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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.

VIII. Ford and Shirley

§ 1. Commencement of the literary period of English Drama

ONE of the most significant facts in connection with the two poets who close the list of the major dramatists of the great period is that their work was produced in the years following the publication of the first collected edition of the plays of Shakespeare. Previous playwrights had studied and imitated their predecessors; but, for the most part, such study had been carried on in the theatre. Gradually, the drama had been winning acknowledgment of its right to be regarded as literature, and the appearance of the first folio of Shakespeare, in 1623, may fairly be taken as marking the achievement of victory. The result of this new attitude was twofold: first, the works of the master and his contemporaries could now be brooded over and assimilated in the study, and, secondly, the younger playwrights wrote with a view to being read as well as heard and seen. Evidences of the coming of the change are, or course, to be found before this date, certainly as early as the Jonson folio of 1616; but Ford and Shirley stand out as belonging exclusively to this “literary” stage. Ford is never tired of insisting that he was a gentleman of letters, not a theatrical hack; and Shirley wrote at least one closet drama. In dealing with their works, then, we are discussing not merely the last phase of Elizabethan theatrical activity, but, also, the first chapter of what may be called, in a special sense, modern dramatic literature.