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A Brief View of Dramatic Poetry, and its Cultivators, during Shakspeare's Connection with the
That the master-spirit which Shakspeare exhibited in the eyes of his contemporaries; that the great improvements which he had made on the drama of Peele and Marlowe, and their associates, should excite the wonder and call for the emulation of his age, were events naturally to be expected. He was accordingly the founder of a school of dramatic art which continued to flourish until extinguished by those convulsions that destroyed the monarch, and overturned the government of the country,-a school to which we have since had nothing similar, or even approximating in excellence.
The fate, however, of the leader and his disciples has been widely different. During the life-time of Shakspeare, the spirit of competition forbade an open acknowledgment of his pre-eminence, and those who had run the race of glory with him, and outlived his day, had influence sufficient, either from personal interest, or the charm of novelty, to procure a more frequent representation of their own productions, however inferior, than of those of their departed luminary. But when the grave bad closed alike on their great exemplar and on themselves, apart, indeed, was their allotment in the estimation of the living; for while the former sprang from the tomb with fresh energy and beauty, over the latter dropped, comparatively, the mantle of oblivion! Yet, not for ever!
Though lost, for a time, in the effulgence of that lustre which has continued to brighten ever since its revivescence, they have nevertheless, through an intrinsic though more subdued brilliancy of their own, begun, at length, to emerge into day, and their demand upon the justice of criticism, for their station and their fame, is loud and imperative.
Let us, therefore, as far as our brief limits will permit, and in furtherance of what has been so judiciously commenced, co-operate in the endeavour to apportion to these immediate successors of our matchless bard, the honour due to their exertions. If correctly attributed, it cannot be trilling, and may assist in forming a just notion of the most valuable period of our dramatic poesy. ! We shall commence with those who, in their own age, were deemed the rivals, and followed, indeed, fast upon the footsteps of Shakspeare, hesitating not to give priority of notice to the name of John Fletcher, who, though hitherto inseparably united'in faine and publication with his friend Francis Beaumont, deserves, both from the comparative number and value of his pieces, a separate and exclusive consideration.
of the fifty-three plays which have been ascribed to these poetical friends, it appears that not more than nine or ten were the joint productions of Beaumont and Fletcher; in still fewer was he assisted by Massinger, Rowley, and Field, and the ample residue, independent of two pieces now lost, and known to have been his sole composition, was therefore the entire product of Fletcher's genius.* With this curious fact, we were first made acquainted by Sir Aston Cokain, who, speaking of the thirty-four plays of these poets, as published in the folio of 1647, informs us, that
“ Beaumont of those many writ in few;
Vide Malone's Dryden, vol. i. part ii.
101. + Verses addressed to Mr. Humphrey Mosely, published in his Poems, Epigrams, &c. 1658.
In fact, as Sir Aston has elsewhere told us,* the bulk of the collection was written after Beaumont's death, which took place in 1615; the fecundity of Fletcher being so great, that in the interval between that event and his own decease in 1625, he had produced nearly forty dramas, besides some which were left in an unfinished state, and completed by Shirley.
It is also necessary to add, that the ten plays which issued from the firm of Beaumont and Fletcher are, by no means, the best of the entire series : they are Philaster, -The Maids Tragedy,-King and No King,—The Knight of the Burning Pestle,-Cupid's Revenge,- The Coxcomb --The Captain,-The Honest Man's Fortune,-The Scornful Lady, and The False One; † productions, in allusion to which it has been said, and perhaps with no great injustice, that "if the plays of Beaumont were thrown out of the collection by Beaumont and Fletcher, the remainder would form a richer ore.” I
Warrantable, therefore, upon this statement, must it be deemed, should we now drop the name of Beaumont, after observing, that a portion of the merits and defects of Fletcher may be attributed to his friend, and that, in the estimation of Ben Jonson (on this subject the most unexceptionable testimony), he possessed, beyond all others of his age, a sound and correct judgment. S
The characteristic of Fletcher, in the serious department of his art, was a peculiar mastery in the delineation of the softer passions, especially of love. There is a sweetly pensive tone in many of his pictures of this kind, which steals upon the mind with the most insinuating charm, producing that species of pathos which soothes while it gently agitates the soul; a feeling too sad and melancholy for the genius of comedy, and too mild and subdued for that of tragedy, but admirably adapted to an intermediate style of composition, of which he has given us some happy instances under the title of tragi-comedy. It must be confessed, however, that an impression of feebleness and efleminacy, a sickliness of sentiment, and a want of dignity in the pity which he endeavours to excite, but too often accompany his efforts, even in this his favourite province.
