H. D. (Henry Duff) Traill.

Social England; a record of the progress of the people in religion, laws, learning, arts, industry, commerce, science, literature and manners, from the earliest times to the present day (Volume 3) online

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Online LibraryH. D. (Henry Duff) TraillSocial England; a record of the progress of the people in religion, laws, learning, arts, industry, commerce, science, literature and manners, from the earliest times to the present day (Volume 3) → online text (page 59 of 68)
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books by which the Elizabethan age is known to posterity
dates from this decade. On the contrary, the 'nineties simply
swarm with masterpieces. No doubt some of these had been
written earlier ; but taking actual publication as the criterion,
the date of 159- stands as that of the " Faerie Queene" and all
Spenser's minor poems, except the " Calendar " ; of the " Poems "



and the earlier certain plays of Shakespeare; of the thronging
cluster of sonneteers, of whom Spenser and Shakespeare them-
selves are In it the chief; of the earliest historical and other
poems of Dray ton and Daniel; of the satires of Hall, Lodge,
and Marston ; of the earliest plays of Jonson, Chapman, and
Dekker; of Bacon's "Essays" and Hooker's ''Ecclesiastical
Polity." There may be another ten years in which it might
be possible to point out an equal number of original master-
pieces and masters in their respective kinds. But if there is,
I confess that 1 at least do not know where to look for it,
either in the history of English or of any other literature with
which I am acquainted.

The most complete and accomplished production in either
decade is, no doubt, that of Spenser, who died in 1599, who had
given a taste of his quality twenty years earlier, as we hav
seen, but whose work in its perfect charm and flower was
wholly published between 1590 and KiOO. The "Shepherd's
Calendar : ' is interesting ; but it Avould be absurd to claim for
it anything like the interest of the " Amoretti " and the
" Hymns," to say nothing of the " Faerie Queene." Indeed, if
the " Calendar " had remained uncompleted by any other work,
it is possible that Spenser might never have attained, with
good judges, even the position of a great poet cut off in his
prime: he would certainly never have attained that of being
a great poet in truth and in fact.

* F e a n er e ie' S ' Tho " Faerie Q ueene "and only half of that half of it which
Queene." is all that we possess, except the splendid fragment of the
" Cantos of Mutability " -was registered, or, in other words,
announced for publication in December, 1 ">X9. It was published
a few months later. It is tempting but impossible to imagine
the effect that the reading of it must have produced. We
cannot put ourselves in the position of the men of that day.
No intellectual gymnastic will avail to shut out the conditions


which are present to our view and were absent from theirs : and
though a little less difficult in appearance, it is probably not
less impossible in reality, to restore the conditions which were
present to their minds and have been removed from ours. In
English literature itself there was absolutely no writer of the


first class in verse or prose except Chaucer; and it is by no
means certain that Chaucer was known to or read by a large




proportion of the then small " reading public." There was as
yet no German vernacular literature of the first class at all ; and
the language was very little known. French had a magnificent
past and a great present, but was in the same stage of struggle
and tentative with English, or in one only a little more advanced.

O *J

The greatest of the Spaniards were writing, or about to write
only. Italian, hi those examples which it has never surpassed


(By permission of tlie Rt-r. S. Baring -Gould.)

or equalled, was indeed there, and was not neglected ; but
Italian itself was dominated by the notion which prevailed
everywhere, and not least in England, and which might have
been thought likely to interpose an insuperable, ns it did in
fact interpose a very serious, bar to the accomplishment of
really great things in the vernacular. That notion was the
idea of the unchallengeable, and therefore unchallenged,
superiority of the classical tongues, and especially Latin. The
Renaissance pretended to be and (though to a much smaller



extent than is usually thought) really was a revolt against
the Middle Ages. But, practically, it outdid the Middle Ages
themselves in the superstitious reverence which it paid to " the
tongues." The attitude of Dante towards Virgil and Statins
his inferiors as poets, the one by a great, the other by an almost
immeasurable degree was little, if at all, changed till quite the
end of the seventeenth century ; and the very philosophers
who affected to dethrone Aristotle tried to do it by having
recourse to Plato, to the Stoics, to Sextus Empiricus. Bacon
himself notoriously held that the vulgar tongues were mere
instruments-of-all-work, unsuited for the choicer feats of
literature. Spenser himself, as we know, succumbed to the
mania for forcing English into classical metres ; and was
sharply snubbed by his chief literary mentor for devoting
himself to the ' Faerie Queene " at all.

