INTRODUCTION

1. The comedy Mercurius sive Literarum Lucta is preserved by St. John’s College (Oxford) ms. 218, a copy ms., not free of transcriptional mistakes, discovered in a lawyer’s office in 1916 (together with one containing Joseph Crowther’s Cephalus and Procris) and subsequently transferred to the College. On the strength of the appearance the free space on the final page (p. 26r) of the name Johannes Blenkow, it appears universally agreed that the play’s author was John Blenkowe, who came up to St. John’s from the Merchant Taylors’ School and matriculated in 1629, received a Bachelor of Law degree in 1633, and subsequently became a Fellow of the College. NOTE 1 This ascription is not quite as assured as if Blenkowe’s name name stood together with the title at the beginning of the play (p. 6r). Names sometimes appear on of academic play mss. for other reasons: as signatures of copyists, NOTE 2 or of early owners. One would be more confident in assigning the play to Blenkowe if there were any corroborative evidence for activity in university theatrics, but there is none. While attribution to Blenkowe is of course possible, even likely, a modicum of caution needs to be exercised in attributing Mercurius to him.
2. Heinz J. Vienken has argued that the presumptive date of the play can be gathered by comparison with the ms. of Cephalus and Procris: “Although the texts are written in different hands, the speech prefixes and stage directions are similar, if not identical. Since Cephalus and Procris can be fairly narrowly dated between 1626 - 7…it may not be amiss to date Blencowe’s play around the end of the decade.” NOTE 3 If Blenkowe did not matriculate until 1629 and if Mercurius was written in produced by the end of the 1620’s, it would be remarkable for a play to be written by such a junior member of his College (most university plays were written by M. A. students). A different and more reasonable assessment of the date of Mercurius is provided on the title page of the volume in which Vienken’s introductory essay appears, which allows for the possibility Mercurius may not have been written until well into the 1630’s, perhaps as late as 1638 (the year in which Blenkowe resigned his Fellowship). It would seem as if the dating of the title page was the responsibility of somebody other than Vienken (unless he was guilty of unclear writing and by “the decade” he actually meant the 1630’s). In any event, if we are to assume that Blencowe was the author, then sometime in the 1630’s, probably after he had been admitted the bacchalaureate, is considerably likelier than the end of the preceding decade.
2. The play in question is a lighthearted mythological farce, the kind of drama that can be traced back to Attic Middle Comedy and among extant classical plays is represented by Plautus’ Amphitryuo (although the author of Mercurius may well also have read and learned from some of Lucian’s humorous dialogues that involve various members of the mythological pantheon). The ultimate point of the play is not visible until the Epilogue: by his naughty behavior Mercury has managed to get himself banished from heaven, has made enemies out of the three Parcae, and refuses to be consigned to the Underworld. Where can he go? In the course of the play we are periodically reminded that he is a god of eloquence, and so at the end it becomes clear that he has only one viable choice for a home, at least as long as he is willing to accept the poverty that the Parcae have decreed must attend upon learning and eloquence — St. John’s College itself. This is a witty embroidery on what had now become a standard conceit in academic literature of the time (for example, in John Sanford’s 1592 Apollonis et Musarum Εὐκτικὰ Εἰδύλλια) that Oxford or Cambridge was a modern sanctuary for the Muses, or of the ancient gods more generally.

Notes

NOTE 1 For what is known about Blencowe, cf. John Blencowe, Mercurius sive Literarum Lucta (acted 1629 - 1638?), George Wilde, Eumorphus sive Cupido Adultus (acted 1634/5), Prepared (Renaissance Latin Drama in England I.3, Hildesheim - New York, 1981) p. 5 (cf. also the Bibliography on p. 9, primarly dedicated to biographical information about Blenkowe). More recently Blenkowe’s authorship has also been accepted by John R. Elliott et al., Records of Early English Drama: Oxford (Toronto, 2004) II.814.

NOTE 2 When copyists signed manuscripts, this was sometimes done as a pen-testing exercise, not the case here (the name was clearly added after the text had been fully copied).

NOTE 3 Op. cit. p. 6.