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The first edition of this comedy was published in 1607, under the following title:—‘The Puritaine or the Widdow of Watling-streete. Acted by the Children of Paules. Written by W. S.’ The entry of the play appears in the Stationers' registers of the same year. It was printed, as we have seen, in the third edition of Shakspere's works; and was ascribed to Shakspere by Gildon in 1702. Gildon probably relied upon its publication as Shakspere's in the third collected edition of his plays. Our own critics of recent times have uniformly rejected it. Schlegel inclines to the opinion that Shakspere wrote it; and he produces this curious theory:—“One of my literary friends, intimately acquainted with Shakspere, was of opinion that the poet must have wished to write a play for once in the style of Ben Jonson, and that in this way we must account for the difference between the present piece and his usual manner. To follow out this idea, however, would lead to a very nice critical investigation.” Such an investigation would, we believe, bring us to the conclusion that “The Puritan’ is as unlike Ben Jonson as it is unlike Shakspere. If it possesses little of the wit, the buoyancy, the genial good humour, the sparkling poetry, the deep philosophy, and the universal characterization of Shakspere, it wants in the same degree the nice discrimination of shades of character, the sound judgment, the careful management of the plot, the lofty and indignant satire, the firm and gorgeous rhetoric of Jonson. As a comedy of manners “The Puritan’ is at once feeble and extravagant. The author cannot paint classes in painting individuals. “The Puritan’ is a misnomer. We have no representation of the formal manners of that class. The family of the Widow of Watling Street is meant to be puritanical, but it is difficult to discover wherein they differ from the rest of the world, except in the coarse exhibition of the loose morality of one of their servants, who professes to lie though he swears not, and is willing to steal if the crime is called by some gentler name. Yet the comedy is not without spirit and interest. The events are improbable, and some of the intrigues are superfluous; but the action seldom lingers; and if the characters seem unnatural, they are sufficiently defined to enable us to believe that such characters did exist, and might have been copied from the life by the author. It is this individual painting that constitutes the essential difference between the comedy of almost every writer as compared with Shakspere. Old Aubrey said, with a truth which might have been imitated by critics of higher pretension,-" His comedies will remain wit as long as the English tongue is understood, for that he handles mores hominum; now our present writers reflect so much upon particular persons and coxcombities that twenty years hence they will not be understood.” The first scene introduces us to the widow, ostentatiously weeping for the death of her husband. She is surrounded by a silly son, a brother not overwise, and two daughters of “no characters at all,” except that one vows she will never marry, and the other declares herself entirely of an opposite inclination. The whelp of a son refuses to weep for his father, and the mother thus chides him :
“Wid. Othou past-grace, thou! Out of my sight, thou graceless imp! thou grievest me more than the death of thy father. O thou stubborn only son! Hadst thou such an honest man to thy father—that would deceive all the world to get riches for thee, and canst thou not afford a little salt water? He that so wisely did quite overthrow the right heir of those lands, which now you respect not : up every morning betwixt four and five; so duly at Westminster-hall every term-time, with all his cards and writings, for thee, thou wicked Absalon: O dear husband!”
The widow vows on her knees an awful vow:—
“O may I be the by-word of the world,
The second scene introduces us to the chief actor in the piece, Pyeboard, a profligate scholar, who unites the professions of a poet and a swindler. Mr. Dyce, in his valuable edition of George Peele's works, says that George Pyeboard is the same as George Peele, “Peel signifying a board with a long handle with which bakers put things in and out of the oven.” It is somewhat hard upon the memory of Peele to assume, as some have assumed, that Pyeboard was meant as a portrait of him. The exact date of Peele's death has not been ascertained; but an allusion to his death is made by Meres in 1598. He was no doubt a man of profligate habits; as
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were too many of the unhappy race of authors in those days, when uncertain occupation and dependence upon the great made them more than usually ready to snatch at passing gratifications. The ‘Merrie conceited Jests of George Peele, Gentleman, sometime a Student in Oxford,” was published in 1627, and in that tract there are two stories told of Peele which are very nearly similar to two of the tricks of Pyeboard in ‘The Puritan: both may have been mere inventions or exaggerations. In the following passage of “The Puritan’ there is probably a melancholy truth as to the con dition of men of letters in that age. Pyeboard is addressing himself to an old soldier, Skirmish:—
“As touching my profession; the multiplicity of scholars, hatched and nourished in the idle calms of peace, makes them, like fishes, one devour another; and the community of learning has so played upon affections, that thereby almost religion is come about to phantasy, and discredited by being too much spoken of, in so many and mean mouths. I myself, being a scholar and a graduate, have no other comfort by my learning, but the affection of my words, to know how, scholar-like, to name what I want; and can call myself a beggar both in Greek and Latin. And therefore, not to cog with peace, I'll not be afraid to say, "t is a great breeder, but a barren nourisher; a great getter of children, which must either be thieves or rich men, knaves or beggars.
Skir. Well, would I had been born a knave then, when I was born a beggar! for if the truth was known, I think I was begot when my father had never a penny in his purse.
