Poems & Short Stories: 4,271
Forum Members: 70,634
Forum Posts: 1,033,546
And over 2 million unique readers monthly!
The great age of English poetry opened with the publication of Spenser's Shepheard's Calendar, in 1579, and closed with the printing of Milton's Samson Agonistes, in 1671. Within this period of little less than a century English thought passed through many changes, and there were several successive phases of style in our imaginative literature. Milton, who acknowledged Spenser as his master, and who was a boy of eight years at Shakespeare's death, lived long enough to witness the establishment of an entirely new school of poets, in the persons of Dryden and his contemporaries. But, roughly speaking, the dates above given mark the limits of one literary epoch, which may not improperly be called the Elizabethan. In strictness the Elizabethan age ended with the queen's death, in 1603. But the poets of the succeeding reigns inherited much of the glow and splendor which marked the diction of their forerunners; and "the spacious times of great Elizabeth" have been, by courtesy, prolonged to the year of the Restoration (1660). There is a certain likeness in the intellectual products of the whole period, a largeness of utterance and a high imaginative cast of thought which stamp them all alike with the queen's seal.
Nor is it by any undue stretch of the royal prerogative that the name of the monarch has attached itself to the literature of her reign and of the reigns succeeding hers. The expression "Victorian poetry" has a rather absurd sound when one considers how little Victoria counts for in the literature of her time. But in Elizabethan poetry the maiden queen is really the central figure. She is Cynthia, she is Thetis, great queen of shepherds and of the sea; she is Spenser's Gloriana, and even Shakespeare, the most impersonal of poets, paid tribute to her in Henry VIII., and, in a more delicate and indirect way, in the little allegory introduced into Midsummer Night's Dream.
an allusion to Leicester's unsuccessful suit for Elizabeth's hand.
The praises of the queen, which sound through all the poetry of her time, seem somewhat overdone to a modern reader. But they were not merely the insipid language of courtly compliment. England had never before had a female sovereign, except in the instance of the gloomy and bigoted Mary. When she was succeeded by her more brilliant sister the gallantry of a gallant and fantastic age was poured at the latter's feet, the sentiment of chivalry mingling itself with loyalty to the crown. The poets idealized Elizabeth. She was to Spenser, to Sidney, and to Raleigh, not merely a woman and a virgin queen, but the champion of Protestantism, the lady of young England, the heroine of the conflict against popery and Spain. Moreover Elizabeth was a great woman. In spite of the vanity, caprice, and ingratitude which disfigured her character, and the vacillating, tortuous policy which often distinguished her government, she was at bottom a sovereign of large views, strong will, and dauntless courage. Like her father, she "loved a man," and she had the magnificent tastes of the Tudors. She was a patron of the arts, passionately fond of shows and spectacles, and sensible to poetic flattery. In her royal progresses through the kingdom, the universities, the nobles, and the cities vied with one another in receiving her with plays, revels, masques, and triumphs, in the mythological taste of the day. "When the queen paraded through a country town," says Warton, the historian of English poetry, "almost every pageant was a pantheon. When she paid a visit at the house of any of her nobility, at entering the hall she was saluted by the penates. In the afternoon, when she condescended to walk in the garden, the lake was covered with tritons and nereids; the pages of the family were converted into wood-nymphs, who peeped from every bower; and the footmen gamboled over the lawns in the figure of satyrs. When her majesty hunted in the park she was met by Diana, who, pronouncing our royal prude to be the brightest paragon of unspotted chastity, invited her to groves free from the intrusions of Acteon." The most elaborate of these entertainments of which we have any notice were, perhaps, the games celebrated in her honor by the Earl of Leicester, when she visited him at Kenilworth, in 1575. An account of these was published by a contemporary poet, George Gascoigne, The Princely Pleasures at the Court of Kenilworth, and Walter Scott has made them familiar to modern readers in his novel of Kenilworth. Sidney was present on this occasion, and, perhaps, Shakespeare, then a boy of eleven, and living at Stratford, not far off, may have been taken to see the spectacle; may have seen Neptune riding on the back of a huge dolphin in the castle lake, speaking the copy of verses in which he offered his trident to the empress of the sea; and may haveheard a mermaid on a dolphin's back
But in considering the literature of Elizabeth's reign it will be convenient to speak first of the prose. While following up Spenser's career to its close (1599) we have, for the sake of unity of treatment, anticipated somewhat the literary history of the twenty years preceding. In 1579 appeared a book which had a remarkable influence on English prose. This was John Lyly's Euphues, the Anatomy of Wit. It was in form a romance, the history of a young Athenian who went to Naples to see the world and get an education; but it is in substance nothing but a series of dialogues on love, friendship, religion, etc., written in language which, from the title of the book, has received the name of Euphuism. This new English became very fashionable among the ladies, and "that beauty in court which could not parley Euphuism," says a writer of 1632, "was as little regarded as she which now there speaks not French."
Walter Scott introduced a Euphuist into his novel the Monastery, but the peculiar jargon which Sir Piercie Shaft on is made to talk is not at all like the real Euphuism. That consisted of antithesis, alliteration, and the profuse illustration of every thought by metaphors borrowed from a kind of fabulous natural history. "Descend into thine own conscience and consider with thyself the great difference between staring and stark-blind, wit and wisdom, love and lust; be merry, but with modesty; be sober, but not too sullen; be valiant, but not too venturous." "I see now that, as the fish Scolopidus in the flood Araxes at the waxing of the moon is as white as the driven snow, and at the waning as black as the burnt coal; so Euphues, which at the first increasing of our familiarity was very zealous, is now at the last cast become most faithless." Besides the fish Scolopidus, the favorite animals of Lyly's menagerie are such as the chameleon, "which though he have most guts draweth least breath;" the bird Piralis, "which sitting upon white cloth is white, upon green, green;" and the serpent Porphirius, "which, though he be full of poison, yet having no teeth, hurteth none but himself."
Lyly's style was pithy and sententious, and his sentences have the air of proverbs or epigrams. The vice of Euphuism was its monotony. On every page of the book there was something pungent, something quotable; but many pages of such writing became tiresome. Yet it did much to form the hitherto loose structure of English prose, by lending it point and polish. His carefully balanced periods were valuable lessons in rhetoric, and his book became a manual of polite conversation and introduced that fashion of witty repartee, which is evident enough in Shakespeare's comic dialogue. In 1580 appeared the second part, Euphues and his England, and six editions of the whole work were printed before 1598. Lyly had many imitators. In Stephen Gosson's School of Abuse, a tract directed against the stage and published about four months later than the first part of Euphues, the language is directly Euphuistic. The dramatist, Robert Greene, published, in 1587, his Menaphon; Camilla's Alarum to Slumbering Euphues, and his Euphues's Censure to Philautus. His brother dramatist, Thomas Lodge, published, in 1590, Rosalynde: Euphues's Golden Legacy, from which Shakespeare took the plot of As You Like It. Shakespeare and Ben Jonson both quote from Euphues in their plays, and Shakespeare was really writing Euphuism when he wrote such a sentence as "'Tis true, 'tis pity; pity 'tis 'tis true."
