CHAPTER III. THE DRAMA
Biologists tell us that the hybrid—the product of a variety of ancestral stocks—is more fertile than an organism with a direct and unmixed ancestry; perhaps the analogy is not too fanciful as the starting-point of a study of Elizabethan drama, which owed its strength and vitality, more than to anything else, to the variety of the discordant and contradictory elements of which it was made up. The drama was the form into which were moulded the thoughts and desires of the best spirits of the time. It was the flower of the age. To appreciate its many-sided significances and achievements it is necessary to disentangle carefully its roots, in religion, in the revival of the classics, in popular entertainments, in imports from abroad, in the air of enterprise and adventure which belonged to the time.
As in Greece, drama in England was in its beginning a religious thing. Its oldest continuous tradition was from the mediaeval Church. Early in the Middle Ages the clergy and their parishioners began the habit, at Christmas, Easter and other holy days, of playing some part of the story of Christ's life suitable to the festival of the day. These plays were liturgical, and originally, no doubt, overshadowed by a choral element. But gradually the inherent human capacity for mimicry and drama took the upper hand; from ceremonies they developed into performances; they passed from the stage in the church porch to the stage in the street. A waggon, the natural human platform for mimicry or oratory, became in England as it was in Greece, the cradle of the drama. This momentous change in the history of the miracle play, which made it in all but its occasion and its subject a secular thing, took place about the end of the twelfth century. The rise of the town guilds gave the plays a new character; the friendly rivalry of leagued craftsmen elaborated their production; and at length elaborate cycles were founded which were performed at Whitsuntide, beginning at sunrise and lasting all through the day right on to dusk. Each town had its own cycle, and of these the cycles of York, Wakefield, Chester and Coventry still remain. So too, does an eye-witness's account of a Chester performance where the plays took place yearly on three days, beginning with Whit Monday. “The manner of these plays were, every company had his pageant or part, a high scaffold with two rooms, a higher and a lower, upon four wheels. In the lower they apparelled themselves and in the higher room they played, being all open on the top that all beholders might hear and see them. They began first at the abbey gates, and when the first pageant was played, it was wheeled to the high cross before the mayor and so to every street. So every street had a pageant playing upon it at one time, till all the pageants for the day appointed were played.” The “companies” were the town guilds and the several “pageants” different scenes in Old or New Testament story. As far as was possible each company took for its pageant some Bible story fitting to its trade; in York the goldsmiths played the three Kings of the East bringing precious gifts, the fishmongers the flood, and the shipwrights the building of Noah's ark. The tone of these plays was not reverent; reverence after all implies near at hand its opposite in unbelief. But they were realistic and they contained within them the seeds of later drama in the aptitude with which they grafted into the sacred story pastoral and city manners taken straight from life. The shepherds who watched by night at Bethlehem were real English shepherds furnished with boisterous and realistic comic relief. Noah was a real shipwright.
“It shall be clinched each ilk and deal.
With nails that are both noble and new
Thus shall I fix it to the keel,
Take here a rivet and there a screw,
With there bow there now, work I well,
This work, I warrant, both good and true.”
Cain and Abel were English farmers just as truly as Bottom and his fellows were English craftsmen. But then Julius Caesar has a doublet and in Dutch pictures the apostles wear broad-brimmed hats. Squeamishness about historical accuracy is of a later date, and when it came we gained in correctness less than we lost in art.
The miracle plays, then, are the oldest antecedent of Elizabethan drama, but it must not be supposed they were over and done with before the great age began. The description of the Chester performances, part of which has been quoted, was written in 1594. Shakespeare must, one would think, have seen the Coventry cycle; at any rate he was familiar, as every one of the time must have been, with the performances; “Out-heroding Herod” bears witness to that. One must conceive the development of the Elizabethan age as something so rapid in its accessibility to new impressions and new manners and learning and modes of thought that for years the old and new subsisted side by side. Think of modern Japan, a welter of old faiths and crafts and ideals and inrushing Western civilization all mixed up and side by side in the strangest contrasts and you will understand what it was. The miracle plays stayed on beside Marlowe and Shakespeare till Puritanism frowned upon them. But when the end came it came quickly. The last recorded performance took place in London when King James entertained Gondomar, the Spanish ambassador. And perhaps we should regard that as a “command” performance, reviving as command performances commonly do, something dead for a generation—in this case, purely out of compliment to the faith and inclination of a distinguished guest.
