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EiPer? ART. II. – 1. Specimens of English Dramatic Poets, who
lived about the Time of Shakspeare. With Notes. By CHARLES LAMB. New York: Wiley & Putnam. 1845. 16mo. 2. Lectures on the Dramatic Literature of the Age of Elizabeth. By William Hazlitt. New York : Wiley & Putnam.
16mo. pp. 216.
AMONG the English critics of the present century, none was entitled to speak with more authority of the Old English Dramatists than Charles Lamb. His letters and essays show that his choicest hours were spent in their company. Their scenes and characters did not merely pass before his mind for review, but seemed to run into his blood and imagination, and blend with his life. He was the representative of the Elizabethan age to the nineteenth century, and enforced the claims of his stalwart veterans to attention with a nicety of criticism which had the sureness of a fine instinct. The notes to his Specimens, quaint, keen, and short, are good examples of penetrating and interpretative criticism. The fine fusion in Lamb's mind of humor and imagination gives to these meagre notices a peculiar raciness and sweetness, unlike most retrospective criticism. Marlowe, Decker, Webster, Massinger, Ben Jonson, Beaumont and Fletcher, were not to him mere names of persons who once existed, but he had a genial sense of their presence, as he bent lovingly over their time-stained pages. Their hearts and imaginations spoke directly to his own; theirs were the old, familiar faces, known from his youth upwards. We conceive of him, at times, as being present at the wit contests at the Mermaid, and as feeling the “ words of subtile flame” which flashed from the lips of Shakspeare, Jonson, and Fletcher. From his realization of them as persons, he was less likely to exaggerate their merits as authors. He saw them as they were in their lives, and judged them as a kindly contemporary spirit. Consequently, his volume of Specimens is infused with the very soul of the time ; and it may be set down as one of the most fascinating of compilations.
The Lectures of Hazlitt on the same period are a good counterpart to Lamb's book. They display more than his usual strength, acuteness, and eloquence, with less than the usual acerbities of his temper. His stern, sharp analysis pierces and probes the subject down through the surface to the centre ; and it is exercised in a more kindly spirit than is common with him. His volume is enriched with delicious quotations. Hazlitt had a profound appreciation of the elder dramatists, though a less social feeling for them than Lamb ; and their characteristic excellences drew from him some of his heartiest bursts of eloquent panegyric. From his Lectures and Lamb's Specimens the general reader would be likely to gain a more vivid notion of the intellectual era they commemorate, than from any other sources, except the originals themselves.
The period of time in which those whom we call the Old English Dramatists flourished runs from the middle of the reign of Elizabeth to the Great Rebellion, — about sixty years. The most brilliant portion of this period was the reign of James the First. The drama commenced with Buckhurst, and died out in Shirley. In the intervening time, we have the names of Marlowe, Shakspeare, Webster, Decker, Tourneur, Heywood, Middleton, Chapman, Ben Jonson, Marston, Massinger, Ford, and Beaumont and Fletcher,-a constellation of genius, which, in power and variety, in imagination, passion, fancy, wit, sense, philosophy, character, nature, is unexampled in the intellectual annals of the world. Bacon, Hooker, Hobbes, Browne, Cudworth, Barrow, Taylor, Napier, Spenser, Sidney, Raleigh, and, we may add, Milton, may be classed in the same generation. These sixty years were most emphatically “rammed ” with intellectual life. Great men, men of originating minds in different departments of literature and science, men eminent in action and speculation, men whose names ring now as sweet music in the ears of all who speak the English tongue, seemed to have been crowded and crammed into this era, " infinite riches in a little room." Yet the age was what we would call rude and coarse in its manners, the language had not been trained into a facile instrument of thought, few people were “educated, in our sense of the term, and civilization had but imperfectly done its work on the old barbarism ; and yet we doubt if external circumstances were ever more propitious to the development in a people of the greatest energies of intellect and passion.
The age to which we refer was one of vast intellectual and moral activity. That great movement of the European mind at the revival of letters, whose splendid results were seen in the invention of gunpowder and printing, in the Reformation, the discovery of the American continent, the overthrow of feudalism, the new importance given to the middle class, the spread of the classics, the creation of national literatures, the assertion of individual rights, and the general tendency to transfer the sceptre of influence from the soldier to the thinker, was most deeply felt in England during this period, and, as regards literature, it achieved there its mightiest triumphs. When we contrast the age with that which immediately preceded it, we seem almost to realize the vision of Milton, of a "mighty and puissant nation, rousing itself, like a strong man after sleep, and shaking his invincible locks." Every thing was in motion. Great events stimulated great passions. An old order of life, with its institutions, its manners, its superstitions, was shaken to its foundations. New ideas and images were rushing into the national life from a thousand sources. Greece, Rome, Italy, Spain, poured into the one great channel their blended streams. In the vast background of the national history, in the manners and passions of the feudal age, were exhaustless materials of heroic romance.
