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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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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 (https://philological.cal.bham.ac.uk) — 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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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.
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).
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.
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.”