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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume VI. The Drama to 1642, Part Two.

II. Chapman, Marston, Dekker

§ 1. Chapman’s life

AMBITIONS are naturally fired in an age of unusual achievement in any field of human activity, and men of every variety of genius or talent, however unfitted to command success in it, are drawn to the glittering arena. Many men were dramatists in 1600 whose gifts were not conspicuously dramatic, and whose instincts in another epoch would hardly have driven them to the service of the stage. Of these, George Chapman was an example. He was a poet; but his muse did not point him towards the theatre, and, had she designed him for drama, she would have delayed his birth. For, in 1600, when Jonson was about twenty-seven and Dekker thirty, Chapman was already forty years old. He was twenty-eight when Marlowe’s Tamburlaine was produced, and thus did not in early youth, nor until his mind had already taken its mould, come under the dramatic influences or inspiration which formed Shakespeare and the greater playwrights. Nor is it even certain that he was greatly interested in drama till within five years of the close of the century. He did not serve a youthful apprenticeship to the theatrical art, and he never learnt to think in any character but his own.

We gather from one of his early poems (Euthymiae Raptus) that Chapman was born in or near Hitchin in Hertfordshire, and, from the title-page of his Homer, that his birth year was 1559. It is frequently said that he studied at both universities, but there is no certain evidence that he was at either. Wood asserts that he spent some time at Oxford, in 1574 or thereabouts, “where he was most excellent in the Latin and Greek tongues, but not in logic or philosophy,” and that he left without taking a degree. Of his personal affairs for the next twenty years, we know nothing. It is not improbable that he travelled, and a passage in one of his poems suggests that, like Jonson, he may have served in the Netherlands. As a man of letters, his first appearance, apparently, was made in a volume of poetry, The Shadow of Night, when he was thirty-five. From this time, he was busy as poet and dramatist until 1614, and seems to have achieved reputation and gained distinguished friends, though he gathered little wealth. Meres speaks of him in 1598 as a renowned scholar, tragedian and comedian. We know that he found a patron in the earl of Essex, and that, after the earl’s execution in 1601, he was befriended by prince Henry, to whom he was appointed “server in ordinary.” The prince encouraged him in his work of translating Homer, and appears to have promised him a pension; but he died in 1612, and Chapman received no further royal favours.

  • To all times future this time’s mark extend,
  • Homer no patron found, nor Chapman friend.
  • In 1605, he had shared with Marston and Jonson the displeasure of the authorities for the satire in Eastward Hoe on the Scottish king’s needy followers, and had suffered imprisonment. Again, in 1608, he narrowly escaped punishment for an unhappy reference to the French queen in The Conspiracie, And Tragedie of Charles Duke of Byron, which roused the indignation of the French ambassador. From 1614, Chapman appeared less frequently as an author, and he died in no very prosperous circumstances in 1634. He was buried in St. Giles’s in the Fields (Habington, in his Castara, speaks of his tomb as without the church), and a monument by his friend Inigo Jones, to whom he had dedicated his translation of Musaeus, was then erected to his memory, as “a Christian Philosopher and Homericall Poett.”