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.
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.
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.
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.