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nearly forty dramas, besides some which were left in an unfinished state, and completed by Shirley.
It is also necessary to add, that the ten plays which issued from the firm of Beaumont and Fletcher are, by no means, the best of the entire series : they are Philaster, — The Maids Tragedy,-King and No King, - The Knight of the Burning Pestle, — Cupid's Revenge, The Coxcomb, — The Captain,— The Honest Man's Fortune, – The Scornful Lady, and The False One*; productions, in allusion to which it has been said, and perhaps with no great injustice, that “ if the plays of Beaumont were thrown out of the collection by Beaumont and Fletcher, the remainder would form a richer ore." +
Warrantable, therefore, upon this statement, must it be deemed, should we now drop the name of Beaumont, after observing, that a portion of the merits and defects of Fletcher may be attributed to his friend, and that, in the estimation of Ben Jonson, (on this subject the most unexceptionable testimony,) he possessed, beyond al others of his age, a sound and correct judgment. I
The characteristic of Fletcher, in the serious department of his art, was a peculiar mastery in the delineation of the softer passions, especially of love. There is a sweetly pensive tone in many of his pictures of this kind, which steals upon the mind with the most insinuating charm, producing that species of pathos which soothes while it gently agitates the soul; a feeling too sad and melancholy for the genius of comedy, and too mild and subdued for that of tragedy, but admirably adapted to an intermediate style of composition, of which he has given us some happy instances under the title of tragi-comedy. It must be confessed, however, that an impression of feebleness and effeminacy, a sickliness of sentiment, and a want of dignity in the pity which he endeavours to excite, but too often accompany his efforts, even in this his favourite province.
* See Malone's Dryden, vol. i. part ii. p. 101. note. + Monthly Review, new series, vol. lxxxi. p. 126.
# Malone's Dryden, vol. i. part ii. p. 100.- Fuller tells us, in his quaint but emphatic manner, that Beaumont brought “ the ballast of judgment,” and Fletcher “the sail of phantasie." - Worthies, part ii. p. 288.
Yet not unfrequently did Fletcher aspire to the loftiest heights of the dramatic muse; to the terrible, to the wildly awful, to the
agony of grief. But here he sank beneath the genius of Shakspeare; in his endeavour to be great, there is a labour and contortion which frequently betrays the struggle to have been painfully arduous; an impression which we never receive from the drama of his predecessor, who seems to attain the highest elevation with an ease and spontaneity of movement, which suggests an idea, approaching to sublimity, of the fulness and extent of his resources. But, as an elegant critic has observed, Fletcher was “ too mistrustful of Nature ; he always goes a little on one side of her. Shakspeare chose her without a reserve: and had riches, power, understanding, and long-life, with her, for a dowry." *
Very different, however, was the result of his efforts, when he touched the gaieties of life; for in this path, he moves with a grace and legerity which has not often been equalled. He displays, it is true, little humour, and consequently not much strength of character ; but we are told, on good authority t, that no poet before him had painted the conversation of the gentlemen of his day with such fidelity and truth; a declaration which impresses us with an high opinion of the vivacity and intellectual smartness of the dialogue of that age; for there is in the representation of Fletcher an almost perpetual effervescency and corruscation of wit and repartee.
The imagination of Fletcher, when not straining after the eagle wing of the bard of Avon, was fertile and felicitous in an extraordinary degree. The romantic, the fanciful, the playful, are epithets peculiarly descriptive of its range and tone, within which he frequently emulates with success the excellence of his great master.' There appears, indeed, in several of his pieces, an evident intention of entering the lists with Shakspeare. Thus the exquisitely pleasing character of Euphrasia, under the disguise of a page, in Philaster, was undoubtedly intended to rival the similar concealments in The Two Gentlemen of Verona, in As You Like It, in Cymbeline, and in Twelfth Night. Amoret, in The Faithful Shepherdess, is a delightful counterpart of Perdita, in The Winter's Tale, and throughout The Two Noble Kinsmen, and especially in the character of the Jailor's daughter, there is a striking, and, in general, a very happy effort made, to copy
* Lamb's Specimens of English Dramatic Poets, p. 409. + Dryden on Dramatic Poesy.
express colouring of Shakspeare's style, and his mode of representing the wanderings of a disordered intellect.
But when, regardless of the hazardous nature of the experiment, he attempts, in his Sea Voyage, to emulate the magic structure and wild imagery of The Tempest, his ambition serves but to show, that he had formed a very inadequate estimate of his own powers.
