Though we often think of modernism as the point at which artistic creation and the role of the artist-poet in society really became a major consideration of artistic work (exemplified by Wallace Stevens’s ‘Of Modern Poetry’), it was, in fact, during the Renaissance that this trend was first developed. Rogier van der Weyden’s Saint Luke Drawing the Virgin (right, c. 1445-50) is a perfect example of this motif, with van der Weyden’s painting bringing to the fore the idea of artistic creativity. The same can be said of Vermeer’s The Art of Painting (below left, 1666), a self-portrait of Vermeer painting an allegorical figure, possibly the Muse of History. As Walter Liedtke suggested, the painting can be read ‘as a virtuoso display of the artist's power of invention and execution…’ We can also see this focus on artistic creation as a theme in the poetry of the Elizabethan sonneteers, with Astrophel and Stella’s opening sonnet considering the difficulties of writing innovative verse. Still, the main focus of the sequence is not art itself – though it contemplates the ideas of artistic creation and convention, the sequence is mainly concentrated on love and desire. The Parnassus Plays, alongside the plays of the Poetomachia, were the first set of plays wholly devoted to the idea of writing as their central subject. As Paula Glatzer argues, the trilogy is ‘an Elizabethan embodiment of the eternal conflict between an artist and his society.’ But whilst the aforementioned paintings emphasise the dignity and importance of the artist in society, The Parnassus Plays, written at the turn of the century by Johnian students, focus more on the difficulties faced by scholar-poets. The trilogy moves from an almost naïve idealization of the accumulation of knowledge, to a highly pessimistic depiction of a cruel society, with the final two plays dominated by harsh realism and stinging satire. It is this progression from idealism to realism that holds the trilogy together and makes it such a relevant text to both students and artists today.
The first play is by far the most idealistic of the three. It begins with Consiliodorus counselling Philomusus and Studioso before they set out on their voyage to Parnassus, an allegory for embarking on their university studies. Consiliodorus speaks from ‘experience’ when he urges them on their voyage, lucidly depicting an idealised vision of Parnassus: ‘Where with sweet Nectar you youre vaines may fill, / … And teache them write some sweeter poetrie…’ Consiliodorus explains that, if he were young, he would make the voyage, even though he ‘foreknewe that gold runns to the boore’ – as he says, he would ‘be a scholler though I liue but poore.’ This is the central theme of the entire trilogy – that intellect will not bring worldly goods, and that scholars are largely condemned to poverty (‘Learninge and pouertie will euer kiss’). This is indeed a realist depiction of the scholar-poet’s struggle, and yet, for Consiliodorus, this is no reason for abandoning the scholarly life – rather, the problem is with society itself, ‘That knoweth not howe to weigh youre worthiness.’ As Glatzer argues, ‘if artistic values are superior, then society and its material rewards are things that the true Parnassian must transcend.’ Consiliodorus urges the scholars to go to ‘that pure and happie springe’ and then ‘Returne triumphant with youre laurel boughes…’
These are indeed glorified visions of learning and poetry, visions that will later be challenged by the failed scholar-poets and poetasters encountered during the voyage, the very ‘lozell, lazie, loitering gromes, / All foggie sleepers, and all idle lumps’ that Consiliodorus warned them against. The first tempter they encounter is Madido (‘moist one’), a drunkard who has abandoned his voyage in the land of logic in favour of wine and the poetry he believes that alcohol can inspire. Though Madido is a comic character and an antagonist, we are charmed by his effective use of simple diction set in rhythmic prose. We must also remember that this was first performed for students, who must have experienced similar temptations. And when Madido complains of patrons with ‘asses ears’ and claims that ‘This Parnassus and Hellicon are but the fables of the poetes,’ we cannot help but agree. Still, Philomusus and Studioso remain steadfast in their resolution, rejecting alcohol for ‘learnings glorious meede’. The second character they meet is Stupido, a much less persuasive character. Whilst Studioso says that he ‘neuer sawe a more delicious earth… Then here is in this lande of Rhetorique,’ the puritan Stupido condemns ‘these vaine artes of Rhetorique, Poetrie, and Philosophie.’ Stupido is an archetypal version of the satirized puritan figure, pompous, repetitious, arrogant, and generally ignorant. For example, the only argument he has for art’s immorality is the outlandish clothing of poets: ‘Artistes [are] fools, and that you may know by there vndecent apparell.’ This exchange, then, partially links to Sidney’s Defence of Poesy in that the author of The Pilgrimage is defending poetry against puritanical accusations of immorality. The real reason for Stupido’s puritanical rage, Philomusus reveals, is not his morals, but that fact that ‘he cannot reach vnto the artes’ and thus ‘Makes showe as though he would neglect’ them.
