Academic Drama

Queens’ College was one of the Cambridge colleges that were active in producing academic drama performances in the 16th and early 17th centuries.

Unlike modern times, where drama is a voluntary extra-curricular activity, back then participation in drama was a compulsory part of the college curriculum. In 1546, the college made the following order, as translated into English:

And lest any youth (who is) a student of this college of a degree inferior to a master of arts (and is) not even a fellow should refuse to take part (in the comedy or tragedy), or be absent when the comedy or tragedy is being put on publicly, or in some other way behave obstinately or perversely at a time when he seems to the president or his deputy (to be) suitable to undertake some duties in the comedy or tragedy, we order and decree by this present (statute) that the one or ones who have offended in any of these matters against the decision of the president or his deputy shall be expelled from the college by authority of the same president or his deputy. But the rest of the fellow commoners and such scholars as are not bachelors of theology shall be fined five shillings for each of the aforesaid offences unless (the offender) has a legitimate excuse meeting the approval of the president and the greater part of the fellows. The cost of putting on and performing these comedies or tragedies will be provided from the common treasury in accordance with the will of the master or vice-president. In the year 1546, on the ninth of October, while Doctor Mey (was) president.
[Records of Early English Drama: Cambridge, by Alan Holm Nelson, 1989, Vol. 2, pp. 1117–​8]

The later 1558 Statutes of Queens’ College confirmed the practice, in Chapter 36:

And, lest our youth, trained perhaps in other respects, remain crude in pronunciation and gesture and unpolished, we wish the professor of the Greek language and also the examiner to be responsible for putting on two comedies or tragedies every year between the twentieth day of December and the beginning of Lent. If they are required by the master, or in his absence, by the vice-president, to show them privately, or even if they are required by the master or, in his absence, by the vice-president and the greater part of the fellows, to put them on publicly, before the twentieth day of December, then (we wish) each of them to receive 6s 8d for his labour if they are responsible for (the performance). But if each or either one of them refuses to fulfil this duty imposed upon them he will be fined 10s to be paid either to the common treasury or to the other one who wishes to carry out this his duty, according to the judgment of the master or, in his absence, of the vice-president and the greater part of the fellows. But if any scholar designated by any of these two readers to carry out any part (of this duty) refuses - unless he was (so designated) as an insult to the fellows - he will be punished by the judgment of the president, but, in his absence, of the vice-president and these two readers.
[Records of Early English Drama: Cambridge, by Alan Holm Nelson, 1989, Vol. 2, p. 1130]

At least some, perhaps all, of the public play performances took place in the Hall, judging by entries in the Magnum Journale for the repair of the Hall after the plays. In addition, there was an Acting Chamber, which might have been used for rehearsals or storage, in one of the 16th-century buildings in Pump Court that were later demolished to make way for Essex Building.

In the 17th century, as puritanism advanced, the production of plays declined, and from the 1620s onwards only Queens’ and Trinity were regularly putting on plays (and with some animus between them, apparently). Finally, in September 1642, all theatres in the nation were closed by ordinance, and the production of plays banned. Drama disappeared from both Oxford and Cambridge: the last play known to have been produced at Queens’ was Valetudinarium in February 1638. After the Restoration, although theatres began to re-open in London, the practice of play-acting never re-appeared in Cambridge colleges, apart from a short-lived revival at Trinity, which lasted less than ten years.

The actors’ costumes appear to have been regarded as valuable assets, that were kept securely in the Muniment Room in the gate-tower, according to references in the Magnum Journale. In October 1640, the accounts show the purchase of a press [i.e. wardrobe] for ye Acting cloaths which survived into the mid-20th century in the Muniment Room. [It is noteworthy that this purchase date is later than that of the last play ever to be performed, so the costumes put away in this press would never be used again]. Some publications [Smith 1923, p. 31, and those that reference it] assert that the costumes were stored within a chest in the Muniment Room which is still in existence. Maybe a chest was used for costumes in earlier times, but it was the 1640 press that was still in existence up until the mid-20th century, not a chest. All the furniture in the Muniments Room appears to have been destroyed in the 1960s, when the room was converted to an undergraduate study-bedroom.

