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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

§ 14. Fulke Greville’s Mustapha and Alaham

But in touch with this circle of poets was a genius of very singular and rare quality, Fulke Greville, born 1554, who produced two plays which were probably written in the main before the end of the century—Mustapha, printed 1609, and Alaham, which was not printed till after lord Brooke’s death. While Greville imitates the Senecan model, he largely discards what was characteristic of Seneca, and evolves for himself a drama that is Greek in its intensity and severity of outline, but peculiar to itself in its selection of dramatic types and character from the world of politics and statesmanship. His two plays, which are planned on the same lines, are attempts

  • to trace out the high waies of ambitious governours and to show in the practice that the more audacity advantage and good success such Soveraignties have, the more they hasten to theire own desolation and ruine.
  • He tells us that his mind has been fixed more “upon the images of Life than the images of Wit,” and that he writes for “those only that are weather-beaten in the sea of this world.” But hehas a command of concentrated and often highly imaginative phrases, such as: “Despair hath bloody heels”; “Confusion is the justice of the devil”; “Sickness mows down desire”; “A king’s just favourite is truth”; “Few mean ill in vain.” In his choruses, his verse, occasionally, reaches a gnomic weight and solemnity, which rivals Milton’s Samson Agonistes. His speculation, by its mere intensity, is essentially poetical. The originality of his work becomes clear when we compare it with the dull though able contemporary Monarchick Tragedies of Sir William Alexander, afterwards earl of Stirling. Greville is the seer or Hebrew prophet of the Elizabethan dramatists, and, therefore, he is a solitary figure. Although a practical politician of large experience, he was yet able to view politics sub specie aeternitatis and to declare his convictions with extraordinary sincerity in his two plays.