Topics so far –
11. Shakespeare’s Contemporaries
12. Shakespeare’s Successors
13. The Closing of the Theatres
14. Literature under Charles I and the Commonwealth
11. Shakespeare’s Contemporaries
Shakespeare’s contemporaries wrote plays mostly in collaboration with their peers. The prominent contemporaries of Shakespeare are –
Dramatist, poet, and distinguished translator, George Chapman embodied the Renaissance ideal of the sophisticated man of letters. Many critics consider his translations of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey his most important achievement.
With Prince Henry as his patron, Chapman continued composing dramas, including his last major comedy, Eastward Ho, [written in collaboration with Ben Jonson and John Marston]. The play’s sarcastic political insults against policies favored by James I resulted in swift imprisonment for Chapman and Jonson, though both were soon released. Afterward, Chapman turned to writing tragedy. His best-known works from this period are Bussy D’Ambois and the two-part The Conspiracy and Tragedy of Charles, Duke of Byron.
His translation of the first twelve books of the Iliad appeared in 1609, prefaced by a dedication to Prince Henry, who had endorsed the work with a promise of three hundred pounds and a pension. However, when the young prince died suddenly in 1612, the prince’s father failed to fulfill Henry’s promise to Chapman.
Chapman’s first comedy, The Blind Beggar of Alexandria, is specifically modeled on the low comic theater of Plautus. It is an irreverent sexual farce wherein the title character succeeds in seducing a series of women through role-playing and manipulation. Certain critics consider the play the first example of the ‘‘Comedy of Humours,’’ a type of comedy traditionally attributed to Ben Jonson. Also considered an example of low comedy, A Humorous Day’s Mirth features a plot of great complexity that revolves around the clever romantic intrigues of a courtier named Lemot. All Fools, [an adaptation of Terence’s Heauton Timoroumenos], is similarly a romantic farce focusing on the rituals of courtship and marriage.
Eastward Ho is perhaps Chapman’s best-known dramatic achievement. Produced in 1604 and intended to capitalize on the success of Thomas Dekker and John Webster’s Westward Ho, the play explores the social milieu of London’s middle class and is considered an excellent example of the city-comedy genre. Chapman’s last non-collaborative comedy, The Gentleman Usher, is cited by many commentators as his finest work in that genre.
Chapman influenced later generations, particularly the Romantic poets, especially John Keats, who immortalized Chapman’s work in the well-known sonnet ‘‘On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer.’’
Ben Jonson was a prolific Elizabethan dramatist and a man of letters who profoundly influenced the coming Augustan age through his emphasis on the principles of Horace, Aristotle, and other classical thinkers.
In 1598 the earliest of his extant works, Every Man in His Humour, was produced by the Lord Chamberlain’s Men with William Shakespeare – [who became Jonson’s close friend] - in the cast. That same year, Jonson fell into further trouble after killing actor Gabriel Spencer in a duel, narrowly escaping the gallows by claiming benefit of clergy (meaning he was shown leniency for proving that he was literate and educated).
‘War of the Theaters’: Shortly thereafter, writing for the Children of Queen’s Chapel, Jonson became embroiled in a public feud with playwrights John Marston and Thomas Dekker. In Cynthia’s Revels (1601) and Poetaster (1601), Jonson portrayed himself as the impartial, well-informed judge of art and society and wrote unflattering portraits of these men, who counterattacked with a satiric portrayal of Jonson in the play Satiromastix; or, The Untrussing of the Humorous Poet (1602). This brief dispute became known as the ‘‘War of the Theaters’’; interestingly, scholars speculate that the dispute was mutually contrived in order to further the respective authors’ careers. In any event, Jonson later reconciled with Marston and collaborated with him and George Chapman in writing Eastward Hoe (1605). A joke at the king’s expense in this play landed him once again, along with his coauthors, in prison. Once freed, however, Jonson entered a period of good fortune and productivity. He had many friends at court, and James I valued learning highly—in a society where most art depended heavily on the patronage of the wealthy and powerful, this meant quite a bit. Jonson was frequently called upon to write his popular, elegant masques, such as the Masque of Blacknesse (1605). During this period, he also produced his most successful comedies, including The Alchemist (1610) and Bartholomew Fayre (1614).
Although later writers like John Dryden are often credited with innovating what we now call ‘‘literary criticism’’—a critical analysis of the merits, demerits, and meanings of any piece of literature—Jonson is now seen as the first major figure to work in the genre.
