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Miracle Plays & Mysteries. 69 had its origin in religion. During the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, Miracle plays and Mysteries afforded one of the favourite entertainments of the common people. “ Miracle plays, in the strict sense of the term, were dramatic representations of miracles performed by saints; Mysteries, of incidents from the New Testament and elsewhere, bearing upon the fundamental principles of Roman Catholicism." The distinction, however, was not strictly observed. Monks were the authors of these plays, and they were acted “in the churches, or on stages erected in the churchyard or in the fields, or, as at Coventry, on movable stages wheeled from street to street.” The actors were sometimes the brethren of a monastery, sometimes the members of a trade guild. Though Miracle plays were no doubt written with a moral purpose, we often find that in their desire to be amusing and instructive at the same time, the writers of them permitted the amusing element to overbalance the instructive one. The liberty often taken with Scriptural personages for the sake of comic effect, and the frequent buffoonery and ribaldry found in the plays, strange though they seem to modern readers, were no doubt eminently attractive to the rude crowd that witnessed the performances; but they can scarcely have tended to its edification or improvement. “So far," writes Professor Minto, " from helping to make demons more terrible, the Mysteries embodied the hideous ideals of the popular imagination, and raised temporary laughter by making them ridiculous-treated them for the time being as so much ludicrous capital. If superstitious fears had been absolutely bodiless before then -if the Mysteries had been the means of clothing the devil in popular imagination with claws, hoofs, horns, and tail-it might have been argued that they did add to the dreadful attributes of his fallen majesty. And even as it is, it may reasonably be maintained that the actual representation of the hideous being had a permanent effect of terror. I am inclined, however, to believe that the Mysteries left the fear of the devil where they found it, and simply provided the vulgar with a good day's sport,"
From the Miracle play it was an easy transition to the Morality, in which the characters were personified virtues and vices, such as Folly, Repentance, Avarice, &c. By degrees the vices and virtues came to be represented by persons who stood for a type of these, Brutus representing Patriotism, Aristides, Justice, and so on. Plays of this description and Moralities were largely taken advantage of by both Catholics and Protestants to enforce their several views. It is obvious that it is only a single step from Moralities in their latter form to the regular drama; though whether the true modern drama arose out of them or from the Latin classical drama may be doubted. At any rate, the first English comedy was written by a classical scholar, who found his model in Terence, and owed nothing to the writers of Moralities. Nicholas Udall, sometime headmaster of Eton, and renowned for the thorough manner in which he had laid to heart Solomon's maxim about sparing the rod and spoiling the child, was its author. It is called "Ralph Roister Doister," and was first printed in 1566, but is known to have been written several years previously. Divided into acts and scenes, and furnished with a regular plot, it marks a great advance upon the plays which had hitherto gratified the thirst of the people for dramatic representation. It is written in rough verse, and is pervaded by a sort of schoolboy fun, which would seem to suggest that it was originally written for representation by the author's pupils. The first English tragedy, “Gorboduc,” mainly the work of Thomas Sackville, was represented in 1562. It, too, is framed upon classical models. In literary merit it is superior to "Ralph Roister Doister;" its blank verse is grave and weighty, and of considerable poetical merit; but it is difficult to believe that it could ever have been popular as an acting play; the unmerciful length at which many of the characters speak alone must have been a severe trial to the strength of the actors and the patience of the auditors.
