumlocutions; his place as pedagogical master is restored by the techniques that he used to (not) play the pederast and by the devotion of Thomas Wilson, another Eton boy.28 The master's desire is ultimately delivered by the pages of one of his boys.29

Thomas Wilson would testify on his behalf in another court case a few years after his master's dismissal.30 Though much is known about Wilson's career and rise to power under Elizabeth, his relation to Udall puzzles scholars as much as the Privy Council record does. A. W. Reed concludes that “the association of the two men” that his study documents “argues an attitude on Wilson's part towards his old master that is not exactly reconciled with the charge alleged in the Acts of the Privy Council” (283). Reed may wish to insinuate that the disparity signals Udall's innocence; Bray would see in this “cleavage” yet another instance of “the sheer size of the mental adjustment they required” (67). But we might argue, along with Goldberg, that the “dehiscence” marks the complicities of an open secret, complicities between a pupil and his master all the more motivated in this instance since they are inscribed in the very same pedagogical space that brought Udall before the Council. When Udall was dismissed, Wilson chose to leave Eton with his master.31

The recognition that Udall was an exemplar for double and doubtful writing frustrates the project of “indicting” his letters in the sense of making public accusations and prosecuting formal charges. But “indict” has another sense, from Norman French, enditer, to dictate, a sense captured by an early Tudor spelling “endite.” Letters are also “endited,” dictated, composed, produced publicly. And it is in this sense that the letter of “ambiguitie” is produced in Udall's play.

The letter trick cited in Wilson's handbook involves two scenes of reading a love token penned by Ralph Roister Doister, a braggart soldier, and sent to Dame Christian Custance, a widow betrothed to Gawain Goodluck, whose absence leaves her open to advances. In what might be called a dalliance of the letter, she refuses to read it herself, which allows it to be deferred and eventually mishandled. The letter is delivered, in its entirety, not once but twice, in the course of the play (3.4.36-67 and 3.5.49-84).32 The two versions read are meant to be exact opposites—the one a love letter intended to persuade Dame Custance to marry Roister Doister and the other an insulting, misogynist diatribe. The trick of the letter lies in its supposed punctuation. In the first reading, performed by the mischievous Matthew Merrygreek, Roister Doister's “parasite,” it is “mispointed,” mispunctuated so that its lines will be misunderstood by Custance as a scathing attack. Implicit in the double reading is the sense that the repetition of the letter yields different results, that the effects of the letter depend upon its reader and listener, including the possibility that the letter might be miscarried and mistaken.

When the letter backfires, Roister Doister takes his complaint to the source, the Scrivener, whom he thinks to be at fault. The discussion of the letter (3.5) by Roister Doister, Merrygreek, and the Scrivener reflects upon the process of writing and it articulates a theory (or possibly theories) of writing:

ROISTER Doister:
I say the letter thou madest me was not good.
Then did ye wrong copy it, of likelihood.
ROISTER Doister:
Yes, out of thy copy word for word I it wrote.
Then was it as ye prayed to have it, I wot,
But in reading and pointing there was made some fault.
[The Scrivener recites the letter.]
Now sir, what default can ye find in this letter?
ROISTER Doister:
Of truth, in my mind, there can not be a better.
Then was the fault in reading and not in writing;
No, nor, I daresay, in the form of enditing.
But who read this letter, that it soundeth so nought?

(3.5.35-39, 84-88)

From the Scrivener's point of view, the letter has the kind of stability one might associate with a printed copy, an exact replica. The Scrivener, like Speed reading in Two Gentlemen of Verona, asserts that the letter's “in print,” exact as it was in his copy book and could not be mistaken, unless it were corrupted in its delivery.33 The Scrivener stands his ground on the letter's purity by staking everything on the exact reproduction of the original. He doesn't entertain the possibility that the very copy he wishes to secure might already be in question. We can see this if we ask where the letter originates and then factor in the many lines of transmission and the ambiguity these introduce. Roister Doister copies the letter so that it seems to be in his own hand. And this is confirmed by the exchange immediately following Merrygreek's misrepresentation:

ROISTER Doister:
Oh, I would I had him here, the which I did it endite!
Why, ye made it yourself, ye told me, by this light!
ROISTER Doister:
Yea, I meant I wrote it mine own self yesternight.
DAME Custance:
Iwis, sir, I would not have sent you such a mock!
ROISTER Doister:
Ye may so take it, but I meant it not so, by Cock!


It appears that however the letter was “endited,” dictated, or composed, Roister Doister manually imitates a version in a copy book, as though he were in a marginal state of literacy with the manual dexterity to wield a pen but not the literacy to write out or make up his own speech. This insinuation is made by the Scrivener, who tells Roister Doister to look “on your own fist” (3.5.43).

But when the Scrivener says there was no fault in the “enditing,” which scene of writing is meant? Roister Doister's copying or his own provision of the letter? The Scrivener seems to be the source of the original letter, which he apparently markets for prospective suitors. This is implied by Roister Doister's accusation: “Did you not make me a letter, brother?” To which the Scrivener responds, “Pay the like hire, I will make you such another!” (3.5.23-24). The letter in its original form was intended to be duplicated and intended for the duplicity of being signed by another. Though this might simplify the chain of transmission, it actually complicates the notion of both the original and the error. Roister Doister's love letter is not proper to him and he has no more access to its proper meaning than did Merrygreek or Custance (nor the Scrivener for that matter). So even though Merrygreek is blamed for the miscarriage of the letter, the potential for error in Roister Doister's imitation also is in play. Merrygreek suggests as much when he shows a suspicious interest as his master hands the letter to Madge Mumblecrust (Dame Custance's old nurse) to deliver:

It shall be done.
                                                            Who made it?
ROISTER Doister:
                                                                                                              I wrote it each whit.
Then needs it no mending?
ROISTER Doister:
                                                                                          No, no.
                                                                                                    No, I know your wit.
But are you sure that your letter is well enough?
ROISTER Doister:
I wrote it myself!

(1.4.127-28, 139-40)

These suspicions ramify to the two versions of the letter delivered in the play (the two letters printed in Wilson's guide to “ambiguitie”). We might suppose that the two versions correspond to two distinct letters, that is, to two different pages:

How say you, is this mine original or no?
ROISTER Doister:
The selfsame that I wrote out of, so mote I go!
Look you on your own fist, and I will look on this,
And let this man be judge whether I read amiss.


Although Roister Doister's page is clearly represented as distinct from the page in the Scrivener's copy book, the exchange between the parties nearly confuses the two. Although the printed texts of the two letters point them differently, there is nothing in this exchange to suggest that Roister Doister's copy and the Scrivener's are so differentiated. Rather, they appear to be “the selfsame,” transferable; these copies always differ from themselves, and from the start. The “two” letters are there at once; the “selfsame” original letter is never one and the same; the same page read in two different scenes delivers two different letters. The letter is originally a duplicate and duplicitous. The letter Merrygreek (mis)delivers inhabits the same space as the “proper” letter.

Merrygreek reads according to rhymed line endings, following the dominant pattern of speech in the play. The Scrivener reads according to the idea of proper pointing, to a notion of inflection registered on the page by graphic marks and spacing. It is impossible to tell, however, which copy of the letter the Scrivener reads “properly,” easier to suppose that both copies are unpointed, unmarked, unpunctuated, that each contains the other. True to his character type, Merrygreek delivers a letter that has a parasitical relation to the proper original, and he admits that he is at fault. But this verdict covers over the fact that the letter is duplicitous from the beginning. If the page that Merrygreek reads is graphically unpointed, it's hard to resist claiming that Merrygreek makes no mistake in pointing, for he delivers the letter according to the strong marker of rhymed couplets; to read against these would violate deeply ingrained formal and poetic rules as well as the “normative” speech of the characters in the play. In order to deliver the “proper” scribal letter, Merrygreek would have to step out of character, off of the stage and into the text of the Scrivener's letter as represented in its pointed printing. Instead he delivers a letter proper to a parasite, staying within the lines of his character type and within the line endings of the play.

There are other reasons to think that Merrygreek's “mistaken” reading is not in error. First, he delivers the “unconscious” of the letter, the strongly misogynist undercurrent that is rendered invisible by the (perhaps imaginary) graphic marks. This “unconscious” might require a more elaborate argument about the insidious violence of letters written to win over, thus overtake, rich and defenseless widows, but we can observe that it is hardly out of character for Roister Doister to deliver a misogynist letter. Indeed, he moves without a blink from wooing to assaulting. Merrygreek's account of the letter to Dame Custance later registers both:

Nay, Mistress Custance, I warrant you, our letter
Is not as we read e'en now, but much better,
And where ye half stomached this gentleman afore,
For this same letter, ye will love him now therefore;
Nor it is not this letter, though ye were a queen,
That should break marriage between you twain, I ween.


Second, Merrygreek's reading is true, in the ways that I've suggested, to the character of the play, in the sense that it corresponds to normative expectations of the comedy, from the character types (parasite and braggart soldier) to the classical form of plotting and the English quality of the verse.34 Moreover, as a parasite he generates possibilities and alternatives by manipulating and inflecting the available material around him. In this way, in his duplicity, he comes close to the Master of Eton, whose “proper” reputation was based on his ability to translate material, to appropriate the classics and find the appropriate English form, but he also suggests the “other” Udall we have been pursuing through these letters.35 Thus Merrygreek resembles Udall in more ways than one. Merrygreek's flair for generating alternatives produces a scene which bends Roister Doister's desire for a wife back toward himself. The parasite, perhaps to secure his position, suggests himself as the appropriate partner for his master; he plays the woman's part to keep his master playing his own.


One scene separates the two that deliver the letters; Roister Doister has heard that the love token caused his rejection and stands alone with his parasite, who castigates him:

What, weep? Fie, for shame! And blubber? For manhood's sake
Never let your foe so much pleasure of you take!
Rather play the man's part, and do love refrain.
If she despise you, e'en dispise ye her again!
ROISTER Doister:
By Gosse and for thy sake, I defy her indeed!


That agreed, Merrygreek babbles baby talk to mock the woman and his master:

Canst thou not lub dis man, which could lub dee so well?
Art thou so much thine own foe?
ROISTER Doister:
                                                                                                                        Thou dost the truth tell.
Well, I lament.
ROISTER Doister:
                                                            So do I.
ROISTER Doister:
                                                                                                                                  For this thing:
Because she is gone.
                                                                                I mourn for another thing.
ROISTER Doister:
What is it, Merrygreek, wherefore thou dost grief take?
That I am not a woman myself for your sake;
I would have you myself—and a straw for yon Gill!—
And [make] much of you, though it were against my will.(36)
And I were a woman—
ROISTER Doister:
                                                                                Thou wouldest to me seek.
For though I say it, a goodly person ye be.
ROISTER Doister:
I daresay thou wouldest have me to thy husband.
Yea, and I were the fairest lady in the shire,
And knew you as I know you and see you now here—
Well, I say no more.
ROISTER Doister:
                                                                                Gramercies, with all my heart.
But since that cannot be, will ye play a wise part?

(3.4.99-106, 109-11, 116-20)

The scene borders on transgressions in many ways: first, because it replays a sodomitical exchange, it mocks the serious charges launched by the Privy Council. Second, the imagined marriage capitalizes on the perhaps submerged implications of a master's relation to his parasite. The possibility of sodomitical relations is registered in stereotypical depictions of “private parasites,” servant boys for hire.37 The model parasite in Terence is named Gnatho and inspired a range of dubious English characters named for their “insectuality” such as Moth in Shakespeare's Love's Labour's Lost or Butterflye in Michael Drayton's Moone-Calfe:

And when himselfe he of his home can free,
He to the Citie comes, where then if he,
And the familiar Butterflye his Page,
Can passe the Street, the Ord'nary, and Stage,
It is enough, and he himselfe thinkes then,
To be the onely, absolut'st of men …
Yet, more than these, naught doth him so delight
As doth his smooth-chinned, plump-thighed catamite.(38)

Merrygreek's tendency to appropriate any position for expedience accounts for the difficulty of pinning down his motivations, especially when he entertains the idea of being Roister Doister's wife. He plays the parasite's part, but that doesn't entail playing in an “honest fashion.” “Scurrility” and scatology linger in his language, for instance, when he first appears and announces his role:

For what he saith or doth cannot be amiss.
Hold up his “yea” and “nay,” be his nown white son;
Praise and rouse him well, and ye have his heart won,
For so well liketh he his own fond fashions,
That he taketh pride of false commendations.
For exalt him, and have him as ye lust, indeed,
Yea, to hold his finger in a hole for a need.

(1.1.48-52, 55-56)

In this joking, he follows Udall's own translation of Terence's Gnatho, who characterizes the role of the parasite:

Suche men do I folowe at the taile, and amonge suche persones I do not so fashon my selfe, that they may laugh at me, but contrarie wise, what so ever they say or do, I shew them a mery countenance of myn owne self, & also make a great mervailing at their high wittis. What so ever they say, I comende it, that if they denie the same ageyne, that also I comêde: if a man say nay, I say nay also: if he say ye, I say yea to. And for a conclusion to be short, I maister & rule myn owne selfe, to upholde his ye and his nay, and to say as he sayth, in al maner thinges, for that is the next way now a days to get money ynough.39

Udall's translation interpolates the physical description, “follow at the tail,” in his effort to find the proper English character for the Latin (consector: follow, pursue, emulate). And in translating Gnatho into Merrygreek, he has his English parasite follow a similar bodily disposition.

