1. The comedy Hymenaeus, produced at St. John’s College, Cambridge, in 1578, is based on Decameron IV.10. But, as the author points out in the Prologue, it is a highly creative adaptation of Boccaccio’s tale. In the original, a surgeon’s wife thinks her lover is dead, and puts him into a chest which is carried off by two usurers. He wakes up and is arrested as a thief. The lady’s servant tells a magistrate how she had put him into the chest, unknown to the usurers. He escapes hanging, the money-lenders are fined, and the lover is free to continue his adulterous relation with the surgeon’s wife. In Hymenaeus, the physician and his wife are transformed into the standard authoritarian father of Roman comedy and his daughter, and the adulterous lover into a suitor. Hence the play’s ending is a stock comic wedding. Further complications are added. The lover has two rivals, a comic physician and a German, and each suitor is given a cheeky servant, so the play is loaded with plenty of witty backchat. The setting is shifted from Salerno to the university city of Padua and the play’s lover, Erophilus, is made a student, which allows for the inclusion of a certain amount of academic humor of the kind that would especially interest a Cambridge audience. It will be seen, therefore, that Boccaccio’s story has been recast along the lines of a Roman comedy and its characters are all familiar comic stereotypes. But, even if Hymenaeus breaks no new ground, the quality and economy of its plot-construction has found admirers. NOTE 1
2. The play presents problems of title, date, and authorship. Neither manuscript has a title, and in Smith’s edition and the secondary literature it is called Hymenaeus because Hymenaeus, the Roman god of weddings, speaks the Prologue. But it is unlikely that such was the title its author gave it, and various others have been proposed. More likely it was named after one of the principal characters, Julia or Erophilus.
3. Evidence for the play’s date is supplied by the cast list preserved by MS. j, which records the academic degrees possessed by each of the actors at the time of its performance (this list may be seen at Nelson II.944). By consulting university records to discover when each of these degrees was conferred, Smith (pp. ixf.) fixed the date of its production to between July 1578 and July 1579. The Bachelor’s Commencement of 1579 can be excluded because Thomas Legge’s Richardus Tertius was performed on that occasion. Although some have written about Richardus Tertius as if it were a play, it is in fact a trilogy that required three successive evenings for production. That trilogy employed so many actors (many of whom also performed in Hymenaeus - cf. Nelson II.944f.), and must have placed such a strain on the college’s resources, that the possibility of other plays being performed at the same time is unthinkable. With considerable confidence, therefore, Hymenaeus can be dated to Candlemas 1578.
4. The MSS. do not record the author’s name, and two of the actors who performed in the play have been suggested as possible authors by Smith, Henry Hickman (the Erophilus) and Abraham Fraunce (the Ferdinandus). Other than the fact that he played a prominent role, it is difficult to understand why Smith fixed on Hickman as a possible author; with equal plausibility he could have lighted on any other name on the list since, save for Fraunce, there is no evidence that any of them wrote plays. Fraunce is a candidate worth considering, since he subsequently wrote another comedy performed at St. John’s College, Victoria, and went on to become a rather prolific writer. Blume (p. 2) vigorously denounced this possibility on the grounds that Victoria is a very different play, but since it was an adaptation of Luigi Pasqualigo’s Il Fidele, a commedia erudita , the kind of differences Blume had in mind can probably be explained in terms of the different sources used, and the consideration that these plays represent very different kinds of comedy. Hymenaeus dramatizes an episode from the Decameron, which would have afforded Fraunce considerably more scope for displaying his own dramaturgic talent. No other John’s playwright of the time can be identified with confidence. NOTE 2 Then too, speaking in favor of attribution to Fraunce is the consideration that three lines of Hymenaeus reappear in Victoria (23, 287, 747). Some disquiet, however, is created by the fact that Hymenaeus contains several stylistic features not shared by Victoria. 1.) Eccum is a contraction of ecce illum, and one should write eccam of a woman and eccos of two or more people. The author of Hymenaeus, however, uses eccum as if it were an uideclinable synonym for ecce (cf. 519, 533, 744). 2.) The author of Hymenaeus is inordinately fond of employing supines in the accusative to express purpose. 3.) He likewise uses plural nouns and verbs for single individuals with unusual frequency. 4.) He tends to overwork certain pet words to the point they attract the reader’s notice, such as adeo, eccum, placet, and precor. The fact that stylistic features such as these are not found in Victoria does not seem explicable because Hymenaeus is a comedy of the Plautus-Terence type, while Victoria belongs to the rather different genre of commedia erudita, and so they cast a certain degree of doubt upon the idea of Fraunce’s authorship. Whether this doubt is sufficient to discredit the theory may be left to the individual reader’s judgement, but surely it would be injudicious to place Fraunce’s name on the title page without the addition of a question mark.
