Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Wilson, John (1627?-1696)

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WILSON, JOHN (1627?–1696), playwright, the son of Aaron Wilson, a native of Caermarthen, who has, however, been claimed as of Scottish descent, was born in London in 1627.

The father, Aaron Wilson (1589–1643), matriculated from Queen's College, Oxford, on 16 Oct. 1607, as ‘cler. fil. æt. 18.’ He graduated M.A. in 1615, and D.D. on 17 May 1639. He was collated rector of St. Stephen's, Walbrook, in December 1625, was appointed chaplain to Charles I and installed archdeacon of Exeter in January 1634; in this same year he became vicar of Plymouth (St. Andrew's), to which benefice he was instituted by Charles I. He and his flock quarrelled over temporalities, and he took proceedings in the Star-chamber, but failed to prove the alleged encroachments. The corporation, nevertheless, thought it wise to surrender the right of presentation to the king, who regranted it under conditions. When the civil war broke out, the vicar was sent prisoner by the townsfolk to Portsmouth; he died at Exeter in July 1643, bequeathing to his son an unswerving faith in the greatness of royal prerogative (see Worth, Plymouth, p. 241; Lansd. MS. 985, f. 31; Hennessy, Novum Repert. p. cliv).

John Wilson matriculated from Exeter College on 5 April 1644, aged 17, but did not proceed to a degree; he was admitted of Lincoln's Inn on 31 Oct. 1646 (Register, i. 254), and was called to the bar from that inn about 1649. His plays made his name known to the courtiers, and his high views on the subject of the prerogative commended him to James, duke of York, who recommended him for a place to James Butler, first duke of Ormonde. He may have accompanied Ormonde to Ireland in 1677; in any case, he was appointed about 1681 to the office of recorder of Londonderry, and in 1682 he issued from a Dublin press his ‘Poem. To his excellence Richard, Earl of Arran, lord deputy of Ireland.’ Two years later he dedicated to Ormonde ‘A Discourse of Monarchy, more particularly of the Imperial Crowns of England, Scotland, and Ireland … as it relates to the Succession of His Royal Highness James, Duke of York,’ London, 8vo. Early in the following year he was ready with ‘A Pindarique to their Sacred Majesties James II and his Royal Consort Queen Mary, on their joynt Coronation at Westminster, April 23, 1685,’ London, folio. James probably mentioned his deserts to Richard Talbot, earl of Tyrconnel, and there is a suggestion that Wilson was employed by the new viceroy during 1687 in the capacity of secretary. His loyalty was equal to every strain, and in 1688 he produced his erudite and casuistical ‘Jus regium coronæ, or the King's Supream Power in Dispensing with Penal Statutes’ (London, 1688, 4to), which he dedicated ‘to the Honorable Society of Lincoln's Inn.’ A second part was projected, but never appeared. He probably retained the recordership until the siege of Derry (April–August 1689), during which period, in the absence of mayor and sheriff, the office must have been a dead letter. It is evident that Wilson shortly afterwards went to Dublin with a view to joining James there, and that, counting upon the ultimate triumph of the Jacobite cause, he stayed there for one or two years. He is said to have written his tragi-comedy of ‘Belphegor’ in that city during 1690. He may have returned to London to see it produced at Dorset Garden in the October of that year. Langbaine, writing in 1699, states that he died ‘near Leicester Fields about three years since.’ There is a somewhat obscure reference to John Wilson in (Buckingham and Rochester's?) ‘The Session of the Poets, to the Tune of Cock Laurel.’