The next two failed scholar-poets that the protagonists encounter are Amoretto and Ingenioso, met in the land of poetry and the land of philosophy respectively. Amoretto enters reading verses from Ovid and seems to personify the argument against poetry that Sidney referred to when he described ‘how much it abuseth men’s wit, training it to wanton sinfulness and lustful love…’ Amoretto has made the error of believing that love and lust are the only subjects for real poetry – it is in poetry, Amoretto says, that they shall ‘all youre hungrie sences feaste…’ The two scholar-poets are tempted by Amoretto, who eloquently tempts them towards ‘wantome merriments’. These temptations are so strong that Philomusus speeches tend towards the more sensuous rhetoric of Amoretto, particularly when he says: ‘Phoebus hath laid his golden tressed locks / In the moist cabinet of Thetis lapp.’ And yet, with the opening of Act V, the two seem unsatisfied with these ‘yonge maides’, as Studioso says: ‘Howe sourelie sweete is melting venerie: / It yealdeth honie, but it straighte doth stinge.’ This leads Studioso to abandon the realm of poetry altogether, and this is precisely what Sidney warns against in his Defence – the danger of rejecting all poetry simply because of a few ‘entisinge Panders, subtile baudes’. But Philomusus refutes Studioso’s argument, picking up on the Sidneian rationale that ‘who reades poets with a chaster minde / Shall nere infected be by poesie.’ Like Sidney, the playwright suggests the greatest threat to poetry comes from those who abuse it from within.
The two protagonists’ final encounter is with Ingenioso, who agrees with Consiliodorus that ‘Learninge and pouertie will euer kiss’. And yet, whilst Consiliodorus saw this as a matter of Stoic acceptance, valuing learning above material wealth, Ingenioso lures Philomusus and Studioso from their path because ‘Parnassus is out of siluer…’ This final act prepares us for the succeeding two plays, with Ingenioso describing how ‘Apollo is banckroute’ whilst ‘tapsters, ostlers, carters, and cobblers haue a fominge pauch.’ But the protagonists reject Ingenioso’s complaints, declaring that, though they ‘knowe that scholers comonlie be poore / And that the dull worlde there good partes neglecte,’ they still ‘thinke not worse of faire Parnassus hill’. This stoic acceptance and idealised conception of intellectual value is admirable, but Ingenioso’s final words are nonetheless prophetic: ‘Farewell, and take heede I take youe not napping twentie yeares henc in a vicars seate… or els interpreting Pueriles Confabulationes to a companie of seauen years olde apes.’ The play ends with a beautiful description of Parnassus, a ‘laurell shadie groue’ where they shall ‘heare the Muses tunefull harmonie.’ Thus, the first play of the trilogy presents those failed scholar-poets who could not stomach the voyage to Parnassus as the real antagonists, whilst Philomusus and Studioso persevere in their idealism despite temptation and the realist knowledge that learning will not lead to material wealth. They follow Consiliodorus’s advice, and end the play with a sense of pure optimism.
This hopefulness, though, is shattered at the start of the first part of The Return. As Glatzer says, the plays progress in ‘increasing disillusionment’ and this opening demonstrates the start of that progression. The playwright of the Pilgrimage is said to have been made ‘a staide man’ whose ‘looke was neuer sanguine since that daye,’ a meta-theatrical demonstration of the play’s major theme – the suffering of the scholar-poet. And yet, there is still, arguably, a sense of idealism in the opening, even if the play demonstrates the increased insignificance of the scholar-poet in society. For example, the stagekeeper tells the audience ‘Our muses praise depends not on thy breath.’ This daringly suggests that the play has artistic merit independent of audience approval, and thus it is, perhaps, a writer’s proud rejection of societal appreciation in general. Still, the majority of the play is pessimistic about the role of the scholar-poet and the difficulties facing him. The play depicts Studioso and Philomusus once they have left Parnassus and entered the real world. Whilst the first play was a tension between the scholar-poets and those that tempted them away from their course, the two Return plays dramatize the tensions between the scholar-poet and society, only briefly alluded to in the previous play. Hence, Ingenioso, who previously emphasised this tension in the Pilgrimage but was dismissed as a ‘wilie knaue’, becomes one of the major protagonists in this sequel and is greeted as an old friend.
