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. The third play presented in the Christmas Prince cycle was the tragedy Philomela, performed on December 29, 1607, and preserved on pp. 50 - 84 of the ms. NOTE 1
2. To a degree, Philomela resembles the commonest kind of dramatic work written at St. John’s College in the early seventeenth century, plays based on individual episodes of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Thus we have Henry Bellamy’s Iphis, Joseph Crowder’s Cephalus et Procris, Philip Parson’s Atalanta, Christopher Wren, Sr.’s Physiponomachia, and an anonymous Narcissus. NOTE 2 But Philomela differs from these standard college Ovid plays in that it is longer than most of them, giving the author more time to develop his characterizations, to indulge in rhetoric, and to populate his play with a number of secondary characters. The result is a highly effective and striking revenge play, one of the best tragedies in the English academic repertoire.
3. In the absence of Sophocles’ lost Tereus (a play particularly well regarded in antiquity), NOTE 3 the most memorable ancient literary treatment of the play is the passage at Ovid, Metamorphoses VI.422 - 674, which our author has clearly studied carefully. At times he follows the account with exactitude, even reproducing speeches Ovid places in his character’s mouth. For example, after the rape, Philomela’s reproachful tirade against Tereus at Metamorphoses VI.522ff. supply many of the ideas for her speeches at Phil. II.i, and a number of the details of the killing of Itys and the final banquet in Acts IV and V are taken directly from Met. VI.600ff. The idea of setting the events of Procne’s hideous revenge against the background of a Bacchanalia likewise comes from Ovid. Nevertheless, our author was capable of displaying considerable originality and independence of his source. As stated above, he filled the play with characters of his invention. Of these, the most useful are Faustulus and Faustula, since Ovid’s bare statement (VI.519ff.) that, after raping her, Tereus garaged Philomela in an isolated hut in the midst of a forest simply would not do in a play, since it would strike an audience as wildly unlikely: by introducing a shepherd and his daughter to serve as Philomela’s custodians, he handles this transaction so as to give it a good deal more credibility. Likewise he adds a henchman of Tereus, Phaules, and a handmaid of Philomela who (unlike the suborned nurse at Met. VI.460f.) remains loyal to her mistress. Having Tereus murder these two (as well as the offstage servants of Philomela whom he kills by Phaulus’ agency) goes far towards emphasizing his villainy. But the greatest manifestation of independence shown by our author is that at the plays’s end there is no improbable and saccharine transformation of the principal characters into birds, which would only serve to undermine the desired tragic effect of a Jacobean revenge play.
4. The anonymous author’s debts to Ovid are obvious, and if he felt he needed a further model for engineering the climactic banquet scene he could always have studied Seneca’s Thyestes. Another possible source is less certain. The ideas of the excision of a woman’s tongue by a rapist and a concluding ghastly feast in which a villain is induced unwittingly to consume the cooked flesh of a dear one are likewise combined in Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, but there seems to be no cogent reason for thinking the author of Philomela to have been familiar with that play. Philomela and Titus are nonetheless very comparable plays. With its extreme gruesomeness (in this case, more visual than verbal), Philomela reminds us that, no matter how idealistic university drama may have been in its origins (intended as a Humanistic teaching instrument), it was progressively attracted by the gravitational pull of the London popular theater and catered to much the same tastes and audience expectations. Like William Alabaster’s Roxana, acted at Trinity College, Cambridge, ca. 1595, it is a typical revenge play.
5. One final point about Philomela involves Thomas Tucker, the Christmas Prince himself. The ms. narrative that prefaces the text of the play (pp.48f.) says:
At which time in the morning Mr President, sending for one of ye Deanes, to know whether all thinges were in a readines, it was aunsweared that the Prince himselfe who was to play Tereus had gott such an exceeding Cold, that it was impossible for him to speake, or speaking to bee heard. Wherefore they Consulted to differre the acting of [the play] yet longer, but then Considering that all the straungers were already invited, and all other thinges in readines that it was not thought so fitt. And therefore Casting againe in there minds what might bee done, many Courses were thought vpon but all disliked, att length, itt was Concluded (in Case the Prince should not hould out) that then the Author of the [shew] Tragedy, who was best acquainted with it, & Could say most of the verses, should goe forward, where the Prince was Constrained to leave, and to that purpose both were ready in apparell, and therefor <for> the better Conveiaunce fowre verses were thought vpon to bee said by the Prince att the end of the first Sceane of the second Acte. The verses were these
Terea tyrannum pace Fortunae exuo
Elinguis esse pergo Philomelae modo<.>
Sic muta sequitur paena, pro muto malo
Suffectus alius Tereus placeat precor.
This Concepte was so-well liked of all them that heard of itt, that manye sayde that itt was pitty itt was not put in practise, though there were noe need of itt, but yet for all that, wee thought plaine dealing, better then a Cunning shifte.
6. From this we learn can two things: that Tucker himself was not the author of Philomela, and that he must have been a very gifted actor in order to play the demanding role of Tereus. Indeed, one imagines that his acting ability may well have been his prime qualification for election as Christmas Prince. No actor-lists exist for the plays of the Christmas Prince cycle, but one suspects that the members of his court, invested with their fancy titles (some of them appear as speaking parts in Ara Fortuna and Ira Fortunae), were the cadre of college members (actors, playwrights, directors, and musicians) responsible for putting on the performances. For example, John Towse, who was originally elected Christmas Prince but declined the honor, nevertheless was a member of this group, and was probably another prominent actor in the college. If this estimate that Tucker’s acting ability is correct, it makes one wonder about Tucker’s predecessor as Christmas Prince in 1577 - 78, John Case. We know very little about that earlier dramatic festival, but one cannot help wondering if Case too had bee elected because of his acting prowess.If so, this would go a long way towards explaining the vigor with he defended both university dramatics and music against Puritan attack in his written works.
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 For editions or, failing that, photographic reproductions of relative mss., cf. Walter K. Sherwin, Jay Freyman, and Even Parrish, Two University Latin Plays: Philip Parson’s Atalanta and Thomas Atkinson’s Homo (Salzburg Studies in English Literature vol. 16, Salzburg, 1973), Christopher Wren, Physiponomachia (acted 1609 - 1611), Philip Parsons, Atalanta (acted 1612), Thomas Atkinson, Homo (Acted 1615 - 1621), Prepared with an Introduction by Hans - Jürgen Weckermann (Renaissance Drama in England series I.4, Hildesheim - New York, 1981), and Henry Bellamy, Iphis (?acted 1621 - 1633), Joseph Crowther, Cephalus et Procris (acted 1626 - 28), Prepared with an Introduction by Bernfried Nugel (Renaissance Latin Drama in England series I.10, Hildesheim - New York, 1982).
NOTE 3 Cf. D. F. Sutton, The Lost Sophocles (Lanham, Md., 1984) 127 - 32