A History of English Literature
by Robert Huntington Fletcher
Preface | How to Study | Tabular View | Chapters: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11 | Assignments
Chapter VI. The Drama From About 1550 To 1642
The Influence of Classical Comedy and Tragedy | The Chronicle-History Play | John Lyly | Peele, Greene & Kyd | Christopher Marlowe | Theatrical Conditions and Theater Buildings | An Elizabethan Stage | Shakespeare | National Life from 1606-1660 | Ben Jonson | The Other Dramatists | Summary |
THE INFLUENCE OF CLASSICAL COMEDY AND TRAGEDY.
In Chapter IV we left the drama at that point, toward the middle of the sixteenth century, when the Mystery Plays had largely declined and Moralities and Interlude-Farces, themselves decadent, were sharing in rather confused rivalry that degree of popular interest which remained unabsorbed by the religious, political, and social ferment. There was still to be a period of thirty or forty years before the flowering of the great Elizabethan drama, but they were to be years of new, if uncertain, beginnings.
The first new formative force was the influence of the classical drama, for which, with other things classical, the Renaissance had aroused enthusiasm. This force operated mainly not through writers for popular audiences, like the authors of most Moralities and Interludes, but through men of the schools and the universities, writing for performances in their own circles or in that of the Court. It had now become a not uncommon thing for boys at the large schools to act in regular dramatic fashion, at first in Latin, afterward in English translation, some of the plays of the Latin comedians which had long formed a part of the school curriculum. Shortly after the middle of the century, probably, the head-master of Westminister School, Nicholas Udall, took the further step of writing for his boys on the classical model an original farce-comedy, the amusing 'Ralph Roister Doister.' This play is so close a copy of Plautus' 'Miles Gloriosus' and Terence's 'Eunuchus' that there is little that is really English about it; a much larger element of local realism of the traditional English sort, in a classical framework, was presented in the coarse but really skillful 'Gammer Gurton's Needle,' which was probably written at about the same time, apparently by the Cambridge student William Stevenson.
Meanwhile students at the universities, also, had been acting Plautus and Terence, and further, had been writing and acting Latin tragedies, as well as comedies, of their own composition. Their chief models for tragedy were the plays of the first-century Roman Seneca, who may or may not have been identical with the philosopher who was the tutor of the Emperor Nero. Both through these university imitations and directly, Seneca's very faulty plays continued for many years to exercise a great influence on English tragedy. Falling far short of the noble spirit of Greek tragedy, which they in turn attempt to copy, Seneca's plays do observe its mechanical conventions, especially the unities of Action and Time, the use of the chorus to comment on the action, the avoidance of violent action and deaths on the stage, and the use of messengers to report such events. For proper dramatic action they largely substitute ranting moralizing declamation, with crudely exaggerated passion, and they exhibit a great vein of melodramatic horror, for instance in the frequent use of the motive of implacable revenge for murder and of a ghost who incites to it. In the early Elizabethan period, however, an age when life itself was dramatically intense and tragic, when everything classic was looked on with reverence, and when standards of taste were unformed, it was natural enough that such plays should pass for masterpieces.
A direct imitation of Seneca, famous as the first tragedy in English on classical lines, was the 'Gorboduc, or Ferrex and Porrex,' of Thomas Norton and Thomas Sackville, acted in 1562. Its story, like those of some of Shakespeare's plays later, goes back ultimately to the account of one of the early reigns in Geoffrey of Monmouth's 'History.' 'Gorboduc' outdoes its Senecan models in tedious moralizing, and is painfully wooden in all respects; but it has real importance not only because it is the first regular English tragedy, but because it was the first play to use the iambic pentameter blank verse which Surrey had introduced to English poetry and which was destined to be the verse-form of really great English tragedy. When they wrote the play Norton and Sackville were law students at the Inner Temple, and from other law students during the following years came other plays, which were generally acted at festival seasons, such, as Christmas, at the lawyers' colleges, or before the Queen, though the common people were also admitted among the audience. Unlike 'Gorboduc,' these other university plays were not only for the most part crude and coarse in the same manner as earlier English plays, but in accordance also with the native English tradition and in violent defiance of the classical principle of Unity, they generally combined tragical classical stories with realistic scenes of English comedy (somewhat later with Italian stories). Nevertheless, and this is the main thing, the more thoughtful members of the Court and University circles, were now learning from the study of classical plays a sense for form and the fundamental distinction between tragedy and comedy.
THE CHRONICLE-HISTORY PLAY.
About twenty years before the end of the century there began to appear, at first at the Court and the Universities, later on the popular stage, a form of play which was to hold, along with tragedy and comedy, an important place in the great decades that were to follow, namely the Chronicle-History Play. This form of play generally presented the chief events in the whole or a part of the reign of some English king. It was largely a product of the pride which was being awakened among the people in the greatness of England under Elizabeth, and of the consequent desire to know something of the past history of the country, and it received a great impulse from the enthusiasm aroused by the struggle with Spain and the defeat of the Armada. It was not, however, altogether a new creation, for its method was similar to that of the university plays which dealt with monarchs of classical history. It partly inherited from them the formless mixture of farcical humor with historical or supposedly historical fact which it shared with other plays of the time, and sometimes also an unusually reckless disregard of unity of action, time, and place. Since its main serious purpose, when it had one, was to convey information, the other chief dramatic principles, such as careful presentation of a few main characters and of a universally significant human struggle, were also generally disregarded. It was only in the hands of Shakespeare that the species was to be moulded into true dramatic form and to attain real greatness; and after a quarter century of popularity it was to be reabsorbed into tragedy, of which in fact it was always only a special variety.
The first Elizabethan dramatist of permanent individual importance is the comedian John Lyly, of whose early success at Court with the artificial romance 'Euphues' we have already spoken. From 'Euphues' Lyly turned to the still more promising work of writing comedies for the Court entertainments with which Queen Elizabeth was extremely lavish. The character of Lyly's plays was largely determined by the light and spectacular nature of these entertainments, and further by the fact that on most occasions the players at Court were boys. These were primarily the 'children [choir-boys] of the Queen's Chapel,' who for some generations had been sought out from all parts of England for their good voices and were very carefully trained for singing and for dramatic performances. The choir-boys of St. Paul's Cathedral, similarly trained, also often acted before the Queen. Many of the plays given by these boys were of the ordinary sorts, but it is evident that they would be most successful in dainty comedies especially adapted to their boyish capacity. Such comedies Lyly proceeded to write, in prose. The subjects are from classical mythology or history or English folk-lore, into which Lyly sometimes weaves an allegorical presentation of court intrigue. The plots are very slight, and though the structure is decidedly better than in most previous plays, the humorous sub-actions sometimes have little connection with the main action. Characterization is still rudimentary, and altogether the plays present not so much a picture of reality as 'a faint moonlight reflection of life.' None the less the best of them, such as 'Alexander and Campaspe,' are delightful in their sparkling delicacy, which is produced partly by the carefully-wrought style, similar to that of 'Euphues,' but less artificial, and is enhanced by the charming lyrics which are scattered through them. For all this the elaborate scenery and costuming of the Court entertainments provided a very harmonious background.
