Rare Manuscript Sheds Light on Elizabethan Education

To celebrate the centenary of its founding, the Elizabethan Club at Yale has acquired a unique late-16th-century manuscript version of the Oedipus tragedy, which sheds light on the social and cultural history and pedagogical practices in England at the turn of the 17th century.

An international conference of scholars will discuss the significance of this rare example of an obscure genre, the “schoolboys’ play,” on September 30 at the Whitney Humanities Center, 53 Wall Street. The conference, which is free and open to the public, will include performances of scenes and music from the play. See the website for more information.

The play was written for grammar school students as an exercise in the rhetorical arts, says Yale professor Lawrence Manley, who organized the symposium. There are fewer than 10 “schoolboys’ plays” extant, and this is the only one that is hand-written.

“The play presents more questions than answers,” says Manley. It is unclear exactly when it was written and where it was performed, he notes, and looking at the document in the context of its times has much to reveal about how pupils were taught highly valued skills of oratory and appreciation for classical literature in the Elizabethan Age. Shakespeare’s grammar school education would have closely resembled that of the boys for whom this version of Oedipus was written, he says.

The first act of “A tragedy called Oedipus” is largely original material on the life of the hero, which, Manley speculates, might have been written by someone who had attended Cambridge University. Most of the rest of the play was reproduced verbatim from known verse translations of “Oedipus” by the Latin dramatist Seneca.

In addition to being a rare example of a hand-written dramatic work produced in post-printing-press England, “A tragedy called Oedipus” is also distinctive for incorporating Seneca’s drama into this type of exercise, says Manley. “Renaissance oral training in classics was common, but it included memorization and recitation rather than theatrical performance,” he notes.

The manuscript also includes a song, which uses a popular melody, long attributed to William Byrd, but now widely disputed by scholars. Scenes from the play will be performed by students from the Yale School of Drama, and the song, “My little swete babie,” will be sung and discussed by Yale faculty member and distinguished mezzo-soprano Judith Malafronte.

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Dorie Baker: dorie.baker@yale.edu, 203-432-1345