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The Theatre In England - The National Drama Before Shakespeare (1580-1600)

( Originally Published 1902 )



English Tragedy, and its origin—The Chronicle Plays or English History on the stage, between 1199 and 1588—The Tragedies : Melodrama of Kyd—Peele's Court Comedies—The dramatic repertory before Marlowe—Marlowe : his life and work—Tamburlaine, and adoption of blank verse—Other tragedies ; their character—Characteristics of Marlowe's talent—John Lyly the precursor of Romantic Comedy—Introduction of Prose into the Drama—Peele's Melodrama—Greene and the first Romantic Comedy proper—Other predecessors of Shakespeare—Tragedies between 1585 and 1589—Definite substitution of blank for rhymed verse in 1589—The position of actor and of dramatic author in the time of Marlowe.

THE Historical Tragedy is the earliest form of the English National Drama. It originated in a poetical work of a highly original character, entitled The Mirror for Magistrates, begun in 1557 by Thomas Sackville (Lord Buckhurst, Earl of Dorset). The aim of the author was to introduce all the names of unhappy and illustrious fame, from the Norman Conquest to the end of the fourteenth century. The poet accordingly descends into the infernal regions, led like Dante by ` Misfortune,' and obtains from the leaders of that dark realm the tale of their calamities. Sackville had only time to write the political preface and the first legend ; the work was continued by an ecclesiastic of the name of Richard Baldwin, together with an advocate of Lincoln's Inn, one George Ferrers. These called in the aid of Churchyard, Player, Skelton, Dolman, Seagers, and Cavyll, who, between them, produced twenty-eight legends, relating more especially to the chief events of the Wars of the Roses. The completed work gave fresh inspiration to Sackville and Thomas Norton. Stimulated by these earlier legends, they composed the first historical tragedy existing in English literature—Ferrez and Porrex, otherwise known as Gorboduc, which, as we saw above, was also the first English tragedy proper.

The Chronicle Plays, or Historical Tragedies, henceforward played the same part in England during the second half, and in particular during the last quarter, of the sixteenth century, as the Historical Comedies (i.e. the farces and soties) of France between 1440 and 1580. But while in France the Historical Comedies are only the statement under the form of satire of some political facts detached from the annals of the nation, and independent of one another, in England the Chronicle Play is the dramatic exposition as a whole of the chief events of one reign in chronological order. And while the French cared little for the form, and thought only of the pungency of the satire, the English were more occupied with giving at least a certain artistic unity to the play.

The list of historical pieces begins with Kyng Johan, a pure morality which is thought to have been composed by Bishop Bale in 1548. It describes the disputes of the King with the Pope.

As we have seen, it was not till thirteen years later that the first Historical Tragedy proper was destined to appear ; itself the second and only specimen of the type, during the period of nearly forty years subsequent to the publication of Bale's Kyng Johan. Between 1585 and 1590, however, some few anonymous Chronicle Plays were written. The first of these is The Famous Victories of Henry Fifth, a play written partly in prose, partly in blank verse, with no division into acts and scenes. It commences with the end of Henry IV.'s reign, and introduces the death of the King, the battle of Agincourt, and the marriage of Henry v. with Princess Katherine.

To the same epoch belongs The Troublesome Raigne of King John. This play is partly in prose, partly in verse, blank or rhymed. It treats of the same events as Bale's historical morality in regard to the struggle with Rome, and contains nearly all the incidents of Shakespeare's tragedy King John. In the same category we must place The True Chronicle History of King Leir and his Three Daughters, Gonerill, Ragan, and Cordella. This play contains most of the incidents developed in Shakespeare's tragedy of King Lear, and was acted in 1593.

The regular series of Chronicle Plays, a true record of English history between 1199 and 1588, comprises, independent of the four plays mentioned above, tragedies on the reigns of King John, Edward i., Edward ii., Edward iii., Richard II., Henry iv., Henry v., Henry vi., Edward iv., Richard iii., Henry vii., James w. (of Scotland), Henry viii., and Elizabeth. These plays are Shakespeare's King John ; Peele's Edward I. ; Marlowe's Edward H.; Edward III. by Marlowe and Shakespeare ; Richard II., Shakespeare ; Henry IV., Henry V., Henry VI., Shakespeare ; Edward IV., Thomas Heywood. Ford composed a tragedy of Perkin Warbeck, which deals with the historical events of the reign of Henry vii. Between this last piece and Shakespeare's Henry VIII. may be placed Greene's famous tragedy The Scottish Historie of James IV., which refers equally to the events of the reign of Henry vu. Shakespeare's Henry VIII. also inspired Samuel Rowley, who wrote on the same subject his play, When You see Me, You know Me.