These plays were to exert a strong influence on Shakespeare's early comedies, probably suggesting to him: the use of prose for comedy; the value of snappy and witty dialog; refinement, as well as affectation, of style; lyric atmosphere; the characters and tone of high comedy, contrasting so favorably with the usual coarse farce of the period; and further such details as the employment of impudent boy-pages as a source of amusement.
PEELE, GREENE, AND KYD.
Of the most important early contemporaries of Shakespeare we have already mentioned two as noteworthy in other fields of literature. George Peele's masque-like 'Arraignment of Paris' helps to show him as more a lyric poet than a dramatist. Robert Greene's plays, especially 'Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay,' reveal, like his novels, some real, though not very elaborate, power of characterization. They are especially important in developing the theme of romantic love with real fineness of feeling and thus helping to prepare the way for Shakespeare in a very important particular. In marked contrast to these men is Thomas Kyd, who about the year 1590 attained a meteoric reputation with crude 'tragedies of blood,' specialized descendants of Senecan tragedy, one of which may have been the early play on Hamlet which Shakespeare used as the groundwork for his masterpiece.
CHRISTOPHER MARLOWE, 1564-1593.
Peele and Greene were University men who wrote partly for Court or academic audiences, partly for the popular stage. The distinction between the two sorts of drama was still further broken down in the work of Christopher Marlowe, a poet of real genius, decidedly the chief dramatist among Shakespeare's early contemporaries, and the one from whom Shakespeare learned the most.
Marlowe was born in 1564 (the same year as Shakespeare), the son of a shoemaker at Canterbury. Taking his master's degree after seven years at Cambridge, in 1587, he followed the other 'university wits' to London. There, probably the same year and the next, he astonished the public with the two parts of 'Tamburlaine the Great,' a dramatization of the stupendous career of the bloodthirsty Mongol fourteenth-century conqueror. These plays, in spite of faults now conspicuous enough, are splendidly imaginative and poetic, and were by far the most powerful that had yet been written in England. Marlowe followed them with 'The Tragical History of Dr. Faustus,' a treatment of the medieval story which two hundred years later was to serve Goethe for his masterpiece; with 'The Jew of Malta,' which was to give Shakespeare suggestions for 'The Merchant of Venice'; and with 'Edward the Second,' the first really artistic Chronicle History play. Among the literary adventurers of the age who led wild lives in the London taverns Marlowe is said to have attained a conspicuous reputation for violence and irreligion. He was killed in 1593 in a reckless and foolish brawl, before he had reached the age of thirty.
If Marlowe's life was unworthy, the fault must be laid rather at the door of circumstances than of his own genuine nature. His plays show him to have been an ardent idealist and a representative of many of the qualities that made the greatness of the Renaissance. The Renaissance learning, the apparently boundless vistas which it had opened to the human spirit, and the consciousness of his own power, evidently intoxicated Marlowe with a vast ambition to achieve results which in his youthful inexperience he could scarcely even picture to himself. His spirit, cramped and outraged by the impassable limitations of human life and by the conventions of society, beat recklessly against them with an impatience fruitless but partly grand. This is the underlying spirit of almost all his plays, struggling in them for expression. The Prolog to 'Tamburlaine' makes pretentious announcement that the author will discard the usual buffoonery of the popular stage and will set a new standard of tragic majesty:
From jigging veins of rhyming mother wits,
And such conceits as clownage keeps in pay,
We'll lead you to the stately tent of war,
Where you shall hear the Scythian Tamburlaine
Threatening the world with high astounding terms,
And scourging kingdoms with his conquering sword.
Tamburlaine himself as Marlowe presents him is a titanic, almost superhuman, figure who by sheer courage and pitiless unbending will raises himself from shepherd to general and then emperor of countless peoples, and sweeps like a whirlwind over the stage of the world, carrying everywhere overwhelming slaughter and desolation. His speeches are outbursts of incredible arrogance, equally powerful and bombastic. Indeed his blasphemous boasts of superiority to the gods seem almost justified by his apparently irresistible success. But at the end he learns that the laws of life are inexorable even for him; all his indignant rage cannot redeem his son from cowardice, or save his wife from death, or delay his own end. As has been said,
[Footnote: Professor Barrett Wendell, 'William Shakespeare,' p. 36.] 'Tamburlaine' expresses with 'a profound, lasting, noble sense and in grandly symbolic terms, the eternal tragedy inherent in the conflict between human aspiration and human power.'
For several other reasons 'Tamburlaine' is of high importance. It gives repeated and splendid expression to the passionate haunting Renaissance zest for the beautiful. It is rich with extravagant sensuous descriptions, notable among those which abound gorgeously in all Elizabethan poetry. But finest of all is the description of beauty by its effects which Marlowe puts into the mouth of Faustus at the sight of Helen of Troy:
Was this the face that launched a thousand ships
And burnt the topless towers of Ilium?
Much of Marlowe's strength, again, lies in his powerful and beautiful use of blank verse. First among the dramatists of the popular stage he discarded rime, and taking and vitalizing the stiff pentameter line of
'Gorboduc,' gave it an immediate and lasting vogue for tragedy and high comedy. Marlowe, virtually a beginner, could not be expected to carry blank verse to that perfection which his success made possible for Shakespeare; he did not altogether escape monotony and commonplaceness; but he gained a high degree of flexibility and beauty by avoiding a regularly end-stopped arrangement, by taking pains to secure variety of pause and accent, and by giving his language poetic condensation and suggestiveness. His workmanship thoroughly justifies the characterization 'Marlowe's mighty line,' which Ben Jonson in his tribute to Shakespeare bestowed on it long after Marlowe's death.
The greatest significance of 'Tamburlaine,' lastly, lies in the fact that it definitely established tragedy as a distinct form on the English popular stage, and invested it with proper dignity.
