Even though Oxford as a city and a university seem to be connected nowadays, in the Tudor times they were against each other – or better say the town of Oxford was against the University. Roderick Robertson in his “Oxford Theatre in Tudor Times” describes the situation – Oxford was not a cathedral town, so it was not a religious centre; it also was not a commercial centre. It was a prosperous market town in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, nevertheless, its prosperity did not last. The reason for decreasing prosperity of the town was the growth of the University. In the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries there were riots in Oxford – clashes between the townspeople and the University – and “the throne consistently supported the University in these conflicts by granting it more and more authority for affairs previously left to the town, so that by the beginning of the sixteenth century the town of Oxford was practically governed by the University” (Robertson 41). Robertson argues that this is the reason for no sufficient evidence of any medieval drama originating in Oxford – as it was said above, the medieval drama was tightly connected to religious festivals and the performances were in the hands of town guilds. If in Oxford the town’s authority was diminishing, those performances did not happen – there was no one to produce them.
The fact that both Oxford and Cambridge Universities were not attached to monasteries is the reason for the “outburst of production” (Robertson 42) in the sixteenth century. These universities were influenced by the Humanist movement which brought them “to a theatrical fervour that sought to reproduce, under new conditions, the dramatic glories of Greece and of Rome” (Robertson 42). These dramatic performances were not a source of amusement (or not primarily), they were a part of education and proved helpful not only for memorizing classical texts (because such theatrical performance provided a pragmatic reason for memorizing longer texts – forgetting the text on stage in front of the audience was probably more embarrassing than failing to recite it in the class), but also for nurturing speaking skills – as Thomas Heywood in his Apology for Actors (1612) summarizes23 why are these performances necessary for the students: “to arme them with audacity against they come to bee employed in any publicke exercise, as in the reading of the dialecticke, rhetoricke, ethicke, mathematicke, the physicke, or metaphysicke lectures” – it is also important for a future member of the University because it “teacheth audacity to the bashful grammarian” and makes him “a bold sophister, to argue pro et contra to compose his syllogysmes, cathegoricke, or hypotheticke (simple or compound), to reason and frame a sufficient argument to prove his questions”. Latin plays based on the classical models were written not only by masters to be performed but also by students to better their grammar and composition skills.
The performances ranged from small ones performed out of “student enthusiasm for the amusement of the students themselves” (Robertson 45), to magnanimously staged performances with many mechanic constructions and stage effects – usually prepared to amuse a high-ranked visitor – the Queen, according to the records, visited Oxford twice, in 1566 and 1592, and both times she attended the University performances. The grand performances were probably held only in the hall of Christ Church College (because it was the largest), such as the performance in honour of a visiting Prince Palatine from Poland in 1583, which is described in Holinshed’s Chronicles24 – there was “a goodlie sight of hunters with full crie of a kennell of hounds, Mercurie and Iris descending and ascending from and to a high place,” while there was a “tempest wherein it hailed small confects, rained rosewater, and snew an artificiall kind of snow, all strange, maruellous, and abundant” (Robertson 43).
The University productions were paid by the colleges and there was no admission fee, which was an important aspect of these performances – it distinguished them thus from the professional performances that were not popular among the University authorities. The reasons for their disapproving attitude were the questions of “health, finances, and the moral state of the students” (Robertson 47). The authorities were not against dramatic performances as such, they were worried that students would spend their money and time watching these performances instead of studying and there was also the question of moral education of young people. And because controlling which plays were appropriate would be difficult, the Oxford University banned the professional actors from their town in 1584.
Even though the University were strictly against only professional actors, the question of the suitability of dramatic performances for the educational purposes appeared among scholars and University members. The famous dispute between Dr. John Rainolds of Queen’s College and William Gager of Christ Church is a vivid example of Protestant attitudes towards theatre (both popular and private) and the defence of dramatic performances from an engaged side – Gager was a dramatist writing neo-Latin plays for the University performances. Their dispute started when Gager added a scene to Seneca’s Hippolytus in which he introduced Momus, a character who criticizes theatre. His attack was divided in four points: “1) Actors were condemned by ancient Roman statutes; 2) it is improper for men to dress as women; 3) plays contain lascivious matter; and 4) acting plays is a waste of time and money” (Robertson 48). In another added scene then Gager mocked these criticisms. Rainolds, who argued against the theatre in the same way as Momus, took these two scenes as a personal attack and started a dispute with Gager, who answered with “a lengthy defence of academic drama in conception and performance” (Robertson 49). Yet Gager based his defence on a strict division between the professional performances and the amateur performances, which means he argued only for the University drama. Nevertheless, the dramatic performances held at the universities helped the professional drama – “in that bad third quarter of the sixteenth century, when the old courtly interlude had degenerated into unseemly and plebeian drivel and a militant Puritanism was embattled against all the arts” (Brooke 234), the Latin plays written at the English Universities were what “saved the day for the theatre and, so to speak, kept a door open for Marlowe and Shakespeare” (Ibid.).
The Universities and the Inns of Court were “the cradles of modern English drama” (Brooke 234), even though they used Latin instead of English. Among these Latin plays there were first romantic comedies and tragedies, personal satires or history plays “appearing in full development ten, twenty, and sometimes fifty years before the earliest vernacular effort in the same kind” (Brooke 235). The Latin plays had “form, dignity, and intellectual wit at a time when the vernacular plays very piteously lacked these things” (Brooke 235), yet they were not mere copies of the Greek and Roman plays. And from this environment of higher-rank tragedies and comedies produced at the Universities came the next generation of playwrights – the authors who wrote professionally and for greater audiences than those of the Universities; the authors who for the reason of providing entertainment exchanged the noble Latin for the base vernacular and by their efforts created a new, fashionable, more intricate, beautiful English – the University Wits.