Plays, Poems & New Writing Story

The Queen’s Arcadia returns home to Oxford

  Why the Christ Church dining hall will be the chosen setting for Samuel Daniel’s rarely performed play

4 minute read

Our Read Not Dead series sees actors and audience share in the excitement of reviving a forgotten plays that deserves to be remembered. A special event in Oxford this month forms part of the season, and will bring theatre specialists together in a live research-in-action approach to Samuel Daniel’s The Queen’s Arcadia.

Here, Read Not Dead Academic Advisor Dr Elizabeth Sandis, shares the backstory of this special play and project.

A long table set for dinner in an old, wooden hall

The banqueting hall at Christ Church, Oxford. Photo by Simon Mumenthaler, from Unsplash.

‘The Read Not Dead project had already breathed new life into hundreds of modern English plays.’

In 2014 I met Dr. Farah Karim-Cooper (Head of Higher Education & Research at Shakespeare’s Globe) at a seminar and she was intrigued to hear about the university plays I was working on. She invited me to come to the Globe and talk to her colleagues – that’s how I met the wonderful Read Not Dead team.

Eighteen months later, once I had submitted my DPhil thesis and normal life could resume (normal being a relative term – I make no claims), I began a series of meetings with Patrick Spottiswoode, the Director of Globe Education, to pin down which university plays we’d like to stage. The Read Not Dead project had already breathed new life into hundreds of early modern English plays (many of which I would never have had the chance to see otherwise).

The University of Oxford, England, UK. Photo by Sidharth Bhatia, from Unsplash.

‘Love stories of shepherds and nymphs are disrupted by jealousy, suspicion, and tragic fashion sense.’

This would be the first time that the focus would fall on Oxford and Cambridge drama, a rich source of theatrical treasures. Having spent the last four years researching university plays for my doctorate, I knew there would be many to choose from. So the question was: which one to begin with?

Portrait of James I of England by Daniël Mijtens, 1621. From the book The National Portrait Gallery History of the Kings and Queens of England by David Williamson. Photo from Wikimedia.

I drew up a shortlist (then an even shorter list) and we selected a play that could be staged in its original venue for a large audience. Christ Church dining hall was home to a strong tradition of drama in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and each time a king or queen happened to be visiting Oxford, it was Christ Church who would host them on site.

Having royalty to stay meant putting on a good show, literally and metaphorically; thus it was that in 1605, the University of Oxford found itself preparing to welcome the new(ish) king, King James I of England and VI of Scotland, to Oxford, for his first official visit after coming to the throne.

However, it was not only James who must be wined and dined and entertained during his stay, but also his wife and children. Queen Anne of Denmark and her son, Prince Henry (who was not to live many years more, but fortunately no one knew it then), spent a happy couple of hours in Christ Church dining hall watching a merry intrigue set in the delightful Arcadia. In this pastoral comedy (which brands itself a tragicomedy), the love stories of shepherds and nymphs are disrupted by jealousy, suspicion, and tragic fashion sense.

So, this is the play which we are bringing back to its original venue on 15th September, The Queen’s Arcadia. Its author, Samuel Daniel, had named it after Queen Anne, as a compliment to her majesty when he published it the following year (1606). If we are feeling cynical, we might see this as simply a marketing ploy, capitalising on the celebrity audience. (He had originally entitled it Arcadia Reformed – less catchy?). We could also see it as a celebratory gesture from Daniel, breathing a sigh of relief to have regained royal favour after the scandal of his play Philotas the previous year. More on that later…

An detailed and intricate illustration of a playwright's portrait

Engraving of playwright Samuel Daniel. Frontispiece engraving for Daniel’s The Civile Ware (1609) by Thomas Cockson. Photo from Wikimedia.

In two weeks’ time we will hear Daniel’s voice in Christ Church hall once more. His wit is easy on the ear, his verse smooth and sweet, and his characters sensitively wrought. He also has something to say about the addiction that’s got everyone talking, or rather not talking to each other anymore, because they’re too busy, smoking. Arcadia’s former purity lies under a cloud of tobacco haze and cunning businessmen and women are making good money from selling temptations to the inhabitants.

What cheeky new outfit is Techne the dressmaker planning next, and will shepherds and nymphs ever be able to trust one other again?