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In the spring of 1626 John Milton was temporarily expelled from Cambridge University, perhaps over a quarrel with his tutor William Chappell, and sent home to London, where he remained for at least several weeks. There, the seventeen-year-old poet composed his first elegy, a Latin verse-letter to his closest friend, Charles Diodati. In it, Milton claims to be enjoying his unexpected holiday by reading, girl watching, and attending the theater. Milton scholars have never reached consensus about his alleged playgoing, for while the young man speaks as a spectator, the plots and characters he mentions-these include comic types such as a crafty old man and a spendthrift heir, as well as tragic personages and situations such as the attempt of Creon's house to atone for its incest-seem more characteristic of classical drama than anything presented in the commercial playhouses. Nevertheless, a significant number of editors take the claim literally, though none has been able to identify any specific play(s) to which Milton could be referring. A second group of editors contends that he was simply imagining scenes based on his play reading.

We could leave the matter there were it not for Herbert Berry's remarkable but overlooked discovery that in 1620, when Milton was eleven, his father became one of four trustees of the Blackfriars Theater and probably remained in this capacity for at least a decade. This position might have given the Milton family free admission to productions by the King's Men, who performed daily at the Blackfriars throughout the winter months. Using Berry's find as a point of departure, I shall argue, first, that there is a good possibility that Milton was telling the truth in "Elegia Prima," and that the theater he refers to was the Blackfriars. Second, at least five of the comic figures catalogued in the poem could have been inspired in part by his attendance at a 1626 presentation by the King's Men of Ben Jonson's The Staple of News. Third, this experience may have had a significant influence on the composition of Milton's companion poems "L' Allegro" and un Penseroso," as well as his tragedy, Samson Agonistes.


This article first appeared in the winter 2003 issue of The Ben Jonson Journal and is reprinted with permission.

©2003 Edinburgh University Press