In act 1, scene 4, Roister Doister leans over, “one word in thine ear,” a gesture that involves imagining some physical humor that would spawn Merrygreek's response: “Back, sirs, from his tail!” (1.4.44-45). Modern editors insert a stage direction, partly to explain this, and partly because the speech prefixes in the early modern text are unclear. But they may be reacting to more than a textual anomaly or an elliptical gesture if we can gauge it by an odd joke of the next line. Roister Doister echoes Merrygreek with a twist: “Back, villains! Will ye be privy of my counsel?” (46). The joke works in a number of directions at once, including the innuendo about “privy,” activated both by tail and by a possible set of gestures, but the most uncanny is the deliberately mocking evocation of the Privy Council. Not only is it brazen for Udall to make a joking reference to a case that could have meant his death, but that he would do so in the context of men bumping around a guy's tail, clamoring to get privy to his ears seems inconceivable. Or is it? Perhaps not: if we follow Bray's arguments about unacknowledged complicities or Goldberg on the “open secret,” the “privy counsel” emerges right where we would expect it, in the midst of a sodomitical scene.

Similar jesting occurs in the seemingly gratuitous play later in the scene (1.4). Merrygreek takes the opportunity to pluck at Roister Doister's coat, reiterating “by your mastership's licence” and “by your leave” (1.4.94, 99). Finally Roister Doister erupts, “What is that?” (99). To which Merrygreek responds, “Your gown was foul spotted with the foot of a gnat” (100), the lousy parasite on whom Merrygreek's character is based. “Their master to offend they are nothing afeard” (101). Roister Doister speaks this line, but it speaks through him, saying more than he could possibly know, more both about Merrygreek's position and strangely about Udall's, if we think back on the letter to his master. And the next few lines enact a scenario analogous to the events ten years before:

A lousy hair from your mastership's beard.
And sir, for nurse's sake, pardon this one offence.
We shall not after this show the like negligence.
ROISTER Doister:
I pardon you this once; and come sing ne'er the worse.


Though Udall may have never received his pardon with such ease, he did come to sing never the worse. Here we need only recall Tusser's generic autobiography or Udall's service to the queen as a master of Revels.

Udall's talent for the Revels envelopes his mastery at revealing and reveiling, dissembling moments in which his career surfaces as if hidden in the play. For example, when Dame Custance expresses disapproval toward her serving ladies, Tibet Talkapace says,

If ever I offend again, do not me spare.
But if ever I see that false boy any more,
By your mistresship's license, I tell you afore,
I will rather have my coat twenty times swinged
Than on the naughty wag not be avenged!


Once again, echoes of the letter, of appeals to the master, of the Eton boy, of promised self-punishment, of beating. Echoes then of Udall's career. “For fault but small, or none at all. / It came to pas, thus beat I was, / See Udall see, the mercie of thee, / to me poore lad.” His reputation on the line, Udall is remembered as “the best schoolmaster and the greatest beater,” pedagogue, and pedant but never pederast. The innuendo of “swinge,” to beat and to fuck, is the word missing in Tusser's poem that would link the quiet eroticism and the eruptive violence noted in the Eton boy's tribute to his master.


To end on this note would be not to recognize my own position. The economy of the open secret still indicts the letter, still translates text into evidence of the world, a world in this case between men. The open secret, more subtle in its procedures of revealing and reveiling, still opens and shuts like a closet. The erotic play of dangling a secret deploys the erotics of textuality as an instrument for the erotics of sexuality. And this is to play along with the revelling master, to follow him to the letter.

The wise poets long time heretofore
Under merry comedies wise secrets did declare,
Wherein was contained very virtuous lore,
With mysteries and forewarnings very rare.
Such to write, neither Plautus nor Terence did spare,
Which among the learned at this day bears the bell;
These, with such other, therein did excel.

(The Prologue, 15-21)

In finding the proper English translation of Plautus and Terence, Udall echoes the familiar theory of the spirit of the letter, the kernel and shell game played with classical texts in order to render them appropriate for Christian readers. The point of claiming that there are hidden “secrets” is to shuck off all improperness, in the words of the Prologue, “avoiding all blame,” “scurrility,” “abuse,” mirth for health, the “honest fashion.” But Udall can't keep a secret. All the jokes in the play are about the dishonest fashion, the pleasure of abuse, the appeal of scurrility, mirth for mirth's sake. The secret, in short, may be that there is no secret.

If Udall can't keep a secret it might be because he does not have one. Even in the (non) place of early modern homosexuality, the open secret still assumes that there is a there there, a place not signaled yet signaling nevertheless. What happens when we pursue the secret, looking for signs that point to the bottom of Udall's heart, that confirm that he was a sodomite, and that he was brazen (or moved) enough to stage a scene between men? We might decide to continue to look for the words that might speak to his legal case. For instance, Christian Custance bemoans being accused unworthily, something repeated in Udall's letter and in his paraphrases of Terence:

O Lord, how necessary it is now of days,
That each body live uprightly all manner ways,
For let never so little a gap be open,
And be sure of this, the worst shall be spoken!
How innocent stand I in this, for deed or thought,
And yet see what mistrust towards me it hath wrought!


A little gap, a little pleasure, and it “hath stained my name forever, this is clear,” says the Dame (4.3.66). Udall echoes this complaint in the work he did immediately after his dismissal from Eton, especially in a translation of Erasmus's Apophthegmes. In a passage (342) about Demosthenes not giving ten thousand drachmas to stay one night with Lais, “I will not buy repentance so dear,” Erasmus writes, “Unto unhonest pleasure, repentance is a prest [ready] companion,” and Udall adds, “Yea, and one property more it hath, that the pleasure is small and is gone in a moment; the repentance great, and still enduring as long as life continueth.”40 Or in the mouth of the Dame: “Gay love, God save it, so soon hot, so soon cold!” (4.3.38).41

But what does this reading perform? To put it in a manner that cuts both ways, what do we gain from another skeleton in the closet? I hope that I've pointed out enough of the problems to suggest that this would not be the way to go, though I concede that it has to be acknowledged as a constant temptation, one that recognizes our position as readers with particular sets of stakes and desires. In choosing another way, I don't want to minimize the importance of what the real person Nicholas Udall did. I honesty don't think there's any way to know. But I do wonder what more it would add if we did. Instead of indicting Udall, looking for evidence that proves he “played the man's part,” that he swinged his Eton boys, we might look at the case as evidence itself of other things, of the different meanings—theatrical, sexual, and social—of playing the man's part and the woman's as well. One thing the play also enacts is production of misogyny at moments when the homosocial fabric is ruptured. Always the parasite, Merrygreek plays at playing the woman's part. He pretends to be the mouthpiece for Dame Custance in order to tell Roister Doister the thoughts he's kept secret:

Now that the whole answer in my devise doth rest,
I shall paint out our wooer in colours of the best.
And all that I say shall be on Custance's mouth;
She is author of all that I shall speak, forsooth.


By putting the Dame in the authoring position, he de-authorizes her; she's just a cover, a shuck that can be scapegoated if necessary. His playing the woman's part allows him to dissimulate in speech, simultaneously saying nasty things directly to Roister Doister while avoiding the violence he would threaten against a man. Merrygreek has fun shoving it in his master's face, reporting to Roister Doister that he said to Custance: “‘Ye are happy,’ ko I, ‘that ye are a woman! / This would cost you your life in case ye were a man’” (3.3.37-38). Of course, this isn't true; he never said that to Custance because she never said the things he said she said. The only nugget of truth in it is that Merrygreek has in fact just performed the very act he makes up about the scene with the Dame: he has followed his own advice to her, happy that he plays the woman's part in teasing his master. The hypermasculine threat, like so many of Roister Doister's, is laughable since the joke behind the character of the braggart soldier is inability to play the man's part. If fear of retaliation doesn't work as a motivation, why then does Merrygreek play the woman's part? Even if the answer were that it's funny, we'd have to ask why. Merrygreek associates dissimulation with women: “O Jesus, will ye see / What dissembling creatures these same women be?” (3.2.39-40). And dissimulation is the dominant rule of his role as parasite. The relation of the parasite to the braggart can be differently gendered; what Merrygreek proposes to do to Roister Doister were he a woman (in the marriage scene), he's always already doing by virtue of the position he adopts toward Roister Doister. Parasites suck off their hosts.

More important than the homoerotic implications is that the parasitic relation he has to Roister Doister is structured around misogyny, on both of their parts, no matter what different things they do vis-à-vis Dame Custance. She carries all the culpability though she's never let a gap open. In the case of Merrygreek, the misogyny is often a displacement of his own parasitic relation. For Roister Doister, the play and the man, the misogyny is generated as a by-product of the circulation of homosocial energy, which at times, like that of the marriage scene, becomes homoerotic. Then it's no accident that the marriage scene occurs between the letters, for the joke of the letters is that gynophobia and gynophilia come from the same place: it just depends on how you point it. (“Ye may so take it, but I meant it not so, by Cock!”) And it's no accident that Merrygreek is the one to reveal how a love letter could be taken as hate mail, since he has tried his hand at playing both parts. Playing the woman's part means recognizing that there is no “behind” behind the letter. The two letters in the play are hinged by a scene between men. And there's nothing between them.


  1. Thomas Tusser, Fiue hundred pointes of good Husbandrie (London: Henrie Denham, 1580), 85r.

  2. Tusser (1523-80) begins his verse “calendar of rural and domestic economy” with forty stanzas on his life, the sixth and eighth of which are quoted above.

  3. William L. Edgerton brings up the issue of “the greatest schoolmaster and the greatest beater” in his discussion of the poem and Udall's reputation in his monograph Nicholas Udall (New York: Twayne Publishers, 1965), 32.

  4. Edgerton cites a poem by John Parkurst, Bishop of Norwich, that praises Udall's command of Greek and Latin letters, his talent for teaching, and his inspiring “genuine love.” Among the pupils at Eton, the two most notable are Richard Mulcaster, headmaster of the Merchant Taylor's School and author of two pedagogical works, and Thomas Wilson, secretary of state under Elizabeth and author of two rhetorical handbooks.

  5. John S. Farmer, ed., The Dramatic Writings of Nicholas Udall, Comprising Ralph Roister Doister, A Note on Udall's Lost Plays, Note-Book and Word-List (London: Early English Drama Society, 1906), index. 151. In addition to the play, which some claim is the first successful reworking of Plautus and Terence into English, Udall translated Erasmus's Apophthegmes (1542) and Paraphrases upon the New Testament (1548) and Peter Martyr's A Discourse Concerning the Sacrament of the Lordes Supper (1550). His most important pedagogical contribution was a text that served as a textbook for Latin grammar and speech, Floures for Latine Spekynge (1533), line-by-line translations and glosses of Terence's Andria, Eunuchus, and Heautontimorumenos.

  6. In 1527 Udall may have been implicated in a heresy hunt at Oxford, where he was lecturing in Greek and logic. He was acquainted with a group circulating Lutheran works and the banned Tyndale translation of the New Testament. The incident is recounted in John Foxe's Actes and Monuments. For Udall's involvement, see Edgerton, 23-24.

  7. Harris Nicholas, Proceedings and Ordinances of the Privy Council of England (London: G. Eyre and A. Spottiswoode, 1834-37), 152, 155, 157. There is no record of the amount of time Udall spent in the Marshalsea prison. With the publication of his translation of Erasmus's Apophthegmes in 1542, one might wonder if he served any time at all. Edgerton implies that he fled to a friend or patron in the North (47-48).

  8. For further discussion, see Donald Mager's essay “John Bale and Early Tudor Sodomy Discourse,” in this volume.

  9. Edgerton's chapter “A Turning Point” reviews the case and weighs the evidence, yet remains inconclusive. Half of the chapter is given over to a modernized reprint of a letter Udall wrote following his dismissal from Eton (41-45).

  10. In his textbook Floures for Latine Spekynge the language is laden with a sense of the law. For example, he “translates” the line “Quod illum insimulat durum, id non est” as “Where as he accuseth hym, or sayeth to his charge, that he is harde or streyte, that is not so” and feels compelled to add a gloss: “Insimulare is proprely to lay to ones charge, a cryme that is not true, but a forged matter” (126v-127r). Spoken by Cremes to his son in Heautontimorumenos (2.1), the sentence concerns the harsh stance of fathers and the loose life of sons and is closer to “as to the boy pretending his father is hard, that's not so.” Udall aims for paraphrase of the spirit rather than translation of the letter, but here as elsewhere he adds a sense of his own. See the facsimile edition, Flowers For Latin Speaking, 1533 (Menston, England: Scolar Press, 1972).

  11. E. R. Adair, “Rough Copies of the Privy Council Register,” English Historical Review 37 (1923): 410-22.

  12. For an analysis of the ways the materiality of handwriting serves various gendered and political agendas, see Stephanie Jed, Chaste Thinking: The Rape of Lucretia and the Birth of Humanism (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1989), and Jonathan Goldberg, Writing Matter from the Hands of the English Renaissance (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1990).

  13. I shall focus on Bray's Homosexuality in Renaissance England (London: Gay Men's Press, 1982), although his essay reprinted in this volume, “Homosexuality and the Signs of Male Friendship in Elizabethan England,” is also useful and important. Jonathan Goldberg reviews Bray's argument in his “Colin to Hobbinol: Spenser's Familiar Letters,” South Atlantic Quarterly 88 (1989):107-26, an essay included in his Sodometries: Renaissance Texts, Modern Sexualities (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1992).

  14. Beginning with “the land” and demographics, Bray describes the patriarchal household as the central institution on which others are modeled. He singles out the authority of the master over those who belong to the household, especially children and servants, and suggests that the power differential similarly structures relations between teacher and pupil, client and prostitute, patron and actor (42-57). The power relations in pedagogy stand out as peculiar, though, since the position of power, the teacher or headmaster, is also one of service; the boys, or perhaps their fathers, are the clients of a school or tutor even if the boys register the lack of power (being “pressed” to perform lessons or plays, “to serve the Queere,” and so on). A paedagogus was after all an educated slave.