Next in order of development after the miracle or mystery plays, though contemporary in their popularity, came what we called “moralities” or “moral interludes”—pieces designed to enforce a religious or ethical lesson and perhaps to get back into drama something of the edification which realism had ousted from the miracles. They dealt in allegorical and figurative personages, expounded wise saws and moral lessons, and squared rather with the careful self-concern of the newly established Protestantism than with the frank and joyous jest in life which was more characteristic of the time. Everyman, the oftenest revived and best known of them, if not the best, is very typical of the class. They had their influences, less profound than that of the miracles, on the full drama. It is said the “Vice”—unregeneracy commonly degenerated into comic relief—is the ancestor of the fool in Shakespeare, but more likely both are successive creations of a dynasty of actors who practised the unchanging and immemorial art of the clown. The general structure of Everyman and some of its fellows, heightened and made more dramatic, gave us Marlowe's Faustus. There perhaps the influence ends.
The rise of a professional class of actors brought one step nearer the full growth of drama. Companies of strolling players formed themselves and passed from town to town, seeking like the industrious amateurs of the guilds, civic patronage, and performing in town-halls, market-place booths, or inn yards, whichever served them best. The structure of the Elizabethan inn yard (you may see some survivals still, and there are the pictures in Pickwick) was very favourable for their purpose. The galleries round it made seats like our boxes and circle for the more privileged spectators; in the centre on the floor of the yard stood the crowd or sat, if they had stools with them. The stage was a platform set on this floor space with its back against one side of the yard, where perhaps one of the inn-rooms served as a dressing room. So suitable was this “fit-up” as actors call it, that when theatres came to be built in London they were built on the inn-yard pattern. All the playhouses of the Bankside from the “Curtain” to the “Globe” were square or circular places with galleries rising above one another three parts round, a floor space of beaten earth open to the sky in the middle, and jutting out on to it a platform stage with a tiring room capped by a gallery behind it.
The entertainment given by these companies of players (who usually got the patronage and took the title of some lord) was various. They played moralities and interludes, they played formless chronicle history plays like the Troublesome Reign of King John, on which Shakespeare worked for his King John; but above and before all they were each a company of specialists, every one of whom had his own talent and performance for which he was admired. The Elizabethan stage was the ancestor of our music-hall, and to the modern music-hall rather than to the theatre it bears its affinity. If you wish to realize the aspect of the Globe or the Blackfriars it is to a lower class music-hall you must go. The quality of the audience is a point of agreement. The Globe was frequented by young “bloods” and by the more disreputable portions of the community, racing men (or their equivalents of that day) “coney catchers” and the like; commonly the only women present were women of the town. The similarity extends from the auditorium to the stage. The Elizabethan playgoer delighted in virtuosity; in exhibitions of strength or skill from his actors; the broad sword combat in Macbeth, and the wrestling in As You Like It, were real trials of skill. The bear in the Winter's Tale was no doubt a real bear got from a bear pit, near by in the Bankside. The comic actors especially were the very grandfathers of our music-hall stars; Tarleton and Kemp and Cowley, the chief of them, were as much popular favourites and esteemed as separate from the plays they played in as is Harry Lauder. Their songs and tunes were printed and sold in hundreds as broadsheets, just as pirated music-hall songs are sold to-day. This is to be noted because it explains a great deal in the subsequent evolution of the drama. It explains the delight in having everything represented actually on the stage, all murders, battles, duels. It explains the magnificent largesse given by Shakespeare to the professional fool. Work had to be found for him, and Shakespeare, whose difficulties were stepping-stones to his triumphs, gave him Touchstone and Feste, the Porter in Macbeth and the Fool in Lear. Others met the problem in an attitude of frank despair. Not all great tragic writers can easily or gracefully wield the pen of comedy, and Marlowe in Dr. Faustus took the course of leaving the low comedy which the audience loved and a high salaried actor demanded, to an inferior collaborator.
