It is rare that we can mark a significant anniversary for a production in such style! The earliest manuscript play in the Harvard Theatre Collection is Philosophaster, an academic comedy by Robert Burton that was performed for the first and likely only time in the Hall of Christ Church, Oxford, on February 16, 1617. Almost everything we know of the play is derived from three manuscripts, two of which are held by Houghton Library. The most significant of these, cataloged as Ms Thr 10, is the volume pictured at left, which scholars with much more expertise in paleography than I believe is written in Burton’s hand. Another manuscript version of the play (MS. V.a.315) is held by the Folger Library, and it is presumed to haven been copied from the Harvard manuscript (or from another now lost source). The third extant contemporary source, Ms Thr 10.1, is a manuscript book by Thomas Goffe, which contains sides for four plays that he acted in as a student at Oxford. It includes lines for the role of Polupragmaticus (The Busybody) in Philosophaster. There are some differences between the 250 lines in Goffe’s playbook and the extant play manuscripts, although this is hardly surprising insomuch as the two manuscript versions refer to the success of the performance and were composed after the fact. As we presume that this is Goffe’s prompt copy for the actual performance, it simply suggests that Burton refined the play as he wrote it in Ms Thr 10.
Philosophaster was part of the flowering of so-called academic or Latin drama that began in the mid-sixteenth century and ended with the outbreak of the English Civil War in 1642. It is perhaps needless to say that this aspect of English theatrical history has received far less attention than the vernacular drama of the time (Shakespeare, Jonson, etc.). The academic moniker derives from the fact that these plays were largely written by scholars for audiences at English universities while the Latin descriptor explains itself.
Robert Burton (1577-1640) was a prototypical Renaissance scholar, now best remembered for The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621), a sprawling and learned work that was a survey of sorts of human emotions with an emphasis upon the dynamics of what we would now describe as depression. This engraving of Burton is taken from the spectacular frontispiece to the 1638 edition of The Anatomy of Melancholy, one of many that was printed during his lifetime as he continuously revised and expanded his work. Beyond his wide-ranging scholarship, Burton worked as a vicar and a librarian and he ultimately spent the entirety of his career at Christ Church, a constituent college of the University of Oxford.
In The Anatomy of Melancholy, Burton defined philosophasters as “those licensed in the arts who have no art, those judged wise who have no wisdom and have no qualifications for a degree except desire.” (This translation of the original passage in Latin and all that follow are taken from Connie McQuillen’s 1993 edition of the play.) As the title page of the manuscript suggests, the play was first drafted in 1605, which was the year that Burton was awarded his MA. Philosophaster is thus a satire of seventeenth-century education that was written by a somewhat disgruntled graduate student and revised in 1615 by a scholar still struggling to make a name for himself and secure patronage.
The plot centers on seven scholars who take over a university recently established by a local duke, where they outrageously abuse the students and townsmen until their duplicities are revealed by two wandering scholars. The seven philosophasters are stock characters that represent assorted academic disciplines, including a pedantic literary scholar, a sophist, a poetaster, and a mathematician. The two righteous scholars, Polumathes (All Learning) and Philobiblos (Lover of Books), advise the duke to hideously brand and cast out the philosophasters, and the play ends with an affirmation of the reformed university. Much of the humor of the play derives from the cynical banter between the seven spurious scholars. When one suggests that they need to leave for another university, the dialogue proceeds:
Pantomagus: As if the quick-witted would not be there also?
Simon Actus: Where then?
Polupragamticus: Freiburg in Breisgau or Copenhagen in Denmark, Prague in Bohemia, or Oxford in England.
Lodovicus Pantometer: I warn you to be careful if you’re considering England. Don’t go there without a wolf, fox, or bear.
Polupragamticus: Why is that?
Lodovicus Pantometer: Because of the many mastiffs there.
Polupragamticus: But why should I take along a bear or wolf?
Pantomagus: So the mastiffs can chase one of them and leave you alone.
Polupragamticus: You’re being silly. Do you want to visit an Italian school?
Simon Actus: No.
Simon Actus: Because the women there are more learned than we.
Polupragamticus: Why is that?
Simon Actus: Because they frequently sleep with monks and theologians who sprinkle them with dew and inspire a certain spirit.
The humor is both rather silly and intensively allusive, referring to a 15th-century dialogue by Giovanni Pontano (1426-1503) whose work would have been well-known to its academic audience. The overall tone and the prominent role that students played in the production suggests that Philosophaster was something akin to an early version of the Hasty Pudding Theatricals, which similarly burlesque academic mores and university life. Burton’s manuscript is a rather remarkable survival, one that offers a window into the theatrical and academic world of the early seventeenth century. Even more exceptional is the fact that it was only ever performed once…on this evening four hundred years ago.
A short bibliography of Philosophaster appears below the fold. See also an earlier post on the Houghton Library blog by one of our student interns for additional information.