Academic journal article Shakespeare Studies

Professional Playing in London and Superior Cambridge Responses

Academic journal article Shakespeare Studies

Professional Playing in London and Superior Cambridge Responses

Article excerpt

MY REAL SUBJECT IS SEX. To be a little more precise it is about the effect of living in the monastic conditions of the chambers at either of the two universities or the Inns of Court in late Tudor and early Stuart times. Both of these points have a lot to do with playwriting and playgoing through this period. There are many associations between being an Inns man and playgoing beyond what Henry Fitzgeoffrey mockingly versified in 1616 and Francis Lenton's claim that by the late 1620s law students preferred Ben Jonson's plays to their law books. Some of the stories are very intimate, like the one by Bernard Capp about an Inns man losing his place at the Inner Temple for trying to smuggle his girlfriend in dressed as a page, an obvious adaptation of theatrical disguise to life at the Inns. The Oxbridge students were more remote, but kept a keen eye on what went on at the playhouses in London. The key question, perhaps too deep for a brief survey of this kind, is what the all-male seclusion that went with a bachelor's residence at a university or an Inn did to the thoughts (and feelings) about the other sex in the minds of the men who wrote plays while living there.

First the sociology. For all the recent transformation of collegiate life from monosexual to bisexual, there are some peculiar blanks in the minds of Oxbridge historians. Their familiarity with the seven-century-old tradition of collegiate life which they inherited seems to have prevented them from commenting on how peculiar the practice was in the sixteenth century, as it is now. Surviving from before the English Reformation, the concept of the monastic single-sex college lasted until the 1980s. First-degree graduates are still called bachelors because university students had to be unmarried if they were to live in their ostensibly monastic colleges. Single-sex colleges only recently gave up the requirement that their residents must remain unmarried for the duration of their stay at university.

The chief reason why Oxbridge retained the monastic principle in this form for so long after the Reformation was of course that to male Catholics and Protestants alike women were thought unfit for study. That prejudice has somehow concealed the anomaly where for so long after the demolition of the monasteries the Oxbridge colleges maintained the same principle of a necessarily celibate existence. Another was the equally prejudicial view that wedded life provided too many distractions for a youth whose duty was to read and think. One of the many reasons why Shakespeare never went to Oxford or Cambridge was because he married at the unnaturally early age for his time of eighteen. As Ann Hathaway's husband he was debarred from ever becoming a student. Ben Jonson, who also married early, did receive an honorary degree in 1619 at the age of forty-seven, but that was a master's, not a bachelor's degree. Shakespeare himself made fun of the idea of a monastic male enclave given over exclusively to academic study in Love's Labours Lost, a title possibly containing a hint of a personal comment on his own choice of marriage in place of learning. The play starts by mocking the Catholic idea that a man should and could successfully spend his youth entirely secluded from normal life and the society of women. That, of course, was the principle on which the Oxbridge colleges were based.

It is predictable that historians of the Inns of Court should equally have ignored the existence of the identical rules for celibate monastic life in the four major societies of the Inns of Court in London. The Inns had the same concerns as the colleges about their students being kept undistracted by the presence of women, or at least of nubile ones, and their records are more explicit than those of the colleges about the consequent problems. All the Inns banned women and boys, even from attending sermons in chapel. In 1581 Gray's Inn issued an order that no laundresses and victuallers-kitchen women--who were under the age of forty were to be employed. …

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