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Or mount the top with my aspiring wings,
The play of the Rich Jew of Malta, which was published by Thomas Heywood in 1633, was formerly held in great esteem, and it has been more recently thought worth while to revive it on the stage. We have sought in vain for any intrinsic merit, which could induce Heywood, himself an excellent dramatist, to become the editor of it. He probably assumed this character out of respect to Marlowe, whom he terms the best of poets, and to Edward Allen, who played Barabas the Jew, whom he calls the best of actors.
There are but a few grains of poetry sprinkled through it; no wit, no interest, nothing with which we can hold sympathy; nothing to please the imagination, or satisfy the judgment. It is the cater cousin of Tamburlaine, full of daggers, poisonings, and bloodshed. The prologue is spoken by Machiavel, and it seems to have been Marlowe's intention to represent a sound politician of his school, one who could commit the greatest number of atrocious crimes with a cunning dexterity, which should keep him on the windy side of the law for the longest space of time. Being a Jew, he must necessarily hate Christians; being an 'extortioner, 'he becomes the subject of extortion; and must therefore bend all his thoughts and actions to revenge, not on the individuals who had aggrieved him, but on the whole species. After all, he is but a bungling Machiavel, who is guilty of the most undiscriminating manslaughters, and is, at last, caught in his own springe.
A Jew, and an idolatrous worshipper of Mammon, he sees a kingdom's treasure ravished from him with little more than a transient pang.
His wealth, indeed, is boundless-he has a mine in his own house a little El Dorado. He has no more regard for a Jew than a Christian-neither the affections of a father nor a man-he is a lump of hatred and malice-an impersonation of evil--a mere devil.
One or two of the passages shew the rich and overwrought enchasing of our author's hand, and sparkle like diamonds set in lead. Take the best, where he heaps treasure on treasure with most imaginative prodigality.
“ Fie; what a trouble 'tis to count this trash !
The house of Barabas having been serzed by the Governor of Malta, and converted into a monastery, he persuades his daughter, Abigail, to pretend conversion to Christianity, and become a nun, that he may obtain the possession of part of his treasure which is hid there. She does so, and agrees to meet him at night.
“ Thus, like the sad presaging raven, that tolls
Now I remember those old women's words,
Although these plays of Marlowe are full of sound and fury, signifying nothing, they slide glibly off the tongue--they fill the ear, if they do not satisfy the mind, and might therefore pass current with many an honest and well meaning man for excellent good tragedies. It answered the object of the author in raising the wonderment of the groundlings,
“ Pleas'd with a rattle, tickld with a straw.”
The mere naked reality, the consummation of an event, was what our early dramatic authors chiefly aimed to representthey depended too much on this, and too little on the apprehension of evil, which, from its very vagueness and uncertainty, excites a thousand tremors which the plain fact destroys, and leaves nothing for us to regard but the bare and withered trunk of humanity, deprived of the pith and heart which supplied it with life and vigour. Hence we find the actual infliction of pain, the penalty of death, so frequently introduced as the only thing needful to produce a tragical effect. This is the
mere dried anatomy of tragedy, which may produce the loathing and disgust which accompany an hospital exhibition, but has nothing
to do with our sympathies, and cannot extort from us the acknowledgment of a common nature. It is not the actual presence of suffering which excites the highest degree of feeling, or rouses the loftier passions of man. We must know the thoughts and motives of the sufferer, that we may ourselves judge of the justice or injustice of his inflictions. The same object which either in the drama or in story would, if pourtrayed by the hand of genius, excite the greatest emotion, if viewed in the street without the knowledge which the author communicates of the workings of the heart within, engages but a comparatively slight degree of interest or compas
The three plays of Marlowe, which we have yet to notice, are of a much higher order than the three preceding ones. It is in them that the genius of Marlowe shines with its proper lustre, and on them must his reputation, as an original poet, rest. They display great vigour of intellect, and are written in a chaster spirit of poetry; although the ore is more pure, it is obviously brought from the same mine.
The first in order of date is the historical play of The Raigne of Edward the Second ; one of the first of that class of dramas which Shakspeare afterwards carried to such a degree of perfection. It embraces the whole period of his reign, and is not divided into acts. The most prominent characters are well supported,--the timid and irresolute Edward, and his arrogant and assuming favorites,—the fiery and impatient Mortimer, who, with the other turbulent lords, forms an excellent picture of baronial pride and power. The character of Isabella undera goes a complete change. She is in the early part of the play represented as doatingly fond of the king, bearing her sorrows meekly, ready to kiss the foot that spurns her, willing rather to lead a melancholic life, than that her “ lord should be oppress’d with civil mutinies.” Her regard for Mortimer goes little beyond calling him “ gentle Mortimer.” In answer to his inquiries, whither she is walking, she replies :
“ Unto the forest, gentle Mortimer,
When Edward, as he leaves her, insinuates her attachment to that baron, she exclaims :
“ Heavens can witness, I love none but you.
But, alas ! queens are but women, and women cannot be expected to be kind and constant, and true, when the hand that ought to cherish and support them is lavishing its favours on others, much less when they are contemned, reviled, and spurned. Accordingly, the same scene exhibits her just as the tide of affection is turning--the point at which it rests for a moment, as if uncertain whether to go forward or backward. The king's sending her off to France decides it; the tide ebbs, the alienation is completed, the connection with Mortimer becomes unequivocal; hatred and revenge roll it furiously back, and Edward perishes beneath the waves.
Marlowe has, in this piece, conformed, with tolerable accuracy, to historical facts, though not in chronological succession. It is hardly to be expected, however, that a dramatic writer, whose object is to produce a given effect by a series of actions, should confine himself to a rigid adherence to fact. He may be pardoned for not regarding chronology, without doing any great wrong to history. He deduces the required results from the
proper cause, without respect to the lapse of time, or the intervention of unimportant particulars. On the contrary, he condenses into a comprehensible space, circumstance and consequence; and in concentrating their interest, strengthens their influence, and adds to their moral utility. In truth, he gives us the philosophy of historical action, the pith of historical example. He moulds events in his imagination, and forms them into groups, at once pleasing and striking. If he overleap the boundaries of space and time, it is merely for the purpose of exhibiting them in nearer and more admirable perspective.
We shall now proceed to make a few extracts, in confirmation of our remarks on this play.
The barons having consented to Gaveston's recall from banishment, the king immediately despatches a messenger tó him with the intelligence. The following scene is meritorious.
“ Edward. The wind is good, I wonder why he stays; I fear me, he is wrack'd upon the sea.