Page images
PDF
EPUB

together, and the like in Ben Jonson's tragedies: in Catiline and Sejanus sometimes thirty or forty lines,-I mean besides the Chorus, or the monologues; which, by the way, shewed Ben no enemy to this way of writing, especially if you read his SAD SHEPHERD, which goes sometimes on rhyme, sometimes on blank verse, like an horse who eases himself on trot and amble. You find him likewise commending Fletcher's pastoral of THE FAITHFUL SHEPHERDESS, which is for the most part rhyme, though not refined to that purity to which it hath since been brought. And these examples are enough to clear us from a servile imitation of the French.

But to return whence I have digressed: I dare boldly affirm these two things of the English drama;-First, that we have many plays of ours as regular as any of theirs, and which, besides, have more variety of plot and characters; and secondly, that in most of the irregular plays of Shakspeare or Fletcher, (for Ben Jonson's are for the most part regular,) there is a more masculine fancy and greater spirit in the writing, than there is in any of the French. I could produce even in Shakspeare's and Fletcher's works, some plays which are almost exactly formed; as THE MERRY WIVES OF WINDSOR, and THE SCORNFUL LADY: but because (generally speaking) Shakspeare, who writ first, did not perfectly observe the laws of comedy, and Fletcher, who came nearer to perfection, yet through carelessness made many faults;

[blocks in formation]

I will take the pattern of a perfect play from Ben Jonson, who was a careful and learned observer of the dramatick laws; and from all his comedies I shall select THE SILENT WOMAN; of whch I will make a short examen, according to those rules which the French observe.

As Neander was beginning to examine THE SILENT WOMAN, Eugenius, earnestly regarding him; I beseech you, Neander, said he, gratify the company, and me in particular, so far, as before you speak of the play, to give us a character of the author; and tell us frankly your opinion, whether you do not think all writers, both French and English, ought to give place to him.

I fear, replied Neander, that in obeying your commands I shall draw some envy on myself. Besides, in performing them, it will be first necessary to speak somewhat of Shakspeare and Fletcher, his rivals in poesy; and one of them, in my opinion, at least his equal, perhaps his superior.

To begin, then, with Shakspeare. He was the man who of all modern, and perhaps ancient poets, had the largest and most comprehensive soul. All the images of nature were still present to him, and he drew them not laboriously, but luckily when he describes any thing, you more than see it, you

:

7 It is curious to observe with what caution our author speaks, when he ventures to place Shakspeare above Jonson; a caution which proves decisively the wretched taste of the period when he wrote.

feel it too. Those who accuse him to have wanted learning, give him the greater commendation: he was naturally learned; he needed not the spectacles of books to read nature; he looked inwards, and found her there. I cannot say he is every where alike; were he so, I should do him injury to compare him with the greatest of mankind. He is many times flat, insipid; his comick wit degenerating into clenches, his serious swelling into bombast. But he is always great, when 'some great occasion is presented to him; no man can say he ever had a fit subject for his wit, and did not then raise himself as high above the rest of poets,

Quantum lenta solent inter viburna cupressi.

The consideration of this made Mr. Hales of Eton say, that there was no subject of which any poet ever writ, but he would produce it much better done in Shakspeare; and however others are now generally preferred before him, yet the age wherein he lived, which had contemporaries. with him, Fletcher and Jonson, never equalled them to him in their esteem: and in the last king's court, when Ben's reputation was at highest, Sir John Suckling, and with him the greater part of the courtiers, set our Shakspeare far above him.

› See an account of a remarkable challenge on this subject, given by Mr. Hales to Ben Jonson and his par tisans, PLAYS and POEMS of SHAKSPEARE, ut supr. vol. i. part i. p. 114.

Beaumont and Fletcher, of whom I am next to speak, had, with the advantage of Shakspeare's wit, which was their precedent, great natural gifts, improved by study; Beaumont especially being so accurate a judge of plays, that Ben Jonson, while he lived, submitted all his writings to his censure, and 'tis thought, used his judgment in correcting, if not contriving, all his plots. What value he had for him, appears by the verses he writ to him; and therefore I need speak no farther of it. The first play that brought Fletcher and him in esteem was their PHILASTER: for before that, they had written two or three very unsuccessfully: as the like is reported of Ben Jonson, before he writ EVERY MAN IN HIS HUMOUR. Their plots were generally more regular than Shakspeare's, especially those which were made before Beaumont's death; and they understood

9 Sir Aston Cokain long since complained, that the booksellers who, in 1647, published thirty-four plays under the names of Beaumont and Fletcher, had not ascertained how many of them were written solely by Fletcher :

"In the large book of playes you late did print,
"In Beaumont's and in Fletcher's name, why in't
"Did you not justice? give to each his due ?
"For Beaumont of those many writ in few ;

"And Massinger in other few: the main

46

Being sole issues of sweet Fletcher's brain."

Pope, as Mr. Spence has recorded in his ANECDOTES, asserted, that "Beaumont was not concerned in above

and imitated the conversation of gentlemen much better; whose wild debaucheries, and quickness of wit in repartees, no poet before them could paint as they have done. Humour, which Ben Jonson derived from particular persons, they made it not their business to describe: they represented all the passions very lively, but above all, love. I am apt to believe the English language in them arrived to its highest perfection; what words have since been taken in, are rather superfluous than ornamental. Their plays are now the most pleasant and frequent entertainments of the stage; two of theirs being acted through the year for one of Shakspeare's or Jonson's: the reason is, because there is a certain gaiety in their comedies, and pathos in

four or five plays with Fletcher." But he was certainly mistaken; for the following nine plays were undoubtedly the joint production of him and Fletcher: PHILASTER,THE MAID'S TRAEGDY,-KING AND NO KING,-THE KNIGHT OF THE BURNINGPESTLE, CUPID'S REVENGE, -THE COXCOMB, THE CAPTAIN, -THE HONEST MAN'S FORTUNE, THE SCORNFUL LADY. Perhaps to this list should also be added THE FALSE ONE. Of these plays four only were included in the edition of 1647. All the other plays ascribed to these authors jointly, were; I believe, written by Fletcher alone, or in conjunction with Massinger, Field, Rowley, and others.-The last four plays which Fletcher produced were-A WIFE FOR A MONTH, RULE A WIFE AND HAVE A WIFE,-THE FAIR MAID OF THE INN, and THE NOBLE GENTLEMAN. He died in August, 1625; and the two pieces last named were not exhibited till after his death. See Shakspeare's PLAYS, &c. ut supr. vol. i. p. ii. p. 222.

« PreviousContinue »