The Plays

There are archival references to plays being performed in Queens’ from 1522/3 onwards, although there might have been earlier plays of which no records survive. Even when the archives refer to plays, the name of the play is, in the majority of cases, not recorded. These are the dates and names of plays known or suspected to have been performed in the few cases where the name is recorded or implied:

1542/3: Thersites?; 1546/7: Laelia Modenas?; 1547/8: Adelphoe, Heli, Eunuchus, Persa; 1548/9: Poenulus, Hypocrisis; 1553/4: Stichus; 1554/5: Eunuchus, Poenulus; 1591/2: Miles Gloriosus?; 1594/5: Laelia; 1595/6: Fatum?; 1622/3: Fucus Histriomastix; 1629/30: Senile Odium; 1631/2: The Rival Friends; 1637/8: Valetudinarium.
[Records of Early English Drama: Cambridge, Volume 2: Editorial apparatus, by Alan Holm Nelson, 1989, pp. 963–​76] 

Puritan displeasure

In the comedies, there were often stock comic parts, such as a cook, a hapless lover, a tutor, or, more especially, a puritan. Puritans considered play-acting to be sinful. In the academic comedies of the 17th century, the puritans were regularly mocked and ridiculed. The performance of Valetudinarium was referenced in a critical report to Parliament:

He [the President, Dr Martin] likewise permitted a most prophane Comedy to be acted in his Colledge ffebruary 6º 1637[1638]. (The compiler of it being a divine and two other of ye Actors men in orders) and this to ye abuse of Religion & Religious men vnder ye name of puritanisme & Puritans. Three of ye principall actors in this play were Ipswichus, Linna, Magneticus, in derision (as was generally supposed) of ye Townes of Ipswich & Lynn & of mr Samuell Ward preacher in Ipswich who had a little before printed a booke de Magnete.
[Innovations in Religion and Abuses in Government in the University of Cambridge, BL Harleian MS 7019, f. 78*] 

The towns of Ipswich and Lynn would have been recognised by the audience as strongholds of puritanism, and so this play appears to have had three comic puritans. It is scarcely surprising that eventually, as the puritans gained influence in government, the theatres were ordered to be closed and the performance of plays banned.

Demountable stage

Photo of Colledge Stage assembly instructions

Queens’ College is unique amongst Oxbridge colleges in having preserved in its archives detailed assembly instructions for the demountable stage that was erected in the Hall for the presentation of plays [QC Archives MS75, 1639/40]. The date of Feb 18 1639 would be 1640 by modern reckoning. The assembly instructions are for temporary structures comprising a stage, tyring houses, and viewing galleries, which could be erected in the Hall for play performances, and then demounted and stored elsewhere in-between. It is not recorded when those temporary structures first came into use, and it is possible that they were already quite ancient by the time the assembly instructions were written: Wright suggests 1548 as a possible date of origin [An early stage at Queens’, 1986, p. 79]. For a transcription of the demountable stage assembly instructions, see: Records of Early English Drama: Cambridge, Volume 1: The Records, by Alan Holm Nelson, 1989, pp. 688–​93; and for a general discussion, see: An early stage at Queens’, by Iain Richard Wright [Fellow], 1986.

The Acting Chamber

Photo of plan of chambers in Old Court, Cloister Court, and Pump Court

There are archival references both in the college accounts, and in records of room allocations, to an “Acting Chamber” within the college. Nelson & Wright make a plausible case for this “Acting Chamber” being the room numbered 10 in the plan of college rooms from the early 1600s [A Cambridge Playhouse of 1638?: Reconsiderations, by Alan Holm Nelson; and Iain Richard Wright, in Renaissance Drama, New Series vol. 22, pp. 175–​89]. This first-floor room was of much the same size as sets typically allocated to Fellows, and so was unlikely to be have been used as a theatre for public performances. It might have been a rehearsal room, or a space for small private play-readings. This “Acting Chamber” was within a Pump Court building which was demolished by 1756 to make way from the erection of the Essex Building.