The most obvious change in tone comes in Consiliodorus. Though he was previously aware that wealth and learning do not go hand in hand, he seems now to believe that the value of learning is not enough in itself. As he says: ‘Hencforthe let none be sent by carefull syres, / Nor sonns nor kinred, to Parnassus hill, / Since waywarde fortune thus rewardes our coste / With discontent, theire paines with pouertie.’ Consiliodorus, Philomusus, and Studioso have realized, in the words of Glatzer, that ‘Parnassus may, after all, not suffice.’ Thus, each of them addresses this problem in a different way: Ingenioso turns to satire, even if that means abandoning his poetic principles (‘Foole I to angell in a misers mudd, / But hope of gould did make mee guilde this woode’); Philomusus becomes a sexton; and Studioso becomes a tutor, as Ingenioso prophesized. But even in abandoning their scholarly and poetic principles, all three protagonists struggle. Philomusus and Studioso lose their dignity, and later lose their employment, whilst Ingenioso (often compared to Nashe) struggles to find patronage, and is only given ‘two groates’ for his pamphlet – it is worth noting that Nashe, too, had difficulty finding patronage. Ingenioso’s interactions with Gullio dramatize the poet’s dilemma in dealing with patrons who are unable to appreciate artistic merit when they see it – Gullio condemns both Chaucer and Spenser, whilst praising Shakespeare at length who, at that time, was considered a relatively low-brow romantic poet rather than the great bard we think of today. Still, despite Gullio’s ignorance, Ingenioso needs the money: ‘My pen is youre bounden vassall to comande,’ he tells him obsequiously.
It’s not long, though, before all three are left poverty-stricken and out of work. Ingenioso has been dismissed by Gullio as a ‘Base, base, base, peasant’ for telling the truth about Gullio’s mistress; Studioso was kicked out of his role as tutor for being proud; and Philomusus was replaced for negligence. But, whilst, as Glatzer points out, ‘Philomusus and Studioso’s social battle with the worldlings is debilitating,’ Ingenioso’s is, to some extent, ‘exhilerating’. Philomusus constantly laments and complains, attacking Studioso for his stoicism: ‘Why, can a man be galde by pouertie, free spirits subiected to base fortune, and put it vp like a Stoick.’ Ingenioso, on the other hand, retains his spiritual superiority over others, explaining that he would ‘rather liue in pouertie / Than be tormented with the tedious tales / Of Gullios wench and of his luxuries…’ He is, according to Glatzer, determined ‘to exact literary vengeance on his social opponent, to use his verse for the purpose of abusing the patron.’ Thus, he says, ‘For Gullios sake Ile proue a Satyrist.’ This, again, is arguably another meta-theatrical comment in that the play itself is a satire, and the protagonist is praised as a satirist. Indeed, Glatzer even says that the literary moral of the Return plays is that ‘satire is the price a society must pay for disdaining its artists.’ Thus, the second part of the trilogy ends with Ingenioso more prepared for the real world than Philomusus and Studioso. He explains: ‘Well, fawne the worlde, or frowne, my wit maintaine mee: / The press shall keepe mee from base beggarie’. Conversely, Studioso and Philomusus head off ‘To Rome or Rhems’ and bid farewell to this ‘heard hearted clyme’. And so, we have seen in these first two plays the progression of Philomusus and Studioso from scholars yearning for an idealised sense of knowledge and intellect, to debased scholar-poets trying to make their way in a society that does not appreciate their wit. Though they knew all along that intellect does not lead to wealth, they now begin to doubt the value of intellect in itself.
