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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

§ 17. May’s Comedies; The anonymous Nero

Thomas May, the historian of the Long parliament, whose character Clarendon and Marvell unite in decrying, began his literary career with two comedies, The Heir and The Old Couple, written about 1620. The Heir is a Fletcherian tragicomedy; The Old Couple, which Fleay thinks the earlier of the pair, a play of Jonsonian intrigue and manners. After producing these plays, May turned to the work by which he is best known—his translations of the Georgics and of Lucan’s Pharsalia. Jonson wrote lines “to my chosen friend the learned translator of Lucan, Thomas May, Esq.,” and May was a contributor to Jonsonus Virbius. Jonson’s influence and that of the classics would seem to have turned May to classical drama, and he produced three tragedies, of which the first, Antigone, the Theban Princess is dedicated to Endymion Porter, and may have been written before 1626. Fleay has suggested that May is the author of the anonymous Nero, printed 1624. We are to suppose that the fire and energy of this fine play were the result of May’s first study of Tacitus, perhaps before he had been too much obsessed by Jonson’s influence and method. But May’s study of Tacitus would seem to have been later than 1624. His Cleopatra is dated 1626, and Julia Agrippina 1628. May’s imagination is pedestrian; his style is regular and painstaking. Nero is the work of a scholar whose imagination is fiery and strong, and who contrives to crowd into his play a great deal of the excitement, the incident and the underlying unity of the Roman historian’s picture of the tyrant. May’s first two plays are meritorious; there is care and correctness in the blank verse, and much careful invention in the plot and the conception of the characters; but his classical plays are no better and no worse than his continuation of Pharsalia. They are pale reflections of Jonson’s work in Sejanus and Catiline. May is nothing more than a “son” of Ben, who copied his adoptive father’s least inspired work.