The English ecstasy continued in literature as well as in religion. To the age of James I belong the better half of Shakespeare’s plays, much of Chapman, most of Jonson, Webster, Middleton, Dekker, Marston, some of Massinger, all of Beaumont and Fletcher; in poetry Donne, in prose Burton and, noblest of all, the King James version of the Bible: these are glories enough for any reign. The King had a taste for drama; in one Christmas season fourteen plays were acted at his court. The Globe theater was burned to the ground in 1613 by the firing of two cannons in a production of Henry VIII, but it was soon rebuilt, and by 1631 there were seventeen theaters in or near London.
George Chapman was five years older than Shakespeare and outlived him by eighteen, spanning three reigns (1559–1634). He took his time maturing; by 1598 he had successfully completed Marlowe’s Hero and Leander, and had published seven books of The Iliad; but his translation of Homer was not finished till 1615, and his best plays came between 1607 and 1613. He opened a new field to English drama by taking a theme from recent French history in his Bussy d’Ambois (1607?)—five acts of blusterous oratory rarely redeemed with magic of phrase, but rising to corrosive power in a page where Bussy and his enemy exchange ironic compliments as indigestible as truth. Chapman never recovered from his education; his much Greek and more Latin sat stiflingly upon his muse, and to read his plays is now a labor of lore, hardly of love. Nor do we thrill as Keats did “on first looking into Chapman’s Homer.” There is a sturdy vigor in these heptameters that here and there lifts them above Pope’s generally better version, but the music of poetry dies in translation; the leaping hexameters of the original carry us on with swifter melody than the measured, fettered feet of rhyming verse. No long English poem in rhyme has escaped the somnolence of a barcarolle. Chapman changed to “heroic couplets”—ten-syllable lines in rhyming pairs—for his rendering of The Odyssey, with similar lulling power. King James must have slept, under these massive blankets, beyond Homer’s casual nods, for he neglected to pay the three hundred pounds which the late Prince Henry had promised Chapman when the translation should be complete; but the Earl of Somerset rescued the aging poet from poverty.
Shall we tarry with Thomas Heywood, Thomas Middleton, Thomas Dekker, Cyril Tourneur, and John Marston, or beg them to let us off with a humble salute to their flickering fame? John Fletcher cannot be so scrimped, for in his heyday (1612–25) England honored him, in the drama, only next to Shakespeare and Jonson. Son to a Bishop of London, nephew or cousin to three poets of a sort, he was nursed on verse and reared with rhyme; and to all this heritage he added the privilege of collaborating with Shakespeare on Henry VIII and The Two Noble Kinsmen, with Massinger on The Spanish Curate, and, with most success, with Francis Beaumont.
“Frank” was also to the manner born, being the son of a prominent judge, and brother to a minor poet who eased by a year the way for Frank’s entrance into the world. Failing to graduate from Oxford or the Inner Temple, Beaumont tried his hand at voluptuous poetry, and joined with Fletcher in writing plays. The two handsome bachelors shared bed and board, goods and clothes, mistresses and themes; “they had one wench between them,” says Aubrey, and “a wonderful consimility of phansey.”33 For ten years they collaborated in producing such plays as Philaster, or Love Lies a-Bleeding, The Maid’s Tragedy, The Knight of the Burning Pestle. The dialogue is vigorous but windy, the plots artfully tangled but artificially resolved, the thought seldom reaching to philosophy; nevertheless, toward the end of the century (Dryden assures us) these dramas were twice as popular on the stage as Shakespeare’s.34
Beaumont died at thirty, in the year of Shakespeare’s death. Thereafter Fletcher wrote, alone or with others, a long series of plays successful and forgotten; some of his comedies of involved and boisterous intrigue stemmed from Spanish models, and in turn, with their accent on adultery, led to the Restoration drama. Then, tiring of these bloody or bawdy scenes, he issued (1608) a pastoral play, The Faithful Shepherdess, as nonsensical as A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and sometimes rivaling it in poetry. Clorin, her shepherd lover dead, retires to a rustic bower by his grave, and vows to stay there intact till her death:
Hail, holy earth, whose cold arms do embrace
The truest man that ever fed his flocks
By the fat plains of fruitful Thessaly!