Nevertheless the "Faerie Queene" came, and in it the
second, if not the first, great poem in English. It is not
necessary to call or think Spenser a greater poet than Chaucer
in order to give the "Faerie Queene," as a great poem, the
precedence over the " Canterbury Tales." In some qualities,
at least, of the poet, the master had the advantage over the
scholar. But in others, the scholar's greatest production has
by an even greater interval the precedence over any single
work of the master's. It had more unity, a deeper-ingrained
and more individual colour, a subtler if less primitive charm,
and, above all, it has the attraction of an individual and
original and, to some fancies, at any rate, an absolutely un-
equalled metrical medium. Long romances in verse especially
long romances in verse with an allegorical framework were
nothing new to the age. But how far did the novel qualities
of this particular romance strike it ?

The Con- To this question there is practically no answer. We know

Estimate 7 ^at Spenser founded chiefly, but not wholly, in his own
university a vigorous school of imitators. We 'know that he
had a great and increasing influence over the poets, his succes-
sors, from Milton downwards. But what his own age really
thought of him, save for a few official and " officious " panegyrics
which might be paralleled in the case of second- and tenth-rate
contemporaries, we do not know. It is true that in his time
there existed some curious and careful critics of English



literature. But they, too, were distracted by that odd form of
" squinting " -if it may be so called to which reference has
already been made. Thus the excellent Webbe writing, it is
true, with only the " Shepherd's Calendar " before him does
indeed do himself immortal honour by calling Spenser " the
rightest English poet he ever read." And then he goes on
to show the value of this praise by coupling Spenser with
Gabriel Harvey; by saying in another place that he is the
equal of Virgil and Theocritus, " but for the coarseness of our
English tongue " ; and by endeavouring, in a third, to translate
the Calendar into English sapphics !

In such a mist were the minds even of men of the best
intentions and the most unfeigned love for letters, when the
" Faerie Queene " appeared. Prof. Hales, 1 it may be, is right
in saying that it was li received with the utmost delight and
, admiration." Let us hope it was, for it certainly deserved both.
Such a melodious burst had never sounded in the English
tongue before. The wonderful web of imagination, woven so
silently and cunningly in its pages, the splendid creations
not merely of poetic fancy but of actual character drawing and
ethical construction which it displays, the consummate skill
in language and metre (the former, it may be, like the latter,
a little mannered and artificial, but with such an exquisite
manner, such a consummate art), the learning, the grasp, the
evident reserve of sustained capacity behind these were things
which had never, or but once, been seen before among us. And
these were to be seen whenever Spenser sang again, in the
rest of the " Queene," in the sonnets, in the " Epithalamium,"
in the " Hymns," during the too brief career which was allotted
him and which he tilled so full.

The fortunes, like the work, of the next group differ re- Marlowe
markably from Spenser's. Although his end was tragic, and pUf^ 8
although his life seems to have been saddened by more than Dramatists,
one disappointment, yet had his lines been cast in places not
unpleasant and in a manner distinguished. He was early
introduced to the best society, and not very late to Court ;
he had pensions and large grants of land, and but for the
Irish outbreak would, to all appearances, have finished his
days as a sufficiently prosperous country gentleman. The