That knightly gentleman, Philip Sidney, was a true type of the lofty aspiration and manifold activity of Elizabethan England. He was scholar, poet, courtier, diplomatist, soldier, all in one. Educated at Oxford and then introduced at court by his uncle, the Earl of Leicester, he had been sent to France when a lad of eighteen, with the embassy which went to treat of the queen's proposed marriage to the Duke of Alençon, and was in Paris at the time of the Massacre of St. Bartholomew, in 1572. Afterward he had traveled through Germany, Italy, and the Netherlands, had gone as embassador to the emperor's court, and every-where won golden opinions. In 1580, while visiting his sister Mary, Countess of Pembroke, at Wilton, he wrote, for her pleasure, the Countess of Pembroke's Arcadia, which remained in manuscript till 1590. This was a pastoral romance, after the manner of the Italian Arcadia of Sanazzaro, and the Diana Enamorada of Montemayor, a Portuguese author. It was in prose, but intermixed with songs and sonnets, and Sidney finished only two books and a portion of the third. It describes the adventures of two cousins, Musidorus and Pyrocles, who were wrecked on the coast of Sparta. The plot is very involved and is full of the stock episodes of romance: disguises, surprises, love intrigues, battles, jousts and single combats. Although the insurrection of the Helots against the Spartans forms a part of the story, the Arcadia is not the real Arcadia of the Hellenic Peloponnesus, but the fanciful country of pastoral romance, an unreal clime, like the fairy land of Spenser.
Sidney was our first writer of poetic prose. The poet Drayton says that hedid first reduce
Sidney was certainly no Euphuist, but his style was as "Italianated" as Lyly's, though in a different way. His English was too pretty for prose. His "Sidneian showers of sweet discourse" sowed every page of the Arcadia with those flowers of conceit, those sugared fancies which his contemporaries loved, but which the taste of a severer age finds insipid. This splendid vice of the Elizabethan writers appears in Sidney, chiefly in the form of an excessive personification. If he describes a field full of roses, he makes "the roses add such a ruddy show unto it, as though the field were bashful at his own beauty." If he describes ladies bathing in the stream, he makes the water break into twenty bubbles, as "not content to have the picture of their face in large upon him, but he would in each of those bubbles set forth a miniature of them." And even a passage which should be tragic, such as the death of his heroine, Parthenia, he embroiders with conceits like these: "For her exceeding fair eyes having with continued weeping got a little redness about them, her round sweetly swelling lips a little trembling, as though they kissed their neighbor Death; in her cheeks the whiteness striving by little and little to get upon the rosiness of them; her neck, a neck of alabaster, displaying the wound which with most dainty blood labored to drown his own beauties; so as here was a river of purest red, there an island of perfectest white," etc.
The Arcadia, like Euphues, was a lady's book. It was the favorite court romance of its day, but it surfeits a modern reader with its sweetness, and confuses him with its tangle of adventures. The lady for whom it was written was the mother of that William Herbert, Earl of Pembroke, to whom Shakespeare's sonnets are thought to have been dedicated. And she was the subject of Ben Jonson's famous epitaph.Underneath this sable herse
Sidney's Defense of Poesy composed in 1581, but not printed till 1595, was written in manlier English than the Arcadia, and is one of the very few books of criticism belonging to a creative and uncritical time. He was also the author of a series of love sonnets, Astrophel and Stella, in which he paid Platonic court to the Lady Penelope Rich (with whom he was not in love), according to the conventional usage of the amourists.
Sidney died in 1586, from a wound received in a cavalry charge at Zutphen, where he was an officer in the English contingent sent to help the Dutch against Spain. The story has often been told of his giving his cup of water to a wounded soldier with the words, "Thy necessity is yet greater than mine." Sidney was England's darling, and there was hardly a poet in the land from whom his death did not obtain "the meed of some melodious tear." Spenser's Ruins of Time were among the number of these funeral songs; but the best of them all was by one Matthew Royden, concerning whom little is known.
Another typical Englishman of Elizabeth's reign was Walter Raleigh, who was even more versatile than Sidney, and more representative of the restless spirit of romantic adventure, mixed with cool, practical enterprise that marked, the times. He fought against the queen's enemies by land and sea in many quarters of the globe; in the Netherlands and in Ireland against Spain, with the Huguenot army against the League in France. Raleigh was from Devonshire, the great nursery of English seamen. He was half-brother to the famous navigator, Sir Humphrey Gilbert, and cousin to another great captain, Sir Richard Grenville. He sailed with Gilbert on one of his voyages against the Spanish treasure fleet, and in 1591 he published a report of the fight, near the Azores, between Grenville's ship, the Revenge, and fifteen great ships of Spain, an action, said Francis Bacon, "memorable even beyond credit, and to the height of some heroical fable." Raleigh was active in raising a fleet against the Spanish Armada of 1588. He was present in 1596 at the brilliant action in which the Earl of Essex "singed the Spanish king's beard," in the harbor of Cadiz. The year before he had sailed to Guiana, in search of the fabled El Dorado, destroying on the way the Spanish town of San José, in the West Indies; and on his return he published his Discovery of the Empire of Guiana. In 1597 he captured the town of Fayal, in the Azores. He took a prominent part in colonizing Virginia, and he introduced tobacco and the potato plant into Europe.
America was still a land of wonder and romance, full of rumors, nightmares, and enchantments. In 1580, when Francis Drake, "the Devonshire Skipper," had dropped anchor in Plymouth Harbor, after his voyage around the world, the enthusiasm of England had been mightily stirred. These narratives of Raleigh, and the similar accounts of the exploits of the bold sailors, Davis, Hawkins, Frobisher, Gilbert, and Drake; but especially the great cyclopedia of nautical travel, published by Richard Hakluyt in 1589, The Principal Navigations, Voyages, and Discoveries made by the English Nation, worked powerfully on the imaginations of the poets. We see the influence of this literature of travel in the Tempest, written undoubtedly after Shakespeare had been reading the narrative of Sir George Somers's shipwreck on the Bermudas or "Isles of Devils."
Raleigh was not in favor with Elizabeth's successor, James I. He was sentenced to death on a trumped-up charge of high treason. The sentence hung over him until 1618, when it was revived against him and he was beheaded. Meanwhile, during his twelve years' imprisonment in the Tower, he had written his magnum opus, the History of the World. This is not a history, in the modern sense, but a series of learned dissertations on law, government, theology, magic, war, etc. A chapter with such a caption as the following would hardly be found in a universal history nowadays: "Of their opinion which make Paradise as high as the moon; and of others which make it higher than the middle regions of the air." The preface and conclusion are noble examples of Elizabethan prose, and the book ends with an oft-quoted apostrophe to Death. "O eloquent, just and mighty Death! Whom none could advise, thou hast persuaded; what none hath dared, thou hast done; and whom all the world hath flattered, thou only hast cast out of the world and despised; thou hast drawn together all the far-fetched greatness, all the pride, cruelty, and ambition of man, and covered it all over with these two narrow words, hic jacet."
