Ludi Magister: the play of Tudor school and stage
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The humanist teaching of rhetoric in early Tudor grammar schools employed dramatic play in several forms, inculcating habits of artful impersonation broadly and deeply across English culture. The Tudor pedagogy of play thus stimulated social mobility by advancing the principle that a convincing performance is a truer indicator of social worth than the titles of official authority or inherited privilege. This ludic teaching also enlivened the study of literature and promoted dramatic writing, and made learning and the cost of knowledge central themes in early modern English drama. Evidence for these conclusions comes primarily from school texts, and from the dramatic writings and life records of three playmakers closely associated with humanist schooling: Henry Medwall, John Rastell, and Nicholas Udall. School texts, particularly conversational phrases (vulgaria) and dialogues (colloquia), scripted daily rehearsals of a broad range of social roles, beginning in a boy’s earliest years in school. The audacious tone of many of these texts leavened the rigor of learning classical Latin, and they encouraged a meritocratic optimism about social rising, tempered by an ironic irreverence about human folly and social pretensions. Over the period 1485-1550, we observe three stages of development in Tudor schooling and its effects in society and drama: an early expression of meritocratic ideals in the career and drama of Henry Medwall, for whom vi learning was a route to honorable service; a full flowering of humanist optimism in John Rastell, whose work advances the New Learning beyond the schools into the enterprising life of the citizen; and finally a disillusioned and ironized critique of humanist promises in the work of schoolmaster-playwright Nicholas Udall.