The First Half of the Seventeenth Century/Chapter 3
introductory—george chapman—ben jonson—his theory of comedy—earlier comedies—tragedies—mature comedies—last plays—masques—'sad shepherd'—achievement—marston—dekker—middleton—heywood—webster—his two tragedies—tourneur—beaumont and fletcher—last phase of elizabethan drama—sentimental tragedy and romance—comedy of incident and manners—massinger—ford—shirley—lesser dramatists—conclusion.
The first ten years of the century witnessed the crowning splendour of the Elizabethan drama. The Introductory.genial and mature comedies and heroic histories with which Shakespeare had illumined the closing years of the sixteenth century were succeeded by the great tragedies of thought and passion; and when the second decade opened he was taking farewell of the stage in the more slightly constructed romances, full of pathos and poetry, in which we can trace not only an alteration in the poet's mood, but it may be also that more general change in taste to which the romantic and sentimental drama of Beaumont and Fletcher conduced and ministered. During these same years Jonson was working with all the vigour of his gigantic powers; and the best plays of Chapman, Marston, Dekker, Middleton, and Webster date from this decade or a few years later. The ruling spirits of the next two decades are Beaumont and Fletcher, and it is in the work of their followers and imitators—Massinger, Ford, and Shirley—that the flame which had been kindled by Marlowe and the other "university wits" burned itself out in the years immediately preceding the close of the theatres.
Shakespeare is, by the plan of this series, excluded from the scope of the present volume, so that it remains to sketch briefly the work of the other dramatists who flourished during the years from 1600 to 1640.
The oldest of them all was the veteran scholar, poet, and dramatist, George Chapman. Born some eight years before Shakespeare, educated at Oxford, Chapman. does not come before our notice as a poet until 1594, as a dramatist until 1595-96. How he spent the interval we do not know. There may be truth in Mr Swinburne's conjecture that he visited the Low Countries, with which he seems familiar, not, like Jonson, trailing a pike, but with the actors who went over in "Lecester's tijen," from which the peasants in Dutch comedy frequently date events, as the same comedies contain repeated reference to such companies. In 1598 he is mentioned by Meres as one of the best writers of comedies and tragedies, which would point to his being the author of plays now lost. Of plays certainly written before the close of the century we have only the worthless Blind Beggar of Alexandria (1598) and A Humorous Day's Mirth (1599), with the fine, though exaggerated and grotesque, adaptation from Terence's Heautontimorumenos, the comedy of All Fools (1600), so eloquently praised by Mr Swinburne. The majority of the plays which have survived belong to the early years of the new century. They include the comedies The Gentleman Usher (1606), Monsieur D'Olive (1606), May Day (1611), and The Widow's Tears (1612), with the tragedies Bussy D'Ambois (1607), Byron's Conspiracy, The Tragedy of Charles, Duke of Byron (1608), and The Revenge of Bussy D'Ambois (1613), to which falls to be added the later published tragedy of Cæsar and Pompey (1631) and The Tragedy of Philip Chabot, Admiral of France (1639). If Shirley had any hand in the latter, it was probably confined to the pathetic closing scene. I cannot myself discover Chapman's style in the crude plays Revenge for Honour (1654) and the Tragedy of Alphonsus (1654).
In Chapman's comedy the influence of Jonson is obvious. His comic characters are grotesque and Comedy. absurd humourists, his comic incidents clumsy feats of gulling. But Chapman does not attempt to imitate Jonson's careful structure and his singleness of satiric purpose. His comic scenes are interwoven with romantic story. The romantic incidents are extravagant and grotesque, but are relieved by outbursts of the same splendid poetry as illumines the tragedies—passages of the same glowing enthusiasm for the spirit which can rise superior to mortal limitations and social conventions. Perhaps of all his comedies—in spite of the high praise given to All Fools—the most readable as comedy, but for the close, is the sardonic Widow's Tears.
Chapman's tragedies bear an interesting family resemblance to one another. They are taken from Tragedy. French history, and Mr Boas has shown that Chapman's Holinshed was Edward Grimeston's Inventorie of the Historie of France, published in 1611. Dramatically and poetically they recall the tragedies of Marlowe. Their hero is a man "like his desires, lift upward and divine." But Chapman is more of a philosopher and less of a dramatist than Marlowe. His turbid style is lightened by magnificent flashes of poetry, but never burns with the clear and lovely radiance of Marlowe's finest passages. His heroes, both rebels such as Bussy and Byron, and Senecan men such as Clermont in the Revenge, Cato, and Chabot, are all philosophers, reasoning in language which is often harsh, obscure, and bombastic, but which is often also intense and glowing, of "fate, free-will, fore-knowledge absolute." Their motives are not elucidated in the sympathetic manner in which Marlowe delineates the ambition, the lust of gold and beauty, the hates and loves of his characters. From all the thunder and cloud and lightning of the speeches of Bussy or Byron it is not easy to gather what they would be at or why. Their deeds are not in proportion to their words; they may be violent but are not great. What remains in the mind is the sentiments of men of dauntless courage and unyielding resolution rising superior to all material and prudential considerations.
A more interesting and important figure in the history of the drama than Chapman is the poet who Ben Jonson. alone of his compeers has enjoyed the honour of being at any time set in rivalry to Shakespeare. When the century opened, when the latter had perfected the romantic drama created by himself and the "university wits," Ben Jonson had already turned his eyes in another direction, and begun what he trusted would prove a revolution in English play-writing. Single-handed he had begun to "correct" English comedy, and was preparing to render the same service to tragedy. The lack of biographical material for the history of the Elizabethan drama prevents us from tracing the Life. process by which Jonson reached his clear-cut and resolutely sustained conception of the proper end of comedy, and the means by which that end was to be attained; for the plays which embody this conception, and which alone he acknowledged, were by no means all he wrote. Of Scottish ancestry, born at Westminster in 1573, educated under Camden,—
"Most reverent head to whom I owe
All that I am in arts, all that I know,"—
for some time perhaps a bricklayer apprenticed to his stepfather, certainly a soldier in the Low Countries, Jonson was in 1597 a player and playwright to the "Admiral's Men." His fatal duel in 1598, his imprisonment, conversion to Romanism and re-conversion, are familiar to every reader of literary history. For Henslowe he patched old plays (The Spanish Tragedy in 1610-12), and wrote plays singly and in collaboration, of some of which the names have survived, as the Page of Plymouth and Richard Crookback. The Case is Altered (1609), in whatever year it was composed, represents perhaps a survival of this joint work, perhaps an early experiment of his own in comedy, romantic and fanciful in story and spirit, but regular in structure, careful in character-drawing, and touched with satire. The story is woven from the plots of the Aulularia and the Captivi, and Mr Swinburne has justly regretted "that the influence of Plautus on the style and method of Jonson was not more permanent and more profound."
But no poet except Milton ever knew his own mind better than Jonson. With Every Man in his Humour Theory of
Comedy., which was produced at the Globe in 1597 or 1598 (the characters bearing then Italian names), his style appeared fully formed, and thereafter he could hardly think of the romantic novella comedy but with impatience and contempt. "I travail with another objection, Signor," says Mitis in Every Man out of his Humour, "which I fear will be enforced against the author ere I can be delivered of it." "What's that, sir?" replies Cordatus. Mitis. "That the argument of his comedy might have been of some other nature, as of a duke to be in love with a countess, and that countess to be in love with the duke's son, and the son to love the lady's waiting-maid; some such cross-wooing, with a clown to their serving-man, better than to be thus near and familiarly allied to the times." Cordatus. "You say well, but I would fain hear one of these autumn-judgments define once Quid sit comœdia? If he cannot, let him concern himself with Cicero's definition, till he have strength to propose to himself a better, who would have a comedy to be imitatio vitæ, speculum consuetudinis, imago veritatis; a thing throughout pleasant and ridiculous, and accommodated to the correction of manners. If the maker have failed in any particular of this, they may worthily task him, but if not, why! be you that are for them silent." So Jonson condemns the comedy which had, with all its frequent absurdity, produced Much Ado about Nothing and Twelfth Night, and defines his own endeavour. Comedy was to be, in Mr Elton's happy phrase, "medicinal"; its work to purge the evil "humours" of society—its follies in the first instance, but in the greatest of his plays the scope was enlarged to include folly that has festered into crime. Of the means by which this end was to be achieved Jonson's conception was equally definite. A regular and elaborately constructed plot—deferential but not slavishly obedient to the Unities—exhibits a variety of characters, each the embodiment of a single humour or folly, suddenly, and when the "humours" are at the top of their bent, outwitted, befooled, and exposed. The style, whether verse or prose be the medium, is a style "such as men do use," not heightened with poetical bombast; reproducing current slang, the technicalities of particular arts and professions, the cant of the beggar and the Puritan; but showing in every line, in the coarsest outbursts and the most sustained speeches, the labour of a perhaps too conscientious artist, and the defective harmony inevitable in verse superinduced upon what has been originally drafted in prose.
