On the Parnassus Plays and Shakespeare Authorship

Yesterday, I read the Parnassus Plays (1598-1602):


These are three late Elizabethan university plays, put on by Cambridge students, for Cambridge students. They’re primarily known because of their extensive references to contemporary English writers, including William Shakespeare. And, certainly, we’ll get to that – there are interesting implications on the Authorship front. It’s half the reason I’m writing this blog post.

The other half is to note that it is a shame that these plays only garner interest for the Shakespeare thing. Back in December 2019, when I wrote a post on the Shakespeare Apocrypha, I suggested that most of these anonymous apocryphal plays were not very good, but they still deserved better than to languish in the Outer Darkness. I now think the same applies to the Parnassus Plays, with the caveat that if they were cleaned up a bit, with more accessible formatting, and modernised spelling, they might be considered fun. Not just fun, but genuinely relevant fun, since a major theme of these works is the discrepancy between education and economic prosperity. To quote one line:

Well then, let's launch forwarde ; if wee can get 
noe livinge wee'le dye learned beggars. 

The notion of a university education being no guarantee of future income is one that rather speaks across the centuries – as relevant in the economic climate of 2021 as it was in 1602. Alas, these plays find themselves mined for commentary on other writers, rather than as dramatic works in their own right, a situation not helped by issues of inaccessibility. Poor formatting and Elizabethan spelling do not encourage casual twenty-first century readers to check this material out online. Oh well.

As mentioned, however, the Parnassus Plays are indeed a goldmine for satirical comments on other dramatists of the era. We get the memorable comment that Christopher Marlowe had wit from heaven and vices from hell, which is one of those phrases that a writer just wants to steal on principle. We even get on-screen versions of Burbage and Kemp, two of the real-life actors in Shakespeare’s theatre company.

And, of course, we get Shakespeare quotes – from Venus and Adonis, from Romeo and Juliet, and from Richard III. One character says they want to keep Venus and Adonis under their pillow at night. And then we have this line from Kemp:

Few of the vniuersity [men] pen plaies well, they 
smell too much of that writer Otiid, and that writer Meta 
morphosis, and talke too much of Proserpina & luppiter. 
Why heres our fellow Shakespeare puts them all downe, I 
and Ben lonson too. O that Ben lonson is a pestilent fellow, 
he brought vp Horace giuing the Poets a pill, but our fellow 
Shakespeare hath giuen him a purge that made him beray 
his credit

Recall that this is a university play, for university students, so the contemporary audience would know that Kemp is being made out to be an unlearned oaf (well and truly mangling Ovid). But also note that the line refers to “our fellow Shakespeare” as being a writer, one held in high-esteem by this oafish character. This, of course, is Kemp’s theatre colleague (“our fellow”), the one who would later leave Burbage and company gifts after his death:


There is evidence here on the Shakespeare Authorship Question, a matter where I have affirmed my Stratfordian stance. To my mind, a play from Shakespeare’s own lifetime confirming that “our fellow Shakespeare” was a writer is pretty damned convincing. “Our fellow Shakespeare” is not Shakespeare as the hypothesised pen-name for some distant aristocrat, since (1) it implies familiarity, and (2) the passage explicitly notes that this writer is not one of these university men. Rather, this is a reference to the man Kemp himself worked with. Kemp’s fellow, William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon, actor, investor, not university-educated… here acknowledged as the author of the plays and poems, albeit in a back-handed manner (being praised by this character is not a positive). Stratfordianism confirmed.

(And yes, I am aware that for many people, this is will be a familiar rehash of arguments. Perhaps it is. But I am merely blogging my thoughts on actually reading the Parnassus Plays for myself. It’s not like these 400+ year-old works ever get attention otherwise, and I have an inherent fondness for obscure material, especially when they appear to have unappreciated relevance).

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