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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

§ 12. Advance in the treatment of Romance

When due deductions are made for what the authors borrowed from Boccaccio, Dolce and Seneca, not much remains to be credited to their own originality. Of the characters neither found nor implied in Boccaccio’s novel, Cupid is taken from Dolce; Renuchio, Megaera and the chorus from Seneca; Lucrece and Claudia are the conventional confidantes of classical tragedy. The order of events, in the main, is that of the novel, though a noteworthy change is made in that, after the discovery, Tancred sends for his daughter before he meets her lover—with this disadvantage, that, at the time of the interview, Gismond is not made aware of Guiscard’s imprisonment and impending fate. The one important addition made by the English dramatists to Boccaccio’s story is the death of Tancred, and this is only announced as an intention in the action, though we are informed parenthetically in the epilogue that he “now himself hath slayen.” In the later version of the tragedy which Wilmot prepared for publication, Tancred plucks out his eyes after the example of Oedipus and kills himself on the stage. The same elaboration of the horrible is to be noted in the dumb-show introducing the fifth act in the edition of 1591.

  • Before this act was a dead march played, during which entered on the stage Renuchio, Captain of the Guard, attended upon by the guard. They took up Guiscard from under the stage; then after Guiscard had kindly taken leave of them all, a strangling-cord was fastened about his neck, and he haled forth by them. Renuchio bewaileth it: and then, entering in, bringeth forth a standing cup of gold, with a bloody heart reeking hot in it, and then saith, ut sequitur.
  • These dumb-shows are realistic rather than allegorical in character, and set forth the action of the drama without words, as in the play within the play in Hamlet. In the earlier version, there are no dumb-shows, properly so called. Cupid opens the first and third acts, but this device of a prologue was taken, as we have seen, from Dolce, who also introduces Cupid and the shade of Sichaeus at the beginning of act II of Didone, in obvious imitation of the fury Megaera and the shade of Tantalus at the opening of Seneca’s Thyestes. The English dramatists’ Megaera (act IV) might be suggested by this passage in Didone, in which she is mentioned by name, but, more probably, was taken from Seneca direct. The choruses are recited by four gentlemen of Salerne; and the versification turns back from the blank verse of Gorboduc and Jocasta to the older rimed measures—a retrogression which Wilmot, in the later version, was at some pains to correct. Cupid comes down from heaven, and Megaera up from hell, marking a slight advance in stage machinery; and it appears from the last line of the revised edition that curtains were used. The scene is restricted to the court of Tancred’s palace and the chamber of Gismond lying immediately behind it—the chamber “within,” which was afterwards to become a habitual resource of the popular stage—but there is no attempt to observe the unity of time. The treatment of the plot, though poorly contrived, is episodical, and this is an important point, for it is characteristic of English tragedy that it aims at presenting the whole course of the action, in its inception, development and consequences, rather than a particular situation or crisis, as was the custom in Senecan tragedy, and its Italian and French imitations. The one merit of Gismond of Salerne is that it endeavours to present a romantic subject with something of the gravity and dignity of classical tragedy. From the latter point of view, its superiority to its immediate predecessors, Damon and Pithias and Horestes, is abundantly manifest; and, in both interest of theme and manner of treatment, it surpasses the earlier and more academic models. Gorboduc is overweighted with political reflections, and the plot loses itself in abstractions. Jocasta has the double disadvantage of a time-worn theme and frigid manner of presentation. Gismond of Salerne struck out a new path, in which later dramatists followed with infinitely greater art. It seems a far cry from Gismond and Guiscard to the “pair of star-cross’d lovers” of Shakespeare’s first Italian tragedy; but the Gentlemen of the Inner Temple at least attempted what he achieved—to present the problem of human passion sub specie eternitatis.