Dramatists of this highly dramatic period, some of whom in their own day enjoyed a reputation fully equal to that of Shakespeare



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The Other Dramatists

From the many other dramatists of this highly dramatic period, some of whom in their own day enjoyed a reputation fully equal to that of Shakespeare and Jonson, we may merely select a few for brief mention. For not only does their light now pale hopelessly in the presence of Shakespeare, but in many cases their violations of taste and moral restraint pass the limits of present-day tolerance. Most of them, like Shakespeare, produced both comedies and tragedies, prevailingly romantic but with elements of realism; most of them wrote more often in collaboration than did Shakespeare; they all shared the Elizabethan vigorously creative interest in life; but none of them attained either Shakespeare's wisdom, his power, or his mastery of poetic beauty.

One of the most learned of the group was George Chapman, whose verse has a Jonsonian solidity not unaccompanied with Jonsonian ponderousness. He won fame also in non-dramatic poetry, especially by vigorous but rather clumsy verse translations of the 'Iliad' and 'Odyssey.'

Another highly individual figure is that of Thomas Dekker, who seems to have been one of the completest embodiments of irrepressible Elizabethan cheerfulness, though this was joined in him with an irresponsibility which kept him commonly floundering in debt or confined in debtor's prison. His 'Shoemaker's Holiday' (1600), still occasionally chosen by amateur companies for reproduction, gives a rough-and-ready but, apart from its coarseness, charming romanticized picture of the life of London apprentices and whole-hearted citizens.



Thomas Heywood, a sort of journalist before the days of newspapers, produced an enormous amount of work in various literary forms; in the drama he claimed to have had 'an entire hand, or at least a Maine finger' in no less than 220 plays. Inevitably, therefore, he is careless and slipshod, but some of his portrayals of sturdy English men and women and of romantic adventure, as in 'The Fair Maid of the West' are of refreshing naturalness and breeziness.

Thomas Middleton, also a very prolific writer, often deals, like Ben Jonson and Thomas Heywood, with sordid material.

John Marston, as well, has too little delicacy or reserve; he also wrote catch-as-catch-can non-dramatic satires.

The sanity of Shakespeare's plays, continuing and indeed increasing toward the end of his career, disguises for modern students the tendency to decline in the drama which set in at about the time of King James' accession. Not later than the end of the first decade of the century the dramatists as a class exhibit not only a decrease of originality in plot and characterization, but also a lowering of moral tone, which results largely from the closer identification of the drama with the Court party. There is a lack of seriousness of purpose, an increasing tendency to return, in more morbid spirit, to the sensationalism of the 1580's, and an anxious straining to attract and please the audiences by almost any means.



These tendencies appear in the plays of Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher, whose reputations are indissolubly linked together in one of the most famous literary partnerships of all time. Beaumont, however, was short-lived, and much the greater part of the 50 and more plays ultimately published under their joint names really belong to Fletcher alone or to Fletcher and other collaborators. The scholarship of our day agrees with the opinion of their contemporaries in assigning to Beaumont the greater share of judgment and intellectual power and to Fletcher the greater share of spontaneity and fancy. Fletcher's style is very individual. It is peculiarly sweet; but its unmistakable mark is his constant tendency to break down the blank verse line by the use of extra syllables, both within the line and at the end. The lyrics which he scatters through his plays are beautifully smooth and musical. The plays of Beaumont and Fletcher, as a group, are sentimentally romantic, often in an extravagant degree, though their charm often conceals the extravagance as well as the lack of true characterization. They are notable often for their portrayal of the loyal devotion of both men and women to King, lover, or friend. One of the best of them is 'Philaster, or Love Lies Bleeding,' while Fletcher's 'Faithful Shepherdess' is the most pleasing example in English of the artificial pastoral drama in the Italian and Spanish style.
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