  15. His description of schools relies on pederastic jokes about pedant tutors (51-52). As he says of other satiric caricatures, these stereotypes circulated widely in forms so standard that it is difficult to know how they might be related to any specific context. The remarkable similarity of jokes about pederastic pedants, for instance, in fourteenth-century Florence (Boccaccio) or in medieval France (Alain de Lille), simultaneously flags attention for more investigation and a warning about assuming that they are straightforward “evidence.”

  16. Bray makes this point in his discussion of sodomy's relation to other “crimes” (heresy, atheism, blasphemy, sedition, drunkenness, lying) and concludes that as a sexual act it signified “hazily,” closer to “an idea like debauchery” (2-3). A discussion of the “burglary” of this case with Jonathan Goldberg helped clarify this point.

  17. He argues that “there was little or no social pressure for someone to define for himself what his sexuality was” (70), but as my italics indicate, this still presupposes that he has one.

  18. “Practically unconscious” refers to a notion developed by Harry Berger, Jr., in an essay on psychoanalysis and discourse. Troping on the “practical conscious” of social theory, the practical unconscious is a strategy by which the subject remains ignorant of the effects of his acts in order to continue to perform them, a strategy of misrecognition. See Berger's “What Did the King Know and When Did He Know It? Shakespearean Discourses and Psychoanalysis,” South Atlantic Quarterly 88 (1989): 811-62.

  19. He begins his chapter “The Social Setting” with the problem of producing social history out of literary texts (33-38) and then moves on to similar problems with legal texts (38-42). His argument that court records are largely “convenient legal fictions” more concerned with “correct legal form” (38) adds even more reason to be suspicious of the Privy Council record, although he would take it in a direction opposite from that of Edgerton.

  20. Immediately before the case of Udall, he quotes Marston on “some pedant-tutor in his bed / Should use my fry like Phrygian Ganymede” (52).

  21. Goldberg reworks the notion of the “open secret” from D. A. Miller's The Novel and the Police (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988), 192-220.

  22. The addressee is unclear though it is assumed that he was a patron of some sort. Edgerton mentions three names: Robert Aldridge and Richard Cox, both Eton schoolmasters, and John Udall, high in court circles and possibly a relative (46).

  23. A copy of the letter, Cotton MS Titus B VIII, is printed in Sir Henry Ellis's Original Letters of Eminent Literary Men of the XVth through XVIIIth Century (London: Camden Society, 1843), 1-7.

  24. For this formulation, I am indebted to Jonathan Goldberg.

  25. Such a debate was carried out in the pages of Notes & Queries: William Peery, “Udall as Timeserver,” Notes & Queries 194 (1950): 119-21, 138-41, and William L. Edgerton, “The Apostasy of Nicholas Udall,” Notes & Queries 195 (1950): 223-26.

  26. For more on “playing the sodomite,” see Goldberg's chapter entitled “The Transvestite Stage: More on the Case of Christopher Marlowe,” in Sodometries, 105-43.

  27. For a recent publication of Wilson's 1553 edition, see Richard S. Sprague, ed., The Rule of Reason, Conteinying the Arte of Logique (Northridge, Calif.: San Fernando Valley State College, 1972), 166-67. W. W. Greg discusses and reprints Wilson's citation of the two letters in a facsimile edition of Ralph Roister Doister (London: Malone Society Reprints, 1934), v-vii. Most critics now agree that this citation works to date the play to the early 1550s. Because of Wilson's close association with Udall, critics assume he would have quoted the play in earlier editions of The Rule of Reason, and therefore argue for a more precise date, 1552. Some argue that this date explains Udall's appointment to Court Revels in 1553-54, but this reasoning simplifies the matter. Udall was already involved with members of the court as tutor, translator, and writer; and while the records show the bestowing of praise and money for entertainments under Mary, Udall held no official position in the Revels.

  28. The Prologue's “mispointed” speech insults the audience, though the aristocrats in the play are delighted rather than offended (6.1.108-17). Related tricks of misreading occur in Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, in Marlowe's Edward II, and in Kyd's Spanish Tragedy.

  29. At work in the transmission of knowledge, through humanistic pedagogy, is the circulation of “pages,” both letters and boys. The reproduction of mastery performed in school depends upon the imitation of the master and of master texts by the pupil, who then goes on to carry these letters, goes on, as Wilson did, to be imitated himself. This “master/page dialectic” is modeled on inscriptive practices, which in turn inscribe the subject. The close proximity of pedagogic inscription and pederastic insemination is a topos found especially in the Platonic dialogues.

  30. A. W. Reed, “Nicholas Udall and Thomas Wilson,” Review of English Studies I (1925): 275-83.

  31. In his monograph Thomas Wilson (Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1986), Peter E. Medine suggests that there is “reason to suppose, furthermore, that something like an affectionate relationship developed between Wilson and the master, Nicholas Udall” (5).

  32. The most accessible edition is an anthology in the New Mermaids' series, Charles Walters Whitworth, ed., Three Sixteenth-Century Comedies: “Gammer Gurton's Needle,” “Roister Doister,” and “The Old Wife's Tale” (New York: W. W. Norton, 1984).

  33. Though the letter Speed reads is handwritten, he claims “this I speak in print, for in print I found it” (2.1.159). The Scrivener subscribes to the promise of “mechanical reproduction,” perhaps a fundamental assumption of his craft, but a promise never delivered by hand nor by the mechanical printing press. I argue this point in more detail in “Dispatch Quickly: The Mechanical Reproduction of Pages,” Shakespeare Quarterly 42 (1991):389-408.

  34. For a discussion of Udall as “the father of English comedy,” see A. W. Plumstead, “Satirical Parody in Roister Doister: A Reinterpretation,” Studies in Philology 60 (1963): 141-54.

  35. On Udall's theory of translation, or paraphrase, as a step beyond the philology of early humanism, see T. W. Baldwin, “Schoolmaster Udall Writes the First Regular English Comedy,” in Shakespeare's Five-Act Structure (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1947), 375-401.

  36. There's a textual problem here: Whitworth prints “mock” while other editions have “make.” The early modern text prints “mocke,” which authorizes the Mermaid editor's choice. Since both are in the line, one heard through the other, depending on who is listening, I took the license to choose the one Roister Doister hears, the one that registers the sodomitical sense.

  37. Bray, Homosexuality, 54.

  38. The passage is cited in Bray, 33-34. See J. William Hebel's edition of Drayton, Works (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1961), 173-74, ll. 283-88, 315-16.

  39. Udall's translation of Gnatho's speech in Eunuchus (2.2) in Floures, 67r-v.

  40. For this point and the citations, I rely on Edgerton, 46.

  41. The line, bracketed out of context, is a citation from another early English drama, Wit and Science (1540), which was a popular schoolboy play, cited and parodied in subsequent generations: “Hastye love is soone hot and soone cold.” The large number of citational lines in Roister Doister pulls together proverbial sayings with morality plays and classical drama. The references to Terence are most important since the play is envisioned as a reworking, or reiteration, of Terentian subplots in an English inflection.

Greg Walker (essay date 1998)

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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 appointed headmaster of Eton in 1534.1 While at Eton, Udall seems to have developed a reputation for the zealous administration of corporal punishment. A former pupil was later to protest about his treatment at the headmaster's hands in doggerel verse.

From Paul's I went, to Eton sent,
To learn straightways the Latin phrase;
Where fifty-three stripes given to me at once I had
For fault but small, or none at all.
See, Udall, see, the mercy of thee, to me, poor lad.(2)

But it was his departure from Eton, rather than the disciplinary regime he oversaw there, which has aroused the most anxious scholarly comment.

On 12 March 1541, one John Hoorde, late scholar of Eton, was examined by the Privy Council in connection with a robbery he had committed at the college in company with another former pupil.3 On the following day the second scholar, Thomas Cheyney, was also questioned and, like Hoorde, confessed his involvement in the crime.4 William Ember, a London goldsmith who evidently acted as a fence for the boys, was also committed to custody ‘for the buying of certain images of silver and other plate which was stolen from the college of Eton’.5 It was on the following day that Udall became involved in the affair. Having evidently been implicated in the crime by the boys' confessions, the headmaster was ‘sent for as suspect to be of councail of a robbery lately committed at Eton by Thomas Cheyney, John Hoorde, scolers of the sayd scole, and … Gregory, servant to the said scolemaster’. Once summoned before the Council, Udall had ‘certain interrogatoryes ministred unto hym, toching the sayd fact and other felonious trespasses, wherof he was suspected’. What emerged from this interrogation resulted in Udall's imprisonment in the Marshalsea and his dismissal from Eton and has blighted his literary reputation ever since. Scholars have been remarkably coy about this aspect of the affair, being unwilling to admit—or even to name—the nature of his offences.6 But, what seems abundantly clear is that Udall confessed, not only to a role in the robbery, but to having a homosexual relationship with one of his co-conspirators and former pupils. When questioned, he ‘did confesse that he did commit buggery with the said Cheyney. sundry times heretofore, and of late the vjth day of this present moneth in the present yere at London’. That Udall was an acknowledged homosexual itself troubled previous generations of scholars. That he admitted committing sodomy with a former pupil proves too much for even most modern commentators to accept. Hence, William Edgerton ingeniously attempted to absolve the playwright of the whole business, attributing the reference to ‘buggery’ to a scribal error on the part of William Paget, Clerk of the Council; suggesting that the word intended was ‘burglary’, and speculating, increasingly unconvincingly, that the offence and the allusion to the event having been committed ‘at sundry times’ and once at least in London, might be accounted for by a moment's inebriated weakness on Udall's part.

The robberies at Eton may have consisted in the drunken headmaster's breaking open the chests containing the church ornaments and of giving them to the boys to sell to the goldsmith. If that is so, Udall might have in this case extended their operations to London.7

This, Edgerton argued, was a far less serious offence than buggery—indeed, at a time of Reformation iconoclasm it need not be considered an offence at all. ‘Too many people’, he argued, ‘had misappropriated church property at that time to make it seem the heinous crime it appears to us.’

Thus through the assumption of a careless piece of book-keeping, Udall is turned from a paedophile schoolmaster to an endearing mixture of Raffles and Robin Hood, throwing open the college coffers for his pupils' benefit. This enthusiastic attempt to exonerate Udall is engaging in its naiveté, but tells us rather more about the prejudices of its author than the events surrounding Udall's dismissal.8 What the sources suggest, however unpalatable it might be to some critics, is that Udall was indeed guilty of sodomy with a pupil who, while adult by modern standards, was still young enough to be considered a minor at the time.9

If Udall suffered a period of disgrace as a result of his misdemeanours, however, it was short-lived. In September 1542 Richard Grafton published his Apophthegmes, an annotated translation of part of Erasmus' Apophthegemata, and by 1543 he was once more enjoying patronage at court, editing and translating The Paraphrases of Erasmus at Catherine Parr's instigation.10 He was also able to continue his teaching career, for in 1549 he was appointed tutor to Edward Courtney, the royal prisoner in the Tower of London, and was to gain the headmastership of Westminster School on 16 December 1555, almost exactly a year before his death on 23 December 1556. He continued to enjoy support in high places during his final years, being appointed a canon of Windsor in 1551 and rector of Cranborne in 1553, and having work performed in or around the court, including his celebrated pseudo-Terencian interlude Ralph Roister Doister (first produced c. 1552, possibly before Edward VI), an earlier interlude, Thersites (c. 1537), and perhaps also Jack Juggler and Jacob and Esau, now frequently ascribed to his authorship.11


From his early years as a student, Udall was, it seems, a committed religious reformer. As early as 1528, while a Fellow of Corpus, he had been disciplined with others for reading the works of Luther and Tyndale's English translation of the New Testament.12 In 1533 he was collaborating with another Oxford man, John Leland, the future antiquarian, in the production of pageants for Anne Boleyn's coronation. During the 1530s and early 1540s he was mixing in reformist circles and translating protestant works. In 1538 he produced an unknown play (perhaps his biblical drama Ezechias) in the household of Thomas Cromwell. By 1543, as we have seen, he was working on the translation of Erasmus' Paraphrase of the New Testament, under the patronage of Queen Catherine Parr, and in 1546 he gained from the queen a portion of the living of Hartyng, Sussex, a reward he shared with Richard Moryson, the protestant propagandist. In 1550 he translated the Tractatie de Sacramente of Peter Martyr and dedicated it to the queen, and in 1551 he contributed verses to two volumes of encomia, one dedicated to Martin Bucer, the other in memory of the two sons of the patroness of reformers, the Duchess of Suffolk.

Such credentials would not have disgraced a protestant exile, thus it is unsurprising that Udall was to lose out materially on the accession of Queen Mary. The canonry at Windsor, granted in 1551, was taken from him in 1554 and given to one of the new queen's chaplains, and he was also deprived of the lucrative rectory of Colborne on the Isle of Wight. But, beyond these setbacks, Udall suffered little evident loss of favour at court. He continued to produce dramatic works in the royal household, was singled out for special praise by the queen and offered what amounted to an ongoing commission to provide plays for the court in the second year of the reign.13 Evidently he was not considered a dangerous radical by the new regime. Even the arch-conservative Bishop Stephen Gardiner was to leave him forty marks on his death in 1555. But, as we shall see, Udall was to prove himself adept at advancing a radical case in the guise of apparently conformist counsel.