The result of Jonson's definitely formed and resolutely pursued purpose was at first apparently—as is First Comedies. usual in such cases—an outburst of hostility, which his arrogant temper did little to allay, or rather much to provoke. Every Man in his Humour is a comparatively genial play. The less satirically drawn characters are not unamiable—the young men who collect and exhibit "humourists," their old-school father, merry Cob, and genial Justice Clements. The fools themselves evoke nothing stronger than laughter and contempt. But apparently the hostility awakened by the new departure, and by the combative tone of the Prologue, irritated the poet's own scornful humour, with the result of intensifying his arrogance and hardening his style. Every Man out of his Humour (1599) was hurled at the head of its audience furnished with an induction and running comment, to teach them the proper end of comedy—what to admire, and why. Probability, the easy elaboration and interest of the story, are all lost sight of. Everything is subordinated to the vivid and detailed presentation of a set of characters quite too feeble and lacking in interest to justify the storm of hatred and scorn with which they are overwhelmed. In Cynthia's Revels (1600), directed generally against the affectations of court life and speech, but including, it would seem, savage hits at individuals, the sacrifice of interest to satiric purpose and pedantic display was carried still further. Allegory, to which Jonson returned in his last plays, is added to the other elements of tediousness—foolish gulling and diffuse dialogue. The play was acted by the children of the Queen's Chapel, a fact significant of the terms on which the author stood with his fellow-actors and playwrights, and the scornful closing words betray a consciousness of fighting a difficult battle—
"I'll only speak what I have heard him say,
'By God! 'tis good; and if you like it you may.'"
They were long remembered against him. All the incidents of the quarrel we shall never know—whether, for example, Shakespeare took part in it. He certainly refers to it in Hamlet; and The Return from Parnassus seems to imply that he had taken a leading part, although the words are ambiguous. The Poetaster. It culminated in the production of The Poetaster and Dekker's Satiromastix. The Poetaster stands alone among Jonson's comedies, not only in its personal intention, but in virtue of its general plan. Jonson's conception of a comedy as the careful weaving of a plot in which folly is exposed, is here crossed by another idea of the duty of a dramatist, which appears most fully in his tragedies—namely, that in dealing with history he must be faithful to his authorities. The result in Jonson's work is a complete violation of Aristotle's rule that a play should not be episodic. In The Poetaster, Ovid's amour with Julia, Propertius' sorrow, Augustus' interest in Virgil's Æneid, are connected in the loosest way with scenes satirising the citizen's wife, the swaggering soldier, and the jealousy of bad poets. The last, which is the principal motive of the play, does not connect and unify the other episodes, but comes in by the way, and is developed in a couple of excellent scenes. As a satiric drama with a personal object, The Poetaster has been often overrated—in fact, too much stress can easily be laid upon the personal element in the quarrel. It was a natural phenomenon, the result of the sudden and arrogant intrusion of a new type of play, and that a drama, satirical with a thoroughness unknown since the days of the old Attic comedy. Marston and Dekker assumed to themselves the rôle of protagonists against Jonson, but it is clear that behind them stood a surprised and indignant troop of playwrights and actors, and that there rallied to their support the representatives of the other professions which had been assailed—lawyers, soldiers, and perhaps courtiers. The Apologetic Dialogue which he added to the play had to be withdrawn; and for a time Jonson deemed it prudent to forgo comedy and try
"If Tragedy have a more kind aspect."
The result was the stately and scholarly Sejanus His Fall, produced at the Globe in 1603, and published Sejanus. in 1605. The essentials of tragedy Jonson, in accordance with neo-classic tradition, finds in "truth of argument, dignity of person, gravity and height of elocution, fulness and frequency of sentence." In structure he made no attempt, as Milton did later, to reproduce the Greek model. "Nor is it needful, or almost possible, in these our days, and to such auditors as commonly things are presented, to observe the old state and splendour of dramatic poems with preservation of any popular delight." He follows the line indicated in The Poetaster, and puts a chapter of history into dramatic form. Jonson scorned to
"Fight over York and Lancaster's long jars,
And in the tiring-house, bring wounds to scars,"
but there is no essential difference between the structure of Sejanus and that of an ordinary "History." The plot is quite as wanting in unity as defined by Aristotle, quite as episodic. It relates the history of the reign of Tiberius from just before the murder of Drusus to the death of Sejanus. For every incident, for every character, for every trait of manners, the poet's authority is given. The spirit of Tacitus and Juvenal breathes from its stately scenes. Perhaps the highest compliment which can be paid to Sejanus is, that one can turn from the Annals to the play and feel the same emotions. The Poetaster and Sejanus are the first works which endeavour to reconstruct the life of the past in the manner of later historical novelists. Were Jonson's Roman plays still acted, there would be justification for the antiquarian accuracy somewhat irrelevantly lavished by managers on those of Shakespeare.
With the accession of James began Jonson's work as a prolific and popular writer of learned and fanciful Mature
Comedies. masques and entertainments. This did not, however, interrupt the steady development of his dramatic and comic art. Between 1605 and 1616 the poet produced five comedies and a tragedy, and of the comedies four—Volpone acted in 1605, The Silent Woman in 1609, The Alchemist in 1610, and Bartholomew Fair in 1614—are the crown and flower of Jonsonian art. In them the poet achieved at last a complete mastery over comedy as he had himself conceived and planned it. The plot is no longer a mere series of incidents, in the course of which various "humours" are deployed and overthrown, but a curiously and compactly built story, full, from the first line to the last, of the bustle and stress of action. The characters are clearly conceived, and elaborated with fierce energy and an overwhelming accumulation of learned and observant detail. "Shakespeare wanted art," Jonson told Drummond, and one begins to understand his point of view when studying these plays, of which a strenuous, obvious, all-controlling art is the principal feature. Jonson is a savage satirist. Every critic has pointed to the obvious fact that his unremitting satiric intention has destroyed the sympathy necessary to create living and interesting characters. And yet one feels these comedies were not written—like those of Aristophanes or like The Tale of a Tub and Gulliver's Travels—because Jonson desired to satirise some vice or folly which had moved his spleen. He is a satirist because he has resolved to write satiric comedy. Only perhaps in the character of Zeal-of-the-Land Busy does one seem to see a type that Jonson has met himself and spontaneously detested. The others are the product of a learned and observant mind, and a definite and pedantic theory of comic art.
Volpone, or the Fox, for example, is not a satiric comedy springing directly from the poet's observation Volpone. of the love of gold and the ways of legacy-hunters in his own day. The root idea—the shameless greed of such people, and the exploitation of this greed by a clever knave—is derived from Petronius Arbiter, and the whole play is a marvellously inventive and artistic elaboration of this idea. From it, with the help of a further hint or two from Petronius and other sources, Jonson has evolved a comedy full of powerfully drawn and impressive characters, striking and ludicrous incidents, learned and poetical sentiment, and breathing such a sincere spirit of scornful indignation as almost to give the impression that he is modelling directly from life. Almost, but not quite—and the final impression is rather of a wonderful tour de force than of a really penetrating and effective piece of satire.
The Silent Woman is constructed in a similar fashion. The idea of an eccentric who shrinks from The Silent
Woman. every noise and yet marries a wife, is derived from Libanius, and expanded with the help of multifarious learning and curious observation into what Mr Swinburne justly calls the "most imperial and elaborate of all farces." And just because it is frankly a farce, and the reader is not called on to look through the play at the object of the satire, has it been so popular. One is left free to enjoy the art—the cleverly invented characters, the cunningly constructed plot, the learned and brilliant dialogue. It is not a faultless art; it is not the art of Shakespeare, or even of Molière; but it none the less arrests and compels our admiration and, in this play certainly, our delighted amusement.
