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the conventional rules prescribed by writers of rhetorics and grammars did not hamper them. They were too busy endeavoring to portray the mighty pageant sweeping before them, to rummage old attics for the musty colors and warped palettes of by-gone painters.
Taking the implements at hand, — the tedious moralities and the loosely spun miracle plays, — they soon improved upon them, soon invented a drama-form not so rigid as to be cramped, nor so loose as to be redundant, but articulate like a highly developed organism, and as elastic as the various material furnished by nature required. And for their metre they adopted and perfected a line susceptible of almost infinite modulations, suited alike to the simplest narration, and to the highest outbursts of passion, and to the most delicate whisperings of fancy. In their hands, blank verse became the peer of the Homeric hexameter, and of Dante's terza rima, a metre superior to that which any other modern language offers to its dramatic writers.
To Christopher Marlowe is due the honor of having first shown the capacity of this "mighty line." We know but
“ ” little about his life. He was born at Canterbury, and christened there on Feb. 26, 1564, almost exactly two months before the date of Shakespeare's birth. He attended the King's School in his native place, and, in March, 1581, matriculated at Benet (now Corpus Christi) College, Cambridge, where he took a bachelor's degree two years later. In 1588 Tamburlaine was acted, and The Tragical History
Doctor Faustus appeared a little later. Then followed The Jew of Malta and Edward II. These, and The Massacre of Paris, Dido (in which he was assisted by Nash), some journeyman work on the three parts of Henry VI, and a fragmentary poem entitled Hero and Leander,
comparable with Shakespeare's Venus and Adonis, - were all that he had time to do before he was killed in a quarrel over a courtesan, at Deptford, June 1, 1593. It is common, while deploring his early death, to speculate whether he might not, had he lived to maturity, have equalled Shakespeare himself; but such speculation seems to me to betray the uncritical temperament of those who indulge in it. We cannot reasonably doubt but that Marlowe, at forty, would have produced works far superior to any he has left: he had great powers, and they were surely ripening, but there is no indication that he could ever have excelled in two very important fields, where Shakespeare is supreme, - in humor
and in fancy. Humor is inborn, and shows itself early, yet there are not among Marlowe's creations any germs of such characters as Falstaff or Mercutio ; fancy, again, is preeminently a young poet's gift, yet Marlowe's lack of it is almost as surprising as are the ease and confidence with which he steps upon the stage for the first time. There is no bashfulness, no imitation, but the air of one who feels sure of his powers. He was full of vitality, intoxicated at beholding the mighty forces which uphold and perpetuate the universe ; and he seems to have believed that man, let him but cultivate his titanic possibilities, may master those forces, and cease to be their puppet. So his heroes are marvels of energy, devoting themselves to the acquisition of power which shall place them above the limitations of human nature: with Tamburlaine, it is desire of empire, - the whole world shall be his slave; with Faustus, it is desire of knowledge and pleasure, — the mysteries of fate shall be revealed to him, and all delights shall be concentrated in a cup for him to quaff; with Barabas, it is desire of gold, he will have the means of exterminating all Malta to satisfy his ven
geance. Even Edward II, who seems an exception, illustrates the power of weakness, - if I may use an apparent paradox.
For the most part, therefore, the personages of Marlowe's dramas are types of amazing passions, rather than sharply defined individuals : he did not attain the supreme excellence of dramatic characterization in which the type lives in the individual, as, for example, in Shylock. Vigor and exuberance, - those are the qualities which distinguish Marlowe's thought; and in his rhythm we meet lines and passages, now informed by an imperial stateliness, now by a subtle unforgetable melody, to find parallels for which we must turn to Shakespeare himself.