The play is a political morality in the style of Skelton's Magnyfycence or Lindsay's Thrie Estaitis. The eponymous central figure differs, however, from Magnyfycence or Rex Humanitas both in being representative of the state as a whole rather than of the prince in particular, and in being female. Her condition also differs in small but significant respects from those earlier figures. She begins the play already destitute, for example, a ‘poor wydowe’ in need of the wise, male ministers who will restore her estate. Her subsequent fate is, however, sadly familiar. Instead of wise consellors, she accepts the blandishments of Avarice, disguised as Policy, who convinces her that he should take over the running of the estate. He in turn calls in his fellow vices, Insolence, Oppression, and Adulation (or Flattery), listed in the dramatis personae as “gallants’, who, in traditional morality fashion, adopt alter egos, here Authority, Reformation, and Honesty. Once installed in office, the vices exploit the resources of the realm for their own benefit, prompting People, an honest rustic, to protest at the ruinous lot of the common folk. The vices connive to remove People from court, however, and keep Respublica in ignorance of the true state of the nation until they have gleaned all the pickings to be gained from office. Only with the arrival of the four daughters of God, Misericordia, Veritas, Justicia, and Pax, is the true state of affairs revealed and the vices are confronted. Finally, the goddess Nemesis, specifically (the ‘Prologue’ informs us) a figure for Mary Tudor, enters to judge the vices.14 Avarice is handed over to People to be pressed like a sponge until all his ill-gotten gains are returned to their rightful owners. Oppression and Insolence are imprisoned awaiting trial. Only Adulation, who offers a frank confession, is released and permitted to use his talents hereafter in the service of the state.


The only surviving manuscript text of the play, once owned by Sir Henry Spelman (?1564-1641) and subsequently part of the drama collection of the Reverend Cox Macro (1683-1767), describes it as ‘A merye entrelude entitled Respublica made in the yeare of oure Lorde.1553. and the first yeare of the moost prosperous Reigne of our most gracious Soveraigne Quene Marye the first’.15 That the text as we have it was performed at Christmas—or at least written with such a performance in mind—is made clear by the wish in the ‘Prologue’ that the audience enjoy ‘health and successe with many agoode newe yeare’ (line 1) and his description of the play as ‘some Christmas devise’ (line 6). The ‘Prologue’ also indicates that the text was written for children, asking rhetorically ‘But shall boyes (saith some nowe) of suche highe mattiers plaie[?]’ (line 39) and referring to the production as offered by ‘We children to youe olde folke’ (line 47). Beyond this there is little that is certain about the play. The ascription to Udall has been convincingly made by W. W. Greg and others on stylistic grounds.16 And there is other circumstantial evidence to link the play to Udall and to a performance at court during the Christmas season of 1553/4.

The text certainly reads as if a court performance was intended. The references to Queen Mary, the prayers for her and her council, and the bringing in of a clear surrogate figure for her in the form of Nemesis in the final act, all make most sense if a production at court was intended. Furthermore, there is clear evidence that Udall did write and produce plays for Mary during the first year of her reign. A warrant of 13 December 1554 granting ‘our welbelovid Nicholas Udall’ free use of the costumes and properties held by the Revels Office makes clear that he had already ‘at sondry seasons convenient hertofore shewid and myndeth herafter to shewe his diligence in settinge forthe of dialogues and Entreludes before us for our Regall disport and recreacion’.17 What these productions may have involved is not clear from the surviving accounts. A play had been prepared for performance at the coronation in September 1553, but seems to have been postponed until Christmas at short notice two days before the event itself.18 The possibility that this play may have been Respublica has been mooted, but seems to be refuted by a further document, a warrant to the Master of the Great Wardrobe issued on the last day of September, commanding him to provide the bearer with costumes and properties for a play to be performed by the Gentlemen of the Chapel ‘for the feastes of our coronacion’. The warrant lists the dramatis personae of this play as Genus Humanum, five virgins, Verity, Plenty, Self-Love, Care, Deceit, Sickness, Feebleness, Deformity, a Good and a Bad Angel, and the Epilogue.19 Clearly this list does not tally even remotely with the cast or action of Respublica. Scholars have dealt with this evidence in a number of ways. Feuillerat, persuaded by the absence of any direct references to other plays in the Revels accounts, concluded that only one play was performed before the queen between 26 September 1553 and 6 January 1553/4, the one played at Christmas 1553, which was the same play postponed from the feast of the Coronation, i.e. Genus Humanum or Self-Love.20 Greg, on the other hand, argued that two plays were performed, one Genus Humanum/Self-Love at the Coronation and another, Respublica at Christmas, and that Respublica had indeed been postponed from September/October until Christmas precisely to make way for the performance of Genus Humanum/Self-Love at the earlier date.21 Neither explanation seems fully to account for the apparent contradictions in the evidence.

From the Revels accounts it seems clear that a play was prepared for the Coronation but then cancelled at short notice—a fact which seems to have left those involved less than happy, hence the somewhat tetchy remarks about the amount of work begun ‘but then left off again’ which recur in the accounts. No references to a new play to replace this postponed production exist. Only the dating of the warrant to the Great Wardrobe, apparently sealed two days after the work in the Revels Office was left off, suggests that anything further was done to provide a dramatic entertainment for the Coronation feast. A more plausible explanation of these documents might be that no play was performed during the Coronation celebrations. An elaborately costumed and casted production of Genus Humanum/Self-Love was prepared, but was left off at the last moment, and the play was subsequently produced at Christmas. A warrant for the costumes for this production was prepared, and may have been post-dated to 30 September, or sealed in error on that date, but only after the decision to postpone the production had already been made, thus making it already redundant at the moment it was dated. The alternative possibility, that the Revels Office and the Great Wardrobe had been preparing for a production of Respublica, requiring equally elaborate costumes and properties to those listed for Genus Humanum/Self-Love, but had been ordered to stop two or three days before the play was due to be performed, and then began preparing for an entirely different production (a play for which the Great Wardrobe was asked to provide 19 costumes, utilising 21 yards of damask, 3 yards of kersey, and 128 yards of satin, at a maximum of three days notice) seems highly unlikely.22

But, if this is accepted, where does this leave Respublica? If one accepts Feuillerat's interpretation of the documents, it could not have been played at court over the Christmas period, 1553/4, as we have already accounted for the only play performed there during this period. But this conclusion does not seem necessary. The idea that only one play was offered at Yuletide is based upon the absence of clear reference in the Revels accounts to any productions other than that postponed from the Coronation feast. But what we know of Christmas revels in other years suggests that a number of productions were usually offered. Had there really been only one play performed this year it is highly likely that this would have attracted adverse comment from other sources.23 Arguing from silence is always a hazardous undertaking, and in this case seems to fly in the face of the other known facts. Mary's warrant to Udall, referring to his dialogues and interludes played in the royal presence at ‘sondry seasons convenient’, suggests a number of performances of which the surviving accounts show no trace. Furthermore, in the following year the Revels accounts themselves mention the cost of preparing materials and properties for

divers and sondry maskes both for men and wemen as plaies set forth by Udall and other pastimes prepared, furnyshed, and set forthe owte of the revelles this yeare to be shewed and done in the Kinge and quene their majesties presence from tyme to tyme as the same was commaunded and called for.24

The ensuing accounts themselves refer only to the masques, however. Udall's plays and the other unspecified pastimes leave no other trace in the records.

That there are no references to named plays in the surviving records need, then, not be as conclusive as Feuillerat claimed. Indeed, the evidence would seem to point in the other direction, for the Revels accounts do contain one generalised reference to other plays. A list of charges for the period 22 September 1553 to 6 January 1554 talks of the expenses required ‘to furnysshe owte certen playes sett foorth by the gentilmen of the chapell’. Feuillerat's suggestion that ‘playes’ here must be an error for ‘playe’ seems unconvincing. Had the text read simply ‘playes’, this might be a possibility, but the phrase ‘certen playes’ suggests that the writer had the plural form in mind as he wrote. And, as he was accounting for entertainments for which his own office was responsible, his testimony commands respect, not least as the separate accounts from which this overall record of charges was derived also allow room for more than one play to have been supported.25

What, then, seems most likely is that Respublica was indeed performed at court over Christmas 1553/4. A number of plays were produced there by the Gentlemen and Children of the Chapel Royal during the first year of Mary's reign. Respublica is a Christmas play, written for children, by an author who is known to have had a number of plays performed at court during that year. The weight of probability that Respublica was one such play seems compelling. Moreover, as we shall see, it does address directly a number of issues which were of immediate concern to the court and the government at this time.


Critics have generally assumed that Respublica's political agenda is neither pointedly critical nor particularly concrete in its assertions. It is described as a ‘gently satirical play’, a text which ‘eschews the violence of religious controversy’, an exercise in ‘great tact’ which represents not the particular details of the recent past ‘but rather the abstracted meaning of those events’. The activities of its vices are said to be indicative only of ‘a timeless pattern of worldliness’ rather than of specific contemporary evils: ‘their only distinction from earlier practitioners of such villainy is their specious cry of reform’.26 But such readings underestimate the wealth of particular detail which underpins the text's political and moral strategies, and the passion with which it engages with both contemporary events and issues and their ‘abstracted meaning’.

The Christmas season of 1553/4, far from being a period of ‘happy’ tranquillity in which the Sovereign and her court might relax, safe in the knowledge that they had secured a sound and lasting political and religious settlement, was a time of profound political unease.27 The Marian regime was newly set on potentially precarious foundations. Less that six months earlier the queen had been a fugitive, declared a bastard in the Duke of Northumberland's desperate last gamble to secure a protestant succession, and pursued into Norfolk by the duke at the head of an army 3,000 strong. Only the loyalty of the ‘backwoods’ gentry and nobility in East Anglia, Oxfordshire, Buckinghamshire, and the Thames Valley had forced the Council in London to reverse its earlier decision to declare in favour of Northumberland's protégé, Lady Jane Grey, thereby bringing about the collapse of the duke's putative coup.28 On 19 July, Mary was formally proclaimed Queen in London, but it was not until 3 August that she entered her capital, formalised the punishment of Northumberland and his closest supporters, and effected a reconciliation with the professional politicians who had initially connived in the duke's manoeuvres.

Mary inherited, not a thriving commonwealth, but a realm in social and economic crisis. The royal finances, virtually bankrupted by the French and Scottish campaigns of Henry VIII's final years, had been further depleted by a deteriorating economy, costly social projects, and ill-judged financial ventures under Edward VI. The grain harvest had failed spectacularly in 1545, 1549, and 1551, prompting prices to rise and causing significant hardship and social dislocation in town and country alike. In 1550 and 1551 outbreaks of plague and the sweating sickness had exacerbated the problems. The widespread sense of ruin and decay was reflected in a burgeoning literature of social complaint and increasingly shrill economic analysis. Pamphlets like Sir Thomas Smith's A Discourse of the Common Weal of this Realm of England (1549) and the anonymous Policies to Reduce this Realm of England Unto a Prosperous Wealth and Estate (1551?) sought both to offer remedies for the nation's economic decline and to locate its origins in a general failure of public and private morality.29 To assume that a play like Respublica could not be directly political as it focused only upon moral shortcomings thus misunderstands contemporary perceptions of economic and political questions. Contemporaries saw economics and politics as themselves moral issues—or reflections of them—and spoke about them in those terms. Mid-Tudor analysis of the state of the nation was conducted in great part as a moral debate. Thus John Caius, in a work prompted by the 1551 outbreak of sweating sickness, saw the epidemic as divine punishment for ‘that insatiable serpent of covetousness wherewith most men are so infected that it seemeth each one would devour another without charity or any godly respect to the poor, to their neighbour, or to their commonwealth’.30 Moreover, Respublica itself, far from being a purely moral drama, is not short on detailed economic analysis.

Performed at court in the middle of this period of national moral and political self-examination, Udall's play drew its lessons from recent history and its inspiration from current events. Although purporting to lament the ‘Ruin and decaye’ that comes to all realms where Insolence and Avarice are allowed to flourish, the play is actually more particular in its targets, a fact which Respublica herself makes clear in the final act. With telling specificity she laments, ‘O lorde howe have I bee[n] used these five yeres past’ (5.9.1775-76), identifying a period which would cover the most fraught years of the Edwardian minority.31 Nor is the Henrician regime spared from the criticism. The action of the play is clearly intended to cover the Edwardian period, but the state is presented as already on the brink of collapse when the interlude begins. As Avarice observes in act 1, Respublica,

          now latelye is left almoost desolate.
Hir welthe ys decayed hir comforte cleane a goe
And she att hir wittes endes what for to saie or doe


The implication is that the Edwardian regime had itself inherited from its predecessors a realm already in a parlous condition. This ruinous situation is, of course, only worsened as the vices gain access to the management of the state and begin to exploit it for their own ends.

The depiction of the ensuing hardship is remarkably specific in its detail. On accepting Avarice into her service, Respublica hands over to him control of ‘metall, graine, cataill, treasure, goodes, and landes’ (2.2.500), and it is his control of these commodities that provides the Vice with much of his pilfered income. When he is granted an audience, People complains about the prices of precisely those commodities which Avarice exploits. He knows that the realm produces sufficient to go around, but somehow this produce does not find its way to the markets at prices the commons can afford.

          ther falleth of corne and cattall
Wull, shepe, woode, leade, tynne, Iron and other metall,
And of all [th]ynges, enoughe vor goode and badde
and as commediens [i.e. commodious] vor us, as er we hadde.
And yet the price of everye thing is zo dere
As though the grounde dyd bring vorth no suche thing no where.


