Home  »  Volume VI: English THE DRAMA TO 1642 Part Two  »  § 2. Belated Elizabethans: John Day’s later comedies; The Ile of Guls; evolution of The Parliament of Bees; its merits and characteristics

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

§ 2. Belated Elizabethans: John Day’s later comedies; The Ile of Guls; evolution of The Parliament of Bees; its merits and characteristics

We propose to begin our survey with John Day, adding a list of smaller men, whose comedy is either Elizabethan in general character, or Elizabethan with the additional influence of Middleton’s hard, bright realism. We shall next consider the work of two men who came personally under Jonson’s tuition and have a special right to be entitled his “sons”—Nathaniel Field and Richard Brome. Field’s work, like John Day’s, has distinction and originality. Brome was a careful and strenuous craftsman, pursuing his vocation steadily till the stage was silenced. Field was the foremost actor of his day, and Brome was intimately acquainted with stage life. Together, they cover the Jacobean and Caroline age till 1642. Both of them continue the Elizabethan impulse, and Brome may justly claim to be noted, with Shirley, as having worthily maintained the Elizabethan tradition till the end. Brome has left fifteen plays, none of which is without its interest, and, on the whole, he is the most considerable writer who will come before us. Two other men, although they have no claim, like Field and Brome, to a place among those who continue the Elizabethan dramatic impulse, nevertheless are distinguished by a wit and genius raising them above the crowd of lesser men who show that the Elizabethan impulse is dead. These are Thomas Randolph and Sir John Suckling. When we have dealt with their work, there remain to us only dramatists whose plays are either meritorious and dull, or extravagant and dull. We shall make an effort to discover among these the precursors of the next age, and, accordingly, the last name on our list will be that of Sir William D’Avenant.

As a member of the group of robust collaborators who wrote assiduously for Henslowe during the last year of Elizabeth’s reign, John Day failed to produce distinctive work. It was, perhaps, by writing for the children of the revels that he struck into his own vein and produced three plays, which, because they stand apart in style and manner from the main stream of dramatic work, attract an attention hardly due to their actual merits as literature. And they have a second claim upon the student. Day’s pleasant little masterpiece, The Parliament of Bees, which is not a play, is directly related to his plays; and we can see in his plays those qualities at work which make The Parliament of Bees charming. The Ile of Guls was produced in the spring of 1605. The plot is taken from Sidney’s Arcadia. Duke Basilius has left his kingdom under his brother and retired with his queen and two daughters to a “desert isle,” sending a general challenge “to all the youthful blood of Africa” to

  • Woo, win, entice, or any way defeat
  • Me of my charge, my daughters of their hearts.
  • The successful suitors—both of them, apparently—
  • Shall with their loves wear my imperial crown.
  • But, before the play begins, there is a prose induction containing the conversation of three gentlemen, who interrupt the prologue, supposing him to be the boy who should provide them with stools. They ask whether the play has any connection with the recent West-Ward Hoe and suppose that there is some political libel in it since the title, Isle of Guls, is obviously suggested by Nashe’s Isle of Dogs. To the disappointment of the first gentleman, the prologue protests fervently against these suppositions. He desires “to hear vice anatomized and abuse let blood in the master vein”; he asks of the play, “Is there any great man’s life charactered in ’t?… And there be not wormwood water and coppears in ’t? I ’ll not like it.” The second gentleman cares for none of these things; his tastes are simpler; “Is there any good bawdry in ’t, jests of an ell deep and a fathom broad?” He wants scenes “that will make a man’s spirits stand on their tip toes and die his blood in a deep scarlet, like your Ovid’s Ars Amandi.” When the prologue objects that chaste ears would never endure it, he retorts, “What should chaste ears to at a play?” But the third gentleman cares for neither railing nor bawdry; he requires “a stately penned history” … “high-written”—“mere fustian,” his friend calls it, “full of tear-cut thunderclaps.”

