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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.

IX. Lesser Jacobean and Caroline Dramatists

§ 1. General characteristics of the Jacobean and Caroline Drama; the central position of Jonson

THE ELIZABETHAN drama, undoubtedly, followed a natural law of development. It culminated in tragedy in the first decade of the seventeenth century, because men and women reveal themselves most fully and finally in the furnace of affliction; and, therefore, the dramatist who desires to express the truth of human nature arrives, sooner or later, at tragedy as his most penetrating and powerful method. After the height has been reached a necessary rest and suspension of effort ensue, and of such a nature was the Jacobean and Caroline age of the drama. But a second cause was at work to increase this exhaustion and to hasten the decadence of an art that had lost its freshness. The tension of feeling as to things political and religious, which led, at last, to the civil war, was unfavourable to all artistic effort, but was especially hurtful to the drama. It took possession of the minds of all but the most frivolous. Theatre-goers ceased to be drawn from all ranks, as they were in Elizabeth’s days and began to form a special class composed of careless courtiers and the dregs of the town populace. Such a class required only lesser dramatists to supply its wants; and, as we approach the date of the closing of the theatres (1642), the greater lights go out one by one till only a crowd of little men are left, writing a drama which has neither form nor spirit remaining in it.

The accident of the survival of Henslowe’s diary helped us to group together in some kind of natural order the more active of the lesser Elizabethan dramatists. We have no document of this sort to aid us in the case of the Jacobean and Caroline writers; but we are confronted by a remarkable personality whose relations with the dramatists and poets of his age were as honourable and unselfish as Henslowe’s were mercenary and mean. A young dramatist, writing to Henslowe for a loan, signs himself, in Elizabethan fashion, “your loving son.” It was a slight extension of this usage which made Jonson the literary father of a large family of “sons,” all proud to be sealed of the tribe of Ben. His position as the leader of literary and dramatic taste and the centre of literary society in London was a new thing in English life, and his influence was so commanding and complete that most of the lesser dramatists stood in some sort of relation to him, either of attraction or repulsion: they were either friends or foes. It may also be conjectured that Jonson’s art lent itself to imitation by lesser men more readily than Shakespeare’s. Shakespeare’s apparent artlessness covered a far more subtle method and mystery than did Jonson’s strict canons of conformity to definite theories of dramatic composition. Secondly, Jonson’s theory of “humours” simplified human nature and enabled the lesser dramatist, in setting about the composition of a comedy, to choose his basic humour, and get to work on inimitable humanity with some confidence. And, thirdly, while Jonson’s massive common sense and satiric intensity are, in bulk, colossal, they can be readily imitated by lesser men who manufacture smaller pieces of the same stuff. Jonson’s most remarkable plays were quarries from which contemporary writers chose what suited them, diligently working it into some sort of artistic shape. For these reasons Jonson occupies an exceptional relation towards the literature of the Jacobean age, and may be regarded as a centre round which the lesser dramatists are grouped. He fails us only when we deal with romantic tragicomedy, in which species Fletcher and Massinger are the dominating influences. But the lesser writers of romantic drama are so weak that we shall have no space for detailed examination of their work.