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probably because Beaumont had joined the rest of the world in saying the same thing of Ben; but this did not hinder them, or had not hindered them, from giving one another the warmest praises. Of Shakspeare, who said nothing of any. body, Beaumont and Fletcher said as little. Their only allusions to his writings look very like banters. Perhaps the artificial superiority of their birth and breeding, and the tone of fashionable society in which they excelled, conspired with a natural jealousy to make them fancy him a less man than he was; as, on the other hand, Shakspeare's extraordinary silence with regard to his contemporaries may have originated in habits of self-suppression, attributable to anything but pride of position.
Whatever Beaumont and Fletcher may have thought in this particular instance, little did the two young poets suspect, that the advantages of rank and training on which they probably valued themselves, as giving their genius its solidest opportunities and most crowning grace, were the very things destined to do it the greatest mischief, and to threaten their names with extinction. Though poets truly so called, and therefore naturally possessed of earnestness of inind and a tendency to believe in whatsoever was best and wisest, they had not sufficient complexional strength to hinder a couple of lively and flattered young men from falling in with the tone of the day and the licenses in fashion; and unfortunately for their repute in a day to come, they entered on their career at a time when the example in both these respects happened to be set by a court which was the vulgarest in its language, and the most profligate in its morals, of any that ever disgraced the country : for the court of Charles the Second, however openly dissolute, and compared with our present refinement) coarse in its language, was elegance itself in comparison with that of James the First;- to say nothing of depths of crime and enormity, with which our poets had assuredly nothing in common. It is interesting to see how the diviner portion of spirit inherent in all true genius saved these extraordinary men from being corrupted to the core, and losing those noblest powers of utterance which nothing but sincerity and right feeling can bestow; how, in the midst of the grossest effeminacy, they delighted
in painting the manliest characters; how they loved simplicity and tenderness, and never wrote so well as when speaking their language, and how, when on the very knees of the slavishest of the doctrines in which they had been bred, their hearts could rise against the idols of their worship, and set above all other pretensions the rights of justice and humanity. To read one of the pages of the beautiful portions of their works, you would think it impossible that such writers should frame their lips to utter what disgraces the page ensuing: yet there it is, like a torrent of feculence beside a chosen garden ; nay, say rather like a dream, or a sort of madness,--the very spite and riot of the tongue of a disordered incontinence for the previous self-restraint. And this was the privilege of their position ! the gain they had got by their participation of polite life in the days of James the First, and their right to be considered its perfect exponents ! Had Beaumont been fortunate enougli to have been the son of a briefless barrister, or Fletcher's father, happily for himself, have risen no higher in the Church than his ministry in the village of Rye,--the two dramatists, unhurt by those blighting favours of the day, and admonished to behave themselves as decorously as their brethren, might now have been in possession of a thoroughly delightful fame, and such a volume as the one before us have been a thing out of the question; but the son of the judge, and the son of the bishop, unluckily possessed rank as well as gaiety enough to constitute themselves the representatives of what in the next age was styled the “gentleman of wit and pleasure about town; and the consequence was, that while on the serious side of their natures they were thoughtful and beautiful poets, and probably despised nine-tenths of the persons whom they amused, -on the other side, and in the intoxication of success, they threw themselves with their whole stock of wit and spirits into the requirements of the ribaldry in fashion, and, by a combination peculiar to the reigns of the Stuarts, became equally the delight of the “highest” and the “lowest circles.” Not that there was wanting in those times a circle of a less nominal altitude, in which their condemnation was already commencing; for though the gloomier class of Puritans were as vulgar in their way, as the Im-puritans were in theirs,
yet a breeding alien to both prevailed in the families which the young Milton frequented; and when the author of Allegro and Penseroso spoke of the dramatists who attracted him to the theatre, he tacitly reproved the two friends by limiting his mention of names to those of Shakspeare and Ben Jonson; though how he admired the culprits, apart from their misdemeanours as fine gentlemen, is abundantly proved by his imitations of them in those very poems, and in the masque ! of Comus.
It might be asked by those who know Beaumont and Fletcher by naine only, or by little else than the modern adaptations of one or two of their plays, whether this view of their offences against decency is not exaggerated, and whether it was possible for any British court to set so low an example.
