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THERE were many poets in the age of Shakespeare who make us think, as we read them, that the characters in their plays could not have spoken more beautifully, more powerfully, more effectively, under the circumstances imagined for the occasion of their utterance: there are only two who make us feel that the words assigned to the creatures of their genius are the very words they must have said, the only words they could have said, the actual words they assuredly did say. Mere literary power, mere poetic beauty, mere charm of passionate or pathetic fancy, we find in varying degrees dispersed among them all alike; but the crowning gift of imagination, the power to make us realize that thus and not otherwise it was, that thus and not otherwise it must have been, was given-except by exceptional fits and starts
- to none of the poets of their time but only to Shakespeare and to Webster.
Webster, it may be said, was but as it were a limb of Shakespeare: but that limb, it might be replied, was the right arm. The kinglycrowned head, the vigilant eye,' whose empire of thought and whose reach of vision no other man's faculty bas ever been found competent to match, are Shakespeare's alone for ever: but the force of hand, the fire of heart, the fervour of pity, the sympathy of passion, not poetic or theatric merely, but actual and immediate, are qualities in which the lesser poet is not less certainly or less unmistakably pre-eminent than the greater. And there is no third to be set beside them : not even if we turn from their contemporaries to Shelley himself. All that Beatrice says in The Cenci is beautiful and conceivable and admirable : but unless we except her exquisite last words—and even they are more beautiful than inevitable—we shall hardly find what we find in King Lear and The White Devil, Othello and The Duchess of Malfy; the tone of convincing reality ; the note, as a critic of our own day might call it, of certitude.
There are poets—in our own age, as in all past ages-from whose best work it might be difficult to choose at a glance some verse sufficient to establish their claim-great as their claim may be—to be remembered for ever; and who yet may be worthy of remembrance among all but the bighest. Webster is not one of these : though his fame assuredly does not depend upon the merit of a casual passage here or there, it would be easy to select from any one of his representative plays such examples of the highest, the purest, the most perfect power, as can be found only in the works of the greatest among poets. There is not, as far as my studies have ever extended, a third English poet to whom these words might rationally be attributed by the conjecture of a competent reader.
We cease to grieve, cease to be fortune's slaves,
There is a depth of severe sense in them, a height of heroic scorn, or a dignity of quiet cynicism, which can scarcely be paralleled in the bitterest or the fiercest effusions of John Marston or Cyril Tourneur or Jonathan Swift. Nay, were they not put into the mouth of a criminal cynic, they would not seem unworthy of Epictetus. There is nothing so grand in the part of Edmund; the one figure in Shakespeare whose aim in life, whose centre of character, is one with the view or the instinct of Webster's two typical villains. Some touches in the part of Flamineo suggest, if not a conscious imitation, an unconscious reminiscence of that prototype: but the essential and radical originality of Webster's genius is shown in the difference of accent with which the same savage and sarcastic philosophy of selfinterest finds expression through the snarl and sneer of his ambitious cynic. Monsters as they may seem of unnatural egotism and unallayed ferocity, the one who dies penitent, though his repentance be as sudden if not as suspicious as any ever wrought by miraculous conversion, dies as thoroughly in character as the one who takes leave of life in a passion of scorn and defiant irony which hardly passes off at last into a mood of mocking and triumphant resignation. There is a cross of heroism in almost all Webster's characters which preserves the worst of them
rom such hatefulness as disgusts us in certain of Fletcher's or of Ford's: they have in them some salt of manhood, some savour of venturesome and humorous resolution, which reminds us of the heroic age in which the genius that begot them was born and reared-the age of Richard Grenvile and Francis Drake, Philip Sidney and William Shakespeare.
The earliest play of Webster's now surviving—if a work so piteously mutilated and defaced can properly be said to survive-is a curious example of the combined freedom and realism with which recent or even contemporary history was habitually treated on the stage during the last years of the reign of Queen Elizabeth. The noblest poem known to me of this peculiar kind is the play of Sir Thomas More, first printed by Mr. Dyce in 1844 for the Shakespeare Society : the worst must almost certainly be that Chronicle History of Thomas Lord Cromwell which the infallible verdict of German intụition has discovered to be not only unquestionably Shakespeare's, but worthy to be classed among his best and maturest works.' About midway between these two I should be inclined to rank The Famous History of Sir Thomas Wyatt, a mangled and deformed abridgment of a tragedy by Dekker and Webster on the story of Lady Jane Grey. In this tragedy, as in the two comedies due to the collaboration of the same poets, it appears to me more than probable that Dekker took decidedly the greater part. The shambling and slipshod metre, which seems now and then to hit by mere chance on some pure and tender note of simple and exquisite melody--the lazy vivacity and impulsive inconsequence of style--the fitful sort of slovenly inspiration, with interludes of absolute and headlong collapseare qualities by which a very novice in the study of dramatic form may recognize the reckless and unmistakable presence of Dekker. The curt and grim precision of Webster's tone, bis terse and pungent force of compressed rhetoric, will be found equally difficult to trace in any of these three plays. Northward Ho, a clever, coarse, and vigorous study of the realistic sort, has not a note of poetry in it, but is more coherent, more sensibly conceived and more ably constructed, than the rambling history of Wyatt or. the hybrid amalgam of prosaic and romantic elements in the compound comedy of Westward Ho. All that is of any great value in this amorphous and incongruous product of inventive impatience and impetuous idleness can be as distinctly traced to the hand of Dekker as the crowning glories of The Two Noble Kinsmen can be traced to the hand of Shakespeare. Any poet, even of his time, might have been proud of these verses, but the accent of them is unmistakable as that of Dekker.
