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Progress of the Nation. page 6


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It has been said that his dramas cast into the shade and made obsolete all that went before him; but, indeed, his great light is the shadow that obscures also all that has come after him. Where is the second Shakespeare of the stage? He still stands alone as the type of dramatic greatness and perfection, and is likely to continue so. When we recollect his marvellous characters - his Hamlet, his Macbeth, his Lady Macbeth, his Othello and Desdemona, his ShylocJc, his Lear, his Ophelia, his Juliet, his Rosalind - the humours and follies of Shallow, Slender, Dogberry, Touchstone, Bottom, Launce, Falstaff - or the ideal creations, Ariel, Caliban, Puck, Queen Mab, we scarcely hope for the appearance of any single genius who shall at once enrich our language with an affluence of such living and speaking characters, such a profound insight into all the depths and eccentricities of our nature, and such a fervent and varied expression of all the sentiments that are dearest to our hearts. But when we survey in addition the vast extent of history and country over which he has ranged, gleaning thence the most kingly personages, the most tragic incidents, the most moving and thrilling as well as amusing sensations and fancies, our wonder is the greater. Greece has lent him its Pericles, its Timon, its Troilus and Cressida - Rome its Caesar, Brutus, Antony, Coriolanus - Egypt its Cleopatra. Ancient Britain, Scotland, and Denmark; all the fairest cities of Italy, Venice, Verona, Mantua; the forests of Ulyria and Belgium, and the isles of the Grecian seas, are made the perpetually shifting arena of his triumphs. Through all these he ranged with a free hand, and, with a power mightier than ever was wielded by any magician, recalled to life all that was most illustrious there, and gave them new and more piquant effect from the sympathetic nearness into which he brought them with the spectator, the enchanting scenery with which he surrounded them. All this was done by the eon of the woolcomber of Stratford - the youthful ranger of the woods of Charlecote, and the uplands of Clopton - the merry frequenter of country wakes, and then the player of London, who, so far as we know, was never out of his native country in his life.

If we are to take it for granted that after the year 1597, when he bought one of the best houses in his native town for his residence, Shakespeare spent his life there, except during the theatrical season, the greater part of his last nineteen years would be passed in the quiet of his country home. Wemay then settle his " Two Gentlemen of Verona," "The Comedy of Errors," "Love's Labour Lost," "All's Well that Ends Well," "Richard II." and "Richard III.," "King John," "Titus Andronicus " (if his), the first part of "Henry IV.," and "Romeo and Juliet," as produced in the bustle of his London life. But the far greater part, and the most magnificent and poetical, of his dramas have been composed in the pleasant retirement of his native scenes; namely, the second part of "Henry IV.," "Henry V.," " The Midsummer Night's Dream," "Much Ado about Nothing," and "The Merchant of Venice," in 1598 and 1600; the second and third parts of "Henry VI.," "Merry Wives of Windsor," 1601; "Hamlet," 1602; "Lear," 1608; "Troilus and Cressida" and "Pericles," 1609; "Othello" (not published till after the author's death, which was the case, too, with all his other plays, though brought on the stage in his lifetime), "The Winter's Tale," "As You Like It," "King Henry VIII.," "Measure for Measure," "Cymbeline," "Macbeth," "The Taming of the Shrew," "Julius Caesar," "Antony and Cleopatra," "Coriolanus," "Timon of Athens," "The Tempest," and "Twelfth Night." Shakespeare died in 1616. Of the envy which the unexampled splendour of Shakespeare's genius produced amongst inferior dramatic writers, we have an amusing specimen in the words of Robert Greene: "There is an upstart crow, beautified with our feathers, that, with his tiger's heart wrapped in a player's hide, supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blank verse as the best of you, and, being an absolute Johannes Factotum, is, in his own conceit, the only Shakscene in a country."