It is the management of the economy rather than its essential productivity which is to blame. ‘Ill ordring 'tis’, People tells Respublica, ‘hath made both youe and wee threde bare’ (3.3.675). The nature of that ill ordering is made clear when Avarice confesses to the audience the secrets of his profiteering. Among his scams he lists ‘beguiling the king of his custome’ (3.6.873), and the profits from ‘tallowe, Butter, cheese, / Corne, Rawclothes, [and] lether by stelth sent beyond seas’ (lines 875-6), and ‘grayne, bell meatall, tynne and lead, / Conveighd owte by crekes when Respublica was in bed’ (lines 877-8). In the England of 1553, this litany of materials would have had a striking resonance. The consequences of harvest failure coupled with a period of marked inflation were precisely the price rises and apparent scarcities complained of by People. Unsuccessful attempts to regulate the supply and prices of basic commodities characterised the Edwardian period. On 9 August 1549, a Proclamation recognised ‘that of late time the prices of all manner of victual necessary for man's sustenance be so heightened and raised above the accustomed and reasonable values that thereby (except speedy remedy be provided) very great loss and damage must needs chance to his majesty's loving subjects’. Consequently the crown attempted to fix the prices of animals at market for the coming months.32 Further attempts to limit the cost of victuals were made on 20 October 1550 and 11 September 1551, with equal lack of long-term success.33

A second strand to government policy involved the attempt to limit the exportation of materials. Avarice's nocturnal attempts to smuggle foodstuffs and bellmetal out of the realm through hidden creeks were specifically prohibited in a number of proclamations. On 27 July 1547, the new minority government addressed in the king's name ‘our customers, comptrollers, and searchers, and other our officers and ministers within our port of London, and in all creeks and places to the said port belonging’, ordering them to prevent the export of ‘any manner of bell metal, butter, cheese, tallow or candles … out of the said port or any creeks or places to the said port’ unless the traders carried Letters Patent under the Great Seal permitting them to do so.34 On 7 December a further proclamation limited grain exportation without license, citing increased domestic prices as justification. On 30 March 1548 this ban was rescinded, but it was replaced later in the same year, along with prohibitions on the export of butter, cheese, bacon, tallow, and bell metal.35 Further embargoes upon exportation without license were imposed in the following months on ‘any manner of grain, butter, cheese, tallow or any kind of victuals’ on 8 October 1548, on wheat, malt, oats, barley, butter, cheese, bacon, beef, cask, or tallow on 18 January 1549, on these commodities and veal calves, lambs, muttons, pork, wood, wood coal, ale, beer, and hides on 7 May 1550, on a comprehensive list of victuals and also bell metal, wood, and coal on 3 July and 24 September 1550, and on similar commodities on 20 October of the same year.36

The export of wool and rawcloth, another of Avarice's scams, was also a contentious issue at this time. In 1551 the Antwerp cloth market crashed, causing a 15 per cent reduction in trade in the following twelve months and a further 20 per cent in the next year. The net result was hardship for cloth merchants, unemployment for cloth workers, and a substantial loss of customs revenues for the crown. In response the Edwardian regime adopted measures to limit the profits passing to overseas traders. In 1552 the government risked diplomatic difficulties by banning merchants of the Hanseatic League from buying cloth in England. The domestic crisis was, however, to continue into the next reign. The loss of customs earnings was also addressed by proposals to issue a new Book of Rates, fixing the charges to be levied on imported and exported goods at a higher rate, taking into account the effects of inflation, but this proposal was not carried out until 1558, when the Marian regime was finally to grasp the nettle.

Another of People's objections concerns the hardship brought about by the devaluation and debasement of the coinage. His rent, he claims, now amounts to almost twice the sum that he is able to make at market for his produce.

Vor one peece iche tooke, chawas vaine to paine him twaie
One woulde thinke twer brasse, and zorowe have I els,
But ichwin mooste parte ont was made of our olde bells
Isrecke not an twer zilver as twas avor

(4.4.1082-4, 1088)

It is a complaint for which Insolence upbraids him later when the vices gang up to drive him from court.

Ye muste have silver money must ye jentilman?
Youe cannot be content with suche coigne as wee can.


Again, this is not simply a timeless commonplace of economic complaint, but a specific allusion to contemporary events. First Henry VIII in 1544, then Protector Somerset in 1547 and 1549, debased the coinage, mixing brass with the silver, as People suspected. The net result, after a short-term profit for the crown, was to fuel inflation and reduce confidence in the currency, as the majority of the population took the same line as People and calculated prices on a coin's actual silver content rather than on its nominal value. Hostility to the new coinage was widespread and even reached the court when Bishop Latimer preached against its introduction before the king. The government was thus forced to take action to limit the consequences of its own actions. On 24 July 1551 a proclamation was issued ordering punishment for anyone caught spreading rumours of any further debasements. In 1552 the Usury Act attempted to limit the monetary speculation which the debasements had prompted.37 The result of these measures was only to exacerbate a perception of poverty and social decay which had been endemic throughout the Edwardian period.

When Avarice protests at the multitude of beggars thronging the streets ‘nowe of daies’ (5.5.1432) he identifies a problem which exercised the government from the beginning of the reign. In 1547 the Vagrancy Act had attempted to apply drastic solutions to what was perceived as the crisis in vagabondage and the proliferation of masterless men. Public begging was banned, and attempts were made to establish a weekly levy—what would later become the Poor Rate—to alleviate the distress of the truly impotent poor. By contrast the undeserving poor, the, so called, sturdy beggars, were to be forced from the streets through a term of virtual slave labour, whereby employers might take on those found to be able-bodied but without work, without wages for a period of two years.38 The scheme was both too draconian and too unwieldy to solve the vagabondage problem at the first attempt and the act was repealed in 1550, but it marked a new determination to address the problems of unemployment and poverty at governmental level. More conventional methods of social control were also employed. On 7 May 1550 a proclamation ordered all beggars and those without work to leave London. On 28 April 1551 a further proclamation enforced existing legislation against wandering vagabonds and other masterless itinerants (a class among whom professional acting troupes were grouped), while in 1552 an Act of Parliament banned begging once more and established a weekly collection for the relief of the needy in each parish.39

This interest in social justice was, however, not entirely egalitarian. The obverse of the government's concern for the poor and rootless was a predictable anxiety about the threat posed to social order by the aggrieved poor and disaffected vagabonds. As Dale Hoak has observed, ‘perhaps no Tudor government ever stood in greater fear of a rebellious commons than did that of the Duke of Northumberland in the period 1550-53’.40 When People stands up before Respublica and complains about the lot of the nation's poor, then, he not only voices a righteous cry for justice, but also presents a dire warning of the consequences of further mismanagement and abuse. The vices treat his protest as precisely the sort of popular rising of which the government lived in fear.

And howe dyd all frame with our mounsire Authorytee?
Att length he wonne the full superiorytee
But the rude grosse people at hym repyneth sore,
And against us all fowre with a wyde throte dothe he rore.


Far from shying away from the specifics of social satire, then, Respublica addresses social concerns with remarkable particularity. It is a play constructed out of the poverty and social distress of the mid-Tudor period. What it is important to note, however, is the way in which that distress is shaped into a satirical strategy. The text does not simply reflect social conditions, it interprets them in a moral and political framework. The failures of government and administration which it claims have led to the present crisis are presented as the result, not simply of incompetence, but of moral culpability. Where the ministers of the Edwardian period are pilloried, it is for seeking, literally to cash in on the realm's misfortune, profiteering under the guise of attempts to restore the economy to order. The crisis in which Respublica finds herself at the start of the play, symbolic of the Henrician legacy, simply provides the long-awaited opportunity for Avarice and his fellows to ‘feather [their] … neste[s]’ (1.1.88).41 Avarice's exploitation of the commonweal will be piecemeal but comprehensive, involving the gathering up of all

The glenynges, the casualties, the blynde excheates,
The forginge of forfayctes, the scope of extraictes,
The xcesse, the waste, the spoile, the superfluites,
The windefalles, the shriddinges, the flycynges / The petie fees.
With a thowsaunde thinges mo which she maye right well lacke
[I] woulde fyll all these same purses that hange att my bakke


Each of the ‘gallants’ aims likewise ‘to gett store of money’ (1.1.287); and become a lord of high estate at Respublica's expense during the brief ‘tyme of hey making’ (line 901) before Time makes known their abuses through his daughter Veritas.42 The methods by which this is achieved are the subject of lengthy (and, as we have already partially seen, pointedly specific) elaboration. Avarice lists thirteen sources of his illgotten gains, each filling one of the bags he carries concealed under his coat. He identifies ‘leasses encroched and foorthwith solde againe’ (3.6.856); ‘intresse of thys yeares userie’ (line 857); ‘mattiers bolstred upp with perjurie’ (line 858); ‘bribes above my stipende in offecis’ (line 859); ‘the selling of benefices’ (line 860); ‘my rentes that my clerkes yearelye render me / To bee and contynue in offyce under me’ (lines 861-2); ‘my sectourshipp [i.e. executorship] of my Mother’ (863) and ‘other sectourshipps whole / Whiche the madde knaves woulde have scattered by penie dole’ (lines 865-6); ‘churche goodes scraped upp withoute alawe’ (line 867); ‘beguil[ing] the king of his custome’ (line 873); ‘selling counterfaicte wares’ (line 874); the profits from ‘tallowe, Butter, cheese, / Corne, Raweclothes, lether by stelth sent beyond seas’ (lines 875-6); ‘grayne, bell meatall, tynne and leade, / Conveighd owte by crekes when Respublica was in bed’ (lines 877-8); and finally ‘facing owte of dawes [i.e. fools], / Bothe from landes and goodes by pretence of the lawes’ (lines 879-80). Taken together, this list provides a comprehensive portfolio of malpractice and corruption. In many cases the crimes mentioned are timeless abuses, but they also have, as we have seen, a precise contemporary relevance.

A major theme of the satire is the means by which the vices gain lands and incomes at the expense of the commonweal. In the first act, Insolence declares his intention to become a lord of high estate (1.3.291). Oppression insists that he have a share too,

When ye come to the encrochinge of landes
I will looke to have parte of goodes landes and plate.

(1.3.293 and 295)

Each aims to obtain ‘goode mannour places twoo or three’ (line 301), and Insolence goes still further, declaring

I muste have castels and Townes in everye shier
pastures and townships and woods
chaunge of Farmes and pastures for shepe,
With dailie revenues my lustye porte for to kepe.


Where these estates will come from is made clear by Avarice and Oppression. Bullying of leaseholders out of their rights is one of the abuses practised by Avarice and condemned by the play (3.6.856 and 879-80), but the main trust of the satirical attack is against the acquisition of episcopal lands and estates by enforced exchange. The theme is introduced in act 3 scene 5 when Oppression boasts,

Faith if I luste I maie were myters fowre or fyve
I have so manye haulfe bisshoprikes at the leaste.

(lines 780-1)

Adulation indeed complains that he has managed to obtain only £300 per annum and one manor place (line 784) because Oppression has ‘flytched the bisshoprikes alreadie’ (line 792). The latter elaborates his methods when he advises Adulation to grasp what estates remain, suggesting that even the most audaciously unjust exchanges can be achieved (‘geve a fether for a gooce’ (line 796)) if he moves quickly enough. ‘Didst thowe with anie one of them [i.e. the bishops] make suche exchaunge[?]’, asks Adulation,

Yea, I almooste leaft them never a ferm nor graunge.
I told them Respublica at their wealth dyd grutche
And the fyfte pennie thaye had was for them to[o] muche
So Authoritie and I did with theim soo choppe
That we lefte the best of them a thred bare bisshop.
To some we lefte one howse, to some we left none,
The beste had but his see place, that he might kepe home.
We enfourmed them, and we defourmed theym,
We confourmed them, and we refourmed theym.
And what gave ye theim in your permutacions?
Bare parsonages of appropriacions,
Bowght from Respublica and firste emprowed
Than at the higheste extente to bisshops allowed,
Leate owte to theire handes for fowrescore and ny[netee]n yeare


There are, however, still some pickings remaining for Adulation.

there is yet enoughe left, for a better plucke
For some of them were aged and yet would not dye,
And some woulde in no wyse to owre desyres applye.
But we have Roddes in pysse for tham everye chone.
That they shalbe flyced yf we reign, one by one.


Again, these lines have specific contemporary relevance. In the later years of the reign of Henry VIII and during the Edwardian minority the episcopal estates were subject to a series of aggressive, asset-stripping exchanges with the crown. In return the bishops were offered rectory estates acquired from monastic houses during the dissolutions of the late 1530s. The overall beneficiaries were generally favoured courtiers and administrators who were subsequently granted the lands and rents outright as rewards for service, or were able to buy them up at often very favourable prices when the crown had to realise its assets to finance its wars and pay off its short term debts.

The bishopric of Exeter was the subject of a series of enforced exchanges in the years following the Dissolution. Bishop Veysey saw over two-thirds of the estates of his see lost to the crown in the period from 1539 to 1550. In 1548 he had to give up his London residence and the valuable manor of Crediton in Devon. In 1550 Bishop's Tawton and Bishop's Clyst were transferred to John Russell, Earl of Bedford. By 1551 the see was so ‘much diminished’ in income that the crown allowed the new bishop, Miles Coverdale to revalue his estate for tax purposes at only £500 per annum.43 Other episcopal estates suffered similar losses. In 1535 the crown took twenty-two manors from the bishopric of Norwich, gaining an estimated £920 worth of annual income in return for approximately £752 worth of ex-monastic rectories. Among the beneficiaries of royal success were Thomas Cromwell and the king's physician, William Butts.44 The archbishopric of Canterbury was also a victim, losing through exchanges approximately £277 of annual income between 1536 and 1546.45 From 1539 onwards the bishopric of Bath and Wells also suffered. Dr William Petre gained an annuity of £40 from the Dean and Chapter in that year and subsequently confiscated jewels and plate for the king's use. In the same year the bishop's London house was granted to William Fitzwilliam, Earl of Southampton, and by 1547 the manor of Dogmersfield in Hampshire had passed to Thomas Wriothesley, the earl's successor. The Duke of Somerset also profited substantially from the wealth of the see, claiming manors, including Wells itself, during his period as Lord Protector. In all some 55 per cent of the gross income of the see was probably lost in the years 1539-60. The bishopric of Lincoln suffered if anything a still more dramatic depredation, being reduced from a net income of £1,963 per annum to one of £828 per annum in the seven years of Edward VI's reign.46

A list of the chief beneficiaries of this despoliation of episcopal lands reads like a Who's Who of the Edwardian establishment: the Russell family, the Dudleys, the Herberts, and the Darcys, Lord Paget, and William Paulet all gained substantially. One estate, Southwell in Nottinghamshire, a property of the archbishopric of York, passed from the crown in gift in 1550 to the Earl of Warwick, the future Duke of Northumberland, who in turn sold it a year later to the Master of the Rolls, John Beaumont. When Beaumont was convicted of corruption, the manor, along with all his lands and goods, passed back to the crown, from whose hands it was finally restored to the archbishopric by Queen Mary in 1557.47 It is no wonder that one of the chief tasks that Sir William Petre identified when he drew up a list of the most pressing problems facing the new government in August 1553 was the condition of the episcopal estates and the financial state of the church as a whole.48

The assumption that Respublica was performed before a court audience readily receptive of its satirical message is thus an oversimplification. The Yuletide entertainments of 1553/4 did not witness a new regime complacently congratulating itself upon its triumph over the previous corrupt administration. The majority of the courtiers and civil servants who gathered to celebrate the first Christmas of the Marian reign had themselves been members of the Edwardian government at whose demise the play rejoiced, and had profited substantially as a result.

