Home  »  Volume V: English THE DRAMA TO 1642 Part One  »  § 6. Henry Chettle’s early life: his Tragedies: The Tragedy of Hoffman

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

§ 6. Henry Chettle’s early life: his Tragedies: The Tragedy of Hoffman

It is natural, after considering Munday’s work and personality, to proceed to the consideration of Henry Chettle’s dramatic activity; but this implies discussing the tragedy of our group of dramatists before we treat of their comedy. Both tragedy and comedy are natural developments from such a play as The Downfall; but, on the whole, we should expect what is actually the case, that the group of plays we have been considering would lead rather to comedy than to tragedy, and that, on the whole, the comedies would be better than the tragedies. The Death of Robert, Earle of Huntington, Chettle’s play on Matilda’s death, is a complete contrast in tone and spirit to the work of Munday which preceded it.

If, from the scope of his activities and the length of his life, Munday may be placed at the head of those lesser Elizabethan dramatists whose work was not strong enough to survive except in fragments, we must place next to him, for mere amount of literary output, Henry Chettle, whom Henslowe associates with some fifty plays. His personality can be made out with tolerable clearness. He was the son of a London dyer, apprenticed in 1577 to a stationer, and free of the company in 1584. In writing to Thomas Nashe, he signs himself “Your old Compositor,” which means that, in 1589–90, he set up Nashe’s tracts against Marprelate. In 1591, he entered into partnership with two not very reputable stationers, William Hoskins and John Danter. They published a good many ballads, some of which may have been from Chettle’s pen; and some plays—one of Peele’s, one of Lodge’s, a Titus Andronicus in 1594 and, in 1597, the surreptitious first quarto of Romeo and Juliet. Only one tract by Chettle himself was issued by Danter; but, in 1592, Chettle edited Greens Groatsworth of Wit, and, soon after, wrote his Kinde Hart’s Dreame, both of them memorable for their references to Shakespeare. These facts establish very definitely Chettle’s connection with playwrights and the stage. Danter’s presses were confiscated in 1597 for printing Jesu’s Psalter without authority, and he printed no more; but it is interesting to find Munday’s Palladino of England licensed to Danter shortly before he was suppressed as a printer. Upon the failure of the printing business, Chettle would seem to have turned to the writing of plays for a livelihood. In 1598, Meres names him among “our best for comedy,” which is disconcerting, inasmuch as his comedies have not survived. From Kinde Hart’s Dreame (1593), we can gather that the humours of early comedy did not come amiss to him, and, if we may ascribe to him the Welsh scenes of Patient Grissill, we have in them a good example of a rather boisterous, though, at the same time, arid, comedy which suits his tragic vein. But Chettle was the most copious of Henslowe’s collaborators. For about a dozen plays, he alone receives payment, and we may suppose that thesewere his own work. In the early months of 1598, a regular partnership was carried on between Chettle, Dekker, Drayton and Wilson. In 1599, Dekker is most frequently Chettle’s collaborator. In 1600, Day begins to work with him. On two occasions, he collaborates with Jonson. But of all his work very little has survived. We have conjectured that his tragic style is to be detected first in the melodramatic rant of prince John in Looke about you. The allusion in that play to the “burning crown of red-hot iron,” with which prince Henry threatens to sear Gloster’s brain, is found again in the single play extant which is ascribed to Chettle alone—The Tragedy of Hoffman. But, before we discuss this, we must examine Chettle’s work in The Death of Robert, Earle of Huntington, written in 1598. The few scenes in that drama which bring us to the death of Robin Hood are described as a “short play,” and the audience is asked to have patience while Matilda’s tragedy is ended. After three dumb-shows, the story of king John’s pursuit of Matilda is taken up, and with it is combined the story of the starvation of lady Bruce and her little son. The epilogue describes this play as “Matilda’s story shown in act,” and “rough-hewn out by an uncunning hand.” That is to say, our play is the “old compositor’s” first tragedy in which he works alone. He succeeds in striking a note of gloom and grief which marks the play off very clearly from the tamely cheerful work of Munday. But the style is extremely “uncunning” and amateurish. Sometimes, it is merely jejune and pedestrian, as when Leicester, surrendering to John,

  • humbly begs his Highness to beware
  • Of wronging innocence as he hath done.
  • At other times, it is almost comically naïve and undignified, as in the scene where the earl of Oxford tries to persuade queen Elinor not to take too seriously the king’s infidelities. But the dramatist struggles manfully to rise above commonplace, and, though he produces mainly rant and fustian, there are occasional glimpses of dignity and power: as when king John says of his nobles
  • Of high heroic spirits be they all;
  • and when he breaks out to Fitzwater,
  • Old brands of malice in thy bosom rest.
  • Moreover, Chettle has the conception in his mind of an atmosphere of horror and grief as necessary to tragedy. But the elaborate account of the starving of lady Bruce and her boy is a clumsy failure, more painful to the reader because he must recall Dante’s canto on Ugolino’s death. Only in one place, where lord Bruce shows his murdered mother to the nobles, does the rant approach poetic force and suggest to us the style which gives some merit to The Tragedy of Hoffman. If Chettle copies any master in Matilda’s tragedy, it is Marlowe in his most inflated vein; in one or two places, the influence of Shakespeare’s Richard II is, perhaps, to be detected.