These are Marlowe's great achievements both in 'Tamburlaine' and in his later more restrained plays. His limitations must also be suggested. Like other Elizabethans he did not fully understand the distinction between drama and other literary forms; 'Tamburlaine' is not so much a regularly constructed tragedy, with a struggle between nearly equal persons and forces, artistically complicated and resolved, as an epic poem, a succession of adventures in war (and love). Again, in spite of the prolog in 'Tamburlaine,' Marlowe, in almost all his plays, and following the Elizabethan custom, does attempt scenes of humor, but he attains only to the coarse and brutal horse-play at which the English audiences had laughed for centuries in the Mystery plays and the Interludes. Elizabethan also (and before that medieval) is the lack of historical perspective which gives to Mongol shepherds the manners and speech of Greek classical antiquity as Marlowe had learned to know it at the university. More serious is the lack of mature skill in characterization. Tamburlaine the man is an exaggerated type; most of the men about him are his faint shadows, and those who are intended to be comic are preposterous. The women, though they have some differentiating touches, are certainly not more dramatically and vitally imagined. In his later plays Marlowe makes gains in this respect, but he never arrives at full easy mastery and trenchantly convincing lifelikeness either in characterization, in presentation of action, or in fine poetic finish. It has often been remarked that at the age when Marlowe died Shakespeare had produced not one of the great plays on which his reputation rests; but Shakespeare's genius came to maturity more surely, as well as more slowly, and there is no basis for the inference sometimes drawn that if Marlowe had lived he would ever have equalled or even approached Shakespere's supreme achievement.
THEATRICAL CONDITIONS AND THE THEATER BUILDINGS.
Before we pass to Shakespeare we must briefly consider those external facts which conditioned the form of the Elizabethan plays and explain many of those things in them which at the present time appear perplexing.
TIMON OF ATHENS, v, 4. OUTER SCENE.
Trumpets sound. Enter Alcibiades with his
Powers before Athens.
"Alc. Sound to this Coward, and lascivious Towne, Our terrible approach."
Sounds a parly. The Senators appears upon the Wals.
AN ELIZABETHAN STAGE
The medieval religious drama had been written and acted in many towns throughout the country, and was a far less important feature in the life of London than of many other places. But as the capital became more and more the center of national life, the drama, with other forms of literature, was more largely appropriated by it; the Elizabethan drama of the great period was altogether written in London and belonged distinctly to it. Until well into the seventeenth century, to be sure, the London companies made frequent tours through the country, but that was chiefly when the prevalence of the plague had necessitated the closing of the London theaters or when for other reasons acting there had become temporarily unprofitable. The companies themselves had now assumed a regular organization. They retained a trace of their origin in that each was under the protection of some influential noble and was called, for example, 'Lord Leicester's Servants,' or 'The Lord Admiral's Servants.' But this connection was for the most part nominal--the companies were virtually very much like the stock-companies of the nineteenth century. By the beginning of the great period the membership of each troupe was made up of at least three classes of persons. At the bottom of the scale were the boy-apprentices who were employed, as Shakespeare is said to have been at first, in miscellaneous menial capacities. Next came the paid actors; and lastly the shareholders, generally also actors, some or all of whom were the general managers. The writers of plays were sometimes members of the companies, as in Shakespeare's case; sometimes, however, they were independent.
Until near the middle of Elizabeth's reign there were no special theater buildings, but the players, in London or elsewhere, acted wherever they could find an available place--in open squares, large halls, or, especially, in the quadrangular open inner yards of inns. As the profession became better organized and as the plays gained in quality, such makeshift accommodations became more and more unsatisfactory; but there were special difficulties in the way of securing better ones in London. For the population and magistrates of London were prevailingly Puritan, and the great body of the Puritans, then as always, were strongly opposed to the theater as a frivolous and irreligious thing--an attitude for which the lives of the players and the character of many plays afforded, then as almost always, only too much reason. The city was very jealous of its prerogatives; so that in spite of Queen Elizabeth's strong patronage of the drama, throughout her whole reign no public theater buildings were allowed within the limits of the city corporation. But these limits were narrow, and in 1576 James Burbage inaugurated a new era by erecting 'The Theater' just to the north of the 'city,' only a few minutes' walk from the center of population. His example was soon followed by other managers, though the favorite place for the theaters soon came to be the 'Bankside,' the region in Southwark just across the Thames from the 'city' where Chaucer's Tabard Inn had stood and where pits for bear-baiting and cock-fighting had long flourished.
The structure of the Elizabethan theater was naturally imitated from its chief predecessor, the inn-yard. There, under the open sky, opposite the street entrance, the players had been accustomed to set up their stage. About it, on three sides, the ordinary part of the audience had stood during the performance, while the inn-guests and persons able to pay a fixed price had sat in the open galleries which lined the building and ran all around the yard. In the theaters, therefore, at first generally square-built or octagonal, the stage projected from the rear wall well toward the center of an unroofed pit (the present-day 'orchestra'), where, still on three sides of the stage, the common people, admitted for sixpence or less, stood and jostled each other, either going home when it rained or staying and getting wet as the degree of their interest in the play might determine. The enveloping building proper was occupied with tiers of galleries, generally two or three in number, provided with seats; and here, of course, sat the people of means, the women avoiding embarrassment and annoyance only by being always masked. Behind the unprotected front part of the stage the middle part was covered by a lean-to roof sloping down from the rear wall of the building and supported by two pillars standing on the stage. This roof concealed a loft, from which gods and goddesses or any appropriate properties could be let down by mechanical devices. Still farther back, under the galleries, was the 'rear-stage,' which could be used to represent inner rooms; and that part of the lower gallery immediately above it was generally appropriated as a part of the stage, representing such places as city walls or the second stories of houses. The musicians' place was also just beside in the gallery.