1 Introduction to " Globe " ed., p. 42.



nidi wlio, working round Marlowe, did most to launch the
English drama on the new and untried seas Avhich were to be
its proper home, were for the most part university men. Lylv
(who belonged to the group in an outside kind of way, and
had made his mark before any of them), Peele, and Lodge
were Oxford men; Marlowe, Greene, and Nash were of Cam-
bridge. Of Kyd's education nothing is certainly recorded, but
he is much more likely to have been a university man than
not. These seven, chiefly in the decade between I5NO and
1. ")!)(), with a few years of the next, struck out one of the
faultiest but one of the most vigorous and original kinds of
drama that the world has seen. It is certain that all of them
were well acquainted with the works of the tragedian Seneca ;
and one of them, Kyd, translated one of the chief plays of
the Continental Senecans - Robert Garnier's Cornelia. And
it has, as we noticed before, been contended that the Mood-
and- thunder, the ghosts and terrors, the inflated language and
stilted verse in which they revelled, were due to the influence of
this powerful but rather ill-conditioned dramatist of the Latin
silver age. However this may be, it is certain that the general
scheme of their drama not only owes little or nothing to
Seneca, but is about as direct a revolt against the "regular"
tragedy as can be conceived. Nor did they, as has been
so often done since, go to some modern literature as a re-
source against, and an alternative from, the ancients. Indeed,
there was none for them to go to, unless anyone chooses to
exaggerate the very faint lead that the old mystery, through
more recent interludes and mongrel plays of the kind referred
to previously, may have given them. They simply, retaining
acts, scenes, and general dramatic arrangements, gave the
rein to their imaginations, threw the "unities" to the winds
and cast into theatrical form the substance of chronicles and
romances after a fashion of which ancient comedy may have
given some slight foretaste, but ancient tragedy certainly none
at all. And they did more than this. They broke up the
stately stilted decasyllables of Gorboduc, they shortened and
furbished the lolloping and lumbering fourteen ers and doggerels
of other plays into verse the most majestic in Marlowe, the
sweetest and softest in Peele, that English had yet known.
It is not surprising that such a burn' and whirl of action and




interest recounted, occasionally at least, in verse ol such
unprecedented splendour and charm, should have made, or
at least helped to make, the theatre the most popular of all
amusements. It is true that the plays of which Marlowe's


ftarc Courtier :


A quaint cJifpute between Veluet breeches

and Cloth-breeches.

ixrcin is pUindy fet downs the disorders
in dl Efl-'tes tnd Tr&&s.


Imprinted by Iphn Wolfe, and are to bee fold at his
{hopatPoukschayne. i $ g 2.

(Titte-paye to Greene's " Quip for an Upstart Courtier," 1592.)

Doctor Faustus, Tamburlaine, Jew of Malta, and Edward the
Second; Peele's Arraignment of Paris, Old Wives' Tale, and
David and Bethsabe ; Greene's Friar Bacon; Kyd's Spanish
Tragedy, are the most famous - had almost every fault ex-
cept tameness that a play can have. The most chaotically



1 1584

improbable .action, the least carefully adjusted characters, the
wildest rant of dialogue, the most shocking impropriety of
incident and phrase meet one at every turn. The poets cannot
or will not even take the trouble to keep up their poetry.
Lines of incomparable beauty, of such a combination of
sonority and poetic suggestion as no modern poets, save Dante



jS^y. art o*Conj-c<Ucf)ins tbja fcurral

' Bohamians. "

/*>-, P ,A r wv ^^v*v*)m ViL i ll I ;Q|: V

C ^^E rhc 1Farn ' lch te- be "attire of ti;c
<-^L; &tttcr,icto0;nu>,itjvpcifcit fami.

liiirlg to D;in!;c Uut!) bun, tutuL 1

prrfoii tljcp tall the dc-nir, f tfcrir
lincffjofic is arro;ning to fljc nun


(Urcene " XohilAe Discovery of Coosnagc," 1501.)

and Chaucer, had equalled, are jostled by mean and trumpery
doggerel. Except Marlowe, and once and twice Peele, no one
of them can keep even a moderately long speech at a high
level, and Marlowe himself is by no means to be trusted to
do it constantly.

Nothing is more treacherous than the attempt to argue
backwards and forwards from a man's life to his works; but
in this case there does seem to have been some connection
between the irregular life and the irregular work of these men.
Lyly, indeed, stands apart from the rest in this as in other




(G. Harvey, " Trimming of T. Nash.")


