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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.

V. Early English Comedy

§ 28. Edwards’s and Whetstone’s theory of the function of Comedy

Edwards and Whetstone both prefaced their dramas with a statement of their theory of the function of comedy.

  • In commedies the greatest skyll is this lightly to touch
  • All thynges to the quicke; and eke to frame eche person so,
  • That by his common talke, you may his nature rightly know.
  • The olde man is sober, the younge man rashe, the lover triumphyng in joyes,
  • The matron grave, the harlat wilde, and full of wanton toyes.
  • Whiche all in one course they no wise doo agree;
  • So correspondent to their kinde their speeches ought to bee.
  • Thus wrote Edwards, and Whetstone, though without referring to him, paraphrases his words:

  • To write a Comedie kindly, grave olde men should instruct, yonge men should showe the imperfections of youth, Strumpets should be lascivious, Boyes unhappy, and Clownes should speake disorderlye; entermingling all these actions in such sorte as the grave matter may instruct and the pleasant delight.
  • The playwrights who wrote thus realised the principle, which underlies romantic art, of fidelity to Nature in all her various forms. But they and their fellows, except Gascoigne in his derivative productions, had not the intuition to see that the principle could never be fully applied till comedy adopted as her chief instrument the infinitely flexible medium of daily intercourse between man and man—prose. It was Lyly who grasped the secret, and taught comedy to speak in new tones. It remained for a greater than Lyly to initiate her into the final mystery of the imaginative transfiguration of Nature, and thus inspire her to create

  • Forms more real than living man,
  • Nurslings of immortality