“As it was plaied before the Queenes Maiestie this Christmas …”
That is, before Elizabeth I, Christmas 1599.
In trying to find a College Library item related in some way to Christmas, which is not Victorian or later, I discovered Eton’s copy of The pleasant comedie of Old Fortunatus by the playwright and pamphleteer Thomas Dekker (c. 1572-1632). Details about Dekker’s life are somewhat sketchy and mostly come from his own writings. He was possibly of Dutch descent and lived in London all of his life. His writing betrays that he probably had the benefit of a grammar school education, being well versed in the classics, English literature, and the work of contemporaries (ODNB).
The pleasant comedie of Old Fortunatus is an example of Dekker’s early plays, being one of seven listed by Philip Henslowe’s diary before 1602. It is thought that eventually Dekker had a part in the writing of over 40 plays. The 1600 edition was revised for performance in front of the Queen from Dekker’s 1599 The whole history of Fortunatus, which was (according to his diary) originally written for Henslowe and his company, The Admiral’s Men, but may never have actually been performed before the alterations were made. The play ends in an appeal to Elizabeth I from the stage to decide the victor in a sub-plot, perhaps ensuring its success at court (Halstead, 1939).
“Fort[une]: Thou art too insolent, see here’s a court
Of mortall Judges, lets by them be tride,
Which of us three shall most be defied.
Vice: I am content.
Fortune: And I.
Vert[ue]: So am not I.
My Judge shall be your sacred deity.”
The Eton College copy was part of the Anthony Storer bequest and so came to Eton in 1800. Some copies of this edition are missing leaf E2, which is possibly a deliberate cancel relating to the fall of the Earl of Essex (National Trust libraries catalogue). The Library’s copy is one of these, but the missing text has been copied in manuscript and tipped-in at the correct point. This was done before it came to the College but I cannot be sure exactly when. Eton College Library also holds 17 more first or early editions of plays authored (at least in part) by Thomas Dekker, including some of his most famous, The shoemakers holiday, The honest whore, and The witch of Edmonton.
Eton College Library wishes you all a Merry Christmas and will have more to come in the New Year.
By Louise Anderson, @LibrarianLCA