ways. Lodge, if he was for a time " Bohemian," which is

probable, settled down into a sober physician ; and of Kyd

our personal knowledge is still
just not a blank. But it is
pretty certain that Marlowe,
Greene, Peele, and Nash, especi-
ally the first three, lived lives
of the greatest irregularity, and
it would appear that all these
three came to what is familiarly
called a bad end. There is
certainly some, and may be
much, exaggeration in the
traditional reports of Peele's
Villpnesque practices. Nor will
a wise man accept without
hesitation the stories compact
in the oddest fashion of ac-
cusations from enemies and

confessions from the parties themselves of the roistering, the

impecuniosity, and the irreligion

of Marlowe, of Greene, and in

a less degree of Nash. But the

testimony as to the general

tenor of the life of Marlowe

and Greene is too strong to be

resisted. It mav not have been


extremely criminal but it must
have been utterly, to use the
word just used, "Bohemian."
The habits and ways of a large
town, such as London was then
becoming, crowded with returned
adventurers of all kinds, and
most imperfectly policed, are
sure to be at all times unedify-
inor ; and unless there is an

O '

unusual amount of literary

exaggeration in the curious series of pamphlets (by Greene,

Nash, and Dekker chiefly) which describe the humours of the


(G. Harvey, " Trimming of T. Nash.")



capital, and in the full and constant references to them in the
lighter plays of the dramatists other than Shakespeare, Eliza-
beth's London must have been at least as unedifying in some
of its phases as any capital, whether ancient or modern. Into
this kind of life these dramatists seem to have plunged, with
a mixture of individual and of professional greediness, for the
necessity of " seeing life " is the immemorial excuse of the artist.
It is possible that something of the whirl of spirits in which
they lived may have helped the rush and recklessness of their
jenius. But it certainlv seems to have left them no time to

o *^

polish and perfect their work, and its effect upon their lives
was, to say the least, not kindly. For Peele was barely forty,
Greene but thirty-two, and Marlowe not thirty when they died,
while Nash was certainly not a long liver. And, in the case of
Greene and Marlowe at least, one or another kind of loose living
directly or indirectly brought about the end.

Shakespeare. It is a question of the first interest ho\v far Shakespeare

was in relation Avith these men, and what is the precise position
of his work in regard to theirs. The locus claxxirn* on the
subject is a thousand-times-quoted passage from a pamphlet,
which is either what it pretends to be the last dying speech
of Robert Greene or something put out in his name as such.
It contains, besides a lamentable description of, and apology
for, the supposed writer's evil life, and an expostulation with
his friends and comrades, a violent tirade against a certain
" upstart crow beautified with our feathers," who thinks himself
" the only Shakescene in the country." Almost every con-
ceivable view and side with many views and sides which to
plain folk seem inconceivable has been taken about Shake-
speare and Shakespeareana ; and it is, of course, possible to
hold that the allusion here is not certain, that " Shakescene,"
despite its tempting jingle, is only a contemptuous variant upon
" scene-shifter." Still, it must be admitted that the allusion
is extremely plausible, and even very likely. If it is one it
would date from 1592, when Shakespeare was eight-and-twenty,
when he is supposed to have been for about seven years con-
nected with the theatre in one way or another, when he was
about to publish " Venus and Adonis," and when, though we
do not certainly know that thev were, some of his earlier plays
must have been put on the boards. If the Greene passage



aspersed Shakespeare, Chettle, Greene's editor, promptly apolo-
gised for it with a handsome testimonial to the person attacked.
And as it happens we have a very curious counterblast in this
quarrel of University Wits v. " Shakescenes " in the odd series
ot Parnasxus plays, which also contain very high eulogies of
Shakespeare, both as poet and playwright. It is, however, fair
to say that this seems to date a few years later certainly
after 'l597.

We have little or no room lor minutiae of this kind here.
The Parnassus notices, however, are specially valuable, inas-
much as they show us that up to the end of the century
Shakespeare, though very highly thought of, was only or
chieHy known as the author of love poems and of plays like
Romeo and Juliet, and, perhaps, some of the lighter comedies
and chronicles. This is more valuable than all the endless
arguments which have been used to ascertain the exact
chronology of a matter impossible to fix to accurate dates.
We may, therefore, quite safely assume (as indeed we might
in the absence of any evidence whatsoever) that, before Shake-
speare's return to Stratford, ,two or three years before the
century closed, his poems, including some at least of the
sonnets and some of the classes of plays above referred to,
were his sole productions. And it is quite evident that in
these latter he was, like every man of genius in the world,
under obligations to his predecessors, both to the group just
referred to, and to the crowd of unknown or scarcely known
writers. For the mass of play-writing which these years saw
and which, never having got into print or out of the actor's
hands, has perished, was immense. In some cases, and these
not merely chronicle-plays, Shakespeare undoubtedly " wrote
up" earlier productions; and even where he did not do this
he benefited by the models at his disposal. Sometimes he
burlesqued them, sometimes he copied them. I daresay he
sometimes " stole their thunder " to an extent sufficient to
account for if not to justify, Greene's indignation.