Jonson’s Criticism: Poet William Drummond became acquainted with Ben Jonson and recorded a number of Jonson’s observations regarding poetry and poets of his day in his text Conversations. Drummond’s notes offer many insights into Jonson’s views of poetry and other poets. In one moment, Jonson memorably remarked ‘‘That Shaksperr wanted [i.e., lacked] Arte’’— one of several assessments of others that helped define his own ideals.
A Resurgence among the Modernists: T. S. Eliot, writing in 1919, praised Jonson’s artistry, arguing that Jonson’s reputation had been unfairly damaged by critics who, while acknowledging his erudition, ignored the power of his work.
Marston, a member of the Senecan school, specialized in violent and melodramatic tragedies, which do not lack a certain impressiveness, but which are easily parodied and no less easily lead to abuse. They impressed his own generation, who rated him with Jonson. For a later age they are spoiled to a great extent by exaggeration, rant, and excessive speeches. Typical of them are Antonio and Mellida (1599) and Antonio's Revenge (1602), which were ridiculed by Jonson in The Poetaster.
They have a sweetness, an arch sentimentality, and an intimate knowledge of common men and things that have led to his being called the Dickens of the Elizabethan stage. His plots are chaotic, and his blank verse, which very frequently gives place to prose, is weak and sprawling. The best of his plays are Old Fortunatus (1599), The Shoemaker's Holiday (1599), and Satiromastix (1602). He collaborated with other playwrights, including Ford and Rowley, with whom he wrote The Witch of Edmonton (1621), and Massinger, in The Virgin Martyr (c. 1620).
He himself asserts that he had a hand in two hundred and twenty plays, of which twenty-three survive.
Like so many more dramatists of the time, he excelled in his pictures of London life and manners. He was a rapid and light impoviser, an expert contriver of stage situations, but otherwise content with passable results, and caring little about the higher flights of the dramatist. His best play is A Woman Killed with Kindnesse (1603), which contains some strongly pathetic scenes; The English Traveller (1633) is only slightly inferior. Other plays of his are The Royall King and the Loyall Subject (1602), The Captives (1624), and a series of clumsy historical dramas, including King Edward the Fewth (1594-97).
Thomas Middleton was a prolific Jacobean dramatist whose plays today are regarded as ranking just below those of William Shakespeare and Ben Jonson on the early stage. For twenty years at the beginning of the seventeenth century, only a few playwrights rivaled him. He is one of the most equable and literary of the dramatists of the age; he has a decided fanciful turn; he is a close observer and critic of the life of the time, and a dramatist who on a few occasions can rise to the heights of greatness. His most powerful play, which has been much praised by Lamb and others, is The Changeling (1624); others are Women beware Women (1622), The Witch, which bears a strong resemblance to Macbeth, and The Spanish Gipsy (1623), a romantic comedy suggesting As You Like It.
Along with Dekker he wrote The Roaring Girle, or Moll Cutpurse (1611), which is a close dramatic parallel to the earliest novels. One of the most popular kinds of plays in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries was the morality play. Middleton gave in to common demands and wrote several of them.
He collaborated with William Rowley on several plays, notably the tragicomedy The Changeling (1622), one of his most respected tragedies.
His famous contemporaries include - Rene Descartes (1596–1650): The French philosopher and mathematician known as ‘‘The Father of Modern Philosophy’’ for his profound influences on subsequent generations of thinkers, and John Milton (1608–1674): An English poet and essayist, he is best known for his epic poem Paradise Lost.
In the work of Tourneur, another and cruder follower of the 'Revenge' tradition, we have horrors piled on horrors. His two plays The Revenger's Tragedy (1600) and The Atheist's Tragedy (1607-11) are melodramatic to the highest degree. He attempts much, but achieves little. He is weakest where Webster is strongest.
Critics often rank British author John Webster second only to William Shakespeare among Jacobean tragedians. His two major works, The White Devil (1612) and The Duchess of Malfi (1614), are more frequently revived on stage than any plays of the period other than Shakespeare’s.
Webster’s first independent work was The White Devil, apparently performed in 1612. This play, with Webster’s next drama, The Duchess of Malfi (1614), established a reputation for the dramatist that has sustained itself for four centuries.
Last Known Contributions: Webster also contributed thirty-two character sketches to the sixth edition of Thomas Overbury’s New and Choice Characters, of Several Authors (1615). In addition, Webster continued to collaborate on plays, including Appius and Virginia, perhaps written with Heywood around 1634. Other plays attributed either wholly or partially to Webster include several lost works and A Cure for a Cuckold (1624 or 1625).
Both The White Devil and The Duchess of Malfi, as period tragicomedies, express the influence of a pessimistic worldview. Both reflect a sense of darkness encompassing human existence and a profound consciousness of evil and suffering in the world.
