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It cannot be doubted that the stage exercised wide-reaching influence over the development of
English character at a moment when the nation was susceptible to such impressions. Reading the plays of Marlowe, Shakspere, Jonson, Heywood, Chapman, Dekker, Beaumont, we are fain to cry with Milton : * Methinks I see in my mind a noble and puissant nation rousing herself like a strong man after sleep, and shaking her invincible locks: methinks I see her like an eagle mewing her mighty youth, and kindling her undazzled eyes at the full mid-day beam; purging and unscaling her long-abused sight at the fountain itself of heavenly radiance : while the whole noise of timorous and flocking birds, with those also that love the twilight, flutter about amazed at what she means, and in their envious gabble would prognosticate a year of sects and schisms.'
Even the Puritans may have felt grateful to the playhouse when they came to exchange their character of private sanctimoniousness for one of public resistance to tyranny. Then they found in the people a nobility of spirit and a deeply rooted zeal for freedom, which had been brought to consciousness in no small measure by the stage. These obligations remained, however, unrecognised ; and perhaps it is even only now that we are beginning to acknowledge them. The Drama had done its work before the Civil Wars began. Its vigour was exhausted ; every day it became less pure, more subservient to the pleasures of a luxurious Court. When it revived with Charles II. it had changed its character. The function of the theatre in England had been great and beneficial; it
INFLUENCE OVER NATIONAL CHARACTER.
had helped to cherish a strong sense of national honour, to popularise the new ideas and liberal culture which permeated Europe ; it had evolved an original and stable type of art, developed the resources of our language, and enriched the world with inexhaustible funds of poetry. Now it was dead, and only the faint shadow of its former self survived.
Strong were our sires, and as they fought they writ,
Thus wrote Dryden to Congreve on his Double Dealer,' mingling false compliment with sound criticism.
One point, incidentally dropped in the foregoing paragraph, remains for consideration. What are the obligations of the English language to the Drama? Heywood, in the Apology to which I have already alluded, adduces, among other arguments in favour of the stage, that through its means English had been raised from the most rude and unpolished tongue' to 'a most perfect and composed language.' Each playwright, he adds, attempted to discover fresh beauties of rhythm and expression, and to leave the dialect more pliable and fertile for his successors.
During the half-century in which the Drama flourished, English became a language capable of conveying exquisite, profound, and varied thought. The elements of which it is composed, were fused into one vital whole. And though we dare not attribute this advance to the Drama alone, yet if we compare the poetry of that age with contemporary prose, it will be clear that, while both started nearly on a par, the style of the prosaists declined in perspicuity and rhythm, while that of the playwrights became versatile, melodious, and dignified. Even the prose writing of the stage was among the best then going. Lyly, first of English authors, produced prose of scrupulous refinements ; Nash used a prose of incomparable epigrammatic pungency; while some of Shakspere's prose is modern in its clearness. A similar comparison between the verse of the Drama and that of translations from the Latin or of satire and elegy-Phaer's Virgil, Marston's 'Scourge of Villany,' or Donne's epistles for example—will lead to not dissimilar results. The dramatic poetry of the period is superior to all but its lyrics.
It is not difficult to understand why this should be. The capabilities of the English language were exercised in every department by dramatic composition. For the purposes of conversation, it had to assume epigrammatic terseness. In description of scenery,
1 These remarks must of course be taken in a general sense. It would be easy to adduce Sidney's Defence of Poetry as an example of pure prose, Fairfax's Tasso as a specimen of pure translation, and the Faery Queen as a masterpiece of lucid narrative in verse.
DEVELOPMENT OF ENGLISH.
and in the eloquent outpouring of passion, it suggested pictures to the mind and clothed gradations of emotion with appropriate words. At one time the sustained periods of oratory were needed; at another, the swiftest and most airy play of fancy had to be conveyed in passages of lyric lightness. Different characters demanded different tones of diction, yet every utterance conformed to uniformity of style and rhythm. Throughout all changes, the writer was obliged to remain clear and intelligible to his audience.
In handling the language of the theatre, each author developed some specific quality. The fluent
of Heywood, the sweet sentiment of Dekker, Marston's pregnant sentences, the dream-like charm of Fletcher's melody, Marlowe's mighty line, Webster's sombreness of pathos and heart-quaking bursts of rage, Jonson's gravity, Massinger's smooth-sliding eloquence, Ford's adamantine declamation, and the style of Shakspere, which embraces all—as some great organ holds all instruments within its many stops—these remain as monuments of composition for succeeding ages. Who shall estimate what benefits those men conferred upon the English speech ? Our ancestors accustomed their ears to that variety of music, impregnated their intellects with all those divers modes of thought. Besides, the vocabulary was nearly doubled. Shakspere is said to have some 15,000, while the Old Testament contains under 6,000 words. The dramatists collected floating idioms, together with the technical phraseology of trades and professions, the learned nomenclature of the schools, the racy proverbs of the country, the ceremonious expressions of the Court and Council-chamber, and gave them all a place in literature. Instead of being satisfied with the meagre and artificial diction of the Popian age, we may now return to those 'pure wells of English undefiled,' and from their inexhaustible springs refresh our language when it seems to fail.
Nor must it finally be forgotten that the Drama, in its effort after self-emancipation, created the great pride of English poetry-blank verse.
Further occasion will be granted me for dwelling upon this point in detail. It is enough here to remark that whe Milton used blank verse for the Epic, he received it from the Drama, and that the blank verse of the present century is consciously affiliated to that of the Eliza
XXIII. To conclude a panegyric, rather than criticism, of the English Drama, it would be well to give some history of opinion regarding so great a treasure of our literature during the past three centuries.
Not very long ago Shakspere himself was halfforgotten. By degrees admirers disinterred his plays, and wrote of him as though he had been born like Pallas from the brain of Jupiter. Garrick reformed, and acted some of his chief parts. Johnson paid surly homage to his genius; but of Shakspere's contemporaries this critic said that they were sought after because they were scarce, and would not have been scarce had they been much esteemed. Malone and Steevens, about the same time, made it known that other playwrights of great merit flourished with Shakspere in the days of his pre-eminence. The book