The stage, therefore, was a 'platform stage,' seen by the audience from almost all sides, not, as in our own time, a 'picture-stage,' with its scenes viewed through a single large frame. This arrangement made impossible any front curtain, though a curtain was generally hung before the rear stage, from the floor of the gallery. Hence the changes between scenes must generally be made in full view of the audience, and instead of ending the scenes with striking situations the dramatists must arrange for a withdrawal of the actors, only avoiding if possible the effect of a mere anti-climax. Dead bodies must either get up and walk away in plain sight or be carried off, either by stage hands, or, as part of the action, by other characters in the play. This latter device was sometimes adopted at considerable violence to probability, as when Shakespeare makes Falstaff bear away Hotspur, and Hamlet, Polonius. Likewise, while the medieval habit of elaborate costuming was continued, there was every reason for adhering to the medieval simplicity of scenery. A single potted tree might symbolize a forest, and houses and caverns, with a great deal else, might be left to the imagination of the audience. In no respect, indeed, was realism of setting an important concern of either dramatist or audience; in many cases, evidently, neither of them cared to think of a scene as located in any precise spot; hence the anxious effort of Shakespeare's editors on this point is beside the mark. This nonchalance made for easy transition from one place to another, and the whole simplicity of staging had the important advantage of allowing the audience to center their attention on the play rather than on the accompaniments. On the rear-stage, however, behind the curtain, more elaborate scenery might be placed, and Elizabethan plays, like those of our own day, seem sometimes to have 'alternation scenes,' intended to be acted in front, while the next background was being prepared behind the balcony curtain. The lack of elaborate settings also facilitated rapidity of action, and the plays, beginning at three in the afternoon, were ordinarily over by the dinner-hour of five. Less satisfactory was the entire absence of women-actors, who did not appear on the public stage until after the Restoration of 1660. The inadequacy of the boys who took the part of the women-characters is alluded to by Shakespeare and must have been a source of frequent irritation to any dramatist who was attempting to present a subtle or complex heroine.
Lastly may be mentioned the picturesque but very objectionable custom of the young dandies who insisted on carrying their chairs onto the sides of the stage itself, where they not only made themselves conspicuous objects of attention but seriously crowded the actors and rudely abused them if the play was not to their liking. It should be added that from the latter part of Elizabeth's reign there existed within the city itself certain 'private' theaters, used by the boys' companies and others, whose structure was more like that of the theaters of our own time and where plays were given by artificial light.
William Shakespeare, by universal consent the greatest author of England, if not of the world, occupies chronologically a central position in the Elizabethan drama. He was born in 1564 in the good-sized village of Stratford-on-Avon in Warwickshire, near the middle of England, where the level but beautiful country furnished full external stimulus for a poet's eye and heart. His father, John Shakespeare, who was a general dealer in agricultural products and other commodities, was one of the chief citizens of the village, and during his son's childhood was chosen an alderman and shortly after mayor, as we should call it. But by 1577 his prosperity declined, apparently through his own shiftlessness, and for many years he was harassed with legal difficulties. In the village 'grammar' school William Shakespeare had acquired the rudiments of book-knowledge, consisting largely of Latin, but his chief education was from Nature and experience. As his father's troubles thickened he was very likely removed from school, but at the age of eighteen, under circumstances not altogether creditable to himself, he married Anne Hathaway, a woman eight years his senior, who lived in the neighboring village of Shottery. The suggestion that the marriage proved positively unhappy is supported by no real evidence, but what little is known of Shakespeare's later life implies that it was not exceptionally congenial. Two girls and a boy were born from it.
In his early manhood, apparently between 1586 and 1588, Shakespeare left Stratford to seek his fortune in London. As to the circumstances, there is reasonable plausibility in the later tradition that he had joined in poaching raids on the deer-park of Sir Thomas Lucy, a neighboring country gentleman, and found it desirable to get beyond the bounds of that gentleman's authority. It is also likely enough that Shakespeare had been fascinated by the performances of traveling dramatic companies at Stratford and by the Earl of Leicester's costly entertainment of Queen Elizabeth in 1575 at the castle of Kenilworth, not many miles away. At any rate, in London he evidently soon secured mechanical employment in a theatrical company, presumably the one then known as Lord Leicester's company, with which, in that case, he was always thereafter connected. His energy and interest must soon have won him the opportunity to show his skill as actor and also reviser and collaborator in play-writing, then as independent author; and after the first few years of slow progress his rise was rapid. He became one of the leading members, later one of the chief shareholders, of the company, and evidently enjoyed a substantial reputation as a playwright and a good, though not a great, actor. This was both at Court (where, however, actors had no social standing) and in the London dramatic circle. Of his personal life only the most fragmentary record has been preserved, through occasional mentions in miscellaneous documents, but it is evident that his rich nature was partly appreciated and thoroughly loved by his associates. His business talent was marked and before the end of his dramatic career he seems to have been receiving as manager, shareholder, playwright and actor, a yearly income equivalent to $25,000 in money of the present time. He early began to devote attention to paying the debts of his father, who lived until 1601, and restoring the fortunes of his family in Stratford. The death of his only son, Hamnet, in 1596, must have been a severe blow to him, but he obtained from the Heralds' College the grant of a family coat of arms, which secured the position of the family as gentlefolks; in 1597 he purchased New Place, the largest house in Stratford; and later on he acquired other large property rights there. How often he may have visited Stratford in the twenty-five years of his career in London we have no information; but however enjoyable London life and the society of the writers at the 'Mermaid' Tavern may have been to him, he probably always looked forward to ending his life as the chief country gentleman of his native village. Thither he retired about 1610 or 1612, and there he died prematurely in 1616, just as he was completing his fifty-second year.
Shakespeare's dramatic career falls naturally into four successive divisions of increasing maturity. To be sure, no definite record of the order of his plays has come down to us, and it can scarcely be said that we certainly know the exact date of a single one of them; but the evidence of the title-page dates of such of them as were hastily published during his lifetime, of allusions to them in other writings of the time, and other scattering facts of one sort or another, joined with the more important internal evidence of comparative maturity of mind and art which shows 'Macbeth' and 'The Winter's Tale,' for example, vastly superior to 'Love's Labour's Lost'--all this evidence together enables us to arrange the plays in a chronological order which is certainly approximately correct. The first of the four periods thus disclosed is that of experiment and preparation, from about 1588 to about 1593, when Shakespeare tried his hand at virtually every current kind of dramatic work. Its most important product is 'Richard III,' a melodramatic chronicle-history play, largely imitative of Marlowe and yet showing striking power. At the end of this period Shakespeare issued two rather long narrative poems on classical subjects, 'Venus and Adonis,' and 'The Rape of Lucrece,' dedicating them both to the young Earl of Southampton, who thus appears as his patron. Both display great fluency in the most luxuriant and sensuous Renaissance manner, and though they appeal little to the taste of the present day 'Venus and Adonis,' in particular, seems to have become at once the most popular poem of its own time. Shakespeare himself regarded them very seriously, publishing them with care, though he, like most Elizabethan dramatists, never thought it worth while to put his plays into print except to safeguard the property rights of his company in them. Probably at about the end of his first period, also, he began the composition of his sonnets, of which we have already spoken.
