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even to the lowest tone that the heart half whispers to itself, but that language as modified by the thousand diversities of character. Oaths and vulgarities would ring through his brain, just as some exquisite strain of poetry had died away on his ear. He would stand amazed to find so much of genius and impassioned action associated with so much flutter and rant, and perhaps would seek, in the phrase “ irregular genius," a convenient passage out of astonishment into contented ignorance.
The fine audacity that distinguishes these writers has, we believe, no parallel in literature. It led often to monstrous violations of taste and probability, but it still enabled them to reach heights and sound depths, which equal powers, wielded by a less daring will, could never have achieved. We shall see, also, that, though plain to coarseness in speech when they undertook to represent coarse characters, they rarely, with the exception perhaps of Fletcher, tampered with moral laws.. A good, wholesome English integrity generally underlies their vulgarities. Their works would not be so likely to corrupt the mind as some of Byron's and Moore's, for, though they represent immorality, they do not inculcate it. Their robust strength of nature preserved them from sentimentality, if not from bombast and buffoonery. Their minds breathed the bracing air of their time, - a time which would tolerate what would now be considered breaches of decorum, but would not tolerate the smaller vices of intellect and sentiment. Of course, in these remarks, as far as they touch upon gross faults, we do not mean to include Shakspeare among his brother dramatists. He excelled them all as much in judgment as in genius.
The first playhouse built in England was erected in Blackfriars, in the year 1569 or 1570 (Hallam says 1576), about twenty years before Shakspeare commenced writing for the stage. Previously to this establishment of the regular drama,” there had been three different species of theatrical representations, - miracles or mysteries, written by priests on religious subjects, and performed by them on holydays, in which, as Campbell phrases it, “Adam and Eve appeared naked, the devil displayed his horns and tail, and Noah's wife boxed the patriarch's ears before entering the ark”; -moralities, which sprang from the mysteries, and approached nearer to regular plays, their characters being composed of allegorical personi
fications of virtues and vices ; — and free translations from the classics, performed at the inps of court, the public seminaries, and the universities.
In 1574, the queen licensed a company of actors, called the Earl of Leicester's Servants, to play throughout England, “ for the recreation of her loving subjects, as for her own solace and pleasure when she should think good to see them.” Theatres rapidly increased. In 1606, there were seven in London ; in 1629, we believe there were seventeen. They were opposed, in an early stage of their career, by the Puritans and the graver counsellors of the sovereign. In 1583, at the time that Sir Philip Sidney published his Defence of Poesy, he could find little in their performances to approve. Though forbidden, after the year 1574, to be open on the Sabbath, the prohibition does not appear to have been effective during the reign of Elizabeth. Secretary Walsingham laments over the whole matter in this wise :-" The daily abuse of stage plays is such an offence to the godly, and so great a hindrance to the gospel, as the Papists do exceedingly rejoice at the blemish thereof; for every day in the week, the players' bills are set up in sundry places in the city, — some in the name of her Majesty's men, some of the Earl of Leicester's, some the Earl of Oxford's, the Lord Admiral's, and divers others, so that, when the bell tolls to the lecture, the trumpet sounds to the stage. The playhouses are filled, when the churches are naked. It is a woful sight to see two hundred proud players jet in their silks, when five hundred poor people starve in the streets.”
As the taste for theatrical exhibitions increased, the task of providing the theatres with plays became a profession. Most of the precursors, contemporaries, and successors of Shakspeare were young men of education, who came down to the city from the universities, to provide themselves with a living by whatever cunning there was in their brain and ten fingers. Some became actors as well as writers. The remuneration of the dramatist was small. Poverty and dissoluteness seem to have characterized the pioneers of the drama. As the theatre was popular as well as fashionable, the “groundlings," who paid their sixpences for admission, had their tastes consulted. This accounts, in some degree, for the rant and vulgarity which strangely disfigure so many of the plays. The usual miseries and vices which characterize men of letters in an unlettered age, when authors are numerous and readers are few, distinguish the lives of many of the elder dramatists. Ben Jonson, in the Poetaster, makes Tucca exclaim, with a side reference to the poets of his own day, that “they are a sort of poor, starved rascals, that are ever wrapt up in foul linen ; and can boast of nothing but a lean visage peering out of a seam-rent suit, the very emblem of beggary.” We suppose this was too true a picture of many, whose minds deserved a better environment of flesh and raiment.