Wilson was the author of two prose comedies of merit, besides a five-act tragedy in blank verse and a tragi-comedy. Like the Shadwells in the next generation, he was a follower of ‘the tribe of Ben.’ He was a scholar, and his plays are full of adaptations from the antique comedy; but as a delineator of rascality, if rarely original, he is always vigorous and often racy, with a strong masculine humour. His plays in order of production are: 1. ‘The Cheats: a Comedy,’ London, 1664, 4to (1671, 4to; 3rd edit. 1684; 4th edit. 1693, with a new song). This excellent farcical comedy was written in 1662 (so we are told in ‘The Author to the Reader,’ dated Lincoln's Inn, 16 Nov. 1663), and performed with great applause by Killigrew's company at Vere Street, Clare Market, in 1663. Lacy played Scruple, the nonconformist minister, who in his fondness for deep potations ‘too good for the wicked: it may strengthen them in their enormities,’ strikingly anticipates the Shepherd in ‘Pickwick.’ Both this character and Mopus the astrological quack are strongly suggestive of Jonson throughout. The time appears not to have been quite ripe for the breadth of the satire, for in a letter to John Brooke, dated 28 March 1663, Abraham Hill remarks, ‘The new play called “The Cheats” has been attempted on the stage; but it is so scandalous that it is forbidden’ (Familiar Letters, p. 103). The piece is just mentioned by Downes in his ‘Roscius Anglicanus.’ 2. ‘Andronicus Commenius: a Tragedy,’ London, 1664, 4to. The history is derived from the ‘Cosmography’ of Peter Heylyn [q. v.], and coincides with the narrative given in the forty-eighth chapter of Gibbon. An anonymous play of little merit upon the same subject, written in 1643, had been published in 1661. The passage between Andronicus and Anna, the widow of his victim Alexius (act iv. sc. iii.) seems to have been inspired by the famous scene in ‘Richard III.’ The play was dedicated (15 Jan. 1663–4) ‘To my friend A. B.’ 3. ‘The Projectors: a Comedy,’ London, 1665, 4to. This comedy of London life was licensed for the press by L'Estrange on 13 Jan. 1664–5, but Genest doubts if it were ever acted. It betrays more clearly than Molière's ‘L'Avare’ its debt to their common original, the ‘Aulularia’ of Plautus; Sir Gudgeon Credulous again bears considerable resemblance to Fabian Fitzdottrell in Jonson's ‘The Devil is an Ass,’ while the She-Senate scene between Mrs. Godsgood, Mrs. Gotam, and Mrs. Squeeze is strongly reminiscent of the ‘Ecclesiazusæ’ of Aristophanes. The fault of the play resides, not in the characters, which are excellent, especially the Miser, Suckdry and his servant Leanchops, but in the dearth of incident. There appears to be no connection between ‘The Projectors’ and ‘L'Avare,’ which was hastily written in 1668 and ‘transplanted’ many years later by Henry Fielding (‘The Miser,’ February 1733). 4. ‘Belphegor, or the Marriage of the Devil: a Tragi-comedy,’ London, 1691, 4to; the British Museum has a second copy with a slightly variant title-page. Licensed by L'Estrange on 13 Oct. 1690, this play was probably performed at Dorset Garden at the close of 1690. The scene is laid in Genoa, and the story, which appears in the ‘Notti’ of Straparola, was derived by Wilson from the English version of Machiavelli, published in 1674 (ii. 165).

A collected edition of Wilson's dramatic works was edited by Maidment and Logan for their series of dramatists of the Restoration in 1874 . Besides his four plays and the tracts mentioned above, Wilson brought out in 1668 ‘Moriæ Encomium, or the Praise of Folly. Written originally in Latin by Des. Erasmus of Rotterdam, and translated into English by John Wilson,’ London, 12mo.

[Wilson's Works, with Memoir, in Dramatists of the Restoration, 1874; Langbaine's Lives and Characters of the English Dramatick Poets, 1712, p. 149; Watt's Bibl. Britannica; Halliwell's Dict. of Old English Plays, 1860; Genest's Hist. of the English Stage, i. 34, 489, x. 138–9; Downes's Roscius Anglicanus; Ward's English Dramatic Lit., 1898, iii. 337–40; Baker's Biographia Dramatica; Foster's Alumni Oxon. 1500–1714; Notes and Queries; Masson's Milton, vi. 314, 365–6; Hazlitt's Bibl. Handbook and Collections and Notes; Poems on Affairs of State, 1716, i. 210–11; Advocates' Libr. Cat.; Brit. Mus. Cat.]

T. S.