The second period of Shakespeare's work, extending from about 1594 to about 1601, is occupied chiefly with chronicle-history plays and happy comedies. The chronicle-history plays begin (probably) with the subtile and fascinating, though not yet absolutely masterful study of contrasting characters in 'Richard II'; continue through the two parts of 'Henry IV,' where the realistic comedy action of Falstaff and his group makes history familiarly vivid; and end with the epic glorification of a typical English hero-king in 'Henry V.' The comedies include the charmingly fantastic 'Midsummer Night's Dream'; 'The Merchant of Venice,' where a story of tragic sternness is strikingly contrasted with the most poetical idealizing romance and yet is harmoniously blended into it; 'Much Ado About Nothing,' a magnificent example of high comedy of character and wit; 'As You Like It,' the supreme delightful achievement of Elizabethan and all English pastoral romance; and 'Twelfth Night,' where again charming romantic sentiment is made believable by combination with a story of comic realism. Even in the one, unique, tragedy of the period, 'Romeo and Juliet,' the main impression is not that of the predestined tragedy, but that of ideal youthful love, too gloriously radiant to be viewed with sorrow even in its fatal outcome.
The third period, extending from about 1601 to about 1609, includes Shakespeare's great tragedies and certain cynical plays, which formal classification mis-names comedies. In these plays as a group Shakespeare sets himself to grapple with the deepest and darkest problems of human character and life; but it is only very uncertain inference that he was himself passing at this time through a period of bitterness and disillusion.
'Julius Casar' presents the material failure of an unpractical idealist (Brutus); 'Hamlet' the struggle of a perplexed and divided soul; 'Othello' the ruin of a noble life by an evil one through the terrible power of jealousy; 'King Lear' unnatural ingratitude working its hateful will and yet thwarted at the end by its own excess and by faithful love; and
'Macbeth' the destruction of a large nature by material ambition. Without doubt this is the greatest continuous group of plays ever wrought out by a human mind, and they are followed by 'Antony and Cleopatra,' which magnificently portrays the emptiness of a sensual passion against the background of a decaying civilization.
Shakespeare did not solve the insoluble problems of life, but having presented them as powerfully, perhaps, as is possible for human intelligence, he turned in his last period, of only two or three years, to the expression of the serene philosophy of life in which he himself must have now taken refuge. The noble and beautiful romance-comedies, 'Cymbeline,' 'The Winter's Tale,' and 'The Tempest,' suggest that men do best to forget what is painful and center their attention on the pleasing and encouraging things in a world where there is at least an inexhaustible store of beauty and goodness and delight.
Shakespeare may now well have felt, as his retirement to Stratford suggests, that in his nearly forty plays he had fully expressed himself and had earned the right to a long and peaceful old age. The latter, as we have seen, was denied him; but seven years after his death two of his fellow-managers assured the preservation of the plays whose unique importance he himself did not suspect by collecting them in the first folio edition of his complete dramatic works.
Shakespeare's greatness rests on supreme achievement--the result of the highest genius matured by experience and by careful experiment and labor--in all phases of the work of a poetic dramatist. The surpassing charm of his rendering of the romantic beauty and joy of life and the profundity of his presentation of its tragic side we have already suggested. Equally sure and comprehensive is his portrayal of characters. With the certainty of absolute mastery he causes men and women to live for us, a vast representative group, in all the actual variety of age and station, perfectly realized in all the subtile diversities and inconsistencies of protean human nature. Not less notable than his strong men are his delightful young heroines, romantic Elizabethan heroines, to be sure, with an unconventionality, many of them, which does not belong to such women in the more restricted world of reality, but pure embodiments of the finest womanly delicacy, keenness, and vivacity. Shakespeare, it is true, was a practical dramatist. His background characters are often present in the plays not in order to be entirely real but in order to furnish amusement; and even in the case of the chief ones, just as in the treatment of incidents, he is always perfectly ready to sacrifice literal truth to dramatic effect. But these things are only the corollaries of all successful playwriting and of all art.
To Shakespeare's mastery of poetic expression similarly strong superlatives must be applied. For his form he perfected Marlowe's blank verse, developing it to the farthest possible limits of fluency, variety, and melody; though he retained the riming couplet for occasional use (partly for the sake of variety) and frequently made use also of prose, both for the same reason and in realistic or commonplace scenes. As regards the spirit of poetry, it scarcely need be said that nowhere else in literature is there a like storehouse of the most delightful and the greatest ideas phrased with the utmost power of condensed expression and figurative beauty. In dramatic structure his greatness is on the whole less conspicuous. Writing for success on the Elizabethan stage, he seldom attempted to reduce its romantic licenses to the perfection of an absolute standard. 'Romeo and Juliet, 'Hamlet,' and indeed most of his plays, contain unnecessary scenes, interesting to the Elizabethans, which Sophocles as well as Racine would have pruned away. Yet when Shakespeare chooses, as in 'Othello,' to develop a play with the sternest and most rapid directness, he proves essentially the equal even of the most rigid technician.
Shakespeare, indeed, although as Ben Jonson said, 'he was not for an age but for all time,' was in every respect a thorough Elizabethan also, and does not escape the superficial Elizabethan faults. Chief of these, perhaps, is his fondness for 'conceits,' with which he makes his plays, especially some of the earlier ones, sparkle, brilliantly, but often inappropriately. In his prose style, again, except in the talk of commonplace persons, he never outgrew, or wished to outgrow, a large measure of Elizabethan self-conscious elegance. Scarcely a fault is his other Elizabethan habit of seldom, perhaps never, inventing the whole of his stories, but drawing the outlines of them from previous works--English chronicles, poems, or plays, Italian 'novels,' or the biographies of Plutarch. But in the majority of cases these sources provided him only with bare or even crude sketches, and perhaps nothing furnishes clearer proof of his genius than the way in which he has seen the human significance in stories baldly and wretchedly told, where the figures are merely wooden types, and by the power of imagination has transformed them into the greatest literary masterpieces, profound revelations of the underlying forces of life.
Shakespeare, like every other great man, has been the object of much unintelligent, and misdirected adulation, but his greatness, so far from suffering diminution, grows more apparent with the passage of time and the increase of study.
