Pagina-afbeeldingen
PDF
ePub

LECTURE II.

ON THE DRAMATIC WRITERS CONTEMPORARY WITH SHAKESPEAR, LYLY, MARLOW, HEYWOOD, MIDDLETON, AND ROWLEY.

The period of which I shall have to treat (from the Reformation to the middle of Charles I.) was prolific in dramatic excellence, even more than in any other. In approaching it, we seem to be approaching the rich STROND described in Spenser, where treasures of all kinds lay scattered, or rather crowded together on the shore in inexhaustible but unregarded profusion, “ rich as the oozy bottom of the deep in sunken wrack and sumless treasuries." We are confounded with the variety, and dazzled with the dusky splendour of names sacred in their obscurity, and works gorgeous in their decay,

majestic, though in ruin,” like Guyon when he entered the Cave of Mammon, and was shewn the massy pillars and huge unwieldy fragments of gold, covered with dust and cob

66

webs, and “ shedding a faint shadow of uncer

tain light,

“ Such as a lamp whose light doth fade away,

Or as the moon clothed with cloudy night
Doth shew to him that walks in fear and sad affright."

The dramatic literature of this period only wants exploring, to fill the enquiring mind with wonder and delight, and to convince us that we have been wrong in lavishing all our praise on “ new-born gauds, though they are made and moulded of things past;" and in “ giving to dust, that is a little gilded, more laud than gilt o'er-dusted.” In short, the discovery of such an unsuspected and forgotten mine of wealth will be found amply to repay the labour of the search, and it will be hard, if in most cases curiosity does not end in admiration, and modesty teach us wisdom. A few of the most singular productions of these times remain unclaimed ; of others the authors are uncertain ; many of them are joint-productions of different pens ; but of the best the writers' names are in general known, and obviously stamped on the productions themselves. The names of Ben Jonson, for instance, Massinger, Beaumont and Fletcher, are almost, though not quite, as familiar to us, as that of Shakespear; and their works still keep regular possession of the stage.

Another set of writers included in the same general period (the end of the sixteenth and the beginning of the seventeenth century), who are next, or equal, or sometimes superior to these in power, but whose names are now little known, and their writings nearly obsolete, are Lyly, Marlow, Marston, Chrapman, Middleton, and Rowley, Heywood, Webster, Deckar, and Ford. I shall devote the present and two following Lectures to the best account I can give of these, and shall begin with some of the least known.

The earliest tragedy of which I shall take notice (I believe the earliest that we have) is that of Ferrex and Porrex, or Gorboduc (as it has been generally called), the production of Thomas Sackville, Lord Buckhurst, afterwards created Earl of Dorset, assisted by one Thomas Norton. This was first acted with applause before the Queen in 1561, the noble author being then quite a young man. This tragedy being considered as the first in our language, is certainly a curiosity, and in other respects it is also remarkable ; though, perhaps, enough has been said about it. As a work of genius, it may be set down as nothing, for it contains hardly a memorable line or passage ; as a work of art, and the first of its kind attempted in the language, it may be considered as a monument of the taste and skill of the authors. Its merit is confined to the regularity of the plot and metre, to its general good sense, and strict attention to common decorum. If the poet has not stamped the peculiar genius of his age upon this first attempt, it is no inconsiderable proof of strength of mind and conception sustained by its own sense of propriety alone, to have so far anticipated the taste of succeeding times, as to have avoided any glaring offence against rules and models, which had no existence in his day. Or perhaps a truer solution might be, that there were as yet no examples of a more ambiguous and irregular kind to tempt him to err, and as he had not the impulse or resources within himself to strike out a new path, he merely adhered with modesty and caution to the classical models with which, as a scholar, he was well acquainted. The language of the dialogue is clear, unaffected, and intelligible without the smallest difficulty, even to this day; it has "no figures nor no fantasies,” to which the most fastidious critic can object, but the dramatic power is nearly none at all. It is written expressly to set forth the dangers and mischiefs that arise from the division of sovereign power; and the several speakers dilate upon the different views of the subject in turn, like clever schoolboys set to compose a thesis, or declaim upon

the fatal consequences of ambition, and the uncertainty of human affairs. The author, in the end, declares for the doctrine of passive obedience and non-resistance; a doctrine which indeed was seldom questioned at that time of day. Eubulus, one of the old king's counsellors, thus gives his opinion

“ Eke fully with the duke my

mind agrees,
That no cause serves, whereby the subject may
Call to account the doings of his prince ;
Much less in blood by sword to work revenge:
No more than may the hand cut off the head.
In act nor speech, no nor in secret thought,
The subject may rebel against his lord,
Or judge of him that sits in Cæsar's seat,
With grudging mind to damn those he mislikes.
Though kings forget to govern as they ought,
Yet subjects must obey as they are bound.”

Yet how little he was borne out in this inference by the unbiassed dictates of his own mind, may appear from the freedom and unguarded boldness of such lines as the following, addressed by a favourite to a prince, as courtly advice;

“ Know ye that lust of kingdoms hath no law:

The Gods do bear and well allow in kings
The things that they abhor in rascal routs.
When kings on slender quarrels run to wars,
And then in cruel and unkindly wise

« VorigeDoorgaan »