The historical drama by Dekker and Webster, called Sir Thomas Wyatt, follows on to the reign of Edward vi., and gives the contemporary events of the reigns of Mary Tudor and Elizabeth.

Lastly, the tragedy of If You know Me not, You know Nobody, the work of Thomas Heywood, which deals with the same subject, closes the series of these Chronicle Plays.

After assuming the character of the historical play, the English National Drama next underwent a phase of `blood and death.' Kyd must be regarded as the inventor of this new style, a sort of prolonged tempest in which the author has recourse to all the means proper to inspire terror blows, cries, suicide, murder, madness. In short, the tragedies of Kyd are pure melodrama, in which the `ghost' of Seneca once more plays a part. Kyd's plays, from the point of view of their violent situations, mark a considerable advance on the two first Anglo-Classical tragedies, Gorboduc and The Misfortunes of Arthur. Two plays are attributed to this author which are more particularly stamped with this bold character, The Spanish Tragedy and Soliman and Perseda.

Another play of ` blood and murder' is the tragedy of Hoffman, or a Revenge for a Father, by Henry Chettle, whose works, like those of Kyd, aided in the formation of the Romantic Drama.

Another play we must quote, which had its hour of celebrity, was Peele's Arraignment of Paris, in rhymed verse, written in 1584. This work contained the elements of the Classical Drama and the Mask, and constitutes a dramatic type, known under the name of the Court Comedy. Peele was also distinguished as a writer of Chronicle Plays, and his Famous Chronicle of King Edward I. was acted in 1588.

Accordingly, before the invention of the Romantic Tragedy, and after the disappearance of the Mysteries and Morals, the theatrical repertory comprised comedies on the model of Plautus and Terence, tragedies like those of Seneca, historical plays, romances and dramatised incidents of private life, with the so-called ` court' or ` complimentary' comedies.

To Marlowe belongs the honour of having amalgamated these different elements, .and of having, by a process of selection as well as of exclusion, created the Romantic Tragedy, the highest expression of the dramatic temperament in England. Christopher Marlowe was born at Canterbury, 1563-64. Educated at the King's School in that city, he subsequently entered the University of Cambridge and took his Arts' degrees in 1583 and 1587. He then became a literary adventurer in London, where he remained for the rest of his life. He died at the early age of thirty, stabbed in a tavern brawl. His five tragedies were produced between 1586 and 1593, that is, in less than seven years. After his death an unfinished tragedy of Dido, Queen of Carthage, was found among his papers, dating from the outset of his career. This work betrays his hesitations between blank and rhymed verse. Marlowe has been termed the father of English tragedy. He was in fact the first to feel that Romantic Drama was the sole form in harmony with the temperament of the nation, and consequently the only type with a future before it.

As has been said, he began by putting order into the mass of materials bequeathed him by his predecessors. Next, he had the good taste to feel that blank verse, so dear to pedants, must be retained from the classical school, which for the rest he entirely eschewed. Before his time the Drama was only a vast spectacular display, arranged in scenes, and seasoned with coarse pleasantries. Marlowe transformed the substance of the Drama, suppressing trivial situations, and introducing a new class of heroic subjects which breathed the spirit of the time.

Tamburlaine the Great, which appeared in 1587, is remarkable as the earliest tragedy written in blank verse for the public stage. In it the poet strained the force of diction to the utmost, in his determination to show that blank verse could create as powerful an effect as rhyme. Doctor Faustus, the next tragedy, composed in 1588, is a fairly close adaptation of the German Volksbuch, a prose account of the life, death, and adventures of Doctor Faustus. This work relates the struggle between Christianity and magic, with some account of natural philosophy, as it was conceived at the end of the fifteenth century, just before the Reformation. Marlowe's tragedy has no plot, and is not divided into acts. At first sight it appears to be a careless dramatic version of the buffoonery and necromancy of the German original. Marlowe introduces no female character ; but his magnificent picture of the perdition, agony, and final ruin of Faust established his right to be classed as a great tragic poet.

The Jew of Malta, the next play, appeared in 1588, and is remarkable for the powerful character of Barabas, the avaricious Jew, from whom Shakespeare derived his Shylock in the Merchant of Venice, substituting, however, for Marlowe's imaginary type a really human character.

Edward the Second, which dates from 1590, is one of the most perfect of Marlowe's tragedies.