[Note: The theory persistently advocated during the last half century that Shakespeare's works were really written not by himself but by Francis Bacon or some other person can never gain credence with any competent judge. Our knowledge of Shakespeare's life, slight as it is, is really at least as great as that which has been preserved of almost any dramatist of the period; for dramatists were not then looked on as persons of permanent importance. There is really much direct contemporary documentary evidence, as we have already indicated, of Shakespeare's authorship of the plays and poems. No theory, further, could be more preposterous, to any one really acquainted with literature, than the idea that the imaginative poetry of Shakespeare was produced by the essentially scientific and prosaic mind of Francis Bacon. As to the cipher systems supposed to reveal hidden messages in the plays: First, no poet bending his energies to the composition of such masterpieces as Shakespeare's could possibly concern himself at the same time with weaving into them a complicated and trifling cryptogram. Second, the cipher systems are absolutely arbitrary and unscientific, applied to any writings whatever can be made to 'prove' anything that one likes, and indeed have been discredited in the hands of their own inventors by being made to 'prove' far too much. Third, it has been demonstrated more than once that the verbal coincidences on which the cipher systems rest are no more numerous than the law of mathematical probabilities requires. Aside from actually vicious pursuits, there can be no more melancholy waste of time than the effort to demonstrate that Shakespeare is not the real author of his reputed works.]
NATIONAL LIFE FROM 1603 TO 1660.
We have already observed that, as Shakespeare's career suggests, there was no abrupt change in either life or literature at the death of Queen Elizabeth in 1603; and in fact the Elizabethan period of literature is often made to include the reign of James I, 1603-1625 (the Jacobean period [Footnote: 'Jaco'bus' is the Latin form of 'James.']), or even, especially in the case of the drama, that of Charles I, 1625-1649 (the Carolean period). Certainly the drama of all three reigns forms a continuously developing whole, and should be discussed as such. None the less the spirit of the first half of the seventeenth century came gradually to be widely different from that of the preceding fifty years, and before going on to Shakespeare's successors we must stop to indicate briefly wherein the difference consists and for this purpose to speak of the determining events of the period. Before the end of Elizabeth's reign, indeed, there had been a perceptible change; as the queen grew old and morose the national life seemed also to lose its youth and freshness. Her successor and distant cousin, James of Scotland (James I of England), was a bigoted pedant, and under his rule the perennial Court corruption, striking in, became foul and noisome. The national Church, instead of protesting, steadily identified itself more closely with the Court party, and its ruling officials, on the whole, grew more and more worldly and intolerant. Little by little the nation found itself divided into two great factions; on the one hand the Cavaliers, the party of the Court, the nobles, and the Church, who continued to be largely dominated by the Renaissance zest for beauty and, especially, pleasure; and on the other hand the Puritans, comprising the bulk of the middle classes, controlled by the religious principles of the Reformation, often, in their opposition to Cavalier frivolity, stern and narrow, and more and more inclined to separate themselves from the English Church in denominations of their own. The breach steadily widened until in 1642, under the arbitrary rule of Charles I, the Civil War broke out. In three years the Puritan Parliament was victorious, and in 1649 the extreme minority of the Puritans, supported by the army, took the unprecedented step of putting King Charles to death, and declared England a Commonwealth. But in four years more the Parliamentary government, bigoted and inefficient, made itself impossible, and then for five years, until his death, Oliver Cromwell strongly ruled England as Protector. Another year and a half of chaos confirmed the nation in a natural reaction, and in 1660 the unworthy Stuart race was restored in the person of the base and frivolous Charles II. The general influence of the forces which produced these events shows clearly in the changing tone of the drama, the work of those dramatists who were Shakespeare's later contemporaries and successors.
The second place among the Elizabethan and Jacobean dramatists is universally assigned, on the whole justly, to Ben Jonson, who both in temperament and in artistic theories and practice presents a complete contrast to Shakespeare. Jonson, the posthumous son of an impoverished gentleman-clergyman, was born in London in 1573. At Westminster School he received a permanent bent toward classical studies from the headmaster, William Camden, who was one of the greatest scholars of the time. Forced into the uncongenial trade of his stepfather, a master-bricklayer, he soon deserted it to enlist among the English soldiers who were helping the Dutch to fight their Spanish oppressors. Here he exhibited some of his dominating traits by challenging a champion from the other army and killing him in classical fashion in single combat between the lines. By about the age of twenty he was back in London and married to a wife whom he later described as being 'virtuous but a shrew,' and who at one time found it more agreeable to live apart from him. He became an actor (at which profession he failed) and a writer of plays. About 1598 he displayed his distinguishing realistic style in the comedy 'Every Man in His Humour,' which was acted by Shakespeare's company, it is said through Shakespeare's friendly influence. At about the same time the burly Jonson killed another actor in a duel and escaped capital punishment only through 'benefit of clergy' (the exemption still allowed to educated men).
The plays which Jonson produced during the following years were chiefly satirical attacks on other dramatists, especially Marston and Dekker, who retorted in kind. Thus there developed a fierce actors' quarrel, referred to in Shakespeare's 'Hamlet,' in which the 'children's' companies had some active but now uncertain part. Before it was over most of the dramatists had taken sides against Jonson, whose arrogant and violent self-assertiveness put him at odds, sooner or later, with nearly every one with whom he had much to do. In 1603 he made peace, only to become involved in other, still more, serious difficulties. Shortly after the accession of King James, Jonson, Chapman, and Marston brought out a comedy, 'Eastward Hoe,' in which they offended the king by satirical flings at the needy Scotsmen to whom James was freely awarding Court positions. They were imprisoned and for a while, according to the barbarous procedure of the time, were in danger of losing their ears and noses. At a banquet celebrating their release, Jonson reports, his 'old mother' produced a paper of poison which, if necessary, she had intended to administer to him to save him from this disgrace, and of which, she said, to show that she was 'no churl,' she would herself first have drunk.
Just before this incident, in 1603, Jonson had turned to tragedy and written 'Sejanus,' which marks the beginning of his most important decade. He followed up 'Sejanus' after several years with the less excellent 'Catiline,' but his most significant dramatic works, on the whole, are his four great satirical comedies. 'Volpone, or the Fox,' assails gross vice; 'Epicoene, the Silent Woman,' ridicules various sorts of absurd persons; 'The Alchemist' castigates quackery and its foolish encouragers; and 'Bartholomew Fair' is a coarse but overwhelming broadside at Puritan hypocrisy. Strange as it seems in the author of these masterpieces of frank realism, Jonson at the same time was showing himself the most gifted writer of the Court masks, which now, arrived at the last period of their evolution, were reaching the extreme of spectacular elaborateness. Early in James' reign, therefore, Jonson was made Court Poet, and during the next thirty years he produced about forty masks, devoting to them much attention and care, and quarreling violently with Inigo Jones, the Court architect, who contrived the stage settings. During this period Jonson was under the patronage of various nobles, and he also reigned as dictator at the club of literary men which Sir Walter Raleigh had founded at the Mermaid Tavern (so called, like other inns, from its sign). A well-known poetical letter of the dramatist Francis Beaumont to Jonson celebrates the club meetings; and equally well known is a description given in the next generation from hearsay and inference by the antiquary Thomas Fuller: 'Many were the wit-combats betwixt Shakespeare and Ben Jonson, which two I behold like a Spanish great galleon and an English man-of-war: Master Jonson, like the former, was built far higher in learning; solid, but slow in his performances; Shakespere, with the English man-of-war, lesser in bulk, but lighter in sailing, could turn with all tides, tack about and take advantage of all winds, by the quickness of his wit and invention.'