Go, let music
Invisibly fly, yet be enjoyed. This delicate fluency and distilled refinement of expression ought properly, one would say, to have belonged to a poet of such careful and self-respectful genius as Lord Tennyson's: whereas in the very next speech of the same speaker we stumble over such a phrase as that which closes the following sentence.
We feed, wear rich attires, and strive to cleave
Will we eat roots, to imprison fugitive yold. Which he who can parse, let him scan, and he who can scan, let him construe. It is alike incredible and certain that the writer of such exquisite and blameless verse as that in which the finer scenes of Old Fortunatus and The Honest Whore are so smoothly and simply and naturally written should have been capable of writing whole plays in this headlong and halting fashion, as helpless and graceless as the action of a spavined horse, or a cripple who should attempt to run.
It is difficult to say what part of these plays should be assigned to Webster. Their rough realistic humour, with its tone of somewhat coarse-grained goodnature, strikes the habitual note of Dekker's comic style : there is nothing of the fierce and scornful intensity, the ardour of passionate and compressed contempt, which distinguishes the savagely humorous satire of Webster and of Marston, and makes it hopeless to determine by intrinsic evidence how little or how much was added by Webster in the second edition to the original text of Marston's Malcontent: unless—which appears to me not unreasonable--we assume that the printer of that edition lied or blundered after the manner of his contemporary kind in attributing on the title-page-as apparently he meant to attribute—any share in the additional scenes or speeches to the original author of the play. In any case, the passages thus added to that grimmest and most sombre of tragicomedies are in such exact keeping with the previous text that the keenest scent of the veriest bloodhound among critics could not detect a shade of difference in the savour.
The text of either comedy is generally very fair-as free from corruption as could reasonably be expected. The text of Sir Thomas Wyatt is corrupt as well as mutilated. Even in Mr. Dyce's second edition I have noted, not without astonishment, the following flagrant errors left still to glare on us from the distorted and disfigured page. In the sixth scene a single speech of Arundel's contains two of the most palpably preposterous.
The obligation wherein we all stood bound
Cannot be concealed without great reproach
We should of course read cancelled' for 'concealed :' the sense of the context and the exigence of the verse cry alike aloud for the correction. In the sixteenth line from this we come upon an equally obvious error.
Advice in this I hold it better far,
It seems hardly credible to those who are aware how much they owe to the excellent scholarship and editorial faculty of Mr. Dyce, that he should have allowed such a misprint as heirs' for 'honours' to stand in this last unlucky line. Again, in the next scene, when the popular leader Captain Brett attempts to reassure the country folk who are startled at the sight of his insurgent array, he is made to utter (in reply to the exclamation—What's here? soldiers !') the perfectly fatuous phrase- Fear not good speech.' Of course once more—we should read, 'Fear not, good people;' a correction which rectifies the metre as well as the sense.
The play attributed to Webster and Rowley by a publisher of the next generation has been carefully and delicately analyzed by a critic of our own time, who naturally finds it easy to distinguish the finer from the homelier part of the compound weft, and to assign what is rough and crude to the inferior, what is interesting and graceful to the superior poet. The authority of the rogue Kirkman may be likened to the outline or profile of Mr. Mantalini's early loves : it is either no authority at all, or at best it is a 'demd' authority. The same swindler who assigned to Webster and Rowley the authorship of A Cure for a Cuckold assigned to Shakespeare and Rowley the authorship of an infinitely inferior play-a play of which German sagacity has discovered that none of Rowley's other works are equal to this. Assuredly, as far as I know them, they are notin utter stolidity of platitude and absolute impotence of drivel. Rowley was a vigorous artist in comedy and a powerful amateur in tragedy: he may have written the lighter or broader parts of the play which rather unluckily took its name from these, and Webster may have written the more serious or sentimental parts: but there is not the slightest shadow of a reason to suppose it. An obviously apocryphal abortion of the same date, attributed to the same poets by the same knave, has long since been struck off the roll of Webster's works.
The few occasional poems of this great poet are worth study by those who are capable of feeling interest in the comparison of slighter with sublimer things, and the detection in minor works of the same style, here revealed by fitful hints in casual pbrases, as that which animates and distinguishes even a work so insufficient and incompetent as Webster's tragecomedy' of The Devil's Law-case. The noble and impressive extracts from this most incoherent and chaotic of all plays which must be familiar to all students of Charles Lamb are but patches of imperial purple sewn on with the roughest of needles to a garment of the raggedest and coarsest kind of literary serge. Hardly any praise can be too high for their dignity and beauty, their lofty loyalty and simplicity of chivalrous manhood or their deep sincerity of cynic meditation and self-contemptuous mournfulness: and the reader who turns from these magnificent samples to the complete play must expect to find yet another and a yet unknown masterpiece of English tragedy. He will find a crowning example of the famous theorem, 'that the plot is of no use except to bring in the fine things. The plot is in this instance absurd to a degree so far beyond the most preposterous conception of confused and distracting extravagance that the reader's attention may at times be withdrawn from the all but unqualified ugliness of its ethical tone or tendency. Two of Webster's favourite types, the meditative murderer or philo