The Parnassus Plays: our fellow Shakespeare

I’ve referred a couple of times in my blogs to the Parnassus plays. This trilogy of student dramas are usually relegated to the footnotes in Shakespeare biographies so I decided to do look at them in a bit more detail.

 There are three so-called Parnassus Plays, the first entitled The Pilgrimage to Parnassus, the second two sharing the name The Return from Parnassus. All date back to 1598-1602 when they were written and performed anonymously at Christmas by students from St John’s College Cambridge. As you might expect they’re full of in-jokes, tales of student life, and the virtues of alcohol. This is particularly true of the first one, in which Philomusus and Studioso, arrive to begin their studies at the University, or Parnassus. Another student, Stupido, who’s later described as a “pulinge Puritaine”, counsels them: “Studie not these vaine arts of Rhetorique, Poetrie and Philosophie; there is no sounde edifying knoweledg in them. Why they are more vaine than a paire of organs or a morrice daunce!”.

 Poetry, though, is the subject celebrated by the plays, and to be a professional poet is to have reached the height of achievement. By the second play, Philomusus and Studioso are disillusioned, and resolve to leave Parnassus so the plays’ main subject becomes the students’ attempts to find work. One student tries unsuccessfully to get a patron. Students also consider other jobs: music, or, in one of the scenes which is always quoted because of its relevance to Shakespeare, acting.


William Kemp

The students are auditioned by Richard Burbage and William Kempe from Shakespeare’s company. It’s suggested one of them could play Richard III and he quotes the first lines of Shakespeare’s play. But the students want to write poetry, not to speak someone else’s lines:

Must we be practis’d to those leaden sports
That nought doe vent but what they do receive? 

The student Ingenioso comments: “I see wit is but a phastasme and idea, a quareling shadowe that will seldom dwell in the same roome with a full purse”, and even though their ambitions become modest, to

                                     Wander in the worlde,
And reape our fortunes whesoer’re they growe.
Some thacked cottage or some cuntrie hall,
Some porche, some belfry, or some scrivener’s stall

 it’s still more difficult than they think. Paula Glatzer, in her book, describes the trilogy as “the story of their attempts… to earn a living in an unappreciative world”.

 The references to Shakespeare are too complicated to explain in full, and can be read in many biographies and on this webpage. Some indication of the regard Shakespeare was held in can be seen in the discussions of the relative merit of poets. Spenser, the writer of the accomplished and courtly poem The Faerie Queene, is regarded as the finest. So Gullio’s preference for “Sweet Mr Shakespeare” confirms his lack of sophistication.

Let this duncified worlde esteeme of Spencer and Chaucer, I’le worship sweet Mr Shakespeare, and to honour him will lay his Venus and Adonis under my pillowe.

 Another student mentions both of Shakespeare’s erotic poems:

 Who loves not Adons love, or Lucrece rape?
His sweeter verse contaynes hart throbbing line,
Could but a graver subject him content,
Without love’s foolish lazy languishment.

 In private many students probably enjoyed Shakespeare’s love poems more than Spenser’s rather genteel lines. Probably the most famous reference to Shakespeare comes in the discussion between Kempe and Burbage already quoted. The two actors are dismissive of the talents of playwrights from the universities. “Why heres our fellow Shakespeare puts them all downe”. Again this shouldn’t necessarily be taken as a compliment to Shakespeare as Kempe, and by inference the professional actors, show their ignorance of the classics, but it does locate Shakespeare firmly as part of the acting company.

 The other connection between Shakespeare and the University is that Hamlet was played there. The title page of the so-called Bad Quarto of the play published in 1603 reads “As it hath beene diverse times acted …in the two Universities of Cambridge and Oxford, and else-where”.


The Hall of St John's College Cambridge

When I visited the city recently I took a look around St John’s College where the Parnassus Plays were originally performed. The venue isn’t stated, but it seems likely they would have used the Hall which dates back to 1511-20. This magnificent room has a hammerbeam roof and linenfold panelling and is still used as a dining hall, although it’s been enlarged. Some of the windows contain 15th century glass. Could this Hall also have been the venue for the performances of Hamlet, with the College’s many connections with drama and poetry?

I was surprised to find that apart from a rehearsed reading of the third play at the Globe Theatre in 2009, the Parnassus plays have remained unperformed for centuries. The only book about them seems to be Paula Glatzer’s The Complaint of the Poet: the Parnassus Plays, dating from 1977, and there’s no more modern edition than Leishman’s dating from 1949. I’d love to be wrong about this so if you know of productions please let me know!

Paula Glatzer reminds us that the Parnassus Plays are some of the earliest records to explain how writers or would-be writers felt they were perceived by others. The story they tell about Shakespeare isn’t straightforward but the plays do also tell us about the life, beliefs and preoccupations of students in Shakespeare’s time, which turn out to be remarkably similar to those today.

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