Obrázky stránek
PDF
ePub

six plays, of which the best is The Four P's, a very Mery Enterlude of a Palmer, a Pardoner, a Poticary, and a Pedlar. Distinguished from the Moral plays of the period, in that the story, or fable, of each is conducted by characters of real life, and not by allegorical personifications, they are the first genuine specimens of the drama in English Verse. Contemporary with Heywood was Nicholas Udall, head-master of Eton, who wrote the earliest English comedy, Ralph Roister Doister. Unlike the interludes of Heywood, which were in single acts, it was divided into acts and scenes, was interspersed with merry songs, and was provided with a plot that afforded good matter for good acting. Belonging to this cycle of old plays is Gammer Gurton's Needle, which hardly strikes a modern reader as being a Ryght Pithy, Pleasant, and Merie Comedie, though it contains a rollicking drinking song (“I cannot eat but little meat "), which was probably not written by its reputed author, Bishop Still; the play of Misogonus, which is not composed in couplets, like the interludes of Udall and Heywood, but in rhyming quatrains, and is completed in the unusual number of four acts; and Bale's drama of Kynge Johan, which occupies an intermediate place between the off-going Moralities and the on-coming Chronicle Histories, King John, Pope Innocent, and other historical figures mingling with such abstractions as Widowed Britannia, Imperial Majesty, and Treason, Verity, and Sedition. Precisely when these medleys, and others which might be named, were written, or played, has not been in all cases determined, and is of no consequence except to students of the Early English Drama, to whom as a

rule history is more important than poetry. Dismissing them, therefore, we come to the first English tragedy, Gorboduc, which was shown before the Queen's most excellent Majesty on the 18th of January, 1562, in her Highness' Court of Whitehall, by the Gentlemen of the Inner Temple. Many things went to the making of Gorboduc, the authors of which, Norton and Sackville, may be said to have been the first of a new race of poets, to whom was committed the torch of history lighted at the altar of antiquity by Geoffrey of Monmouth, and passed from hand to hand along the centuries, now flickering and now flaring triumphantly. The son of a small landed proprietor in Bedfordshire, a good scholar, and a zealous Protestant, Norton entered himself in 1555 as a student of the Inner Temple. Born at Buckhurst, the son of a privy councillor and the daughter of a Lord Mayor, and connected with royalty through his grandmother, who was aunt to Anne Boleyn, the mother of Elizabeth, educated at Oxford, and later at Cambridge, where he received the degree of Master of Arts, Sackville also entered himself as a student of the Inner Temple, where he made the acquaintance of Norton. Both were young, and both addicted to letters, Norton to such serious walks as are implied in translating Calvin's Institutes, and the Psalms in conjunction with Sternhold and Hopkins, and Sackville to the lighter walks implied in the composition of Latin and English verse.

The immediate predecessors of Sackville and Norton were Baldwin and Ferrers, who, following in the footsteps of Lydgate and Boccaccio, conceived the plan of The Mirror for Magistrates, which is generally credited to Sackville, whose two contributions thereto did not appear in print until four years after the publication of the first portion, and a year after the production of Gorboduc, to which, however, they may have been prior. The Mirror for Magistrates prepared the way for the first English tragedy, to which it was the long and swelling prologue. But the path which led into this way, and by which alone it could be traversed royally, had been discovered by Surrey when he sat down to translate the second and fourth books of the Æneid, and, more fortunate than the masters before him, lighted upon blank verse. We assume that Gorboduc was successful, since it was surreptitiously printed, and passed through two or three editions before the death of Sackville, and since it was followed by a line of historical plays which culminated in the Chronicle Histories that are usually associated with the great name of Shakespeare. A drama in form, but devoid of the dramatic spirit in the evolution of action and of character, it is a carefully considered, lofty production, written in fluent, correct language that admits of a certain pomp of expression, and is suited to the dignity of the sentiments which it conveys. Sidney, who knew Sackville, admits, in his Defence of Poesy, that it is full of stately speeches and well-sounding phrases, climbing to the height of Seneca his style, and full of notable morality, which it doth most delightfully teach, and so obtain the very end of poesy ; yet he declares that, in truth, it is very defectuous in the circumstances, which grieves him, because it might not remain an exact model of all tragedies. Rymer, writing a century later, believed that it did so remain, affirming that it was a fable better turned for tragedy than any on this side of the Alps, and that it might have been a better direction to Shakespeare and Ben Jonson than any guide they had the luck to follow, The judgment which Lamb passed upon it in his Specimens has been accepted as the final one. “The style of this old play is stiff and cumbersome, like the dresses of its times. There may be flesh and blood underneath, but we cannot get at it."

Following the dramatic current in the stream of English Verse from Gorboduc onward, we find it setting in a historic direction in Appius and Virginia, Damon and Pythias, Cambyses, Locrine, Marius and Sylla, The Battle of Alcazar, Edward I., Alphonsus, King of Arragon, James IV., the two parts of Tamburlaine, and the Massacre of Paris, which were all written before the close of the eighth decade of the sixteenth century; and in a romantic or imaginative direction in Campaspe, Sappho and Phao, The Arraignment of Paris, David and Bathsabe, Orlando Furioso, Faust, and The Jew of Malta, which also were written within the same period. Behind these plays, and others produced at that time, were the talent and genius of five different poets-George Peele, John Lyly, Thomas Lodge, Robert Greene, and Christopher Marlowe. They were young, they were college-bred, and they lived by their pens. That is to say, they were professional poets, who supplied what was demanded of them, which was plays, Marlowe writing six or seven, Greene five, Lyly eight, and Peele six. Two wrote prose as well as verse, and were rather more distinguished for their prose than their verse-Lyly for Euphues, or the Anatomy of Wit, and Euphues and his England, and Greene for Mamillia, Morando, Menaphon, and a succession of similar stories. Lyly, who, for a time, was a fashionable author, was applauded as the creator of “a new English ;” and the beauty at court who could not parley Euphuism was as little regarded as her sister in the next generation who spoke not French. Borrowing the manner and a portion of the matter of his Euphues from North's translation of The Dial for Princes of the Spaniard Guevara, he created a taste for romantic prose fiction in England,-a taste at once recognized by Sidney and his sister Mary, for whom he wrote the Arcadia, and at once pandered to by Greene in his score or more of hastily scribbled love pamphlets-a swarm of novelettes in the wake of the first English novel. Our chief interest in Greene and Lyly lies in the fact that Shakespeare read their prose, and found it useful to him. As dramatists they need not detain us.

Two years after the publication of Gordobuc, the best portions of which were undoubtedly from the pen of Sackville, and one year after the publication of the second instalment of The Mirror for Magistrates, which contained Sackville's only contributions thereto-The Induction and The Complaint of Henry Duke of Buckingham-a man-child, who was to be the Master-Spirit of his age, came into the world at Stratford-on-Avon. A year of glory, the year to be longest remembered in the annals of English Verse, it was memorable not only because it witnessed the birth of William Shakespeare, but also because it witnessed the birth of Chris

« PředchozíPokračovat »