Nicholas Udall

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Nicholas Udall is known today almost exclusively as the author of the first regular English comedy, Ralph Roister Doister. He was better known in his own time, however, as a scholar and translator. Aside from a few occasional verses and a medical book (Compendiosa totius anatomie delineatio, 1552), the balance of Udall’s work consists of translations of Latin authors. In 1534, he published Floures for Latine Spekynge, a translation into idiomatic English of selected parts of Terence. Two translations of the great Humanist Desiderius Erasmus followed, Apopthegmes in 1542 and The Paraphrase of Erasmus upon the New Testament in 1549. Finally, in 1550, Udall published a translation of Peter Martyr’s Protestant disputation with Roman opponents, Tractatie de Sacramente (1549); Udall’s work is entitled A Discourse or Tractise of Petur Martyr.


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Nicholas Udall’s literary efforts are almost exclusively connected to his work as a scholar and teacher. Except for a few verses written to celebrate the coronation of Anne Boleyn, the famous second wife of Henry VIII and mother of Queen Elizabeth, the translations and plays credited to him were produced to aid him in his profession. Even the play that secured his reputation, the innovative and delightful Ralph Roister Doister, was most likely composed as a Christmas comedy for a boys’ school in London.

The Floures for Latine Spekynge is a work written by a schoolmaster for schoolchildren. Udall’s work was used in a Latin-English dictionary published in 1548 by Thomas Cooper: Bibliotheca Eliotae. Cooper praises “the learned man Udall, by whose scholarly annotations our labors have been lightened in many places, give deserved praise and gratitude.”

Udall’s purpose in Floures for Latine Spekynge was to give students selected Latin passages from Terence as exercises. Udall best explains his intent on the title page: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 words, as were thought nedeful to be annoted, as also of dyvers grammatical rules, very profytable and necessary for the expedite knowledge in the latine tongue: Compiled by Nicholas Udall.

In his preface, Udall notes, “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.” The “scholia” were intended to help the neophyte student understand not only the ideas of Terence but also the difficult task of translating those ideas from Latin into English. Instead of translating idioms literally, Udall uses equivalent English idioms, so that the resulting translation is both faithful to the sense of the Latin and at the same time a good English composition. The work was used by hundreds of English schoolchildren to gain an understanding of and an appreciation for classical ideas and language.

More important than Floures for Latine Spekynge for Udall’s reputation, for both his own generation and the succeeding generation, was his The Paraphrase of Erasmus upon the New Testament. Erasmus had popularized scholarly annotations on the New Testament, maintaining the scholarly quality of the commentaries while omitting the jargon and apparatus peculiar to scholarship. Udall employed his skills as an accomplished translator to provide for English readers a clear, lively rendering of the important commentaries.

So important was Udall’s translation thought to be to the Protestant clergy, many of whom were ill-prepared as scholars, that royal injunctions in 1547 and 1559 insisted “that every parson, vicar, curate, chantry-priest, and stipendary, being under the degree of bachelor of divinity, shall provide and have of his own . ....

(This entire section contains 595 words.)

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. 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.”

Whether Udall’s Ralph Roister Doister was as important and influential as his translations is a question not easily answered. The play clearly cannot be considered in the same category as comedies by Ben Jonson or William Shakespeare. Udall’s comedy does not develop a complete plot, analyze a significant idea, or probe the psychology of human emotions or foibles, but it does blend classical Roman and native English elements in an English comedy in a way that forms a foundation for the author’s more famous successors. Udall is not unreasonably considered the father of English comedy.


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Boas, Frederick F. An Introduction to Tudor Drama. 1933. Reprint. New York: AMS Press, 1978. Contains basic facts about Udall and his works, including his relationship with Queen Mary and a lawsuit against him in the early 1500’s. Offers a comment on the classical influences on Udall, the “most representative” English playwright in the three decades between John Heywood and the major Inns of Court dramas of the 1560’s.

Cartwright, Kent. Theatre and Humanism: English Drama in the Sixteenth Century. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999. Cartwright examines the influence of Humanism on English drama in the 1500’s. Udall followed Humanism and received instruction in it. Includes bibliography and index.

Edgerton, William. Nicholas Udall. New York: Twayne, 1965. The biographical sections are enlarged by references to major historical events. Respublica is dismissed as probably not by Udall. The longest chapter is devoted to Ralph Roister Doister, with emphasis on the dating problem and on the presence of Latin influence in the comedy. Includes annotated bibliography.

Walker, Greg. The Politics of Performance in Early Renaissance Drama. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998. Walker examines the theater of Great Britain, focusing on the writers Udall, David Lindsay, John Heywood, and Thomas Norton. Includes bibliography and index.


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