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The Theatre In England - Classical Drama In England Between 1550 And 1588

( Originally Published 1902 )



The first regular Comedy, imitated from Plautus ; analysis of Ralph Roister Doister Influence of the Italian Renaissance — Translations and adaptations of Latin plays between 1559 and 1566—First performance of a tragedy of Greek origin : the Jocasta of George Gascoigne—The first regular Tragedy, imitated from Seneca; analysis of Gorboduc—The second regular Tragedy, and its relations with the Latin Theatre—Plays of Italian origin : Romeo and Juliet, lames IV. of Scotland—George Gascoigne and the first Prose Comedy—Translations of French plays—The Classical Drama on the point of supplanting the Romantic Drama in England—Influence of Latin Tragedy and Italian literature on the destinies of the English Theatre—Performances of Latin plays in the Schools and Universities before and during the Renaissance.

THE first regular English comedy is Ralph Roister Doister, which dates from 1550. It was the work of Nicholas Udall, who was a master first at Eton, and afterwards at Westminster. Udall was a native of Hampshire, and died in 1556. The play is believed to have been acted the year of its publication at Eton, during the Christmas holidays. The writer has imitated the Miles Gloriosus of Plautus, adapting it t0 an episode of middle-class English life. The plot, which is divided into five acts, turns on the courting of a girl, who is already betrothed, by a despicable parasite. The young lady has but a small opinion of her new admirer, but in the absence of her future lord pretends to be captivated by the charms of the second adorer. The matter threatens to turn out badly, for the imprudent creature is discovered by the servant of her lover. Happily the protection of an old friend, and the humble confession of his sins from the culprit, comes at the right moment to relieve the heroine from her embarrassment.

Gammer Gurton's Needle, the second proper English comedy, was the work of John Still, who was successively master of St. John's and of Trinity College, Cambridge, and died as Bishop of Bath and Wells in 1607. This play, which was acted in Christ's College, Cambridge (printed 1575), is inferior to its predecessor both in plot and style, but has the merit of owing nothing to antiquity, and of being an essentially national product.

The Italian Renaissance, which at this period was revolutionising French literature, had its counterpart in England. The most cultured minds of the period, as Wyatt, Spenser, and Surrey, were inspired by Italian poems. The gallants, in particular Sir Walter Raleigh and Sir Philip Sidney—court ladies like Lady Jane Grey, the Countess of Pembroke, and the Princess Mary, were enthusiastic admirers of Italian poetry. England was inundated with translations of Italian romances, and it was an indispensable part of the education of every eldest son to make a sojourn of some months in the Eternal City. Under these conditions it was natural that dramatic literature should echo the infatuation. Seneca's tragedy, which is one long series of declamations, was received with rapture in Italy, and so excited the admiration of the English also, that they made an especial study of this writer.

Between the years 1559 and 1566 five authors devoted themselves to the translation in rhymed verses of the works of Seneca. These were Jasper Heywood, who translated The Trojan Women, the Thyestes, and the Raging Hercules ; Alexander Nevile, who translated the Oedipus ; John Studley, who undertook the Medea, the Agamemnon, the Phaedra, the Hercules on Oeta ; Thomas Nuce, who translated Octavia ; and lastly, Newton, who translated the Thebais.

The first tragedy of Greek origin represented on the English stage was Jocasta, an adaptation of the Phoenissae of Euripides. This piece, acted in 1566, was written by George Gascoigne and Kinwelmarsh.

In the interval, the first regular English tragedy had made its appearance. This was Gorboduc, or Ferrez and Porrex, played before Queen Elizabeth on January 17, 1561. This play was the work of two distinguished men of letters : Thomas Sackville, Lord Buckhurst, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and Thomas Norton, the famous controversialist, to whom, as also to George Gascoigne, is due the credit of having suggested the use of blank verse instead of rhymed verses. The subject of Gorboduc is taken from an English legend, but the tragedy, which contains choruses, is modelled on the Thebaïs of Seneca. At the same time the authors have not entirely conformed to the `rule of the three unities.' They have not observed the unity of place, for changes of scene are frequent in Gorboduc. This is the sole reproach made against this piece by Sir Philip Sidney, the eminent critic of the day, who considers it, save for this one fault, absolutely perfect. The tragedy in question is a mixture of dissertations and of philosophic reflections ; the greater part of the action is supposed to take place behind the scenes, and messengers keep the spectators au courant with events. Each actor delivers his speech, and makes way for another. Each act is preceded by a dumb show, which is the pantomimic explanation of the events that are about to unfold themselves. The acts close with a chorus composed of the ` four ancient and wise men of England,' who reflect upon the situation, and educe the moral of the action. The plot is thus stated in the Argument of Me Tragedie : ` Gorboduc, King of Britain, divided his realm in his lifetime to his two sons Ferrex and Porrex. The sons fell to dissension. The younger killed the elder. The mother, that more dearly loved the elder, for revenge killed the younger. The people, moved with the cruelty of the fact, rose in rebellion, and slew father and mother. The nobility assembled, and most terribly destroyed the rebels ; and afterwards, for want of issue to the prince, whereby the succession to the crown became uncertain, they fell to civil war, in which both they and many of their issues were slain, and the land for a long time almost desolate and miserably wasted.'

