« PreviousContinue »
liberties as will make me a slave!” The imperialist theories of the lawyers of his father's court had done their work. Held at bay by the practical sense of Henry, they had told on the more headstrong nature of his sons. Richard and John both held with Glanvill that the will of the prince was the law of the land; and to fetter that will by the customs and franchises which were embodied in the barons' claims seemed to John a monstrous usurpation of his rights. But no imperialist theories had touched the minds of his people. The country rose as one man at his refusal. At the close of May London threw open her gates to the forces of the barons, now arrayed under Robert Fitz-Walter as “ Marshal of the Army of God and Holy Church." Exeter and Lincoln followed the example of the capital; promises of aid came from Scotland and Wales ; the northern barons marched hastily under Eustace de Vesci to join their comrades in London. Even the nobles who had as yet clung to the king, but whose hopes of conciliation were blasted by his obstinacy, yielded at last to the summons of the “Army of God.” Pandulf, indeed, and Archbishop Langton still remained with John, but they counseled, as Earl Ranulf and William Marshal counseled, his acceptance of the charter. None, in fact, counseled its rejection save his new justiciar, the Poitevin Peter des Roches, and other foreigners, who knew the barons purposed driving them from the land. But even the number of these was small; there was a moment when John found himself with but seven knights at his back and before him a nation in arms. Quick as he was, he had been taken utterly by surprise. It was in vain that, in the short respite he had gained from Christmas to Easter, he had summoned mercenaries to his aid and appealed to his new suzerain, the pope. Summons and appeal were alike too late. Nursing wrath in his heart, John bowed to necessity and called the barons to a conference on an island in the Thames, between Windsor and Staines, near a marshy meadow by the river side, the meadow of Runnymede. The king encamped on one bank of the river, the barons covered the flat of Runnymede on the other. Their delegates met on the 15th of July in the island between them, but the negotiations were a mere cloak to cover John's purpose of unconditional submission. The Great Charter was discussed and agreed to in a single day.
In itself the charter was no novelty, nor did it claim to establish any new constitutional principles. The charter of
Henry the First formed the basis of the whole, and the additions to it are, for the most part, formal recognitions of the judicial and administrative changes introduced by Henry the Second. What was new in it was its origin. In form, like the charter on which it was based, it was nothing but a royal grant. In actual fact it was a treaty between the whole English people and its king. It was, [too,] far from being a mere copy of what had gone before. The vague expressions of the old charter were now exchanged for precise and elaborate provisions. The bonds of unwritten custom which the older grant did little more than recognize had proved too weak to hold the Angevins ; and the baronage set them aside for the restraints of written and defined law.
THE ENGLAND OF SHAKESPEARE. If the “Faerie Queen” expressed the higher elements of the Elizabethan age, the whole of that age, its lower elements and its higher alike, was expressed in the English drama. We have already pointed out the circumstances which throughout Europe were giving a poetic impulse to the newly aroused intelligence of men, and this impulse everywhere took a dramatic shape. The artificial French tragedy which began about this time with Garnier was not, indeed, destined to exert any influence over English poetry till a later age; but the influence of the Italian comedy, which had begun half a century earlier with Machiavelli and Ariosto, was felt directly through the novels or stories, which served as plots for our dramatists. It left its stamp, indeed, on some of the worst characteristics of the English stage. The features of our drama that startled the moral temper of the time and won the deadly hatred of the Puritans — its grossness and profanity, its tendency to scenes of horror and crime, its profuse employment of cruelty and lust as grounds of dramatic action, its daring use of the horrible and the unnatural whenever they enable it to display the more terrible and revolting sides of human passion
were derived from the Italian stage. It is doubtful how much the English playwright may have owed to the Spanish drama, which under Lope and Cervantes sprang suddenly into a grandeur that almost rivaled their own. In the intermixture of tragedy and comedy, in the abandonment of the solemn uniformity of poetic diction for the colloquial language of real life, the use of unexpected incidents, the complication of their plots and intrigues, the dramas of England and Spain are remarkably alike; but the likeness seems rather to have sprung from a similarity in the circumstances to which both owed their rise than to any direct connection of the one with the other. The real origin of the English drama, in fact, lay not in any influence from without, but in the influence of England itself. The temper of the nation was dramatic. Ever since the Reformation the palace, the inns of court, and the university had been vying with one another in the production of plays; and so early was their popularity that even under Henry the Eighth it was found necessary to create “a master of the revels" to supervise them. Every progress of Elizabeth from shire to shire was a succession of shows and interludes. Dian with her nymphs met the queen as she returned from hunting; Love presented her with his golden arrow as she passed through the gates of Norwich. From the earlier years of her reign the new spirit of the renascence had been pouring itself into the rough mold of the mystery plays, whose allegorical virtues and vices, or Scriptural heroes and heroines, had handed on the spirit of the drama through the Middle Ages. Adaptations from classical pieces began to alternate with the purely religious “moralities"; and an attempt at a livelier style of expression and invention appeared in the popular comedy of “Gammer Gurton's Needle"; while Sackville, Lord Dorset, in his tragedy of “Gorboduc" made a bold effort at sublimity of diction, and introduced the use of blank verse as the vehicle of dramatic dialogue.
