"Goodlie Anticke Apparrell"?: Sophocles' Ajax at Early Modern Oxford and Cambridge

By Knight, Sarah | Shakespeare Studies, Annual 2009 | Go to article overview

"Goodlie Anticke Apparrell"?: Sophocles' Ajax at Early Modern Oxford and Cambridge


Knight, Sarah, Shakespeare Studies


IN HIS DISCUSSION OF TRAGEDY in the Defence of Poesy (ca. 1580), Philip Sidney mentions Sophocles' fifth-century play [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (Latinized as Ajax) to illustrate the impact that tragedy should make on its audience. (1) [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] depicts the frenzy of the famous Greek warrior who became so frustrated after the dead Achilles' armor was given to Odysseus that he went mad:

   let but Sophocles bring you Ajax on a stage, killing or whipping
   sheep and oxen thinking them the army of Greeks with their
   chieftains Agamemnon and Menelaus, and tell me if you have not a
   more familiar insight into anger than finding in the schoolmen his
   genus and difference. (2)

Sidney compares theatrical performance with study, evoking two responses to tragic action: psychological involvement with the protagonist's fall, and academic dissection of his type; he prefers the experience of watching "Ajax on a stage," and the personal "insight into anger" thereby gained to reading the commentaries of "the schoolmen" which dryly anatomize rather than vividly represent Ajax's rage. Sidney's discussion of these different responses to [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] is part of the Defence's wider satire of pedantically misguided reactions to literature, but can also be read as a critique of his contemporaries' attitudes towards Greek tragedy. Sophocles was embedded within the curriculum at early modern Oxford and Cambridge, and as a Christ Church undergraduate during the late 1560s Sidney would have probably heard the Greek lectures, in which Sophocles was one of the authors taught. (3) Sidney interrogates an engagement with Sophocles only for his didactic usefulness, and suggests that the Greek dramatist should be more than just a worthy pillar of the curriculum, but should instead be watched "on a stage" to make an audience think and empathize.

[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] may well have occurred to Sidney as a good example both because of Sophocles' place within the academic curriculum and because the play had recently been prepared for the university stage. Just before Sidney went up to Oxford in 1568, a Latin production of Sophocles' play under the expanded title Ajax Flagellifer (Ajax the Scourger) had been included in a high-profile royal progress visit to Cambridge. (4) On August 9, 1564, after various sermons, debates, and perambulations, the Queen pleaded fatigue, and so, in the stark words of one eyewitness, "This nyght sholde haue byn pleyed Aiax flagellifer in Latin and was not." (5) In 1605, nearly twenty years after Sidney's death, Ajax was again staged, this time at his alma mater, Christ Church, on an expensive, innovative Inigo Jones-designed stage, yet despite being overseen by powerful courtiers and the Office of the Works, accounts of its reception were mostly negative. The performance lasted from 9 p.m. until 1 a.m., (6) and an observer again noted bad-tempered royal fatigue: apparently James "was verye weary before he came thither, but much more wearied by that, and spake manye wordes of dislike." (7) Although another eyewitness enthused that "the King shewed himselfe verie well pleased, and content with it," we might be skeptical, since this comes from the official panegyric Oxfords Triumph (1605), authored by Anthony Nixon, "freelance Jacobean hack." (8) So both versions of Ajax were either canceled or apparently unsuccessful: could this failure have been predicted?

On the contrary--there were sound reasons for the play's selection. Like all progress visits, the university entertainments were primarily intended to impress the monarch, and with court advisors such as William Cecil (in 1564) and Thomas Howard, earl of Suffolk (in 1605), breathing down their necks, Cambridge and Oxford pitched their entertainments squarely at two monarchs who prided themselves on scholarship, both to pay a compliment to a learned prince and to imply that university and monarchy shared priorities. …

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