    Upon these three kinds, says the dramatist, the popular audience insists—“all these we must have and all in one play or’t is already condemned to the hell of eternal disgrace.” The induction shows that Day intended to produce a new style if he could; it shows, also, that he was very much afraid of failing; he has none of Ben Jonson’s sturdy scorn of popular taste; when the prologue is finally allowed to speak, we get only a faint-hearted defiance of “Opinion’s voice,” whose tyranny is

  • The misery that waits upon the pen
  • Of the best writers.
  • It is not surprising, therefore, that Day fails to emancipate himself from the evils he deprecates. In the matter of bawdry especially, he yields to the base demands of “opinion.” He is not more coarse than others and he makes no attempt to due our blood in a deep scarlet; but he takes his story and his characters from Sir Philip Sidney’s Arcadia and besmirches the sweet and noble romance of his original with the indecencies of the work-a-day Elizabethan drama. It may be urged that Shakespeare does the same thing, even in As You Like It. But Shakespeare creates such a soul of purity in his heroines that their most outrageous jests and words fail to hurt them. Day puts no soul at all into his women; his characters have almost no personality. Although he protests that he will not be a satirist, it is his railer, Dametas, who comes nearest in his play to being a live man, and the duke and his queen are vulgarised as well as the heroines. We are frequently reminded of Shakespeare’s earlier comedies in reading Day. In The Ile of Guls, we catch echoes from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. But this similarity almost forces us to compare Day’s duke and duchess with Shakespeare’s Theseus and Hippolyta. What would have become of the romance and charm of Shakespeare’s play if Theseus—and, with him, Hippolyta—had been involved in a clumsy intrigue, depriving the king and hero of all grace and dignity? The two pairs of lovers are equally uninteresting. It is enough to say that Day in no way differentiates them; and we are unable to care much about what happens to either couple. All these things interfere with our appreciation of Day’s art in providing us with a pretty tangle, neatly and deftly united at the end. Such an art there is in The Ile of Guls and it is a new thing in the Elizabethan drama as Day uses it. It points forward to Restoration comedy, and has some kinship with the comedy of Molière.

    And it is not only in his plot that Day shows clear conception of a comedy different from the Shakespearean romantic comedy and from the Jonsonian comedy of humours—both of them full of life and humanity; in his dialogue there is a new note—a new convention of epigram and repartee—which, together with neatness of plot, marks the typical Restoration comedy. In The Ile of Guls, the plot by which all the characters are collected together at the end of the play blindfolded, as it were, to find themselves plain gulls when the bandage is taken off, is cleverly and neatly elaborated; but, in the course of the play, we also have a continued effort to present a dialogue duly arranged and ordered, in which the wit has a scheme and keeps the rules. The most notable instance is the famous tennis match scene in the second act. Bullen says truly: “Outside of Shakespeare’s early comedies it would be difficult to find among the dramatists of the time such another tour de force of sprightly repartee”; but, although Shakespeare’s early work, probably, was the chief influence in producing Day’s type of comedy, there is a noticeable contrast between the two kinds. The copiousness and exuberance of all the punning and repartee of Love’s Labour’s Lost produce an effect the exact opposite of Day’s balanced and considered epigrams. Shakespeare gives his characters full play in the scenes of quip and repartee; Day holds his in. His art has not enough vigour and flow in it; Shakespeare’s has too much. Shakespeare, again, is eager to break loose from the fetters of rime for the larger scope and movement of blank verse; Day, on the contrary, desires to get back to rime; he has not breath enough for Elizabethan blank verse. Shakespeare’s fountain gushes and leaps, with much danger to artificial restraints of all sorts; Day’s rivulet, on the contrary, flows obediently whither it is led, and often trickles nearly dry. Elizabethan extravagance and overstrain are foreign to his art, which is Attic, or even Doric, in its simplicity and orderliness. It is not, therefore, to be wondered at that Day never does himself justice in his plays; he is too much hampered and confused by the alien conditions in which his genius has to work. In The Ile of Guls, it is only the induction which is quite easy and lucid. The tennis scene, perhaps because the terms used are no longer familiar, is hard to follow, and the verse effects are too complicated. We see what the artist means, but his execution is not perfect. A scene in Law-Trickes, where the countess discourses to her maids as they sew, is his nearest approach to dramatic effectiveness in his own style. This play, probably, was written in 1606, and Humour out of Breath in 1607. The three plays present, quite recognisably, a new dramatic type, but they do not coherently and adequately realise it.