The Misfortunes of Arthur, the second regular tragedy, was written by Thomas Hughes. It was acted before Queen Elizabeth at Greenwich in 1587, by eight members of the Society of Gray's Inn. But the choruses, the dumb shows, and the arguments are due to different benchers, among whom was ` Maister Francis Bacon.' Although composed on the model of the Latin Tragedy, this play differs from Gorboduc in the treatment of its facts, and in its type reminds; us somewhat of Euripides. In some ways it is an advance on Gorboduc, for it is less pretentious in tone, the verses are more harmonious, the dialogue more intimately bound up with the situations. The `ghost' of Latin Tragedy plays an important part in this work, which, curiously enough, is written in blank verse.

Nor was England content during the Renaissance period with translating and adapting Latin plays ; it sought inspiration for the composition of its tragedies in Italian plays and romances. The first attempt of the kind was undoubtedly the tragedy of Romeo and Juliet, a metrical paraphrase by Arthur Brooke of Bandello's History of Romeo and Juliet. Brooke's play, printed in 1562, has not come down to us. Another famous tragedy inspired by the study of Italian literature is The Scottish Historie of James IV., to which we shall return later on, as an historical play. The plot was in effect furnished by a romance of Cinthio.

In Comedy the first imitation of an Italian play is the translation made by George Gascoigne of Ariosto's Gli Suppositi. This piece, the first English comedy written in prose, was represented at Gray's Inn in 1566. A second and no less famous comedy of Italian origin is Tancred and Gismunda, taken from Boccaccio's Decamerone. This play was originally written in rhyme, and acted in the Inner Temple, in 1568, before Queen Elizabeth ; but on being republished in 1572, it was put into blank verse. The list of compositions of Italian origin closes, in 1578, with the Promos and Cassandra of George Whetstone, who took the story from a novel by Giraldi Cinthio.

The English repertory at the end of the sixteenth century comprised translations of French pieces also. In 1590 the Countess of Pembroke published her Antony, in blank verse. Thomas G. Kyd also translated the Cornélie of Garnier, in 1594.

England was thus within an inch of submitting herself to Classical Tragedy, as had occurred in France, where the Theatre was unable to resist the tyrannical exigencies of Richelieu and of the Académie Française, on which the all-puissant minister imposed his will. Happily for England, she had behind her centuries of tradition, for the Miracle Play, as we have seen, contained from the outset the elements of the Romantic Drama.

Queen Elizabeth, moreover, was no purist. She did not impose her taste upon the nation : the National Drama was able to give free vent to its instincts of realism. What contributed also in large measure to the emancipation of the English Drama was the predilection it early manifested for the study of historical events, a style to which Bishop Bale gave the first impulsion in his tragic morality of King John, 1548.

Generally speaking, the influence of the Latin Tragedy was advantageous to the English Drama. In this school the dramatic authors first learned the art of careful and harmonious construction, at the same time finding in it an example of sobriety. In the next place, it was Latin Tragedy that suggested the use of blank verse to English writers. And from the same source was derived the `ghost,' of which Kyd, and Shakespeare after him, made such striking use in their works.

Italian literature, for its part, above all Roman literature, suggested a greater variety of subjects to the dramatic authors, and provided them at various times with the plot of their tragic or domestic situations ; so that, in the absence of foreign influences, the development of Tragedy would have been indefinitely retarded.

In Comedy the influence of the Classic and Italian models was exercised in no such absolute fashion, for, as already pointed out, the dramatic action of the Mysteries and Moralities made itself felt long before the Renaissance period. Yet without a knowledge of the Latin comic authors (Plautus and Terence) and a study of the Italian Comic Theatre, the final emancipation of the type would doubtless have been delayed by several years.

In addition to the dramatised English translations or adaptations from the Latin Theatre, a great number of plays written in Latin were per-formed in the sixteenth century. The first comedy represented under these conditions dates from 1520. It was called A goodly Comedy of Plautus, and is supposed to have been given for the amusement of the persons of distinction who were detained in London as hostages for the capitulation of Tournay. It was no uncommon thing, even at this epoch, to perform. Latin plays before the learned societies, as well as in the schools of S. Paul's and Westminster. And from 1546 these performances came into vogue at the universities also, and a great number of such plays were represented between 1546 and 1564.



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