Abbildungen der Seite
[ocr errors][merged small][ocr errors][merged small][merged small][merged small]


ERTAIN periods in British history have been marked by the

prevalence of particular forms of literature. The present age,

for example, is characterized by the superabundance of prose fiction; this is the period of the novel. During the early half of last century, the most popular and common form of literature was the short essay, which appeared in shoals in such periodicals as the Spectator and Tatler.. It is not difficult to account for the shower of pamphlets which deluged the period comprehended in the greater part of the reign of Charles I. and the time of the Commonwealth ; while the latter half of the sixteenth, and the beginning of the seventeenth century, was emphatically the period of the drama, during which this form of imaginative literature held supreme and unexampled sway. It would be interesting to inquire into the causes which in each age determine the groove in which its popular literature will run; for although, as in the case of the pamphleteering period, these do not always lie on the surface, still no doubt a close scrutiny would prove that they are always clear and well defined, depending mainly upon the political, social, religious, and commercial state of the country at the time. Why the reigns of Elizabeth and James should have given birth to so many men of high and prolific genius, and why those men should spontaneously adopt the drama as the form of literature best adapted to afford an outlet for their wellingup thoughts and fancies, we have not the space, even if we had the requisite knowledge and insight, to attempt to discover. We believe it would be found that the drama was the channel most suited to receive the overflowings of the abundant intellectual energy of the age; although those who adopted it did not cut it out for themselves, but found it ready made to their hands. Indeed, it will be found that a great genius seldom, if ever, creates a new form of literature, into which to throw the products of his intellect; he generally adopts that which is already popular, and consecrates it to his purpose. During the reign of Elizabeth our country had got fairly over the turmoils and distractions of the Reformation; it

had become a land of settled government;' it was a time of great commercial prosperity and of comparative peace; an era of unprecedented intellectual and religious freedom had dawned upon men; all the old beliefs had been shaken, and many of them dethroned. The forces which had been so vigorously at work to bring about all this were now unemployed; a new-born spirit of restless, inquisitive, vigorous mental activity was abroad, prying into all things, divine and human, and bound to take some tangible form. All the circumstances of the time being considered, we think no more suitable form could have been found than the drama, peculiarly the literature of action, of restless many-sided human life, by means of which to give utterance to the multitudinous and strange thoughts and fancies engendered of this restless, unrestrainable, abundant mental energy.

Whatever may have been the causes at work, for about sixty years after 1570, hundreds of dramas, many of them of supreme excellence, laden with deep and striking thoughts as well as rich and exquisite fancies, were produced by a race of authors, of many of the greatest of whom almost all we know is their names; even the biography of the very greatest among them is little else than a series of unsatisfactory conjectures. These dramatists appear to have formed a class by themselves, mixing little with general society ; but most of them leading a strange kind of wild 'Bohemian'existence, having no fixed abode, living mostly in taverns and other strange places, and forming themselves into clubs for drinking, smoking, ' quipping,' and contriving plays. Whether this was a consequence or a cause of their being tabooed from respectable society, we cannot say. What little we know of the lives of most of them is rather saddening: few of them lived long; most of them were penniless, and generally in debt to the managers; and many of them died from excessive indulgence in eating, drinking, and other gratifications. Nevertheless, they have left behind them much that men ought not willingly to let die.' Of the many hundred works produced by these old dramatists, comparatively few have reached our time, although those extant might still be counted by the hundred. Possibly we need not regret the loss, as only the most vigorous may have survived. It is needless for us to show here why those extant works of the Elizabethan dramatists are worthy of attention, and deserving of admiration; it is long since this has been allowed by all competent critics; and it is quite customary for all who pretend to any knowledge of English literature, to accord to them, as to other literary masterpieces, as a matter of course, the highest praise, although, we fear, many of those who talk thus do so without knowledge. However, few men perhaps are to be blamed for the want of a thorough acquaintance with the works of these dramatists, considering the many all-important matters demanding attention in

« ZurückWeiter »