versatility of Shirley—not to mention many later and not necessarily minor names—mirrored in innumerable pictures of contemporary life the undying follies and foibles of mankind. As comedians of manners more than one of these surpassed the old master, not indeed in distinctness and correctness—the fruits of the most painstaking genius that ever fitted a learned sock to the representation of the living realities of life—but in a lightness not incompatible with sureness of touch; while in the construction of plots the access of abundant new materials, and the greater elasticity in treatment resulting from accumulated experience, enabled them to advance from success to success. Thus the comic dramatic literature from Jonson to Shirley is unsurpassed as a comedy of manners, while as a comedy of character it at least defies comparison with any other national literary growth preceding or contemporaneous with it. Though the younger generation, of which W. Cartwright may be taken as an example, was unequal in originality or force to its predecessors, yet so little exhausted was the vitality of the species, that its traditions survived the interregnum of the Revolution, and connected themselves more closely than is sometimes assumed with later growths of English comedy.
Such was also the case with a special growth which had continued side by side, but in growing frequency of contact, with the progress of the national drama. The academical drama of the later Elizabethan period and The later academical drama. of the first two Stuart reigns by no means fell off either in activity or in variety from that of the preceding generations. At Oxford, after an apparent break of several years—though in the course of these one or two new plays, including a Tancred by Sir Henry Wotton at Queen’s, seem to have been produced—a long succession of English plays, some in Latin doubtless from time to time intervening, were performed, from the early years of the 17th century onwards to the dark days of the national theatre and beyond. The production of these plays was distributed among several colleges, among which the most conspicuously active were Christ Church and St John’s, where a whole series of festal performances took place under the collective title of The Christmas Prince (i.e. master of the Christmas revels). They included a wide variety of pieces, from the treatment by an author unnamed of the story of “Ovid’s owne Narcissus” (1602) and S. Daniel’s Queen’s Arcadia (1606) to Barten Holiday’s Technogamia (1618), a complicated allegory on the relations between the arts and sciences quite in the manner of the moralities; interspersed by romantic dramas of the ordinary contemporary type by T. Goffe (1591-1629), W. Cartwright, J. Maine (1604-1672) and others. At Cambridge the list of Latin and English academical plays, performed in the latter half of Elizabeth’s reign at Trinity, St John’s, Queen’s and a few other colleges, contains several examples in each language which for one reason or another possess a special interest. Thus E. Forsett’s Pedantius, probably acted at Trinity in 1581, ridicules a personage who lived very near the rose—the redoubtable Gabriel Harvey; a Laelia, acted at Queen’s in 1590 and again in 1598, resembles Twelfth Night in part of its plot; while in Silvanus, performed in 1596, probably at St John’s, there are certain striking similarities to As You Like It. These are in Latin, as are the comedies Hispanus (containing some curious allusions to the Armada, Drake and Dr Lopez) and Machiavellus, acted at St John’s in 1597. By far the most interesting of the English plays of the later Cambridge series, and, it may be averred, of the remains of the English academical drama as a whole, are the Parnassus Plays (q.v.), successively produced at St John’s in 1598-1602, which illustrate with much truthfulness as well as fancy the relations between university life and the outside world, including the world of letters and of the stage. Upon a different, but also a very notable, aspect of English university life—the relations between town and gown—a partisan light is thrown by Club-Law, acted at Clare in 1599—and in G. Ruggle’s celebrated Latin comedy of Ignoramus, twice acted by members of Clare at Trinity in 1615 before King James I. On one of these occasions were also produced in English T. Tomkis’ comedy Albumazar (a play absurdly attributed to Shakespeare), and Phineas Fletcher’s Sicelides, a “piscatory” (i.e. a pastoral drama in which the place of the shepherds is taken by fishermen). Latin and English plays continued to be brought out in Cambridge till the year of the outbreak of the Civil War, T. Randolph and A. Cowley being among the authors of some of the latest so produced; and with the Restoration the usage recommenced, the Adelphi of Terence and other Latin comedies being performed as they had been a century earlier. A complete survey and classification of the English academical drama, for which the materials are at last being collected and compared, will prove of an importance which is only beginning to be recognized to the future historian of the English drama.
To return to the general current of that drama. The rivals against which it had to contend in the times with which its greatest epoch came to an end have in their turn been noticed. From the masks and triumphs at court and The stage. at the houses of the nobility, with their Olympuses and Parnassuses built by Inigo Jones, and filled with goddesses and nymphs clad in the gorgeous costumes designed by his inventive hand, to the city pageants and shows by land and water—from the tilts and tournaments at Whitehall to the more philosophical devices at the Inns of Court and the academical plays at the universities—down even to the brief but thrilling theatrical excitements of Bartholomew Fair and the “Ninevitical motions” of the puppets—in all these ways the various sections of the theatrical public were tempted aside. Foreign performers—French and Spanish actors, and even French actresses—paid visits to London. But the national drama held its ground. The art of acting maintained itself at least on the level to which it had been brought by Shakespeare’s associates and contemporaries, Burbage and Heminge, Alleyn, Lewin, Taylor, and others “of the older sort.” The profession of actor came to be more generally than of old separated from that of playwright, though they were still (as in the case of Field) occasionally combined. But this rather led to an increased appreciation of the artistic merit of actors who valued the dignity of their own profession and whose co-operation the authors learnt to esteem as of independent significance. The stage was purged from the barbarism of the old school of clowns. Women’s parts were still acted by boys, many of whom attained to considerable celebrity; and a practice was thus continued which must assuredly have placed the English theatre at a considerable disadvantage as compared with the Spanish (where it never obtained), and which may, while it has been held to have facilitated freedom of fancy, more certainly encouraged the extreme licence of expression cherished by the dramatists. The arrangement of the stage, which facilitated a rapid succession of scenes without any necessity for their being organically connected with one another, remained essentially what it had been in Shakespeare’s days; though the primitive expedients for indicating locality had begun to be occasionally exchanged for scenery more or less appropriate to the place of action. Costume was apparently cultivated with much greater care; and the English stage of this period had probably gone a not inconsiderable way in a direction to which it is obviously in the interests of the dramatic art to set some bounds, if it is to depend for its popular success upon its qualities as such, and upon the interpretation of its agents upon the stage. At the same time, the drama had begun largely to avail itself of adventitious aids to favour. The system of prologues and epilogues, and of dedications to published plays, was more
- It is impossible in a summary survey to seek to discriminate by any kind of evidence the respective shares in many Elizabethan plays, and the respective credit due to them, of the joint writers. Yet some such inquiry is necessary before judging the claims to remembrance of highly-gifted dramatists such as William Rowley, his namesake Samuel, John Day, and not a few others.
- The Latin comedy Victoria by Abraham Fraunce of St John’s was written some time before 1583, and dedicated to Sir Philip Sidney; but there is no evidence to show that it was ever acted.
- (Bishop) Hacket’s Loyola was acted at Trinity in 1623.
- Naufragium joculare—The Guardian (rewritten later as The Cutter of Coleman Street).