Amongst the most remarkable dramatic contemporaries of Shakespeare, or those who immediately followed him, are Chapman, Ben Jonson, Webster, Middleton, Decker, Mars- ton, Tailor, Tourneur, Rowley, Ford, Hey wood, Shirley, and Beaumont and Fletcher. We can only give slight notices of them; those who wish to know more of their style and merits may consult Charles Lamb's Specimens, and Dilke's Old Plays, or Dodsley's Collection. Chapman wrote sixteen plays, and, conjointly with Ben Jonson and Mars ton, one more, as well as three in conjunction with Shirley. The tragedies of Chapman are written in a grave and eloquent diction, and abound with fine passages, but you feel at once that they are not calculated, like Shakespeare's, for acting. They want the inimitable life, ease, and beauty of the great dramatist. Perhaps his tragedy of "Bussy D'Ambois " is his best, and next to that his "Byron's Conspiracy," and "Byron's Tragedy." Of his comedies, "Eastward Hoe!" partly composed by Jonson and Marston, "Monsieur d'Olive," and his "All Fools." But Chapman's fame now rests far more on his translation of Homer, which, with all its rudeness of style and extreme quaintness, has always seized on the imagination of poets, and has been declared by many to be by far the best translation of the Iliad and Odyssey that we have. Pope was greatly indebted to it, having borrowed thence almost all the felicitous double epithets which are found in him.

The most celebrated of Webster's tragedies, "The Duchess of Malfi," has been revised in our time by Richard Hartwell Home, and put on the stage at Sadler's Wells by Phelps with considerable success. He was the author of three tragedies, " Appius and Virginia," "Duchess of Malfi," and "The White Devil; or, Vittoria Corombona;" a tragic comedy, "The Devil's Law-Case; or, When Women Go to Law, the Devil is full of Business," besides two comedies in conjunction with Rowley, and two others in conjunction with Decker. Webster exhibits remarkable power of language, and an imagination of wonderful vigour, but rather too fond of horrors. Undoubtedly he was one of the best dramatists of his age, and seemed fully conscious of it. That he had a true poetic vein in him is evidenced by such passages as the "Dirge of Marcello," sung by his mother, which reminds one of the like simple, homely ditties in Shakespeare: -

"Call for the robin-red-breast and the wren,
Since o'er shady groves they hover,
And with leaves and flowers do cover
The friendless bodies of unburied men.
Call unto his funeral dole,
The ant, the field-mouse, and the mole,
To raise him hillocks that shall keep him warm
And, when gray tombs are robbed, sustain no harm."

There are fine truths also scattered through his dramas as "To see what solitariness is about dying princes! As heretofore they have unpeopled towns, divided friends, and made great houses inhospitable, so now, O justice, where are their flatterers? Flatterers are but the shadows of princes' bodies; the least thick cloud makes them invisible."

Of Middleton, who wrote from twenty to thirty plays, in some of which, according to a very prevalant fashion of that age, he called in the aid of Rowley, Decker, Fletcher, and Massinger; of Decker, who wrote the whole or part of about thirty plays; of John Marston, who wrote eight plays; of Tailor, Tourneur, Hey wood, and Ford, we can only say that their dramas abound with fine things, and would well repay a perusal, though they are not destined to see the stage again. John Fletcher and Francis Beaumont require a more specific notice. These gentlemen wrote together on the same plays to the amount of upwards of thirty, whilst John Fletcher wrote fourteen or fifteen himself. In fact, Fletcher, so far as can be known, was the most voluminous writer of the two, Beaumont having written little in his own name, except a masque, a few farces, dramatic pieces, and translations. The style of the two, however, was so much alike, that there is little to distinguish their productions from those of an individual mind. Beaumont and Fletcher were, as stated by Dryden, far more popular in their time than Shakespeare himself. The truth is, that they had less originality and were more compliant with the spirit of their age. They sought their characters more in the range of ordinary life, and therefore hit the tastes of a large and commoner class. They were extremely lively and forcible in dialogue, and had a flowery and dignified style which oftener approached the poetical than became it. We are everywhere met by admirable writing, and a finely sustained tone, but we travel on without encountering those original characters that can never again be forgotten, that become a part of our world, or those exquisite gushes of poetry and poetic scenery, which are like the music of Ariel ringing in the memory long afterwards. At the same time we are continually offended by extreme grossness and jarred by slovenliness and incongruity. They are of the class of great and able play-wrights who command the popularity of their age, but whom future ages praise and neglect; and who are only read by the curious for the fragments of good things that they contain.