Such as it is, Jonson's art reached its culminating point in The Alchemist. The closely woven The Alchemist. plot has no excrescences. The characters, without exception, are impressive and delightful satiric types,—Face, shameless and adroit; Subtle, the virtuous fraud; Dol Common, as vigorous, if not as human, as Doll Tearsheet; the sublime Sir Epicure and the inimitable "We of the separation," Tribulation Wholesome and Ananias. The satire here, too, does not seem to fly so far above reality as in Volpone. Full of learning as it is, the play smacks of actual observation of the knavish life of low London, the life the poet paints again with coarse gusto in Bartholomew Fair. Alchemy and every kind of superstitious trickery abounded. And yet the satire is not ephemeral. Substitute spirit-rapping or palmistry for alchemy, and a telling modern comedy might be modelled on the old. The moral of the whole is the moral of Reynard. We are not cheated by the cleverness of knaves, but by our own folly and greed.
In the year following the performance of The Alchemist was acted Jonson's second and last tragedy, Last Plays. Catiline His Conspiracy, in which Cicero and Sallust are treated as Tacitus and Juvenal had been in Sejanus, and to my mind the former are dramatically less interesting than the latter. Jonson essayed the chorus in the Senecan style. The effect was not, however, to make the play more lyric or classic. Three years later appeared his last great comedy, Bartholmew Fair, stuffed with humours and manners, the coarsest and most rollicking but perhaps the most real in interest and humour of his plays. Rabbi Zeal-of-the-Land Busy completes the study of the Puritan begun in The Alchemist. After this play Jonson wrote none that can for a moment compare with these masterpieces. The Devil is an Ass (1631) is ingenious in conception, and the satire on projectors vivid and amusing. The Staple of News (1631) opens admirably, but tails off into tedious dialogue and tedious morality. The New Inn (1631), The Magnetic Lady (1640), and A Tale of a Tub (1640) all reveal diminishing power, and a Jonsonian comedy demanded Herculean vigour.
The popularity of that artificial though poetic trifle Masques. the Masque was one of the causes of the decline of the drama under James and Charles. On his numerous productions of this kind Jonson lavished his most characteristic gifts—the power of weaving a play around a central idea, stores of accurate learning, fancy, and humour; while his experiments in lyrical measures of various kinds are interesting and frequently delightful, if not always altogether successful. The main end of each masque—the flattery of James and his family—is effected in a surprising variety of ways, and some of the masques are more than ingenious pieces of flattery. The Masque of Hymen, for example, is a magnificent piece of symbolic ritual; and some others, such as the Masque of Queens and Pleasure reconciled to Virtue, suggest that, with more space at his disposal and a worthier audience, Jonson might have elaborated a moral idea with some of the dignity and poetry of Comus. But James's courtiers cared more for transformation scenes, music, and dances than for Jonson's learning and morality. The greatest of seventeenth-century masques was an indictment of courtly adulation and sensuality.
The fragment of a pastoral drama which Jonson left behind him in The Sad Shepherd is full of feeling and Sad Shepherd. poetry. For more of such work, regular in structure and not devoid of satire, yet at the same time romantic and poetic, one would be willing to forgo some of the strength and ingenuity which in The Silent Woman and The Alchemist fill us with admiration, yet leave us a little cold and fatigued—
"Non satis est pulchra esse poemata, dulcia sunto."
The very completeness with which Jonson achieved the task he set before him arouses regret that he Jonson's Art. allowed his humour, fancy, observation, learning, and constructive power to be directed by so resolute a spirit of pedantry. To "correct" English comedy it was not necessary to deprive it of all interest of story, nor to substitute for often carelessly drawn characters human nature cut in sections and dressed for the microscope. Could Jonson have been content to correct the more glaring faults of popular comedy, making the structure more regular and even, and the characters more consistently typical, while presenting a broad satirical picture of contemporary manners, he would have rendered invaluable service to the English drama. Molière's breadth of vision and deftness of touch were outside Jonson's range; yet he might have created a regular and satirical drama independent of the French, and more interesting and valuable than the superficial and licentious comedy of the Restoration. That he failed to do so is due, however, not only to the pedantic method he adopted. Even in the form it took, Jonson's satirical comedy might have been of greater interest and value, but for the fact that the conditions of English social life prevented his colossal satirical gifts from finding quite adequate themes. In Jonson's greatest comedies—with the exception of Volpone—there is a striking disproportion between the elaborateness of the satire and the trifling and ephemeral character of the vices satirised; and one is disposed to explain this, in part at any rate, by the reception given to his first and structurally less perfect comedies, whose range of satire was wider, including courtiers, citizens, lawyers, soldiers, and not exempting individuals. For there was probably more in the famous quarrel of the players than a merely personal matter. The friend to whom The Poetaster was dedicated had to undertake for the poet's innocence before "the greatest justice of the Kingdom," and for a time Jonson laid comedy aside. He probably realised that it was unsafe for a player to constitute himself the censor of all classes from courtiers to actors. When he took up comedy again, though he had perfected his constructive art, he either, as in Volpone, elaborated his satire on pedantic and unreal lines, or, as in The Alchemist, flew at comparatively small game. Only in the Puritans did he find antagonists worthy of his steel whom it was safe to attack, and his satire of them is so trenchant, if, as satire must be, one-sided, that one wishes he had been free to deal faithfully with other classes, and not compelled to waste his powers on pedantic abstractions or on alchemists, "jeerers," news-vendors, and projectors—pigmies whom at the distance of three centuries we can hardly descry. Jonson's touch was too heavy for a task which was within Molière's range and was Addison's proper function—the satire of affectations and minor follies. But had satire been as free for Jonson as it was for Aristophanes or Juvenal, he surely would have been a great and stern censor of the great vices and corruptions of society. As it is, "rare Ben Jonson" is his appropriate epitaph, for there is nothing in the world quite like one of his closely-knit plays, packed with learning, observation, humour, and character.
But though Jonson's influence did not extend to the production of a satiric comedy of manners which will compare with that of Molière, or even with the work of the later essayists and novelists, it did co-operate with other forces to end the fanciful, euphuistic comedy created by Lyly—a comedy in great measure of language, of pun and poetry—of which Shakespeare's early and middle comedy is the flower. Jonson's plays co-operated with the pamphlets of Greene and Dekker to make the comedy of Middleton, Fletcher, and Shirley a superficial and somewhat conventional comedy of manners,—the manners of the gallant, the citizen, and the rogue,—a comedy of humours, and a comedy of more elaborate and lively intrigue.
Jonson's rivals in the famous quarrel referred to above—John Marston and Thomas Dekker—are good Crispinus and
Demetrius. types of the journeyman dramatists who catered for the popular taste which it was Jonson's endeavour to reform and elevate. "Nor is the moving of laughter," says Jonson, translating from Heinsius, "always the end of comedy; that is rather a fowling for the people's delight or fooling." This "fowling for the people's delight" is all that the average playwright had in view, and his baits were melodramatic tragedy of crime and vengeance, and loosely constructed comedies of incident, romance, and buffoonery. Shakespeare transformed and glorified the popular type, which Jonson strove to "reform altogether."
Marston is the more ambitious of the two, but Dekker is the finer genius, poetic and dramatic. MarstonMarston. affects both tragic gloom and sardonic satire, but in both he is an impostor. His first tragedy, Antonio and Mellida (1601, published 1602), is perhaps the most outrageous example of the type of melodrama inaugurated by The Spanish Tragedy,—a type which Shakespeare, in the year of Marston's play, transfigured in Hamlet. All the machinery of the kind is to be found in Marston's tragedy,—hideous crime, the ghost clamouring for vengeance, the feigned madman awaiting his opportunity. The style is that of Ancient Pistol, and calls aloud for the purging administered by Jonson in The Poetaster.