Alongside this drama of street platforms and inn-yards and public theatres, there grew another which, blending with it, produced the Elizabethan drama which we know. The public theatres were not the only places at which plays were produced. At the University, at the Inns of Court (which then more than now, were besides centres of study rather exclusive and expensive clubs), and at the Court they were an important part of almost every festival. At these places were produced academic compositions, either allegorical like the masques, copies of which we find in Shakespeare and by Ben Jonson, or comedies modelled on Plautus or Terence, or tragedies modelled on Seneca. The last were incomparably the most important. The Elizabethan age, which always thought of literature as a guide or handmaid to life, was naturally attracted to a poet who dealt in maxims and “sentences”; his rhetoric appealed to men for whom words and great passages of verse were an intoxication that only a few to-day can understand or sympathize with; his bloodthirstiness and gloom to an age so full-blooded as not to shrink from horrors. Tragedies early began to be written on the strictly Senecan model, and generally, like Seneca's, with some ulterior intention. Sackville's Gorboduc, the first tragedy in English, produced at a great festival at the Inner Temple, aimed at inducing Elizabeth to marry and save the miseries of a disputed succession. To be put to such a use argues the importance and dignity of this classical tragedy of the learned societies and the court. None of the pieces composed in this style were written for the popular theatre, and indeed they could not have been a success on it. The Elizabethan audience, as we have seen, loved action, and in these Senecan tragedies the action took place “off.” But they had a strong and abiding influence on the popular stage; they gave it its ghosts, its supernatural warnings, its conception of nemesis and revenge, they gave it its love of introspection and the long passages in which introspection, description or reflection, either in soliloquy or dialogue, holds up the action; contradictorily enough they gave it something at least of its melodrama. Perhaps they helped to enforce the lesson of the miracle plays that a dramatist's proper business was elaboration rather than invention. None of the Elizabethan dramatists except Ben Jonson habitually constructed their own plots. Their method was to take something ready at their hands and overlay it with realism or poetry or romance. The stories of their plays, like that of Hamlet's Mousetrap, were “extant and writ in choice Italian,” and very often their methods of preparation were very like his.
Something of the way in which the spirit of adventure of the time affected and finished the drama we have already seen. It is time now to turn to the dramatists themselves.
Of Marlowe, Kyd, Greene, and Peele, the “University Wits” who fused the academic and the popular drama, and by giving the latter a sense of literature and learning to mould it to finer issues, gave us Shakespeare, only Marlowe can be treated here. Greene and Peele, the former by his comedies, the latter by his historical plays, and Kyd by his tragedies, have their places in the text-books, but they belong to a secondary order of dramatic talent. Marlowe ranks amongst the greatest. It is not merely that historically he is the head and fount of the whole movement, that he changed blank verse, which had been a lumbering instrument before him, into something rich and ringing and rapid and made it the vehicle for the greatest English poetry after him. Historical relations apart, he is great in himself. More than any other English writer of any age, except Byron, he symbolizes the youth of his time; its hot-bloodedness, its lust after knowledge and power and life inspires all his pages. The teaching of Machiavelli, misunderstood for their own purposes by would-be imitators, furnished the reign of Elizabeth with the only political ideals it possessed. The simple brutalism of the creed, with means justified by ends and the unbridled self-regarding pursuit of power, attracted men for whom the Spanish monarchy and the struggle to overthrow it were the main factors and politics. Marlowe took it and turned it to his own uses. There is in his writings a lust of power, “a hunger and thirst after unrighteousness,” a glow of the imagination unhallowed by anything but its own energy which is in the spirit of the time. In Tamburlaine it is the power of conquest, stirred by and reflecting, as we have seen, the great deeds of his day. In Dr. Faustus it is the pride of will and eagerness of curiosity. Faustus is devoured by a tormenting desire to enlarge his knowledge to the utmost bounds of nature and art and to extend his power with his knowledge. His is the spirit of Renaissance scholarship heightened to a passionate excess. The play gleams with the pride of learning and a knowledge which learning brings, and with the nemesis that comes after it. “Oh! gentlemen! hear me with patience and tremble not at my speeches. Though my heart pant and quiver to remember that I have been a student here these thirty years; oh! I would I had never seen Wittemburg, never read book!” And after the agonizing struggle in which Faustus's soul is torn from him to hell, learning comes in at the quiet close.