Although so busy a man, Raleigh found time to be a poet. Spenser calls him "the summer's nightingale," and George Puttenham, in his Art of English Poesy (1589), finds his "vein most lofty, insolent, and passionate." Puttenham used insolent in its old sense, uncommon; but this description is hardly less true, if we accept the word in its modern meaning. Raleigh's most notable verses, The Lie, are a challenge to the world, inspired by indignant pride and the weariness of life—the saeva indignatio of Swift. The same grave and caustic melancholy, the same disillusion marks his quaint poem, The Pilgrimage. It is remarkable how many of the verses among his few poetical remains are asserted in the manuscripts or by tradition to have been "made by Sir Walter Raleigh the night before he was beheaded." Of one such poem the assertion is probably true—namely, the lines "found in his Bible in the gate-house at Westminster."Even such is Time, that takes in trust,
The strictly literary prose of the Elizabethan period bore a small proportion to the verse. Many entire departments of prose literature were as yet undeveloped. Fiction was represented—outside of the Arcadia and Euphues already mentioned—chiefly by tales translated or imitated from Italian novelle. George Turberville's Tragical Tales (1566) was a collection of such stories, and William Paynter's Palace of Pleasure (1576-1577) a similar collection from Boccaccio's Decameron and the novels of Bandello. These translations are mainly of interest as having furnished plots to the English dramatists. Lodge's Rosalind and Robert Greene's Pandosto, the sources respectively of Shakespeare's As You Like It and Winter's Tale, are short pastoral romances, not without prettiness in their artificial way. The satirical pamphlets of Thomas Nash and his fellows, against "Martin Marprelate," an anonymous writer, or company of writers, who attacked the bishops, are not wanting in wit, but are so cumbered with fantastic whimsicalities, and so bound up with personal quarrels, that oblivion has covered them. The most noteworthy of them were Nash's Piers Penniless's Supplication to the Devil, Lyly's Pap with a Hatchet, and Greene's Groat's Worth of Wit. Of books which were not so much literature as the material of literature, mention may be made of the Chronicle of England, published by Ralph Holinshed in 1580. This was Shakespeare's English history, and its strong Lancastrian bias influenced Shakespeare in his representation of Richard III. and other characters in his historical plays. In his Roman tragedies Shakespeare followed closely Sir Thomas North's translation of Plutarch's Lives, made in 1579 from the French version of Jacques Amyot.
Of books belonging to other departments than pure literature, the most important was Richard Hooker's Ecclesiastical Polity, the first four books of which appeared in 1594. This was a work on the philosophy of law, and a defense, as against the Presbyterians, of the government of the English Church by bishops. No work of equal dignity and scope had yet been published in English prose. It was written in sonorous, stately, and somewhat involved periods, in a Latin rather than an English idiom, and it influenced strongly the diction of later writers, such as Milton and Sir Thomas Browne. Had the Ecclesiastical Polity been written one hundred, or perhaps even fifty, years earlier, it would doubtless have been written in Latin.
The life of Francis Bacon, "the father of inductive philosophy," as he has been called—better, the founder of inductive logic—belongs to English history, and the bulk of his writings, in Latin and English, to the history of English philosophy. But his volume of Essays was a contribution to general literature. In their completed form they belong to the year 1625, but the first edition was printed in 1597 and contained only ten short essays, each of them rather a string of pregnant maxims—the text for an essay—than that developed treatment of a subject which we now understand by the word essay. They were, said their author, "as grains of salt, that will rather give you an appetite than offend you with satiety." They were the first essays, so called, in the language. "The word," said Bacon, "is late, but the thing is ancient." The word he took from the French essais of Montaigne, the first two books of which had been published in 1592. Bacon testified that his essays were the most popular of his writings because they "came home to men's business and bosoms." Their alternate title explains their character: Counsels Civil and Moral, that is, pieces of advice touching the conduct of life, "of a nature whereof men shall find much in experience, little in books." The essays contain the quintessence of Bacon's practical wisdom, his wide knowledge of the world of men. The truth and depth of his sayings, and the extent of ground which they cover, as well as the weighty compactness of his style, have given many of them the currency of proverbs. "Revenge is a kind of wild justice." "He that hath wife and children hath given hostages to fortune." "There is no excellent beauty that hath not some strangeness in the proportion." Bacon's reason was illuminated by a powerful imagination, and his noble English rises now and then, as in his essay On Death, into eloquence—the eloquence of pure thought, touched gravely and afar off by emotion. In general, the atmosphere of his intellect is that lumen siccum which he loved to commend, "not drenched or bloodied by the affections." Dr. Johnson said that the wine of Bacon's writings was a dry wine.
A popular class of books in the 17th century were "characters" or "witty descriptions of the properties of sundry persons," such as the Good Schoolmaster, the Clown, the Country Magistrate; much as in some modern Heads of the People, where Douglas Jerrold or Leigh Hunt sketches the Medical Student, the Monthly Nurse, etc. A still more modern instance of the kind is George Eliot's Impressions of Theophrastus Such, which derives its title from the Greek philosopher, Theophrastus, whose character-sketches were the original models of this kind of literature. The most popular character-book in Europe in the 17th century was La Bruyère's Caractères. But this was not published till 1688. In England the fashion had been set in 1614, by the Characters of Sir Thomas Overbury, who died by poison the year before his book was printed. One of Overbury's sketches—the Fair and Happy Milkmaid—is justly celebrated for its old-world sweetness and quaintness. "Her breath is her own, which scents all the year long of June, like a new-made hay-cock. She makes her hand hard with labor, and her heart soft with pity; and when winter evenings fall early, sitting at her merry wheel, she sings defiance to the giddy wheel of fortune. She bestows her year's wages at next fair, and, in choosing her garments, counts no bravery in the world like decency. The garden and bee-hive are all her physic and surgery, and she lives the longer for it. She dares go alone and unfold sheep in the night, and fears no manner of ill, because she means none; yet to say truth, she is never alone, but is still accompanied with old songs, honest thoughts and prayers, but short ones. Thus lives she, and all her care is she may die in the spring-time, to have store of flowers stuck upon her winding-sheet."
England was still merry England in the times of good Queen Bess, and rang with old songs, such as kept this milkmaid company; songs, said Bishop Joseph Hall, which were "sung to the wheel and sung unto the pail." Shakespeare loved their simple minstrelsy; he put some of them into the mouth of Ophelia, and scattered snatches of them through his plays, and wrote others like them himself:Now, good Cesario, but that piece of song.
 Simple truth.