5. Hymenaeus is preserved in two mss. The first, Gonville and Caius College (Cantab.) MS. 125/62, pp. 111 - 40 (c) also contains the texts of Legge’s Richardus Tertius and Edward Forsett’s comedy Pedantius (1581). A photographic reproduction has been published, with an Introduction by Blume. The second, St. John’s College (Cantab.) MS. S.45 (James) (j) is a seventeenth century ms. bound in a literary and antiquarian commonplace book maintained by Henry Smith (1615/6 - 1702), Master of Magdalene College, Cantab., and subsequently by Thomas Baker, with an included list of actors in the original performance. c was once appraised as a ms. probably written prior to 1600, NOTE 3 and for this reason Smith gave it preference in his edition. But one sees at a glance that c is written in a distinctly seventeenth-century secretarial hand. The only possible indication of its date is that it might seem most likely that Pedantius was included before its appearance in print, in 1631. But surely many examples can be adduced of literary texts being hand-copied after they been published, and c’s copyist may conceivably have been motivated by a desire to preserve a text of Pedantius which differs markedly from the printed one. As for the date of c, Blume (p. v) wrote that it “can be dated about 1630,” but gave no reason for this statement, and no opinion about the date is ventured in the detailed catalogue description kindly furnished me by Jonathan Harrison, Special Collections Librarian of the College. Hence all that can be said is that Hymenaeus is preserved in two manuscripts emanating from the first decades of the seventeenth century, and considerations of date cannot be used to establish the superiority of either. But, even if motivated by a misapprehension, Smith was correct to base his edition predominantly on c, which on the whole presents a better text. This does not mean that j has no role to play, for at a number of points it preserves superior readings (and also stage-directions, entirely missing from c). But it does mean that when the two mss. present differing lections of equal plausibility, the c reading ought to be preferred. Then too, at several points the two manuscripts present a shared reading that is palpably wrong, or a word obviously missing, from which fact it can be inferred that they are descended from a common original, itself a defective copy ms. in which these mistakes were already present. These errors must be corrected by conjecture.
6. Hymenaeus has already been the subject of a very serviceable edition, by Smith. Although I believe I have managed to produce a somewhat better Latin text and more elaborate commentary, the chief reason why a new edition was necessary is that nowadays it is mandatory that texts of English academic dramas be accompanied by English translations. In both manuscripts, the text is written in lines, as if it were poetry, but it is in fact prose. Elsewhere I have explained that this practice, common in Elizabethan and Jacobean academic comedy, appears to have been no more than a writing convention designed to give plays the physical appearance of those of Plautus and Terence (which were understood to have been written in prose until Bentley demonstrated otherwise in the eighteenth century). I see no reason for perpetuating this feature, which would only lead the unwary to look for verse where none exists. I have gone even farther than did Smith in silently imposing modern punctuation on the text.
7. It should be noted that Hymenaeus employs three stage “houses,” used to represent the houses of Alphonsus and Camillus’ father Lucius, and the sinister inn. All three “houses” are employed in Act IV, and elsewhere I have discussed the problem of staging academic plays that require more than two of these structures within a single Act.
NOTE 1 Boas 134 - 140, Blume, 2 - 5.
NOTE 2 To be sure, Nelson I.288 records a record from a college accounts-book itemizing the payment of two shillings sixpence “To Mr. Stanton for the making of a parasites coate” in 1580, identifies him as Laurence Stanton, who acted in Richardus Tertius, and (II.972) lists him as the author or producer of a play produced in that year. But there is no corroborative evidence that Stanton was a playwright, and the comedy in question can always have been one by Plautus or Terence, with Stanton serving as the producer, just as Plautus’ Persa was performed at John’s four years later.
NOTE 3 George B. Churchill and Wolfgang Keller, “Die lateinischen Universitäts-Dramen Englands in der Zeit der Königen Elizabeth,” Shakespeare Jahrbuch 34 (1898) ,287.
Blume, Horst-Dieter, Hymenaeus, Abraham Fraunce, Victoria, Laelia, Prepared with an Introduction by Horst-Dieter Blume (Renaissance Latin Drama in England series II:13, Hildesheim, 1991)
Boas, Frederick C., University Drama in the Tudor Age (Oxford, 1914, repr. New York, 1966)
Nelson, Alan H., Cambridge (Records of Early English Drama series, Toronto, 1989)
Smith, G. C. Moore, Hymenaeus, A Comedy Acted at St. John’s College, Cambridge (Cambridge, 1908)