The Malcontent (1604), dedicated to Jonson himself, is a play of much the same sort. The banished Duke, in disguise at the usurper's court, rails at everything, and especially at the shams of court life, in the sardonic vein of Hamlet. The dénouement is effected by the favourite device of a play. The style is pruned of some of the worst extravagances of the earlier play, and Marston can write with vigour; but his pretentious satire is as unconvincing as his tragic horrors. Parasitaster, or the Fawn (1606), is in the same sardonic style. The Wonder of Women, or the Tragedy of Sophonisba (1606), on a favourite subject of Renaissance dramatists, is a flaming melodrama. What you Will (1607) and The Dutch Courtezan (1605) are Marston's most tolerable comedies, because the least pretentious. The former, a slight farce largely indebted for its plot to Plautus's Amphitruo, was probably written shortly after Cynthia's Revels. There are allusions to the quarrel of the players. Jonson's arrogant style is parodied; and a couple of characters loosely connected with the plot represent Jonson and Marston. These excrescences do not improve the play, which in itself is a jovial little farce concerned with second marriages and mistaken identities. The Dutch Courtezan (1605) is still better. It relates the attempted vengeance of a forsaken mistress. Mr Bullen has, I venture to think, overrated the character of Francheschina, who is drawn crudely and perfunctorily. A finer treatment would have changed the whole tone of the play. But on a quite low level the comedy is good—the story well managed, the characters fairly human and attractive, the style vigorous, and the humour of the by-plot, in which a rascally vintner is befooled, lively and genial though coarse. The best play with which Marston's name is connected, however, is undoubtedly the delightful comedy Eastward Ho (1605), in which he collaborated with Jonson and Chapman, and for which they were all three imprisoned. How much he contributed to that amusing picture of citizen types, astute rogues, absurd adventures, and comical repentance, we cannot tell; but the geniality of its humour is, I believe, that of the real Marston, whom Nature never intended for tragedian or satirist. He was a journeyman writer with a vigorous style, and a vein of genuine, though coarse and not very brilliant, wit.
Thomas Dekker was a voluminous composer of plays and pamphlets of the kind well fitted to amuse an audience of London citizens. He was born probably some time before 1577. The first reference to him is by Henslowe in 1597. In 1599 his name is mentioned in connection with no fewer than six plays. His first published works were The Shoemaker's Holiday, or the Gentle Craft, and The Pleasant Comedy of Old Fortunatus, which appeared in 1600. Satiromastix was issued in the following year, and Dekker's greatest play, The Honest Whore, in 1604, though the second part was not issued until 1630, and in it Dekker had enjoyed the collaboration of Middleton. In The Roaring Girl (1611) Middleton had also a hand; and The Whore of Babylon (1607), Northward Ho and Westward Ho (1607) were composed along with Webster; A Witch of Edmonton (1658) with Ford; and The Virgin Martyr (1622) with Massinger.
The very names of Dekker's plays indicate the character of the contents. Three strata run through his loosely constructed and carelessly finished dramas. There is abundance of comedy of the popular Elizabethan type—the comedy of the clown, the gallant, the citizen and the citizen's wife, the bawd and the punk. Dekker can be coarse enough, but he does not strike one as coarse in grain. In fact, he is not such a master of vigorous coarse comedy as Middleton. He is on the side of decency and honesty. His citizens' wives in Northward Ho and Westward Ho vindicate their honour and put to shame their jealous husbands. A careless, kindly gaiety is the best feature of Dekker's comic scenes, which are too often tedious fooling. Such as it is, his humour is nowhere seen to better advantage than in The Shoemaker's Holiday, a sunny picture of young love and kindly genial London craftsmen such as Dickens himself might have drawn.
Side by side with this stratum of popular comedy lie, often quite incongruously, scenes of romance and tragedy which reveal a rare and sweet, if not strong or sustained, poetic and dramatic gift. There are touches of exquisite poetry in Old Fortunatus, though the treatment as a whole of a poetic theme is lamentably inadequate. But Dekker's dramatic power attained its highest level in those scenes of The Honest Whore which portray Bellafront, her father Orlando Friscobaldo, and her betrayer and later spendthrift husband Matheo. These are written with singular vigour and beauty. There are flaws, such as the rhetorical combats between Bellafront and her converter, Hippolito. It is characteristic of Dekker to repeat a device he has once found successful. The characters, moreover, show no marked development. But, on the whole, these scenes deserve the eloquent commendation bestowed on them by Hazlitt. They are like a drawing in which the lines are very few but intensely significant. "It is as if there were some fine art to chisel thought and to embody the inmost movements of the mind in everyday actions and familiar speech." For a little more intercourse with these admirably etched characters we would gladly have spared the tedious humours of the patient man, which fill up the comic scenes. But this blending of the incongruous, this inequality of treatment, is the characteristic of Dekker's work, and indeed of the Elizabethan drama. In lyric sweetness Dekker's songs are not surpassed by those of any writer of his age.
A robuster, if not a finer, genius than Dekker was Thomas Middleton, author of some of the gayest of Middleton. the comedies of gulling, one or two more romantic and poetic plays, and a couple of tragedies of the grim and brutal type which appealed to the popular taste. He was born probably about 1570, and appears first in Henslowe's diary in the year 1602, collaborating with Munday, Drayton, Dekker, and Webster. The Old Law is conjecturally assigned to 1599, but Middleton's first published and an evidently early comedy is Blurt, Master Constable (1602). The romantic part is somewhat revolting, and this is not compensated for by the horse-play and bawdry of the comic scenes. Middleton collaborated in many of his plays with Dekker and with William Rowley, author of two independent comedies of city manners and humours, A New Wonder and A Match at Midnight. In 1624 his Game of Chess, a skit on the proposed Spanish marriage, brought the author and actors into considerable danger.
A Trick to catch the Old One (1608), The Phœnix (1607), Michaelmas Term (1607), Your Five Gallants (lic. 1608), A Mad World, my Masters! (1608), and A Chaste Maid in Cheapside (1630) are the best of Middleton's farcical comedies. The type is the popular one. The recurrent characters are gay gallants, greedy usurers, citizens and their wives, roarers, bawds, and punks. Every one gulls every one else, and the situations are often highly ludicrous, or must have been so to a not too squeamish taste. Middleton is on the side of youth. Young men induce usurers to compete with one another for the hand of a disguised courtesan, or by ingenious devices rob their old uncles when these refuse to provide for them. Middleton's indelicacy is almost always relieved by real humour. Even A Chaste Maid in Cheapside is as amusing as it is outrageous.
In his more romantic plays Middleton betrays the inability which besets all the minor dramatists, to invest a whole play with the poetic charm which illumines portions. What is beautiful and what is repulsive are found side by side. Shakespeare is not exempt from the same fault, but his splendour outshines his spots. In The Spanish Gipsy (1653), based on a couple of Cervantes' novels, the scenes of merriment and romance cannot make us forget those of rape and murder; and in The Old Law (1656) and A Fair Quarrel (1617), scenes and speeches of touching pathos and eloquent morality are surrounded by others of gay but coarse buffoonery.
The scenes in Middleton's tragedy The Changeling (1623, published 1653)—in which he collaborated with William Rowley—that lead up to and include the crisis, are some of the most powerful in the tragedy of criminal passion which the Elizabethan drama produced. Beatrice, the heroine, instigated by a sudden passion for Alsemero, bribes De Flores—a poor knight whose love she has hitherto treated with scorn—to murder her betrothed, and discovers too late that she is "the deed's creature," and in the power of a passion more ruthless and masterful than her own. The scene in which this discovery is slowly forced upon her is in its own terrible and brutal way one of the greatest in dramatic literature. Less poetic than Webster's work, it is more intense, every word more entirely relevant. The scenes which follow and the catastrophe are full of the grotesque and ugly details of Massinger's and Ford's tragedy, but the character of De Flores is preserved in sombre consistency throughout.
Women Beware Women (1657) is of the same type, a tragedy of lawless passion and ruthless crime followed by overwhelming vengeance. The catastrophe—attained through the common device of a play within a play—is the most complete holocaust recorded since and including The Spanish Tragedy. It has not the same strong central interest as The Changeling, and no character that is not merely repellent. Crime overtaken by vengeance was the receipt for tragedy which the Elizabethans, and not the Elizabethans only, learned from Seneca. There were but few whose instinct guided them as it did Shakespeare, after his first aberrations, to the truth that the tragic hero must have some claim upon our respect and sympathy, a point which Balzac elaborated with acuteness in his criticism of Heinsius' Herodes Infanticida.
A more humdrum and prosaic representative of the journeyman dramatist is Thomas Heywood, a Heywood. voluminous author of plays, poems, pamphlets, and entertainments. Like Dekker, he caters mainly for a citizen audience. He sings the praises of the Lord Mayor and the London 'prentices. His sentiment is kindly, and his morality sound. He dramatises every sort of story, mythological, romantic, historic, and domestic. His histories, Edward IV. (1600) and The Troubles of Queen Elizabeth (1605), are in the regular chronicle style, and almost pre-Shakespearean in their want of dignity in the serious scenes and the buffoonery of the comic portions. His mythological plays, The Golden Age, The Silver Age, &c., dramatise simply enough a variety of stories from Ovid. The Rape of Lucrece (1608) blends familiar Roman tragedy with outrageous Elizabethan farce. One can imagine what Jonson thought of a play on classical history containing such songs as—
"Small coals here!