“Yet, for he was a scholar once admired, For wondrous knowledge in our German Schools; We'll give his mangled limbs due burial; And all the students, clothed in mourning black Shall wait upon his heavy funeral.”
Some one character is a centre of over-mastering pride and ambition in every play. In the Jew of Malta it is the hero Barabbas. In Edward II. it is Piers Gaveston. In Edward II. indeed, two elements are mixed—the element of Machiavelli and Tamburlaine in Gaveston, and the purely tragic element which evolves from within itself the style in which it shall be treated, in the King. “The reluctant pangs of abdicating Royalty,” wrote Charles Lamb in a famous passage, “furnished hints which Shakespeare scarcely improved in his Richard II; and the death scene of Marlowe's King moves pity and terror beyond any scene, ancient or modern, with which I am acquainted.” Perhaps the play gives the hint of what Marlowe might have become had not the dagger of a groom in a tavern cut short at thirty his burning career.
Even in that time of romance and daring speculation he went further than his fellows. He was said to have been tainted with atheism, to have denied God and the Trinity; had he lived he might have had trouble with the Star Chamber. The free-voyaging intellect of the age found this one way of outlet, but if literary evidences are to be trusted sixteenth and seventeenth century atheism was a very crude business. TheAtheist's Tragedy of Tourneur (a dramatist who need not otherwise detain us) gives some measure of its intelligence and depth. Says the villain to the heroine,
“No? Then invoke Your great supposed Protector. I will do't.”
to which she:
“Supposed Protector! Are you an atheist, then
I know my fears and prayers are spent in vain.”
Marlowe's very faults and extravagances, and they are many, are only the obverse of his greatness. Magnitude and splendour of language when the thought is too shrunken to fill it out, becomes mere inflation. He was a butt of the parodists of the day. And Shakespeare, though he honoured him “on this side idolatry,” did his share of ridicule. Ancient Pistol is fed and stuffed with relic and rags of Marlowesque affectation—
“Holla! ye pampered jades of Asia,
Can ye not draw but twenty miles a day.”
is a quotation taken straight from Tamburlaine.
A study of Shakespeare, who refuses to be crushed within the limits of a general essay is no part of the plan of this book. We must take up the story of the drama with the reign of James and with the contemporaries of his later period, though of course, a treatment which is conditioned by the order of development is not strictly chronological, and some of the plays we shall have to refer to belong to the close of the sixteenth century. We are apt to forget that alongside Shakespeare and at his heels other dramatists were supplying material for the theatre. The influence of Marlowe and particularly of Kyd, whose Spanish Tragedy with its crude mechanism of ghosts and madness and revenge caught the popular taste, worked itself out in a score of journeymen dramatists, mere hack writers, who turned their hand to plays as the hacks of to-day turn their hand to novels, and with no more literary merit than that caught as an echo from better men than themselves. One of the worst of these—he is also one of the most typical—was John Marston, a purveyor of tragic gloom and sardonic satire, and an impostor in both, whose tragedy Antonio and Mellida was published in the same year as Shakespeare's Hamlet. Both plays owed their style and plot to the same tradition—the tradition created by Kyd's Spanish Tragedy—in which ghostly promptings to revenge, terrible crime, and a feigned madman waiting his opportunity are the elements of tragedy. Nothing could be more fruitful in an understanding of the relations of Shakespeare to his age than a comparison of the two. The style of Antonio and Mellida is the style of The Murder of Gonzago. There is no subtlety nor introspection, the pale cast of thought falls with no shadow over its scenes. And it is typical of a score of plays of the kind we have and beyond doubt of hundreds that have perished. Shakespeare stands alone.
