- Playing Chaucer at the Early Elizabethan Inns of Court
Anyone wishing to spend a night inside London’s Inner Temple has the choice of two rooms designed especially for guest accommodation. The more “modern” of the two is the “Boswell Room” named in honor of James Boswell, the lawyer and biographer of famous Inns of Court resident Dr Samuel Johnson. The second is the “Chaucer Room”: a more traditional, “romantically-inspired” bedroom suite, complete with reproduction fireplace and plush furnishings.1 Although Chaucer, Boswell and Johnson were all distinguished men of letters, this grouping is not a conventional one in the pantheon of male English authors, and their relationship to the law is widely dissimilar. Johnson’s works teem with lawyers, yet Chaucer is known for creating just one fictional “Man of Law,” and the issue of whether he was ever actually a resident of one of the four Inns of Court has been a subject of major dispute among scholars.2 Nonetheless, the Inner Temple bedchamber’s affiliation with the so-called Father of English poetry preserves a long-standing, mythological affinity between Chaucer and the Inns of Court society, where it has long been held that he—together with his friend John Gower—enjoyed a spell of training in the law.
It is well known that the Inns of Court—comprising Lincoln’s Inn, Middle Temple, Gray’s Inn, the Inner Temple, and their connected Inns of Chancery—played a formidable part in the development of early modern English theatre. Along with serving as performance venues for Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors and Twelfth Night, the Inns nurtured the talents of professional playwrights like Francis Beaumont, John Marston, John Webster and John Ford. And though the public playhouses became notorious for drawing errant students away from their law books, drama [End Page 138] was a vital and institutionally-sanctioned source of literary and rhetorical training for the Elizabethan men of law, even as it helped them establish important social and professional bonds and identities.3 Some of the most influential dramatic texts to emerge from the Inns during the 1560s include the translations of Seneca by Jasper Heywood, Alexander Neville, Thomas Newton and John Studley (published separately throughout the 1560s, and together in 1581); and the neo-Senecan plays Gorboduc (1561), Jocasta (1566) and Gismond of Salerne (1566), together with a slightly later work The Misfortunes of Arthur (1588). While the recent critical reception of these plays tends toward the use and adaptation of classical models, this article highlights the attendant prevalence and importance of a native and more contemporary model within the period’s legal drama and across the wider corpus of Inns of Court literature: Geoffrey Chaucer.
The performance texts discussed here are wide-ranging and include the translated works of Barnabe Googe and Jasper Heywood; the masques and orations of Thomas Pound; and the proto-dramatic dialogues and performances of George Gascoigne and Gerard Legh. I have chosen the texts primarily for their Chaucerian resonances, yet their provenance within a range of media—printed verse and prose, manuscripts, paratexts, revels accounts, and anecdotal reports—speaks to the generic and formal hybridity of Inns of Court literature and must therefore stretch received definitions of drama. As Lynn Enterline has shown,
the pervasive critical tendency to separate “popular” drama so decisively from academic, and dramatic writing from rhetorical invention (Latin and vernacular) – as well as from other genres of poetry – produces anachronistic and misleading accounts of literary production as well as of the shifting terrain of social distinction in sixteenth-century Britain. . .[R]hetorical tropes and transactions that derive from humanist educational practice cross generic boundaries, and [were] for a few years at least, arguably almost as interesting to both law students and commercial playwrights as was the drama.4
Given the evident fluidity of genre in this period, it is also important to allow for some flexibility in defining the art of imitation. The term “resonance” (Latin resonantia or “echo”) denotes a category of imitation that is evocative and reminiscent, and can do much to enhance our sense of Chaucer’s post-medieval reception. Much Inns of Court literature, however, concerns the...