Yet not unfrequently did Fletcher aspire to the loftiest heights of the dramatic muse; to the terrible, to the wildly awful, to the agony of grief. But here he sank beneath the genius of Shakspeare; in his endeavour to be great, there is a labour and contortion which frequently betrays the struggle to have been painfully arduous; an impression which we never receive from the drama of his predecessor, who seems to attain the highest elevation with an ease and spontaneity of movement, which suggests an idea, approaching to sublimity, of the fulness and extent of his resources. But, as an elegant critic has observed, Fletcher
“too mistrustful of Nature; he always goes a little on one side of her. Shakspeare chose her without a reserve : and had riches, power, understanding, and long-lise, with her, for a dowry."
Very different, however, was the result of his efforts, when he touched the gaieties of life; for in this path, he moves with a grace and legerity which has not often been equalled. He displays, it is true, little humour, and consequently not much strength of character; but we are told, on good authority, 4+ that no poet before him painted the conversation of the gentlemen of his day with such fidelity and truth; a declaration which impresses us with an high opinion of the vivacity and intellectual smartness of the dialogue of that age; for there is in the representation of Fletcher an almost perpetual effervescency and corruscation of wit and repartee.
The imagination of Fletcher, when not straining after the eagle wing of the
Verses addressed to Mr. Charles Cotton.
Malone's Dryden, vol. i. pari ii. p. 100.-Fuller tells us, in his quaint but emphatic manner, that Beaumont brought “the ballast of judgment,” aud Fletcher " the sail of phantasie."--Worthies, part ii. ** Lamb's Specimens of English Dramatic Poets, p. 409.
++ Dryden on Dramatic Poesy.
bard of Avon, was fertile a nd felicitous in an extraordinary degree. The romantic, the fanciful, the playful, irre epithets peculiarly descriptive of its range and tone, within which he frequently emulates with success the excellence of his great master. There appears, indeed, in several of his pieces, an evident intention of entering the lists with Shakspeare. Thus the exquisitely pleasing character of Euphrasia, under the disguise of a page, in Philaster, was undoubtedly intended to rival the similar concealments in The Two Gentleman of Verona, in As You Like It, in Cymbeline, and in Twelfih Night. Amoret, in The Faithful Shepherdess, is a delightful counterpart of Perdita, in The Winter's Tale, and throughout The Two Noble Kinsmen, and especially in the character of the Jailor's daughter, there is a striking, and, in general, a very happy effort made, to copy the express colouring of Shakspeare's style, and his mode of representing the wanderings of a disordered intellect.
But when, regardless of the hazardous nature of the experiment, he attempts, in his Sea Voyage, to emulate the magic structure and wild imagery of The Tempest, his ambition serves but to show, that he had formed a very inadequate estimate of his own powers.
Yet the failure in such an enterprise can reflect no disgrace, and from what has been said, it must necessarily be inferred, that we consider Fletcher as holding a very high, is not the highest rank, in the school of Shakspeare.
How much is it to be lamented then, that excellence such as this should have been polluted by the grossest spirit of licentiousness; for it would appear, from the tenour of many of our author's plays, that, in his vocabulary, sensuality and sensibility were synonymous terms; so nakedly and ostentatiously has he brought forward the most immodest impulses of sexual appetite. Shakspeare may be, and is, occasionally, coarse and unreserved in his language; but, if compared with Fletcher, the nudity of his expressions is like the marble statue of a vestal, when contrasted with the wanton exposure of a prostitute.