Thus go the cries in Rome's fair town,
First they go up street, and then they go down;"
"Arise, arise, my Juggy, my Puggy;
Arise! get up, my dear!"
Heywood's most individual plays are the two domestic tragedies, A Woman killed with Kindness (1607, mentioned by Henslowe in 1603), and The English Traveller (1633). They are in the same key as Arden of Feversham, but adultery is not in Heywood's play followed by murder. He tells a story of cruel unfaithfulness and bitter repentance with simplicity and pathos, but with no transfiguring breath of poetry. The style and morality are somewhat humdrum, and the characters a little disposed to whine.
Heywood's romantic comedies, The Fair Maid of the West, or a Girl worth Gold (1631), A Maidenhead Well Lost (1634), A Challenge for Beauty (1636), Fortune by Land and Sea (1655), The Late Lancashire Witches (1634), and others, describe themselves—stories constructed in the most careless fashion, full of incident by sea and land, patriotic and kindly sentiment, farcical humour, but of the slightest poetic and dramatic interest. His most successful comic type is the careless, shameless, quick-witted knave such as Reignalt in The English Traveller.
A far greater poet and dramatist was John Webster. Of his life we know, as usual, next to nothing. His name emerges in Henslowe's diary in the year 1601 as the author of The Guise, or the Massacre of Paris, a play which he claims in a later dedication, but which is lost. Throughout 1602 he seems to have collaborated in three or four plays with Drayton, Dekker, Middleton, and others. In 1604 Marston's The Malcontent was produced and published with additions by Webster. The White Devil appeared in 1612, The Duchess of Malfi in 1623, and The Devil's Law Case in the same year. These are probably all the extant plays which were published during his lifetime. A Roman tragedy, Appius and Virginia, appeared in 1657, and in 1661 A Cure for a Cuckold and The Thracian Wonder were published as by Webster and Rowley. The serious plot in the former is obviously Webster's work.
Webster's fame rests on two tragedies, The White Devil, or Vittoria Corrombona, and The Duchess of His great
tragedies. Malfi. They belong to that very distinctive and somewhat melodramatic type of tragedy which might be called the Senecan-Machiavellian. It is Senecan in its sententious morality and choice of revenge as the leading motive. The influence of Machiavelli is seen in the principal characters and sentiments. The chief agents in the history of unnatural crime and bloody vengeance unrolled are politicians of the kind Machiavelli was believed to have idealised. In The Spanish Tragedy, the first crude model of this type of tragedy, Jeronimo feigns madness as a disguise in his pursuit of vengeance. A regular part of the machinery became in consequence a real or feigned mad railer at life, and especially court life, and women's vices. Shakespeare's Richard III. shows the influence of Kyd's play in an even crude and melodramatic fashion. Richard is the full-blown Machiavellian politician. Margaret of Anjou plays the part of the ghost denouncing vengeance. Clarence's dream, in feeling and versification, recalls Andrea's descent to the lower world, and the balanced stichomuthia of several dialogues is classical. In Hamlet the type revived, but, for a modern reader at any rate, the melodramatic interest pales before the psychological and reflective. Hamlet has become a problem in character, and the mouthpiece for profound comment, ironic and straightforward, on art and life. Marston's earlier plays are melodramas of this kind. The Malcontent, like many other plays of the day, is full of echoes of Hamlet. Webster made additions to The Malcontent, and was apparently attracted by Marston's combination of tragic gloom and sardonic wit. At the same time, although he alludes to Shakespeare in a rather condescending manner, it is clear from his plays that he was deeply impressed by the pregnant and thrilling phraseology of the great tragedies.
The two plays are thus stories of terrible crimes—sins of lust and hate, and of dire and overwhelming Webster's art. vengeance; and through each runs a vein of bitter comment on princes and women. They are studied and elaborate works. Like Jonson, Webster pleads the character of his audience as excuse for not having written a regular tragedy, "observing all the critical laws, as height of style and gravity of person, enriched with the sententious chorus, and, as it were, livening death in the passionate and weighty Nuntius." None the less he had the Senecan model in view. The mocking and bitter comment of Flamineo and Bosola supply the chorus; dumb-show takes the place of the nuntius' relation; and the poet aims at unity and definiteness of plot structure, propriety of character, and height of style.
As regards the plot, indeed, the studied care with which Webster endeavoured to make it include the Plot. crime and its punishment has prevented his obtaining the concentration and proportion which give to Shakespeare's plots essential unity. That essential unity is to be sought in the spiritual history of the protagonists. A tragedy achieves artistic unity when every incident is subordinate and auxiliary to the vivid presentation of what these said and did as they passed through some great and fatal crisis. Shakespeare—when not, like lesser men, drawn aside by the temptation to write a taking scene—proportions with wonderful art the degree to which the different characters shall fill the stage and our thoughts. It is those in whose fate we are and must be most deeply interested that are most constantly before us, and with the decision of their fate the play ends. Webster's division of the tragedy into the story of a crime and the story of its avenging has interfered with this concentration and proportioning of the interest. Those for whose fate our feelings are really engaged appear fitfully, and slip from our notice before the play ends. Vittoria is magnificently presented in the opening scenes of The White Devil, whispering murder to her lover, baffling her accusers. But thereafter she falls too much into the background, re-emerging in her first splendour only for one moment at the end to cry—
"My soul, like to a ship in a black storm,
Is driven I know not whither."
In like manner, after the terrible scenes describing the torture and death of the Duchess of Malfi, the last act drags, beautifully wrought as it is. Our passionate sympathy has attained the highest pitch when her brother's remorse awakens in the words —
"Cover her face: mine eyes dazzle: she died young."
Shakespeare would have hastened the catastrophe, that all might perish in the same high-wrought moment.
The "propriety" of the characters is as carefully studied by Webster as the structure of the plot. The "politic" princes and churchmen, the cynical Characters. bawd and informer driven by poverty into reckless paths, the courtesan, and the pure and loving woman, are themselves in every phrase that falls from their lips. But Webster has not got much beyond the type, and some of these types belong only to the stage. The Italian politician may have had his counterpart in real life, but Webster has not convinced us of it; and his sardonic and even sentimental villain is somewhat melodramatic. His women characters are his greatest. Vittoria is a splendid representative of her class. She has not the infinite variety and charm of Cleopatra, but is a more intense and tragic figure. Could the poet have carried her through the play as Shakespeare does Cleopatra, a centre of ever fresh and abounding interest, not Shakespeare himself would have produced a greater character. But Webster gives us the impression of being able to etch a few fine poses, rather than to delineate a character who is alive and interesting in every situation. The Duchess of Malfi has perhaps more variety than Vittoria. She combines more qualities, is bold and timid, loving and proud,—
"Whether the spirit of greatness or of woman
Reign most in her I know not,"—
infinitely pitiful in her death, yet infinitely noble and queenly. The White Devil is a swifter and intenser play than The Duchess of Malfi,—some critics greatly prefer it,—but the character of the Duchess seems to me to raise the latter to that higher class of tragedy which represents the fatal conflict of what is noblest in humanity with "inauspicious stars."
It is in his style that the conscious deliberate character of Webster's art is most immediately obvious. Style. His diction is studiously appropriate, studiously heightened and impassioned. He specially commends the "full and heightened style of Master Chapman," and the influence of Chapman is, I think, observable in the elaborateness and "metaphysical" character of his metaphors. But it was from Shakespeare that he learned the power of thrilling and pregnant figure and phrase. Some of his finest touches are directly traceable to King Lear and Antony and Cleopatra. But Webster's style is more elaborated than Shakespeare's: it wants the flowing facility of which Jonson complains. Even the most imaginative touches smell a little of the lamp—appear to be laid on from without, although with a fine sense of what is appropriate, rather than to spring spontaneously from the heart of the passion.
A certain grave dignity of style is all that is distinctive in Appius and Virginia or in Webster's comedies. The tragic theme of the former he has treated in a strangely hard and external way. Into the comedies he has put little or none of the sardonic wit which he labours so strenuously in the famous tragedies. Webster has earned his place among the greatest of the Elizabethans by two plays, the theme of which appealed to his genius, at once tragic and melodramatic, and on which he expended—what the Elizabethans were too sparing of—time and labour.