Of those who preceded Shakspeare, the best known names (leaving Buckhurst and Hill out of the list) are Lyly, Kyd, Nash, Greene, Lodge, and Marlowe. Much cannot be said in praise of these, if we except the latter. Lyly is full of daintiness and conceit, with sweet fancy and sentiment occasionally thrown in. He translates every thing into quaint expression. Thus, his Endymion professes that his thoughts are stilched to the stars.” Another of bis characters looks forward to the time when “ it shall please the fertility of his chin to be delivered of a beard.” Peele has melody of versification, and a sort of Della-Cruscan fancy. His David and Bethsabe contains striking passages, as when Zephyr is addressed :
“ 'Then deck thee with thy loose, delightsome robes,
And on thy wings bring delicate perfumes ” ;or the resolution of David :
“ To joy her love I 'll build a kingly bower,
Seated in hearing of a hundred streams." Kyd wrote The Spanish Tragedy, a play bad enough in itself, but singular from the additions made to it by “ eminent hands.” Its bombast was probably popular. Ben Jonson was one of those engaged to write additional scenes ; but he has ridiculed the whole play in Every Man in his Humor, in the scene between Bobadil and Master Mathew, the town gull. Bobadil says, “I would fain see all the poets of these times pen such another play as that was !” Greene's death was more tragic than any thing he wrote or conceived. He is now principally remembered for having called Shak
But a more potent spirit than any of these, and beyond all question the first in rank among the precursors of Shakspeare, was Christopher Marlowe. His is mighty line " has been celebrated by Ben Jonson ; Drayton finely ascribes to him “ those brave sublunary things that the first poets had”; and according to old George Chapman, —
“ He stood Up to the chin in the Pierian flood." Marlowe, indeed, towers up among his contemporaries, huge, lawless, untamable, the old Adam burning fiercely within him, his frame of mind
“ Betokening valor and excess of strength,” and in his strange compound of sublimity and rant, giving an impression half way between a thunder-scarred Titan and an Alsatian bully. From the impress of perverse and turbulent power that his dramas bear, and the evident heartiness with which he deifies self-will, we may well suppose that his life diverged considerably from the strait line of the commandments. The two prominent features of his biography are exceedingly characteristic. In his life, he labored under the imputation of infidelity, and was said to have blasphemed the Holy Trinity ; and he died in a tavern brawl, in 1593 or 1594, about the time that Shakspeare was writing Richard the Second. Campbell suggests, that, had Marlowe lived, Shakspeare might have had something like a competitor. This we think is too high praise ; for Marlowe, with all his fire and fancy, is limited in his range of character, and stamps the image of himself on all his striking delineations. He is intense, but narrow. The central principle of his mind was self-will, and this is the bond which binds together his strangely huddled faculties. Of all English poets, he most reminds us of Byron ; ruder, it may be, but at the same time more colossal in his proportions. He is a glorious old heathen, “ large in heart and brain,” — a fiery and fickle Goth, on whose rough and savage energies a classical culture has been piled, tossed among the taverns, and theatres, and swelling spirits of London, to gratify the demands of his senses in some other way than by acts of brilliant pillage. In his lustiness, his absence of all weak emotions, his fierce delight in the mere feeling of self, in the heedlessness with which he heaps together rubbish and diamonds, and in the
frequent starts and strange far-flights of his imagination, he is the model of irregular genius. His mind, in its imperiousness, disregarded by instinct the natural relations of things, forced objects into the form of his individual passions, and lifted his vices into a kind of Satanic dignity, by exaggerating them into shapes colossal. His imagination, hot, swift, impatient of control, pervaded by the fiery essence of his blood, and giving wings to the most reckless desires, riots in the maddest visions of strength and pride. Of all writers, he seems to feel the heartiest joy in the mere exercise of power, regardless of all the restraints which make power beneficent. His most truculent characters, Tamburlaine, Eleazar, Barabbas, Faustus, all have blazoned on their brows, “ Kit Marlowe, his mark.” There is no mistaking his heaven-defying energy, nor his Ishmaelitish strut and swagger. His soul tears its way through his verse, “tameless, and swift, and proud,” scorning all impediments, and ever ambitious to go
“Right forward, like the lightning
Its way to blast and ruin.” From this headlong haste come his bombast and extravagance, “ his lust of power, his hunger and thirst after unrighteousness, his glow of imagination, unhallowed save by its own energies." Whether his Muse cleave the upper air, or draggle in the dirt, it ever gives unity of impression. In “ Lust's Dominion, or the Lascivious Queen,” the rapid movement of the man's mind is very characteristic, — rattling recklessly on through scenes of murder, cruelty, and lust, — now striking off“ burning atoms” of thought, and now merely infusing fire into fustian, - his faculties at times stretched on the rack, writhing in fearful contortions, and smiting the ear with the wild screams of a tortured brain, - but still marching furiously forward, daring everything, and playing out the game of tragedy freely and fearlessly. In this play he somewhat reminds us of the actor who blacked himself all over when he performed Othello, and called that "going thoroughly into the part.” Marlowe scatters lust and crime about in such careless profusion, that they cease to excite horror. His Muse must too often have appeared to him in some such form as the hideous phantom in Clarence's dream, —
VOL. LXIII. - NO. 132.