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I. Method of Inquiry-Chronological Limits-Unity of the Subject.
II. Three Stages in Evolution of the Drama-Stage of Preparation and Formation-Closed by Marlowe-Stage of perfectly developed Type-Character of Shakspere's Art-Jonson and Fletcher-Stage of Gradual Decline.-III. The Law of Artistic Evolution-Illustrations from Gothic Architecture, Greek Drama, Italian Painting.--IV. The Problem for Criticism - In Biography -- In History-Shakspere personifies English Genius in his Century--Criticism has to demonstrate this.—V. Chronology is scarcely helpful--Complexity of the Subject-Imperfection of our Drama as a work of Art-Abundance of Materials for Studying all Three Stages--Unique Richness of our Dramatic Literature.–VI. Shakspere's Relation to his Age--To his Predecessors-To his Successors.-VII. Double Direction of English Literary Art-Jonson, Milton, Dryden, Pope--Spirit of the Elizabethan Epoch.--VIII. The Elizabethan Inspiration is exhausted in the Reign of Charles I.-Dramatists of the Restoration -Rise of the Novel-Place of Novelists in the Victorian Age.
In attempting a survey of one of the great periods of literary history, the critic is met with a problem, upon his conception and solution of which will depend both method and distribution of material. This initial difficulty may be stated in the form of questions. What central point of view can be adopted ? How
shall the order of inquiry be determined ? Do the phenomena to be considered suggest some natural classification ; or must the semblance of a system be introduced by means of artificial manipulation ?
This difficulty makes itself fully felt in dealing with what we call Elizabethan Drama.
The subject is at once one of the largest and the narrowest, of the most simple and the most complex. It ranks among
. the largest, because it involves a wide and varied survey of human experience; among the narrowest, because it is confined to a brief space of time and to a single nation ; among the most simple, because the nation which produced that Drama was insulated and independent of foreign interference; among the most complex, because the English people at that epoch exhibited the whole of its exuberant life together with an important stage of European culture in its theatre.
Confined within the strictest chronological limits (1580-1630), the period embraced by such a study does not exceed fifty years. Very little therefore of assistance to the critical method can be expected from the mere observation of development in time. Yet the ruling instinct of the present century demands, and in my opinion demands rightly, some demonstration of a process in the facts collected and presented by a student to the public. It is both unphilosophical and uninteresting to bind up notices, reviews, and criticisms of a score or two of dramatists; as though these writers had sprung, each unaided by the other, into the pale light of history; as though they did not acknowledge one law, controlling the noblest no less than the meanest; as though their work, surveyed in its entirety,
METHOD OF INQUIRY.
were not obedient to some spirit, regulating and determining each portion of the whole.
We are bound to discover links of connection between man and man, ruling principles by which all were governed, common qualities of national character conspicuous throughout the series, before we have the right to style the result of our studies anything better than a bundle of literary essays. It is even incumbent upon us to do more than this. In spite of narrow chronological limitations, it is our duty to show that the subject we have undertaken has a beginning, middle, and an ending in the category of time, and that the completion of the process was inherent in its earliest, embryonic stages.
In the history of the English Drama during the reigns of Elizabeth and James, the conditions which render a well-ordered inquiry possible were sufficiently realised.
Whatever method the critic may decide on, this at least he must both recognise and bear in view. He has to deal with a growth of poetry, shooting complete in stem and foliage and blossom, with extraordinary force and exuberant fertility, in a space of time almost unparalleled for brevity. The unity of his subject, the organic interdependence of its several parts, is what he has to keep before his mind.
Three stages may be marked in the short but vigorous evolution of our dramatic literature. The first and longest is the stage of preparation and of tentative endeavour. In the second maturity is reached ; the type is fixed by one great master, perfected and presented to the world in unapproachable magnificence by one immeasurably greater. The third is a stage of decadence and dissipation ; the type, brought previously to perfection, suffers from attempts to vary or refine
In the first stage we trace the efforts of our national genius to form for itself, instinctively, almost unconsciously, its own peculiar language of expression. Various influences are brought to bear upon the people at this epoch—through the religious conflicts of the Reformation, through the revival of classical learning, in the definition of English nationality against the powers of Spain and Rome, in the contact with Italian culture. England had not fashioned her own forms of art before the literatures of other and widely different races were held up for emulative admiration to our students. There was a danger lest invention should be crushed by imitation at the outset. Pedantic rules, borrowed from Aristotelian commentators and the apes of Seneca, were imposed by learned critics on the playwright. And no sooner had this peril been avoided, than another threatened. It seemed for a moment as though our theatre might be prostituted to purposes of political satire, diverted from its proper function of artistic presentation, and finally suppressed as a seditious engine. Meanwhile, a powerful body in the State, headed by the Puritans, but recruited from all classes of order-loving citizens, regarded the theatre with suspicion and dislike.
The native genius of the English people, though
THREE STAGES IN THE DRAMA.
menaced by these divers dangers, was so vigorous, the race itself was so isolated and so full of a robust tempestuous vitality, the language was so copious and vivid in its spoken strength, the poetic impulse was so powerful, that all efforts to domesticate alien styles, all inducements to degrade or scurrilise the theatre, all factious opposition to the will and pleasure of the people, ended in the assimilation of congenial and the rejection of repugnant elements. The style of England, the expression of our race in a specific form of art, grew steadily, instinctively, spontaneously, by evolution from within.
From this first period, which embraces the Miracles, Moralities, and Interludes, the earliest comedies of common manners, the classical experiments of Sackville and Norton, Hughes, Gascoigne, Edwards, and their satellites, the euphuistic phantasies of Lyly, the melodramas of Kyd, Greene, and Peele, together with the first rude history-plays and realistic tragedies of daily life, emerges Marlowe. Marlowe is the dramatist under whose hand the type, as it is destined to endure and triumph, takes form, becomes a thing of power and beauty. Marlowe closes the first, inaugurates the second period.
Over the second period Shakspere reigns paramount; perhaps we ought to say, he reigns alone; although a Titan so robust as Jonson stands at his right hand, with claims to sovereignty, and large scope in the future for the proclamation of his title. We, however, who regard the evolution of the Drama from the vantage-ground of time, see that in Shakspere the art of sixteenth-century England was completed and accomplished. It had imbibed all elements it needed