Page images

countrymen in elaborate critical study of Shakespeare. Lessing showed that his art was as surpassing as his genius; while no one has written a finer criticism on Hamlet than Goethe.1 All the plays were translated by Schlegel and Tieck, and some of them are frequently acted on every stage in the empire; and to the German critic Delius we owe one of the best editions of Shakespeare.

In a book of this character there is scarcely place to treat of the great actors who have interpreted Shakespeare's art to the world. But no study of The actors Shakespeare should omit to mention Richard who have Burbage, the greatest tragic actor of Shake- Shakespeare's speare's time (d. 1619); Thomas Betterton, plays. who died in 1710; David Garrick, Mrs. Siddons, and Edmund and Charles Kean.


[Besides the excellent Globe (one-volume) edition of Shakespeare, other useful one-volume editions are the Oxford Shakespeare and the Leopold Shakspere. For criticism may be recommended Dowden's Shakespeare Primer, his Introduction to Shakespeare, and his Shakespeare: his Mind and Art; Hazlitt's Characters in Shakespeare's Plays, Coleridge's Lectures on Shakespeare, Furnivall's Introduction to the Leopold Shakspere, and Mrs. Jameson's Characteristics of Shakespeare's Women. Shakespeare's Female Characters, by Lady Martin (Helen Faucit), is interesting as throwing light on some of the heroines of the plays from the actress's point of view. Young readers may get acquainted with the stories of the plays in Lamb's Tales from Shakspeare. The article on Shakespeare in the Dictionary of National Biography, vol. LI., brings together all the information concerning the great dramatist's life and work, and may, with advantage, be consulted by every student.]

1 Wilhelm Meister, book iv. chapters 13, 14, 15.




Although none of Shakespeare's contemporaries approach his mighty achievement, yet many of them wrote dramas that take a very high place in our literaand his con- ture. No age has produced a larger number temporaries. of dramatists whose work bears the impress of genius, though it is genius of a lower order than Shakespeare's. Ben Jonson, Beaumont and Fletcher, Webster, Massinger, and Ford were of those "whose fire-hearts sowed our furrows" when "the world was worthy of such men".

I. Ben Jonson.

Ben Jonson, born about 1573, and thus some nine years Shakespeare's junior, was well descended, probably from a Border family. When he was two Ben Jonson. years old his mother married, as her second husband, a bricklayer or master builder of London, and there the boy was brought up. Camden, education. the antiquary, noting his intelligence, sent him to Westminster school, where he himself was second master. In an epigram, composed later, Jonson addresses his benefactor as

Birth and

Camden, most reverend head, to whom I owe
All that I am in arts, and all I know.

School-days over, he may have been engaged for a time in his stepfather's calling, but if so, he soon Early life. left it to seek his fortune as a soldier in the Low Countries. Later, in an epigram to true soldiers, he wrote:

I love

Your great profession, which I once did prove;
And did not shame it with my actions then,

No more than I dare now do with my pen.

Returning to England he became an actor, and soon began to write for the stage. A strong personality, a combative though not ill-natured disposition, procured him numerous friends and numerous enemies. His personHe fought a duel with a fellow-actor, whom ality. he killed; and was, in consequence of the fatal result, sent to prison for a short time. There he was converted to Catholicism "on trust", a faith he abjured twelve years later "on conviction". Shakespeare was at an early period among his literary friends, as were, sooner or later, all the great writers of his time-Raleigh, Selden, Chapman, Bacon, Drayton, Donne and Fletcher. In 1598 his comedy, Every Man in His Humour, was acted at the Globe Theatre,1 and from that time his reputation was assured.

Jonson voluntarily underwent a second term of imprisonment a few years later, because a play, Eastward Ho!, the work of Chapman, Marston, and His imhimself, gave offence to James I. by its con- prisonment. temptuous references to the Scottish people. Chapman and Marston were held to be chiefly responsible for the offensive passages, but when they were sent to prison Jonson thought it his duty to join them. He was, however, soon released.

His friends.

