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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.

I. Ben Jonson

§ 10. Early Plays

We turn now to by far the most important division of Jonson’s writings, the comedies and tragedies which he wrote for the popular theatres. At the beginning of Jonson’s dramatic career, however, we are confronted by a lack of data. What were the plays that, by 1598, had gained him praise as one of the best writers of tragedy? None survives; but there are some hints that his early work did not differentiate itself from that of his fellow dramatists. From 1597 to 1602, he wrote at least one play a year for Henslowe, none of which could have been a comedy of humours. These include an unnamed play of which he made the plot; Hot Anger Soon Cold, which he wrote with Porter and Chettle; Page of Plymouth, a domestic tragedy on the story of a murder of 1581, in collaboration with Dekker; a tragedy, Robert II King of Scots, with Dekker and Chettle; and another tragedy, Richard Crookback. At the time when he was writing this last play, he was also engaged on additions to The Spanish Tragedie. In spite of definite external evidence, these have sometimes been denied to Jonson because of their theme and style. The style is not, indeed, like that of his later plays; but we may fairly assume that it is not unlike that which he was employing on domestic and historical tragedies. Splendidly imaginative in phrasing and conception, rehabilitating the old Hieronimo, giving his madness and irony new truth and new impressiveness, the “additions” far surpass in imaginative power most of the contemporary attempts at tragedy which they rivalled. But they imply an unhesitating acceptance of the whole scheme of the old revenge play at which Jonson was wont to scoff. Further evidence that his early work was romantic rather than realistic may be found in the romantic elements of The Case is Altered, and in the Italian scene and names with which Every Man in His Humour was first decked. Of plays still earlier than those named, we may surmise that, whether realistic or romantic, tragic or comic, they conformed to the fashions of the time. Jonson was serving his dramatic apprenticeship and writing the kind of plays demanded; but he early showed that imaginative power which gave him high rank among his fellows, at least in tragedy.

The presentation of Every Man in His Humour apparently marked a change of plan on his part and his devotion to a new propaganda. By 1598, the drama was long out of its swaddling clothes. Since the union of poetry and the theatre on the advent of Marlowe, ten years earlier, the importance of theatres in the life of London had been rapidly increasing, and the drama had been gaining recognition as a form of literature. Marlowe, Kyd, Peele, Greene, Lyly and others, as well as Shakespeare, had played important parts in creating a drama at once national, popular and poetical. On the whole, this dramatic development, while breaking away from classical models and rules, had established no theory or criticism of its own. It had resulted from the individual innovations of poets and play-wrights, who strove to meet the demand of the popular stage through the dramatisation of story. The main divisions of tragedy and comedy were recognised, and a third, the chronicle history, created; and there were various species corresponding to the initiative of individuals, as a Marlowe type of tragedy or a Lyly type of comedy; but there were no accepted laws for any species, and hardly any restrictions or principles guiding the presentation of narratives on the stage.

To those acquainted with classical drama, these tragedies, comedies and histories offered much that was absurd and lawless. Frequent change of place, long duration of time represented, absence of a unified plan or coherent structure, mingling of farce and tragedy, of clowns and kings, lack of definite aesthetic or ethical aims, seemed errors that could find little palliation. The matter was as objectionable as the form, for it was similarly unrestricted. As Sidney asserted, dramatists did not always distinguish a dramatic fable from a narrative, and they brought any matter whatsoever into their plays. They did not mirror nature or imitate life, they merely told impossible stories. The impulses that had found freest expression in the popular drama were, indeed, romantic. Marlowe, Greene, Shakespeare and the rest had been inspired to give the thrills and glory, the wonder and sentiment of life. They had dealt with remote places, idealised persons, marvellous adventures, conquests and vicissitudes; they had not attempted an orderly analysis of history or a rationalised imitation of the life of their own day. The drama was romantic, in the sense that it ran counter to the theory and practice of the Greeks and Latins, and, also, in the sense that it departed from a veracious representation of actuality. Inevitably, criticism cried for classical form and a realistic presentation of life.

While the main tendency was toward romanticism, neither classicism nor realism had, by any means, been lacking in the earlier drama, particularly in comedy. In tragedy, classicism had been driven from the stage to the closet; but, in comedy, Plautus and Terence were still largely followed as models. The Plautian model, early anglicised in Ralph Roister Doister, had notable copies in Lyly’s Mother Bombie and Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors. Moreover, not only its stock characters, its clever servants, parasites, misers, braggart soldiers and so on, but, also, its general scheme of a series of tricks brought about through disguises, had come to be widely adopted in the English drama. This scheme lent itself readily to realism and formed the basis for most comedies of intrigue or manners, and of some romantic plays. Another species of comedy, the satirical, may be traced back to moralities, and found an important early representative in the plays of Wilson. Again, sheer farce, often Plautian in scheme, naturally took realistic themes, and plays of English domestic manners were not uncommon. In addition to these incompletely defined species, there was a good deal of realistic comedy mingled with the various types of romantic drama. Tragedy, however gruesome, usually admitted some realistic farce; romantic comedy had its servants, drunkards, constables and clowns; and chronicle history delighted in the elbowing of its monarchs by humorous persons from low life. Falstaff and his crew were already on the stage, and they certainly betokened the keenest scrutiny of London manners. In fact, the Elizabethan drama had always devoted itself to the representation of contemporary manners as well as to romantic story. It had delighted not only in the heroisms, villainies and aspirations of romantic vision, but, also, in the absurdity, frivolity and grossness of daily actuality.