The Parnassus plays are three dramas produced at St John's College, Cambridge, as part of the college's Christmas entertainments towards the end of the 16th century. They are humorous accounts of the adventures of two students, Philomusus and Studioso. The first play, The Pilgrimage to Parnassus, is an allegory about student life. The other two plays, The Return from Parnassus and The Return from Parnassus: Or the Scourge of Simony, describe the two graduates' unsuccessful attempts to make a living.
Authorship of the plays was uncertain, and it was unknown if they were all the work of the same person. John Weever has been suggested as author of the first play; the satirist Joseph Hall has been seen as an influence on if not the author of the other two, but recent statistical tests bring Hall's authorship into question. The dramatist John Day has also been proposed as a possible author.
The first part, The Pilgrimage to Parnassus, describes allegorically the four-year journey to Parnassus of the two students, i.e. their progress, through the university course of logic, rhetoric, etc., and the temptations set before them by their meeting with Madido, a drunkard, Stupido, a puritan who hates learning, Amoretto, a lover, and Ingenioso, a disappointed student.
The play was doubtless originally intended to stand alone, but the favour with which it was received led to the writing of a sequel, The Return from Parnassus, which deals with the adventures of the two students after the completion of their studies at the university, and shows them discovering by bitter experience of how little pecuniary value their learning is. They again meet Ingenioso, who is making a scanty living by the press, but is on the search for a patron. They also meet as a new character, the sensation loving Luxurioso. All four now leave the university for London, while a draper, a tailor and a tapster lament their unpaid bills. Philomusus and Studioso find work respectively as a sexton and a tutor in a merchant's family, while Luxurioso becomes a writer and singer of ballads. In the meanwhile Ingenioso has met with a patron, a foolish poetry-lover named Gullio, for whom he composes amorous verses in the style of Chaucer, Spenser, and William Shakespeare, the last alone being to the patron's satisfaction. Gullio is portrayed as a great admirer of "sweet Mr. Shakespeare". He says he will obtain a picture of him for his study and will "worship sweet Mr Shakespeare and to honour him will lay his Venus and Adonis under my pillow, as we read of one – I do not well remember his name, but I'm sure he was a king – slept with Homer under his bed's head".
A further sequel, The Return from Parnassus, Or the Scourge of Simony, is a more ambitious, and from every point of view more interesting, production than the two earlier pieces. In it we again meet with Ingenioso, now become a satirist. On the excuse of discussing a recently published collection of extracts from contemporary poetry, John Bodenham's Belvedere, he briefly criticises, or rather characterises, a number of writers of the day, among them being Edmund Spenser, Henry Constable, Michael Drayton, John Davies, John Marston, Christopher Marlowe, Ben Jonson, Shakespeare, and Thomas Nashe; the last of whom is referred to as dead. It is impossible here to detail the plot of the play, and it can only be said that Philomusus and Studioso, having tried all means of earning a living, abandon any further attempt to turn their learning to profit and determine to become shepherds. Several new characters are introduced in this part, real persons such as John Danter, the printer, Richard Burbage and William Kempe, the actors, as well as such abstractions as Furor Poeticus and Phantasma. The second title of the piece, The Scourge of Simony, is justified by a sub-plot dealing with the attempts of one Academico to obtain a living from an ignorant country patron, Sir Roderick, who, however, presents it, on the recommendation of his son Amoretto, who has been bribed, to a non-university man Immerito.
Authorship, dating and meaning
The three pieces were evidently performed at Christmas of different years, the last being not later than Christmas 1602, as is shown by the references to Queen Elizabeth I, while the Pilgrimage mentions books not printed until 1598, and hence can hardly have been earlier than that year. The prologue of 2 Return states that that play had been written for the preceding year, and also, in a passage of which the reading is somewhat doubtful, implies that the whole series had extended over four years. Thus we arrive at either 1599, 1600 and 1602, or 1598, 1599 and 1601, as, on the whole, the most likely dates of performance. Frederick Gard Fleay, on grounds which do not seem conclusive, dates them 1598, 1601 and 1602.