The last dozen years of Jonson's life were unhappy. Though he had a pension from the Court, he was sometimes in financial straits; and for a time he lost his position as Court Poet. He resumed the writing of regular plays, but his style no longer pleased the public; and he often suffered much from sickness. Nevertheless at the Devil Tavern he collected about him a circle of younger admirers, some of them among the oncoming poets, who were proud to be known as 'Sons of Ben,' and who largely accepted as authoritative his opinions on literary matters. Thus his life, which ended in 1637, did not altogether go out in gloom. On the plain stone which alone, for a long time, marked his grave in Westminster Abbey an unknown admirer inscribed the famous epitaph, 'O rare Ben Jonson.'
As a man Jonson, pugnacious, capricious, ill-mannered, sometimes surly, intemperate in drink and in other respects, is an object for only very qualified admiration; and as a writer he cannot properly be said to possess that indefinable thing, genius, which is essential to the truest greatness. But both as man and as writer he manifested great force; and in both drama and poetry he stands for several distinct literary principles and attainments highly important both in themselves and for their subsequent influence.
1. Most conspicuous in his dramas is his realism, often, as we have said, extremely coarse, and a direct reflection of his intellect, which was as strongly masculine as his body and altogether lacking, where the regular drama was concerned, in fineness of sentiment or poetic feeling. He early assumed an attitude of pronounced opposition to the Elizabethan romantic plays, which seemed to him not only lawless in artistic structure but unreal and trifling in atmosphere and substance. (That he was not, however, as has sometimes been said, personally hostile to Shakespeare is clear, among other things, from his poetic tributes in the folio edition of Shakespeare and from his direct statement elsewhere that he loved Shakespeare almost to idolatry.) Jonson's purpose was to present life as he believed it to be; he was thoroughly acquainted with its worser side; and he refused to conceal anything that appeared to him significant. His plays, therefore, have very much that is flatly offensive to the taste which seeks in literature, prevailingly, for idealism and beauty; but they are, nevertheless, generally speaking, powerful portrayals of actual life.
2. Jonson's purpose, however, was never unworthy; rather, it was distinctly to uphold morality. His frankest plays, as we have indicated, are attacks on vice and folly, and sometimes, it is said, had important reformatory influence on contemporary manners. He held, indeed, that in the drama, even in comedy, the function of teaching was as important as that of giving pleasure. His attitude toward his audiences was that of a learned schoolmaster, whose ideas they should accept with deferential respect; and when they did not approve his plays he was outspoken in indignant contempt.
3. Jonson's self-satisfaction and his critical sense of intellectual superiority to the generality of mankind produce also a marked and disagreeable lack of sympathy in his portrayal of both life and character. The world of his dramas is mostly made up of knaves, scoundrels, hypocrites, fools, and dupes; and it includes among its really important characters very few excellent men and not a single really good woman. Jonson viewed his fellow-men, in the mass, with complete scorn, which it was one of his moral and artistic principles not to disguise. His characteristic comedies all belong, further, to the particular type which he himself originated, namely, the 'Comedy of Humors.'
[Footnote: The meaning of this, term can be understood only by some explanation of the history of the word 'Humor.' In the first place this was the Latin name for 'liquid.' According to medieval physiology there were four chief liquids in the human body, namely blood, phlegm, bile, and black bile, and an excess of any of them produced an undue predominance of the corresponding quality; thus, an excess of phlegm made a person phlegmatic, or dull; or an excess of black bile, melancholy. In the Elizabethan idiom, therefore, 'humor' came to mean a mood, and then any exaggerated quality or marked peculiarity in a person.]
Aiming in these plays to flail the follies of his time, he makes his chief characters, in spite of his realistic purpose, extreme and distorted
'humors,' each, in spite of individual traits, the embodiment of some one abstract vice--cowardice, sensualism, hypocrisy, or what not. Too often, also, the unreality is increased because Jonson takes the characters from the stock figures of Latin comedy rather than from genuine English life.
4. In opposition to the free Elizabethan romantic structure, Jonson stood for and deliberately intended to revive the classical style; though with characteristic good sense he declared that not all the classical practices were applicable to English plays. He generally observed unity not only of action but also of time (a single day) and place, sometimes with serious resultant loss of probability. In his tragedies, 'Sejanus' and 'Catiline,' he excluded comic material; for the most part he kept scenes of death and violence off the stage; and he very carefully and slowly constructed plays which have nothing, indeed, of the poetic greatness of Sophocles or Euripides (rather a Jonsonese broad solidity) but which move steadily to their climaxes and then on to the catastrophes in the compact classical manner. He carried his scholarship, however, to the point of pedantry, not only in the illustrative extracts from Latin authors with which in the printed edition he filled the lower half of his pages, but in the plays themselves in the scrupulous exactitude of his rendering of the details of Roman life. The plays reconstruct the ancient world with much more minute accuracy than do Shakespeare's; the student should consider for himself whether they succeed better in reproducing its human reality, making it a living part of the reader's mental and spiritual possessions.
5. Jonson's style in his plays, especially the blank verse of his tragedies, exhibits the same general characteristics. It is strong, compact, and sometimes powerful, but it entirely lacks imaginative poetic beauty--it is really only rhythmical prose, though sometimes suffused with passion.
6. The surprising skill which Jonson, author of such plays, showed in devising the court masks, daintily unsubstantial creations of moral allegory, classical myth, and Teutonic folklore, is rendered less surprising, perhaps, by the lack in the masks of any very great lyric quality. There is no lyric quality at all in the greater part of his non-dramatic verse, though there is an occasional delightful exception, as in the famous 'Drink to me only with thine eyes.' But of his non-dramatic verse we shall speak in the next chapter.
