Billeder på siden

“ Good frend, for Jesus sake forbeare
To digg the dust encloased heare :
Blest be yo man ye spares thes stones,

And curst be he ye moves my bones," In spite of numerous temptations to the contrary, the adjura. • tion of the epitaph has proved effectual: no sacrilegious hand has interfered with Shakespeare's "honoured dust."

Though his life in London was a successful one, we know from the Sonnets that Shakespeare often felt bitterly regarding his position as an actor. In Sonnet 110 he says

“ Alas ! 'tis true, I have gone here and there,

And made myself a motley to the view,
Gored mine own thoughts, sold cheap what is most dear,

Made old affections of offences new.' Probably his desire to acquire the means of escaping from what he regarded as an irksome servitude, and to obtain “independence, that first of earthly blessings,” gave many a fresh spur to his exertions to acquire a competence. Those who reproach Scott for “selling his brains for money,” for writing hastily in order to amass a fortune, often forget that Shakespeare is liable to a precisely similar reproach, if reproach it be, which we do not think it is. In not a few respects indeed a curious parallel might be drawn between Scott and Shakespeare. Both cared little for fame : Shakespeare allowed some of his best plays to appear in pirated editions, regardless what might be their eventual fate.

Both were men of genial, kindly disposition, conscious of their own great powers, we cannot doubt, but perhaps because of that very consciousness wisely tolerant of others, and totally free from arrogance or contempt. Both were men of great prudence, with a large fund of common sense, which would have made them prosperous and respected though they had not been men of genius. Immeasurably superior though Shakespeare is to Scott in genius and width of range, there are many points of resemblance between them in their mode of literary work. manship. Both possessed the power of depicting all classes of society with equal sympathy and equal discernment; both

The Elizabethan Dramatists.


were equally great in describing the tragic and the comic aspects of life; both, amidst higher qualities, are full of maxims on conduct and character showing great natural shrewdness developed by wide experience of men and affairs.

It is iinpossible for us to enter upon any minute account of Shakespeare's plays, or to discuss the order of their appearance, the sources from which their plots are drawn, &c. To do so would require a volume, not a few pages. Neither do we propose to attempt any estinate of his genius. So much has been written on this topic, that he would be a bold writer who should attempt to say anything new regarding it. We therefore content ourselves by quoting Dryden's eulogy, one of the finest, and one of the most discerning. It appeared in his "Essay of Dramatic Poesy:"_"To begin, then, with Shakespeare. He was the man who of all modern, and perhaps ancient poets, had the largest and most comprehensive soul. All the images of nature were still present to him, and he drew them not laboriously but luckily: when he describes anything, you more than see it-you feel it too. Those who accuse him to have wanted learning give him the greater commendation : he was naturally learned; he needed not the spectacles of books to read nature; he looked inwards and found her there. I cannot say he is everywhere alike; were he so, I should do him injury to compare him with the greatest of mankind. He is many times flat, insipid ; his comic wit degenerating into clenches, his serious degenerating into bombast. But he is always great when some great occasion is presented to him.”

Among people who know them only by report, there is an impression that Shakespeare's contemporaries were just inferior copies of the myriad-ininded dramatist; that in their works we can trace the same characteristics as we find in his. Of course it is true that they are inferior; indeed it is a case of “Eclipse first and the rest nowhere;" for great as many of the Elizabethan dramatists were, none of them approached Shakespeare's surpassing greatness. But the difference between Shakespeare and the other dramatists is not merely one of degree, it is one of kind. There is a delicacy and grace,

an ethereal flavour difficult to describe but easily felt by every student, about Shakespeare which none of the others has any pretensions to. Indeed one scarcely realises fully his sovereign position till one has read some of the other great Elizabethan dramatists, such as Marlowe, Ben Jonson, and Fletcher.

Among the greater contemporaries or immediate successors of Shakespeare, George Chapman (1559-1634), already mentioned as the rival poet of the “ Sonnets,” occupied in his lifetime a prominent place. But his principal claim to remembrance now is his translation of the “Iliad,” full of genuine Homeric fire, and still perhaps the best translation of that often-translated poem. Passing over Marston, whose chief excellence consisted in passionate declamation, we come to Ben Jonson, as striking and vigorous a personality as his namesake Samuel. Ben was born in London in 1573. He was educated at Westminster School, where he was the celebrated Camden's favourite pupil, and went from it to Cambridge. Unable to find means for his support there, he returned to London, and worked as a bricklayer for about a year. Becoming tired of this uncongenial occupation, he joined the army as a volunteer in the expedition to Flanders, and in a brief campaign there greatly distinguished himself by his bravery. His first play, “ Every Man in his Humour," was acted in 1596. Others speedily followed. His best comedies," Volpone, or the Fox," and “ The Alchemist,” were produced in 1605 and 1610 respectively; his best tragedy,