The third play takes this realism to a new extreme, with the scholar-poets now pleading with members of the monied middle classes, the ‘new men’ of Elizabethan England. Ingenioso appeals first to Danter, the notoriously licentious printer, sacrificing his artistic principles in writing a shameless pamphlet which he knows will sell well, and then appeals to a trio of ignorant private patrons; Academico sues for pastoral preferment from Sir Raderick and Amoretto; and Philomusus and Studioso, the once idealistic pilgrims from Parnassus, pose as physicians and cony catchers. They have, by this point, completely abandoned Consiliodorus’ principle of self-integrity, most evident when Philomusus says to Studioso: ‘But lets leaue this capping of rimes… let vs run through all the lewd formes of lime-twig purloyning villaynes, let vs proue Cony-catchers, Baudes, or any thing, so we may rub out.’ They even begin to despise the very learning they acquired at Cambridge, with Philomusus saying that ‘if any of the hidebound brethren of Cambridge and Oxforde… that abused vs in times past… become our patients, wee’l alter quite the stile of them…’ Like Ingenioso in his vow to attack the society that has neglected his art, so Philomusus and Studioso are determined to revenge their maltreatment by whatever means. By this point, as Glatzer argues, ‘Their recent worldly exploits have cursed them with the knowledge of social evil, and in The Second Return they descend ever further, and choose, cynically, to experience evil.’ When these exploits fail them, they descend even further, attempting to become professional actors (‘mimick apes’ and ‘glorious vagabonds’) – a profession scorned at the universities.
It is, arguably, at this point that our sympathy for Philomusus and Studioso begins to dwindle. Of course, we pity their predicament, but their complete abandonment of their principles certainly puts them at a distance from the audience. Glatzer eloquently writes: ‘Not only do they abuse the world on its own terms, playing the false physician and tutor; they also pervert their own artistic values by co-opting with Burbage and Kempe, and then by fiddling for Sir Barbarism’s patronage.’ Whilst they frequently demand sympathy from the audience as rejected Parnassians (‘To beare too long argues an asses kinde’), they also take part in society’s own Machiavellian schemes. Thus, the play ends in complete pessimism, with no real persuasive argument for the worth of the arts. The final scene shows all the scholar-poets encountering one another again, all having abandoned their previous attempts at accumulating wealth. Philomusus explains that they ‘haue run through many trades, and thriue by / Poore in content’ and are now intent on a Spenserian shepherd’s life. Ingenioso and his companions are fleeing to the ‘Ile of Dogges’ to ‘vext breath in snarling wast’, having been apprehended for their slanderous satire (again, recalling Nashe and his lost play). As Studioso remarks, ‘well thou dost from this fond earth to flit, / Where most mens pens are hired parasites.’ Academico, on the other hand, will return to his cell in Cambridge, even though it is a ‘melancholick life’. Thus the play ends in utterly pessimistic realism, ‘discontent’ because ‘few schollers fortunes are content’.
And so, the plays begin with a knowledge that wealth and learning are mutually exclusive, but with learning valued above material wealth. It is only when they get into the real world that they realise how naïve they had been in thinking they could survive on knowledge alone. In the new capitalist world emerging in the late 16th Century, one needed more than just knowledge to get by. As Glatzer notes: ‘The harsh but unavoidable conclusion of the Parnassus Plays [withdrawal to the countryside] is that there is no legitimate secular place for the artist in society.’ In a sense then, the two Return plays can be seen as a response to both the Pilgrimage play and also Club Law (1599), a play performed at Clare Hall in which Cambridge civilians are forced to accept the university scholars as superior. The Return plays seem to refute the idealism of the Pilgrimage whilst also rejecting the optimism of Club Law. The ideal view that the scholar’s knowledge surpasses all material wealth and that the scholar will triumph over citizens, the Return plays suggest, is simply untenable, not only because Cambridge is not representative of the realities of the wide world, but also because the premises of the two plays are based wholly on a false and idealistic romanticising of knowledge. Thus, though it may be somewhat unsavoury for the modern audience, the Parnassus Plays seem to reveal the naivety of young scholars and demonstrate the severe difficulties they will face once they leave Parnassus. Perhaps, the plays seem to suggest, the voyage to Parnassus is not really worth it – perhaps Ingenioso was right all along.