The fate of Ben Jonson has been nearly the same. With the exception of his comedies of "Every Man in his Humour," "Vulpone," "The Silent Woman," and "The Alchemist," we are content to read the bulk of his dramas, and wonder at his erudition and his wit. The genius of Jonson is most conspicuous in his masques and court pageants, which were the delight of James's queen, Anne of Denmark, and the whole court. In them the spirits of the woods seem to mingle with those of courts and cities; and fancy and a hue of romance give to royal festivities the impressions of Arcadian life. But the living poetry of the "Midsummer Night's Dream," or of "Comus," are yet wanting to touch them with perfection. Hence their chief charm died with the age which patronised them, and having once perused them, we are not drawn to them again by a loving memory, as we are to the Shakespearian woodlands and lyrical harmonies. In Jonson's graver dramas there is a cold classical tone which leaves the affections untouched and the feelings unmoved, whilst we respect the artistic skill and the learned dignity of the composition.

Massinger, who wrote nearly forty dramatic pieces, is a vigorous writer, eloquent and effective. He is extremely trenchant in his satire, and delights in displaying pride and meanness exposed and punished. Still he is greater as a dramatist than a poet. His "New Way to Pay Old Debts," and "The Fatal Dowry," are best known to the present lovers of the drama. The "City Madam" is a play which is full of strong features of the times. Decker assisted him in "The Virgin Martyr," and is supposed to have introduced a higher and richer vein of feeling than belonged to Massinger himself.

Altogether the dramatic writing of this period has never been surpassed, and in Shakespeare has never been equalled. There is mingled with much licentiousness and coarseness a manly and healthy strength in the writers of this department; and though the bulk of these compositions have vanished from the stage, they will be long examined with enjoyment by those who delight in living portraiture of past ages, and the strong current of genuine English sense and feeling. The arrival of the commonwealth put down all theatres and scenic amusements. The solemn religion of the puritans was death to what they called "the lascivious mirth and levity of players." After their suppression for six years, it was found that the ordinance of the Long Parliament was clandestinely and extensively evaded; and in 1648 an act was passed, ordering all theatres to be pulled down and demolished, and the players to be punished "as rogues according to law." Towards the end of the protectorate, however, dramatic representations again crept in cautiously, and Sir William Davenant at first giving musical entertainments and declamations at Rutland House, Charter House Square, and afterwards in Drury Lane, calling his entertainments operas, at length gave regular plays. The restoration at length set the imprisoned drama altogether free.

Besides dramatic writers, poets abounded. It has been calculated that from the reign of Elizabeth to the resto^ ration, no less than four hundred writers of verse appeared; some of these, who attained a great reputation in their day, and whose works are still retained in our collections, were rather verse-wrights than poets, and would now tax the patience of poetical readers beyond endurance. Such were William Warner, the author of "Albion's England," a history of England in metre extending from Noah's flood to the reign of Elizabeth; Samuel Daniel, the author of the "Civil Wars of Lancaster and York," in eight books; and Michael Drayton, who also wrote the "Barons' Wars," in verse, "England's Heroical Epistles," but above all the "Polyolbion," a Topography, in Alexandrine verse, in thirty books, and thirty thousand lines. Next came Giles and Phineas Fletcher, who employed their strength in composing allegoric poems. Phineas, under the delusive appellation of "The Purple Island," wrote an anatomical description of the human body, with all its veins, arteries, sinews, and so forth. This was extended to twelve books, on which an abundance of very excellent language was wasted. Besides this, he composed "Piscatory Eclogues," and other poems; and Giles, choosing a worthier subject, wrote "Christ's Victory" in the Italian ottava rime, or eight-lined stanzas. To such perversion of the name of poetry had men arrived in the age of Shakespeare.

There were sundry poets who were also translators. Of these Edward Fairfax, of the same family as lord Fairfax, was the most distinguished. He translated with singular vigour and poetic feeling Tasso's "Jerusalem Delivered," which, though since translated by Hoole, and far more admirably by Wiffen, has lost none of its racy strength by time. It is still referred to with intense pleasure by the lovers of our old poetry. Joshua Sylvester, who wrote like king James against tobacco, but in verse, "TobaccoBattered," &c., translated amongst other things, "The Divine Weeks and Works" of the French poet Du Bartas. Sir Richard Fanshawe translated the "Lusiad," by the Portuguese poet Camoens, since also translated by Mickle, and again by lord Strangford. Fanshawe, moreover, translated the "Pastor Fido" of Guarini, from the Italian, the "Odes" of Horace, the fourth book of the "AEneid," and the "Love for Love's Sake," of the Spaniard Mendoza. Fanshawe seemed to have a peculiar taste for the European languages derived from the Latin as for the Latin itself; thus he translated from Roman, Spanish, Portuguese, and Italian poets, and from all with much taste and elegance.

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