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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.

IV. Early English Tragedy

§ 1. Study, imitation and reproduction of Senecan tragedy

THE HISTORY of renascence tragedy may be divided into three stages, not definitely limited, and not following in strict chronological succession, but distinct in the main: the study, imitation and production of Senecan tragedy; translation; the imitation of Greek and Latin tragedy in the vernacular. This last stage, again, falls into three sub-divisions: the treatment of secular subjects after the fashion of sacred plays long familiar to medieval Europe; the imitation of classical tragedy in its more regular form and with its higher standards of art; the combination of these two types in a form of tragedy at once popular and artistic.

It was, perhaps, only in England that the movement thus outlined attained its final development. For it may be questioned whether French classical tragedy was ever truly popular, and it is beyond doubt that renascence tragedy in Italy was not; but the earlier phases of development may be most easily observed in the history of Italian tragedy, in which other nations found not only a spur to emulation, but models to imitate and a body of critical principles laid down for their guidance.

All three nations had a share in the edition of Seneca which Nicholas Treveth, an English Dominican who seems to have been educated at Paris, prepared, early in the fourteenth century, at the instance of cardinal Niccolò Albertini di Prato, one of the leading figures of the papal court at Avignon. But Italy very soon took the lead in Senecan scholarship, and long maintained it. Lovato de’ Lovati (d. 1309) discussed Seneca’s metres; Coluccio Salutati, as early as 1371, questioned the tragedian’s identity with the philosopher and the Senecan authorship of Octavia; before the end of the century, the tragedies were the subject of rival lecture courses at Florence, and the long list of translations into modern European languages had begun. But, above all, it was in Italy that the important step was taken of imitating Seneca in an original tragedy on a subject derived from medieval history. Albertino’s Eccerinis won for its author the laurel wreath, with which, in 1315, he was solemnly crowned in the presence of the university and citizens of Padua, and the cognomen of Mussatus, quasi musis aptus. Other Latin tragedies by Italian authors followed; but two centuries elapsed before a similar achievement was accomplished in France and England. Italy also led the way in printing editions of Seneca’s text, and in the performance of his tragedies in Latin.