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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

§ 21. Sir John Suckling’s Plays: Aglaura, The Goblins, Brennoralt

In 1642, the year of the closing of the theatres, Sir John Suckling poisoned himself in Paris. All his plays are not worth his handful of incomparable lyrics; but they have some salt of genius in them which entitles them to a place of their own among the work of lesser dramatists. Aglaura, a tragedy of court intrigue, of which the scene is supposed to be Persia, was acted in the winter of 1637, when its literary qualities received less attention than the novelty and magnificence of the scenery used and the dresses presented by the author to the actors. King Charles is said to have requested an alternative final act with a happy ending, which Suckling afterwards wrote. Flecknoe saw the play when it was revived at the Restoration, and his criticism, that it was “full of flowers, but rather stuck than growing there,” applies to all Suckling’s dramatic work. He has imagination, fancy and wit, but these faculties are not usually employed upon his plot and his characters. The famous lyric, “Why so pale and wan, fond lover?” occurs in the fourth act of Aglaura. The Goblins was probably written next; it was acted in 1638, and is Suckling’s best play. His goblins are thieves who masquerade as devils, and their pranks are mixed up with the feuds of two noble families and a double love story. The so-called goblins administer justice in the style of Robin Hood and his men in older plays. Suckling’s restless temperament expresses itself in the impossible rapidity and abruptness of the action; but the sprightliness of the play is undeniable and its mixture of song and witty dialogues caught Sheridan’s attention, and, undoubtedly, influenced his style. His lyric “Here ’s to the maiden” is suggested by a catch in The Goblins. Although The Goblins is Suckling’s most satisfactory performance, the tragedy Brennoralt is a work of more promise and a more striking evidence of his poetic capacity. It did not appear till 1646; but it had been printed in a shorter form in 1640 as The Discontented Colonell. The interest of Brennoralt lies mainly in our seeming to detect in the hero something of the inner self of the author, and to find that self better and sounder than the shallow prodigal who caught the public eye. The gloomy colonel, in spite of his strict loyalty, is clearly aware of defects in his king. The rebel Lithuanians are meant for Scots, of about the year 1639. The rebels having been informed that the king cannot be unjust to them “Where there ’s so little to be had,” their leader Almerine replies, “Where there is least, there ’s liberty.” Suckling’s style perceptibly strengthens in the play. The fine things are less obviously stuck in. Sententious force, by which his political experience receives apt expression, is added to genuine poetic vigour. Brennoralt is left alive, his rival and both the heroines being dead. The false Caroline ideal of tragicomedy prevents the solution of suicide demanded by the tone of the play. But the melancholy, disillusioned character of Brennoralt, who points forward to Byron, rather than backward to Marston, may help to explain Suckling’s own suicide, which seems very inconsistent with the rest of his career. The versification is spasmodic and formless. A blank verse line, here and there, suggests to us what the metre is supposed to be, and, occasionally, such a line as “Oh! it is wisdom and great thrift to die!” proves that Suckling had it in him to write blank verse. In all his plays he has a trick of appropriating Shakespearean phrases and lines, and, in The Goblins, the courtship of Orsabrin and Reginella is copied unblushingly from the courtship scenes in The Tempest. Although Shakespeare’s work is weakened, Suckling’s courtship scenes are the prettiest scenes in his play, and his hero Orsabrin is a brave spirit of true heroic strain.