The Harvard Classics Vol. 51/Drama III.


By Professor W. A. Neilson

WHEN the great European movement known as the Renaissance reached England, it found its fullest and most lasting expression in the drama. By a fortunate group of coincidences this intellectual and artistic impulse affected the people of England at a moment when the country was undergoing a rapid and, on the whole, a peaceful expansion—when the national spirit soared high, and when the development of the language and the forms of versification had reached a point which made possible the most triumphant literary achievement which that country has seen.


Throughout the Middle Ages the English drama, like that of other European countries, was mainly religious and didactic, its chief forms being the Miracle Plays, which presented in crude dialogue stories from the Bible and the lives of the saints, and the Moralities, which taught lessons for the guidance of life through the means of allegorical action and the personification of abstract qualities. Both forms were severely limited in their opportunities for picturing human nature and human life with breadth and variety. With the revival of learning came naturally the study and imitation of the ancient classical drama, and in some countries this proved the chief influence in determining the prevalent type of drama for generations to come. But in England, though we can trace important results of the models given by Seneca in tragedy and Plautus in comedy, the main characteristics of the drama of the Elizabethan age were of native origin, and reflected the spirit and the interests of the Englishmen of that day.


Of the various forms which this drama took, the first to reach a culmination was the so-called Chronicle History. This is represented in The Harvard Classics by the "Edward II"[1] of Marlowe, the greatest of the predecessors of Shakespeare; and Shakespeare himself produced some ten plays belonging to the type. These dramas reflect the interest the Elizabethans took in the heroic past of their country, and before the vogue of this kind of play passed nearly the whole of English history for the previous three hundred years had been presented on the stage. As a form of dramatic art the Chronicle History had many defects and limitations. The facts of history do not always lend themselves to effective theatrical representation, and in the attempt to combine history and drama both frequently suffered. But surprisingly often the playwrights found opportunity for such studies of character as that of the King in Marlowe's tragedy, for real dramatic structure as in Shakespeare's "Richard III," or for the display of gorgeous rhetoric and national exultation as in "Henry V." These plays should not be judged by comparison with the realism of the modern drama. The authors sought to give the actors fine lines to deliver, without seeking to imitate the manner of actual conversation; and if the story was conveyed interestingly and absorbingly, no further illusion was sought. If this implied some loss, it also made possible much splendid poetry.


Closely connected with the historical plays was the early development of Tragedy. But in the search for themes, the dramatists soon broke away from fact, and the whole range of imaginative narrative also was searched for tragic subjects. While the work of Seneca accounts to some extent for the prevalence of such features as ghosts and the motive of revenge, the form of Tragedy that Shakespeare developed from the experiments of men like Marlowe and Kyd was really a new and distinct type. Such classical restrictions as the unities of place and time, and the complete separation of comedy and tragedy, were discarded, and there resulted a series of plays which, while often marked by lack of restraint, of regular form, of unity of tone, yet gave a picture of human life as affected by sin and suffering which in its richness, its variety, and its imaginative exuberance has never been equaled.

The greatest master of Tragedy was Shakespeare, and in Tragedy he reached his greatest height. "Hamlet,"[2] "King Lear,"[3] and "Macbeth"[4] are among his finest productions, and they represent the noblest pitch of English genius. Of these, "Hamlet" was perhaps most popular at the time of its production, and it has held its interest and provoked discussion as perhaps no other play of any time or country has done.

This is in part due to the splendor of its poetry, the absorbing nature of the plot, and the vividness of the drawing of characters who marvelously combine individuality with a universal and typical quality that makes them appeal to people of all kinds and races. But much also is due to the delineation of the hero, the subtlety of whose character and the complexity of whose motives constitute a perpetual challenge to our capacity for solving mysteries. "King Lear" owes its appeal less to its tendency to rouse curiosity than to its power to awe us with an overwhelming spectacle of the suffering which folly and evil can cause and which human nature can sustain. In spite of, or perhaps because of, its intricacy of motive and super-abundance of incident, it is the most overwhelming of all in its effect on our emotions. Compared with it, "Macbeth" is a simple play, but nowhere does one find a more masterly portrayal of the moral disaster that falls upon the man who, seeing the light, chooses the darkness.

