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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.

X. Plays of Uncertain Authorship Attributed to Shakespeare

§ 8. The Birth of Merlin: its probable authors

The Birth of Merlin: Or, The Childe hath found his Father was first published in 1662 by the Restoration bookseller, Francis Kirkman, who ascribed it to “William Shakespear and William Rowley.” The play is a medley in which legendary history, love romance, sententious praise of virginity, rough and tumble clown-play, necromancy and all kinds of diablerie jostle each other, and where British kings and English nobles, a hermit and a wizard, the wraiths of Hector and Achilles, the devil, Lucina and the three Fates, “a little antick spirit” and Joan Go-to-’t, the mother of Merlin, are warring atoms contending for mastery over the spectators’ attention and combining to produce a play which defies classic rule utterly, but keeps at arm’s length Pope’s “cloud-compelling queen,” Dulness.

It is almost certain that more than one hand was engaged in weaving this particoloured vesture; but Kirkman’s association of the play with the name of Shakespeare may be lightly dismissed. At no point in the course of the five stirring acts are we tempted, by plot construction, characterisation or style, to believe in Shakespearean workmanship. On the other hand, it is highly probable that William Rowley was one of its authors; the comic scenes, alike in their coarseness and racy humour, exhibit his manner, and it is also possible that some of the serious scenes are his. The question of authorship involves a comparison of the play with Middleton’s Mayor of Quinborough, of which The Birth of Merlin, in its main plot, is both a sequel and a copy. An American scholar, F. A. Howe, has clearly shown that many of the scenes of the Merlin play were written in imitation of similar scenes in The Mayor, and that there is just as close an imitation in the elaboration of some of the leading characters. The dependence of the one play upon the other is certain; but, in spite of occasional resemblances of style, it is hard to believe that a dramatist of Middleton’s acknowledged inventive power would have repeated himself in so abject a manner as he has done, if The Birth of Merlin be partly his work.

However this may be, it is probable that yet another hand may be detected in its composition. A notable feature in the play is the sacrifice which, in deference to the popular demand for realism, has been made of the romantic elements in the Arthurian legend. Yet, here and there, we are made aware of a certain consciousness on the dramatist’s part of the glamour and magic beauty of the material under treatment. We feel this most in the presence of Uther Pendragon, the prince who, when we first encounter him, has disappeared mysteriously from his brother’s court, in order to follow through forest wastes the quest of the unknown lady whose beauty has him in thrall:

  • How like a voice that echo spake, but O!
  • My thoughts are lost for ever in amazement.
  • Could I but meet a man to tell her beauties,
  • These trees would bend their tops to kiss the air,
  • That from my lips should give her praises up …
  • As I have seen a forward blood-hound strip
  • The swifter of the cry, ready to seize
  • His wishëd hopes, upon the sudden view,
  • Struck with astonishment at his arriv’d prey,
  • Instead of seizure stands at fearful bay;
  • Or like to Marius’ soldier, who, o’ertook,
  • The eyesight-killing Gorgon at one look
  • Made everlasting stand; so fear’d my power,
  • Whose cloud aspir’d the sun, dissolv’d a shower.
  • In this and in other passages, drama is sacrificed to poetry, the verse grows lyrical and falls insensibly into rime. This romantic and lyrical strain is as foreign to Middleton as it is to Rowley, but it is singularly like what we meet with in the romantic work of Dekker. The passage quoted above is characterised not only by its lyricism, but, also, by frequent use of inversion, irregularity of verse and prevalence of rime; and, in each of these respects, it is thoroughly representative of the style of the more romantic scenes of the play, while, at the same time, it bears a marked resemblance to the authentic work of Dekker. The hand of the same dramatist can be detected in the Merlin scenes. Rowley may very well have created Joan Go-to-’t and her brother, and have acted as midwife to the marvellous boy prophet; but, when born, Merlin becomes the property of Dekker, and reveals his creator in the light-hearted bravura with which he performs his deeds of magic, no less than in the exercise of that strong moral sense by virtue of which he punishes the lust of his father the devil, makes a converted Bellafront of his mother and sends her to Salisbury plain, to waste away her offending flesh in groans and solitary sighs.

    The sources of The Birth of Merlin, apart from The Mayor of Quinborough, are somewhat obscure. The story of Merlin was, of course, familiar enough in Elizabethan times, and a drama entitled Uter Pendragon is entered in Henslowe’s diary under date 29 April, 1597; the difficulty lies in determining what warrant, if any, the author had for degrading the circumstances of Merlin’s birth.