Many of these songs, so natural, fresh, and spontaneous, together with sonnets and other more elaborate forms of lyrical verse, were printed in miscellanies, such as the Passionate Pilgrim, England's Helicon, and Davison's Poetical Rhapsody. Some were anonymous, or were by poets of whom little more is known than their names. Others were by well-known writers, and others, again, were strewn through the plays of Lyly, Shakespeare, Jonson, Beaumont, Fletcher, and other dramatists. Series of love sonnets, like Spenser's Amoretti and Sidney's Astrophel and Stella, were written by Shakespeare, Daniel, Drayton, Drummond, Constable, Watson, and others, all dedicated to some mistress real or imaginary. Pastorals, too, were written in great number, such as William Browne's Britannia's Pastorals and Shepherd's Pipe (1613-1616) and Marlowe's charmingly rococo little idyl, The Passionate Shepherd to his Love, which Shakespeare quoted in the Merry Wives of Windsor, and to which Sir Walter Raleigh wrote a reply. There were love stories in verse, like Arthur Brooke's Romeo and Juliet (the source of Shakespeare's tragedy), Marlowe's fragment, Hero and Leander, and Shakespeare's Venus and Adonis, and Rape of Lucrece, the first of these on an Italian and the other three on classical subjects, though handled in any thing but a classical manner. Wordsworth said finely of Shakespeare, that he "could not have written an epic: he would have died of a plethora of thought." Shakespeare's two narrative poems, indeed, are by no means models of their kind. The current of the story is choked at every turn, though it be with golden sand. It is significant of his dramatic habit of mind that dialogue and soliloquy usurp the place of narration, and that, in the Rape of Lucrece especially, the poet lingers over the analysis of motives and feelings, instead of hastening on with the action, as Chaucer, or any born story-teller, would have done.
In Marlowe's poem there is the same spendthrift fancy, although not the same subtlety. In the first two divisions of the poem the story does, in some sort, get forward; but in the continuation, by George Chapman (who wrote the last four "sestiads"), the path is utterly lost, "with woodbine and the gadding vine o'ergrown." One is reminded that modern poetry, if it has lost in richness, has gained in directness, when one compares any passage in Marlowe and Chapman's Hero and Leander with Byron's ringing lines:The wind is high on Helle's wave,
 From Sestos on the Hellespont, where Hero dwelt.
Marlowe's continuator, Chapman, wrote a number of plays, but he is best remembered by his royal translation of Homer, issued in parts from 1598-1615. This was not so much a literal translation of the Greek, as a great Elizabethan poem, inspired by Homer. It has Homer's fire, but not his simplicity; the energy of Chapman's fancy kindling him to run beyond his text into all manner of figures and conceits. It was written, as has been said, as Homer would have written if he had been an Englishman of Chapman's time. Keats's fine ode, On First Looking into Chapman's Homer, is well known. In his translation of the Odyssey, Chapman employed the ten-syllabled heroic line chosen by most of the standard translators; but for the Iliad he used the long "fourteener." Certainly all later versions—Pope's and Cowper's and Lord Derby's and Bryant's—seem pale against the glowing exuberance of Chapman's English, which degenerates easily into sing-song in the hands of a feeble metrist. In Chapman it is often harsh, but seldom tame, and in many passages it reproduces wonderfully the ocean-like roll of Homer's hexameters.From his bright helm and shield did burn a most unwearied fire,
The national pride in the achievements of Englishmen, by land and sea, found expression, not only in prose chronicles and in books, like Stow's Survey of London, and Harrison's Description of England (prefixed to Holinshed's Chronicle), but in long historical and descriptive poems, like William Warner's Albion's England, 1586; Samuel Daniel's History of the Civil Wars, 1595-1602; Michael Drayton's Barons' Wars, 1596, England's Heroical Epistles, 1598, and Polyolbion, 1613. The very plan of these works was fatal to their success. It is not easy to digest history and geography into poetry. Drayton was the most considerable poet of the three, but his Polyolbion was nothing more than a "gazeteer in rime," a topographical survey of England and Wales, with tedious personifications of rivers, mountains, and valleys, in thirty books and nearly one hundred thousand lines. It was Drayton who said of Marlowe, that he "had in him those brave translunary things that the first poets had;" and there are brave things in Drayton, but they are only occasional passages, oases among dreary wastes of sand. His Agincourt is a spirited war-song, and his Nymphidia; or, Court of Faery, is not unworthy of comparison with Drake's Culprit Fay, and is interesting as bringing in Oberon and Robin Goodfellow, and the popular fairy lore of Shakespeare's Midsummer Night's Dream.
The "well-languaged Daniel," of whom Ben Jonson said that he was "a good honest man, but no poet," wrote, however, one fine meditative piece, his Epistle to the Countess of Cumberland, a sermon apparently on the text of the Roman poet Lucretius's famous passage in praise of philosophy,Suave, mari magno, turbantibus æquora ventis,
But the Elizabethan genius found its fullest and truest expression in the drama. It is a common phenomenon in the history of literature that some old literary form or mold will run along for centuries without having any thing poured into it worth keeping, until the moment comes when the genius of the time seizes it and makes it the vehicle of immortal thought and passion. Such was in England the fortune of the stage play. At a time when Chaucer was writing character-sketches that were really dramatic, the formal drama consisted of rude miracle plays that had no literary quality whatever. These were taken from the Bible, and acted at first by the priests as illustrations of Scripture history and additions to the church service on feasts and saints' days. Afterward the town guilds, or incorporated trades, took hold of them, and produced them annually on scaffolds in the open air. In some English cities, as Coventry and Chester, they continued to be performed almost to the close of the 16th century. And in the celebrated Passion Play at Oberammergau, in Bavaria, we have an instance of a miracle play that has survived to our own day. These were followed by the moral plays, in which allegorical characters, such as Clergy, Lusty Juventus, Riches, Folly, and Good Demeanaunce were the persons of the drama. The comic character in the miracle plays had been the Devil, and he was retained in some of the moralities side by side with the abstract vice, who became the clown or fool of Shaksperian comedy. The "formal Vice, Iniquity," as Shakespeare calls him, had it for his business to belabor the roaring Devil with his wooden sword:... with his dagger of lath
He survives also in the harlequin of the pantomimes, and in Mr. Punch, of the puppet shows, who kills the Devil and carries him off on his back, when the latter is sent to fetch him to hell for his crimes.
Masques and interludes—the latter a species of short farce—were popular at the court of Henry VIII. Elizabeth was often entertained at the universities or at the inns of court with Latin plays, or with translations from Seneca, Euripides, and Ariosto. Original comedies and tragedies began to be written, modeled upon Terence and Seneca, and chronicle histories founded on the annals of English kings. There was a master of the revels at court, whose duty it was to select plays to be performed before the queen, and these were acted by the children of the Royal Chapel, or by the choir boys of St. Paul's Cathedral. These early plays are of interest to students of the history of the drama, and throw much light upon the construction of later plays, like Shakespeare's; but they are rude and inartistic, and without any literary value.