As we wish to be spared the pain of reverting to such a subject, for which the age of Fletcher and his successors offers, unfortunately, but too many opportunities, it shall here be closed with a single expression of regret, that a department of poetry which, in itself, seems better calculated than any other to serve the cause of virtue, should be degraded to a purpose thus base and unworthy.*
On a level with, not one degree above, the writings of Fletcher, follow the purer and more chastised productions of Philip Massinger, a poet of unwearied vigour and consummate elegance. That he had, in conjunction with others, composed for the stage some years anterior to the death of Shakspeare, there is every reason to conclude; for his first arrival in London, in 1606, was, we are told, under necessitous circumstances, and with the view of dedicating his talents to dramatic literature; and though his Virgin Martyr, his earliest publication, did not appear until 16:22, it was a notorious fact, that he had written in conjunction both with Beaumont and Fletcher.t It is almost certain, indeed, from what Mr. Gifford has stated, that, in the interval just mentioned, he had brought on the stage not less than eight or ten plays. I
The English drama never suffered a greater loss for all Shakspeare's pieces have descended to us) than in the havoc which time and negligence have committed among the works of Massinger; for of thirty-eight plays attributed to his pen, only eighteen have been preserved!
Massinger, like Fletcher, pursued the path in which Shakspeare had preceded
Would that the Commentators on Shakspeare had pursued the plan which Mr. Gifford has adopted in his edition of Massinger, who, speaking of ihe freedoms of his author, declares, that “those who examine the notes with a prurient eye, will find no great gratification of their licentiousness. I have called in no one (he adds) to drivel out gratuitous obscenities in uncouth language; no 'one' to ransack the annals of a brothel for secrets better hid: where I wished not to detain the reader, I have been silent, and instead of aspiring to the fame of a licentious commentator, sought only for the quiet approbation with which the father or the husband may reward the faithful editor."— Massinger, vol. i. p. 1xxxiii, lxxxiv.
| Gifford's Massinger, vol. i. p. xii, xiv. Introduction. $ Ibid. vol. 1. p. xviii.-XX.
him with such imperishable glory; but he wants the tenderness and wit of the former, and that splendour of imagination and that dominion over the passions, which characterise the latter. He has, however, qualities of his own, sufficiently great and attractive, to gift him with the envied lot of being contemplated, in union with these two bards, as one of the chief pillars and supporters of the Romantic Drama.
He exhibits, in the first place, a perfectibility, both in diction and versification, of which we have, in dramatic poesy, at least, no corresponding example. There is a transparency and perspicuity in the texture of his composition, a sweetness, harmony, and ductility, together with a blended strength and ease in the structure of his metre, which, in his best performances, delight, and never satiate the ear.
To this, in some degree, technical merit, must be added a spirit of commanding eloquence, a dignity and force of thought, which, while they approach the precincts of sublimity, and indicate great depth and clearness of intellect, show, by the nervous elegance of language in which they are clothed, a combination and comprehension of talent of very unfrequent occurrence.
These qualities are, it must be allowed, not peculiar to dramatic poetry; but when we find, that to their possession are added a powerful discrimination and marked consistency of character, no inconsiderable display of humour, much fertility of invention in the preparation and development of his incidents, and an unprecedented degree of grace and amenity in the construction of several of his comic scenes, together with a sund of ethic knowledge, an exquisite sense of moral feeling, and above all, a glow of piety, in many instances amounting to sublimity, we willingly ascribe to Massinger originality and dramatic excellence of no inferior order.
But when Dr. Ferriar, closing his “Essay on the Writings of Massinger," asserts that he "ranks immediately under Shakspeare himself,"* we must crave per
“ mission to hesitate for a moment, in reference to the enchanting tenderness of Fletcher. “ If there be a class of writers, of which, above all others,” observes Mr. Gil
a christ, England may justly be proud, it is of those, for the stage, coeval with and immediately succeeding Shakspeare:" + an observation which the names alone of Fletcher and Massinger would sufficiently justify; but when to these we are enabled to add such fellow-artists as Ford, Webster, Middleton, etc., we are astonished that even the talents of Shakspeare should, for so long a period, have eclipsed their fame.
Ford's first appearance as an author, was in a copy of verses to the memory of the Earl of Devonshire, in 1606, and his earliest play of which we have the date of performance, was “A Bad Beginning makes a Good Ending," acted at court, in 1613, # but it is probable that the three plays mentioned with this, in Mr. Warburton's Collection, and like it, never published, and now lost, S were likewise early, and perhaps anterior, compositions.
As it was the fashion, at this period, for dramatic writers to commence their course in conjunction with others, we find Ford accepting frequent assistance from his friends: thus The Sun's Darling, The Fairy Knight, and the Bristowe Merchant, were written in conjunction with Decker: and The Witch of Edmonton with the aid of both Decker and Rowley.