Despite his self-reliant temper, Jonson's fellow writers gladly acknowledged his intellectual prowess, and they delighted to gather round him at the famous Mermaid Tavern, where they eagerly combated each other's wit in mirthful debate while they drank "mine host's canary wine" and ate his " dainty pies of venison". Beaumont, a dramatist of whom we shall speak later, wrote in his Letter to Ben Jonson:

What things have we seen

Done at the Mermaid! heard words that have been

So nimble, and so full of subtle flame,

As if that everyone from whence they came

1 It is said that Shakespeare took part in the performance.

Had meant to put his whole wit in a jest,
And had resolved to live a fool the rest
Of his dull life.1

As his contemporaries one by one died off, their places were in his later years taken by younger poets, among whom were Herrick and Suckling. His youthful companions, whom he called his "sons", loved his vigorous talk of men and things, and to be admitted to the society of which he was the central figure-"to be sealed of the tribe of Ben", as he phrased it—was the chief ambition of literary aspirants throughout the country.

During the ten years 1605-1615 Jonson's best literary work was done. In 1616 he was made poet-laureate, His literary the first poet-laureate appointed by the crown. Subsequently Charles I. granted him £100 and a "tierce" (or a 42-gallon cask) of Canary wine as his annual salary. 2


In 1618 Jonson walked from London to Edinburgh, and spent a fortnight at Hawthornden, near Edinburgh, Visit to with the poet Drummond, who kept notes of Drummond. the conversations they had together. Drummond's notes are none too favourable to Jonson. He was fonder of drink than his host approved, and Drummond declared Jonson to be "a great lover and praiser of himself, and a condemner and scorner of others". But Drummond's temperament would naturally find little to admire in Jonson's rugged and somewhat self-assertive character. Jonson himself wrote an account of his Scottish journey, but unfortunately his library was

1 Cf. Herrick's poem to Ben Jonson on a like subject.

2 Jonson was the first who received letters-patent appointing him to the office. Spenser, however, was given a pension of 50 per annum in 1591, and in his 28th sonnet speaks of the "laurel-leafe" as the "badge that I doe bear". The phrase poeta laureatus was applied technically from the fourteenth century onwards to the holders of a degree granted by the universities for proficiency in Latin versification; thus Skelton (see vol. i. pp. 76-78) signs "poeta Skelton laureatus": also it was applied in compliment to any great poet; thus Chaucer calls Petrarch "the laureate poete".

burned in 1623, when, besides his books, many manuscripts were destroyed;

[blocks in formation]

After the accession of Charles I. Jonson suffered acutely from pecuniary difficulties, which had long been growing. He died in 1637, and was buried His death in Westminster Abbey. His only epitaph is and epitaph. "O rare Ben Jonson"; but Falkland, Waller, Ford, and others wrote tributes to his memory.

Jonson was the author of comedies, tragedies, masques, lyrical poems, and of one excellent prose work, besides his English grammar. His finest work in His literary drama is to be found in the four plays, productions. Every Man in his Humour; Volpone, or the Fox; Epicone, or the Silent Woman; and the Alchemist.

"Every Man in his Humour."

Every Man in his Humour1 is a comedy which aims rather at the display of character than at the development of incident, and in the first three acts there is little advance in the plot. In a series of scenes the different personages are presented in their different "humours"; Master Stephen, the "country gull", vain and credulous; Master Mathew, the town gull, a would-be poet and an admirer of Captain Bobadil, the cowardly braggart who affects to be a soldier of fortune, and whose name has passed into a proverb; Downright, the passionate angry squire; Wellbred and young Knowell, the two young gentlemen of parts and fashion who laugh at the gulls; Kitely, the jealous husband; and Brainworm, the cunning rogue of a servant. Satire is specially directed against soldiers of fortune, returned from wars abroad, who tell tales of their prowess, and beg impudently on the strength of their scars. They are satirized not only in Bobadil but in the part assumed by Brainworm. The plot pivots upon Brainworm's devices. Old Knowell opens a letter from Wellbred addressed to his son, and from the tenor of the letter concludes that Wellbred is leading his son into debauchery; yet he determines not to hinder the

Jonson used the word humour to mean oddities of behaviour, fashion, or manners.

« PreviousContinue »