Ralph Roister Doister presents no problems of interpretation, but knowing its historical and literary contexts helps in imagining how it appeared to audiences in its own time. For example, it was written for performance by schoolboys, which explains why its language is clearer than that of Gammer Gurton’s Needle (1566), another play written at about the same time. The author, Nicholas Udall, was a canon of St. George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle, and Ralph Roister Doister, with its psalmody and mock requiem, was perhaps performed at Windsor Chapel as early as September, 1552, in front of an audience including the young King Edward VI.
Udall was a distinguished classical scholar, who studied at Corpus Christi College, Oxford, well known for its Humanistic studies. Udall, in fact, by the time he wrote Ralph Roister Doister, had translated the Apophthegmes and Latin commentaries on the New Testament by the Dutch scholar and Humanist Desiderius Erasmus. Udall’s efforts as a classicist, as a scholar of Humanism, and as a teacher inform the theme, structure, and intent of his Ralph Roister Doister. The classical influence on Ralph Roister Doister comes largely from the Roman dramatist Terence, whose comedies were a feature of the medieval school curriculum. Terence’s plays were praised for their comparative wholesomeness and for the excellence of their Latin. Udall’s devotion to Terence appears in his Floures for Latin Spekynge (1534), which became a standard school textbook. The fourth century b.c.e. grammarian Donatus studied Terence and found in his plays certain principles that became fixed in the scholarship that Udall knew. The five-act structure that Udall uses in Ralph Roister Doister, for example, may have originated with Terence. The general familiarity of the educated of the time with Roman comedy may help explain why Renaissance comedies preceded tragedies.
The biggest debts in Ralph Roister Doister are to Plautus’s Miles Gloriosus (pr. c. 205 b.c.e.; The Braggart Soldier, 1767) and...
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