    Could we be certain that the second play in the Two Lamentable Tragedies is Chettle’s work, we should have an interesting example of the development of his tragic manner. If we may take Henslowe’s writers as representative of the lesser dramatists and, therefore, as reflecting the dramatic tastes and capacities of the less cultured patrons of the drama, we perceive that, just at the end of the sixteenth century, a definite taste for tragedy was setting in. In 1598 and 1599, we find in Henslowe’s lists a series of plays which were domestic tragedies founded upon actual murders as they were recorded in the ballads and pamphlets of the day. It was natural that, if plays were being made out of folklore ballads upon Robin Hood and other national heroes, mythical or historical, the murder ballad should be seized upon for stage purposes, and such a use could not but convey into serious drama a new strain of realism and vitality. Tragedy would thus be prevented from losing itself in the imaginative incoherence of the “revenge” plays which Kyd’s genius, catching fire from Seneca, had brought into vogue. Arden of Feversham, printed in 1592, proves that the possibilities of domestic tragedy had been perceived before Henslowe’s day—perhaps even as early as 1578/9, when The Creweltie of a Stepmother and Murderous mychaell are mentioned in the accounts of the revels. In 1598 and 1599, Henslowe’s collaborators produced two parts of Black Bateman of the North, Cox of Collumpton, The Stepmothers Tragedy and Page of Plymouth, all of which have been plausibly classed as “murder”plays. About the same date, if not earlier, the extant Warning for Faire Women must have been written, a play composed with more pains than Henslowe’s writers usually bestowed upon their productions. The author had no dramatic or poetic genius; but his play is a transcript from the daily life of the people. It neither exaggerates nor idealises; it makes no effort to be tragic or comic, but is so steeped in English lower class sentiment and feeling that it will always possess interest and value. In 1599, Day and Haughton collaborated for Henslowe in Thomas Merry, or Beech’s Tragedy. The murder of Robert Beech by Thomas Merry took place in London in 1594, and was duly recorded in a pamphlet and in ballads. This murder is the subject of the first of the two murders commemorated in Two Lamentable Tragedies, printed as by Rob. Yarington in 1601. The second murder is an Italian version of the story of the babes in the wood. Now, when we look at Chettle’s work for Henslowe, at the end of 1599, we find him at work upon a certain Orphan’s Tragedy, for which, in November, he receives two payments of 10s. Much later, in September, 1601, he receives another 10s. for the same play. Moreover, in January, 1600, a payment of £2 is made to John Day in earnest of The Italian Tragedy. It is a plausible explanation of these entries that Chettle wrote the main part of The Orphan’s Tragedy, being helped by Day, and that, in 1601, he was again employed to throw into a single play Day and Haughton’s Thomas Merry and Day and Chettle’s Orphan’s Tragedy. He had done similar work in the case of the Robin Hood plays; The Death of Robert, Earle of Huntington is just as clumsy and mechanical an amalgamation as Two Lamentable Tragedies. This view supposes that Robert Yarington is a pseudonym, or that he merely prepared Chettle’s work for the press. Chettle’s style is to be looked for mainly in the second of the Two Lamentable Tragedies, which represents The Orphan’s Tragedy, otherwise called The Italian Tragedy, of Henslowe’s diary. In these scenes, we find repeated with greater force and more concentration those qualities which we have noted in Chettle’s part of The Death of Robert, Earle of Huntington. But Marlowe is more obviously and definitely imitated. The rant of the incredible villain Ithamore, the familiar of Barabas in The Jew of Malta, is almost copied by the first murderer, whose character is sketched with a horrible intense vigour which is the aim and goal of Chettle’s art. But there are, also, echoes of the style of Shakespeare’s Richard II, and of the peculiar note of exquisite self-pity to which the deposed king gives perfect expression. The second of the Two Lamentable Tragedies may, very plausibly, be set down as Chettle’s work; but the first play is quite different in character. In parts, it is extraordinarily bald and pedestrian in its realism, taking out of prose pamphlets all that is trivial and brutal with unintelligent accuracy. On the whole it lacks, the emotional and imaginative vehemence of the Chettle drama. Is this the tragic style of Haughton after Day’s work has been stripped away? It is noticeable that the inartistic faithfulness of the realism which we find here follows the method of the writer of A warning for Faire Women, which play must be supposed to have prompted the writing of Thomas Merry and, probably, of Chettle’s play also. But there are occasional intrusions into the Merry play of Chettle’s heightened emotionalism, due, probably, to his revision as amalgamator; and the induction and chorus scenes, suggested by similar scenes in A warning for Faire Women, are, probably, also by Chettle. These are more nearly passionate and tragic than those in A warning, where the reader is mainly interested in the faithful description of the actual figures of Comedy and Tragedy, with drum, bagpipes and other stage properties. As personifications, they are wooden and lifeless, while Chettle’s Homicide, Avarice and Truth have in them some breath of life and imagination. In every way, then, Chettle’s power improves and develops in the Two Lamentable Tragedies. His style gains in compression, and there are fewer lapses into roughness and banality; and, as a reviser, he shows more judgment and neatness in joining together his two plays than he did in the case of the Robin Hood plays. At the same time, it must be granted that these revisions and amalgamations are not in any sense fusions; the two plots are merely tied together without any true coherence in a manner essentially inartistic.

