In celebration of the centenary of its founding in 1911, the Elizabethan Club at Yale has acquired “A tragedy called Oedipus.” Written in a single secretary hand, corrected, the manuscript contains the text of a school drama on the life of Oedipus written mainly in fourteener couplets.
The work was apparently intended for performance by the pupils of a grammar school. The final two leaves of the volume contain, in the same hand as the rest of the manuscript, “A speach deliverd before the founders at the entrance of the schole.” This speech refers to the Selby family, who were prominent in Newcastle upon Tyne and Berwick upon Tweed.
From Act 2, scene 1 forward (fol. 24r), the play incorporates nearly verbatim much of Alexander Neville’s verse translation of Seneca’s Oedipus, first published in 1563 and reprinted in Thomas Newton’s Seneca His Tenne Tragedies (1581). The play concludes, from Act 4, scene 4 forward (fol. 61 v), with extracts from a translation of Seneca’s Thebais made by Newton for the same 1581 volume. There is much original material in the lengthy first act, which involves the youth of the hero, his conquest of the Sphinx, and the attempt of Nature to dissuade Oedipus from slaying Jocasta (fol. 58v and following).
The tune of the song contained on fol. 6r corresponds to the melody of a consort song, “My little sweet darling,” attributed in British Library Additional MS. 17786-91 to William Byrd, but now considered doubtful. The play includes a second verse specific to the play’s dramatic situation (“Thy parents, sweet infant, to me an unknown,” etc.). The burden or refrain music on the previous page, fol. 5v. (“Be, babie, be”) is unique.
The front pastedown of the manuscript bears the armorial bookplate, dated 1715, of John Perceval (1683-1748), first earl of Egmont, politician and diarist. The manuscript was purchased at auction in Ireland in the mid-1950s by James Stevens-Cox, F.S.A. (1910-97). In 1960 “A tragedy called Oedipus” was the subject of a research seminar led by Glynne Wickham at the University of Bristol, and it has been described in a recent article by Martin Wiggins in the Times Literary Supplement(July 1, 2011, No. 5648, p. 14). It has not otherwise been studied.
The transcription of the manuscript is based on an original prepared in 1960 for Stevens-Cox by Ivor P. Collis, FSA (1916–1979), County Archivist of Somerset, 1946–1978, and Derek M. M. Shorrocks, MA, FSA (1924–2001), County Archivist of Somerset, 1978–1988. The transcription of the song was prepared by Judith Malafronte, Lecturer in the Institute of Sacred Music and the Department of Music at Yale.