The Stagehouse

The College accounts for 1638 refer to materials purchased for ye new Stagehouse. Some past authors have taken the word stagehouse to mean a building for the performance of plays [AHUC, Willis & Clark, 1886, Vol. 2, p. 55]; [College Plays, Smith,1923, p. 10]; [Cambridge University Press 1696–​1712, McKenzie, 1966, Vol. 1, pp. 16–​29]; [A Cambridge Playhouse of 1638, McKenzie, in Renaissance Drama, NS Vol. 3, 1970, pp. 263–​72]. It seems improbable that the college would have built a stand-alone playhouse or theatre in this period, when puritanism was advancing, academic drama was declining, and the last play ever was about to be performed. It now seems more likely that the stagehouse was merely a new storehouse for the timber of the demounted stage. It was located in Queens’ Lane opposite the college, on the site of the present car-park of St Catharine’s College. One may also speculate that the assembly instructions (above) for the demountable stage were recorded at the time of the timber first being put away in the new stagehouse, perhaps in the expectation that the timber might be stored there for quite some time to come. As things turned out, the demountable stage was never again re-erected, so the assembly instructions were never used. The storehouse and its site were subsequently leased to the University in 1665/6 for the use of the University Press. The Old House on that site was demolished in 1696 to make way for a new building for the Printing House. That new building was later used by the Professors of Chemistry and Anatomy, and then became the Anatomical School. The whole site east of Queens’ Lane was sold to St Catharine’s College in 1836. For an account of the stagehouse see: Records of Early English Drama: Cambridge, Volume 2: Editorial apparatus, by Alan Holm Nelson, 1989, p. 994; and What was the Queens’ Stage-house?, by Iain Richard Wright [Fellow], in Queens’ College Record 1991, pp. 13–​4.


The re-interpretation of the Stagehouse was research carried out by Iain Richard Wright, Fellow and Librarian: his obituary is at Queens’ College Record 2007, pp. 9–​11. He worked in collaboration with Alan Holm Nelson, who brought it to publication in Records of Early English Drama: Cambridge.


Critical editions, and English translations, of many of the plays performed in this period, including some of those performed at Queens’, are available at The Philological Museum, hosted by The Shakespeare Institute of the University of Birmingham.

Further reading

1632: The Rivall Friends: A comœdie, as it was acted before the King and Queens Majesties, when out of their princely favour they were pleased to visite their Universitie of Cambridge, upon the 19. day of March 1631. Cryed downe by boyes, faction, envie, and confident ignorance, approv’d by the judicious, and now exposed to the publique censure, by the author, Pet. Hausted Mr. in Artes of Queenes Colledge. [The play was not received well. A few days later, the Vice-Chancellor, who had chosen this offering from Queens’ over a competing one from Trinity, committed suicide]
2009: Digital edition, by the EEBO Text Creation Partnership.

1633: Senile odium: comœdia Cantabrigiæ publicè academicis recitata in Collegio Reginali ab ejusdem Collegii juventute, by Peter Hausted.

1638: Valetudinarium, by William Johnson [Q]. (OCLC 137937940) [manuscript, where author incorrectly said to be a Fellow] 

1639/40: The Colledge Stage, in Library Account and Inventory of Furniture, pp. 434–​7, QC MS 75. [Stage assembly instructions] 

1825: The Latin Plays acted before the University of Cambridge, by Charles Henry Hartshorne, in The Retrospective Review, Vol. XII, Part 1, pp. 1–​42. (OCLC 5858648)

1898: Die lateinischen Universitäts-Dramen Englands in der Zeit der Königin Elisabeth, by George Bosworth Churchill and Wolfgang Keller, in Shakespeare Jahrbuch, Vol. 34, pp. 221–​323. (ISSN 0080-9128)

1909: Fasciculus Ioanni Willis Clark dicatus. (OCLC 2337403) including:
Plays performed in Cambridge Colleges before 1585, by George Charles Moore Smith, pp. 265–​73.

1909: Fucus Histriomastix, a Comedy acted at Queens’ College, Cambridge, 1623, by George Charles Moore Smith. (OCLC 55552797)

1910: Lælia, a Comedy acted at Queens’ College, Cambridge 1595, by George Charles Moore Smith. (OCLC 6162096)

1910: University Plays, by Frederick Samuel Boas, in The Cambridge History of English Literature, Vol. VI Part 2, Ch. XII, pp. 293–​327, 468–​487. (OCLC 4205140)

1911: The Latin University Drama, by Louise B. Morgan, in Shakespeare Jahrbuch, Vol. 47, pp. 69–​91. (ISSN 0080-9128)

1912: Peter Hausted’s “The Rivall Friends”, with some account of his other works, by Joseph Quincy Adams, in The Journal of English and Germanic Philology, Vol. 11, pp. 433–​50. (ISSN 0363-6941)

1914: University drama in the Tudor age, by Frederick Samuel Boas. (OCLC 4651007)

1916: Plays in College, by Francis Giffard Plaistowe, in The Dial, No. 25 Lent 1916, pp. 21–​4;
1927: reprinted in The Dial, No. 55 Lent 1927, pp. xxxv–​xxxviii.