There were also private companies of actors maintained by wealthy noblemen, like the Earl of Leicester, and bands of strolling players, who acted in inn-yards and bear-gardens. It was not until stationary theaters were built and stock companies of actors regularly licensed and established, that any plays were produced which deserve the name of literature. In 1576 the first London play-houses, known as the Theater and the Curtain, were erected in the suburb of Shoreditch, outside the city walls. Later the Rose, the Hope, the Globe, and the Swan were built on the Bankside, across the Thames, and play-goers resorting to them were accustomed to "take boat." These locations were chosen in order to get outside the jurisdiction of the mayor and corporation, who were Puritans, and determined in their opposition to the stage. For the same reason the Blackfriars, belonging to the company that owned the Globe—the company in which Shakespeare was a stockholder—was built, about 1596, within the "liberties" of the dissolved monastery of the Blackfriars.
These early theaters were of the rudest construction. The six-penny spectators, or "groundlings," stood in the yard or pit, which had neither floor nor roof. The shilling spectators sat on the stage, where they were accommodated with stools and tobacco pipes, and whence they chaffed the actors or the "opposed rascality" in the yard. There was no scenery, and the female parts were taken by boys. Plays were acted in the afternoon. A placard, with the letters "Venice," or "Rome," or whatever, indicated the place of the action. With such rude appliances must Shakespeare bring before his audience the midnight battlements of Elsinore and the moonlit garden of the Capulets. The dramatists had to throw themselves upon the imagination of their public, and it says much for the imaginative temper of the public of that day, that it responded to the appeal. It suffered the poet to transport it over wide intervals of space and time, and "with aid of some few foot and half-foot words, fight over York and Lancaster's long jars." Pedantry undertook, even at the very beginnings of the Elizabethan drama, to shackle it with the so-called rules of Aristotle, or classical unities of time and place, to make it keep violent action off the stage and comedy distinct from tragedy. But the playwrights appealed from the critics to the truer sympathies of the audience, and they decided for feedom and action, rather than restraint and recitation. Hence our national drama is of Shakespeare and not of Racine. By 1603 there were twelve play-houses in London in full blast, although the city then numbered only one hundred and fifty thousand inhabitants.
Fresh plays were produced every year. The theater was more to the Englishmen of that time than it has ever been before or since. It was his club, his novel, his newspaper, all in one. No great drama has ever flourished apart from a living stage, and it was fortunate that the Elizabethan dramatists were, almost all of them, actors, and familiar with stage effect. Even the few exceptions, like Beaumont and Fletcher, who were young men of good birth and fortune, and not dependent on their pens, were probably intimate with the actors, lived in a theatrical atmosphere, and knew practically how plays should be put on.
It had now become possible to earn a livelihood as an actor and playwright. Richard Burbage and Edward Alleyn, the leading actors of their generation, made large fortunes. Shakespeare himself made enough from his share in the profits of the Globe to retire with a competence, some seven years before his death, and purchase a handsome property in his native Stratford. Accordingly, shortly after 1580, a number of men of real talent began to write for the stage as a career. These were young graduates of the universities, Marlowe, Greene, Peele, Kyd, Lyly, Lodge, and others, who came up to town and led a bohemian life as actors and playwrights. Most of them were wild and dissipated and ended in wretchedness. Peele died of a disease brought on by his evil courses; Greene, in extreme destitution, from a surfeit of Rhenish wine and pickled herring, and Marlowe was stabbed in a tavern brawl.
The Euphuist Lyly produced eight plays between 1584 and 1601. They were written for court entertainments, mostly in prose and on mythological subjects. They have little dramatic power, but the dialogue is brisk and vivacious, and there are several pretty songs in them. All the characters talk Ephuism. The best of these was Alexander and Campaspe, the plot of which is briefly as follows. Alexander has fallen in love with his beautiful captive, Campaspe, and employs the artist Apelles to paint her portrait. During the sittings Apelles becomes enamored of his subject and declares his passion, which is returned. Alexander discovers their secret, but magnanimously forgives the treason and joins the lovers' hands. The situation is a good one, and capable of strong treatment in the hands of a real dramatist. But Lyly slips smoothly over the crisis of the action and, in place of passionate scenes, gives us clever discourses and soliloquies, or, at best, a light interchange of question and answer, full of conceits, repartees, and double meanings. For example:"Apel. Whom do you love best in the world?"
Lyly's service to the drama consisted in his introduction of an easy and sparkling prose as the language of high comedy, and Shakespeare's indebtedness to the fashion thus set is seen in such passages as the wit combats between Benedict and Beatrice in Much Ado about Nothing, greatly superior as they are to any thing of the kind in Lyly.
The most important of the dramatists who were Shakespeare's forerunners, or early contemporaries, was Christopher or—as he was familiarly called—Kit Marlowe. Born in the same year with Shakespeare (1564), he died in 1593, at which date his great successor is thought to have written no original plays, except the Comedy of Errors and Love's Labours Lost. Marlowe first popularized blank verse as the language of tragedy in his Tamburlaine, written before 1587, and in subsequent plays he brought it to a degree of strength and flexibility which left little for Shakespeare to do but to take it as he found it. Tamburlaine was a crude, violent piece, full of exaggeration and bombast, but with passages here and there of splendid declamation, justifying Ben Jonson's phrase, "Marlowe's mighty line." Jonson, however, ridiculed, in his Discoveries, the "scenical strutting and furious vociferation" of Marlowe's hero; and Shakespeare put a quotation from Tamburlaine into the mouth of his ranting Pistol. Marlowe's Edward II. was the most regularly constructed and evenly written of his plays. It was the best historical drama on the stage before Shakespeare, and not undeserving of the comparison which it has provoked with the latter's Richard II. But the most interesting of Marlowe's plays, to a modern reader, is the Tragical History of Doctor Faustus. The subject is the same as in Goethe's Faust, and Goethe, who knew the English play, spoke of it as greatly planned. The opening of Marlowe's Faustus is very similar to Goethe's. His hero, wearied with unprofitable studies, and filled with a mighty lust for knowledge and the enjoyment of life, sells his soul to the Devil in return for a few years of supernatural power. The tragic irony of the story might seem to lie in the frivolous use which Faustus makes of his dearly bought power, wasting it in practical jokes and feats of legerdermain; but of this Marlowe was probably unconscious. The love story of Margaret, which is the central point of Goethe's drama, is entirely wanting in Marlowe's, and so is the subtle conception of Goethe's Mephistophiles. Marlowe's handling of the supernatural is materialistic and downright, as befitted an age which believed in witchcraft. The greatest part of the English Faustus is the last scene, in which the agony and terror of suspense with which the magician awaits the stroke of the clock that signals his doom are powerfully drawn.O, lente, lente currite, noctis equi!
Marlowe's genius was passionate and irregular. He had no humor, and the comic portions of Faustus are scenes of low buffoonery.
George Peele's masterpiece, David and Bethsabe, was also, in many respects, a fine play, though its beauties were poetic rather than dramatic, consisting not in the characterization—which is feeble—but in the Eastern luxuriance of the imagery. There is one noble chorus—O proud revolt of a presumptuous man,
which reminds one of passages in Milton's Samson Agonistes, and occasionally Peele rises to such high Æschylean audacities as this:At him the thunder shall discharge his bolt,
Robert Greene was a very unequal writer. His plays are slovenly and careless in construction, and he puts classical allusions into the mouths of milkmaids and serving boys, with the grotesque pedantry and want of keeping common among the playwrights of the early stage. He has, notwithstanding, in his comedy parts, more natural lightness and grace than either Marlowe or Peele. In his Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay, there is a fresh breath, as of the green English country, in such passages as the description of Oxford, the scene at Harleston Fair, and the picture of the dairy in the keeper's lodge at merry Fressingfield.