    The Tragedy of Hoffman, or A Revenge for a Father survives in an edition of 1631. Unfortunately, the text is much corrupted. The play is one of revenge and murder of the typefirst made popular by Kyd; but it has none of Kyd’s fluency and lucidity. It follows very naturally upon the plays we have just been considering. It is written with a concentration and energy of language and metre, lapsing continually into obscurity, which approximate to the stabbing ferocity of style conspicuous in the work of Marston and Tourneur. The dramatist’s power of creating a tragic atmosphere, already noted in Chettle’s treatment of Matilda’s story, is matured in Hoffman. His imagination collects and groups together a succession of scenes which are consistently gloomy and horrible. It is worth noticing that Henslowe mentions Chettle twice in 1602 as collaborating with Webster. Hoffman was composed at the end of 1602; so Chettle may have stimulated the genius of Webster and himself received some inspiration from that great tragedian. Hoffman is a second part, probably, of The Danish Tragedy which Henslowe mentions earlier in 1602. When the play begins, the hero, Hoffman, is discovered lurking in a cave on the sea-shore with his father’s skeleton. The father, admiral Hoffman, has been executed as a pirate by the duke of Lunenburg, who destroyed him by fastening a burning crown of red-hot iron on his temples. The duke’s son, Otho, is conveniently shipwrecked near Hoffman’s cave, and becomes his first victim. Hoffman, by the help of Lorrique, Otho’s valet, personates Otho and continues his riot of revenge with considerable ingenuity and entire success, until he falls in love with Otho’s mother and, in consequence of this weakness, is entrapped and himself perishes by the torture of the burning crown. There are many correspondences between this play and Hamlet, but no real similiarity. Shakespeare is human and sympathetic in a species of art which Chettle makes inhuman and almost insane. Hoffman, the revenge-mad hero of Chettle’s tragedy, is a special development of Marlowe’s tragic type; but Chettle is without Marlowe’s sense of the beautiful. Marlowe’s type is hardened and coarsened. Chettle, however, by the time he wrote Hoffman, had improved upon the workmanship of Matilda’s Tragedy, and his coarse but powerful melodrama was appreciated, probably, by a large public. Chettle died before 1606. In that year, his friend Dekker represents him as joining the poets in Elysium—Chaucer, Spenser, Marlowe and the rest; “in comes Chettlesweating and blowing by reason of his fatness.” If Dekker felt that the “old compositor” belonged to the company of which Marlowe, Greene and Peele were notable members, we need not doubt that he had reason for his judgment, and that Chettle’s capacity is inadequately represented in what has survived of his work. Chettle was never so well to do as Munday. He belongs to the needy band of poets who were dependent upon Henslowe for loans and were occasionally rescued from prison by his help. Ben Jonson looked upon such dependents as “base fellows”; but we must beware of exaggerating their degradation. The writers of Elizabeth’s reign, high and low, rich and poor, great and small, were very close to each other. Chettle’s Mourning Garment, written to commemorate queen Elizabeth’s death, is excellent prose, and contains descriptions of contemporary poets in verse, which are as melodious as they are judicious. The whole piece is eminently respectable and shows considerable literary culture. It is Chettle in court dress. No doubt, like Shakespeare, he would consider such a composition more truly an “heire of his invention” than his not altogether reputable plays.