Sejanus,” in 1603. His plays were not popular, and he did not realise much money by them, but for many years he found a lucrative source of income in the preparation of masques for the Court. Ben died in 1637, after he had by his talents and his self-assertion fought his way, amidst much poverty and many trials, to a literary dictatorship; not so generally recognised, indeed, but as despotic as that held by Samuel Johnson in the eighteenth century. He was a strong-minded, vain

* Keats's noble sonnet “On first looking into Chapman's Homer" shows the impression made by this translation on one possessed of the finest poetic susceptibilities.


John Webster.


man, prone to quarrel with any one who did him a real or a fancied injury; confident in his own powers, and not too ready to recognise the powers of others. Yet, passing over one or two expressions which may be referred to a not unnatural jealousy, he was warm in his praise of Shakespeare; and, like Samuel Johnson, concealed much genuine kindliness of heart beneath a rough and self-asserting exterior. He is by far the most learned of the dramatists; indeed his plays are overlayed by the curious erudition which he was too fond of displaying. The title of his first play indicates his main fault as a dramatist. All his characters are mastered by some special tendency of the mind or humour. They do not represent men and women," says Barry Cornwall, “ with the medley of vices and virtues common to human nature about them, but each is the personification of some one single humour, and no more. There is no fluctuation, no variety or relief in them. His people speak with a malice prepense. They utter by rote what is set down for them, each one pursuing one leading idea from beginning to end, and taking his cue evidently from the prompting of the poet. They speak nothing spontaneously. The original design of each character is pursued so rigidly that, let what will happen, the one single humour is ever uppermost, always the same in point of force, the same in its mode of demonstration, instead of being operated on by circumstances, increased or weakened, hurried or delayed, or turned aside, as the case may require." Jonson's finest pieces are the songs, many of them exquisite, scattered through his masques.

Literary partnerships were not uncommon among the Elizabethan dramatists. Marston, Chapman, and Ben Jonson wrote a play, “Eastward Ho," together; Shakespeare (if the surmises of critics be correct) wrote only part of “Timon" and “Henry VIII.;" but the standing examples of united authorship are Beaumont and Fletcher. Beaumont's share in the plays which bear the joint name is believed to have been small. He died in 1616, at the age of thirty. Fletcher, born in 1579, died in 1625. Both were of gentle birth. Written in the reign of James I., their plays form a transition stage to the Restoration drama. They (perhaps we should rather say Fletcher) were the founders of the comedy of intrigue, afterwards fully developed by Wycherley and Congreve. In “studious indecency” they are surpassed by none of the dramatists, which is saying a great deal.

Of John Webster, of whose life almost nothing is known, the chief works are " Vittoria Corombona," published in 1612, and the “ Duchess of Malfi,” published in 1623, two tragedies deeply tinged with terror and sorrow. In the delineation of characters affected by crime, misery, and remorse, he has few equals. John Ford (1586–1640), too, excelled in dealing with the darker emotions of the heart. His chief plays are “Perkin Warbeck," reckoned the best historical drama after Shakespeare, and the “ Broken Heart.” Philip Massinger (15841640) was also a man of sombre genius, but in his case it was united with considerable humorous power. His finest play, “A New Way to Pay Old Debts,” has one very powerfully drawn character, Sir Giles Overreach, an incarnation of selfishness and self-will. James Shirley (1596-1667) was the last of the great race of dramatists, "all of whom," says Lamb, “spoke nearly the same language, and had a set of moral feelings and notions in common.” He was not a great writer, but he was a very prolific one, having written nearly forty plays previous to 1641. In 1642 the theatres were closed, not to be reopened again till about the time of the Restoration, when a totally new species of dramatic art came into vogue.

We have left altogether unnoticed many of the Elizabethan dramatists, and have passed very lightly over most of the others. This is not because they have less literary merit than many other writers dealt with more fully in this book, but because it is nearly impossible to describe their characteristics without lengthy quotations. Excellent introductions to their study will be found in Hazlitt's “ Lectures on the Literature of the Age of Elizabeth,” an exceedingly brilliant, if occasionally misleading book, and in Charles Lamb's “Specimens," which was one of the first works to call attention to their beauties.

« ForrigeFortsæt »