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University Dramas were performed at colleges like Cambridge and Oxford. While the theaters of the Globe, the Curtain, and the Swan all resided in parts of London considered outside of the law and housing disreputable players. In a strange twist of irony for Shakespeare’s England, however, one of the most highbrow places in society also held dramatic performances in high esteem and that is the university. New establishments for England, colleges like Cambridge and Oxford produced so many professional playwrights for the 16th century that several of them banded together to become known as the university wits. Here this week to help us understand the role of players at major universities as well as who it was that performed there, and how these dramatic presentations interacted with those of Shakespeare is our guest and author of a new publication on University Dramas in Early Modern England, Daniel Blank. 

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Headshot of our guest, Daniel Blank

Daniel Blank is an assistant professor at Durham University. His research and teaching interests include Shakespeare, early modern drama, and theater history, as well as the intellectual culture and classical heritage of the early modern period. His articles have been published in a number of academic journals, and he has also written for the Los Angeles Review of Books and the Times Literary Supplement. His first book, Shakespeare and University Drama in Early Modern England, is forthcoming from Oxford University Press. 

I’ll be asking Daniel Blank about:

  • I thought plays and players were considered a very low brow form of entertainment during Shakespeare’s lifetime, so why were universities, a place considered very high brow, interested in staging performances?  
  • In the 16th century, a group of college educated playwrights joined forces and called themselves the University Wits. Are these men like Christopher Marlowe and George Peele, examples of university players?  
  • Aside from Marlowe and Kyd, who were the most famous university actors or perhaps most notable university performances?
  • …and more!

Resources You Can Use to Learn More:

From Daniel Blank:

Lynn Enterline, Shakespeare’s Schoolroom: Rhetoric, Discipline, Emotion | $27 | This book thinks about the relationship between Shakespeare’s plays and the early modern classroom; similar to my own project in that it explores the connections between Shakespeare and intellectual culture, particularly in terms of theatrical activity.

The Philological Museum ( — online library of humanistic texts and translations, including a number of university plays 

Alan H. Nelson, Early Cambridge Theatres: College, University, and Town Stages, 1464-1720 |$52 | This publication is a study of the physical spaces in which plays were performed 

“‘Our Fellow Shakespeare’: A Contemporary Classic in the Early Modern University” — an article by Daniel Blank that gives an overview of the relationship between Shakespeare and the universities.

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Title page of Titus Andronicus
First page of The Lamentable Tragedy of Titus Andronicus from the First Folio, published in 1623 | Isaac Jaggard and Edward Blount (17th-century printers); Folger Shakespeare Library (photographer) – (stable URL for high-resolution zoomable version).

George Peele and Shakespeare

While it is not accepted by all, many scholars suggest that George Peele was involved with Shakespeare’s writing of Titus Andronicus. That’s the same George Peele that Daniel talks about in today’s episode as having collaborated with William Gagner for a university drama in 1583.

Portrait photo of George Sainsbury, who coined university wits
Portrait of English writer and critic George Sainsbury, who coined the term “University wits” | Public Domain | 1910 | Photo by James Lafayette (1853-1923) |Source

They didn’t call themselves University Wits

During their lives, playwrights like Marlowe, Peele, and Robert Greene did not call themselves University Wits. This term was coined in the 20th century by a man named George Sainsbury. He used it to describe late 16th century playwrights who were educated at university. The group included Christopher Marlowe, Robert Greene, Thomas Nashe, John Lyly, Thomas Lodge, George Peele, and sometimes Thomas Kyd (though Kyd was not educated at Oxford or Cambridge).

Page from the Parnassus plays referencing Shakespeare and Ben Jonson in Kempe's notes
Manuscript of Parnassus play with allusion to Shakespeare: “”Few of the university men pen plays well, they smell too much of that writer Ovid, and that writer Metamorphoses, and talk too much of Proserpina and Jupiter. Why here’s our fellow Shakespeare puts them all down, I and Ben Jonson too.” | I have highlighted the portions I can visually identify as saying “our fellow Shakespeare” and “Ben Johnson” (sic); I, Cassidy Cash, do not read secretary hand, so please know the full translation listed above was done and provided by the wikipedia user where I found this image and should be independently confirmed before using in research or publication.| Public Domain | Source

Parnassus Plays are About Unemployed College Graduates

This play, completed in the 16th century, catalogs the journey of university graduates who are well educated but unable to find a job to support themselves upon graduation. The plays form a neat window into the relationship with the world that universities held as well as the opinion of society at large about the importance of that diploma.

St. John's College, Cambridge where university drama Parnassus Plays were performed
St. John’s College, Cambridge, England, where the Parnassus plays were performed. Photocrom done between 1890 and 1900 | This image is available from the United States Library of Congress‘s Prints and Photographs division
under the digital ID ppmsc.08087. | Public Domain | Source

College Dining Halls

University dramas were often performed inside college dining halls. As Daniel explains, one of the most famous you’ve probably seen: “Original performance venues are still standing. Christ Church in Oxford, now people know it from Harry Potter, but that was one of the most important and frequently used locations for university dramatic performances. By comparison, none of the original structures where professional drama was performed survive, and by contrast most places that university dramas were performed not only survive but remain in active use today.”

Hall at Oxford, featured in harry Potter films and site of university drama performances
Christ Church hall oxford university 2012 | Photo by chensiyuan | This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International3.0 Unported2.5 Generic2.0 Generic and 1.0 Generic license. | Source