Thus I salute thy grave; thus do I pay
My early vows and tribute of mine eyes
To thy still-lovéd ashes; thus I free
Myself from all ensuing heats and fires
Of love; all sports, delights, and jolly games,
That shepherds hold full dear, thus put I off:
Now no more shall these smooth brows be begirt
With youthful coronals, and lead the dance;
No more the company of fresh fair maids
And wanton shepherds be to me delightful,
Nor the shrill pleasing sound of merry pipes
Under some shady dell, when the cool wind
Plays on the leaves: all be far away,
Since thou art far away, by whose dear side
How often have I sat crowned with fresh flowers
For summer’s queen, whilst every shepherd’s boy
Puts on his lusty green, with gaudy hook,
And hanging scrip of finest cordevan.
But thou art gone, and these are gone with thee,
And all are dead but thy dear memory;
That shall outlive thee, and shall ever spring,
Whilst there are pipes or jolly shepherds sing.
The idyl had one performance and disappeared from the stage. What chance had such a paean to chastity in an age still simmering with the Elizabethan fire?
The most powerful and disagreeable of the Jacobean dramatists is John Webster. We know almost nothing of his life, and it is just as well. We gather his mood from the preface to his best play, The White Devil (1611), where he calls the audience “ignorant asses,” and deposes that “the breath that comes from the incapable multitude is able to poison … the most sententious [profound] tragedy.” The story is that of Vittoria Accoramboni, whose sins and trial (1581–85) had stirred Italy in Webster’s childhood. Vittoria feels that her husband’s income does no justice to her beauty. She accepts the attentions of the moneyed Duke of Brachiano, and suggests that he dispose of her husband and his own wife. He attends to the matter at once, with the aid of Vittoria’s pander brother Flamineo, who provides for these crimes the most cynical obbligato in all English literature. She is arrested on suspicion, but defends herself with such audacity and skill as scares a lawyer out of his Latin and a cardinal out of his hat. She is kidnaped from justice by Brachiano; they are pursued; finally pursuers and pursued, the just and the unjust, are slaughtered in a dramatic holocaust that left Webster’s blood lust sated for a year. The plot is well managed, the characters are consistently drawn, the language is often virile or vile, the crucial scenes are powerful, the poetry rises at times to Shakespeare’s eloquence. But to a taste made squeamish by civilization the play is deformed by the forced and gutter coarseness of Flamineo, by the hot curses that pour even from pretty mouths (“Oh, could I kill you forty times a day, and use’t four years together, ‘twere too little!”),35 by the pervasive obscenity, the word whore on every second page, the endless double meanings that would have made even Shakespeare blush.
Webster returned to the shambles in The Duchess of Malfi (1613). Ferdinand, Duke of Calabria, forbids his young widowed sister, the Duchess of Amalfi, to marry again, for if she dies mateless he will inherit her fortune. She mourns her enforced chastity:
The birds that live i’ the field
On the wild benefit of nature, live
Happier than we, for they may choose their mates,
And carol their sweet pleasures to the spring.36
Excited by lust and prohibition, she lures her steward, Antonio, into a secret marriage and a precipitate bed. Ferdinand has her killed. In the final act someone is slain almost every minute; doctors are ready with poisons, ruffians with daggers; no one has the patience to wait for a legal execution. The worst villain of the piece—who kills the Duchess, steals her property, takes a mistress and then murders her—is a cardinal; Webster was no papist. Here, too, are doubles-entendres of quite urological candor, a resolve to exhaust the vocabulary of execration, and a wild, indiscriminate condemnation of human life. Only in the remote corners of this dark canvas do we find nobility, fidelity, or tenderness. Ferdinand forgets himself and is soft for a line as he looks upon his sister, still beautiful in death:
Cover her face! Mine eyes dazzle, she died young …37
But he soon recalls himself to barbarism.
Let us hope to find something sweeter than all this in the man who could write “Drink to me only with thine eyes.”