Page images
PDF
EPUB

at Rye, in Sussex, in December, 1579. We know little about him, except that he was educated at Benet College, Cambridge, went to London eariy, devoted himself to playwriting, died of the plague in 1625, and was buried at St. Saviour's, Southwark. An old tradition has it that Beaumont supplied judgment, and Fletcher fancy, to their joint productions. Owing to the early death of the former, it is easy to separate those plays which they wrote together from those which Fletcher wrote alone, and by this process the reader who is curious can determine more or less accurately which parts should be assigned to Beaumont, and which to Fletcher, in their united works. That eminent critics, despite this clue, should have hitherto failed to agree, seems to indicate that no ultimate certainty can be reached, and that therefore opinions which have only probability for their basis ought not to be too vehemently attacked or defended. Be the division what it may, the quality which prevails in their dramas is the quality of romance.

Their best heroes are earlier Hernanis, bred in the ideals of Castilian honor; even their villains — and monstrous villains some of them are — utter very noble sentiments. You feel that such persons never existed, and yet you know the thoughts to be true, and you cannot resist the fascination, the glamour — if you will — of ideals borrowed from the age of chivalry. There is, in Beaumont and Fletcher, “a constant recognition of gentility," as Emerson has remarked; this, and their picturesque descriptions, their genuine sentiment, and their occasional flashes of imagination revealing intense passion, constitute their chief merits, and interfuse through their dramas the spirit of romance I have noted. To be delightfully unnatural is their privilege at their best ; they approach the actual human nature of their time only on its

a

most depraved side, and are abominably coarse at their worst.

The Two Noble Kinsmen has furnished critics with a multitude of pleasant difficulties. Even a novice, in reading the play for the first time, must detect the impression of two different minds upon it; and, since it was known that those two were Shakespeare and Fletcher, every resource of criticism has been employed to determine the share of each. The tests applied have been intellectual and metrical : Has a given scene those imaginative qualities peculiar to Shakespeare? Has its versification his familiar style? The latter test is perhaps the more helpful ; for Fletcher adopted, whether from preference or carelessness, a form of blank verse by which he can usually be recognized. More frequently than any of his contemporaries, he writes lines with a double ending. Again, Shakespeare employs “run-on lines” – those, that is, which do not stop at the end of a

much more freely than Fletcher. The construction of the play gives further hints. Besides the main story of the two Kinsmen, there is the subordinate story of the gaoler's daughter. Her mad-scenes, drawn without pathos or much skill, are evidently copied from Ophelia's. Indeed, the style of the prose passages, and the commonplaceness of the secondary characters, afford other clues as to their authorship. Nevertheless, it must not be inferred that all the inferior work is Fletcher's; one of the finest scenes in the play — the dialogue of Palamon and Arcite in prison was almost certainly written by him. Concerning the date of its composition, we have only vague suggestions. It must have come between 1603 or 1604, the latest date assigned to Hamlet, and 1613, when Shakespeare retired to Stratford. As Fletcher's talents began to be renowned only about 1607,

verse

1

and as he worked with Shakespeare on Henry VIII after that time, we may probably assign The Two Noble Kinsmen to the period between 1608 and 1612. It may well be, as Mr. Skeat suggests, that the play in its present form was revised by Fletcher, and even that parts of Shakespeare's share were altered by him after Shakespeare's death. As I have given in the notes the opinions of the critics most competent to decide the question of authorship, I need not pursue the matter here, and will only add that The Two Noble Kinsmen deserves to be known and admired because it is, first of all, a fine drama; that it happens to be a first-rate puzzle in literary criticism, is a minor reason for its republication.

Of John Webster's personal history we can learn nothing. A few entries in Henslowe's Diary, of payments made to Webster for theatrical properties, a few dates of the performances of his plays — and “the rest is silence." The first mention of him is in 1601, as the author of The Guise, or the Massacre of France, which may have been, as Dyce suggests, only a rifacimento of Marlowe's piece; together with Dekker, he wrote Westward Ho and Northward Ho, published in 1607; The White Devil was printed in 1612 ; The Duchess of Malfi in 1623 (but performed earlier) ; long afterwards, in 1654, Appius and Virginia issued from the press. On one title-page Webster is styled “merchant

. tailor," and there are commendatory epigraphs by Middleton, Rowley, and Ford. All that we know of his character we glean from two or three short addresses to the reader, and from two dedications: these show him to have been conscious of his own powers, yet modest; not without a dignified contempt of the opinions of the majority of playgoers, who, he says, “ resemble those ignorant asses, who,

[ocr errors]

6

visiting stationers' shops, their use is not to inquire for good books, but new books.” “ To those who report I was a long time finishing this tragedy," he continues, in the preface to The White Devil, I confess, I do not write with a goose quill winged with two feathers; and if they will needs make it my fault, I must answer them with that of Euripides to Alcestides, a tragic writer. Alcestides objecting that Euripides had only, in three days, composed three verses, whereas himself had written three hundred, Thou tellest truth,' quoth he, but here's the difference, - thine shall only be

“ ad for three days, whereas mine shall continue three ages.' Detraction is the sworn friend to ignorance : for mine own part, I have ever truly cherished my good opinion of other men's worthy labors; especially of that full and heightened style of Master Chapman; the labored and understanding works of Master Jonson ; the no less worthy composures of the both worthily excellent Master Beaumont and Master Fletcher; and lastly (without wrong, last to be named), the right happy and copious industry of Master Shakespeare, Master Dekker, and Master Heywood; wishing what I write may be read by their light; protesting that, in the strength of mine own judgment, I know them so worthy, that though I rest silent in my own work, yet to most of theirs I dare (without flattery) fix that of Martial, Non norunt haec monumenta mori.Generous to his fellow-craftsmen, not fawning to the "groundlings " nor servile to his patrons, that is all that, from too scanty evidence, we can infer about Webster, the man; of the dramatist, we have at least two works which reveal his astonishing genius. As long as The White Devil and The Duchess of Malfi are read, so long will John Webster's title to rank among the four or five supreme tragic writers of the world be open to the scrutiny of all.

It has been the fashion of some critics to speak of Webster as a strange and terrible genius, a sort of ogre who delighted in bloody scenes by day, and supped nightly with horrors; or as a fellow of morbid imagination, whose favorite haunts were church-yards and dark charnel-houses, who gloated over chronicles of crime, and had no other purpose in writing, save that of causing a vulgar shudder to ripple over the shoulders of his hearers. If these views were correct, we might dismiss him and his plays as summarily as we dismiss the latest melodrama with its sheet-iron thunder and promiscuous slaughters. But these views are not correct, and to understand such a play. as The Duchess of Malfi we must recall the state of society throughout a large portion of Europe during the sixteenth century. Webster needed not to appeal to his imagination for materials so terrible; the history of almost any Italian city, in any decade of that century, could supply them. From the court of the Vatican down to that of a princeling in Perugia or Mantua, abominable vices, refined cruelty, atrocious crimes, were common : ties of kindred were no restraint upon the cravings of lust or of ambition; pledges sealed by oath, promises bound by honor, melted as the snow melts in April, for there was no sanctity in religion, no self-respect in men; selfishness, insatiate and unscrupulous, directed the policy of states and the actions of individuals. Personal courage, which gives to the bloody deeds of a less enlightened time some show of fairness, had withered; this was the age when treachery was reduced to a fine art, — when poison was sprinkled on a rose and smeared on the door-latch or the missal, — when the sword was exchanged for the dagger, which never struck in front, — when reputations could be done to death by Iago-insinuations as surely as the body by subtle, invisible poisons. The

[ocr errors]
« PreviousContinue »