Before I begin today’s itinerant interlude, a note: We do still have a few slots open, so if you’re enticed by what you’ve been reading on the blog, register now to join us in England in July!
Cambridge University is the second-oldest university in England, founded in 1209 by scholars who fled Oxford University in the wake of a dispute with the townsfolk there. Until the 1820s, Cambridge and Oxford were the only universities in England — unusual for a Western European country. During Shakespeare’s lifetime, the universities featured prominently (along with the printing press in London) in the development of humanism and the classical revival. Education was conducted in Latin and focused on the seven classical liberal arts — grammar, logic, rhetoric, math, music, astronomy, and geometry — along with history, philosophy, ethics, and poetry. While Shakespeare never attended university, many of his contemporaries did — including Christopher Marlowe, an alumnus of Christ’s College at Cambridge.
Playmaking had its place at the university, too, as Shakespeare mentions in Hamlet.
Hamlet. No, nor mine now. My lord, you play’d once i’ th’ university, you say?
Polonius. That did I, my lord, and was accounted a good actor.
Hamlet. What did you enact?
Polonius. I did enact Julius Caesar; I was kill’d i’ th’ Capitol; Brutus kill’d me.
Hamlet. It was a brute part of him to kill so capital a calf there. Be the players ready.
Much of our information about early modern theatre comes not from the public playhouses but from the universities, as they were often better at preserving documents, including scripts and actors’ parts.
We’ll begin our scholastic sojourn at King’s College, founded by King Henry VI — subject of three of Shakespeare’s plays — in 1441. Famous alumni of King’s include Robert Walpole (the first British Prime Minister), Alan Turing, John Maynard Keynes, George Santayana, and many famous writers, including Salman Rushdie, E. M. Forster, and Zadie Smith.
With its enormous fan vault, stained-glass windows, and elaborate wooden chancel screen, the King’s College Chapel is one of the finest examples of English Gothic architecture. King Henry VI began work on the chapel in 1446. Construction was slowed, however, and eventually halted by the Wars of the Roses. When King Henry was deposed in 1461, the walls were only half-finished. King Richard III resumed construction during his short reign, stating that “the building should go on with all possible despatch.” Henry VII took up the job in 1508. Each time construction restarted, builders had to use stone from a different source, resulting in a visible line between the older, lighter stone and the newer, darker stone (much like that we Americans are familiar with on the Washington Monument).
The interior of the chapel was finally completed under King Henry VIII, who added the wooden screen in celebration of his marriage to Anne Boleyn. To put their own stamp — quite literally — on a project begun by a deposed predecessor, Henrys VII and VIII added Tudor rose embellishments throughout the chapel. Be sure to look for these during our visit!
Our collegiate tour continues at the Wren Library of Trinity College. Though founded in 1546 by King Henry VIII, Trinity’s importance stretches for centuries both before and after. Henry VIII actually formed Trinity out of two older schools: King’s Hall, founded by Edward II, and Michaelhouse, a smaller and less wealthy school. Today, at over 1000 undergraduates, grad students, and fellows, Trinity is the largest college at either Oxford or Cambridge. Alumni include Francis Bacon (once a popular focus of Shakespeare authorship conspiracies), Isaac Newton, John Dryden, Lord Byron, several Prime Ministers, a host of Nobel Prize winners, and HRH The Prince of Wales. Much of the famous architecture dates to the late 17th-century, including that of the Wren Library, designed by Christopher Wren. Those of you who were with us in 2013 saw St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, also designed by Wren (and Virginians may be familiar with his work here in America, as the oldest building at the College of William and Mary is also his design).
The Wren Library boasts over 1250 medieval manuscripts and over 70,000 books printed before 1800, including an eighth-century manuscript of the Epistles of St. Paul, a 14th-century manuscript of The Vision of Piers Plowman, Isaac Newton’s 1659-1661 notebook and a first edition of his Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica, where he set out his laws of motion and gravity, and the Capell collection of early Shakespeare quartos.
Speaking of Isaac Newton: not only was he an alumnus of Trinity College, but a tree on its grounds is said to be the one which inspired his theory of gravity (or a grafted descendant of the original arboreal muse). Unfortunately, the story is apocryphal, as Newton was likely not living in Cambridge, but in Lincolnshire at the time of his inspiration — but, as Shakespeare knew, sometimes true history needs a little legendary embellishment! The tree is located beneath the window where Newton lived and studied while he was at Trinity.
University life wasn’t, however, all work and no play. Students had a less-than-glorious reputation in the early modern era. Various plays of the period portray university students as profligate spendthrifts, always writing home for money, and as drunken debauchers, enjoying a life of little restriction, far from their homes. Shakespeare tells us as much through Vincentio in The Taming of the Shrew, who laments:
“While I play the good husband at home, my son and my servant spend all at the university.”
Some early modern writers also noted the pompous airs that university students put on, as in Thomas Middleton’s A Chaste Maid in Cheapside, where Tim, recently returned from Cambridge, disdainfully insists his mother call him ‘Timotheus’. He gets comeuppance for his snobbery when he speaks in Latin to his intended wife, the Welsh Gentlewoman (actually a knight’s cast-off mistress), who, thinking he cannot speak English, tries speaking back to him in Welsh, and whereupon he takes her for “a good scholar.”
We’ll have a taste of traditional Cambridge entertainment when we go punting on the Cam. If you were with us in 2013, you’ll remember our adventure on the Isis at Oxford (picture at left). From what I gather, the River Cam is wider, shallower, and boasts far fewer obstacles in the way of overhanging trees and snarled underwater thickets.
Cambridge will be the last stop of our trip, and we’ll cap the day off with a fine feast of which any starving undergraduate would be envious.
Next time on the NKSC Preview: Northumberland, home of Hotspur and Hadrian’s Wall.
And remember — you can still register to join us!