The limited number of experienced and able individuals available to serve in the central administration, coupled with an obvious desire on the queen's part not to alienate members of the political community upon whom she had to rely, meant that there was no major purge of government officers on her accession. Although the royal household saw a significant alteration in its personnel, the vast majority of Edward's counsellors and ministers were retained to serve his successor, often in the same roles. Almost the entire Privy Council remained in post. The chief architects of the Edwardian financial policies so vilified by Respublica, the Lord Treasurer, William Paulet, Marquis of Winchester, and Sir Thomas Gresham continued in the same roles in the Marian government. Winchester also retained his office as Master of the Court of Wards until 1 May 1554. John Russell, Earl of Bedford remained as Lord Keeper of the Privy Seal, a post he had held since 1542, and both Sir William Petre, and William, Lord Paget, central figures in the minority administration, retained their positions of influence.49 The play's sustained focus upon the failures of policy and abuses of power allegedly perpetrated by Edward's courtiers and ministers would thus have made acutely uncomfortable viewing for many among its initial audience.

It has been suggested that the play carefully avoids reference to specific individuals in its condemnation of abuses.50 This observation catches the spirit of the play, but may not be absolutely true. When Avarice tells Respublica of the wonders he would have performed if she had not fallen ‘to checking and blamyng’ (5.6.1542) and prevented him, he launches into a series of curious topographic allusions.

I woulde have browght haulfe Kent into Northumberlande
And Somersett shiere should have raught to Cumberlande,
Than woulde I have stretche[d] the countie of Warwicke
Uppon tainter hookes, and made ytt reache to Barwicke.
A pece of the Bishopric shoulde have come southwarde—
Tut, tut, I tell yowe, I had wonderous feates towarde.


On one level this is just the sort of nonsensical litany in which vices traditionally indulge in the moral interludes. But, as with many another example, it does contain some pointed observations. The reference to the expansion of the counties of Northumberland and Somerset that would have occurred if Avarice had been given free reign would not have passed unnoticed in December 1553. It is hard to avoid the inference that the play is here aiming a specific swipe at the Dukes of Somerset and Northumberland, suggesting that they above all others were motivated by avarice in their dealings during their periods of office.51 That the noble title of one of the leaders of the minority regime might be mentioned without specific intention is just possible, that both should be cited in the space of two lines invites a satirical interpretation, not least as the following line describes how Warwick, Northumberland's previous title, would be similarly enlarged. That Insolence might at some points be a figure for Northumberland himself is also possible. In the final scene he is accused of having committed ‘Lucifer's owne faulte t'aspire to the highest seate’ (5.10.1913): an ambition which he does not display in the play itself, but which might reflect the duke's attempts to interfere with the succession in favour of Lady Jane Grey.

Such personalised allusions are, however, only peripheral to the satirical thrust of the play. It is the condemnation of avarice and self-interest among the Edwardian administrators generally, and the call for moral and social reformation which carry forward the main burden of the play's agenda.


Critics largely concur over the nature and tone of Respublica's religious message. For Peter Happé, it is a play which remains essentially silent on the pressing confessional issues of the period. ‘The play eschews the violence of religious controversy, there being no hint of the theological or ecclesiastical changes which Mary may have been contemplating in 1553.’ For David Bevington the play consciously avoided such questions, concentrating upon court politics rather than theology or ritual, and avoiding any outright attack on protestant beliefs per se.52

In fact the play is shot through with detailed references to ecclesiastical issues and policies. The concentration is primarily upon material rather than spiritual questions, but at a time when the future government, endowment, and status of the church was at issue such things could hardly be divided.

The nature of clerical office and the role of the priesthood are addressed directly in a brief debate between Respublica, Oppression, and People.

Firste youre priestes and bisshops have not as thei have had.
[When they] had theire lyvinges men were bothe fedde and cladde
Yea, but they ought not by scripture to be calde lordes.
That thei rewle the churche with scripture well accordes.
Thei were prowde and covetous / and tooke muche uppon theim
But they were not covetous that toke all from theym[?]


As we have seen, the exploitation of episcopal estates is a central theme of the attack upon the vices. The criticism of corruption in church affairs goes rather further than this, however. The wholesale sequestration of church ornaments and goods at the time of the Reformation is singled out for detailed condemnation. Avarice identifies the contents of his eighth bag of coins as the profits from

          church goodes scraped upp withoute alawe,
For which was as quicke scambling as ever I sawe,
Of their plate, their jewels, and copes, we made them lowtes,
Stopping peoples barking with lynnen rags and clowtes.
Thei had thalter clothes, thalbes, and amices
With the sindons in which wer wrapte the chalices


When the exploitation of church wealth has implications for the condition of the church itself and the quality of the spiritual support which it can provide, material questions and spiritual ones coincide. Consequently the play stresses the intellectual and spiritual poverty of the vices at the same time as it draws attention to their rapacious acquisition of wealth. Oppression's inability to follow a simple Latin phrase prompts Avarice to mock his pretensions to determine the livings and conditions of the higher clergy.

Loe here a fyne felowe to have a bisshoprike
A verse of latynne he cannot understande,
Yet dareth he presume boldelye to take in hande,
Into a deanerie or archdeaconrye to choppe,
And to have the liveloode awaie from a bisshopp.


Similarly, lower down the ecclesiastical structure, when Avarice decides to put ill-educated men into the parish livings at his disposal in order to maximise his financial returns, he does so at the expense of the parishioners who must suffer the ministrations of an inept incumbent.

I have a good benefyce of an hunderd markes
Yt is smale policie to give suche to greate clerkes
They will take no benefice but their muste have all,
A bare clerke canne bee content with a lyving smale.
Therefore sir John Lack Latten my frende shall have myne
And of hym maie I ferme yt for eyght powndes or nyne
The reste maie I reserve to myselfe for myne owne share


The suggestion that Respublica does not touch upon ecclesiastical or theological issues is thus mistaken. The play does address the central ecclesiastical questions of the moment, and addresses them directly. Nor does it stop short of offering solutions to them. On the crucial question of the restoration or otherwise of former episcopal estates and rectories, the play makes a clear statement in favour of a full restoration.53 Avarice, as we have seen, is handed over by Nemesis to People in the final scene,

That he maie bee pressed, as men doo presse a spounge
That he maie droppe ought teverye man hys lotte
To the utmooste ferthing that he hath falslie gotte.


People confirms that he will ‘squease hym as drie as a kyxe [a dry stalk]’ (line 1906). As the bulk of the profits mentioned by Avarice and the other vices has come from ecclesiastical sources, this conclusion can only allude to a substantial restoration of church wealth.

It was surely this interest in the spoliation of church lands and their possible restoration which commended the play manuscript to its first recorded owner, Sir Henry Spelman. For Spelman had a lifelong interest, amounting almost to a professional obsession, in the material wealth of the Church of England and its depredation at the time of the Reformation. His antiquarianism was no idle curiosity in relics of the past, but an earnest scholarly project aimed at providing the materials for a comprehensive account of the history and condition of the church in England, its liberties and property.54 A series of polemical tracts published both during his lifetime and after his death by his son Clement and others, sought to identify the consequences of ecclesiastical spoliation and denounce the motives and characters of those responsible. In De Non Temerandis Ecclesiis (1613) Spelman argued that church property was created for and dedicated to the service of God, and could not therefore be appropriated for secular profit. Any attempt to do so amounted to an act of sacrilege. In his preface to the posthumous 1646 edition of the same text, Clement Spelman developed this contention historically, asserting that the ‘sacrilegious’ Dissolution of the Monasteries in the 1530s and the attendant royal sequestration of church wealth had drawn down God's wrath upon Henry VIII, blighting the Tudor succession. On Henry, the younger Spelman issued a terse and damning judgement: ‘His family is extinct, and like Herostratus, his name not mentioned, but with his crimes.’55 In The History and Fate of Sacrilege (published in 1698, but thought too vitriolic and controversial for inclusion in the folio edition of Spelman's Works published by Edmund Gibson in the same year), the condemnation of the guilty was extended into an account of the misfortunes befalling all those families who had profited from the sale of church property after the Dissolution, fitting them into a heavily moralised narrative of transgression and punishment.

That it was Spelman, rather than another antiquarian, who took the trouble to have Respublica copied into his manuscript collection provides further evidence to support the view that it was considered by contemporaries to be a highly political play, and one which addressed contentious ecclesiastical issues directly. For a reader such as Spelman, Respublica would have provided a congenial satirical attack upon the very people who had done well out of the Reformation. Its presentation of the Dissolution and spoliation of the episcopal estates as the products of unfettered avarice, insolence, and oppression, was merely a succinct dramatic summary of the theme which Spelman was exhaustively to chronicle in his prose tracts.


The solution which Nemesis imposes on the play in act 5, scene 10, would have accorded well with both Spelman's sense of justice and a Tudor monarch's conception of the royal prerogative. When faced with a choice between severity and generosity, the goddess opts for a judicious mixture of the two, but, like Jupiter in Heywood's Play of The Weather, she keeps her subjects in doubt as to the precise details of her judgements. Misericordia had counselled the queen to proceed with softness.

          nowe have yee occasion
and matier to shewe youre commiseracion
[It] is m[uche m]ore glorie and standith with more skyll,
Lo[st]e shepe to recover, than the scabye to spill.


Justicia, predictably, had erred on the side of rigour, arguing that ‘straight justice’ was needed to redress great enormities, and ‘severitee muste putt men in feare to transgresse’ (line 1863). Nemesis' response is a model of equanimity, as befits a goddess lauded by Veritas as ‘cleare of conscience and voyde of affeccion’ (line 1783).

Ladies we have harde all your descrete advises
And eche one shall have some part of youre devises.
Neither all nor none, shall taste of severitee
But as theye are nowe knowen through ladie Veritee
So shall theye receyve our mercie or our Ire,
As the wealthe of Respublica shall best require.

(lines 1872-7)

This stress on the material wealth and well-being of the realm as the final arbiter of action reflects the focus of the play's satire and the author's own political strategy. In presenting the excesses of the Edwardian regime as financially motivated rather than the product of religious zeal (significantly it is Avarice who governs the vices and presents himself as Policy, not a character associated with a more obviously confessional agenda) Udall is able to present their redress in similar terms. He steers the last acts of the play toward reform of the economy and the financial structure of the church, rather than toward any alteration to its doctrinal base. Hence it is episcopal lands and parish livings that are explicitly referred to when Avarice is apprehended and squeezed of his ill-gotten gains, not the former monastic lands or the wealth of the newly suppressed chantries (he tries to shift the blame to Oppression for dispossessing ‘Bishops, deanes [and] provestes' and ‘lands with churche and chapple’ (lines 1848-9)). The doctrinal questions concerning the existence of Purgatory and the value of prayers and masses for the dead associated with the monastic and chantry dissolutions can, therefore, be left untouched. Udall is quite prepared to argue for a church restored to much of its former wealth, but it is the reformed church of the Edwardian settlement which he wants to strengthen, not the full-blown catholic institution with its monks, friars, and chantry priests.

The play treads carefully but determinedly through the thickets of religious policy in a way characteristic of the other household dramas studied in previous chapters. Udall adopts the rhetoric of restoration and renewal associated with the new Marian regime, and addresses the real social hardships created by Edwardian and later Henrician policies squarely and resolutely. But he does so for his own purposes. Like Heywood in The Spider and The Flie, a work of genuine catholic celebration at Mary's accession, Udall lauds the queen as the new broom who will sweep away the abuses and divisions of the recent past in favour of a virtuous and harmonious new order.56 Like Heywood, Udall also calls for moderation in the punishment of those responsible for the previous regime. Avarice and Oppression are disciplined severely at the close of the play, but the third member of the corrupt triumvirate, Adulation, symbolic of proper respect for royal authority and service to the crown as well as flattery, is allowed to continue in office once suitably chastised.

Both Heywood's narrative poem and Udall's drama acknowledge the Marian regime's need to reconcile to it the leaders of the political nation.57 Both texts present this necessary compromise as a triumph of queenly moderation and good government. This is not to say that either is soft on those responsible for what has gone before. Udall, as we have seen, does not flinch from specifying the problems. Like Adulation, the bulk of the old Edwardian administration and the majority of the court had to sit through a play which characterised the alleged abuses of their governance with at times excoriating severity, but which ultimately allowed them to emerge from it chastened and purified.