In all these ante-Shaksperian dramatists there was a defect of art proper to the first comers in a new literary departure. As compared not only with Shakespeare, but with later writers, who had the inestimable advantage of his example, their work was full of imperfection, hesitation, experiment. Marlowe was probably, in native genius, the equal at least of Fletcher or Webster, but his plays, as a whole, are certainly not equal to theirs. They wrote in a more developed state of the art. But the work of this early school settled the shape which the English drama was to take. It fixed the practice and traditions of the national theater. It decided that the drama was to deal with the whole of life, the real and the ideal, tragedy and comedy, prose and verse, in the same play, without limitations of time, place, and action. It decided that the English play was to be an action, and not a dialogue, bringing boldly upon the mimic scene feasts, dances, processions, hangings, riots, plays within plays, drunken revels, beatings, battle, murder, and sudden death. It established blank verse, with occasional riming couplets at the close of a scene or of a long speech, as the language of the tragedy and high comedy parts, and prose as the language of the low comedy and "business" parts. And it introduced songs, a feature of which Shakespeare made exquisite use. Shakespeare, indeed, like all great poets, invented no new form of literature, but touched old forms to finer purposes, refining every thing, discarding nothing. Even the old chorus and dumb show he employed, though sparingly, as also the old jig, or comic song, which the clown used to give between the acts.
Of the life of William Shakespeare, the greatest dramatic poet of the world, so little is known that it has been possible for ingenious persons to construct a theory—and support it with some show of reason—that the plays which pass under his name were really written by Bacon or some one else. There is no danger of this paradox ever making serious headway, for the historical evidence that Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare's plays, though not overwhelming, is sufficient. But it is startling to think that the greatest creative genius of his day, or perhaps of all time, was suffered to slip out of life so quietly that his title to his own works could even be questioned only two hundred and fifty years after the event. That the single authorship of the Homeric poems should be doubted is not so strange, for Homer is almost prehistoric. But Shakespeare was a modern Englishman, and at the time of his death the first English colony in America was already nine years old. The important known facts of his life can be told almost in a sentence. He was born at Stratford-on-Avon in 1564, married when he was eighteen, went to London probably in 1587, and became an actor, play writer, and stockholder in the company which owned the Blackfriars and the Globe theaters. He seemingly prospered, and retired about 1609 to Stratford, where he lived in the house that he had bought some years before, and where he died in 1616. His Venus and Adonis was printed in 1593, his Rape of Lucrece in 1594, and his Sonnets in 1609. So far as is known, only eighteen of the thirty-seven plays generally attributed to Shakespeare were printed during his life-time. These were printed singly, in quarto shape, and were little more than stage books, or librettos. The first collected edition of his works was the so-called "First Folio" of 1623, published by his fellow-actors, Heming and Condell. No contemporary of Shakespeare thought it worth while to write a life of the stage-player. There is a number of references to him in the literature of the time; some generous, as in Ben Jonson's well-known verses; others singularly unappreciative, like Webster's mention of "the right happy and copious industry of Master Shakespeare." But all these together do not begin to amount to the sum of what was said about Spenser, or Sidney, or Raleigh, or Ben Jonson. There is, indeed, nothing to show that his contemporaries understood what a man they had among them in the person of "Our English Terence, Mr. Will Shakespeare." The age, for the rest, was not a self-conscious one, nor greatly given to review writing and literary biography. Nor is there enough of self-revelation in Shakespeare's plays to aid the reader in forming a notion of the man. He lost his identity completely in the characters of his plays, as it is the duty of a dramatic writer to do. His sonnets have been examined carefully in search of internal evidence as to his character and life, but the speculations founded upon them have been more ingenious than convincing.
Shakespeare probably began by touching up old plays. Henry VI. and the bloody tragedy of Titus Andronicus, if Shakespeare's at all, are doubtless only his revision of pieces already on the stage. The Taming of the Shrew seems to be an old play worked over by Shakespeare and some other dramatist, and traces of another hand are thought to be visible in parts of Henry VIII., Pericles, and Timon of Athens. Such partnerships were common among the Elizabethan dramatists, the most illustrious example being the long association of Beaumont and Fletcher. The plays in the First Folio were divided into histories, comedies, and tragedies, and it will be convenient to notice them briefly in that order.
It was a stirring time when the young adventurer came to London to try his fortune. Elizabeth had finally thrown down the gage of battle to Catholic Europe, by the execution of Mary Stuart, in 1587. The following year saw the destruction of the colossal Armada, which Spain had sent to revenge Mary's death; and hard upon these events followed the gallant exploits of Grenville, Essex, and Raleigh.
That Shakespeare shared the exultant patriotism of the times, and the sense of their aloofness from the continent of Europe, which was now born in the breasts of Englishmen, is evident from many a passage in his plays.This happy breed of men, this little world,
His English histories are ten in number. Of these King John and Henry VIII. are isolated plays. The others form a consecutive series, in the following order: Richard II. the two parts of Henry IV., Henry V., the three parts of Henry VI., and Richard III. This series may be divided into two, each forming a tetralogy, or group of four plays. In the first the subject is the rise of the house of Lancaster. But the power of the Red Rose was founded in usurpation. In the second group, accordingly, comes the Nemesis, in the civil wars of the Roses, reaching their catastrophe in the downfall of both Lancaster and York, and the tyranny of Gloucester. The happy conclusion is finally reached in the last play of the series, when this new usurper is overthrown in turn, and Henry VII., the first Tudor sovereign, ascends the throne and restores the Lancastrian inheritance, purified, by bloody atonement, from the stain of Richard II.'s murder. These eight plays are, as it were, the eight acts of one great drama; and, if such a thing were possible, they should be represented on successive nights, like the parts of a Greek trilogy. In order of composition the second group came first. Henry VI. is strikingly inferior to the others. Richard III. is a good acting play, and its popularity has been sustained by a series of great tragedians, who have taken the part of the king. But, in a literary sense, it is unequal to Richard II., or the two parts of Henry IV. The latter is unquestionably Shakespeare's greatest historical tragedy, and it contains his master-creation in the region of low comedy, the immortal Falstaff.
The constructive art with which Shakespeare shaped history into drama is well seen in comparing his King John with the two plays on that subject which were already on the stage. These, like all the other old "Chronicle histories," such as Thomas Lord Cromwell and the Famous Victories of Henry V., follow a merely chronological, or biographical, order, giving events loosely, as they occurred, without any unity of effect, or any reference to their bearing on the catastrophe. Shakespeare's order was logical. He compressed and selected, disregarding the fact of history oftentimes, in favor of the higher truth of fiction; bringing together a crime and its punishment as cause and effect, even though they had no such relation in the chronicle, and were separated, perhaps, by many years.
