Tuesday, 29 November 2016

Ralph Roister Doister by Nicholas Udall.

Ralph Roister Doister is a comedy by Nicholas Udall, and it's possibly the first English comedy. Quite when it was written is unknown: Ashley Thorndike, the editor of my edition (The Minor Elizabethan Drama vol. II: Pre-Shakespearean Comedies, 1968) suggests that it was sometime around 1540, others suggest in the early 1550s. Whatever the case, Nicholas Udall was a schoolmaster and it seems Ralph Roister Doister was written to be performed by his pupils. He had taught in a London grammar school, Eton (where he taught Latin; one of his pupils was the poet Thomas Tusser), was a vicar for a period (having been sacked from Eton for sexual misconduct), then returned to teaching as headmaster of Westminster School. Udall was also a translator, most notably of Erasmus, but he also produced in 1534 Floures for Latine Spekynge Selected and Gathered out of Terence; Terence, and indeed Plautus, were great influences on Ralph Roister Doister.

It's said that this play went on to influence William Shakespeare, particularly Comedy of Errors (1589); it's been such a long time since I read that play I'll refrain from comment, but I must say Ralph Roister Doister very much reminded me of another Shakespearean comedy: The Merry Wives of Windsor (1602). Ralph is very similar to the great John Falstaff (who also appears in Shakespeare's Henry IV Part I and Part II, 1597-8). He is a boaster, as his name would suggest - interestingly there's a helpful definition of the word "roister" in Johnson's Dictionary (although Johnson attributes the word to Shakespeare, clearly it's been going for a little longer than that):

Like Falstaff, Ralph is not a bad person as such, a boaster yes, and to use Johnson's word, somewhat "turbulent". To make another literary comparison - he is a little like Mr. Tupman of Pickwick Papers, whose "admiration for the fair sex was still [his soul's] ruling passion". Matthew Merrygreeke, a trickster who enjoys fun at Ralph's expense, encourages Ralph to pursue Christian Custance, a widow who is to be married to Gawyn Goodluck. As with Falstaff, a letter is sent (though admittedly Falstaff was pursuing more than one widow) and Ralph, with the help of others, makes an absolute blundering mess of it. A letter is sent, love tokens, and Ralph's servants but to no avail, thanks to Matthew Merrygreeke's tricks and Ralph's presumptuousness. 

It is a fun play, very silly, but very energetic and lighthearted. One thing that particularly stood out for me was the prologue, a great defence of comedies:
What creature is in health, either young or old,
But some mirth with modesty will be glad to use?
As we in this Interlude shall now unfold,
Wherein all scurrility we utterly refuse,
Avoiding such mirth wherein is abuse:
Knowing nothing more commendable for a man's recreation
Than Mirth which is used in an honest fashion:
For Mirth prolongeth life, and causeth health,
Mirth recreates our spirits and voideth pensinveness,
Mirth increaseth amity, not hindering our wealth,
Mirth is to be used both of more and less,
Being mixed with virtue in decent comliness,
As we trust no good nature can gainsay the same:
Which mirth we intend to use, avoiding all blame.
The wise Poets long time heretofore,
Under merry Comedies secrets did declare,
Wherein was contained very virtuous lore,
With mysteries neither Plautus nor Terence did spare,
These with such other therein did excel.
Our Comedy or Interlude which we intend to play
Is named Roister Doister indeed.
WHich against vain-glorious doth inveigh,
Whose humour the roisting sort continually doth feed.
Thus by your patience we intend to proceed
Is this our Interlude by God's leave and grace,
And here I take my leave for a certain space.
I do feel that other great defender of comedy, Sleary of Dickens' Hard Times (1854) who observed "People mutht be amuthed, Thquire, thomehow," would approve of Udall's sentiments.


  1. this riotous play was one of the first of that period i read; it led to others, mainly because it was so funny; as soon as i read the prologue above, it all came back to me... tx, O...

    1. I did love that prologue :) It's a good one, glad I've finally read it!


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