Though first, Shakespeare was by no means alone in the production of great tragedy. Contemporary with him or immediately following came Jonson, Marston, Middleton, Massinger, Ford, Shirley, and others, all producing brilliant work; but the man who most nearly approached him in tragic intensity was John Webster. "The Duchess of Malfi"[5] is a favorable example of his ability to inspire terror and pity; and though his range is not comparable to that of Shakespeare, he is unsurpassed in his power of coining a phrase which casts a lurid light into the recesses of the human heart in moments of supreme passion.


In the field of comedy, Shakespeare's supremacy is hardly less assured. From the nature of this kind of drama, we do not expect in it the depth of penetration into human motive or the call upon our profounder sympathies that we find in Tragedy; and the conventional happy ending of Comedy makes difficult the degree of truth to life that one expects in serious plays. Yet the comedies of Shakespeare are far from superficial. Those written in the middle of his career, such as "As You Like It" and "Twelfth Night," not only display with great skill many sides of human nature, but with indescribable lightness and grace introduce us to charming creations, speaking lines rich in poetry and sparkling with wit, and bring before our imaginations whole series of delightful scenes. "The Tempest"[6] does more than this. While it gives us again much of the charm of the earlier comedies, it is laden with the mellow wisdom of its author's riper years.

"The Alchemist,"[7] representing the work of Ben Jonson, belongs to a type which Shakespeare hardly touched the—Realistic Comedy. It is a vivid satire on the forms of trickery prevailing in London about 1600—alchemy, astrology, and the like. The plot is constructed with the care and skill for which its author is famous; and though its main purpose is the exposure of fraud, and much of its interest lies in its picture of the time, yet, in the speeches of Sir Epicure Mammon, for instance, it contains some splendid poetry. Dekker's "The Shoemaker's Holiday"[8] in a much gayer mood, shows us another side of London life, that of the respectable tradesfolk. Something of what Jonson and Dekker do for the city, Massinger does for country life in his best known play, "A New Way to Pay Old Debts,"[9] one of the few Elizabethan dramas outside of Shakespeare which have held the stage down to our own time. Massinger's characters, like Jonson's, are apt to be more typical embodiments of tendencies, less individuals whom one comes to know, than Shakespeare's; yet this play retains its interest and power of rousing emotion as well as its moral significance. The " Philaster"[10] of Beaumont and Fletcher belongs to the same type of romantic drama as "The Tempest"—the type of play which belongs to Comedy by virtue of its happy ending, but contains incidents and passages in an all but tragic tone. Less convincing in characterization than Shakespeare, Beaumont and Fletcher yet amaze us by the brilliant effectiveness of individual scenes, and sprinkle their pages with speeches of poetry of great charm.

The dramas of the Elizabethan period printed in The Harvard Classics serve to give a taste of the quality of this literature at its highest, but cannot, of course, show the surprising amount of it, or indicate the extreme literary-historical interest of its rise and development. Seldom in the history of the world has the spirit of a period found so adequate an expression in literature as the Elizabethan spirit did in the drama; seldom can we see so completely manifested the growth, maturity, and decline of a literary form. But beyond these historical considerations, we are drawn to the reading of Shakespeare and his contemporaries by the attraction of their profound and sympathetic knowledge of mankind and its possibilities for suffering and joy, for sin and nobility, by the entertainment afforded by their dramatic skill in the presentation of their stories, and by the superb poetry that they lavished so profusely on their lines.

  1. Harvard Classics, xlvi, 7ff. For "Doctor Faustus" see Professor Francke's article below.
  2. H. C., xlvi, 93ff.
  3. H. C., xlvi, 215ff.
  4. H. C., xlvi, 321ff.
  5. H. C., xlvii, 755ff.
  6. H. C., xlvi, 397ff.
  7. H. C., xlvii, 543ff.
  8. H. C., xlvii, 469ff.
  9. H. C., xlvii, 859ff.
  10. H. C., xlvii, 667ff.