It is not pleasant to be under the necessity of satisfying doubts of this nature, especially with a book full of beauties before us, taken from the anthors who are found so much fault with ; and it is impossible, for obvious reasons, to produce proofs from the authors themselves, and so do the very thing we object to, and quote what is not fit to be read. Nevertheless, it is proper to show from what an amount of deformity those beauties have been rescued ; and it will be sufficient for this purpose to bring the testimony of two witnesses, who may fairly represent all the others, and both of whom would far rather have found the poets faultless, than blameable. The first is Schlegel, one of the fondest as well as ablest critics of our national drama ; the other, the latest editor of the works of Beaumont and Fletcher, Mr. Dyce.
“ There is an incurable vulgar side of human nature,” observes Schlegel," which the poet should never approach but with a certain bashfulness, when he cannot avoid allowing it to be perceived; but instead of this, Beaumont and Fletcher throw no veil whatever over nature. They express everything bluntly in words: they make the spectator the unwilling confidant of all that more noble minds endeavour to hide even from themselves. The indecencies in which these poets allowed themselves to indulge, exceed all conception. The licentiousness of the language is the least evil; many scenes, nay, whole plots, are so contrived, that
the very idea of them, not to mention the sight, is a gross iusult to modesty. Aristophanes is a bold interpreter of sensuality; but like the Grecian statuary in the figures of satyrs, &c. he banishes them into the animal region to which they wholly belong; and judging him according to the morality of his times, he is much less offensive. But Beaumont and Fletcher exhibit the impure and nauseous colouring of vice to our view in quite a different sphere; their compositions resemble the sheet full of pure and impure animals in the vision of the Apostle. This was the universal inclination of the dramatic poets under James and Charles the First. They seem as if they purposely wished to justify the Puritans, who affirmed that the theatres were so many schools of seduction, and chapels of the Devil."'*
It might have been more philosophical in the excellent German critic, if, instead of the words “incurably vulgar," at the commencement of this passage, he had said, “ of necessity repulsive;" for we must not say of Nature, in relation to any of her works, human or otherwise, that she has done anything vulgar or incurable. Nothing requires cure, but what she has rendered curable ; and vulgarity, in the offensive sense of the word, though for wise purposes she has rendered us sensible of such an impression in relation to one another, is not to be thought predicable of herself. It was in some measure, most probably, out of a mistaken sense of this truth, and from a certain hearty universality natural to poets, that Beaumont and Fletcher allowed themselves to go to the extremes they did, against the other extreme of the Puritans ; forgetting, that a genial boldness is not a shameless audacity, and that the absence of all restraint tends to worse errors than formality,
Too true is the charge of Schlegel against them. With · rare and beautiful exceptions, they degrade love by confining
it to the animal passion: they degrade the animal passion i itself, by associating it with the foulest impertinences; they
combine, by anticipation, Rochester and Swift,-make chastity and unchastity almost equally offensive, by indecently
* Lectures on Dramatic Art and Literature, Black’s Translation, vol. i. p. 308. (Bohn's edition, p. 470.)
and extravagantly contrasting them; nay, put into the mouths of their chastest persons a language evincing the grossest knowledge of vice, sometimes purposely assuming its character, and pretending, in zeal for its defeat, to be intoxicated with its enjoy
And these fatal mistakes occur not only in one, two, or six, or twenty, or thirty of their plays, but more or less in all of them,-in every one of the whole fifty-two; sometimes in patches and small scenes, sometimes in great ones, often throughout a great part of the play, frequently as its foundation and main interest, and almost always in some offensive link or other with the very finest passages, from which you are obliged to cut it away. It is like a disease ; like cankers; the plague-spots of the drama, at the time when it was infected with the presence of king James the First.
“ The many offences against decency which our poets have committed,” says Mr. Dyce," can only be extenuated on the plea that they sacrificed their own taste and feelings to the fashion of the times. There can be little doubt that the most unblushing licentiousness, buth in conversation and practice, prevailed among the courtiers of James the First: we know too that 'to be like the court was a playe's praise ;' and for the sake of such praise Beaumont and Fletcher did not scruple to deform their dramas with ribaldry, little imagining how deeply, in consequence of that base alloy, their reputation would eventually suffer 'at the coming of the better day. In this respect they sinned more grievously than any of their contemporary playwrights; but most of the others have enough to answer for; nor was Shakespeare himself completely proof against the contaminating influence of his age. The example of Charles the First is generally supposed to have given a higher tone to the morals of our nobility and gentry; yet, shortly before the death of that monarch, we find Lovelace extolling the art with which in the present play (The Custom of the Country) a veil of seeming modesty is thrown over obscenity:
“View here a loose thought said with such a grace,