INTRODUCTION

1. Gager’s personal literary notebook (British Library Add. ms. 22583) contains these passges on fols. 58 - 63. NOTE 1 Untitled in the manuscript, they are generally referred to as the Oedipus. They have been edited and annotated, but not translated, by R. H. Bowers. NOTE 2 Bowers objected to Boas’ identification of this group as a fragment on the grounds that “it is not a fragment in the sense that parts are lacking, as in the case with the Niobe of Aeschylus, which consists of a fragmentary speech of 21 lines.” NOTE 3 This may be technically true if you narrowly define a fragment as a passage of a lost play quoted out of context or preserved on a scrap of papyrus, but nothing could be more erroneous than Bowers’ assertion that “actually it is a complete play, albeit short.” For, even with the best will in the world, it is impossible to consider these disjoined and episodic passages as a coherent dramatic work. What, then, are they?
2. In my 1994 edition, faute de mieux I suggested that they represented a series of discrete technical exercises by an aspiring playwright. Since then John Finnis and Patrick H. Martin have published an article NOTE 4 pointing to a passage in a 1582 University Sermon preached by Laurence Humphrey, the Professor of Divinity, describing plays produced at the end of February of that year:

Quod etiam in illis vestris fabulis vidisse & animadvertisse vos arbitror: in quibus Amoris flamma sic apparuit & erupit, ut non amor sed amaror, non fervor sed furor videretur.  An non meministis Euclionem sic ollam suam [marginal note: Fabulae in col: D. Ioannis, Christi, M. Magd.], Antonium sic Cleopatram, Alexander sic Bagoam suum Eunuchum, Philarchum sic Phaedram suam, Meleagrum suam Atalantam, & Menechmum Plautinum meretricem Erotium, Oedipus suam Iocastam, Iulium Caesarem sic imperium deamasse, ut regni causa iusiurandum imo omne ius violandum censeat.

[“And I think you will have seen and noted this in the plays of yours I mentioned:  there Love’s fire was so manifest, so uncontrolled, as to seem not love but bitterness, not fervor but madness.  Don’t you remember Euclio like this about his pot [of gold], [marginal note: Plays in St John’s, Christ Church, Magdalen colleges] Antony like this about his Cleopatra, Alexander about his eunuch Bagoas, Philarchus about his Phaedra, Meleager about his Atalanta, Plautus’ Menechmus about the harlot Erotes, and Oedipus about his Jocasta; and Julius Caesar so in love with power that for the sake of it he thought he could violate oaths and any other kind of right?”]

They argue this attests a kind of dramatic festival held in that year, with plays being produced at Christ Church, St. John's College, and Magdalen College, as entertainment for a February visitation by the Earl of Leicester, Chancellor of the University. Christ Church plays performed at this time were Gager's Meleager, probably also his Rivales, and the lost Caesar Interfectus by his Christ Church contemporary Richard Eedes. By Humphrey's testimony, another of the plays performed at this time (he does not say where) was an Oedipus. In his notebook, Gager was scrupulous in recording only his own contributions. Thus, although internal evidence shows that the 1583 Dido was a collaborative work, he only includes the texts of those portions of the play written by himself. In view of this new evidence, it is worth suggesting that the Oedipus passages in the manuscript are liable to the same explanation: that the play was written by two or more hands (the 1605 comedy Alba performed in connection with James’ visit to Oxford is an example of a university play written collaboratively by several individuals, one of whom was Robert Burton), and that Gager has only preserved those passages he himself wrote.
3. The five preserved passages are identified here as I - V. I is the Prologue, in which a citizen of Thebes describes the effect of the horrible pestilence on his household. In II Oedipus learns that he has been accused of killing his father, Laius, and marrying his own mother, Jocasta. In III Eteocles and Polynices squabble in front of their mother. By the end of the passage, they have agreed that the only solution to their quarrel is a fight to the death. IV is a monologue in which Jocasta laments the long string of misfortunes that have spoiled her life, of which the war between her two sons is the most recent. In V a maidservant describes to Creon her suicide by hanging. So it looks as if there was a play covering both Oedipus’ downfall and the fraternal strife that ensued: one play that would go over all the ground dramatized by Seneca in two, Oedipus and Phoenissae, although this seems a remarkably ambitious scheme for a single play. In some ways, this play was obviously dependent on Seneca. In that poet’s Oedipus Creon tells Oedipus that he has learned of Oedipus’ guilt from the ghost of Laius (619 - 58). In a variant of this narrative device, it would seem, an invented character named Palaemon informs Oedipus of the ghost’s revelation to Creon. In one crucial respect trying to re­dramatize these plays involves a tremendous problem. In Seneca’s Oedipus, as in Sophocles, Jocasta kills herself soon after Oedipus’ self-mutilation. But in Phoenissae Seneca followed a different version of the myth, according to which she did not kill herself but lived on and tried unsuccessfully (as in Euripides’ like-named play) to reconcile her two sons. It is not fully clear how this difficulty was resolved, or how her delayed suicide was motivated.

NOTES

NOTE 1 These pages are photographically reproduced in William Gager, Oedipus (Acted 1577 - 1592), Dido (Acted 1583), Prepared with an Introduction by J. W. Binns (Renaissance Latin Drama in England, First Series, vol. 1, Hildesheim - New York, 1981).

NOTE 2 R. H. Bowers, “William Gager’s Oedipus,”  Studies in Philology 46 [1949] 141-53.

NOTE 3 Ib. 141 n. 2, reacting to Boas, op. cit. 183 n. 2. Likewise Binns, op. cit. 8 wrote that these passages “may be either surviving scenes from a larger play, or the first attempt at what was supposed to be a longer play, or a playlet complete in itself.” The third possibility may be excluded unless someone can adduce a similarly disjointed “playlet.”

NOTE 4 John Finnis and Patrick H. Martin, “An Oxford Play Festival in February 1582,” Notes and Queries 50:4 (December 2003), 391 - 4, based on Laurence Humphrey, Pharisaismus Vetus et Novus: sive de Fermento Pharisaeorum et Iesuitarum, Laurentii Humfredi Concio in Festo Cinerum, Anno Dom. 1582, Februarii ultimo Apud Academicos Oxonienses (London, 1582), paginated (though with its own title page) as pp. 163ff. of Iesuitismi Pars Prima: sive de Praxi Romanae Curiae contra Resp[ublicam] & Principes: Et de nova Iesuitarum in Angliam, protherapeia, & praemunitio ad Anglos.  Cui adiuncta est Concio eiusdem Argumenti, Laur. Humfredo S. Theologiae in Academia Oxoniensi professore Regio, Autore. (London, Henry Middleton, 1582). The quotation comes from p. 164, and the translation is that of Finnis and Martin, slightly altered. Further relevant extracts of this sermon may be read at John R. Elliott et al., Records of Early English Drama: Oxford (Toronto, 2004) I.177 - 79).