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object in this volume is to
best work of the five Elizabethan dramatists who stand highest among Shakespeare's contemporaries. Collections of separate scenes and special editions of single plays have frequently been made, and they have their value; but it seemed to me that in binding together the masterpieces which follow, I should enable not only the general reader but also the college student to taste the quality of Shakespeare's rivals, and thereby to esteem the more adequately Shakespeare himself. Few persons possess the fifteen or twenty large volumes in which the Elizabethan drama is published, and fewer still have the time or the patience to plod through many tedious or dirty pages in order to come upon the treasures they contain. For, just as a traveller in an Oriental city is often obliged to turn his eyes from some mosque or graceful minaret to the ground beneath his feet so as to avoid ordure and garbage, so the reader of the Elizabethan plays has his attention often distracted, and his sense of decency shocked by the vulgarity of many passages
in them. This coarseness was due in part to the habit of the time, when men spoke openly to each other and even to women on subjects about which we are, if not ignorant, at least reticent, and in part to the deliberate effort of the playwright to please the vulgarest persons in the audience. But as filth is always filth, though it be
thrust upon us in a work of art, or come to us along with much that is noble under the sanction of a great name,
and as each age has more than enough of its own obscenity to flounder free from, without falling back into the sty of a former generation, I have selected plays as little as possible tainted. Moreover, I have not scrupled to strike out phrases or lines where it seemed proper, being guided by decency and not by prudery; yet it will not be found that this purging interferes in the least in the understanding of the following dramas, – a sufficient evidence, if evidence be needed, of the unnecessariness of obscenity from the artistic as from the ethical standpoint.
In making my selection I had less difficulty than might have been expected. Of Marlowe's four chief works, Tamburlaine is too crude and tedious, in spite of several fine passages; Doctor Faustus, though admirable in outline, lacks interest in detail, and is, besides, permanently superseded by the mighty work of Goethe ; finally, Edward II, though its scenes are knitted together more closely than those of its predecessors, and though its murder-scene is indeed masterly, yet as a whole lacks vivid characters. So I have chosen The Jew of Malta, which exhibits Marlowe's great qualities and their defects, and which will always be interesting from the comparisons to be made between Barabas and Shylock.
Among Ben Jonson's plays two have ranked, and deservedly ranked, foremost, — Volpone and The Alchemist. The former seems to me to be the superior, but its ineradicable coarseness precluded its publication in this volume; whereas The Alchemist is both an admirable example of Jonson's skill in applying the rules of classic composition to an English subject, and a fair representative of his satire and erudition. It is, furthermore, a mirror in which are reflected with wonderful accuracy, the social, scientific, religious, and philosophical quacks of the time of James the First.
Fifty-two plays are printed in the complete edition of the works of Beaumont and Fletcher, many of them being wholly Fletcher's; but only three of those which I have read come within my scope. These are The Maid's Tragedy, Valentinian, and Philaster : the first two contain passages equal to the best their authors ever wrote, but they are besmirched with so much coarseness, and brutality is so hopelessly interwoven in their plots, that I was forced to reject them; Philaster shows Beaumont and Fletcher at their best, and is thoroughly characteristic of their genius.
The Two Noble Kinsmen, commonly attributed to Fletcher and Shakespeare, is surely one of the most beautiful plays of that period, and deserves from the public such admiration and popularity as it has long enjoyed from scholars. Its right to be published among Shakespeare's works is certainly equal to that of Henry VIII, and superior to that of some of the poorer plays which have few marks of his collaboration.
Webster left two masterpieces, The White Devil and The Duchess of Malfi; both are great, but the latter excels, and is not only the most original and imaginative drama in this volume, but superior to every other Elizabethan tragedy except Shakespeare's best.
In some measure, therefore, the reader can form from these five plays - supplemented, of course, by acquaintance with Shakespeare some idea of the methods and range of the amazing dramatic inspiration in the reign of Elizabeth and the first James, — unsurpassed in the history of literature, and equalled only once, in Greece. The dominant influence was that of the Renaissance, transmitted to