Unlike Heywood, however, Udall employed the appeal for magnanimity in victory to call for a settlement which protects what reformers would have seen as the doctrinal gains of the Edwardian years. Concessionary in areas which did not touch upon the fundamentals of faith, he channelled his play's reforming emphases away from the restoration of catholicism per se and into a renewal of the commonwealth and bolstering of the position of the bishops and the parish clergy. He offered his royal audience a model of reformation to which she could respond sympathetically, and presented himself as the kind of moderate and loyal counsellor who might be retained and listened to for sound advice in troubled times.58 But, in so doing he defined the kinds of reformation most obviously required in ways which suited him.

Such a stance has exposed Udall to charges of time-serving. How, it has been asked, could someone who had advocated further reformation under Edward now celebrate the accession of a catholic monarch and condemn the policies of the previous regime?59 As we have seen, there need be no contradiction if Respublica is read carefully and in context. Faced with the fait accomplis of a conservative sovereign, Udall used the opportunities available to him as a household dramatist to defend reform in the most effective way he could. He may have jumped aboard the bandwagon of catholic reaction, but he did so in the hope of slowing its progress and directing it along less dangerous paths.

Respublica provides a valuable example, then, of the dynamics of household drama and the opportunities it provided for the expression of dissenting opinions at court. It shows just how severe a dramatist could be in criticising the perceived failings of his audience, not simply in moral terms, but in matters of high policy. Udall could castigate the courtiers and ministers among his spectators for economic mismanagement, oppressive policies, and outright theft and corruption, safe in the knowledge that the culture of the royal household and the license of good counsel which it fostered allowed him to do so. He could do this partly, of course, because his sovereign favoured it. Criticism of Edwardian policy, if voiced in a controlled environment, was valuable ammunition to Queen Mary during the first six months of her reign. Like James V of Scotland addressing the moral of the 1540 interlude of The Thrie Estaitis to the Bishop of Glasgow, she could turn to her ministers and ask with psychological and political advantage how they intended to right the wrongs they had seen dramatised before them. But the play also shows how far such a ‘loyalist’ gesture could be used to advance less acceptable causes and direct the sovereign's attention away from areas of particular sensitivity to the author. As with Heywood's interludes and Lindsay's satire, one must be alive in reading Respublica, not only to what the dramatist says, but also to how he says it, and—often more importantly—to what he leaves unsaid.

The play thus has much to tell us about the conventions and procedures that characterise drama throughout the Tudor period. But, if on one level it is commonplace, one example among many of household drama, Respublica is also unique in being the first extant dramatic product of the court of a queen regnant. How it responds to the new imperatives of female rule is also revealing. David Bevington in a perceptive account of the play, has argued that it offers an extreme example of royal absolutism, rejecting the whole notion of conciliar government in favour of a direct relationship between divinely sanctioned ruler and obedient subject. ‘The queen figure in Act V’, he argues, ‘is no umpire, who listens to all estates impartially … Nemesis … listens only to the voice of divine guidance’.60 This, I think, underestimates the importance ascribed to counsel, both in the play and in the concluding prayers which refocus attention from the play world to the real problems and anxieties of the audience. Here it is significant that Mary's Council gains equal billing with the queen in the petition for long life and health, and her councillors are instructed not only to serve their mistress, but also themselves to maintain the commonwealth (5.10.1936-8).61 Far from being marginalised, the role of the Council as a governing body is thus placed in the most rhetorically powerful position in the play. Bevington's reading also in my view underplays the genuine difficulties created for the playwright by the novel fact that the sovereign in whom he sought to invest absolute reforming power was a woman.

If one focuses exclusively on the figure of Nemesis, the notion that the play experiences no difficulty with the idea of female sovereignty might be sustainable. But Nemesis is only one of Udall's female characters, and a relatively minor one, who occupies the playing space only during the final scenes. For the bulk of the drama attention is focused on a far less authoritative woman, Respublica herself. And she, as we shall see, presents a wholly different conception of female involvement in politics.


The idea that the realm might be imagined as a human body is a commonplace of Tudor political thinking. In one image it combines the idealised notion of a commonweal of many members all interdependent and contributing harmoniously to a single goal, with the hierarchical dictum that obedience to a single authority—the Head of State—was necessary for a realm to function effectively. What the reconceptualisation of this anthropomorphic model as a specifically female body involves is a marked increase in the physicality of that imaginary conception of the state. What had been merely an ideal when it was conceived as a largely asexual male anatomy, became increasingly corporeal when conceived of as female. The implications of the prevailing conception of the female body: frail, sensual, and manifestly carnal, are carried over into the sphere of political discourse. The language of statecraft becomes eroticised by the language of courtship, seduction, and sexual and domestic mastery. The political imperatives of the domestic sphere thus become entangled with those of public debate. In this way Respublica's status as a female embodiment of the realm is a crucial determinant of the language and political discourse of the play. Just as the male establishment was awkwardly coming to terms with the new cultural and political demands of operating under a queen regnant, so the play itself manifests those awkwardnesses by figuring the state as a woman.62

Respublica is introduced in the dramatis personae as ‘a wydowe’, and the play considers her in those terms. On one level she is an abstraction: the realm of England, lacking her proper spouse, a sovereign king. But on another, more obvious level she is a woman of authority, who moves, speaks, and expresses emotions in the acting place. The stage has no time for abstractions, as soon as an actor takes on a role it becomes a person with human shape and attributes. In this way Respublica quickly blurs the distinction between state and sovereign, becoming a figure inextricably associated with the new queen herself, as she negotiates with her counsellors, consults her subjects, and seeks to address the problems facing her realm. It is thus with a figure very like a queen that Avarice and the gallants practise their deceptive trade.

Unlike the counsellors and ministers of Magnyfycence or The Thrie Estaitis,Respublica's vices are specifically ‘gallants’, their on-stage personae stressing their courtly, seductive appearance rather than their ministerial capabilities. Their presence—like the threat they pose—is immediate and carnal rather than theoretical and spiritual. Unlike Magnyfycence, Respublica is inherently handicapped. She needs male advisors to help her to govern herself. She laments the absence of ‘a perfecte staigh’ to secure her (2.1.457). When Avarice poses as Policy, she tells him ‘Well I fele the lacke of your helping hande by the Roode’ (2.2.493). When she prays for rescue it is tellingly for male assistance that she calls: ‘Is there no good manne that on me wyll have mercy?’ (line 477). When faced with a crisis she is ‘att hir wittes endes for what for to saie or do’ (1.3.240).

As a vulnerable, unmarried woman, Respublica is the subject of physical handling of a sort not represented in any of the political moralities created during a male reign. She is a female body to be guided, directed, pulled, and pushed by the hands of men. The vices will ‘clawe hir elbowe’ to remind her of their service (line 269). Her complete submission to Avarice is as much physical as it is metaphorical, as the imagery makes clear.

I will putt miselfe whollye into your handes
I thanke youe ladye
And I trust ere long to ease all [y]oure maladie.
Will ye putte yourselfe nowe wholye into my handes?
Ordre me as youe wyll.

(2.2.499, 505-8)

And the manner in which the vices attempt to win her support is constructed in their minds as a thinly veiled seduction. Avarice suggests that she

Fayne wolde … have succoure and easemente of hir griefe
And highly advaunce them that wolde promise reliefe …


The ‘service’ which they offer is both ministerial and sexual. Avarice promises to ‘bring hir in suche a paradise / That hir selfe shall sue me to have my service’ (lines 253-4). The metaphor of the ship of state in need of a captain becomes conflated with the physical presence of a woman to be groped and manhandled. Avarice tells Insolence to ‘Bee not … skeymishe to take in hand the stern’ (line 278), and he promises ‘I will bourde hir, and I trowe so wynne hir favoure / That she sh[a]ll hire me / and paie well for my laboure’ (lines 331-2). The vices attempt to outdo each other in bawdy bravado over how well each will ‘serve’ the state.

I will doe hir double servis to another.
Ye double knave youe, will ye never be other?
She shall have triple service of me honestye.
Ye quadrible knave, will ye ner use modestie?
Thowe drunken whoresone, doest thoue not see nor perceive
Where Respublica standes readie us to receyve?


When Respublica tries to dismiss Avarice, rejoicing that she shall be rid of him at last, she lays herself open to his bawdy misunderstanding of ‘ridding’ for ‘riding’.

Naie by this crosse ye shall never be rydde for me.
And of thy compares
Well leate them doo as thei luste.
I will ryde upon Jyll myne owne mare that is juste
Other waies I shall doe yowe service of the beste.
Thowe wicked wretche dareste thowe with me to jeste?


Once conceived as a woman the state thus becomes liable to be treated as one, its problems being dismissed as the product of fickle or weak-willed female inadequacy. Avarice rejects Respublica's fears of misrule as the product of her ‘false heart’ (4.4.1102). When she finally throws him out, he interprets her regeneration as an act of shrewishness: ‘My ladie is waxte froward’ (5.8.1639). Even the female virtues treat her with a tetchiness which is rarely seen in the treatment of male protagonists.

What saie ye to me? What, wooman, can ye not speake?
I am come downe, all youre sorowes at ons to breake
Speake, wooman …


Respublica is, then, doubly subject to the actions of others. As a personification of the state, she is abused by the ministers upon whom she has to rely for her government. As a woman, she is manhandled by both the vices who falsely claim to protect her and the virtuous female characters who treat her as a malleable figure of womanly frailty.

Elsewhere in the play, in Nemesis and the four Daughters of God, Udall is able to offer uncompromising images of power in female form, largely because the frame of reference he draws upon is explicitly inhuman. As abstractions, they play out the limited and conventional roles inherent in their names: Misericordia speaks always for forgiveness, Justicia for stern judgement. No such shorthand was possible with Respublica, as her role in the text is too complex and her sphere of operation too earthly. Thus Udall had to look elsewhere for inspiration and, as no familiar and readily acceptable model of worldly female sovereignty was available to him, he necessarily fell back upon assumptions based upon experience, in which women were necessarily inferior to men, regardless of their status. Hence the state becomes ‘a wydowe’, an incomplete equation identified only by her lack of a husband. In such a frame of reference, the only readily acceptable path was for her to find a reliable male guardian and governor. Like her dramatic counterpart, Queen Mary was, of course, to take this course at the first opportunity, albeit arousing anxieties of a still more direct kind by choosing the catholic Philip II of Spain as her husband. But the problems of unmarried female sovereignty were to recur with even greater urgency in the reign of Mary's longer-lived and resolutely virgin successor, Elizabeth I, as the following chapter will explore.


  1. W. L. Edgerton, Nicholas Udall (New York, 1965), pp. 9-10. Udall's Floures for Latine Speakynge (1534) dates from this period of semi-independent scholarly activity.

  2. Thomas Tusser, Five Hundreth Points of Good Husbandry, United to as many of Good Huswifery, Nowe Lately Augmented (1573), RSTC 24375, II, sig., 27v.

  3. This was John Hoorde, eldest son of Richard Hoorde of Bridgnorth in Shropshire and Elizabeth née Matthew. Sir Wasey Sterry, Eton College Register, 1441-1698 (Eton, 1943), p. 179.

  4. Thomas Cheyney was the second son of Sir Robert Cheyney of Chesham Bois, Buckinghamshire, and Mary Cheyney, née Sylsham. Ibid., p. 76.

  5. H. Nicholas, Proceedings and Ordinances of the Privy Council of England (London, 1834-7), VII, 152-3, 155, 157. Edgerton, Udall, p. 37.

  6. Marie Axton talks simply of ‘misconduct’ (Marie Axton, Three Tudor Classical Interludes (Woodbridge, 1982), p. 3), Scheurweghs, printing the relevant documents, passes over the confession of buggery without comment, noting simply that the sources do not confirm Udall's involvement in the robbery (G. Scheurweghs, Nicholas Udall's ‘Roister Doister’, in H. De Vocht, ed., Materials for the Study of Old English, XVI (1939), pp. xxiv-xxv). The latter does, however, chastise the author for his failure to pay his debts, concluding that ‘truth obliges us to record, not only his successes as a scholar, but also his failings as a man’ (p. 108).

  7. Edgerton, Udall, pp. 39-40.

  8. Mercifully, such speculative scholarship has not caught on, although it is tempting to apply similar palaeographic generosity to redress other potential injustices: revisionist articles beckon on Herod and the moussaka of the Innocents.

  9. The fathers of both Cheyney and Hoorde had to attend the Council with them and stand surety for further hearings. Hoorde, having been born c. 1522, was about nineteen years of age at the time of Udall's confession (Sterry, Register, p. 179). Perhaps as the result of lobbying on his behalf by influential allies, Udall seems to have escaped prosecution for an offence which, since the Buggery Act of 1534, carried the death penalty. A. Luders, et al., eds., Statutes of The Realm (11 vols., London, 1810-28), II, pp. 441, 455, 725, and 749.

  10. Edgerton, Udall, pp. 10-11.

  11. Axton, Classical Interludes, pp. 1-2. William Hunnis has also been suggested as the author of Jacob and Esau (P. W. White, Theatre and Reformation: Protestantism, Patronage, and Playing in Tudor England (Cambridge, 1993), p. 118).

  12. John Foxe, Acts and Monuments, eds., S. R. Cattley and G. Townsend (8 vols., London, 1837-41), v, pp. 421-9 and appendix. For the following, see W. R. Streitberger, Court Revels, 1485-1559 (Toronto, 1994), p. 148, Edgerton, Udall, passim, and Scheurweghs, ‘Roister Doister’, pp. xi-l.

