Academic journal article Shakespeare Studies

Introduction

Academic journal article Shakespeare Studies

Introduction

Article excerpt

HAMLET TWICE REMINDED its original audiences of another tragedy recently performed at the Globe, that of Julius Caesar, a central subject of the classical history studied in Elizabethan schools and universities. Horatio thinks that the ghost, like the apparitions which appeared before Caesar's fall, "bodes some strange eruption to our state," and, proleptically, Polonius is prompted to recall that he once acted at "th'university," taking the role of the doomed Caesar, "kill'd i' th' Capitol." While the action of Polonius's play might be imagined to have corresponded to Shakespeare's own play of Caesar, first audiences of Hamlet are likely to have inferred that the youthful student Polonius of thirty or forty years previously had learned and spoken his part in Latin, the academic language of school and university instruction and study, as well as of the less formal "exercises," such as college plays: both Stephen Gosson and Thomas Heywood use that term to refer to university drama. When Hamlet was played at Oxford, as the title page of the 1603 quarto assures us it had been, older university hands may have been reminded of the Latin play Caesar Interfectus (The Assassination of Caesar), written by Richard Edes and acted at Christ Church at some time in 1582, roughly twenty years earlier. In the Shakespearean period university plays were written for and seen by a select audience, and performance in them was, at least in part, regarded as contributing to the training of orators destined for the law courts and the pulpit, or in the case of the fictional Polonius, the council chamber. Many university actors at Oxford and Cambridge subsequently rose to high positions in the church. William Laud, archbishop of Canterbury and chancellor of Oxford University in the sixteen thirties and early forties, was proud of the dramatic prowess of his own Oxford college, St. John's, and he may in his undergraduate days, in the fifteen eighties, have taken roles in plays and entertainments there.

The third in the famous series of Parnassus plays, written in English and performed at St. John's College, Cambridge, at the very end of the sixteenth century, gives clear evidence that the university community had its eyes and ears open to the thriving contemporary theatrical culture based in London. Among the careers a pair of unemployed graduates consider is that of going on the professional stage, and they are auditioned by Kemp and Burbage, the chief comic and tragic specialists of the Chamberlain's Men, played, naturally, by the amateurs of the college. Such facetious fun, in the everyday vernacular, formed one aspect of university entertainments. More solemn occasions called for other genres, and the high-mindedness of the classical languages. Both Oxford and Cambridge were, in Elizabethan times, fairly remote provincial towns (although their relative isolation is distinguished by Alan Nelson, below); modern travelers from London can reach either university in roughly an hour by train, rather than journeying for two days or more. None the less, university students and dons read, and occasionally saw, the plays of Shakespeare and his contemporaries. One other important contact with the metropolis was constituted by the patronage of the court. Queen Elizabeth visited each university in turn early in her reign: Cambridge in 1564 and Oxford in 1566; both occasions were marked by elaborate theatrical shows, and set a pattern for royal visits which persisted until the civil wars. University drama was one index of the achievements of English culture; when the visiting Polish prince Albert Laski came to England in 1583 he was entertained independently at Oxford, his hospitality overseen jointly by the officials of the university and leading figures of the queen's court. Theatrical entertainment for important occasions at the universities was supported by contributions of equipment and experienced staff from the royal Offices of the Revels and Works, and staging could be ambitious and avantgarde, from the elaborate scenic effects at the theater at Christ Church, Oxford, in 1566 to the stylish Royal Slave in the same venue seventy years later. …

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