1. In my Introduction to the comedy Ara Fortunae, I have told how the members of St. John’s College, Oxford, elected Thomas Tucker as their Christmas Prince to preside over the plays and other entertainments performed over the 1607 - 1608 holiday season, and how the texts of the plays are embedded in a lengthy and detailed narrative of the events of Tucker’s reign, preserved in St. John’s College ms. 52.1. One of the plays presented in the Christmas Prince cycle was the comedy Philomathes, performed on January 15, 1608, and preserved on pp. 119 - 168 of the ms. NOTE 1 The conditions of its performance were somewhat touchy: it followed soon after the English comedy Times Complaint, which had been a disastrous failure because some of the actors had made a hash of their parts. Therefore, the surrounding narrative of the ms. reports that it was put on with considerable trepidation. It was nevertheless well received.
2. Philomathes is a straightforward comedy that requires little introduction, and there are only three points that seem necessary to make about it. The first is that it indeed is a straightforward comedy. Most of the characters have Greek names of transparent meaningfulness. These names are more or less as follows: Philomathes = “Lover of learning,” Chrysophilus = “Lover of gold ,” Chrestophilus = “Useful friend,” Aphronius = “Mindless,” Phantasta = “Fantastic,” Autarchia = “Self-governing,” Authadia = “Self-willed,” Crito = “Judicial” and Cerdous = “Profitable” (this last by comic inversion, since Cerdous’ one significant contribution to the plot is that he loses something). Given such names, and given the fact that allegorizing plays were very popular in the early seventeenth century, it would be pardonable for the reader to seek for some allegorical meaning in Philomathes. The title character, for example, is an impoverished student, presumably of philosophy, and the reader might imagine that, in the same way, Sophia = “Wisdom,” so that his final union with Sophia might have some emblematic value according to the understanding that the object of his affections is Wisdom personified.
3. But nothing could be farther from the truth. Sophia is no personification of an abstract idea, but rather a very flesh-and-blood girl (and, for that matter, a girl we see acting with considerable unwisdom at the beginning of the play). No doubt the greatest single difference between Renaissance comedies and the Roman ones from which they take their inspiration is that they routinely end with a Christian marriage. Since Christianity teaches that marriage is a union between equal souls, this dictates that the love-interests in Renaissance comedies must be considerably more important roles, given much more interesting characterizations, than their Roman predecessors. They tend to be intelligent, dynamic, and articulate women with minds and agendas of their own. This generalization applies not only to the love-interests in Shakespearian comedy, but also to those of numerous University ones. Thus Sophia takes her place alongside such similarly memorable women as Lydia in Edward Forsett’s 1581 Pedantius and Rosabella in George Ruggle’s 1615 Ignoramus. It would do Sophia a considerable injustice to attempt some unwarranted reading of the play that would reduce her to a symbolic abstraction.
4. My second point has to do with the play’s setting. Its scenes are variously set at Megara and Athens, or more precisely on a street before Chrysophilus’ house at Megara and a street before Crito’s house at Athens (represented as a university town that looks suspiciously like Oxford). NOTE 2 In Acts I and IV the location oscillates between these two cities, but neither the locations nor the scene-changes are indicated in the text. In general I have considerable respect for the workmanship of Philomathes’ nameless author— he manages to accomplish in less than 1,100 lines what would take many playwrights twice as long to do, thanks in large part to the deftness of his characterizations — but surely this is a fault. In this case, I believe what might better have been accomplished in the words of the text was handled visually, by locating two “houses” NOTE 3 on either side of the stage and having the action shift from one side to the other to represent a Megaran and an Athenian location, as needed. This scheme may well have been forwarded by the use of scene-identifying placards. NOTE 4
5. Finally, it is worth pointing out the considerable indebtedness of Philomathes’ Phantasta to the title character of Forsett’s Pedantius. Both are self-educated egomaniacs with grand pretensions to learning that are patently hollow. And although both inhabit a university town, they are loners estranged from the surrounding academic community. Their finicky devotion to elegant diction has provided both of them with a farouche, sometimes all but incomprehensible, idiolect. They likewise share a great devotion to cutting a dandified figure by wearing the most fashionable dress. And they are both cast in the role of absurd lovers. Pedantius is one of the most memorable characters of the English academic stage, and it is impossible to read Philomathes without concluding that its author has read and learned from Forsett’s comedy.
NOTE 1 A transcript of the text was published by Frederick S. Boas, with the help of W. W. Greg, The Christmas Prince (Malone Society Reprints, Oxford, 1922), pp. 154 - 187, and a photographic reproduction of the entire manuscript has been published with an Introduction by Earl Jeffrey Richards as vol. I.11 of the Renaissance Latin Drama in England series (Hildesheim, 1982).
NOTE 2 A resemblance fostered by the fact that Oxford and Cambridge were both routinely identified with Athens or designated the new home of the Muses in academic literature of the time. As a specimen of this kind of thing, cf. John Sanford’s 1592 Apollonis et Musarum Εὐκτικὰ Εἰδύλλια.
NOTE 3 These “houses” are discussed here.
NOTE 4 From such evidence as the manuscript of the anonymous Cambridge comedy Risus Anglicanus (Folger Library m. J.a.1, photographically reproduced in Risus Anglicanus, John Hacket, Loiola, Prepared with an Introduction by Malcom M. Brennan, Renaissance Latin Drama in England series 2:6, Hildesheim, 1988, we know that in English academic drama temporary inscriptions were at least sometimes placed on the “houses” to identify their fictive identities to the spectators,