What was passing away in actual life was transferred to the imagination, to reappear idealized in poetry. The old times were sufficiently recent to be ideally apprehended. They lingered in knightly feelings and accomplishments, and shaped the highest minds of the age in a mould of heroism. An artificial civilization had neither tamed nor refined the energies of the heart. There were great diversities of culture, character, manners, ranging from extreme coarseness to high delicacy, and a corresponding external costume, which afforded the poet a wide variety of subjects, from which to select striking individualities and picturesque images. The intellect of the country was prying, inquisitive, bold, disposed to innovation, and yet creative. The understanding and the imagination were both alive and active. There was a certain fulness, roundness, and harmony of mental development in the great men of the time, which gives a character of majestic ease to their sturdiest exertions of power.
None of their faculties acquired a diseased activity at the expense of the rest. It was not a time to produce Humes or Schellings in philosophy, Crabbes or Wordsworths in poetry. Taken altogether, it would be difficult to find a class of minds more comprehensive, profound, practical, and available. The philosophers were poets, and the poets philosophers. There was a strong development and happy equipoise of those powers which relate to actual life, and those which refer to the world of imagination. The literature of the period has body as well as soul. Things were grasped in the concrete, and so stated that their substance and vital spirit could not be separated. Great minds nursed Utopias in their capacious and far-darting imaginations, without being troubled with a diseased self-consciousness, and without whining about their circumstances. The noblest spirit of them all was an actor and manager of a theatre, who excelled all his contemporaries as much in prudence as in genius, and is one of the three professional authors of Great Britain who obtained a competence by literature. The age was not troubled with “gifted spirits," “ earnest minds," or
The intellectual and moral activity of which we have spoken, though it was felt in nearly all departments of philosophy, literature, and action, and produced in all magnificent results, left perhaps its most wonderful traces on the dramatic literature of the period. The originality and power of this as a mirror of life cannot be contested, however much may be said against the rudeness and inartistical shape of the majority of its products. Were a man to exhaust the literatures of all other times and nations, he could not be introduced to the English drama without being startled from the complacency of his settled tastes, and compelled to acknowledge the existence of a new province of imagination, not implied or foretold in any canons of criticism. The reading of the Old Dramatists to such a person would be like gazing at the earth's central fires through cracks in the ground made by an earthquake. He would see the nature of man revealed in its most terrible aspects of crime and suffering, — all the restraints both on depravity and virtue torn violently away, and the heart in its naked reality laid open to view. All the conventional proprieties and even decencies of language he would find continually violated. The bad and the good, the great and the mean, wisdom and folly, mirth and grief, he would see jostling each other in seeming inextricable confusion. He would hear not only the natural language of passion, even to the lowest tone that the heart half whispers to itself, but that language as modified by the thousand diversities of character. Oaths and vulgarities would ring through his brain, just as some exquisite strain of poetry had died away on his ear. He would stand amazed to find so much of genius and impassioned action associated with so much flutter and rant, and perhaps would seek, in the phrase “ irregular genius,” a convenient passage out of astonishment into contented ignorance.
The fine audacity that distinguishes these writers has, we believe, no parallel in literature. It led often to monstrous violations of taste and probability, but it still enabled them to reach heights and sound depths, which equal powers, wielded by a less daring will, could never have achieved. We shall see, also, that, though plain to coarseness in speech when they undertook to represent coarse characters, they rarely, with the exception perhaps of Fletcher, tampered with moral laws. A good, wholesome English integrity generally underlies their vulgarities. Their works would not be so likely to corrupt the mind as some of Byron's and Moore's, for, though they represent immorality, they do not inculcate it. Their robust strength of nature preserved them from sentimentality, if not from bombast and buffoonery. Their minds breathed the bracing air of their time, - a time which would tolerate what would now be considered breaches of decorum, but would not tolerate the smaller vices of intellect and sentiment. Of course, in these remarks, as far as they touch upon gross faults, we do not mean to include Shakspeare among his brother dramatists. He excelled them all as much in judgment as in genius.
The first playhouse built in England was erected in Blackfriars, in the year 1569 or 1570 (Hallam says 1576), about twenty years before Shakspeare commenced writing for the stage. Previously to this establishment of the "regular drama," there had been three different species of theatrical representations, — miracles or mysteries, written by priests on religious subjects, and performed by them on holydays, in which, as Campbell phrases it, “Adam and Eve appeared naked, the devil displayed his horns and tail, and Noah's wife boxed the patriarch's ears before entering the ark”; - moralities, which sprang from the mysteries, and approached nearer to regular plays, their characters being composed of allegorical personi