THEATER AND PLAYWRIGHTS IN SHAKESPEARE'S TIME.
It was not to the tentative efforts of scholars and nobles that the English stage was indebted for the amazing outburst of genius which dates from the year 1576, when “the Earl of Leicester's servants" erected the first public theater in Blackfriars. It was the people itself that created its stage. The theater, indeed, was commonly only the courtyard of an inn, or a mere booth, such as is still seen in a country fair. The bulk of the audience sat beneath the open sky in the “pit” or yard; a few covered seats in the galleries which ran round it formed the boxes of the wealthier spectators, while patrons and nobles found seats upon the actual boards. All the appliances were of the roughest sort; a few flowers served to indicate a garden, crowds and armies were represented by a dozen scenoshifters with swords and bucklers, heroes rode in and out on hobbyhorses, and a scroll on a post told whether the scene was at Athens or London. There were no female actors, and the grossness which startles us in words which fell from women's lips took a different color when every woman's part was acted by a boy. But difficulties such as these were more than compensated by the popular character of the drama itself. Rude as the theater might be, all the world was there. The stage was crowded with nobles and courtiers. Apprentices and citizens thronged the benches in the yard below. The rough mob of the pit inspired, as it felt, the vigorous life, the rapid transitions, the passionate energy, the reality, the lifelike medley and confusion, the racy dialogue, the chat, the wit, the pathos, the sublimity, the rant and buffoonery, the coarse horrors and vulgar bloodshedding, the immense range over all classes of society, the intimacy with the foulest as well as the fairest developments of human temper, which characterized the English stage. The new drama represented “the very age and body of the time, his form and pressure.” The people itself brought its nobleness and its vileness to the boards. No stage was ever so human, no poetic life so intense. Wild, reckless, defiant of all past tradition, of all conventional laws, the English dramatists owned no teacher, no source of poetic inspiration, but the people itself.
Few events in our literary history are so startling as this sudden rise of the Elizabethan drama. The first public theater was erected only in the middle of the queen's reign. Before the close of it eighteen theaters existed in London alone. Fifty dramatic poets, many of the first order, appeared in the fifty years which precede the closing of the theaters by the Puritans; and great as is the number of their works which have ed, we still possess a hundred dramas, all written within this period, and of which at least a half are excellent. A glance at their authors shows us that the intellectual quickening of the age had now reached the mass of the people. Almost all of the new playwrights were fairly educated, and many were university
But instead of courtly singers of the Sidney and Spenser sort we see the advent of the “poor scholar.” The earlier dramatists, such as Nash, Peele, Kyd, Greene, or Marlowe, were for the most part poor, and reckless in their poverty; wild livers, defiant of law or common fame, in revolt against the usages and religion of their day, “ atheists” in general repute,“ holding Moses for a juggler,” haunting the brothel and the alehouse, and dying starved or in tavern brawls.
But with their appearance began the Elizabethan drama. The few plays which have reached us of an earlier date are either cold imitations of the classical and Italian comedy, or rude farces like “ Ralph Roister Doister,” or tragedies such as “Gorbuduc," where, poetic as occasional passages may be, there is little promise of dramatic development. But in the year which preceded the coming of the Armada, the whole aspect of the stage suddenly changes, and the new dramatists range themselves around two men of very different genius, Robert Greene and Christopher Marlowe.
Of Greene, as the creator of our lighter English prose, we have already spoken. But his work as a poet was of yet greater importance, for his perception of character and the relations of social life, the playfulness of his fancy, and the liveliness of his style, exerted an influence on his contemporaries which was equaled by that of none but Marlowe and Peele. In spite of the rudeness of his plots and the unequal character of his work, Greene must be regarded as the creator of our modern comedy. No figure better paints the group of young playwrights. He left Cambridge to travel through Italy and Spain, and to bring back the debauchery of the one and the skepticism of the other. In the words of remorse he wrote before his death, he paints himself as a drunkard and a roisterer, winning money only by ceaseless pamphlets and plays to waste it on wine and women, and drinking the cup of life to the dregs. Hell and the after world were the butts of his ceaseless mockery. If he had not feared the judges of the queen's courts more than he feared God, he said, in bitter jest, he should often have turned cutpurse. He married, and loved his wife, but she was soon deserted; and the wretched profligate found himself again plunged into excesses which he loathed, though he could not live without them. But wild as was the life of Greene, his pen was pure. He is steadily on virtue's side in the love pamphlets and novelettes he poured out in endless succession, and whose plots were dramatized by the school which gathered round him.
The life of Marlowe was as riotous, his skepticism even more daring, than the life and skepticism of Greene. His early death alone saved him, in all probability, from a prosecution for atheism. He was charged with calling Moses a juggler, and with boasting that, if he undertook to write a new religion, it should be a better religion than the Christianity he saw around him. But he stood far ahead of his fellows as a creator