Introduction


spacer1. The anonymous play Magister Bonus sive Arsenius, preserved by Stonyhurst College Library ms. A.VII.50 (2), fos. 45r - 69r, is known to have been performed at the Jesuit College of St. Omers in 1614. NOTE 1 It dramatizes the events leading up to Arsenius’ departure from Theodosius’ imperial court to take up a saintly life as a hermit in Egypt. At the beginning of the play he is serving as tutor to the emperor’s elder son Arcadius, who is a dutiful student so devoted to Arsenius that he even acknowledges his willingness to submit to corporal punishment, should that be necessary (89ff.) But when Theodosius appoints him heir to the throne and bestows on him the title of Augustus, and almost outrageously flattering pageantry is performed in his honor, this all goes to his young head. Theodosius observes him behaving with arrogance towards Arsenius during a lesson (the boy is sitting on the throne and obliging his teacher to stand), furiously reproves and demotes him, and entrusts him to Arsenius’ close care. Having received a whipping from his tutor and with the encouragement by the evil Ruffinus, Arcadius plots to murder Arsenius by smearing with poison the crucifix he is wont to kiss. Things go according to plan until the point where the poison proves inadequate to kill Arsenius, and his friend Theodoulus intervenes to cleanse the cross. Arsenius has already foreseen the boy’s probable reaction to the whipping and has unsuccessfully asked Theodosius’ permission from retire from court and lead the solitary life of a Christian hermit. Now, after the unsuccessful attempt to murder him, he takes matters into his own hands and flees. Theodosius is distraught by his disappearance, but is eventually induced to enter into a reconciliation with the genuinely repentant Arcadius and the seemingly contrite Ruffinus.
spacer2. The play is therefore at once a history play written on a Byzantine subject, a dramatic exercise in hagiography (once he removed to the Egyptian desert Arsenius lived a very holy life for a long time and was eventually canonized), and also, as is memorialized in its title, a play designed to show how a good schoolmaster goes about his job. It is based on historically questionable traditions first put on paper by the Byzantine monk Theodore the Studite, whose life spanned the eighth and ninth centuries, and a note written at the bottom of the first page of the ms. devoted to this play cites, in abbreviated form, the sources used by the playwright, more contemporary works that repeat Theodore’s traditions: Laurentius Surius’ De Probatis Sanctorum Historiis, Caesare Baronio’s Annales Eccesiastici, and Petrus Ribadeneira’s Flos Sanctorum.
spacer3. Magister Bonus is not a conspicuously well-written play. Its author does not tell his story in an efficient and economical way, and there is too much extraneous material. The discussion of the expulsion of the Arians in I.ii may have had some doctrinal interest for the audience because of its acerb remarks about heretics, and admittedly the debate about the comparative value of academic study and the active life in I.iv puts in the mouths of two other characters a conflict that is probably going on within Arcadius, therefore gaining a certain relevance, but neither scene does anything to advance the plot. The same can be said about the scene involving Honorius, Stilicho and Eutropius at III.ii, which only serves to illustrate the complaints later made about the flattery and treachery of life at a royal court (882ff.). The songs and dancing which comprise the games honoring Arcadius in II.i occupy over 220 lines, and in the context of a play that is only 1125 lines long this is entirely disproportionate (in performance this would probably have been an even more acute problem because of the amount of dancing and dumb-show it would have entailed). And yet, for all this extraneous material, which looks dangerously like padding, if the author had wished to write a play of what he regarded as satisfactory length, he could have more sensibly achieved the same thing by including a scene representing or at least describing one crucial development that he conspicuously fails to mention When, in II.v, Theodosius remands the newly-demoted Arcadius to Arsenius’ charge, he issues a concluding warning that a whipping may be in order, and Act II ends on this note. Then, at the beginning of Act III, we encounter Arcadius, outraged over having just received this punishment and eager for revenge. But we are told nothing about the precise circumstances of this transaction. The absence of this information is sufficiently glaring that, in a play written by a more able author, one would be strongly tempted to imagine a scene has dropped out of our text. As it is, given the play’s other dramaturgic problems, it is likelier that our playwright has simply botched his job.
spacer 4. When the play finally does gain traction and start moving forward, as Arcadius and Ruffinus plot Arsenius’ murder in retaliation for the whipping, it would seem that we are reading a more or less standard Renaissance revenge play, containing plenty of conspiracy in the context of a royal court, and featuring a satisfactorily inventive evil genius in the person of Ruffinus. But things go off the rails in III.iii, when the poison with which they smear Arsenius’ crucifix proves too weak to work. Its failure paves the way for Arsenius’ escape to his new life as a saintly hermit and to the reconciliations with which the play eventually concludes. It also manages to raise questions about the play’s genre. For those who are concerned by formal proprieties— I must confess I am not one of them — this may seem problematic. Since Magister Bonus ends happily, it can scarcely be classified as a tragedy, yet save for its happy ending there is nothing at all comic about it. One particular feature of the play which the reader may imagine to have been problematic is its supernatural element (Theodoulus’ magic poison-detecting stone and poison-removing headband, Nectarius’ magic mirror). But, as it happens, other St. Omers plays contain this same element, NOTE 2and so the use of magic devices in Arsenius would not have scandalized the College community.
spacer5. I would like to thank Dr. Martin Wiggins of The Shakespeare Institute for drawing Magister Bonus to my attention, supplying me with a photograph of the manuscript, and identifying the historical sources noted in abbreviated form on p. 45r.

 

Notes

spacerNOTE 1 For play and its date, cf. Albert Harbage, “A Census of Anglo-Latin Plays,” PMLA 53:2 (1938) 628, William McCabe S. J., An Introduction to the English Jesuit Theatre (St. Louis, 1983) 82f., and Martin Wiggins, “Shakespeare Jesuited: The Plagiarisms of ‘Pater Clarcus’,” The Seventeenth Century 20:1 (2005) 18f. McCabe pp. 94f. notes the production of an Arsenius play in 1652, which may have been a revival performance of Magister Bonus.

spacerNOTE 2 Discussed by McCabe, op. cit. Ch. XVIII.