We now come to those who laid the foundations of the modern stage. Of these, the ingenious author of "Euphues" was the first. He was the author of no fewer than nine pieces,
all of which show his peculiar vein of talent : his often happy verbal ingenuities, his love of punning (in which he found a frequent imitator in Shakespeare), and his occasional grace and tenderness of fancy. But Lyly was not a great writer : no one need read his plays who does not wish to make a special study of the Elizabethan drama, and it is not, therefore, requisite that we should go into detail regarding his productions. The first of Shakespeare's predecessors who possessed really great dramatic and poetical genius was Christopher Marlowe. Like too many of his contemporary playwrights, he lived a wild, reckless, dissolute life, at one time indulging in gross debauchery, at another time writing plays which, though disfigured sometimes by mere bombast, bear on them the imperishable stamp of genius. He was born at Canterbury in 1564. His father followed the humble calling of a shoemaker, but, perhaps owing to the liberality of some wealthy relation, Marlowe received a liberal education, graduating M.A. at Cambridge in 1587. Some three years before this date he is supposed to have come to London and commenced his career as a writer for the stage. None of his plays were printed in his lifetime, and their order of production can only be conjectured. “Tamburlaine the Great” is believed to have been the first; then came “Doctor Faustus,” “ Jew of Malta,” “Edward II.," and “ Massacre at Paris.” In 1593 he lost his life in a wretched tavern brawl. Had he lived longer, it is very probable that he would have been the greatest of the Elizabethan dramatists, next to Shakespeare. As the hot ferments of youth subsided, his genius would have become more temperate, and his rich prodigality of fancy would have been turned into more profitable channels than the piling up of high-sounding words, too often signifying nothing.
In Marlowe's plays we find all the wantonness of imagination, all the colossal rant, all the prodigality of fancy, characteristic of a hot and severed youth unrestrained by law, and of a mind ill at ease yet conscious of and aspiring after better things. “There is a lust of power in his writings," writes Hazlitt, "a hunger and thirst after unrighteousness, a glow of the imagination, unhallowed by anything but its own energies. His thoughts burn within him like a furnace with bickering flames, or throwing out black smoke and mists that hide the dawn of genius, or, like a poisonous mineral, corrode the heart." In many respects he resembles Byron : both lived wild and passionate lives; both possessed an energy and strength which cover a multitude of literary sins; both died young, just as they seemed on the eve of accomplishing better things. Marlowe's finest play is “Doctor Faustus,” founded on the legend which also gave birth to the greatest work of the greatest modern poet, Goethe's “Faust.” Nothing could well be imagined more different than the treatment by these two great dramatists of the same subject. In Goethe's play we find the genius of a great poet united with the wisdom, the self-restraint, the knowledge of the world possessed by a clear, cold, elaborately cultivated mind; in Marlowe's we find also the genius of a great poet, but disfigured by the want of self-restraint, the extravagance and the turbulence of a fiery and ill-regulated mind. But the general conception of his work is very powerful and striking, and passages of great beauty occur not unfrequently. Take, for example, the following, which we make bold to say has been matched by none of the Elizabethan dramatists save Shakespeare. It is the address of Faustus to the apparition of Helen
“ Faustus. Was this the face that launch'd a thousand ships,
Brigliter art thou than flaming Jupiter
If Marlowe was dissipated, Greene and Peele, the two other most famous pre-Shakespearean dramatists, were yet more so. Greene, born at Norwich about 1560, was, like Marlowe, a Cambridge man, graduating M. A. at Clare Hall in 1583. He then travelled in Spain, Italy, Germany, and other countries of the Continent. From his own account he did not benefit by his tour, for he tells us that he acquired in Italy luxurious, profligate, and abominable habits. Settling in London, he became “an author of plays and a penner of love pamphlets." He was also an actor, and indeed appears to have been ready to turn his hand to anything in order that he might acquire the wherewithal to gratify his vicious desires. He died in 1592, in the most abject poverty, in the house of a poor shoe. maker, who had pity on him, and took him in and nursed hiin. Before his death he seems to have sincerely repented of his sins, and wrote two pamphlets, “A Groatsworth of Wit bought with a Million of Repentance" and the "Repentance of Robert Greene," setting them forth. The former' we shall have occasion to refer to in dealing with Shakespeare. His last letter was to his wife, whom he had deserted for six years: “Doll, I charge thee by the love of our youth and my soul's rest that you will see this man paid; for if he and his wife had not succoured me I had died in the streets.—ROBERT GREENE.” Greene's best productions are the lyrics interspersed through his works, which show a fine ear for verse and a delight in beauty and innocence strange to find in a man of his character. One of his tales, “Dorastus and Fawnia,” supplied the plot for Shakespeare's “Winter's Tale."
George Peele, a gentleman by birth, was born in Devonshire in 1558. He graduated M.A. at Oxford in 1579, and went to London in 1581. There, as was very common in those days, he united the occupations of poet, dramatist, and actor. He