The Air at the Top of the Bottle

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The First Parody of Shakespeare

November 16th, 2016 · No Comments

The three Parnassus plays – The Pilgrimage to Parnassus and the two parts of The Return from Parnassus – were written from 1598 to 1601, and performed at St. John’s College at Cambridge as, as the plays themselves say, “Christmas toys.” All three follow the adventures of two students, Philomusus and Studioso, as they face the economic realities of life after graduation. The author is unknown. The third play was printed in 1606, but the first two were only discovered in 1886, by a certain William Macray, who promptly published them.

The plays are not read much. They’re a lot of fun, though, riffing cynically on the eternal poverty of the scholarly life, as our two heroes struggle to find work: “The partiall heavens doe favoure eche rude boore, / Mackes droviers riche, and makes each scholler poore.” The plays are enlivened considerably by the character Ingenioso, a university wit who has turned to writing pamphlets and satires to make a living. He seems to be based on Thomas Nashe, a St. John’s alumnus, and has much of Nashe’s verbal extravagance and gift for invective.

When the Parnassus plays are mentioned at all, it’s because they contain many early references to Shakespeare. In the third play, the two scholars even audition for his company, only to be turned down by Richard Burbage and Will Kemp, who observe that university men have trouble walking and talking at the same time, and quote Ovid too much in their plays. Shakespeare is mocked repeatedly throughout the second and third plays, as a sentimental poet who appeals only to the uneducated.

And in the second play appears what must be the earliest surviving parody of Shakespeare. In a desperate attempt to earn money, Ingenioso agrees to write some love poetry for the fatuous blowhard Gullio. Gullio adores Shakespeare, to the point of putting a copy of Venus and Adonis under his pillow. Ingenioso offers verses in the style of Chaucer and Spenser, but it’s only the Shakespearean idiom that Gullio wants. So, Ingenioso provides the following lines, in “Mr. Shakspeare’s veyne”:

Faire Venus, queene of beutie and of love,
Thy red doth stayne the blushinge of the morne,
Thy snowie necke shameth the milkwhite dove,
Thy presence doth this naked world adorne;
Gazinge on thee all other nymphes I scorne.
When ere thou dyest slow shine that Satterday,
Beutie and grace must sleepe with thee for aye!

Gullio approves, prompting Ingenio, once his sucker is out of earshot, to dismiss him as “this post put into a sattin sute, this haberdasher of lyes, this bracchidochio, this ladyemunger, this meere rapier and dagger, this cringer, this foretopp.” The author, and, probably, his audience, obviously preferred the Nashean esthetic.

(Posted by Doug Skinner)

Tags: Literature

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