It marks a great step in the career of dramatic history, and is an advance on Peele's play, The Famous Chronicle of Edward I. Marlowe seems to have been inspired by two tragedies (authors unknown) for his Edward IL The titles of these plays were, First part of the Contention between the two famous houses of York and Lancaster, and The True Tragedy of Richard, Duke of York. Marlowe's work is remarkable for its dramatic power, but inferior to that of its models from the point of humour, in which he is totally lacking. The play is in blank verse interspersed with rhyme, and contains numerous classical quotations.

The Massacre of Paris, also written about 1590, is the weakest of Marlowe's tragedies. It refers to the struggle of the Duc de Guise with the party of the Huguenots, but does not agree with historical tradition.

One of the characteristics of Marlowe's talent is that he went through no period of experiment, and had no models. His first tragedy shows him in full possession of his talents, and constitutes him the creator of a type destined to revolutionise the dramatic art. His characters are the product of his imagination, and not the fruit of study and observation. They are pure ideal conceptions put into drama. Marlowe errs unfortunately by his complete lack of humour. Nor was he capable of tracing a single real feminine character, and is in both these points far below Shakespeare, whose genius was as marked in the one as in the other.

The plays of John Lyly constituted a fourth dramatic type, intermediate as it were between Classical and Romantic Comedy. This writer, born 1554, in Kent, is more especially known in France as the inventor of Euphuism, imported into the court of Henri iv. by Antonio Perez. Lyly's plays are remarkable for their frequent allusions to history and mythology, as well as their repeated borrowing from classical sources. They even contain Latin quotations, interpolated with the scenes of real life. From the clever amalgam Lyly made of the Classical Drama and the Mask, came the Romantic Comedy of Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, and Fletcher.

The greatest service, however, which Lyly rendered to the Drama, was that of introducing prose, and thus giving the first example of a lively and animated dialogue. His principal comedies are Endymion, the Man in the Moone (first printed in 1591) ; Mydas ; Gallathea, a kind of panegyric on the virtues of Queen Elizabeth, and represented before her by the ` Children of Paul's.'

Peele, of whom we have already spoken as the author of classical masks and chronicle plays, continued, after Marlowe, the tradition of the School of Kyd, by his play The Battle of Alcazar, which is pure melodrama. This play was written about 1591. Peele further composed an interlude or farce, The Old Wives' Tale, curious in the sense that it possibly furnished Milton with the subject of his Masque of Cornus. Peele's productions had no serious effect on the progress of the Drama. His only merits lie in his elegant descriptions, ingenious use of mythology, and charm of versification.

Robert Greene, born in Norwich 1560, wrote one noticeable play, The Scottish Historie of James the Fourth, slaine at Flodden, 1598, referred to above as an historical piece. But it further marks an evolution in the history of the English Drama. It is, in fact, the first piece to contain all the. elements of the Romantic Comedy, of which Lyly only laid the foundation. Greene is the first dramatist who was able to develop his action forcibly, to invent a host of motives, to mingle the sublime, the grotesque, the sad and gay, so as to produce a happy result. His influence upon the future of the Shakespearean Drama was accordingly very considerable.

The other predecessors of Shakespeare are Thomas Lodge, who wrote two tragedies of merit : The Wounds of Civil War, and A Looking-Glass for London and England; Nash, the famous author of Summer's Last Will and Testament ; Anthony Munday, who collaborated with Chettle in The Death of Robert, Earl of Huntington, the first domestic tragedy.

The plays of these several authors are anterior to 1600. Robert Greene, in fact, died in 1592 ; Marlowe in 1593 ; Kyd in 1594 ; Nash produced only one work, in 1592 ; Thomas Lodge wrote nothing after 1594; Peele died in 1597; Lyly in 1600.

Between 1585 and 1589 the tragedies of these different poets were in rhymed verse, with the exception of Marlowe's Tamburlaine. The substitution of blank for rhymed verse, in 1587, provoked a desperate resistance from Nash and Greene ; but the opposition was overcome by 1589, and Marlowe remained undisputed master of the situation. For the rest, the poet was the recognised leader of this group of writers, who bowed to the superiority of his genius.

All these men of letters came of good families, were fully educated, and had, generally speaking, taken their degrees at Oxford and Cambridge. With the exception of Lyly, who took service with the Court, these authors worked for editors, as well as for the public theatres, and lived on the products of their labours. They withdrew from society, and led a Bohemian existence, giving them-selves up to every imaginable licence, so that the discredit attaching in those days to the profession of actor and dramatic author is readily understood.

There is good reason to suppose that Greene, notwithstanding his violent attacks on Shakespeare for being an actor, was of the profession himself, as were also Marlowe, Peele, Nash, and Thomas Lodge.



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