Page:EB1911 - Volume 08.djvu/546

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ENGLISH]
523
DRAMA

and this progress has been deemed sufficiently well traceable in his plays to be used as an aid in seeking to determine His style and its influence. their chronological sequence. The general laws of this progress accord with those of the natural advance of creative genius; artificiality gives way to freedom, and freedom in its turn submits to a greater degree of regularity and care. In versification as in diction the earliest and the latest period of Shakespeare’s dramatic writing are more easily recognizable than what lies between and may be called the normal period, the plays belonging to which in form most resemble one another, and are least affected by distinguishable peculiarities—such as the rhymes and intentionally euphuistic colouring of style which characterize the earliest, or the feminine endings of the lines and the more condensed manner of expression common to the latest of his plays. But, such distinctions apart, there can be no doubt but that in verse and in prose alike, Shakespeare’s style, so far as it admitted of reproduction, is itself to be regarded as the norm of that of the Elizabethan drama; that in it the prose form of English comedy possesses its first accepted model; and that in it the chosen metre of the English versified drama established itself as irremovable unless at the risk of an artificial experiment.

The assertion may seem paradoxical, that it is by their construction that Shakespeare’s plays exerted the most palpable influence upon the English drama, as well as upon the modern drama of the Germanic nations in general, Influence of his method of construction. and upon such forms of the Romance drama as have been in more recent times based upon it. For it was not in construction that his greatest strength lay, or that the individuality of his genius could raise him above the conditions under which he worked in common with his immediate predecessors and contemporaries. Yet the fact that he accepted these conditions, while producing works of matchless strength and of unequalled fidelity to the demands of nature and art, established them as inseparable from the Shakespearian drama—to use a term which is perhaps unavoidable but has been often misapplied. The great and irresistible demand on the part of Shakespeare’s public was for incident—a demand which of itself necessitated a method of construction different from that of the Greek drama, or of those modelled more or less closely upon it. To no other reason is to be ascribed the circumstance that Shakespeare so constantly combined two actions in the course of a single play, not merely supplementing the one by means of the other as a bye- or under-plot. In no respect is the progress of his technical skill as a dramatist more apparent,—a proposition which a comparison of plays clearly ascribable to successive periods of his life must be left to prove.

Should it, however, be sought to express in one word the greatest debt of the drama to Shakespeare, this word must be the same as that which expresses his supreme gift as a dramatist. It is in characterization—in the drawing His characters. of characters ranging through almost every type of humanity which furnishes a fit subject for the tragic or the comic art—that he remains absolutely unapproached; and it was in this direction that he pointed the way which the English drama could not henceforth desert without becoming untrue to itself. It may have been a mere error of judgment which afterwards held him to have been surpassed by others in particular fields of characterization (setting him down, forsooth, as supremely excellent in male, but not in female, characters). But it was a sure sign of decay when English writers began to shrink from following him in the endeavour to make the drama a mirror of humanity, and when, in self-condemned arrogance, they thrust unreality back upon a stage which he had animated with the warm breath of life, where Juliet had blossomed like a flower of spring, and where Othello’s noble nature had suffered and sinned.

By the numerous body of poets who, contemporary with Shakespeare or in the next generation, cultivated the wide field of the national drama, every form commending itself to the tastes and sympathies of the national genius was essayed. None were neglected except those from which the spirit of English literature had been estranged by the Reformation, and those which had from the first been artificial importations of the Forms of the later Elizabethan drama. Renaissance. The mystery could not in England, as in Spain, produce such an aftergrowth as the auto, and the confines of the religious drama were only now and then tentatively touched.[1] The direct imitations of classical examples were, except perhaps in the continued efforts of the academical drama, few and feeble. Chapman, while resorting to use of narrative in tragedy and perhaps otherwise indebted to ancient models, was no follower of them in essentials. S. Daniel (1562-1619) may be regarded as a belated disciple of Seneca,[2] while experiments like W. Alexander’s (afterwards earl of Stirling) Monarchicke Tragedies[3] (1603-1605) are the mere isolated efforts of a student, and more exclusively so than Milton’s imposing Samson Agonistes, which belongs to a later date (1677). At the opposite end of the dramatic scale, the light gaiety of the Italian and French farce could not establish itself on the English popular stage without more substantial adjuncts; the Englishman’s festive digestion long continued robust, and The pastoral drama. he liked his amusements solid. In the pastoral drama and the mask, however, many English dramatists found special opportunities for the exercise of their lyrical gifts and of their inventive powers. The former could never become other than an exotic, so long as it retained the artificial character of its origin. Shakespeare had accordingly only blended elements derived from it into the action of his romantic comedies. In more or less isolated works Jonson, Fletcher, Daniel, Randolph, and others sought to rival Tasso and Guarini—Jonson[4] coming nearest to nationalizing an essentially foreign growth by the fresh simplicity of his treatment, Fletcher[5] bearing away the palm for beauty of poetic execution; Daniel being distinguished by simpler beauties of style in both verse and prose.[6]

The mask (or masque) was a more elastic kind of composition, mixing in varying proportions its constituent elements of declamation and dialogue, music and dancing, decoration and scenery. In its least elaborate literary form—which, The mask. of course, externally was the most elaborate—it closely approached the pageant; in other instances the distinctness of its characters or the fulness of the action introduced into its scheme, brought it nearer to the regular drama. A frequent ornament of Queen Elizabeth’s progresses, it was cultivated with increased assiduity in the reign of James I., and in that of his successor outshone, by the favour it enjoyed with court and nobility, the attractions of the regular drama itself. Most of the later Elizabethan dramatists contributed to this species, upon which Shakespeare expended the resources of his fancy only incidentally in the course of his dramas; but by far the most successful writer of masks was Ben Jonson, of whose numerous compositions of this kind many hold a permanent place in English poetic literature, and “next” whom, in his own judgment, “only Fletcher and Chapman could write a mask.” From a poetic point of view, however, they were at least rivalled by Dekker and Ford; in productivity and favour T. Campion, who was equally eminent as poet and as musician, seems for a time to have excelled. Inasmuch, however, as the history of the mask in England is to a great extent that of “painting and carpentry” and of Inigo Jones, and as, moreover, this kind of piece, while admitting dramatic elements, is of its nature occasional, it need not further be pursued here. The Microcosmus of T. Nabbes (printed 1637), which is very like a morality, seems to have been the first mask brought upon the public stage. It was the performance of a mask by Queen Henrietta Maria and her ladies at Whitehall which had some years previously (1632) been thought to have supplied to the invective of Histrio-Mastix against the stage the occasion for disloyal innuendo; and it was for the performance of a

  1. Massinger, The Virgin Martyr; Shirley, St Patrick for Ireland.
  2. Cleopatra; Philotas.
  3. Darius; Croesus; Julius Caesar; The Alexandraean Tragedy.
  4. The Sad Shepherd.
  5. The Faithful Shepherdess.
  6. The Queen’s Arcadia.