Ralph Roister Doister

by Nicholas Udall

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Critical Evaluation

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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 Terence’s Eunuchus (161 b.c.e.; The Eunuch, 1598). The miles gloriosus is the braggart soldier, the huffing, puffing windbag who is a parody of real military virtue. William Shakespeare’s Falstaff is an example of this character type. Ralph Roister Doister appears as a parody of a parody. He is not by nature robust enough to look for women as a real roisterer would. Without the mischievous Matthew Merrygreeke to puff him up and urge him on, Ralph would hardly attempt as much as he does. He is silly and full of himself, however, and when he meets Dame Christian Custance he falls in love with her as quickly as he does with all others. He is something of a fool for love.

Ralph derives clearly from Plautus’s braggart soldier, but the scheme that Merrygreeke involves him in comes straight out of Terence’s The Eunuch. The subplot of that ancient comedy features a braggart, Thraso, who is egged on by the parasitical Gnatho (the inspiration for Merrygreeke) to court a faithful woman, who stays true to her absent lover. Thraso assaults the woman’s house just as his descendant Ralph vows to assault the house of Dame Custance. In each case the blusterers collapse.

In Ralph Roister Doister it is not Terence’s young Roman woman who is wooed but a redoubtable Christian widow whose name reveals her resistance to bold suitors. Dame Custance is capable of the kind of broad humor sometimes found in the morality plays and recalls Geoffrey Chaucer’s Wife of Bath somewhat, but she hardly indulges in shocking coarseness. When Gawin Goodluck’s friend, Sym Suresby, mistakenly suspects Dame Custance of betraying Goodluck, she compares herself...

(This entire section contains 893 words.)

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to two famous heroines, the biblical Esther and Susanna of the Apocryphal story.

Merrygreeke owes something to the parasite Gnatho but also owes much to the figure of Vice from medieval morality plays. Vice would have been a familiar villain to Udall’s audience. This stock character personifies human deviltry. He represents the world’s corruption that has to be overcome, but it is impossible to ignore his genius for bawdiness and amusing shenanigans. Falstaff and Ben Jonson’s Volpone are in this tradition; a truly evil villain such as Iago, however, is beyond the limits of such a character. A true monster is more likely to be found in a tragedy. Merrygreeke’s ultimate harmlessness is implicit in the Prologue’s assurance that “all scurrility we utterly refuse.”

Writing for a cast of students, Udall would have been careful to create a work that was properly instructive. Delight comes to sweeten the instruction in the broad slapstick nonsense, such as the rout of Ralph and his followers by the widow armed with pots and pans, and instruction comes in the good-natured depiction of a virtuous woman complemented by a good man. Moreover, Roman themes and character types are well meshed with English materials. Such irreproachable citizens as Suresby and Tristram Trusty speak well of the morals of London’s middle-class citizenry.

The meter of the play is a rhymed hexameter, but it does not scan well. In Udall’s time, stress scansion was not yet fixed in practice, and the blank verse of Christopher Marlowe and Shakespeare was not to be used first until Thomas Sackville and Thomas Norton wrote Gordoduc (c. 1561). Ralph Roister Doister may seem primitive to today’s readers, but it offers much to appreciate.