Of very different mettle was Ben Jonson, the posthumous son of a clergyman, born at Westminster in 1574, and educated there at the famous school, then under Camden's direction. But the widow Jonson married a bricklayer, and young Ben was forced for a time to work at his step-father's trade. When he could endure this no longer, he ran away, joined a regiment in the Low Countries, and after a brief military service, turned up in London, where his first comedy, Every Man in his Humour, was produced in 1596. Then followed, in 1599, 1600, and 1601, Every Man out of his Humour, Cynthia's Revels, and The Poetaster, comedies in which he satirized the foibles of the day, — and as, among other affectations, he laughed at the new romantic fashion of writing plays, he was in turn ridiculed by Dekker and Marston in Satiromastix. Yet, while they laughed at him, no man was so great a favorite as he among that illustrious group of playwrights and poets which used to meet and carouse at the Mermaid ; and although, in spite of his protests, the Elizabethan drama steadily progressed along romantic lines, no plays were more popular than his. In
1603 he wrote Sejanus, a tragedy; in 1605, Volpone ; in 1609, The Silent Woman ; in 1610, The Alchemist; in 1611, another tragedy, Catiline. Eastward Ho, in which he had Chapman and Marston for collaborators, proved too strong a satire on the Scottish people for the taste of the Scotchborn James I, and its authors were imprisoned, only to be restored to liberty and favor a little while afterward. In 1619 Jonson was appointed Poet Laureate, with the usual perquisite of £100, and a butt of canary from the royal cellars, every year. In his old age he published The Sad Shepherd, and, having outlived all his great companions, he died Aug. 16, 1637. In erudition, he was reputed the most learned poet of his time, and it is even asserted that no other English poet except Milton has had a wider and more various knowledge than he. His models in the drama were the classic playwrights of Rome and Athens. Condemning the romantic principles of his contemporaries, which led to excess and a luxuriant confusion, he insisted on a rigid observance of the three unities, of time, place, and subject. His own plays, constructed in obedience to the Aristotelian methods, are marvels of ingenuity. No other English plots are more homogeneous and skilful ; in none is there so little superfluity, so few digressions. In scene after scene you behold the author compressing a spring, till its tension is ready for the final, sudden discharge ; yet he does this so adroitly, that your interest is excited from moment to moment, lest that discharge burst' upon you unawares. In this respect he is the true descendant of the classic dramatists, and the kinsman of the Frenchmen who, in the seventeenth century, created the French drama on classic models. Unlike Marlowe, who sketches his plot but vaguely, and wanders whithersoever his love of splendor points, Jonson
has drawn every detail before sitting down to write. His material is the humors — or, as we should now say, the moods of mankind, rather than their elemental passions ; he produces his effects by cumulation and repetition, rather than by the swift, single, perfect strokes of a Shakespeare or a Webster. In The Alchemist this is well illustrated : he proposes to expose a popular imposture ; to do this he introduces two varieties of the same species of quacks, and their female accomplice; and then he marshals before us, not one or two gulls, but a whole flock of them, - an epicure, a bragging young gentleman from the country, a sanctimonious Puritan, a simpleton of a clerk, a conceited tobacconist, — and we see how the same greed for unearned wealth affects each differently, yet drives all into a communion of dupery. So clever a weaving of various threads in one compact web has rarely been achieved ; Jonson leaves no seams and no thrums in his work. He had not the highest imagination ; but he had its best substitutes, – judgment, taste, sense of form, and culture.
As he is pre-eminently classic, so Beaumont and Fletcher are pre-eminently romantic. Most of the Elizabethan dramatists sprang from lowly families : not so Francis Beaumont, who came of noble stock. His father, Sir John Beaumont, was a Justice of the Common Pleas in Leicestershire, where Francis was born in 1586. At the age of eleven he was admitted a gentleman commoner at Broadgate-hall (now Pembroke) College, Oxford. Going to London, he read law in the Inner Temple, but soon was drawn towards the stage. He formed a literary partnership with John Fletcher, and had already become renowned, when he was cut off by death in 1615. Fletcher, whose father was Dean of Peterborough, and then Bishop of Worcester, was born