A catalogue of Western manuscripts at the Bodleian Libraries and selected Oxford colleges

Christ Church MS. 486

William Gager, Dido; England (Oxford), 1583


Language(s): Latin

1. fol. iii
Rubric: Dido Tragœdia. |[ornate horizontal line in ink by scribe] Acta in Æde Christi Oxoniæ | Pridie Idus Junij Aº. Dº. 1583 [followed by a cloud of pen flourishing]

Title-page for the following work, with ‘Wm Gager’ added at top in pencil, possibly by W. G. Hiscock.

2. fol. iiiv

Dramatis personae for the following work.

3. fol. 1–27
Rubric: Prologus
Incipit: Res quæque fragiles inuicem patitur vices
Explicit: Huic vos Elisæ tollere applausum decet
Final rubric: FINIS [followed by a whirlpool of pen flourishing]
William Gager, Dido

This being the sole complete manuscript of the play, written for the visit to Oxford in 1583 of the Polish Prince, Olbracht Łaski (Albertus Alasco), accompanied by the University’s Chancellor, Robert Dudley, earl of Leicester. Our manuscript has been reproduced in William Gager, Oedipus (acted 1577–1592) Dido (acted 1583), intro. J. W. Binns [Renaissance Latin Drama in England, ed. Marvin Spevack and J. W. Binns, 1st ser., 1] (Hildesheim, 1981), and the full text has been edited thrice: by J. W. Binns in Humanistica Lovaniensia, 20 (1971), pp. 167–254; by Uwe Baumann and Michael Wissemann [Bibliotheca Humanistica, 1] (Frankfurt-am-Main, 1985), and by Dana F. Sutton, in his edition of The Complete Works, 4 vols (New York, 1994), 1:239–372 (and online at the Philological Museum [accessed 3rd November 2014]).

The work is presented with a Prologue (fol. iii, ll. 1–17), an Argumentum (fol. iii, l. 18 – fol. iiiv, l. 13, with rest of page blank), followed by five Acts, all followed by a Chorus, and the last also by an Epilogue (I: fol. 1-fol. 6, l. 2; Chorus: fol. 6, l. 3 – fol. 6v, l. 3; II: fol. 6v, l. 5 – fol. 11v, l. 5; Chorus: fol. 11v, l. 6 – fol. 12, l. 7; III: fol. 12, l. 7 – 15v, l. 13; Chorus: fol. 15v, l. 14 – fol. 16, l. 18; IV: fol. 16, l. 19 – fol. 20, last line; Chorus: fol. 20v, whole page; V: fol. 21 – fol. 26, l. 7, but with fol. 22 being an inserted blank leaf; Chorus: fol. 26, l. 8 – fol. 26v, l. 8; Epilogus: fol. 26v, l. 9 – fol. 27v, l. 4, with rest of page blank).

Physical Description

Secundo Folio: Actus iª... Dilecte
Form: codex
Support: Paper (watermark: balance with rectangular weights, surmonted by a flower and all above a horizontal scroll, with inscription perhaps reading ‘LAMAIN’; no match in Briquet or Wasserzeichen).
Extent: Fols: ii + 28 (numbered: iii, 1–27) + ii (numbered: 28–29), all flyleaves and blank, unruled blank fol. 22 added with binding.
Dimensions (leaf): 200 × 154 mm.
Dimensions (written): 180 × 120 mm.


16 22 34 46 52 68 (with one added with binding as fol. 22, presumably to reinforce quire which wants last after fol. 27). No quire or leaf signatures. Each page, recto as well as verso, has a catchword in bottom right corner.


Variable number of long lines: 25–28; no ruling but the writing area is marked by a red line drawn on all four sides, usually not reaching the top or bottom of the page but reaching the outer edge. The lines of verse written within the writing area but with the abbreviations for the characters speaking placed in the left margin, and catchwords placed in lower margin extending to the right-hand binding line.


Written in black ink in one small, presentable italic script which has correctly been identified as that of the author. For discussion, see textual presentation.


Though this small codex has no illumination, its script and frequent pen flourishing has impressed scholars: ‘from its beautiful penmanship and ornamental appearance, [it] may well have been the ‘book of the play’ prepared for the use of Alasco or the Chancellor’ (Frederick S. Boas, University Drama in the Tudor Age (Oxford, 1914), 183). Hiscock, in echoing this comment, went further and suggested it was in the author’s autograph (171–72). Perhaps he was aware that C. F. Tucker Brooke, in editing another work of Gager’s, his poem on the Gunpowder Plot, Pyramis, implies that the one extant copy, BL, MS Royal 12 A.lix (dated 1608), was the author’s holograph (Transactions of the Connecticut Academy of Arts and Sciences, 32 (1936), 247–349, with images of pp. 1, 2, and 36 of the BL manuscript at 251–3); the script in that manuscript is thinner than that in ours and some forms (eg the ampersand) have changed but the similarity of aspect and of mise-en-page suggest that the differences reflect the chronological gap of twenty-five years between them, and that the two volumes are by the same hand. A note of caution, however, was expressed by Binns, the first editor of Dido, who commented that the identification of Gager as the scribe of our manuscript ‘may be open to doubt’ (172; uncertainty is echoed by Martin Wiggins and Catherine Richardson, British Drama, 1533–1642: a catalogue, 4 vols to date (Oxford, 2012-), 2:318–21). Binns’s suspicion was presumably aroused by the contrast with Gager’s notebook, now BL, MS Add. 22583. Yet, while that notebook is certainly in a different grade of script, being in a slightly slanted humanist cursive, it has enough similarities of ductus and letter-forms (particularly apparent in the capitals but also, for instance, the construction of the f and the short final s) to be confident that it is, in fact, by the same hand as our manuscript. Further corroboration is available: Sutton, Dido’s most recent editor, has noted the similarities with ‘a document undoubtedly written in Gager’s own hand, his holographic last will and testament (Chancellor’s Court of the University of Cambridge records, now preserved at Peterborough [Probate Sub-Registry], Vol. III, fol. 135v)’ (wording quoted from the introduction to the hypertext edition; cf, in print, Gager, ed. Sutton, 1:251 and 4:xxi). It might be added that painstaking labour rather than expense was lavished on this manuscript: its script is calligraphic but there is no decoration beyond the pen flourishing to mark the end of scenes which takes several elegant forms.