Yet the failure in such an enterprise can reflect no disgrace, and from what has been said, it must necessarily be inferred, that we consider Fletcher as holding a very high, if not the highest rank, in the school of Shakspeare.
How much is it to be lamented then, that excellence such as this should have been polluted by the grossest spirit of licentiousness; for it would appear, from the tenour of many of our author's plays, that, in his vocabulary, sensuality and sensibility were synonymous terms ; so nakedly and ostentatiously has he brought forward the most immodest impulses of sexual appetite. Shakspeare may be, and is, occasionally, coarse and unreserved in his language; but, if compared with Fletcher, the nudity of his expressions is like the marble statue of a vestal, when contrasted with the wanton exposure of a prostitute.
As we wish to be spared the pain of reverting to such a subject, for which the age of Fletcher and his successors offers, unfortunately, but too many opportunities, it shall here be closed with a single expression of regret, that a department of poetry which, in itself,
seems better calculated than any other to serve the cause of virtue, should be degraded to a purpose thus base and unworthy. *
On a level with, if not one degree above the writings of Fletcher, follow the purer and more chastised productions of Philip MassinGER, a poet of unwearied vigour and consummate elegance. That he had, in conjunction with others, composed for the stage some years anterior to the death of Shakspeare, there is every reason to conclude ; for his first arrival in London, in 1606, was, we are told, under necessitous circumstances, and with the view of dedicating his talents to dramatic literature; and, though his Virgin Martyr, his earliest publication, did not appear until 1622, it was a notorious fact, that he had written in conjunction both with Beaumont and Fletcher. It is almost certain, indeed, from what Mr. Gifford has stated, that, in the interval just mentioned, he had brought on the stage not less than eight or ten plays. I
The English drama never suffered a greater loss, (for all Shakspeare's pieces have descended to us,) than in the havoc which time and negligence have committed among the works of Massinger; for of thirty-eight plays attributed to his pen, only eighteen have been
Massinger, like Fletcher, pursued the path in which Shakspeare had preceded him with such imperishable glory; but he wants the tenderness and wit of the former, and that splendour of imagination and that dominion over the passions, which characterise the latter.
Would that the Commentators on Shakspeare had pursued the plan which Mr. Gifford has adopted in his edition of Massinger, who, speaking of the freedoms of his author, declares, that “those who examine the notes with a prurient eye, will find no great gratification of their licentiousness. I have called in no one' (he adds) to drivel out gratuitous obscenities in uncouth language; no 'one' to ransack the annals of a brothel for secrets better hid:' where I wished not to detain the reader, I have been silent, and instead of aspiring to the fame of a licentious commentator, sought only for the quiet approbation with which the father or the husband may reward the faithful editor.” — Massinger, vol. i. pp. lxxxiii. lxxxiv.
+ Gifford's Massinger, vol. i. pp. xii. xiv. Introduction.
He has, however, qualities of his own, sufficiently great and attractive, to gift him with the envied lot of being contemplated, in union with these two bards, as one of the chief pillars and supporters of the Romantic drama.
He exhibits, in the first place, a perfectibility, both in diction and versification, of which we have, in dramatic poesy at least, no corresponding example. There is a transparency and perspicuity in the texture of his composition, a sweetness, harmony, and ductility, together with a blended strength and ease in the structure of his metre, which, in his best performances, delight, and never satiate
To this, in some degree technical merit, must be added a spirit of commanding eloquence, a dignity and force of thought, which, while they approach the precincts of sublimity, and indicate great depth and clearness of intellect, show, by the nervous elegance of language in which they are clothed, a combination and comprehension of talent of very unfrequent occurrence.
These qualities are, it must be allowed, not peculiar to dramatic poetry; but when we find, that to their possession are added a powerful discrimination and marked consistency of character, no inconsiderable display of humour, much fertility of invention in the preparation and developement of his incidents, and an unprecedented degree of grace and amenity in the construction of several of his comic scenes, together with a fund of ethic knowledge, an exquisite sense of moral feeling, and above all, a glow of piety, in many instances amounting to sublimity, we willingly ascribe to Massinger originality and dramatic excellence of no inferior order.
But when Dr. Ferriar, closing his Essay on the Writings of Massinger, asserts that he “ ranks immediately under Shakspeare himself *,” we must crave permission to hesitate for a moment, in reference to the enchanting tenderness of Fletcher.
* Gifford's Massinger, vol. i. Essay on the Writings of Massinger, p. cxxvi.