Nobody can doubt that Shakespeare, if he had been left His Debt
entirely to himself, would have elaborated a dramatic machinery cessors."
equal to any production. But nobody who does not take an
altogether unhistorical and inartistic view of literature can
doubt that to have had before him such examples as the






versification of Marlowe and Peele, and as the dramatic scheme,
not merely of these, but of a whole crowd of lesser men, was an
inestimable advantage an advantage such as foils only to the
lot of the greatest men of genius, for the simple reason that
only the greatest men of genius are ready and able to take
advantage of it.

And so in his hands, and in those of that wonderful group
of predecessors, of contemporaries, and of successors, whose
work on the whole covered some seventy years, though the
best of it was done in fifty, there was evolved what we call
the Elizabethan drama. Of its accessories and conditions
much has been written; but very little need here be said. It
is known and certain that at first the companies of players
-were as was in those days almost necessary to protect them
from interference in the greater number of cases, if not all
' servants " of some great man, whose protection could give them
immunity, or representatives of some public institution, under
whose shield their performances could be safely produced.
But by degrees, and, indeed, very early, the passion of the
common people (or this kind of entertainment secured oppor-
tunities for its indulgence, either at those or at other hands.
The form of the earliest theatre has been conjectured rather
than known, with a sufficient probability, to have been given
by the inn-yards of the period with their tiers of galleries
(p. 774). These places happened at once to provide the most
likely places of exhibition, and the most convenient arrange-
ments for seeing. When independent theatres were built they
were on the same plan, which retained its own advantages, and
possessed in addition those of requiring the minimum of
expense in building, of dispensing with artificial light (which
could then only have been supplied at great expense and in
insufficient quantity), and of allowing the entertainment to
be given in the daytime at a period when hours were early,
and the streets anything but safe after nightfall. In other
words, the earliest theatre was a structure with the centre or
pit open to the sky, and with the galleries only roofed. The
stage was relatively of a good size ; but it was encroached on
by the habit, long prevalent in all European countries, of allow-
ing stools to be placed on it for favoured ' spectators. The
scenery was non-existent, replaced by sign-boards with de-




scriptions of the most rudimentary character, and most of the
properties were humble. It would not, however, appear that
this poverty always extended to the wardrobes of the actors,
who seem to have in-
dulged in a good deal of
probably tarnished finery.
That the receipts of
casual performers were
not large, and their life
a hard one, is very likely,
and that the sums paid
to the regularly retained
poets of the theatre were
small enough we know
from positive records.
But that there was
money to be made by
those who were actor-
shareholders in a com-
pany, and who did not
fling away their earnings
in careless debauchery,
the instances of Shake-
speare himself, of
Al ley ne, of Burbage, and
others, show.

In this rough circum-
stance, with the occa-
sional but, perhaps, not
much more stimulating,
substitution of the halls
of great men's houses, Shakespearean common with those others Shakespeare's
who have been and will be mentioned, launched the English
drama. As is generally known, practically nothing is known
of him. He was born in 1564, and died in 101(5 a wealthy
householder of Stratford-on-Avon. He was married, and had
children ; he had debts owed him, and got or endeavoured to
get them in ; he suffered from literary jealousies, and enjoyed
literary compliments. For the rest we know distinguishing
knowledge from futile and idle gossip mostly long after date,


(DiiUi-ich College.)



from baseless inference, and from the record of perfectly un-
important and to a rational mind uninteresting details nothing
at all about him. It is an almost crucial instance of the
extraordinary reluctance to acquiesce in facts which is char-
acteristic of humanity, that even this nescience, when it is
admitted, has been twisted into a basket for the reception of
fresh figments of the imagination to the effect that he really

Online LibraryH. D. (Henry Duff) TraillSocial England; a record of the progress of the people in religion, laws, learning, arts, industry, commerce, science, literature and manners, from the earliest times to the present day (Volume 3) → online text (page 59 of 68)