1. Time’s Complaint, the fourth of the dramatic pieces produced at St. John’s College, Oxford, during the reign of the Christmas Prince (a kind of Lord of Misrule) Thomas Tucker, which extended from October 1607 to February 1608, was acted on January 1, 1608. As we shall see directly below, the contemporary observer responsible for its preservation cautiously limited himself to describing it as a “show” or “interlude,” rather than calling it a full-blown play. To be sure, it bears a certain resemblance to one of those philosophically allegorical comedies that enjoyed a certain popularity at Oxford (although not at Cambridge), and in introducing the play Boas and Greg were well within their rights to opine its “allegorical episodes are obscure and of scant interest.” On the other hand, it is enlivened and humanized by “the racy figures of the drunken cobbler, Humphrey Swallowe, and the ale-wife, Goodwife Spiggot, Clinias the dispossessed yeoman, Bellicoso, the cashiered corporal, Manco, the counterfeit lame beggar, and Philonices, the wrangling Justice,” who entertainingly and in a rather Shakespearian way express themselves in language suitable to their various stations in society. And yet, with its sketchy plot, short length, and rather inconclusive ending, one readily sees why this author refrained from categorizing it as a true play or comedy.
2. Its performance was a disaster. The text of the play is preserved in the St. John’s College MS. 52.1, pp. 86 - 110, and is followed by a narrative passage that explains why [MS. p. 111]:
...the Prologue (to the great prejudice of that which followed) was most shamefully out, and having but halfe a verse to say, so that by the very sence the audience was able to prompt him in that which followed, yet hee could not goe forward, but after long stay and silence was compelled abruptly to leave the stage whereupon beeing to play another part hee was so dasht, that he did nothing well that night. After him Good-wife Spiggot, comming forth before her time, was most miserably at a non plus [that] made others so whilst her selfe staulked in the middest like a great Harry-lion (as it pleased the audience to terme it) either saying nothing at all or nothing to the purpose. The drunken-man which in the repititions (i. e., the rehearsals) had much pleased and done very well was now so ambitious of his action that he would needs make his part much longer then it was, and stood so long upon it all that hee grew most tedious whereuppon it was well observed and said by one that ’twas pitty that there should be in any pleasing thing satiety. To make up the messe of absurdityes the company had so fild the stage that there was no rome to doe any thing well. To be sure, many thinges were mistaken and therefore could not but bee very distastfull, for it was thought that particuler men were aymed at and decipherde by the drunken-man and Justice Bryar though it was fully knowne to our selves that the author had no such purpose. In fine, expectation, the devourer of all good indevours, had swallowed more in the very name and title of the interlude then was ether provided or intended in the whole matter, for wee onely proposed to our selves a shew but the toune expected a perfect and absolute play so that all things mett to make us unhappy that night and had not Time him selfe (whose lines and actions were thought good) somewhat pleased them they would never have indured us without hissing...
3. Reading between the lines, it is easy to surmise that staging the eight plays and other acted pieces that made up the Christmas Prince cycle (the seven extant ones plus one more that is lost) NOTE 1 placed an excessive burden on the resources of the College when it came to acting talent. The narrative tells us that next play to be performed, The Seven Dayes of the Weeke, was written [ms. p. 116] “...because there were divers youths whose voyces or personages would not suffer them to act any thing in publicke, yet withall it was thought fitt that in so publicke a busines every one should doe something, therefore a mocke play was provided...” which does much to confirm this suspicion. It is therefore to be noted that the failure of Times Complaint was entirely to be blamed on the incompetence of the performers, and that there was nothing intrinsically displeasing about the text itself.
4. In their notice on Time’s Complaint (ib. V.449), under the rubric “Sources” Wiggins and Richardson rather enigmatically wrote “Narrative: possibly Thomas Kyd, The Spanish Tragedy (...Time’s sleeping).” In a private letter, Dr. Wiggins elucidates:
Time falls asleep in Time’s Complaint and this has an impact on the action. Revenge falls asleep in The Spanish Tragedy and the revenge action seems to fall into abeyance while the villains triumph. Look at the chorus at the start of what is marked as Act 4 in all editions (though in fact it is the start of the fifth act — Revenge has slept through an act-division).
They also note (V.448) that, although Manco is stated to be a “a lame soldier” in the list of dramatis personae and also MS. p. 112, nothing in the text itself justifies this claim. At line 517 he at least claims to be an injured mason. Likewise they note that on p. 111 the MS. equates Philonices with the Justice Briar of Bramble Hall, who has cheated Clinias (line 124), and that this identification too is textually unjustified (although these two corrupt legalists are certainly birds of the same feather).
5. One more point deserves notice, the entirely artificial and unnecessary division of this short interlude (806 lines) into five Acts. This (like Thomas Watson’s imposition of a five-Act structure onto his 1581 Latin translation of Sophocles’ Antigone, which, together with a Prologue of his own invention, was meant to impart a properly Senecan look to his Attic model) serves to show how strong a grip this paradigmatic, and at least supposedly Classical, structure had on the minds of playwrights of this age.
6. Time’s Complaint is preserved on pp. 87 - 110 of a lengthy manuscript chronicling all the notable events of Thomas Tucker’s reign (or, if you include the pertinent narrative tissue preceding and following it, pp. 86 - 112). Various whole or partial editions, transcripts, or photographic reproductions of the manuscript have been published, beginning with Philip Bliss’ An Account of the Christmas Prince as it was Exhibited by the University of Oxford in the Year 1607 (London, 1816) and including Marvin Spevack and J. W. Binns (ed.), The Christmas Prince (Acted 1607 - 1608) (Renaissance Drama in England series 1, Hildesheim, 1983) and John Elliott et. al., Oxford (Records of Early English Drama series, Toronto, 2004) I.340 - 381. But all these ones (save of course for the 1983 photographic reproduction) provide abbreviated versions in which the texts of the plays performed are omitted. The sole exception is Frederick S. Boas and W. W. Greg, The Christmas Prince (Malone Society, Oxford, 1922). They presented the full text of the play as well as the relevant preceding and following narrative material on pp. 102 - 131. But it difficult to understand what they were seeking to accomplish. Boas and Greg printed a careful diplomatic transcription of the text, and also noticed some copying errors in footnotes, but at the same time they let many others, no less obvious, pass unremarked. Therefore what they printed fell between two stools, being more than a mere transcription but less than a true critical edition. Hence I take this opportunity to present a fully edited and annotated version.
NOTE 1 According to the St. John’s College MS. (p. 116) another play, or at least some kind of performance piece, Somnium Fundatoris (perhaps by John Alder) was performed ten days after Time’s Complaint, but the death of the author prevent the inclusion of its text in the MS. For this piece cf. Martin Wiggins and Catherine Richardson, British Drama 1533 - 1642: A Catalogue (Oxford, 2015) V.450f.