The question of how far the characters are meant to represent actual persons has been much discussed. Fleay maintains that the whole is a personal satire, his identifications of the chief characters in 2 Return being (1) Ingenioso, Thomas Nashe, (2) Furor Poeticus, J. Marston, (3) Phantasma, Sir John Davies, (4) Philomusus, T. Lodge, (5) Studioso, Drayton. Israel Gollancz identifies Judicio with Henry Chettle (Proc. of Brit. Acad., 1903–1904, p. 202). Dr. Ward, while rejecting Fleays identifications as a whole, considers that by the time the final part was written the author may have more or less identified Ingenioso with Nashe, though the character was not originally conceived with this intention. This is of course possible, and the fact that Ingenioso himself speaks in praise of Nashe, who is regarded as dead, is not an insuperable objection. We must not, however, overlook the fact that the author was evidently very familiar with Nashe's works, and that all three parts, not only in the speeches of Ingenioso, but throughout, are full of reminiscences of his writings.
The only part of the trilogy which was in print at an early date was The Return from Parnassus, or the Scourge of Simony (1606), two editions bearing the same date. This has been several times reprinted, the best separate edition being that of Professor Arber in the English Scholars' Library (1879). Manuscript copies of all three plays were found in the manuscript collection of Thomas Hearne preserved in the Bodleian Library by the Rev. Rev. William Macray, which he printed in 1868. (The text of 2 Return was based on one of the editions of 1606, collated with the manuscript.) A recent edition (as of 1911) in modern spelling by Mr O. Smeaton in the Temple Dramatists is of little value. All questions connected with the play have been elaborately discussed by Dr. W. Lühr in a dissertation entitled Die drei cambridger Spiele vom Parnass (Kiel, 1900). See also, Dr. Ward's English Dramatic Literature, ii. 633–642; F. G. Fleay's Biog. Chron. of the Eng. Drama, ii. 347–355.
The two earlier plays were not known until Rev. Macray discovered them in the Hearne manuscript collection. The manuscript for The Returne from Parnassus (II) (which titles the play The Progresse to Parnassus) is housed in the Folger Shakespeare Library. The most recent edition of the plays appeared in 1949, edited by the Oxford scholar J. B. Leishman. Currently, students at the College of William and Mary are editing the text to make it accessible for an undergraduate audience.
The only book-length treatment of the Parnassus plays is Paula Glatzer's The Complaint of the Poet: The Parnassus Plays published in 1977.
A rehearsed reading of the Return from Parnassus, or The Scourge of Simony was performed at Shakespeare's Globe Theatre, London, on Sunday 6 December 2009 as part of their Read Not Dead series. It is believed to be the first performance of the play for 400 years. Actors doubled up on some parts. Notably, two women were cast. The cast was as follows:
Co-ordinated/Directed by: James Wallace
Boy/Page: Frances Marshall
Stagekeeper: James Wallace
Momus/Patient/Burgess/Recorder/Will Kempe: John Gregor
Defensor/Sir Raderick: Philip Rham
Ingenioso: David Oakes
Judicio/Furor Poeticus: Martin Hodgson
DanterStercutio/Prodigo/Richard Burbage: Kevin Quarmby
Philomusus: Tom Frankland
Studioso: Robert Stocks
Richardetto/Page: Lowenna Taylor
Phantasma/Immerito: James Maclaren
Academico: Will Huggins
Amoretto: Jonathan Bryan
- The Return from Parnassus, Act 4, scene 1.
- Ackroyd, Peter. Shakespeare the Biography. Chatto & Windus, 2005, pg 77
- Sams, Eric. '’The Real Shakespeare; Retrieving the Early Years, 1564–1594’’. Yale University Press 1995, pg 37
- This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Ronald Brunlees McKerrow (1911). "Parnassus Plays". In Chisholm, Hugh. Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.