1923: College Plays performed in the University of Cambridge, by George Charles Moore Smith. (OCLC 675491)

1923: The Academic Drama at Cambridge: Extracts from college records, by George Charles Moore Smith, in the Malone Society Collections, Vol. 2, Pt. 2, pp. 150–​231, Queens’ at pp. 182–​204. (OCLC 1909297)

1944: Peter Hausted : Playwright, Poet, and Preacher, by Laurens Joseph Mills (1889–​1982). (OCLC 854760)

1949: Drama in Queens’, by Frederic Greville Smith, in The Dial, No. 98 Lent 1949, pp. 20–​4.

1949: Peter Hausted’s Senile Odium, by Laurens Joseph Mills (1889–​1982). (OCLC 543417)

1951: Peter Hausted’s The Rival Friends, by Laurens Joseph Mills (1889–​1982). (OCLC 265463771)

1951: The Scourge of the Stage, by Robert Sawers Glen (1926–​2008), in The Dial, No. 102, 1951 Lent, pp. 9–​11.

1959: Shakespeare’s Wooden O, by J. Leslie Hotson, Queens’ at pp. 169–​72, 218–​9. (OCLC 359088) [Over-optimistic reconstruction of demountable theatre in Old Hall] 

1966: Cambridge University Press 1696–1712: A Bibliographical Study, by Donald Francis McKenzie. (OCLC 11174583) [Chapter 2 relevant to Queens’ and the Stagehouse]

1970: A Cambridge Playhouse of 1638, by Donald Francis McKenzie, in Renaissance Drama, New Series Vol. 3, pp. 263–​72. (ISSN 0486-3739) [The Queens’ Stage-House: see 1991 for a response]

1986: An early stage at Queens’, by Iain Richard Wright (1944–​2006) [Fellow], in Cambridge: Magazine of the Cambridge Society, vol. 18, pp. 74–​83; (ISSN 0140-8348)
1996: another edition, in Studies in Theatre Production, vol. 13, issue 1. (ISSN 1357-5341)

1988: Two Latin Play Songs, by Julia K. Wood, in Royal Musical Association Research Chronicle, No. 21(1988), pp. 45–​52. (ISSN 1472-3808) [Song from Valetudinarium] 

1989: Records of Early English Drama: Cambridge, Volume 1: The Records, by Alan Holm Nelson; (ISBN 978-0-8020-5751-8)
1989: Volume 2: Editorial apparatus.

1991a: What was the Queens’ Stage-house?, by Iain Richard Wright (1944–​2006) [Fellow], in Queens’ College Record 1991, pp. 13–​4.

1991b: A Cambridge Playhouse of 1638?: Reconsiderations, by Alan Holm Nelson; and Iain Richard Wright (1944–​2006) [Fellow], in Renaissance Drama, New Series vol. 22, pp. 175–​89. (ISSN 0486-3739 eISSN 2164-3415) [response to the 1970 article A Cambridge Playhouse of 1638?]

1992: Hall Screens and Elizabethan Playhouses: Counter-Evidence from Cambridge, by Alan Holm Nelson, in The Development of Shakespeare’s Theater, ed. John Harold Astington (1945–​2019), pp. 57–​76. (ISBN 978-0-404-62293-0)

1994: Early Cambridge theatres: college, university, and town stages, 1464-1720, by Alan Holm Nelson, pp. 16–​37 & 131–​9. (ISBN 978-0-521-43177-4)

2012: The Death of a Vice-Chancellor: Cambridge, 1632, by David Arthur Cressy (1946–), in History of Universities: Volume XXVI/2, pp. 92–​112. (ISBN 978-0-19-966838-0)