7. Last, and not least: Jonson's revolt from romanticism to classicism initiated, chiefly in non-dramatic verse, the movement for restraint and regularity, which, making slow headway during the next half century, was to issue in the triumphant pseudo-classicism of the generations of Dryden and Pope. Thus, notable in himself, he was significant also as one of the moving forces of a great literary revolution.
THE OTHER DRAMATISTS.
From the many other dramatists of this highly dramatic period, some of whom in their own day enjoyed a reputation fully equal to that of Shakespeare and Jonson, we may merely select a few for brief mention. For not only does their light now pale hopelessly in the presence of Shakespeare, but in many cases their violations of taste and moral restraint pass the limits of present-day tolerance. Most of them, like Shakespeare, produced both comedies and tragedies, prevailingly romantic but with elements of realism; most of them wrote more often in collaboration than did Shakespeare; they all shared the Elizabethan vigorously creative interest in life; but none of them attained either Shakespeare's wisdom, his power, or his mastery of poetic beauty. One of the most learned of the group was George Chapman, whose verse has a Jonsonian solidity not unaccompanied with Jonsonian ponderousness. He won fame also in non-dramatic poetry, especially by vigorous but rather clumsy verse translations of the 'Iliad' and 'Odyssey,' Another highly individual figure is that of Thomas Dekker, who seems to have been one of the completest embodiments of irrepressible Elizabethan cheerfulness, though this was joined in him with an irresponsibility which kept him commonly floundering in debt or confined in debtor's prison. His 'Shoemaker's Holiday' (1600), still occasionally chosen by amateur companies for reproduction, gives a rough-and-ready but (apart from its coarseness) charming romanticized picture of the life of London apprentices and whole-hearted citizens. Thomas Heywood, a sort of journalist before the days of newspapers, produced an enormous amount of work in various literary forms; in the drama he claimed to have had 'an entire hand, or at least a maine finger' in no less than two hundred and twenty plays. Inevitably, therefore, he is careless and slipshod, but some of his portrayals of sturdy English men and women and of romantic adventure (as in 'The Fair Maid of the West') are of refreshing naturalness and breeziness. Thomas Middleton, also a very prolific writer, often deals, like Jonson and Heywood, with sordid material. John Marston, as well, has too little delicacy or reserve; he also wrote catch-as-catch-can non-dramatic satires.
The sanity of Shakespeare's plays, continuing and indeed increasing toward the end of his career, disguises for modern students the tendency to decline in the drama which set in at about the time of King James' accession. Not later than the end of the first decade of the century the dramatists as a class exhibit not only a decrease of originality in plot and characterization, but also a lowering of moral tone, which results largely from the closer identification of the drama with the Court party. There is a lack of seriousness of purpose, an increasing tendency to return, in more morbid spirit, to the sensationalism of the 1580's, and an anxious straining to attract and please the audiences by almost any means. These tendencies appear in the plays of Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher, whose reputations are indissolubly linked together in one of the most famous literary partnerships of all time. Beaumont, however, was short-lived, and much the greater part of the fifty and more plays ultimately published under their joint names really belong to Fletcher alone or to Fletcher and other collaborators. The scholarship of our day agrees with the opinion of their contemporaries in assigning to Beaumont the greater share of judgment and intellectual power and to Fletcher the greater share of spontaneity and fancy. Fletcher's style is very individual. It is peculiarly sweet; but its unmistakable mark is his constant tendency to break down the blank verse line by the use of extra syllables, both within the line and at the end. The lyrics which he scatters through his plays are beautifully smooth and musical. The plays of Beaumont and Fletcher, as a group, are sentimentally romantic, often in an extravagant degree, though their charm often conceals the extravagance as well as the lack of true characterization. They are notable often for their portrayal of the loyal devotion of both men and women to king, lover, or friend. One of the best of them is 'Philaster, or Love Lies Bleeding,' while Fletcher's 'Faithful Shepherdess' is the most pleasing example in English of the artificial pastoral drama in the Italian and Spanish style.
The Elizabethan tendency to sensational horror finds its greatest artistic expression in two plays of John Webster, 'The White Devil, or Vittoria Corombona,' and 'The Duchess of Malfi.' Here the corrupt and brutal life of the Italian nobility of the Renaissance is presented with terrible frankness, but with an overwhelming sense for passion, tragedy, and pathos. The most moving pathos permeates some of the plays of John Ford (of the time of Charles I), for example, 'The Broken Heart'; but they are abnormal and unhealthy. Philip Massinger, a pupil and collaborator of Fletcher, was of thoughtful spirit, and apparently a sincere moralist at heart, in spite of much concession in his plays to the contrary demands of the time. His famous comedy, 'A New Way to Pay Old Debts,' a satire on greed and cruelty, is one of the few plays of the period, aside from Shakespeare's, which are still occasionally acted. The last dramatist of the whole great line was James Shirley, who survived the Commonwealth and the Restoration and died of exposure at the Fire of London in 1666. In his romantic comedies and comedies of manners Shirley vividly reflects the thoughtless life of the Court of Charles I and of the well-to-do contemporary London citizens and shows how surprisingly far that life had progressed toward the reckless frivolity and abandonment which after the interval of Puritan rule were to run riot in the Restoration period.
The great Elizabethan dramatic impulse had thus become deeply degenerate, and nothing could be more fitting than that it should be brought to a definite end. When the war broke out in 1642 one of the first acts of Parliament, now at last free to work its will on the enemies of Puritanism, was to decree that 'whereas public sports do not well agree with public calamities, nor public stage-plays with the seasons of humiliation,' all dramatic performances should cease. This law, fatal, of course, to the writing as well as the acting of plays, was enforced with only slightly relaxing rigor until very shortly before the Restoration of Charles II in 1660. Doubtless to the Puritans it seemed that their long fight against the theater had ended in permanent triumph; but this was only one of many respects in which the Puritans were to learn that human nature cannot be forced into permanent conformity with any rigidly over-severe standard, on however high ideals it may be based.
The chief dramatists of the whole sixty years of the great period may be conveniently grouped as follows: I. Shakespeare's early contemporaries, about 1580 to about 1593: Lyly, Peele, Greene, Kyd, Marlowe. II. Shakespeare. III. Shakespeare's later contemporaries, under Elizabeth and James I: Jonson, Chapman, Dekker, Heywood, Middleton, Marston, Beaumont and Fletcher, Webster. IV. The last group, under James I and Charles I, to 1642: Ford, Massinger, and Shirley.
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