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Bables and comedies are parlous fellows to decipher and discourage men (that is the point) with their witty flouts and learned jerks, enough to lash any man out of countenance. Nay, if you shake the painted scabbard at me, I have done ; and all you that tender the preservation of your good names were best to please PapHatched, and fee Euphues betimes, for fear lest he be moved, or some one of his apes hired, to make a play of you, and then is your credit quite undone for ever and ever. Such is the public reputation of their plays, he must needs be discouraged whom they decipher. Better anger an hundred other than two such that have the stage at commandment, and can furnish out vices and devils at their pleasure."*
We thus see that Harvey, the friend of Spenser, is threatened by one of those who have the stage at commandment” with having a play made of him. Such plays were made in 1589, and Nashe thus boasts of them in one of his tracts printed in 1589 :-“ Methought Vetus Comoedia began to prick him at London in the right vein, when he brought forth Divinity with a scratched face, holding of her heart as if she were sick, because Martin would have forced her ; but missing of his purpose, he left the print of his nails upon her cheeks, and poisoned her with a vomit, which he ministered unto her to make her cast up her dignities.” Lyly, taking the same side, writes,—“Would those comedies might be allowed to be played that are penned, and then I am sure he [Martin Marprelate] would be deciphered, and so perhaps discouraged." Here are the very words which Harvey has repeated, “He must needs be discouraged whom they decipher.” Harvey, in a subsequent passage of the same tract, refers to this prostitution of the stage to party purposes in very striking words :-“The stately tragedy scorneth the trifling comedy, and the trifling comedy flouteth the new ruffianism.” These circumstances appear to us very remarkable, with reference to the state of the drama about 1590. Shakspere's great contemporary, Edmund Spenser, in a poem entitled, “Ihe Tears of the Muses," originally published in 1591, describes, in the “Complaint” of Thalia, the Muse of Comedy, the state of the drama at the time in which he is writing :
“ Where be the sweet delights of learning's treasure,
That wont with comic sock to beautify
The listeners' eyes, and ears with melody;
Which wont to be the glory of gay wits,
And in her room unseemly Sorrow sits,
And brutish Ignorance, ycrept of late
Where being bred, he light and heaven does hate ;
And with vain toys the vulgar entertain;
That whilom wont to wait upon my train,
Delight, and Laughter, deck'd in seemly sort."
Spenser was in England in 1590-1, and it is probable that “The Tears of the Muses” was written in 1590, and that the poet described the prevailing state of the drama in London during the time of his visit.
The four stanzas which we have quoted are descriptive, as we think, of a period of the drama when it had emerged from the semi-barbarism by which it was characterized, " from the commencement of Shakspere's boyhood, till about the earliest date at which his removal to London can be possibly fixed."* This description has nothing in common with those accounts of the drama which have reference to this “semi-barbarism." Nor does the writer of it belong to the school which considered a violation of the unities of time and place as the great defect of the English theatre. Nor does he assert his preference of the classic school over the romantic, by objecting, as Sir Philip Sydney objects, that “plays be neither right tragedies nor right comedies, mingling kings and clowns." There had been, according to Spenser, a state of the drama that would
“Fill with pleasure The listeners' eyes, and ears with melody."
Can any comedy be named, if we assume that Shakspere had, in 1590, not written any, which could be celebrated—and by the exquisite versifier of “The Faery Queen” —for its “melody?” Could any also be praised for
“That goodly glee
Could the plays before Shakspere be described by the most competent of judgesthe most poetical mind of that age next to Shakspere-as abounding in
"Fine Counterfesance, and unhurtful Sport,
Delight, and Laughter, deck'd in seemly sort ?"
We have not seen such a comedy, except some three or four of Shakspere's, which could have existed before 1590. We do not believe there is such a comedy from any other pen. What, according to the “Complaint” of Thalia, has banished such comedy? “Unsecmly Sorrow,” it appears, has been fashionable ; not the proprieties of tragedy, but a sorrow
“With hollow brows and grissly countenance ;”— the violent scenes of blood which were offered for the excitement of the multitude, before the tragedy of real art was devised. But this state of the drama is shortly passed over. There is something more defined. By the side of this false tragic sit “ugly Barbarism and brutish Ignorance.” These are not the barbarism and ignorance of the old stage ; they are
“ Ycrept of late
They “now tyrannize;" they now “ disguise” the fair scene “ with rudeness." The Muse of Tragedy, Melpomene, had previously described the “rueful spec. tacles” of “the stage." It was a stage which had no “ true tragedy." But it had possessed
“Delight, and Laughter, deck'd in seemly sort."
Now “ the trifling comedy flouteth the new ruffianism.”
The words of Gabriel
* “Edinburgh Review," vol. lxxi., page 469.
Harvey and Edmund Spenser agree in this. The bravos that “have the stage at commandment can furnish out vices and devils at their pleasure,” says Harvey. This describes the Vetus Comoediamthe old comedy—of which Nashe boasts. Can there be any doubt that Spenser had this state of things in view when he denounced the
He denounced it in common with his friend Harvey, who, however he partook of the controversial violence of his time, was a man of learning and eloquence; and to whom only three years before he had addressed a sonnet of which the highest mind in the country might have been proud.
