Main Page | See live article | Alphabetical index

The Three Parnassus Plays

The Three Parnassus Plays were three plays produced at St. John's, Cambridge, as part of the college's Christmas entertainments in the years at the latter end of the 16th century. Authorship of the plays is uncertain, nor is it known if they were all the work of the same man/men. John Weever has been suggested as author of the first play; the satirist Joseph Hall has been seen as an influence, and possible author, in the other two.

The first play appeared in 1598. Its proper title is The Pigrimage to Parnassus, and it tells the story of two boys, Philomusus and Studioso, who set off with high hopes to study at Cambridge. The later plays - The Returne to Parnassus (I)(1599) and its sequel The Returne to Parnassus (II)(1602) - develop this theme, showing what happens to the increasingly disillusioned students after they leave Cambridge and try to get jobs.

The Return to Parnassus (II) is the most accomplished work of the three, containing more characters, varied scenes and sharper dialogue. It was popular enough to be printed in 1606, going through two editions. It has long been of interest to literary historians as it contains comments on the work of William Shakespeare, whose poetry is rather patronizingly praised, and a scene where the two students audition for jobs in an acting company before characters called Burbage and Kemp.

The two earlier plays were not known until Rev. W. D. Macray, the librarian at the Bodleian Library in Oxford, discovered them amongst the manuscript collection of Thomas Hearne. He brought out the complete comic trilogy in 1868.