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1 ONE Milton as Spectator, Reader, and Editor of Drama One of the first tasks in making the case for Milton the dramatist is to demonstrate that he had significant exposure to staged drama. The point matters because if his experience with the dramatic genre was essentially literary, limited to his reading of plays or, at most, supplemented by rudimentary academic productions, then it becomes difficult to regard him as a dramatist in the traditional sense. If, however, he attended at least one full-scale production and found it sufficiently engaging, then he could not have helped being affected when crafting his own dramas. A single afternoon at the theater could furnish copious inspiration for writing a drama, as well as more information on staging and costumes than he could infer from reading scores of plays. I. Milton as Blackfriars Theatre Spectator? Milton’s birth in 1608 meant that his early boyhood coincided with Shakespeare’s final seven years, and of course the Milton family home on Bread Street was a stone’s throw from the Mermaid Tavern and well within walking distance of the Blackfriars Theatre. Images of the young scamp colliding with his great predecessor on 2 Milton the Dramatist the street might seem no more than the stuff Hollywood scripts are made on, given that Shakespeare probably lived out his last years at New Place, in Stratford. However, recent scholarship has established several key ties between the Milton family and Shakespeare, including the Blackfriars trusteeship, as well as Gordon Campbell’s suggestion that John Milton senior may have composed one of the tributes to Shakespeare for the First Folio (1623). That contribution may help to explain something that has long puzzled literary historians, namely, the inclusion of the younger Milton’s first published poem, “On Shakespeare,” in the Second Folio (1630). Still, it is hard to say which commercial play productions, if any, he might have witnessed. The problem is a vexing one for a variety of reasons. One is that there are only three references to playgoing in Milton’s entire corpus: some lines in “Elegia Prima” (1626), an allusion in L’Allegro (1631?–38), and a description of his (negative) reaction to college theatricals in An Apology for Smectymnuus. Moreover, each of these references is problematic. While the lines in the elegy seem to indicate attendance at a theater , they appear to catalog stock plots and personae that also could have come from Milton’s reading of New Comedy. And L’Allegro may be autobiographical, or it may simply catalog the pleasures of a typical “happy man.” At first glance, the Apology reference provides a firmer ground, yet it shows Milton as anything but pleased to be at this performance. What is more, he cites this attendance at college plays to counter the accusation that he frequented commercial playhouses. Scholarship has never been able to say definitively if Milton ever took in any commercial plays. Early in the twentieth century, Harris Fletcher, James Holly Hanford, and Denis Saurat, among others, claimed that he was familiar with the London stage; subsequently , in their influential histories of early modern theater audiences, both published in the 1980s, Andrew Gurr and Ann Cook seconded that claim. Yet no scholar or theater historian was able to prove that the references to play-going in Milton’s poetry were anything more than poetic embellishments based on his reading of drama. In fact, in 1997, T. H. Howard-Hill published a trenchant critique of the alleged link between Milton and the stage. After reviewing primary documents for the Caroline plays and the records of theatrical performances at Cambridge, he concluded, “there is no substantial evidence that Milton either experienced the theater of his time or valued its products.” Roy Flannagan concurs, citing Howard-Hill’s article in The Riverside Milton’s preface to “Elegia Prima,” and adding, “Milton may never have gone near a theater in London.”1 Nonetheless, Berry’s discovery of the link between the Milton family and the Blackfriars tempts us to think that he did attend the theater. And yet, as remarkable as the finding is, it offers no evidence that the young man may have actually taken advantage of his father’s trusteeship. I propose to furnish such evidence by arguing that the play-going references in the first elegy and L’Allegro may well be factual, and could be based on Milton’s attendance at a 1626 showing of Jonson’s comedy The Staple of News...


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