The two tragedies of Cyril Tourneur—of whose life Tourneur. we know but little—are of the same cast as Marston's and Webster's. They are written to the same didactic receipt—
- "When the bad bleeds then is the tragedy good;"
they reflect in like wise the attraction for the Elizabethan imagination of Italian crime; and they are full like them of echoes from Hamlet, to us a problem of character, to the Elizabethans a fascinating melodrama of crime and nemesis.
The Atheist's Tragedy (1611) is a crude picture of the subtle crimes of the "politician" and the nemesis which overtakes him. The Revenger's Tragedy (1607) is, despite the earlier date at which it was printed, a maturer play in structure and verse, but it cannot be said with justice that it rises to the level of tragedy. No character detaches himself or herself from the melodramatic and lurid phantasmagoria of lust, murder, and vengeance with the tragic distinctness and beauty of the intense Vittoria, or the nobly pathetic Duchess of Malfi. Yet Mr Courthope is too harsh a critic when he dubs Tourneur bluntly a poetaster. The scenes between Vendice and his mother and sister are not altogether undeserving of Lamb's eloquent eulogy; and through the play are scattered individual "strokes" of nature and poetry, of the kind that are the glory of the Elizabethan drama, which one would look in vain for in the tragi-comedy of France or Holland. Such is Castiza's cry when her mother would be her betrayer—
"I cry you mercy! lady, I mistook you;
Pray, did you see my mother? which way went she?
Pray God I have not lost her;"—
"joy's a subtle elf,—
I think man's happiest when he forgets himself."
The lines in The Atheist's Tragedy which describe the drowned soldier will find a place in every anthology gathered from the Elizabethans.
If, as seems to have been the case, Jonson to some extent eclipsed Shakespeare in the eyes of those who Beaumont and
Fletcher. affected Scholarship and "art," the inheritors of his popularity were undoubtedly Beaumont and Fletcher. They belonged to a higher rank socially than the generality of the dramatists. John Fletcher, the elder, was the son of a president of a Cambridge College who was subsequently Dean of Peterborough, Bishop of Bristol, and Bishop of London. Francis Beaumont's father was a landed proprietor in Leicestershire, and a judge of the Common Pleas. Fletcher (1579-1625) was educated at Cambridge, but does not seem to have graduated. The Woman Hater, formerly attributed to Fletcher,—now generally, on internal evidence alone, to Beaumont,—was published in 1607, and the two friends began to collaborate about this date. Philaster (1620) is probably their first joint work. Beaumont had been at Oxford, but only for a short time, being entered a member of the Middle Temple in November 1600. He began as a poet, composing an Ovidian story, Salmacis and Hermaphroditus (1602), and he wrote other poems in an extravagantly conceited style. He died in 1616, so that his friend and partner outlived him by nine years. After Beaumont's death, indeed, Fletcher collaborated with other dramatists, especially, it would seem, with Massinger.
The exact manner in which the two dramatists worked together is not discoverable, nor has the work Tone of their
plays. devoted to the problem recently altered the traditional view, which regarded Beaumont as the more careful and correct artist, Fletcher as the more inventive and genial temperament. Differences in style and versification are easily detected, but for literary history are less important than the community of spirit which made the work of the two so vivid a reflection of one aspect of the age—of the taste, not of the great body of the English people, but of the exquisites of the court, whose handsome faces and brilliant costumes are preserved for us on the canvasses of Vandyke, and who were soon to be brought into conflict with the sterner temper of the Puritan middle classes. At the same time, they were not above catering for a citizen audience as in The Knight of the Burning Pestle.
The plays of Beaumont and Fletcher were enormously popular with the audience whose taste they reflected. Compared with their sparkling "modernity," Shakespeare seemed to Cartwright and to Suckling old-fashioned and coarse; and the opinion of Cartwright and Suckling and Herrick is reiterated by Dryden, after the Restoration had brought back the taste and morality of the court. "Their plays are now," he says, "the most pleasant and frequent entertainments of the stage, two of theirs being acted through the year for one of Shakespeare's or Jonson's. The reason is because there is a certain gaiety in their comedies and pathos in their more serious plays which suits generally with all men's humours." What Dryden indicates is not difficult to find. All the attractive qualities of Beaumont and Fletcher's dramatic work are heightened and obvious—sentiment, eloquence, sweetness of verse, gaiety of dialogue. The best of the more serious plays, such as The Maid's Tragedy (1619), Philaster (1620), A King and No King (1619), Thierry and Theodoret (1621), The False One (1647), Bonduca (1647), and The Two Noble Kinsmen (1634), in which Shakespeare may have collaborated, are rich in effective, dramatic, and especially pathetic scenes. The death of Aspatia and Evadne; Arethusa, Philaster, and Bellario in the forest; the discovery of their mutual passion by Arbaces and Panthea; the great interview between Thierry and Ordella before the temple of Diana; the death of Penius; the opening scene of The Two Noble Kinsmen, are a few that rise readily to the memory—scenes of heightened pathos, dramatic power, and poetic eloquence.
But the very ease and pleasure with which we recall individual scenes betray the limits of the authors' Decadence. dramatic range. They stand out like purple patches from the play. It is the scenes we remember, not the characters which they reveal. With Beaumont and Fletcher the last phase of the Elizabethan drama began as unmistakably as its first phase was inaugurated by Marlowe. Sentiment began to take the place of character. The final impression we carry away from a play of Marlowe or Shakespeare or Jonson is of one or two great characters of boundless passion or all-absorbing "humour." The sentiment and poetry are subservient to the presentation of character in action. The most eloquent and moving speeches are not written for the sake of their own beauty, but are the flaming sparks which fly from the contact between the will of steel and the grindstone of fate. With Beaumont and Fletcher all this is changed. The characters are insubstantial and inconsistent; the most distinctly drawn are the least real. Their heroes, Penius and Caratach and Æcius, are sketched on the old model; but what their creators elaborate with most gusto is not the fierce energy of their conflict with Fate, but the dignified and pathetic eloquence of their resignation. They die to the music of their own virtues, in sentiments so highly strung as to ring false. The best characters in Beaumont and Fletcher's plays are those the very breath of whose life is sentiment. Arethusa and Aspatia, Bellario and Ordella, are charming if ethereal figures. Devoted love and sweet submissiveness flow in golden phrases from their lips. But on the other hand, where energy of will and intensity of passion are most imperatively required, Beaumont and Fletcher appear to me to fall short. Their handling of evil characters and terrible incidents is inferior to that of Webster or Middleton or Ford. Nothing is forbidden to the poet if his treatment be adequate. But he must realise the full significance of what he portrays. Deeds of horror justify their representation by the lurid light which they throw upon the workings of the human heart. Beaumont and Fletcher describe such deeds with a bluntness that is almost levity, or a rhetoric which palls, seldom with any approach to tragic sincerity and power. In Beaumont and Fletcher the sterner notes of the older drama melt into the fluting of love and woe. But how eloquent their pathos is! From no dramatist except Shakespeare could be gathered so many flowers of poetry in dialogue or soliloquy or song; although Marlowe and Webster both outsoar them on occasion, and Dekker's sweetness is purer and more artless, and in all of these the poetic and dramatic interpenetrate more closely. Like Webster, they are indebted for many of their finest phrases to Shakespeare. But, while Webster remembers the thrilling tragic touches, the "cover their faces" of King Lear, Beaumont and Fletcher reproduce what is most romantic. Viola's description of her love in Twelfth Night is recalled by Aspatia's words—
"Strive to make me look
Like Sorrow's monument: and the trees about me
Let them be dry and leafless: let the rocks
Groan with continual surges: and behind me
Make all a desolation."
Thinking of Cleopatra, she bids her friends take for lovers "two dead cold aspics."
"They cannot flatter nor forswear: one kiss
Makes a long peace for all."