Of the pieces which were exclusively the product of his own genius, 'Tis Pity She's a Whore, though not published the first, was the first written, and was succeeded by the Lover's Melancholy, The Broken Heart, Love's Sacrifice, Perkin Warbeck, The Fancies Chast and Noble, and The Ladies Tryal.
Ford possesses nothing of the energy and majesty of Massinger, and but little of
Gifford's Massinger, vol i. Essay on the Writings of Massinger, p. cxxvi. t Letter to Williain Gifford, Esq. on the late edition of Ford's Plays, 8vo. 1811, p. 7.
Vide Chalmers's Biographical Dictionary, vol. xiv. p. 465. $ Gentleman's Magazine, vol. lxxxv. p. 219.
the playful gaiety and picturesque fancy of Fletcher, yet scarcely Shakspeare him*self has exceeded him in the excitement of pathetic emotion. Of this, his two Tragedies of 'Tis Pity She's a Whore, and the Broken Heart, bear the most overpowering testimony. Though too much loaded in their fable with a wildness and horror often felt as repulsive, they are noble specimens of dramatic genius; and who that has a heart to feel, or an eye to weep, can, in the first of these productions, view even the unhallowed loves of Giovanni and Annabella; or in the second, the hapless and unmerited fates of Calantha and Penthea, with a cheek unbathed in tears!
JOHN WEBSTER, whom we shall place immediately after Ford, as next, perhaps, in talent, resembled him in a predilection for the terrible and the strange, but with a cast of character still more lawless and impetuous. Of the six plays which he produced, two were written in conjunction with William Rowley, and are comedies; the remaining four, containing three tragedies, and a tragi-comedy, are the issue of his unaided pen. The tragedies, especially The White Devil, or Vittoria Corombona, first printed in 1612, and the Dutchesse of Malfy, in 1623, are very striking, though, in many respects, very eccentric proofs of dramatic vigour.
It appears, however, from the dedication to the “ White Devil,” that our author was well acquainted with the laws of the ancient drama, and that “ willingly, and not ignorantly,” he adopted the Romantic or Shakspearean form. The last paragraph of this address is a pleasing instance of his diffidence, liberality, and good sense :-"For mine own part,” says he, “I have ever truly cherished my good opinion of other men's worthy labours, especially of that full and heightened style of master Chapman; the laboured and understanding works of master Jonson ; the no less worthy composures of the both worthily excellent master Beaumont and master Fletcher; and lastly (without wrong last to be named), the right happy and copious industry of master Shakspeare, master Decker, and master Heywood, wishing what I write may be read by their light; protesting that, in the strength of mine own judgment, I know them so worthy, that though I rest silent in my own work, yet to most of theirs I dare (without flattery) fix that of Martial:
non norunt hæc monumenta mori. * The silence which modesty dictated to Webster, ought long ago to have been broken, by a declaration, that he was finally entitled to a niche in the same temple of Fame with those whom he has here commemorated. In his pictures of wretchedness and despair, he has introduced touches of expression which curdle the very blood with terror, and make the hair stand erect. Of this, the death of The Dutchesse of Malfy, with all its preparatory horrors, is a most distinguishing proof. The fifth act of his Vittoria Corombona shows, also, with what occasional skill he could imbibe the imagination of Shakspeare, particularly where its features seem to breathe a more than earthly wildness. The danger, however, which almost certainly attends such an aspiration after what may be called inimitable excellence, Webster has not escaped ; for, where his master moves free and ethereal, an interpreter for other worlds, he but too often seems laboriously striving to break from terrestrial setters; and, when liberated, he is, not unfrequently, “ an extravagant and erring spirit. Yet, with all their faults, bis tragedies are, most assuredly, stamped with, and consecrated by, the seal of genius.
Not less than twenty-four plays are ascribed to Thomas MIDDLETON, of which, sixteen at least, appear to owe their existence entirely to himself, the rest are written in conjunction with Jonson, Fletcher, Massinger, Decker, and Rowley. Middleton, it is probable, began to compose for the stage shortly after Shakspeare, + for one
* Vide Ancient British Drama, vol. jji. p. 3.
+ The Old Law. in which he assisted Rowley, was acted in its original state', and before it was re-touched by Massinger, in 1599.