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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

§ 16. Originality of Randolph

Randolph is pleasantly unconscious that the creative and artistic faculty is too often, as in Jonson’s case, smothered, rather than nourished, by theory, however sound. But we have still to mention the most delightful feature of the play. The “moralising” scenes are presented before Bird, a feather-man, and Mistress Flowerdew, “wife to a Haberdasher of Small Wares.” These worthies bring feathers and pins and lookingglasses to sell to the players; but they belong to “the Sanctified Fraternity of Black-Fryers”: that is to say, they are puritans. This device is not new. Beaumont used it admirably in The Knight of the Burning Pestle. But Randolph employs it to lighten the didactic tendency of his main scenes; moreover, his two puritans are to be converted to the theory of comedy put forward in the play; they are, therefore, described with more good humour, with more restraint and naturalness, than is usual in Elizabethan comedy. When the virtues are to be presented, Bird hopes there are no “cardinal vertues”—

  • I hate a vertue
  • That will be made a Cardinal,
  • —he adds that even “Bishop vertues are unwarrantable,” and, generally,
  • Vertues in Orders are unsanctified.
  • He is disturbed when the virtues dance:
  • O vile, absurd, Maypole-Maid-Marian Vertue!
  • Yet, as the play goes on, Mistress Flowerdew begins to relent:
  • I have picked
  • Out of the garden of this play a good
  • And wholesome salad of instruction.
  • And, finally, both are mollified. Bird says
  • I ’ll teach devotion now a milder temper,
  • while Mistress Flowerdew admits,
  • I might have gone to hell the narrow way.
  • We have called The Muses Looking-Glasse Randolph’s masterpiece, though this title might be claimed for his fine pastoral Amyntas. But the later production has to compete with even finer work by Jonson and Fletcher, while the former is unique of its kind. Randolph died in 1635, at the age of twenty-nine; and he is to be counted among those poets whose achievement, considerable as it is, is an earnest only of what his matured powers might have given us.

    It remains to attempt a hurried survey of the lesser dramatists of the end of the age, who were writing from the later years of James until the closing of the theatres. They exhibit very clearly the exhaustion of the great dramatic impulse which begins with Marlowe and ends with Shirley and Brome. A tasteless and featureless mediocrity or a pretentious extravagance are the characteristics of work which was ceasing to conform to type and losing all sense of true dramatic form. On a first casual inspection, the more meritorious of these plays seem better written and more judiciously planned than much of the Elizabethan work which has survived; but a closer study reveals the essential insipidity of the later work, due, in the first place, to exhaustion of the dramatic impulse, and, in the second, to the deterioration of the audiences and the practical cessation of a demand for good plays.