The following biography is reprinted from Characteristics of English Poets from Chaucer to Shirley. William Minto. London: William Blackwood and Sons, 1885.
Nicholas Udall, sometime head-master at Eton, and celebrated for the severity of his discipline, is the founder of English comedy. Evidences remain of his liking for Terence and for Erasmus: in 1533 he compiled and published certain translations from Terence under the title of Flowers from Latin speaking; and he translated Erasmus's Apophthegms in 1542, and his Paraphrase of the New Testament between 1542 and 1545. He early acquired, and maintained to the close of his life, a reputation for the writing of plays and pageants. He was employed along with Leland in 1533 in composing verses for the city pageant exhibited before Anne Boleyn, when she rode through London to her coronation. And he was mentioned by Mary in a document of 1554 as one that had "heretofore showed and mindeth hereafter to show his diligence in setting forth or dialogues and interludes before us for our regal disport and recreation."
The date of the composition of his comedy Ralph Roister Doister, is not ascertained: Mr. Collier suggests that it was written in Udall's youth. It is a great step in advance of moralities and interludes. The author names Plautus and Terence as his models, and terms the work an interlude or comedy, as if wishing to claim kindred with a higher order of composition. He had sufficient genius to borrow from the Romans a superior construction of play without sacrificing any of his native humour to foreign affectations. Roister Doister rises above preceding dramatic representations in English in the formal excellence of being divided into Acts and Scenes, and, still more, in having a plot based upon lively misunderstandings--the proper and peculiar plot of comedy. Its leading characters, too, are deliberate studies. The action of the play consists in the wooing of a widow, Dame Constance, by a boastful half-witted rich fellow, Ralph Roister Doister, who is set on and befooled by Matthew Merrygreek, an imitation of Terence's clever rogue and parasite. The play opens with the entrance of Merrygreek singing and cheerfully recounting his various shifts to gain an idle livelihood. Ralph, he says, is his chief banker and sheet-anchor, and one of the greatest louts in the kingdom. Presently Ralph enters, and from that moment till the end of the play is the victim of Merrygreek's tricks and extortions. The rogue discovers that he is in love, and ready to run mad; and after hearing of the lady's wealth, and moralizing that marriage money usually shrinks, he works in the most amusing way on the hero's vanity.
Ralph is a fine subject for ludicrous misadventures, and Merrygreek fools him to the top of his bent. His loutish character is kept up with many delightful touches of consistent humour. Acting always with the malicious Merrygreek at his elbow, he tries to follow Ovid's precept of gaining over the lady's servants: but not having the courage to approach Tibet Talkapace, a saucy coquettish handmaid, he makes up to old Madge Mumblecrust, the nurse, and while he is whispering into her ear, Merrygreek comes up with a following, pretends to take old Madge for the object of Ralph's devotion, and salutes her with absurd courtesy, much to Ralph's fury. Next Merrygreek acts as ambassador, brings back an insulting reply, and on Ralph's declaring himself unable to survive the shock, has a funeral service performed over him. Then Ralph employs a scrivener to write a moving letter, and Merrygreek in reading it to the lady punctuates it, as Quince does the prologue in A Midsummer Night's Dream, in such a way as to reverse the meaning, send her away in a passion, and make Ralph vow to have the scrivener's life. Finally Merrygreek eggs him on to take the lady by force: she arms her maid-servants for the defense, and a comical battle ensues in which Ralph is ignominously beaten.
The play is saved from being a mere extravagance by the danger of serious consequences to Dame Constance from the suit of her foolish admirer. She is affianced to an honest merchant, Gawin Goodluck; and he, on hearing mistaken reports which cause him to doubt her fidelity, is disposed to break off the engagement. However, all comes right in the end: the faithful Constance is married to honest Gawin, and Ralph is pardoned his troublesome advances.
It is impossible to say what may have been the single influence of Roister Doister on English comedy: the probability is that its influence was inconsiderable. It was not printed till 1566, and by that time the more powerful influences of early italian comedy were beginning to operate. Besides, with all its cleverness and delicate humour, the spirit of Roister Doister is essentially boyish: it was written to be acted by boys, and its extravagant incidents are of a kind to draw shouts of delights from boys. There are shrewd touches of worldly wisdom in it; but, as a whole, it has not the robustness of comedy framed for the enjoyment of full-grown men and women.
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