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the people, who cared little whether or not they outwardly conformed to the new religion, it was a serious matter whether their dress, their amusements and their marriage arrangements should be dictated by the new rigorism, or whether the old jovial ways of the country should be left untouched. In fact, under James the struggle was beginning to take a far more distinctly religious character than it possessed during the professedly Reformation struggle. Nobody can study the real character of that struggle, without seeing that the purely religious element had wonder-, fully little to do with the conduct of either side.
But under James the whole country was seething with personal hatreds and personal convictions tending to a vehement civil war in which the victory was finally won by the party which would vigorously put down all plays and play-acting as the work of the devil himself. Yet, neither in the comedies nor the tragedies of the day do we find anything that can: be called a picture, or even caricature, of the passions that were burning throughout the country. Here and there passages and characters may be found which were more or less suggested by the theological antipathies which were soon to set Englishmen .cutting each other's throats; but that is all.
Nor cán we attribute this silence as to the polemics of the time to any of that sort of fastidiousness or good feeling which now banishes such matters from the stage. Fastidiousness was unknown to the men and also to the women of that vigorous age. They said what they thought, and they said it with a strength of language which would make our women blush, and our men open their eyes, if such sounds were now to strike their ears.
The famous Histrio-Mastix, or Scourge for Stage Players, which Prynne published in 1632, is at once a token of the hatred with which the Puritans regarded everything connected with the play-house, and of the gall, unmingled with honey, with which each side bespattered its antagonists. Chapman was still alive and a very old man. The style of the Scourge is as coarse and scurrilous as anything that the age produced, and if anything could have stirred the dramatic writers to a frenzy of reprisals, Prynne's pamphlet was precisely the thing to do it.
But what is most notable, as enabling us to treat the plays of the time from the purely critical point of view, is the fact which everybody knows, that the Histrio-Mastix' was at once made the subject of a Government prosecution. Pryone was already odious in the eyes of Laud and the rest of the High Church party, both from his ecclesiastical views and his moral rigorism, and from the untiring energy with which he : annoyed the Archbishop and his friends of the ultra “ Apostolical Succession " school. But he had now contrived to exasperate the Court and the courtiers past all bearing. Plays and masques and other amusements, such as we should now call private theatricals, were among the most fashionable of amusements, the Queen herself having acted in a pastoral at Somerset House. Whether or not Prynne expected what befell him cannot be known; but when he had made both an archbishop and a queen his special enemies, he might have anticipated as savage a punish
ment as those hard-hitting times delighted to inflict. And a tolerably severe penalty he had to pay. The attorney-general prosecuted him in the Star Chamber, and he was sentenced to pay a fine of 3,0001., to be expelled from the University of Oxford and the Society of Lincoln's Inn ; to be degraded from the bar ; to be twice set in the pillory; to have both his ears cut off; and to be imprisoned for life.
Here, then, we think we have the key to the interesting literary problem which' must have often occurred to students of the old dramatists, and particularly to those who take up the plays of Chapman himself. The tragedies and comedies which have come down to us from those stormy times were, in no sense, the dramatic literature of the nation. They were the dramatic literature of the Court and its fashionable followers ; and they were not only tolerable in their completeness, but often admirable in the eyes of that exclusive world. The plays in which the multitude delighted were more like the old moralities and mysteries which had come down to them from the pre-Reformation days, in which coarse buffoonery was the predominant element, and no trace of poetry was ever to be detected. The lords and ladies who applauded these plays, at the same time that they applauded Shakspeare's, were almost the only people in the country who could understand the unquestionable poetic beauties of these dramatists, without being repelled by their faults, as plays professing to represent the actual life of men and women. Their education was sometimes very much above the average education of the fine ladies and gentlemen who now throng the operas in London, when one popular star is singing her utmost to outsing another popular star. They had not yet come down to that depth of dulness which has so long stigmatised a classical education as unfit for women, and especially for women of what is called “birth and fortune." Often, as appears from a passage of Chapman, many of the aristocratic audience would sit upon the stage itself, and the acting and speaking were criticised from that strictly literary point of view which is practically unknown to the living generation of play-goers.
The dramas of Chapman and the other contemporaries and followers of Shakspeare were thus the representatives of that transition state of public taste, which was the natural result of the abolition of the miracle plays and gross absurdities of the middle ages. Critics and dramatists alike had not yet realised the truth that a play ought, above all things, to be an exhibition of the passions and motives of human nature, as it is in its essence, in every stage of civilisation. A wonderful burst of the genuine poetic fervour had accompanied the growth of the English people as a Protestant and freedom-loving race, but the educated world had yet to learn under what conditions the poem could become the play; and was contented with poetic beauties in whatsoever companionship they found them.
It is to no purpose to name the great name of Shakspeare in opposition to this view. He stood alone then, just as he stands alone in the
literature of the whole world. He belonged to no school, just as none of those who were his contemporaries belonged to him. It was his intensely sympathetic conception of the varieties of human nature, not as embodiments of ideal conceptions, but as living realities, which made him what he was, and which separates him by an impassable barrier from every one who wrote when he wrote, or who has written since he died. The only real anticipation of the perfect “humanity" of Shakspeare is to be detected in the old Greek tragedy and comedy, and of that tragedy and comedy Shakspeare himself knew nothing. But it is immortal, and for the very same reason that has given Shakspeare his immortality. It is, as we think, an error to criticise the plays of Shakspeare in
close connection with those of his contemporaries and those of the generation that lived after him. They belonged to the school of their day, but he belonged to no school whatsoever. That he would have been what he was if he had lived before the Reformation had set Englishmen free, and while the English language was still unformed, is not, of course, to be maintained. But at the same time, he stood as completely apart from the fashionable school of his day, of which Chapman is, perhaps, the most typical representative, as from the boisterous, coarse, and extravagant plays, which constituted the enjoyment of the multitude.