The White Devil relates a complex tale of love, adultery, murder, and revenge. It centers on the adulterous passion between the Duke of Brachiano and Vittoria Corombona, who together plot and direct the murders of their spouses. Some scholars and critics maintain that the absence of any positive, truly moral figure makes the world presented in the play one of unrelieved bleakness.
The Duchess of Malfi is widely acclaimed as Webster’s masterpiece. The widowed duchess, against the wishes of her brothers, secretly marries her servant Antonio. The brothers—the fanatical Ferdinand and the scheming Cardinal—plant a spy, Bosola, in their sister’s household. When Bosola uncovers the truth about the duchess’s marriage, her brothersruthlessly harass her, drive her from her home, and eventually imprison her. In a famous scene, she is tormented by madmen performing a stylized dance around her, and she is ultimately murdered. Scholars agree that the duchess herself is one of the greatest tragic heroines of the period. As she resigns herself to a Christian stance in the face of her brothers’ vicious cruelty, she is filled with a profound dignity: the depiction of her murder is commonly judged one of the most moving scenes in all of Jacobean drama.
Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher combined to produce a great number of plays, said to be fifty-two in all. The elder, Fletcher, was a cousin of Giles and Phineas Fletcher and was born at Rye, Sussex. He may have been educated at Cambridge, and he lived the life of a London literary man. He died of the plague in 1625. His colleague Beaumont, who was probably the abler of the two, was the son of a judge. Sir Francis Beaumont, was educated at Oxford, and entered the Inner Temple (1600), but was captivated by the attractions of a literary life. He died almost within a month of Shakespeare, and was buried in Westminster Abbey.
A study of the style enables us to distinguish fairly clearly between the regular and flexible blank verse of Beaumont and the irregular verse of Fletcher, with its fondness for the extra syllable at the end of a line which is frequently end-stopped. Typical comedies are A King and No King (1611), esteemed by Dryden as the best of them all, The Knight of the Burning Pestle (1607), a very agreeable farce, and The Scornful Lady (1613-16). Their tragedies, such as The Maid's Tragedy (1610), Philaster (1611), which is very reminiscent of Twelfth Night, and The Faithful Shepherdess (by Fletcher alone), are not too tragical, and they are diversified by attractive incidents and descriptions.
Points to Ponder
Like John Webster, here are a few works by writers who also present themes of good exposed to evil.
A Clockwork Orange (1962), a novel by Anthony Burgess. In this futuristic work, the powers that be devise select ways for treating the truants and thugs in the small gang called the Droogs. Crime and Punishment (1866), a novel by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. This novel of good and evil presented through a plot that turns on moral dilemmas was first published in serial form. The Darkness and the Light (2001), a poetry collection by Anthony Hecht. In this work, the Nobel Prize–winning American exposes the technical, intellectual, and emotional terrors of the Holocaust and World War II. Othello (1604), a tragedy by William Shakespeare. This play includes a character whom many scholars have named the most evil in all of literature: Iago.
Chapman, Ben Jonson, and John Marston were imprisoned for their play Eastward Ho.
The picaresque novel was a popular early subgenre of prose fiction. The writing is typically satirical and features a picaro, a scoundrel or rogue, who moves through adventures tricking people and living on his wits. Middleton play such as Father Hubbard’s Tale.
In Women Beware Women, Middleton makes famous use of the game of chess as a metaphor. Many other authors have featured chess prominently in their works. Examples include –
The Defense (1930), a novel by Vladimir Nabokov. Nabokov, himself a chess master, here presents the tale of an awkward young boy who discovers his enormous talent at the game of chess. Chess (1986), a musical by Tim Rice, Bjorn Ulvaeus, and Benny Andersson. Several songs from this musical became hit singles. The plot centers on a love triangle between major players in the world of chess championships. The Flanders Panel (1990), a novel by Arturo Perez-Reverte. This novel centers on a mystery hidden in a fifteenth-century Flemish painting titled ‘‘The Chess Game.’’ The Yiddish Policeman’s Union (2007), a novel by Michael Chabon. This detective novel is set in an alternate-reality future in which Jewish refugees set up a settlement in Alaska after World War II. Chess figures prominently in the novel, both in the youth of the homicide detective and in clues surrounding a mystery he must solve.
English Literature by Edward Albert [Revised by J. A. Stone]
History of English Literature, by Legouis and Cazamian
The Routledge History of Literature in English: Britain and Ireland, by Ronald Carter and John McRae
Gale’s Contextual Encyclopedia of World Literature