Beside this journey-work tragedy of revenge and murder which had its root through Kyd and Marlowe in Seneca and in Italian romance, there was a journey-work comedy of low life made up of loosely constructed strings of incidents, buffoonery and romance, that had its roots in a joyous and fantastic study of the common people. These plays are happy and high-spirited and, compared with the ordinary run of the tragedies, of better workmanship. They deal in the familiar situations of low comedy—the clown, the thrifty citizen and his frivolous wife, the gallant, the bawd, the good apprentice and the bad portrayed vigorously and tersely and with a careless kindly gaiety that still charms in the reading. The best writers in this kind were Middleton and Dekker—and the best play to read as a sample of it Eastward Ho! in which Marston put off his affectation of sardonical melancholy and joined with Jonson and Dekker to produce what is the masterpiece of the non-Shakespearean comedy of the time.
For all our habit of grouping their works together it is a far cry in spirit and temperament from the dramatists whose heyday was under Elizabeth and those who reached their prime under her successor. Quickly though insensibly the temper of the nation suffered eclipse. The high hopes and the ardency of the reign of Elizabeth saddened into a profound pessimism and gloom in that of James. This apparition of unsought melancholy has been widely noted and generally assumed to be inexplicable. In broad outline its causes are clear enough, “To travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive.” The Elizabethans were, if ever any were, hopeful travellers. The winds blew them to the four quarters of the world; they navigated all seas; they sacked rich cities. They beat off the great Armada, and harried the very coasts of Spain. They pushed discovery to the ends of the world and amassed great wealth. Under James all these things were over. Peace was made with Spain: national pride was wounded by the solicitous anxiety of the King for a Spanish marriage for the heir to the throne. Sir Walter Raleigh, a romantic adventurer lingering beyond his time, was beheaded out of hand by the ungenerous timidity of the monarch to whom had been transferred devotion and loyalty he was unfitted to receive. The Court which had been a centre of flashing and gleaming brilliance degenerated into a knot of sycophants humouring the pragmatic and self-important folly of a king in whom had implanted themselves all the vices of the Scots and none of their virtues. Nothing seemed left remarkable beneath the visiting moon. The bright day was done and they were for the dark. The uprising of Puritanism and the shadow of impending religious strife darkened the temper of the time.
The change affected all literature and particularly the drama, which because it appeals to what all men have in common, commonly reflects soonest a change in the outlook or spirits of a people. The onslaughts of the dramatists on the Puritans, always implacable enemies of the theatre, became more virulent and envenomed. What a difference between the sunny satire of Sir Andrew Aguecheek and the dark animosity of The Atheists' Tragedy with its Languebeau Snuffe ready to carry out any villainy proposed to him! “I speak sir,” says a lady in the same play to a courtier who played with her in an attempt to carry on a quick witted, “conceited” love passage in the vein of Much Ado, “I speak, sir, as the fashion now: is, in earnest.” The quick-witted, light-hearted age was gone. It is natural that tragedy reflected this melancholy in its deepest form. Gloom deepened and had no light to relieve it, men supped full of horrors—there was no slackening of the tension, no concession to overwrought nerves, no resting-place for the overwrought soul. It is in the dramatist John Webster that this new spirit has its most powerful exponent.
The influence of Machiavelli, which had given Marlowe tragic figures that were bright and splendid and burning, smouldered in Webster into a duskier and intenser heat. His fame rests on two tragedies, The White Devil and The Duchess of Malf. Both are stories of lust and crime, full of hate and hideous vengeances, and through each runs a vein of bitter and ironical comment on men and women. In them chance plays the part of fate. “Blind accident and blundering mishap—'such a mistake,' says one of the criminals, 'as I have often seen in a play' are the steersmen of their fortunes and the doomsmen of their deeds.” His characters are gloomy; meditative and philosophic murderers, cynical informers, sad and loving women, and they are all themselves in every phrase that they utter. But they are studied in earnestness and sincerity. Unquestionably he is the greatest of Shakespeare's successors in the romantic drama, perhaps his only direct imitator. He has single lines worthy to set beside those in Othello or King Lear. His dirge in the Duchess of Malfi, Charles Lamb thought worthy to be set beside the ditty in The Tempest, which reminds Ferdinand of his drowned father. “As that is of the water, watery, so this is of the earth, earthy.” He has earned his place among the greatest of our dramatists by his two plays, the theme of which matched his sombre genius and the sombreness of the season in which it flowered.