  13. See below, pp. 168-72.

  14. The ‘Prologue’ informs the audience that, like the ‘young babes with tholde folke’ who cried out upon Christ's entry into Jerusalem, ‘Soo for goode Englande sake this presente howre and daie / In hope of hir restoring from hir late decaye, / We children to youe olde folke, both with harte and voyce / Maie joyne all together to thanke god and Rejoyce / That he hath sent Marye our soveraigne and Quene / To reforme thabuses which hithertoo hath been, / And that yls whiche long tyme have reigned uncorrecte / Shall nowe forever bee redressed with effecte. / She is oure most wise and most worthie Nemesis / Of whome our plaie meneth tamende that is amysse’ (lines 45-54). W. W. Greg, ed., ‘Respublica’: An Interlude for Christmas 1553, EETS o.s. 226 (London, 1952 for 1946); all references to the text are to this edition.

  15. Ibid., p. 1.

  16. Ibid., pp. x-xviii; L. Bradner, ‘A Test for Udall's Authorship’, Modern Language Notes, 42 (1927), pp. 378-80. William Edgerton, however, takes a more sceptical line on Udall's authorship, Nicholas Udall, p. 65.

  17. A. Feuillerat, Documents Relating to the Revels at Court in the Time of King Edward VI and Queen Mary (Louvain, 1914), p. 159; Greg, ed., ‘Respublica’, p. viii.

  18. There is an entry in the Revels Accounts for ‘Newe makinge, translatinge, allteringe, garnysshinge, and fynisshinge of dyvers and sondry garmentes, aparrell, vestures, and properties for one playe or enterlude by the gentillmen of the chappell to be shewen and played before the quenes majestie at her highnes coronacion, the preparacion therefore begoon and wrowght upon aswell ageanste that tyme by vertue of a warraunte sygned with her Majesties oune handes and upon newe determynacion surseased and lefte of[f] as ageane wrowghte upon fynysshed and served att the Christemas next ensuinge’ (Feuillerat, Documents, p. 149). The relevant accounts cover work done between 22 September and 28 September, ‘wen as the same (by reason of a newe determynacion of appoyntement the play to serve att christmas nexte foloing) surseased and were left of[f] unfynysshed’ (ibid., p. 150).

  19. Ibid., p. 289. The appearance of ‘Self-Love’ among the dramatis personae raises the possibility that this was a production of the otherwise unknown ‘Play of Self-love’, which was also performed by the King's Players for Sir Thomas Chaloner at Hoxton, Middlesex, at some point between 1551 and 1556. I. Lancashire, Dramatic Texts and Records of Britain: A Chronological Topography to 1558 (Cambridge, 1984), p. 156.

  20. Feuillerat, Documents, p. 290.

  21. Greg, Respublica, p. x.

  22. Feuillerat, Documents, p. 289. The production of Genus Humanum/Self-Love called for a purple gown requiring 5 yards of satin, five white satin cassocks at 7 yards each, three purple cassocks at 7 yards each, a cassock of red and one of green satin (7 yards each), three long gowns of tawny, ash-coloured, and black satin respectively (8 yards each), a cassock of black damask and a long gown of purple damask (16 yards the pair), a short gown of red damask (6 yards), three short gowns of purple satin (six yards each), three yards of kersey each for the Good and Bad Angel's costumes, plus wings, three ‘thrombde’ hats and ten-dozen counters. If one accepts the dating of the warrant as precisely accurate, the Great Wardrobe would have had at best twenty four hours to provide the lot.

  23. When, for example, the Christmas revels of 1525/6 were particularly barren of entertainment, owing to an outbreak of plague, the chronicler Edward Hall felt it necessary to note the fact. Hall, p. 707.

  24. Feuillerat, Documents, p. 159.

  25. In addition to ‘The charges of fynysshinge thafforseide’ (i.e. Genus Humanum/Self-Love), they specify the cost of ‘putting in redine[ss] soche thinges as in thoffice of the Revells were most behovable and lykely to be called upon at Christmas with thattendaunce of the officers and other ministers gyving theyre awayet therfore at the Courte’, a description which might include the preparation of any number of properties and materials for other productions. Feuillerat, Documents, pp. 152 and 290.

  26. See R. Potter, The English Morality Play (London, 1975), pp. 94 and 189; P. Happé, ed., Tudor Interludes (Harmondsworth, 1972), p. 27; David Bevington, Tudor Drama and Politics: A Critical Approach to Topical Meaning (Cambridge, MA, 1968), pp. 115 and 118.

  27. For the contrary suggestion, see Potter, English Morality Play, p. 94: ‘Thus, with prayers for Queen Mary and the commonwealth, this gently satirical play about the recent past concludes in the happy present, in the first Christmas of Mary's reign, with the Reformation seemingly banished forever from the Catholic commonwealth of England’.

  28. Jennifer Loach, Parliament and the Crown in the Reign of Mary Tudor (Oxford, 1988), pp. 1-10; Dale Hoak, ‘Two Revolutions in Tudor Government: The Formation and Organisation of Mary I's Privy Chamber’, in C. Coleman and D. Starkey, eds., Revolution Reassessed: Revisions in the History of Tudor Government and Administration (Oxford, 1986), pp. 87-115, pp. 96-107.

  29. Sir Thomas Smith, A Discourse of the Common Weal of this Realm of England, ed. E. Lamond (Cambridge, 1954). For the growth of analytical and hortatory literature of this sort, see Joan Thirsk, Economic Policy and Projects: The Development of a Consumer Society in Early Modern England (Oxford, 1988), pp. 12-43.

  30. John Caius, A Boke or Counseill Against the Disease Commonly Called the Sweate or Sweatyng Sickness, RSTC 4343. See E. S. Roberts, ed., The Works of John Caius (Cambridge, 1912), pp. 18-19, and P. Slack, ‘Social Policy and the Constraints of Government, 1547-58’, in J. Loach and R. Tittler, eds., The Mid-Tudor Polity, c. 1540-1560 (London, 1980), pp. 94-115.

  31. The play's contemporary relevance is confirmed by the prologue's insistence that the play is intended ‘for goode Englande sake this present howre and daie / In hope of hir restoring from hir late decaye’ (lines 45-6).

  32. P. L. Hughes and J. F. Larkin, eds., Tudor Royal Proclamations, I (New Haven, 1964), pp. 464-9. See also W. K. Jordan, Edward VI: The Threshold of Power (London, 1970), pp. 471-82.

  33. Hughes and Larkin, eds., Proclamations, I, pp. 504-9 and 530-3. A further contributory factor in the inflationary economy was seen to be the enclosure of common lands without licence. This, too, is reflected in the play. People complains of the destruction of trees throughout the realm and the consequent dearth of windfall pickings of firewood from common woodlands (4.4.1093-6). Oppression, the spokesman for the enclosers, is typically unsympathetic, telling him to burn turf or his bed-straw in lieu of firewood (5.8.1625-6). People's further complaint that the price of beef has been forced intolerably high by the aristocratic monopoly on grazing land (4.4.1097-8) gets similarly short shrift (5.8.1627-8). Such hardship as these exchanges reflect had prompted the Edwardian regime into action. An Enclosure Commission was established in 1549 and a Tillage Act was passed in 1552, following up proclamations in 1548 and 1549 aimed at reducing the ‘marvellous desolation’ caused to the countryside. Slack, ‘Social Policy’, p. 102, Hughes and Larkin, eds., Proclamations, pp. 427-9, 451-3, 461-4, 471-3.

  34. Hughes and Larkin, eds., Proclamations, p. 391.

  35. Ibid., pp. 409-24.

  36. Ibid., pp. 435-6, 439, 490-1, 495-6, 499-503, 504-9.

  37. Ibid., pp. 440-1, 449-51, 528-9; Slack, ‘Social Policy’, p. 97; C. E. Challis, ‘Presidential Address’, British Numismatic Journal, 68 (1993), pp. 172-7; C. E. Challis, The Tudor Coinage (Manchester, 1978), pp. 96-112, 175-86.

  38. It may well be to this legislation specifically that People refers when he complains of the vices that ‘sometime they face us, and call us peason knaves / And zwareth goddes bones thei will make is all slaves’ (3.3.701-2).

  39. Slack, ‘Social Policy’, p. 102; P. Slack, Poverty and Policy in Tudor and Stuart England (Harlow, 1988), pp. 122-3; Hughes and Larkin, eds., Proclamations, 1, pp. 489-90, 514-18. For other attempts to address economic problems at this time, see Thirsk, Economic Policy, pp. 43ff.

  40. Dale Hoak, ‘Rehabilitating the Duke of Northumberland: Politics and Political Control, 1549-53’, in Loach and Tittler, eds., Mid-Tudor Polity, pp. 29-51, p. 30.

  41. As Avarice admits, Respublica's plight creates ‘A tyme that I have wayted for a greate longe space’ (1.1.89).

  42. As Oppression observes to Respublica with sly irony, the ‘reforms’ enacted by the vices have been entirely for their own profit. ‘For my parte I will sware the gospell booke uppon / That if the Lawes I have made shoulde everye one / Redowne to myne owne singuler comodytee / They coulde not be frendelier framed then thei be’ (4.4.1131-4).

  43. W. G. Hoskins, The Age of Plunder: The England of Henry VIII, 1500-1547 (Harlow, 1976), pp. 125-6, 141-2; W. J. Sheils, ‘Profit, Patronage, or Pastoral Care?: The Rectory Estates of the Archbishopric of York, 1540-1640’, in R. O'Day and F. Heal, eds., Princes and Paupers in the English Church, 1500-1800 (Leicester, 1981).

  44. Hoskins, Age of Plunder, pp. 138-9.

  45. Ibid., pp. 140-1.

  46. Ibid., pp. 141-3.

  47. Ibid., pp. 144-5; W. K. Jordan, Edward VI, pp. 456-7.

  48. Loach, Parliament and the Crown, p. 74.

  49. E. B. Fryde, D. E. Greenway, S. Porter, and I. Roy, eds., Handbook of British Chronology (3rd edn, London, 1986), pp. 107, 112; Penry Williams, The Tudor Regime (Oxford, 1979), pp. 87-9; Hoak ‘Two Revolutions’, pp. 104-7; J. A. Guy, Tudor England (Oxford, 1988), pp. 228-9.

  50. Bevington, Tudor Drama and Politics, p. 116.

  51. H. B. Norland, Drama in Early Tudor Britain, 1485-1558 (Lincoln, NE, 1995), pp. 203-4. That the reference to a piece of the bishopric coming southward may also have a topical relevance is equally possible. The bishopric of Durham had been dismembered by Northumberland and its London residence, Durham Place, had been taken from it (thereby appropriating a ‘piece of the Bishopric’ in the south). In December 1553, Mary's first Parliament debated the restoration of the see to its former state and the return of Durham Place to the bishop's use. A bill was passed by the Lords to this effect, but was rejected by the Commons on 5 December. Loach, Parliament and the Crown, pp. 80-1.

  52. Happé, ed., Tudor Interludes, p. 27; Bevington, Tudor Drama and Politics, p. 115. See also Norland, Drama in Early Tudor Britain, p. 207: ‘No mention is made of the organisation or doctrine of the church. The author deals only with principles largely of an economic nature: he presents no programme of social or religious change.’

  53. Bevington, Tudor Drama and Politics, p. 120. For the contrary suggestion that ‘Nothing is said … in the play about restoring church lands’, see Norland, Drama in Early Tudor Britain, p. 205.

  54. G. Parry, The Trophies of Time: English Antiquarians of the Seventeenth Century (Oxford, 1995), pp. 157-64.

  55. Ibid., p. 162.

  56. In John Heywood's text, Mary is presented, literally, as the housemaid whose broom sweeps the cobwebs from the window-pane, thus ending the dispute between the combative insects. See J. S. Farmer, ed., The Spider and The Fly … by John Heywood (London, 1907).

  57. Mindful of the need to win over the political nation, Mary pointedly asked for no subsidies from either of her first two Parliaments (those of 1553 and 1554), even remitting any outstanding payments from that granted by the last Parliament of Edward VI. P. Williams, The Tudor Regime (Oxford, 1979).

  58. Udall wisely eschewed the hysterical reaction to Mary's accession of those zealous reformers who sought to intimidate and provoke the new queen into concessions. In the same month as the play was performed, December 1553, opponents of ecclesiastical reaction had thrown a dog, shaven above the ears to represent a tonsured priest, into Mary's Presence Chamber, a symbol of their hostility to popish priestly power. CSPsp, XI, p. 418; Loach, Parliament and The Crown, p. 83.

  59. For a discussion of this issue, see W. Perry, ‘Udall as Time-server’, Notes and Queries, 194 (1950), p. 120; White, Theatre and Reformation, p. 129, and Norland, Drama in Early Tudor Britain, p. 207.

  60. Bevington, Tudor Drama and Politics, pp. 118-19.

  61. Such prayers for the Council had not been used in the plays addressed to Henry VIII, but in those written for Mary and her female successor, Elizabeth I, they were to become commonplace.

  62. It might be objected that the play deliberately forestalls identification of Respublica and Mary by making the former representative of the state rather than a prince, and by overtly identifying the queen with Nemesis. But, as the following paragraphs will suggest, these distinctions quickly break down under the dramatic imperatives of performance.


BL: British Library

CSPSp: G. A. Bergenroth, et al., eds., Calendar of State Papers Spanish (13 vols., London, 1862-1954)

CSPF: J. Stevenson, ed., Calendar of State Papers Foreign, 1561–62 (London, 1866)

EETS: Early English Text Society

Hall: Edward Hall, The Union of the Two Noble and Illustrious Houses of Lancaster and York, ed. H. Ellis (London, 1809)

LP: J. S. Brewer, et al., eds, Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, of The Reign of Henry VIII (21 vols. in 36; London, 1862-1932)

METh: Medieval English Theatre

PRO: Public Record Office

REED: Records of Early English Drama

RSTC: A. W. Pollard and G. R. Redgrave, eds., The Short Title Catalogue of Books Printed in England, Scotland, and Ireland, 1475-1640, 2nd edition, revised and enlarged by W. A. Jackson, F. S. Ferguson, and K. F. Pantzer (London, 1976)