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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

§ 4. Translations of Fedele and Fortunio: The Weakest goeth to the Wall

A translation from the Italian may be given as the beginning of Munday’s work as a dramatist, although it must be borne in mind that his authorship is not more than highly probable. This is Fedele and Fortunio, The Deceits in Love discoursed in a Comedy of two Italian Gentlemen: translated into English, printed in 1584. This play must have had some vogue, for one of the characters, captain Crackstone, is alluded to by Nashe as well known in a tract printed in 1596; and its influence as an admirably translated example of Italian comedy must have been considerable upon English drama. It is annoying, therefore, that the piece, which both Collier and Halliwell-Phillipps saw and quoted, has disappeared, and that we must judge of it by Halliwell’s meagre extracts. These present the humorous low life of the play rather than the romantic part, which was clearly of the character of Shakespeare’s earlier comedies, in which pairs of lovers are fantastically at cross purposes:

  • Lo! here the common fault of love, to follow her that flies,
  • And fly from her that makes pursuit with loud lamenting cries.
  • Fedele loves Victoria, and she hath him forgot;
  • Virginia likes Fedele best, and he regards her not.
  • Victoria’s song at her window and Fedele’s in answer are of real poetic charm, and Fedele’s denunciation of woman’s fickleness is exactly in the strain, as it is in the metre, of the riming rhetoric of Love’s Labour’s Lost. But the comic scenes are not less interesting. Their combination with the romantic intrigue is organic, and, in clear strong outlines, the play gives us two motives which receive elaborate development in English drama. Crackstone is the prototype of Bobadill and Tucca and all the braggadocios of the Elizabethan stage—but of Falstaff, also, for every one is glad of his company: “I have such a wild worm in my head as makes them all merry.” And, secondly, the witchcraft scenes of the play deserve careful notice. Medusa, the witch, is capable of development, either romantically and tragically, or humorously and by the method of realism. The witches of Macbeth, as well as the charlatans of Jonson and Brome, may be derived from this germ; but, in the main, the Witchcraft, in Munday’s play, is realistic, in actual connection with the vigorous low life characters. Victoria’s maid Attilia, who is wooed by Pedante and Crackstone, and is the confidante and champion of her mistress, is put before us in clear English speech, and, of course, stands at the beginning of a long gallery of familiar creations. She is indispensable in nearly all ensuing species of the drama. There seems to be no blank verse in the play. Riming alexandrines and fourteen-syllabled lines are generally employed; but, in Fedele’s speech already referred to, special seriousness and dignity of style are attained by the use of riming ten-syllabled lines in stanzas of six lines. This might be expected in 1584; what is unexpected is the idiomatic English vernacular of the translation, which stamps Munday as much more than a translator in the ordinary sense. His prose translations do not display any special power in transforming the original into native English; so that the mere style of Fedele and Fortunio is an argument for its having been translated in order to be acted, and for the translator having expected himself to be one of the actors. Nashe’s allusion makes it highly probable that captain Crackstone had appeared upon the Elizabethan stage.

    Munday, in 1580 and in his earliest published work, is anxious to proclaim himself “servant to the Earl of Oxford.” The earl of Oxford’s company of players acted in London between 1584 and 1587. Fleay, therefore, claims for Munday the authorship of The Weakest goeth to the Wall, a play printed in 1600, “as it hath bene sundry times plaide by the right honourable Earle of Oxenford, Lord great Chamberlaine of England his servants.” It is in favour of this claim that the story of theplay is found in Rich’s Farewell to the Military Profession, printed 1581. But the play is very different from Fedele and Fortunio. Its chief merit is the force and fluency of portions of its blank verse, which must be later than Tamburlaine. On the other hand, there are signs of an older style in the play. We have frequent passages of rime, and, in one place, the six-lined stanza occurs. The humorous scenes are a great advance upon Kemp’s applauded “Merriments” already referred to. They are excellent examples of the low life comedy that grew out of the part of the extempore clown in earlier interludes. Barnaby Bunch the “botcher,” and Sir Nicholas the country vicar, are vigorously etched from contemporary English life, and speak a fluent vernacular prose which, in one or two places, recalls Falstaff. Jacob Smelt the Dutchman requires a date nearer to 1600 than to 1580, but all this might be Munday’s work, and is certainly the work of his fellow craftsmen. Moreover, the general looseness of construction is characteristic of “our best plotter”; but he cannot have written the sonorous blank verse of the historic scenes, or made Emmanuel reproach Frederick—

  • That from the loathsome mud from whence thou camest,
  • Thou art so bold out of thy buzzard’s nest,
  • To gaze upon the sun of her perfections!
  • Is there no beauty that can please your eye,
  • But the divine and splendant excellence
  • Of my beloved dear Odillia?