« VorigeDoorgaan »
“ If there be a class of writers, of which, above all others,” observes Mr. Gilchrist, “ England may justly be proud, it is of those, for the stage, coeval with and immediately succeeding Shakspeare 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, &c. 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 , 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 the playful gaiety and picturesque fancy of Fletcher, yet scarcely Shakspeare himself has exceeded him in the excitement of pathetic emotion. Of this, his two Tragedies of 'Tis Pity She's a
* Letter to William 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.
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 stile 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 their’s 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 fully 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 etherial, an interpreter for other worlds, he but too often seems laboriously striving to break from terrestrial fetters; and, when liberated, he is, not unfrequently, “ an extravagant and erring spirit.” Yet, with all their faults, his 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 t, for one of his pieces was published as early as 1602, and eight had passed the
press before 1612. His talents were principally directed towards comedy, only two tragedies, The Changeling, and Women beware Women, and two tragi-comedies, The Phænix and The Witch, being included in the list of his productions.
Humour, wit, and character, though in a degree inferior to that
* Vide Ancient British Drama, vol. iii. 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.
which distinguishes the preceding poets, are to be found in the comedy of Middleton ; and, occasionally, a pleasing interchange of elegant imagery and tender sentiment. His tragedy is not devoid of pathos, though possessing little dignity or elevation ; but there is, in many of his plays, and especially in the tragi-comedy of The Witch, a strength and compass of imagination which entitle him to a very respectable rank
among the cultivators of the Romantic drama. A more than common celebrity has attached itself to this lastnamed composition, in consequence of the conjecture of Mr. Steevens, that it preceded Macbeth, and afforded to Shakspeare the prima stamina of the supernatural machinery of that admirable play. This may readily be granted, without aspersing the originality of the Bard of Avon ; for if we except the mere idea of the introduction of such an agency into dramatic poetry, there is little beside a few verbal forms of incantation, and two or three metrical invocations, of singular notoriety perhaps at the period, which can be considered as betraying any marks of imitation. In every other respect, affinity or resemblance there is none; for the Witches of Middleton and of Shakspeare are beings essentially distinct both in origin and office. The former are creatures of flesh and blood, possessing power, indeed, to inflict disease, and to execute more than common mischief, but very subordinate instruments of evil, when compared with the spiritual essence and mysterious sublimity of the Weird Sisters, who are the authors not only of nameless deeds, but who are nameless themselves, who float upon the midnight storm, direct the elemental strife, and, more than this, who wield the passions and the thoughts of man.
The hags of Middleton are, however, drawn with a bold and creative pencil, and seem to take a middle station between the terrific sisterhood of Shakspeare, and the traditionary witch of the countryvillage. They are pictures full of fancy, but not kept sufficiently aloof from the ludicrous and familiar.
On the same elevation with Middleton, as to dramatic merit, may we place the name of Thomas Decker, who, if he has not equalled
his contemporary in the faculty of imagination, has, in some instances, exceeded him, in the vigorous conception of his characters, and the skilful management of his fable, So early as 1600, had he published one of his best dramas, under the title of Old Fortunatus, which, together with The Honest Whore, printed in 1604, very adequately prove that his talents were of no inferior class ; the character of Orleans in the first of these plays, and that of Bellafront in the second, exhibiting not only many beautiful ideas in richly poetical language, but many indications of an original and discriminative mind.
The fertility of Decker was great ; for independent of numerous pieces of a miscellaneous kind, he wrote or contributed to write, not fewer than thirty-two plays. Several of these, however, were never printed, and are not now, probably, in existence; and two which were once in Mr. Warburton's possession, perished with his ill-fated collection. There is reason to suppose that twelve, if not fifteen, originated solely with himself, and for the remainder, his associates were Middleton, Massinger, and Ford, Webster, Day, and Rowley. With the latter and Ford, he wrote The Witch of Edmonton, the execution of which shows, that, though he has availed himself, with much effect, of the common superstitions connected with his subject, he was, in point of fancy, inferior to Middleton, the Witch of this triumvirate being little more than the ignorant and self-deluded victim of the folly of the times, then, under the shape of decrepid and female old age, to be found in almost every hamlet in the kingdom.
Decker has been more known to posterity by his connection and quarrel with Ben Jonson, than by his own works, a fate which has also obscured the writings and reputation of John Marston, who, in his life-time, was not undeservedly celebrated both as a dramatic and a satiric poet. In the former capacity he produced eight plays, of which the two parts of Antonio and Mellida, The Insatiate Countess, and The Malcontent, published as early as 1602, 1603, and 1604, reflect great credit on his abilities. These, and indeed all his dramas, give evidence of great wealth and vigour of description, of much