In comedy Beaumont and Fletcher follow, on the whole, the beaten track, and describe in flowing verse Their Comedy. and easy dialogue the adventures, serious and comic, of lovers. They have some interesting studies in humours and in the mock heroic—very slight and hasty when compared with Jonson's elaborate workmanship. These it is the fashion now to attribute mainly to Beaumont. Lazarillo, the gourmet in The Woman Hater, Bessus in A King and No King—the merest sketch when compared with Falstaff or Bobadil—are good examples. But perhaps the most delightful is the light-hearted caroller Merrythought in The Knight of the Burning Pestle. Scott was fond of quoting in his Journals one of his snatches of song:—
"I would not be a serving-man
To carry the cloak bag still;
Nor would I be a falconer,
The greedy hawks to fill:
But I would be in a good house,
And have a good master too;
But I would eat and drink of the best,
And no work would I do."
That he was to some extent the original of Scott's own David Gellatly is, I think, certain. In general, however, it is not the individual characters which are the principal source of interest and amusement in their comedies, but the easily unfolded story, the sparkling careless dialogue with its air of good-breeding, and the distinctness and charm—in spite of serious blots—with which they portrayed the young men and women of their age. Their gaiety is not more hearty or infectious than Middleton's. In fact, the situations and scenes in the comedies of the latter are often more essentially humorous, but Middleton's is almost always a comedy of citizen life and character. Beaumont and Fletcher's, with a gleam of the poetry which illumines Shakespeare's, have also the air of polite society which pervades the later comedy from Etheredge to Congreve. The Wild-Goose Chase, Rule a Wife and have a Wife, The Little French Lawyer, The Spanish Curate, The Scornful Lady, and Monsieur Thomas are excellent plays of incident and dialogue. The tone is often licentious, and neither the situations nor the dialogues show much depth of humour or brilliancy of wit if closely scrutinised. But the reader is not tempted to scrutinise them closely. Everything is, as Scott says, set to a good tune. One is borne easily along by the rapid stream of incidents and sparkling, natural conversation.
Of Fletcher's pastoral drama, The Faithful Shepherdess (1609-10), it is usual to speak in very high terms, and it has undoubtedly all the beauty of Fletcher's language in description and song. But the soul of the play appears to me cold and even repulsive. Not only are some of the characters vile beyond words, but a frigid sensual conception of love runs through the whole play, marring the intended idealisation of chastity, a theme more congenial to Milton than to Fletcher.
Fletcher's most important colleague after the death of Beaumont, and the principal dramatist of the Twenties and early Thirties, was Philip Massinger. His father was a servant in the household of the Earl of Pembroke. He was at Oxford for a short time, but left abruptly, and came to London about 1607, where he collaborated with Fletcher, Dekker, Field, and others. In 1622 the Virgin Martyr was published as by him and Dekker. From then onward we have a continuous list of plays ascribed to him in the office book of Sir Henry Herbert. At the same time, it is clear from the dedications prefixed to those which he published that his dramatic activity never freed him from poverty. Gifford has conjectured from the tone of some of his plays that he was a Roman Catholic, and others have discovered in his work reflections of the political sentiment of his day.
Dramatically Massinger belongs to the school of Fletcher. He too delineates sentiment rather than character. His heroes and heroines are high-flown sentimentalists. Like Fletcher he is fond of piquant and critical situations, and develops them with abundant rhetoric. In The Virgin Martyr and The Renegado he has depicted the exalted emotions of the martyr; in The Unnatural Combat, more unnatural and ugly passions than even Ford. In the Duke of Milan he has traced, following the story of Mariamne, the excesses of uxorious passion. In The Bondman he has delineated a lover's transcendent abnegation of self, and in The Fatal Dowry a point of honour as exalted as any in a play of Corneille. Massinger's characters are no more real and convincing than Fletcher's, and in wealth of poetic diction he falls far short of him. His style is pure, correct, and dignified, but rhetorical, and verging towards eloquent and rhythmic prose. What distinguishes Massinger, and enlists for him a respect that the bluntness of Fletcher's moral sympathy often forfeits, is the sincere and earnest moral purpose running through his works. He is the most interestingly didactic of the dramatists. Jonson is didactic, because the critics prescribe the inculcation of virtue to the dramatists. But Massinger has a sensitive and eager sympathy with virtue and nobility of character, which breathes through his somewhat hectic characters and scenes of eloquent argument and declamation. He is often strangely licentious in the language he puts into the mouths of all his characters. So in varying degrees is every one of the dramatists, and Beaumont and Fletcher cultivated indecency. But in Massinger this licentiousness has the awkwardness and exaggeration of one who has no interest in, or sympathy with, what he thinks it necessary to introduce. Moreover, he is not saved from awkward exaggeration by a sense of humour. He has little humour and no wit. His lighter comic scenes are inexpressibly tedious, and even disgusting. But, like another and greater sentimentalist, he had the power of grim caricature. Sir Giles Overreach in A New Way to Pay Old Debts (1633), and Luke Frugal in The City Madam (1632), are almost sublime studies in the manner of Dickens—villains not intelligible but impressive. How strong the didactic impulse was in Massinger is seen if the first of these plays be compared with its original, Middleton's A Trick to catch the Old One. What the latter treats in a spirit of pure and reckless gaiety, Massinger converts into grim didactic; and Middleton's two gaily befooled and converted usurers become an inhuman monster, devouring men's lands and prepared to prostitute his daughter's honour for social advancement.
The tendency so obvious in Fletcher and Massinger to diverge from the simple and natural in feeling in search of piquant and morally trying situations and morbid emotions, reaches its extreme in the most characteristic plays of John Ford, whose life coincided in time pretty closely with that of Massinger. His first published work appeared in 1607. He collaborated with various playwrights in plays most of which are lost. His extant plays were produced between 1628 and 1638.
Ford was not a professed playwright. He was a lawyer, and apparently had business of some kind. He was thus possibly more free than the average dramatist to follow the bent of his own taste; but there is not, as a fact, any striking difference between his plays and the ordinary fare provided by them. They are highly artificial tragedies of crime and revenge, comedies, and one history, Perkin Warbeck. The last is the most natural of his plays, and by no means unpleasing or undignified historic drama. But Ford's reputation, like Webster's, rests on his tragedies about which the most diverse opinions are entertained. The subjects of them are of an intensely painful character —incest and murder in one, revenge and suicide in another—but well fitted for tragic and poetic handling. Have they been quite adequately handled by Ford? That his plays are not completely successful even Ford's most ardent admirers will admit. The stories are clumsily told; the comic element beneath contempt; all except the principal characters are not only unreal but uninteresting. But what about the central tragic scenes in them? Ford is certainly free from the charge to which Fletcher is liable. There is no levity or callousness in his treatment of things terrible. He is acutely sensitive to the horror and pathos of what he describes. There is no justification, it seems to me, for any adverse judgment on Ford's moral character based on the character of his themes. He is an artist, and handles them with the detached seriousness of the artist. But it is only occasionally that his tragic intensity finds clear and dramatic expression. In Love's Sacrifice (1633), which is full of reminiscences of Othello, the intention is noble and tragic, but the execution very imperfect; and the same is true, it seems to me, of the more celebrated Broken Heart (1633), whose structure is inorganic, beautiful as more than one of the individual scenes is in sentiment and poetry. Only the intense and painful Giovanni and Annabella scenes of 'Tis Pity (1633) appear to me really dramatic, to portray passion agitating the will and evoking a conflict. There is none of the same dramatic interest in The Broken Heart, The Lover's Melancholy (1629), Love's Sacrifice (1633), and The Lady's Trial (1629). The finest scenes in these portray no conflict of passions, no resolution taking shape, but present in a style less rich and fanciful than Fletcher's, less thrilling than Webster's, less declamatory than Massinger's, but with a grave intensity of its own, some fixed phase of a high-flown not to say morbid sentiment. And if the sentiments are unreal the characters are more so. Ford's dramatis personæ are not creatures of flesh and blood. The best resemble delicate wax-works, touched with a pale and feverish beauty at times by the intensity of the sentiment which the poet puts into their mouths.
James Shirley (1596-1666), who is generally reckoned the last of the Elizabethans, is a dramatist of lighter build but more varied talent than Ford. Educated at Merchant Taylor's School and Cambridge, he seems to have turned to play-writing only after he had been in orders, and—on his conversion to Romanism—a schoolmaster. From the year following Fletcher's death to the close of the theatres he was a fertile author of tragedies, comedies, and masques, and a special favourite of the King and Queen. He prepared The Triumph of Peace, which was presented at great cost by the Inns of Court on the occasion of Prynne's attack upon the Queen. He visited Dublin at the invitation of the Earl of Kildare, and some of his plays, including the Mystery of St Patrick for Ireland, were written for an Irish theatre. He published poems and printed several of his plays during the years that the theatres were closed, as well as assisting Ogilby in his translations, and died in the year of the great fire.
