Parnassus Plays is the name given to a group of three satiric comedies produced between 1598 and 1602 by students of St John’s College, Cambridge. It consists of The Pilgrimage to Parnassus and The Return from Parnassus and The Return from Parnassus Or the Scourage of Simony. The second and third plays are sometimes referred to as Part One and Part Two of The Return from Parnassus. Authorship has not been established, but they seem to be the work of two dramatists, unusually writing academic drama in English rather than Latin (or even Greek), as was more common. They have been attributed to John Day and, more recently, to John Weever of Queen’s and Joseph Hall.
Parnassus Plays aim at setting forth the wretched state of scholars and the small respect paid to learning by the world at large. The first play, The Pilgrimage to Parnassus, describes the progress of the two students, Philomusus and Studioso through the university courses of logic, rhetoric, etc., and the temptations that are set before them by their meeting with Madido, a drunkard, Stupido, a puritan who hates learning, Amoretto, a lover, and Ingenioso, a disappointed student. The Return from Parnassus deals with the struggles of the two students after the completion of their studies at the university and shows them discovering by the bitter experience of how little pecuniary value their learning is. In the second play a fool, Gullio, quotes from Venus and Adonis and Romeo and Juliet and exclaims, ‘O sweet Master Shakespeare! I’ll have his picture in my study at the court.’ The play contains the earliest known parody of Shakespearian verse, written in the rhyme-royal stanza form of Lucrece. They are full of allusions to contemporary literature and drama. In the third, more satirical, section Richard Burbage and Will Kemp audition recent students for places in their company, using Richard III’s opening soliloquy as a test piece, and the students are shown on their way to London, learning how to catch a patron or cheat a tradesman, and following menial occupations. Eventually, discouraged, they ‘return’ to Cambridge. The plays were first published together in 1886 and edited by J. B. Leishman (1949).
Also read; The Lucy Poems by William Wordsworth