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John Redford:
The Play of Wit and Science

John Redford is most noted as a composer of early English keyboard music, but there are very few surviving details of his life. He was already a vicar-choral at St. Paul's Cathedral in 1534, when he signed Henry's VIII's Act of Supremacy. He died in 1547.

The Play of Wit and Science survives, barely, in a manuscript in the British Library, Additional 15233. The book, bound along the short edge, starts with pages of organ music, before being turned on its side to accommodate text in the style of a policeman's notebook. The play is, unfortunately, missing the beginning part; and while a synopsis of the opening can be gleaned from the remainder, it cannot be certain how great a portion has been lost. It is deeply lamentable that, as well as the beginning of the play, none of the music for the songs survives, and the text of the final song is also missing. That having been said, we are fortunate for having what remains. The Play of Wit and Science is a morality play, with each of the characters being a personification of human characteristics. As with many other allegorical dramas of the era, the story takes the form of a journey, which is only completed after the lead character has undergone a transformation, having grown in experience and understanding along the way.

The drama was written for the choristers of St. Paul's Cathedral to perform at court. The tradition of choristers from St. Paul's (and also the Chapel Royal at Windsor) performing dramatically as well as musically had been established some twenty years earlier and was to continue into the seventeenth century. As the Almoner and Master of the Choristers, Redford was in overall charge of the choristers' education.

This play is a highly important work on two counts: firstly, as a fragmentary morality play of the mid-sixteenth century, to be performed by children. Secondly, it offers a rare example of the literary skill of a musician (there is no record of Redford's having attended University.) The manuscript also contains verse by Redford, including a chorister's lament at the beatings dealt out by, presumably, Redford himself; and the macaronic poem, Nolo mortem peccatoris, later set to music by Thomas Morley, Organist at St. Paul's some fifty years later.


Reason allows Wit to try for his daughter, Science's hand in marriage. He further assists Wit with the gift of a mirror, and arranges for Honest Recreation to provide additional assistance. Wit, with Diligence, Study and Instruction, heads off on his journey. Instruction warns Wit not to approach Tediousness without the sword of Comfort, from Science. Wit ignores the advice and continues with the others towards Tediousness. The monster kills Wit, and his companions flee. However, he is soon revived by Honest Recreation, with Comfort, Quickness and Strength, by the singing of a song. Wit then falls into the arms of Idleness, who lulls him to sleep and blackens his face. Honest Recreation departs, leaving the stage for a comic routine in which Idleness tries to school Ignorance, using a contrived aide memoire by which he is taught his own name. Idleness then swaps Wit's coat for that of Ignorance.

Meanwhile, Confidence searches for Wit, whilst Fame, Riches, Favour and Worship sing a song, heralding the arrival of Experience and Science. Wit accosts them, but they do not recognise him, despite having his portrait, because he has on Ignorance's coat and has a face marked by Idleness. He flies into a rage, swearing and insulting the ladies, who leave. He cannot understand their behaviour, until he looks into the mirror of Reason. Reason then appears, with Shame, who whips Wit into contrition. Reason forgives Wit, and return to him his companions, including Instruction. Confidence then gives Wit the sword of Comfort, and takes a heart of gold from him to give to Science. Wit and his companions set off to do battle with Tediousness. This time, they overcome the monster using tactics and teamwork. Wit is given a gown of knowledge in celebration.

Science witnesses the battle from a distance, and rushes to meet Wit. All agree to the marriage, a song is sung, and then Science issues a warning to Wit that he should not mistreat her. In return, he promises that he could not bear to misuse Science, and calls upon Experience and Reason to help him keep this promise. Joy and long life is wished for King Henry and his Queen, and for all people. A song is sung.

Editorial Treatment

There is almost no punctuation in the original, save for a handful of oblique strokes, which do not adequately represent a coherent punctuation scheme. The spelling is arbitrary, and varies even amongst repetitions of the same word. The handwriting is not the clearest, with many superscript abbreviations, and it uses an alphabet that omits j and u, and also includes an extra symbol for the possessive s, derived from a Latin shorthand. There is a good deal of subsequent insertion and deletion, some of which would suggest that the text was copied from another written source. Many of the stage directions appear to have been written as an afterthought to the text.

Ambiguity is therefore easily incurred in interpreting the dialogue, and different eyes many find alternatives that are equally plausible -- or indeed more so than those presented here. All the punctuation, including sentence division, is therefore editorial. Spelling has been standardized. Those stage directions which are either necessary or desirable, but absent, have been added, enclosed by square brackets. The definitions of archaic words have been compiled in a glossary.


The full text of the play may be read as a PDF.