The three Parnassus plays were produced at St. John's,
Cambridge, as part of the college's Christmas entertainments at the latter end of the 16th century. Authorship of the plays is uncertain, nor is it known if they were all the work of the same man. John Weeverhas been suggested as author of the first play; the satirist Joseph Hallhas been seen as an influence on – if not the author of – the other two, though recent statistical tests bring Hall's authorship into question. The dramatist John Day has also been proposed as a possible author.
The first part, "The Pilgrimage to Parnassus", describes allegorically their four year journey to
Parnassus, i.e. their progress, through the university course of logic, rhetoric, etc., and the temptations set before them by their meeting with "Madido", a drunkard, "Stupido", a puritan who hates learning, "Amoretto", a lover, and "Ingenioso", a disappointed student. The play was doubtless originally intended to stand alone, but the favor with which it was received led to the writing of a sequel, "The Return from Parnassus", which deals with the adventures of the two students after the completion of their studies at the university, and shows them discovering by bitter experience of how little pecuniary value their learning is. They again meet Ingenioso, who is making a scanty living by the press, but is on the search for a patron, as well as a new character, "Luxurioso". All four now leave the university for London, while a draper, a tailor and a tapster lament their unpaid bills. Philomusus and Studioso find work respectively as a sexton and a tutor in a merchant's family, while Luxurioso becomes a writer and singer of ballads. In the meanwhile Ingenioso has met with a patron, a coxcombical fellow named "Gullio", for whom he composes amorous verses in the style of Chaucer, Spenser, and Shakespeare, the last alone being to the patron's satisfaction. Gullio is indeed a great admirer of Shakespeare, and in his conversations with Ingenioso we have some of the most interesting of the early allusions to him.
A further sequel, "The Second Part of the Return from Parnassus, Or the Scourge of Simony", is a more ambitious, and from every point of view more interesting, production than the two earlier pieces. In it we again meet with Ingenioso, now become a satirist, who on pretence of discussing a recently-published collection of extracts from contemporary poetry,
John Bodenham's "Belvedere", briefly criticizes, or rather characterizes, a number of writers of the day, among them being Spenser, Constable, Michael Drayton, John Davies, John Marston, Christopher Marlowe, Ben Jonson, Shakespeare, and Thomas Nashe; the last of whom is referred to as dead. It is impossible here to detail the plot of the play, and it can only be said that Philomusus and Studioso, having tried all means of earning a living, abandon any further attempt to turn their learning to account and determine to become shepherds. Several new characters are introduced in this part, real persons such as Danter, the printer, Richard Burbageand William Kempe, the actors, as well as such abstractions as "Furor Poeticus" and "Phantasma". The second title of the piece, "The Scourge of Simony", is justified by a sub-plot dealing with the attempts of one, "Academico", to obtain a living from an ignorant country patron, "Sir Roderick", who, however, presents it, on the recommendation of his son Amoretto, who has been bribed, to a non-university man "Immerito".
The three pieces were evidently performed at
Christmasof different years, the last being not later than Christmas 1602, as is shown by the references to Queen Elizabeth I, while the "Pilgrimage" mentions books not printed until 1598, and hence can hardly have been earlier than that year. The prologue of "2 Return" states that that play had been written for the preceding year, and also, in a passage of which the reading is somewhat doubtful, implies that the whole series had extended over four years. Thus we arrive at either 1599, 1600 and 1602, or 1598, 1599 and 1601, as, on the whole, the most likely dates of performance. Mr. F. G. Fleay, on grounds which do not seem conclusive, dates them 1598, 1601 and 1602.
The question of how far the characters are meant to represent actual persons has been much discussed. Mr. Fleay maintains that the whole is a personal satire, his identifications of the chief characters in "2 Return" being (1) Ingenioso, Thomas Nashe, (2) Furor Poeticus, J. Marston, (3) Phantasma, Sir John Davies, (4) Philomusus, T. Lodge, (5) Studioso, Drayton. Professor Gollancz identifies "Judicio" with
Henry Chettle("Proc. of Brit. Acad.", 1903-1904, p. 202). Dr. Ward, while rejecting Mr. Fleays identifications as a whole, considers that by the time the final part was written the author may have more or less identified Ingenioso with Nashe, though the character was not originally conceived with this intention. This is of course possible, and the fact that Ingenioso himself speaks in praise of Nashe, who is regarded as dead, is not an insuperable objection. We must not, however, overlook the fact that the author was evidently very familiar with Nashe's works, and that all three parts, not only in the speeches of Ingenioso, but throughout, are full of reminiscences of his writings.
The only part of the trilogy which was in print at an early date was "2 Return", called simply "The Return from Parnassus, or the Scourge of Simony" (1606), two editions bearing the same date. This has been several times reprinted, the best separate edition being that of Professor Arber in the "English Scholars' Library" (1879). Manuscript copies of all three plays were found among T. Hearne's papers in the
Bodleianby the Rev. W. D. Macray and were printed by him in 1886 (the last from one of the editions of 1606, collated with the manuscript). A recent edition (as of 1911) in modern spelling by Mr O. Smeaton in the "Temple Dramatists" is of little value. All questions connected with the play have been elaborately discussed by Dr. W. Lflhr in a dissertation entitled "Die drei cambridger Spiele vom Parnass" (Kiel, 1900). See also, Dr. Ward's "English Dramatic Literature", ii. 633-642; F. G. Fleay's "Biog. Chron. of the Eng. Drama", ii. 347-355.
The two earlier plays were not known until
William D. Macray, the librarian at the Bodleian Libraryin Oxford, discovered them amongst the manuscript collection of Thomas Hearne. He brought out the complete comic trilogy in 1868. The manuscript for "The Returne from Parnassus (II)" (which titles the play "The Progresse to Parnassus") is housed in the Folger Shakespeare Library. The most recent edition of the plays appeared in 1949, edited by the Oxford scholar J. B. Leishman. Currently, students at the College of William and Maryare editing the text in order to make it accessible for an undergraduate audience.
The only book-length treatment of the Parnassus plays is
Paula Glatzer's "The Complaint of the Poet: The Parnassus Plays" published in 1977.
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