But we must return to the “ Thalia." The four stanzas which we have quoted are immediately followed by these four others :
“ All these, and all that else the comic stage
With season'd wit and goodly pleasure graced,
Was limned forth, are wholly now defaced ;
And he, the man whom Nature self had made
To mock herself, and Truth to imitate,
Our pleasant Willy, ah ! is dead of late :
Instead thereof scoffing Scurrility,
And scornful Folly, with Contempt, is crept,
Without regard or due decorum kept ;
But that same gentle spirit, from whose pen
Large streams of honey and sweet nectar flow,
Which dare their follies forth so rashly throw,
Here there is something even stronger than what has preceded it, in the direct allusion to the state of the stage in 1590. Comedy had ceased to be an exhibition of “seasoned wit” and “goodly pleasure ;" it no longer showed “man's life in his likest image.” Instead thereof there was “Scurrility"_“scornful Folly "_"shameless Ribaldry;"--and “ each idle wit"
It was the task of “the Learned” to deal with the high subjects of religious controversy—the “matters of state and religion,” with which the stage had meddled. Harvey had previously said, in the tract quoted by us, it is “a godly motion, when interluders leave penning their pleasurable plays to become zealous ecclesiastical writers.” He calls Lyly more expressly, with reference to this meddling, the “fool
master of the theatre.” In this state of things the acknowledged head of the comic stage was silent for a time :
“ HE, the man whom Nature self had made
To mock herself, and Truth to imitate,
Our pleasant WILLY, ah! is dead of late.”
And the author of “The Faery Queen” adds,
“But that same gentle spirit, from whose pen
Large streams of honey and sweet nectar flow,
Which dare their follies forth so madly throw,
The love of personal abuse had driven out real comedy; and there was one who, for a brief season, had left the madness to take its course. We cannot doubt that
“ HE, the man whom Nature self had made
To mock berself, and Truth to imitate," was William Shakspere, Mr. Collier, in his “ History of Dramatic Poetry,” says of Spenser's “Thalia,”—“ Had it not been certain that it was written at so early a date, and that Shakespeare could not then have exhibited his talents and acquired reputation, we should say at once that it could be meant for no other poet. It reads like a prophetic anticipation, which could not have been fulfilled by Shakspere until several years after it was published.” Mr. Collier, when he wrote this, had not discovered the document which proves that Shakspere was a sharer in the Blackfriars Theatre at least a year before this poem was published. At a later period, Mr. Collier lends his valuable opinion to the belief that Spenser's lines did allude to Shakspere. We are happy in such a convert.* Spenser, we have no doubt, described a real man, and real facts. He made no “prophetic anticipation ;" there had been genuine comedy in existence; the ribaldry had driven it out for a season. The poem has reference to some temporary degradation of the stage ; and what this temporary degradation was is most exactly defined by the public documents of the period, and the writings of Harvey, Nashe, and Lyly. The dates of all these proofs correspond with minute exactness. And who then is “our pleasant Willy,” according to the opinion of those who would deny to Shakspere the title to the praise of the other great poet of the Elizabethan age? It is John Lyly, says Malone—the man whom Spenser's bosom friend was, at the same moment, denouncing as “the foolmaster of the theatre.” We say, advisedly, that there is absolutely no proof that Shakspere had not written “ The Two Gentlemen of Verona," “ The Comedy of Errors," “ Love's Labour's Lost,” “ The Taming of the Shrew," and “All's Well that Ends Well,” amongst his comedies, before 1590: we believe that he alone merited the high praise of Spenser ; that it was meant for him.
Eight years after the publication of “The Tears of the Muses,” died in an obscure lodging-house in King Street, Westminster, “the prince of poets,” Edmund Spenser. Ben Jonson, says, “He died for lack of bread in King Street, and refused twenty pieces sent him by my Lord Essex, and said he was sorry he had no time to spend them.” The lack of bread could scarcely be. He could only have been a very short time in London, where he came to seek that imperfect compensation which the
* See Mr. Collier's “Life of Shakespeare," published in 1844. The arguments which we employed were printed in the first edition of this “ Biography,"-1843.
government might afford him for some of his wrongs. His house was burnt ; his wife and two children had fled from those outrages which had made
« The cooly shade
Of the green alders by the Mulla's shore,” a place of terror and fatal recollections ; his infant had perished in the flames which destroyed his property. But it seems impossible that one in his social position could die for lack of bread. He died most probably of that which kills as surely as hunger—the “hysterica passio” of Lear. In a few days most of the illustrious band of writers would be gathered round Spenser's grave in Westminster Abbey : " his hearse attended by poets, and mournful elegies, and poems, with the pens that wrote them, thrown into his tomb."* One of the ablest writers of our day, in his quaint and pleasant “ Citation and Examination of William Shakspeare,” &c., says, “ William Shakspeare was the only poet who abstained from throwing in either pen or poem, at which no one marvelled, he being of low estate, and the others not having yet taken him by the hand." This is the language only of romance ; for assuredly when Shakspere stood by the grave of Spenser, he of all the poets then living must have been held to be the head. He was the “ pleasant Willie ” of Spenser himself. Five years before, Spenser had also, without doubt, thus described him :
“And there, though last not least, is Aëlion;
A gentler shepherd may nowhere be found :
“He seems to shake a lance As brandish'd at the eyes of ignorance."
Fuller compares him to the poet Martial, “in the warlike sound of his surname, whence some may conjecture him of a military extraction, hasti-vibrans, or Shakespeare," We cannot doubt of the allusion. He could not have meant to compare the poet with the Roman painter Aëtion. The fancy of Spenser might readily connect the “high thoughts” with the soaring eagle—åetós—and we might almost fancy that there was some association of the image with Shakspere's armorial bearings“his crest or cognizance, a falcon, his wings displayed.”
† “ Colin Clout's come Home again,” 1594.