Shirley's plays include tragedies; comedies of the usual novella type, moving between what would most strictly be called tragi-comedy and lighter comedy of manners; and some experiments in the direction of mystery (St Patrick for Ireland), morality (A Contention for Honour and Riches), and pastoral, his Arcadia (1640) being a dramatisation of Sidney's romance.
Shirley's tragedies—of which the best are probably The Traitor (1635) and The Cardinal (1652)—are of the artificial type of Massinger's and Ford's, but he has neither the moral eloquence of the former nor the intense, if hectic, feeling of the latter. He seems to me a slighter Fletcher, with much of the same ease and naturalness of style, and the same penchant for romantic pathos, and gay, often licentious, comedy of incident and manners. There are scenes and speeches of indubitable pathos and poetry in his tragedies and in the serious scenes of tragi-comedies like The Wedding (1629), The Example (1637), The Grateful Servant (1630), and The Royal Master (1638); and Shirley's comedy—of which good examples are The Witty Fair One (1632), The Lady of Pleasure (1635), and Hyde Park (1637)—has the air of good breeding which distinguishes Fletcher's from that of Middleton and Dekker, though to Pepys it appeared sadly old-fashioned.
Of minor men—followers in different ways of Jonson and Fletcher—Richard Brome, Thomas Randolph, William Cartwright, Jasper Mayne, Henry Glapthorne, Sir John Suckling, and Sir William Davenant, as well as others whom Mr Bullen has rescued from oblivion, it would be impossible in the space at my disposal to attempt distinct characterisation. There are few in which it is not possible to find good things—poetry and humour,—but none are dramatists of real merit, and none struck out any new line. The old themes are repeated in a hackneyed and worn-out style, and in a verse which tends to disappear altogether. The period of buoyant vitality and of development in the Elizabethan drama closed with the death of Fletcher.
- Minto, Characteristics of English Poets, Edin., 1885; Saintsbury, Elizabethan Literature, Lond., 1887-1903; Fleay, Biographical Chronicle of the English Drama, Lond., 1891; Mezières, Predecesseurs et Contemporains de Shakespeare, Paris, 1894, and Contemporains et Successeurs de Shakespeare, 1897; Courthope, History of English Poetry, vol. iv., Lond., 1903; Jusserand, Histoire Littéraire du Peuple Anglais, Paris, 1904; Emil Koeppel, Quellen-studien zu den Dramen Ben Jonson's, John Marston's und Beaumont's und Fletcher's, Erlangen und Leipzig, 1895; Id. zu den Dramen George Chapman's, Philip Massinger's, und John Ford's, Strassburg, 1897; Transactions of the New Shakespeare Society, 1874-92; Jahrbuch der Deutschen Shakespeare-Gesellschaft, Berlin, 1865-1905; Englische Studien, Heilbronn, 1877-1906; Anglia, Halle, 1878-1906; Dictionary of National Biography, Lond.
- The Comedies and Tragedies of George Chapman, with Notes and a Memoir, 3 vols., London, 1873 (a literal reprint from the old copies); The Works of Chapman, ed. R. H. Shepherd, 3 vols., London, 1874-5; All Fools and the "Bussy" and "Byron" plays, ed. W. L. Phelps of Yale College, in Mermaid Series, London, 1895. Text in all these corrupt. The "Bussy" plays have been edited carefully by F. S. Boas, Belles Lettres Series, Boston and London, 1905.
- Mr A. L. Stiefel, who has tracked so many French plays to their source in Italian Novella-Comedies, has discovered Chapman's footsteps in the same snow, and shown that his May-Day is an adaptation of the Alessandro of Alessandro Piccolomini (1508-1578).
- Many of the sentiments put into Clermont D'Ambois' mouth are translated from Epictetus' Discourses. See Boas's edition cited above.
- First folio (revised by the author), 1616; second, 1631-41. Later editions were superseded by Gifford's Works of Ben Jonson, 9 vols., Lond., 1816; rev. by Col. F. Cunningham, 1875. Select plays in Mermaid Series, with preface by C. H. Herford. The first folio is being reprinted by Professor Bang, Louvain, in his Materialien zur Kunde des älteren Englischen Dramas, Louvain, 1905. Swinburne, Study of Ben Jonson, 1889; J. A. Symonds, Ben Jonson, 1886; Phil. Aronstein, Ben Jonson's Theorie des Lustspiels, Anglia xvii., 1895.
- Mr Fleay has devoted much inquiry to the identification of individuals, and a full discussion is Roscoe Addison Small's The Stage Quarrel between Ben Jonson and the so-called Poetasters, Breslau, 1899. We know so little about the lives and personalities of the authors concerned, that it is difficult either to verify conjectures or to deduce anything of interest or importance from them if correct.
- A collected edition was issued in 1633. The Works of John Marston, ed. J. O. Halliwell-Phillipps, 3 vols., 1856. Do., ed. A. H. Bullen, 3 vols., Lond., 1887.
- The Dramatic Works of Thomas Dekker, &c., 4 vols., 1873 (Pearson's reprint). Selected plays in the Mermaid Series.
- The Works of Thomas Middleton, &c., ed. Rev. A. Dyce, 5 vols., Lond., 1840. Do., ed. A. H. Bullen, 8 vols., Lond., 1885. Select plays in the Mermaid Series, v. introduction by Mr Swinburne, 1887.
- Individual plays were edited by Barron Field and Collier for the old Shakespeare Society. Heywood's Dramatic Works, 6 vols., Lond., 1874 (Pearson's reprint). Select plays in the Mermaid Series.
- The Works of John Webster, &c. by the Rev. A. C. Dyce, Lond., 1857; The Dramatic Works of John Webster, ed. Wm. Hazlitt, 4 vols., Lond., 1857; Webster and Tourneur, in the Mermaid Series, contains the two tragedies.
- The Plays and Poems of Cyril Tourneur, ed. with critical introd. and notes by J. Churton Collins, Lond., 1878
- The first folio (containing thirty-four plays and a masque) appeared in 1647, the second (containing fifty-one plays, a masque, and the Four Plays, or Moral Representations, in one) in 1679. The commendatory verses prefixed to the first are an eloquent testimony to their popularity. The standard edition is that of Dyce (11 vols.), 1876, now difficult to obtain. New editions by A. H. Bullen, Lond., 1904, and Arnold Glover, Cambridge, 1905, are in course of appearing. Select plays in the Mermaid Series. Critical notices are numerous, from Dryden's to Mr Swinburne's (Studies in Prose and Poetry). Dr E. Koeppel and others have inquired into sources.
- I have no intention of belittling the interest of the researches of Mr Fleay (On Metrical Tests as applied to Dramatic Poetry, Part II., Beaumont, Fletcher, and Massinger, in Transactions of the Shakespeare Society, 1874), or of Mr R. Boyle (Englische Studien, vols. v. to x., 1882-7). In a fuller history it would be necessary to discuss their conclusions. My position is simply Dr Ward's (who accepts many of their findings), that no important distinction of ethos between the two has been revealed. Though, of course, it is of importance to know that it is to Fletcher is chiefly due the licentious use of extra-metrical syllables at the close of the line, which did so much to reduce verse to the level of rhythmical prose. The view that "Beaumont's judgment checked what Fletcher writ" deserves the respect due to an early tradition.
- The Plays of Philip Massinger, with Notes, critical and explanatory, by W. Gifford, 4 vols., Lond., 1805. 2nd ed., 1813. Select plays in the Mermaid Series. The Political Element in Massinger, S. R. Gardiner in the New Shakespeare Society's Transactions, 1875-6. On Massinger's classical scholarship and his indebtedness to Shakespeare, see Wolfgang von Wurzbach, Philip Massinger, Shak. Deutsche Jahrbuch, xxxv-vi.
- The Works of John Ford, with Notes, critical and explanatory, by W. Gifford, 2 vols., Lond., 1827; revised, with additions and a new introduction, by Dyce, 3 vols., 1869. Select plays in the Mermaid Series.
- The Dramatic Works and Poems of James Shirley, with Notes by William Gifford, and additional notes and some account of Shirley and his Writings. By Alexander Dyce, 6 vols., 1833. Select plays in the Mermaid Series.