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UDALL'S 'ROISTER DOISTER.'
which we find in his dramatic work.
Ralph Roister Doister,' however unpromising its title may be, is the composition of a scholar, who has studied Terence and Plautus to good purpose.
From the Latin playwrights Udall learned how to construct a plot, and to digest the matter of his fable into five acts. The same models of style gave him that ease of movement and simplicity of diction which make his work, in spite of superficial archaisms, classical. In · Roister Doister' we emerge from medieval grotesquery and allegory into the clear light of actual life, into an agreeable atmosphere of urbanity and natural delineation. Udall avoided the error of imitating his Roman master too closely. He neither borrowed his fable nor his persons, as was the wont of the Italian comedians, straight from Plautus. His play is founded, indeed, upon the · Miles Gloriosus;' but it is free from that unpleasant taint of unreality which mars the Commedia erudita of the Florentines. The antique plot has been accommodated to a simple episode of English life among people of the comfortable middle class. The hero, Ralph Doister, is a braggart and a coward; well to do, but foolish in his use of wealth ; boastful before proof, but timid in the hour of trial; ridiculously vain of his appearance, with a trick of dangling after any woman whom chance throws in his way. A parasite and boon companion, called Matthew Merigreek, turns him round his finger by alternate flatteries and bullyings. This character Udall owed to the Latin theatre; but he combined the popular qualities of the Vice with the conventional attributes of the classic parasite, contriving at the same time to create a real personage, who would have been at home in ordinary English households. The name Merigreek seems to point to Juvenal's ‘Græculus Esuriens ;' it has also something in common with the abstract titles of the Vice in the Moralities. This clever knave discovers that Ralph is in love with a widow, Dame Custance, who is betrothed to the merchant Gawin Goodluck. While Goodluck is away upon a voyage, Ralph and Merigreek pester the widow with love-letters, tokens, serenades, and visits. Her opinion of Ralph is that he is a contemptible coxcomb, not worth an honest woman's notice. She therefore treats his wooing as a joke; but finding that she cannot shake him off, makes the best fun she can out of the circumstances. This gives a colour of familiarity to his attentions; and a servant of Goodluck's appearing suddenly upon the scene while Ralph's courtship is in full progress, arouses his master's jealousy. Dame Custance is now placed in a difficult position, from which she is finally extricated by the testimony of an old friend, who was acquainted with her behaviour in the matter, and also by the cowardly admissions of the simpleton Ralph. Thus this slight story contains the principal elements of a comedy, ridiculous as well as serious characters ; laughable incidents; temporary misunderstandings; a perplexity in the fourth act; and a happy adjustment of all difficulties by the self-exposure of the mischief-making braggart. The conduct of the piece is spirited and easy.
The author's art, though refined by scholarship, is homely. Between • Ralph Roister Doister' and “The Merry Wives of Windsor' there is, in point of construction and conception, no immeasurable distance, although the one play is the work of mediocrity, the other of genius.
Gammer Gurton's Needle' has been hitherto ascribed, on slender but not improbable grounds of inference, to John Still. He was a native of Lincolnshire, who received his education at Christ's College, Cambridge. After enjoying a canonry at Westminster and the masterships of S. John's and Trinity at Cambridge, he was promoted to the Bishopric of Bath and Wells in 1592.
His effigy may still be seen beneath its canopy in Wells Cathedral.
A grim Puritan divine, with pointed beard and long stiff painted robes, lies face-upward on the monument. This is the author of the first elaborately executed farce in our language. Gammer Gurton's Needle'is a humorous and vulgar picture of the lowest rustic manners, dashed in with coarse bold strokes in telling realistic style. Its chief merit as a play is the crescendo of its interest, ending in a burlesque dénouement. Unlike · Ralph Roister Doister,' it has no plot, properly so called, and owes nothing to the Latin
rather regard it as a regular development from one of the comic scenes interpolated in the Miracles. Gammer Gurton loses her needle; and Diccon the Bedlam, who is peeping and prying about the cottage, accuses Dame Chat, the alewife, of stealing it. This sets all the village by the ears. One by one the various authorities, parson, baily, constables, are drawn into the medley. Heads are broken ; ancient feuds are exacerbated; the confusion seems hopeless, when the needle is found sticking in
the breeches of Hodge, the Gammer's farm-servant. Diccon the Bedlam, who raised and controlled the storm, may be compared to the Vice of the Moralities, inasmuch as all the action turns upon him. But he has nothing in common with abstractions. He is a vigorously executed portrait of a personage familiar enough in England at that epoch. After the dissolution of the monasteries, no provision was made for the poor folk who used to live upon their doles. A crowd of idle and dissolute beggars were turned loose upon the land, to live upon their wits. The cleverer of these affected madness, and got the name of Bedlam Beggars, Abraham Men, and Poor Toms. Shakspere has described them in King Lear : '
The country gives me proof and precedent,
Dekker in one of his tracts introduces us to the confraternity of wandering rogues in the following curious passage: Of all the mad rascals, that are of this wing, the Abraham Man is the most fantastic. The fellow that sat half-naked, at table to-day, from the girdle upwards, is the best Abraham Man that ever came to my house, and the notablest villain. He swears he hath been in Bedlam, and will talk frantically of purpose. You see pins stuck in sundry places of his naked flesh, especially in his arms, which pain he gladly puts himself to (being indeed no torment at
DICCON THE BEDLAM.
all, his skin is either so dead with some foul disease or so hardened with weather) only to make you
believe he is out of his wits. He calls himself by the name of Poor Tom, and coming near anybody cries out, “ Poor Tom is a-cold !” These vagrants wandered up
and down the country, roosting in hedge-rows, creeping into barns, extorting bacon from farm-servants by intimidation, amusing the company in rural inns by their mad jests, stealing and bullying, working upon superstition, pity, terror, or the love of the ridiculous in all from whom they could obtain a livelihood. How Shakspere used this character to heighten the tragedy of 'Lear,' requires no comment.
Still employed the same character in working out a purely farcical intrigue. His Diccon is simply a clever and amusing vagabond.
It is worthy of notice that ‘Gammer Gurton's Needle' was played at Christ's College, with the sanction of the authorities, in 1566. We might wonder how grave scholars could appreciate the buffoonery of this coarse art, which has neither the intrigue of Latin comedy nor the polish of classic style to recommend it. Yet, if the intellectual conditions of the time are taken into account, our wonder will rather be that · Roister Doister'should have been written than that Gammer Gurton' should have been enjoyed. The fine arts had no place in England. Literature hardly existed, and the study of the classics was as yet confined to a few scholars. Formal logic and the philosophy of the schoolmen occupied the graver thoughts of academical students. When those learned men abandoned themselves to mirth, they relished