But the drama could not survive long the altered times, and the voluminous plays of Beaumont and Fletcher mark the beginning of the end. They are the decadence of Elizabethan drama. Decadence is a term often used loosely and therefore hard to define, but we may say broadly that an art is decadent when any particular one of the elements which go to its making occurs in excess and disturbs the balance of forces which keeps the work a coherent and intact whole. Poetry is decadent when the sound is allowed to outrun the sense or when the suggestions, say, of colour, which it contains are allowed to crowd out its deeper implications. Thus we can call such a poem as this one well-known of O'Shaughnessy's
“We are the music-makers,
We are the dreamers of dreams,”
decadent because it conveys nothing but the mere delight in an obvious rhythm of words, or such a poem as Morris's “Two red roses across the moon;” because a meaningless refrain, merely pleasing in its word texture, breaks in at intervals on the reader. The drama of Beaumont and Fletcher is decadent in two ways. In the first place those variations and licences with which Shakespeare in his later plays diversified the blank verse handed on to him by Marlowe, they use without any restraint or measure. “Weak” endings and “double” endings, i.e. lines which end either on a conjunction or proposition or some other unstressed word, or lines in which there is a syllable too many—abound in their plays. They destroyed blank verse as a musical and resonant poetic instrument by letting this element of variety outrun the sparing and skilful use which alone could justify it. But they were decadent in other and deeper ways than that. Sentiment in their plays usurps the place of character. Eloquent and moving speeches and fine figures are no longer subservient to the presentation of character in action, but are set down for their own sake, “What strange self-trumpeters and tongue-bullies all the brave soldiers of Beaumont and Fletcher are,” said Coleridge. When they die they die to the music of their own virtue. When dreadful deeds are done they are described not with that authentic and lurid vividness which throws light on the working of the human heart in Shakespeare or Webster but in tedious rhetoric. Resignation, not fortitude, is the authors' forte and they play upon it amazingly. The sterner tones of their predecessors melt into the long drawn broken accent of pathos and woe. This delight not in action or in emotion arising from action but in passivity of suffering is only one aspect of a certain mental flaccidity in grain. Shakespeare may be free and even coarse. Beaumont and Fletcher cultivate indecency. They made their subject not their master but their plaything, or an occasion for the convenient exercise of their own powers of figure and rhetoric.
Of their followers, Massinger, Ford and Shirley, no more need be said than they carried one step further the faults of their masters. Emotion and tragic passion give way to wire-drawn sentiment. Tragedy takes on the air of a masquerade. With them romantic drama died a natural death and the Puritans' closing of the theatre only gave it a coup de grace. In England it has had no second birth.
Outside the direct romantic succession there worked another author whose lack of sympathy with it, as well as his close connection with the age which followed, justifies his separate treatment. Ben Jonson shows a marked contrast to Shakespeare in his character, his accomplishments, and his attitude to letters, while his career was more varied than Shakespeare's own. The first “classic” in English writing, he was a “romantic” in action. In his adventurous youth he was by turns scholar, soldier, bricklayer, actor. He trailed a pike with Leicester in the Low Countries; on his return to England fought a duel and killed his man, only escaping hanging by benefit of clergy; at the end of his life he was Poet Laureate. Such a career is sufficiently diversified, and it forms a striking contrast to the plainness and severity of his work. But it must not lead us to forget or under-estimate his learning and knowledge. Not Gray nor Tennyson, nor Swinburne—perhaps not even Milton—was a better scholar. He is one of the earliest of English writers to hold and express different theories about literature. He consciously appointed himself a teacher; was a missionary of literature with a definite creed.
But though in a general way his dramatic principles are opposed to the romantic tendencies of his age, he is by no means blindly classical. He never consented to be bound by the “Unities”—that conception of dramatic construction evolved out of Aristotle and Horace and elaborated in the Renaissance till, in its strictest form, it laid down that the whole scene of a play should be in one place, its whole action deal with one single series of events, and the time it represented as elapsing be no greater than the time it took in playing. He was always pre-eminently an Englishman of his own day with a scholar's rather than a poet's temper, hating extravagance, hating bombast and cant, and only limited because in ruling out these things he ruled out much else that was essential to the spirit of the time. As a craftsman he was uncompromising; he never bowed to the tastes of the public and never veiled his scorn of those—Shakespeare among them—whom he conceived to do so; but he knew and valued his own work, as his famous last word to an audience who might be unsympathetic stands to witness,
“By God 'tis good, and if you like it you may.”