Nor, again, is there any historical ground for believing, that Shakspeare was ever a favourite dramatist with the miscellaneous multitude, as is so often assumed by writers who mourn over the “ decay of the British drama,” Whether in connection with the Elizabethan or the Tudor dramatists there has been a general consent among critics to lament over the fact that the Shakspearian tragedies and comedies are now no longer those which the English nation at large flocks to hear and see. But this lament, so far as it blames this present generation, has no foundation in the facts of the past. There is no ground for supposing that he was ever valued by the people as he is now loved by the critical readers of England, and Germany, and Italy, and even of France. Among his own contemporaries he was doubtless accounted the first among all the writers whom the Court applauded; but there never was a period in the history of England when his plays were presented to an audience like that of the Greeks who witnessed the representations of Æschylus, and Sophocles, and Aristophanes, and Euripides.
In truth, the moment we pass from Shakspeare to Chapman and all others, we feel that we are in another world, and we understand at once that while Shakspeare is still acted, and would be still more frequently acted if anything like a tolerably complete company could be found to act him, Chapman, Ben Jonson, Marston, and the rest, are still the delight of students only, and that the general reader will only love them because of the beauties which are enshrined in an intolerable quantity of the unnatural, forced and pedantic theatricalisms of their day. Even the more modern comedies of a later time, of which Vanbrugh and Wycherley may be named as typical examples, are banished from the drawing-room table
as well as from the theatre, not only because of the tone of their plots and the freedom of their dialogue, but because there is little of any true naturalness in their characters, and they appeal more to the artificial tastes of an audience of fine ladies and gentlemen than to the sympathies of that humanity which is common to every age and every
class. There can be no doubt that the courtier audiences who went to see and to enjoy plays like those of Chapman, sought an enjoyment very unlike that which everybody seeks who now goes to the play or to the opera. They went in cool blood to criticise, to applaud, to enjoy, or to condemn. They were satisfied with fine or poetic passages, even though the general course of the play and the dialogue was unnatural in the extreme. They loved an exhibition of what in those days was “learning" in the playwriter. And this fondness for the introduction of classical history and mythology was not that ridiculous pedantry which we should now account it. It was not Chapman alone who, through his translation of Homer, had his head filled with the ideas and machinery of the Greek Olympus, and seemed to be as much at home among heroes, gods, and goddesses as among living men and women. It was the same with other play-writers of the day. A familiarity with the literature of Greece and Rome was the one recognised sign that the writer was an educated man.
There were no other tokens of high culture which the playwright could exhibit; while the very language that he wrote was still clearing itself of its mediæval forms, and of the cumbrous and stilted metaphors which it had borrowed from the Italian renaissance. Under Elizabeth and James the English language and English literature were emphatically creating themselves, and thus it was that the plays of the time are to be estimated rather by the jewels which may be extracted from them, than by their general quality or completeness.
This is singularly the case with Chapman, of whom Charles Lamb has happily said that "he would have made a great epic poet, if he has not abundantly shown himself to be one ; for his Homer is not so properly a translation as the stories of Achilles and Ulysses re-written." markable, at the same time, that Lamb, in the short criticism which he has prefixed to the quotation from Chapman, in his Specimen of English Dramatic Poets, confines his remarks almost entirely to his style, while admitting at the same time his inability to create a living human being. In passages
“which are less puroly dramatic,” Lamb holds, and, as we think, justly, that of all the English play-writers Chapman approaches the nearest to Shakspeare.
Even in The Blind Beggar of Alexandria, the earliest of his plays that are not lost, and a very poor performance indeed, it seems wonderful to light upon passages like these following:
Though my years would have me old, I am not,
It is re
Which kills the taste of these delicious cates. The next is quaint and slightly “ long drawn out," but it is beautiful nevertheless :
Head-tires enchased in order like the stars,
The moon and stars reflecting in their streams. The next play that Chapman wrote is better in construction, and not so impossible. The dialogue, too, is more easy and natural. But it is only by comparison that the story is less impossible than that of The Blind Beggar of Alexandria and its “ breadth " is startling, and shows what a gulf separates the higher classes of English society from the lords and ladies who, under Elizabeth, sat and enjoyed its extremely plain speaking It supplies, too, a curious illustration of the fashionable learning of the day, and shows that King James was by no means so singular in his pedantic displays as we are tempted to imagine him. It must have been an odd time, indeed, when a young lord would thus soliloquise and apostrophise “Marc Cicero":
“Quid Dei potes videri magnum in rebus humanis qua aterni omnes to thy notas sic omnibus magna tutor. What can seem strange to him on carthly things to whom the whole course of eternity and the round compass of the world is known ? A speech divine; but yet I marvel much how it should spring from thee, Mark Cicero, that sold for glory the sweet peace of life, and make a torment of rich nature's work, wearing thyself by watchful candle-light, when all the smiths and weavers were at rest, and yet was gallant when the lay-bird sung to have a troop of clients at thy gates, armed with religious supplications, such as would make stern Minos laugh to read. Look at our lawyers' bills; not one contains virtue or honest drifts, but he cares, he cares, he cares; for acorns now are in request, but the oak's poor fruit did nourish men; men were like oaks of body, tough and strong; men were like giants then, but pigmies now, but full of villanies as their skin could hold.”
This was the kind of classical knowledge which Chapman and others brought from the Oxford and Cambridge of the sixteenth century. He himself passed some time in residence at both of the Universities. “In 1574, or thereabouts,” says Wood in his Athena Oxonienses, “he being