Pye. Puh ! faint not, old Skirmish; let this warrant thee—facilis descensus Averni—'t is an easy journey to a knave; thou mayst be a knave when thou wilt: and Peace is a good madam to all other professions, and an errant drab to us. Let us handle her accordingly, and by our wits thrive in despite of her: For since the law lives by quarrels, the courtier by smooth good-morrows, and every profession makes itself greater by imperfections, why not we then by shifts, wiles, and forgeries? And seeing our brains are our only patrimonies, let 's spend with judgment; not like a desperate son and heir, but like a sober and discreet Templar: one that will never march beyond the bounds of his allowance.”
Pyeboard resolves to be a fortune-teller, and proposes to Skirmish to be a conjurer, and so they are to deceive the widow and her family. We are presently introduced in the Marshalsea Prison to Captain Idle, who has committed what he calls a common offence— a highway robbery. Captain Idle is to be released by a stratagem of Pyeboard. The gold chain of Sir Godfrey Plus, the widow's brother, is to be stolen by his puritanical servant, and to be discovered by the instrumentality of the military highwayman. As the action advances the plot thickens. The widow and one of her daugh
ters refuse honest suitors; and when Idle is redeemed from prison (which the knight effects in a moment with the hope of finding his chain) the worthy confederates propose to marry the ladies. The fortune-telling and conjuration scenes are amusing enough, but they will scarcely furnish any extracts. In the end, however, the stratagems of the scholar and the captain are discovered; and the widow and her daughter are rescued from their hands on their way to church to be married. The affections of the ladies are very quickly transferred to other suitors; and so the play ends. The following scene, which occurs in the third act, is one of the incidents which is told, with some variation, of the hero of the ‘Merrie conceited Jests.” Pyeboard is under arrest for debt; and he persuades the bailiffs to go with him to a house “to receive five pound of a gentleman for the device of a mask here drawn in this paper.” The following scene ensues:—
“A Gallery in a Gentleman's House.
Enter a Servant.
Enter Pyeboard, Puttock, RAvenshaw, and Dogson. 3
Pye. Ay, he knows it, when he sees me: I pray you, have you forgot me?
Ser. Ay, by my troth, sir; pray come near ; I’ll in and tell him : of you. Please you to walk here in the gallery till he comes.
Pye. We will attend his worship. Worship, I think; for so much the posts at his door should signify, and the fair coming-in, and the wicket; else I neither knew him nor his worship; but "t is happiness he is within doors, whatsoe'er he be. If he be not too much a formal citizen he may do me good. [Aside.]—Serjeant and yeoman, how do you like this house ? Is 't not most wholesomely plotted?
Rav. Troth, prisoner, an exceeding fine house.
Pye. Yet I wonder how he should forget me-for he never knew me. [Aside.]: No matter; what is forgot in you," will be remembered in your master. A pretty comfortable room this, methinks: you have no such rooms in prison now 3
Put. O, dog-holes to 't.
Pye. Dog-holes, indeed. “I can tell you, I have great hope to have my chamber here shortly, nay, and diet too; for he is the most free-heartedest gentleman, where he takes: you would little think it. And what a fine gallery were here for me to walk and
study and make verses!
Put. O, it stands very pleasantly for a scholar.
Pye. Look, what maps, and pictures, and devices, and things, neatly, delicately—Mass, here he comes; he should be a gentleman; I like his beard well.—All happiness to your worship.
Gent. You're kindly welcome, sir.
Put. A simple salutation.
Rav. Mass, it seems the gentleman makes great account of him.
Pye. I have the thing here for you, sir.—[Takes the Gentleman apart.] I beseech you, conceal me, sir; I 'm undone else. [Aside.] I have the mask here for you, sir; look you, sir. I beseech your worship, first pardon my rudeness, for my extremes make me bolder than I would be. I am a poor gentleman, and a scholar, and now most unfortunately fallen into the fangs of unmerciful officers; arrested for debt, which, though small, I am not able to compass, by reason I am destitute of lands, money, and friends; so that if I fall into the hungry swallow of the prison, I am like utterly to perish, and with fees and extortions be pinched clean to the bone. Now, if ever pity had interest in the blood of a gentleman, I beseech you vouchsafe but to favour that means of my escape which I have already thought upon.
Gent. Go forward.
Put. I warrant he likes it rarely.
Pye. In the plunge of my extremities, being giddy, and doubtful what to do, at last it was put into my labouring thoughts to make a happy use of this paper; and to blear their unlettered eyes, I told them there was a device for a mask drawn in 't, and that (but for their interception) I was going to a gentleman to receive my reward for 't. They, greedy at this word, and hoping to make purchase of me, offered their attendance to go along with me. My hap was to make bold with your door, sir, which my thoughts showed me the most fairest and comfortablest entrance; and I hope I have happened right upon understanding and pity. May it please your good worship, then, but to uphold my device, which is to let one of your men put me out at a back-door, and I shall be bound to your worship for ever.
Gent. By my troth, an excellent device.
Put. An excellent device, he says; he likes it wonderfully.
Gent. O' my faith, I never heard a better.
Rav. Hark, he swears he never heard a better, serjeant.
Put. O, there 's no talk on 't; he 's an excellent scholar, and especially for a mask.
Gent. Give me your paper, your device; I was never better pleased in all my life: good wit, brave wit, finely wrought! Come in, sir, and receive your money, sir."
The prisoner, of course, escapes.
There is no doubt considerable truth in this picture: but it is not such truth as we find in Shakspere; it belongs to the temporary
and the personal, not to the permanent and the universal.
the characteristic merit of the whole comedy, whatever merit it has.