Compare the temper it reveals with the titles of the two contemporary comedies of his gentler and greater brother, the one As You Like It, the other What You Will. Of the two attitudes towards the public, and they might stand as typical of two kinds of artists, neither perhaps can claim complete sincerity. A truculent and noisy disclaimer of their favours is not a bad tone to assume towards an audience; in the end it is apt to succeed as well as the sub-ironical compliance which is its opposite.
Jonson's theory of comedy and the consciousness with which he set it against the practice of his contemporaries and particularly of Shakespeare receive explicit statement in the prologue to Every Man Out of His Humour—one of his earlier plays. “I travail with another objection, Signor, which I fear will be enforced against the author ere I can be delivered of it,” says Mitis. “What's that, sir?” replies Cordatus. Mitis:—“That the argument of his comedy might have been of some other nature, as of a duke to be in love with a countess, and that countess to be in love with the duke's son, and the son to love the lady's waiting maid; some such cross-wooing, better than to be thus near and familiarly allied to the times.” Cordatus: “You say well, but I would fain hear one of these autumn-judgments define Quin sit comoedia? If he cannot, let him concern himself with Cicero's definition, till he have strength to propose to himself a better, who would have a comedy to be invitatio vitae, speculum consuetudinis, imago veritatis; a thing throughout pleasant and ridiculous and accommodated to the correction of manners.” That was what he meant his comedy to be, and so he conceived the popular comedy of the day, Twelfth Night andMuch Ado. Shakespeare might play with dukes and countesses, serving-women and pages, clowns and disguises; he would come down more near and ally himself familiarly with the times. So comedy was to be medicinal, to purge contemporary London of its follies and its sins; and it was to be constructed with regularity and elaboration, respectful to the Unities if not ruled by them, and built up of characters each the embodiment of some “humour” or eccentricity, and each when his eccentricity is displaying itself at its fullest, outwitted and exposed. This conception of “humours,” based on a physiology which was already obsolescent, takes heavily from the realism of Jonson's methods, nor does his use of a careful vocabulary of contemporary colloquialism and slang save him from a certain dryness and tediousness to modern readers. The truth is he was less a satirist of contemporary manners than a satirist in the abstract who followed the models of classical writers in this style, and he found the vices and follies of his own day hardly adequate to the intricacy and elaborateness of the plots which he constructed for their exposure. At the first glance his people are contemporary types, at the second they betray themselves for what they are really—cock-shies set up by the new comedy of Greece that every “classical” satirist in Rome or France or England has had his shot at since. One wonders whether Ben Jonson, for all his satirical intention, had as much observation—as much of an eye for contemporary types—as Shakespeare's rustics and roysterers prove him to have had. It follows that all but one or two of his plays, when they are put on the stage to-day are apt to come to one with a sense of remoteness and other-worldliness which we hardly feel with Shakespeare or Moliere. His muse moves along the high-road of comedy which is the Roman road, and she carries in her train types that have done service to many since the ancients fashioned them years ago. Jealous husbands, foolish pragmatic fathers, a dissolute son, a boastful soldier, a cunning slave—they all are merely counters by which the game of comedy used to be played. In England, since Shakespeare took his hold on the stage, that road has been stopped for us, that game has ceased to amuse.
Ben Jonson, then, in a certain degree failed in his intention. Had he kept closer to contemporary life, instead of merely grafting on to it types he had learned from books, he might have made himself an English Moliere—without Moliere's breadth and clarity—but with a corresponding vigour and strength which would have kept his work sweet. And he might have founded a school of comedy that would have got its roots deeper into our national life than the trivial and licentious Restoration comedy ever succeeded in doing. As it is, his importance is mostly historical. One must credit him with being the first of the English classics—of the age which gave us Dryden and Swift and Pope. Perhaps that is enough in his praise.