Shakespeare's first two comedies were experiments. Love's Labour's Lost was a play of manners, with hardly any plot. It brought together a number of humors, that is, oddities and affectations of various sorts, and played them off on one another, as Ben Jonson afterward did in his comedies of humor. Shakespeare never returned to this type of play, unless, perhaps, in the Taming of the Shrew. There the story turned on a single "humor," Katharine's bad temper, just as the story in Jonson's Silent Woman turned on Morose's hatred of noise. The Taming of the Shrew is, therefore, one of the least Shaksperian of Shakespeare's plays; a bourgeois domestic comedy, with a very narrow interest. It belongs to the school of French comedy, like Molière's Malade Imaginaire, not to the romantic comedy of Shakespeare and Fletcher.
The Comedy of Errors was an experiment of an exactly opposite kind. It was a play purely of incident; a farce, in which the main improbability being granted, namely, that the twin Antipholi and twin Dromios are so alike that they cannot be distinguished, all the amusing complications follow naturally enough. There is little character-drawing in the play. Any two pairs of twins, in the same predicament, would be equally droll. The fun lies in the situation. This was a comedy of the Latin school, and resembled the Mennaechmi of Plautus. Shakespeare never returned to this type of play, though there is an element of "errors" in Midsummer Night's Dream. In the Two Gentlemen of Verona he finally hit upon that species of romantic comedy which he may be said to have invented or created out of the scattered materials at hand in the works of his predecessors. In this play, as in the Merchant of Venice, Midsummer Night's Dream, Much Ado about Nothing, As You Like It, Twelfth Night, Winter's Tale, All's Well that Ends Well, Measure for Measure, and the Tempest, the plan of construction is as follows. There is one main intrigue carried out by the high comedy characters, and a secondary intrigue, or underplot, by the low comedy characters. The former is by no means purely comic, but admits the presentation of the noblest motives, the strongest passions, and the most delicate graces of romantic poetry. In some of the plays it has a prevailing lightness and gayety, as in As You Like It and Twelfth Night. In others, like Measure for Measure, it is barely saved from becoming tragedy by the happy close. Shylock certainly remains a tragic figure, even to the end, and a play like Winter's Tale, in which the painful situation is prolonged for years, is only technically a comedy. Such dramas, indeed, were called, on many of the title-pages of the time, "tragi-comedies." The low comedy interlude, on the other hand, was broadly comic. It was cunningly interwoven with the texture of the play, sometimes loosely, and by way of variety or relief, as in the episode of Touchstone and Audrey, in As You Like It; sometimes closely, as in the case of Dogberry and Verges, in Much Ado about Nothing, where the blundering of the watch is made to bring about the denouement of the main action. The Merry Wives of Windsor is an exception to this plan of construction. It is Shakespeare's only play of contemporary, middle-class English life, and, is written almost throughout in prose. It is his only pure comedy, except the Taming of the Shrew.
Shakespeare did not abandon comedy when writing tragedy, though he turned it to a new account. The two species graded into one another. Thus Cymbeline is, in its fortunate ending, really as much of a comedy as Winter's Tale—to which its plot bears a resemblance—and is only technically a tragedy because it contains a violent death. In some of the tragedies, as in Macbeth and Julius Cæsar, the comedy element is reduced to a minimum. But in others, as Romeo and Juliet, and Hamlet, it heightens the tragic feeling by the irony of contrast. Akin to this is the use to which Shakespeare put the old Vice, or Clown, of the moralities. The Fool in Lear, Touchstone in As You Like It, and Thersites in Troilus and Cressida, are a sort of parody of the function of the Greek chorus, commenting the action of the drama with scraps of bitter, or half-crazy, philosophy, and wonderful gleams of insight into the depths of man's nature.
The earliest of Shakespeare's tragedies, unless Titus Andronicus be his, was, doubtless, Romeo and Juliet, which is full of the passion and poetry of youth and of first love. It contains a large proportion of riming lines, which is usually a sign in Shakespeare of early work. He dropped rime more and more in his later plays, and his blank verse grew freer and more varied in its pauses and the number of its feet. Romeo and Juliet is also unique, among his tragedies, in this respect, that the catastrophe is brought about by a fatality, as in the Greek drama. It was Shakespeare's habit to work out his tragic conclusions from within, through character, rather than through external chances. This is true of all the great tragedies of his middle life, Hamlet, Othello, Lear, Macbeth, in every one of which the catastrophe is involved in the character and actions of the hero. This is so, in a special sense, in Hamlet, the subtlest of all Shakespeare's plays, and, if not his masterpiece, at any rate the one which has most attracted and puzzled the greatest minds. It is observable that in Shakespeare's comedies there is no one central figure, but that, in passing into tragedy, he intensified and concentrated the attention upon a single character. This difference is seen even in the naming of the plays; the tragedies always take their titles from their heroes, the comedies never.
Somewhat later, probably, than the tragedies already mentioned were the three Roman plays, Julius Cæsar, Coriolanus, and Anthony and Cleopatra. It is characteristic of Shakespeare that he invented the plot of none of his plays, but took material that he found at hand. In these Roman tragedies he followed Plutarch closely, and yet, even in so doing, gave, if possible, a greater evidence of real creative power than when he borrowed a mere outline of a story from some Italian novelist. It is most instructive to compare Julius Cæsar with Ben Jonson's Catiline and Sejanus. Jonson was careful not to go beyond his text. In Catiline he translates almost literally the whole of Cicero's first oration against Catiline. Sejanus is a mosaic of passages from Tacitus and Suetonius. There is none of this dead learning in Shakespeare's play. Having grasped the conceptions of the characters of Brutus, Cassius, and Mark Anthony, as Plutarch gave them, he pushed them out into their consequences in every word and act, so independently of his original, and yet so harmoniously with it, that the reader knows that he is reading history, and needs no further warrant for it than Shakespeare's own. Timon of Athens is the least agreeable and most monotonous of Shakespeare's undoubted tragedies, and Troilus and Cressida, said Coleridge, is the hardest to characterize. The figures of the old Homeric world fare but hardly under the glaring light of modern standards of morality which Shakespeare turns upon them. Ajax becomes a stupid bully, Ulysses a crafty politician, and swift-footed Achilles a vain and sulky chief of faction. In losing their ideal remoteness the heroes of the Iliad lose their poetic quality, and the lover of Homer experiences an unpleasant disenchantment.
