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William Gager: The Complete Works.

This edition seems to me exactly the sort of thing that Stephen Orgel's series on the Renaissance Imagination is designed to make possible: a complete edition of an important but not well known English dramatist, poet, and pamphleteer whose works have never been collected in this way and indeed have been largely unavailable in modern print till now. Add to that the fact that Gager wrote in Latin, and our situation heretofore seems even more precarious: much of Gager could be read even in major research libraries only in rare book collections or on microfilm, and untranslated. Work was begun earlier by C.F. Tucker Brooke at Yale and then by J.W. Binns at York, but with a considerable amount left still unedited. Now we have facing page translations of the entire corpus, along with illuminating introductions and helpfully extensive commentary that focuses on allusions, sources, textual difficulties, and dramaturgy but not literary interpretation.

Editing has not posed inordinately complex problems, since most of the works exist in single early printed editions or in a personal notebook Gager used to preserve his unpublished work, but in any event the editor and translator, Dana Sutton, has been faithful to the originals. The editor discusses specific textual issues in the introductory material to each work. He has taken a sensible and moderate approach to modernizing his texts by adopting modern usage of u/v, j/i, the long s, ligatures, diacritical marks, capitalization, abbreviation, punctuation, etc., but preserving a number of Gager's Renaissance Latin spellings and some other features that seem genuinely a part of his style. The translations aim at utilitarian, prosaic accuracy.

William Gager lived through the great age of the English Renaissance, from 1555 to 1622. Many of those years were spent at Christ Church, Oxford. Francis Meres lists him, along with William Shakespeare, among "our best for comedy." Anthony A. Wood, William Vaughan, Richard Hakluyt and others rank him among the great poets of the Renaissance and indeed of the classical period. Even though he certainly did not deserve such glowing praise as that, Gager was, in Dana Sutton's opinion, arguably "the best Latin playwright of the Tudor period" (I.v). His plays often served to entertain visiting dignitaries at Oxford. He was chosen to edit a commemorative volume of Oxford poems honoring Sir Philip Sidney. He was a great defender of the theater. Along with his Cambridge contemporary, Thomas Legge, whose Latin tragedy of Richardus Tertius was performed at St. John's College in 1580, Gager stands as the most prolific and noted writer of humanist neoclassical drama and poetry in his day.

Gager never wavered in his view that educated English authors like himself should scale the slopes of Mount Parnassus by writing in Latin and thereby enter into the great literary empyrean of Seneca, Ovid, Virgil, Horace, and Cicero. He never tried his hand at anything like Roister Doister or Gammer Gurton's Needle, as Tucker Brooke has observed (I.xiii). Though proud to write for English audiences, Gager chose rigorously classical subjects. His first major tragedy, Meleager, was twice publicly acted at Christ Church, first in 1582 and then three years later in honor of a visit by the Earls of Leicester and Pembroke and Sir Philip Sidney. Based on Ovid's account in Book VIII of the Metamorphoses, it focuses on the story of the Calydonian boar, Meleager's love for Atalanta, his quarrel with his uncles, and his mother Althaea's determination to throw the burning brand that controls the span of Meleager's life into the fire. Meleager's royal father, Oeneus, becomes a major character, peevishly foolish in his failure to propitiate Diana with prayers (thereby setting in motion the tragedy) and a raving suicide when he learns of the deaths of his son and queen. Oeneus thus illustrates classical precepts about a common type of tragic figure: "quo quis superbus extulit sese altius, / hoc graviusille ac foedius subito ruit," "The higher a proud man raises himself, the harder and more shamefully he falls" (76-77). The style and dramaturgy are of course Senecan, laden with sententious utterances like the one just quoted, composed of long speeches, observing the decorums of the classical unities and the reporting of offstage violence through the dialogue. The choruses sum up in Senecan fashion what we are to make of the play's depiction of human passion, especially the suffering unleashed when a woman's menacing rages are aroused (Chorus to Act IV, 134-35). The verse forms are admirably subtle, and are well identified in this edition as anapestic dimeters, Sapphic hendecasyllables, Adonics, iambic tetrameters, and the like.

Other plays by Gager in a similarly neoclassical vein include Rivales, 1583, a comedy on rustic wooing that is now lost except for two prologues and a few fragments; a fragmentary unpublished Oedipus (early 1580s); Dido, 1583, adapted from Virgil and with suggestive hints of analogies to Elizabeth as a chaste queen who is piously fit to govern (though Dido dies as a chaste widow, not a virgin); Ulysses Redux, 1592, a tragicomic retelling of the second half of the Odyssey that focuses on the suitors' unwelcome attempts to win the hand of Penelope; and some added scenes for a production of Seneca's Hippolytus at Christ Church in 1592, restoring some of the divine machinery that Seneca had eliminated in his reworking of Euripides' play. The plays' interest in dominating and sometimes raging women - Althaea, Dido, Phaedra - has occasioned some speculation on Gager as a misogynist, especially since some of his notebook poetry seems to attest to Platonic homosexuality (I.xvii), but the evidence is contradictory and complex. Sutton sensibly leaves the matter at that, though he does wonder repeatedly about what he takes to be "something approaching an obsessive interest in the theme of chastity" (II.188).

Gager's published poems deal with public issues like the assassination attempts on Elizabeth in 1584 and 1586, for which he wrote odes of thankful deliverance and vitriolic attacks on the would-be assassins; Sidney's death in 1587; the death of the Queen in 1603; the visit to Oxford in 1613 of Prince Charles and Frederick the Elector Palatine, before his marriage to Charles's sister Elizabeth; and the like (III.6 ff.). Gager dedicated his Pyramis (Pyramid) to King James in celebration of the King's having survived the Gunpowder Plot of 5 November 1605 (IV.133-97). More personal poems emerge from Gager's circle of friendship at Oxford, though even these poems adopt the Horatian persona of one who urges sensible men to marry or observes that the pains of the mind are greater than those of the body (III.124-27). Some attest to Gager's strong belief that classical learning is empty without a pious faith in Christ (e.g., III.134-37). One lengthy poem bestows an epithet such as might be read out at graduation exercises on each of the canons and M.A. students enrolled in Christ Church in 1583 (III.170-83). We can savor here the parochialisms of the academic life. A little epistolary prose in English is preserved, notably a letter in 1592 to Dr. John Rainolds, who had had the temerity to deplore stage plays.

All in all, one suspects that Gager's reputation rests today more with his plays than with his poems. Though they cannot be shown to have had much influence on English drama, the plays do attest to a lively interest in theater at the universities and a humanist commitment to classical conceptions of tragedy, comedy, and tragicomedy. Meleager, probably Gager's best, has some inventive daring in its characterization that is not unlike the more Senecan portions of Gorboduc.

This worthy edition has its limits. Literary interpretation is not Dana Sutton's strong suit; the literary judgments he offers from time to time seem to me naive and old-fashioned (like comparing Gager's Atalanta to P.G. Wodehouse's Honoria Glossip, 1.30). Fortunately they do not occupy a central place in what this edition accomplishes. The proofreading is at times careless. The cost of these volumes (see headnote to this review) will militate against individual ownership even by many scholars in the field; this is likely to be, in the main, a library edition. Still, in that capacity it will be a substantial improvement over what we have had till now. We have reason to be grateful to Dana Sutton and to Stephen Orgel for this valuable resource.

DAVID BEVINGTON University of Chicago
COPYRIGHT 1996 Renaissance Society of America
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Author:Bevington, David
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 1996
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