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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IV. Prose and Poetry: Sir Thomas North to Michael Drayton.

XIII. Lesser Elizabethan Dramatists

§ 1. General characteristics of Lesser Elizabethan Dramatists

THE ELIZABETHAN drama emerges as a distinct form of imaginative art shortly after the defeat of the Armada, and its first masterpieces are the work of a group of university writers of whom Marlowe and Greene are the greatest. There are no “lesser dramatists” of this date. The lesser dramatist is the result of the extraordinary interest in the drama which these authors created, and the assiduous effort made by patrons, managers and players to produce plays in the new style which took the town. Moreover, we have to wait some years before the work of lesser writers survives sufficiently to enable us to appraise it. As a consequence, the lesser Elizabethan dramatists, as a group, belong to the last years of Elizabeth’s reign; and we owe it to the lucky chance of the survival of a few extant plays by the notices in that diary of the large mass of work done by the writers of them. It is important that the student of Elizabethan drama should appreciate justly the meaning and the value of Henslowe’s record. We have no such light upon the proceedings of the company for which Shakespeare wrote and played. But it seems quite clear that Shakespeare was never under the harrow of a Henslowe.

The players of his company obtained the control of their own affairs and managed their business on co-operative principles. The system of the Chamberlain’s men tended to produce a limited number of dramatists of proved ability, who were encouraged to write plays of a quality that would ensure a run at their first production and justify reproduction afterwards. The system of Henslowe’s company, on the contrary, tended toproduce quantity rather than quality. The public was attracted by variety and novelty rather than by excellence, and, in order that new plays might be produced quickly, very imperfect revision of old plays was allowed to pass, and the system of collaboration between three or four writers was freely encouraged. For these reasons, we may feel some confidence that the group of lesser dramatists who wrote for Henslowe during the years covered by his diary is representative of the body of lesser dramatists writing during those years for the London stage.

But, before we fix our attention upon individual writers whose plays come down to us, two facts must be noticed which affect them as a body. In the first place, because they were lesser dramatists, and because the printing of a play, in those days, was an altogether secondary matter to the acting of it, their work can hardly be said to have survived. The fragments that have come down to us are so few and so mutilated that, in many cases, we are not justified in regarding them as characteristic. It is impossible, for instance, to decide whether The Tragedy of Hoffman is truly representative of the large dramatic output of Henry Chettle. We may feel reasonably sure that no important play of Shakespeare has been lost. We cannot be sure that the substance of Chettle’s or Munday’s work has survived. What we have of it may not be in any sense characteristic. The second fact that has to be reckoned with by the critic of the lesser dramatists in Henslowe’s employ is the system of collaboration under which they wrote. Not the least of the fascinations of the Elizabethan era is that it affords remarkable instances of a collaboration by which two writers of genius stimulate and supplement each other’s powers. But the collaboration which is possible because the minds of those taking part in it are commonplace is a different matter altogether. Among lesser writers, collaboration tends to suppress individuality and distinction of style, and makes still more confusing and difficult the task of ascribing to individual writers any qualities truly their own. Moreover, all Elizabethan dramatists may be said to have collaborated in a special sense with their predecessors. Broadly speaking, the Elizabethan drama was a process of re-writing and re-constructing old plays. The Elizabethan author stood in muchcloser relation to his “origins” and sources than did later English writers. But this, again, tended to suppress the individuality of second-rate poets. The lesser dramatist does not set his own stamp on the “old play” as Shakespeare does. There is no vital connection between King Lear and The True Chronicle History of King Leir: Shakespeare’s play is a new thing. But, in reading Munday’s Downfall of Robert, Earle of Huntington, the question continually suggests itself whether the play is much more than an alteration—an alteration which remains at the same artistic and imaginative level as the thing altered. The conclusion is that the student must not expect to distinguish lesser dramatists from each other as greater dramatists are distinguished. The attempt to characterise them involves the use of a critical microscope which magnifies their merits.

At the same time, it must be allowed that the lesser dramatist whose main work belongs to the last years of Elizabeth’s reign has an individuality of his own which he loses after Shakespeare and Ben Jonson have impressed their age. A lesser dramatist, however rough, formless and incoherent, is more interesting when he is himself, or when he is the product of the general mind of his time, than when he is a “son” of Ben Jonson or, palpably, a student of some particular aspect of the art of Shakespeare. The lesser Jacobean dramatist nearly always derives from some acknowledged master, and is an echo as well as an inferior. The Elizabethan lesser dramatist, on the contrary, does not interest us as an echo, but very much more deeply as the commonplace companion of the great master, his surrounding and background. It is much more interesting to find in Munday’s John a Kent and John a Cumber clumsy work on a theme which, in Shakespeare’s hands, is magically effective, than to notice how patiently and even skilfully “Dick” Brome follows the manner of Jonson. And, therefore, it is disappointing to the student that, because of the conditions under which they respectively worked, much more of Brome should be extant than of Munday.