Backed and with corners in dark blue leather over thick card, which is covered in marbled paper, ?s. xix. Stamped at lower edge of front pastedown ‘Douglas & Foulis, Edinburgh’. On the spine, in gold: ‘DIDO TRAGŒDIA – OXONIÆ – M.S. 1583’. A Wake bookplate stuck to the front pastedown.


Origin: England (Oxford); 1583

Provenance and Acquisition

This manuscript can be identified as a fair copy made by William Gager of his play, Dido, composed for the festivities surrounding Łaski’s visit to Oxford and performed in Christ Church Hall on 12 June 1583. For the lavish occasion, at which both Giordano Bruno and Philip Sidney were probably in the audience, see the accounts collected in John R. Elliott, Alan H. Nelson et al. ed., Oxford [Records of Early English Drama], 2 vols (London, 2004), 1:181–191 and 2:881–82, and the discussions provided by Boas, University Drama, 178–91, and Gager, ed. Sutton, 1:241–250.

That this small codex was produced around the time of the performance itself is suggested by several codicological details which it shares with Gager’s notebook, BL, MS Add. 22583: they have the same watermark, as well as the same style of ruling a border in red without lines, with roughly the same dimensions. That notebook includes not only drafts of the parts of Dido(fol. 34v-44v) but also a section dated to 26 September 1583 (fol. 61). It would seem, then, that, in 1583, Gager had several quires of the same paper stock, prepared in the same manner, some of which he used for notebook and some for this copy of his tragedy.

The author was himself a Houseman, and is accounted its most accomplished playwright. Born in Suffolk on 24 July 1555 and schooled at Westminster, he matriculated at ChCh in 1574, taking his BA (4 December 1577), MA (5 June 1580), and eventually his took his BCL and DCL (both 30 June 1589); by incorporation, he was also MA (1581) and LLD (1601) of Cambridge, where he was later resident (J. W. Binns in Oxford DNB, and C. F. Tucker Brooke, ‘The Life and Times of William Gager, 1555–1622’, Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, 95 (1951), 401–431). His presence at Christ Church can be traced through the Disbursement Books: he appears in the first surviving for the later sixteenth century, for 1577–78 (ChCh Archives, xii. b. 20, fol. 13, 29, 45 and 66, signing himself on each occasion, at the first and last employing a humanist-influenced script but, for the middle terms, using a secretary script). During his time, he was the author of comedies – the Rivales (now lost) was also performed before Łaski – tragedies and poetry, as well as editing a printed collection of poems in memory of another Houseman, Philip Sidney (Oxford: Joseph Barnes, 1587). He also engaged in controversy: he defended the acceptability of theatrical performances against John Rainolds, later President of Christ Church’s neighbouring college, Corpus Christi, which was Rainold’s own alma mater , though at the time lodging on the other side of the High in The Queen’s College (the contributions survive in Oxford: Corpus Christi College, MS 352 [ olim Oxford: University College, MS J 18], and, for Gager’s letter, see Gager, ed. Sutton, 4:257–59, and Elliott & Nelson, Oxford, 2:860–870).

Gager’s signature last appears in the Disbursement Book for Michaelmas 1591 (xii. b. 34, fol. 7v and 12). It was in the following year that he was embroiled in his dispute with Rainolds and signed his letter from Christ Church, but through much of the decade he was presumably absent from Oxford and, at the beginning of the next century, he was to be found in Cambridgeshire: from 1601, he acted as surrogate to the vicar-general of the bishopric of Ely, succeeding to the post of vicar-general itself and to the chancellorship of the see in 1606. He married and lived on the outskirts of Cambridge, where he died in the summer of 1622.

The specific purpose of the production of our manuscript is unclear. If it was made as a gift for one of the high-ranking members of the audience at the original performance of the play, there is no internal evidence to confirm its recipient. Nor is there any knowledge of its whereabouts before it appeared at an Edinburgh bookseller’s (see binding). Presumably it reached ChCh from there, though, again, details are lacking. It must have arrived in (or – better – returned to) Oxford after 1867, since it is not included in Kitchin’s catalogue, but there is one piece of evidence that demonstrates it reached the collection before the end of the nineteenth century: above the bookplate at the front pastedown, there is a note reading ‘Ch. Ch. Library Wake Archives’ which is in pen and the hand of Thomas Vere Bayne (Librarian, 1872–1899). As his note demonstrates, it entered the Wake collection and so is not recorded in the Reports of Library Committee (MS 392), or in the surviving correspondence concerning donations to the Library (Library Records 45/5). There are three superseded shelfmarks at the front pastedown: in pencil, on the bookplate, ‘Infra E. 3’; below the inscription, ‘Supra B.6’ has been converted to ‘Supra G.5.1’ – both deleted in pencil and replaced with the present manuscript number.

Record Sources

Ralph Hanna and David Rundle, A Descriptive Catalogue of the Western Manuscripts, to c. 1600, in Christ Church, Oxford (Oxford, 2017).


For enquiries relating to this manuscript please contact Christ Church Library.

Last Substantive Revision

2017-07-01: First online publication.

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