It was customary in the 18th century to speak of Shakespeare as a rude though prodigious genius. Even Milton could describe him as "warbling his native wood-notes wild." But a truer criticism, beginning in England with Coleridge, has shown that he was also a profound artist. It is true that he wrote for his audiences, and that his art is not every-where and at all points perfect. But a great artist will contrive, as Shakespeare did, to reconcile practical exigencies, like those of the public stage, with the finer requirements of his art. Strained interpretations have been put upon this or that item in Shakespeare's plays; and yet it is generally true that some deeper reason can be assigned for his method in a given case than that "the audience liked puns," or, "the audience liked ghosts." Compare, for example, his delicate management of the supernatural with Marlowe's procedure in Faustus. Shakespeare's age believed in witches, elves, and apparitions; and yet there is always something shadowy or allegorical in his use of such machinery. The ghost in Hamlet is merely an embodied suspicion. Banquo's wraith, which is invisible to all but Macbeth, is the haunting of an evil conscience. The witches in the same play are but the promptings of ambition, thrown into a human shape, so as to become actors in the drama. In the same way, the fairies in Midsummer Night's Dream are the personified caprices of the lovers, and they are unseen by the human characters, whose likes and dislikes they control, save in the instance where Bottom is "translated" (that is, becomes mad) and has sight of the invisible world. So in the Tempest, Ariel is the spirit of the air and Caliban of the earth, ministering, with more or less of unwillingness, to man's necessities.
Shakespeare is the most universal of writers. He touches more men at more points than Homer, or Dante, or Goethe. The deepest wisdom, the sweetest poetry, the widest range of character, are combined in his plays. He made the English language an organ of expression unexcelled in the history of literature. Yet he is not an English poet simply, but a world-poet. Germany has made him her own, and the Latin races, though at first hindered in a true appreciation of him by the canons of classical taste, have at length learned to know him. An ever-growing mass of Shakespearian literature, in the way of comment and interpretation, critical, textual, historical, or illustrative, testifies to the durability and growth of his fame. Above all, his plays still keep, and probably always will keep, the stage. It is common to speak of Shakespeare and the other Elizabethan dramatists as if they stood, in some sense, on a level. But in truth there is an almost measureless distance between him and all his contemporaries. The rest shared with him in the mighty influences of the age. Their plays are touched here and there with the power and splendor of which they were all joint heirs. But, as a whole, they are obsolete. They live in books, but not in the hearts and on the tongues, of men.
The most remarkable of the dramatists contemporary with Shakespeare was Ben Jonson, whose robust figure is in striking contrast with the other's gracious impersonality. Jonson was nine years younger than Shakespeare. He was educated at Westminster School, served as a soldier in the low countries, became an actor in Henslowe's company, and was twice imprisoned—once for killing a fellow-actor in a duel, and once for his part in the comedy of Eastward Hoe, which gave offense to King James. He lived down to the time of Charles I (1635), and became the acknowledged arbiter of English letters and the center of convivial wit combats at the Mermaid, the Devil, and other famous London taverns.What things have we seen
The inscription on his tomb in Westminster Abbey is simplyO rare Ben Jonson!
 Francis Beaumont. Letter to Ben Jonson.
Jonson's comedies were modeled upon the vetus comædia of Aristophanes, which was satirical in purpose, and they belonged to an entirely different school from Shakespeare's. They were classical and not romantic, and were pure comedies, admitting no admixture of tragic motives. There is hardly one lovely or beautiful character in the entire range of his dramatic creations. They were comedies not of character, in the high sense of the word, but of manners or humors. His design was to lash the follies and vices of the day, and his dramatis personæ consisted for the most part of gulls, impostors, fops, cowards, swaggering braggarts, and "Pauls men." In his first play, Every Man in his Humor (acted in 1598), in Every Man out of his Humor, Bartholomew Fair, and, indeed, in all of his comedies, his subject was the fashionable affectations, the whims, oddities, and eccentric developments of London life. His procedure was to bring together a number of these fantastic humorists, and "squeeze out the humor of such spongy souls," by playing them off upon each other, involving them in all manner of comical misadventures, and rendering them utterly ridiculous and contemptible. There was thus a perishable element in his art, for manners change; and, however effective this exposure of contemporary affectations may have been before an audience of Jonson's day, it is as hard for a modern reader to detect his points as it will be for a reader two hundred years hence to understand the satire upon the aesthetic craze in such pieces of the present day as Patience, or the Colonel. Nevertheless, a patient reader, with the help of copious footnotes, can gradually put together for himself an image of that world of obsolete humors in which Jonson's comedy dwells, and can admire the dramatist's solid good sense, his great learning, his skill in construction, and the astonishing fertility of his invention. His characters are not revealed from within, like Shakespeare's, but built up painfully from outside by a succession of minute, laborious particulars. The difference will be plainly manifest if such a character as Slender, in the Merry Wives of Windsor, be compared with any one of the inexhaustible variety of idiots in Jonson's plays; with Master Stephen, for example, in Every Man in his Humor; or, if Falstaff be put side by side with Captain Bobadil, in the same comedy, perhaps Jonson's masterpiece in the way of comic caricature. Cynthia's Revels was a satire on the courtiers and the Poetaster on Jonson's literary enemies. The Alchemist was an exposure of quackery, and is one of his best comedies, but somewhat overweighted with learning. Volpone is the most powerful of all his dramas, but is a harsh and disagreeable piece; and the state of society which it depicts is too revolting for comedy. The Silent Woman is, perhaps, the easiest of all Jonson's plays for a modern reader to follow and appreciate. There is a distinct plot to it, the situation is extremely ludicrous, and the emphasis is laid upon a single humor or eccentricity, as in some of Molière's lighter comedies, like Le Malade Imaginaire, or Le Médecin malgré lui.
In spite of his heaviness in drama, Jonson had a light enough touch in lyric poetry. His songs have not the careless sweetness of Shakespeare's, but they have a grace of their own. Such pieces as his Love's Triumph, Hymn to Diana, the adaptation from Philostratus,Drink to me only with thine eyes,
and many others entitle their author to rank among the first of English lyrists. Some of these occur in his two collections of miscellaneous verse, the Forest and Underwoods; others in the numerous masques which he composed. These were a species of entertainment, very popular at the court of James I., combining dialogue with music, intricate dances, and costly scenery. Jonson left an unfinished pastoral drama, the Sad Shepherd, which contains passages of great beauty; one, especially, descriptive of the shepherdessEarine,
1. A History of Elizabethan Literature. George Saintsbury. London: Macmillan & Co., 1877.
2. Palgrave's Golden Treasury of Songs and Lyrics. London: Macmillan & Co., 1877.
3. The Courtly Poets from Raleigh to Montrose. Edited by J. Hannah. London: Bell & Daldy, 1870.
4. The Countess of Pembroke's Arcadia. London: Sampson Low, Son & Marston, 1867.
5. Bacon's Essays. Edited by W. Aldis Wright. Macmillan & Co. (Golden Treasury Series.)
6. The Cambridge Shakespeare. (Clark & Wright.)
7. Charles Lamb's Specimens of English Dramatic Poets.
8. Ben Jonson's Volpone and Silent Woman. Cunningham's Edition. London: J.C. Hotten, (3 vols.)
|Art of Worldly Wisdom Daily|
In the 1600s, Balthasar Gracian, a jesuit priest wrote 300 aphorisms on living life called "The Art of Worldly Wisdom." Join our newsletter below and read them all, one at a time.
Shakespeare wrote over 150 sonnets! Join our Sonnet-A-Day Newsletter and read them all, one at a time.