Home  »  Volume VI: English THE DRAMA TO 1642 Part Two  »  § 3. Armin’s Two Maids of More-clacke

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

§ 3. Armin’s Two Maids of More-clacke

The title Humour out of Breath is actually quoted from The Comedy of Errors, and the influence of Shakespeare’s early comedies is very evident in all three plays; but the neatness and compactness of Day’s prose style in his dialogue is more akin to the manner of another master—John Lyly. Lyly does not exhibit in his comedies the copiousness and exuberance which characterise Shakespeare’s first work. Lyly’s plays, even more than Day’s, lack flesh and blood, and belong to a world of moonshine and shadow. But, within their limits, they have a true charm of fancy, and their style escapes the pedantry and tediousness of the writer’s prose work, and is as deft and crisp as Day at his best. To complete the parallel, we may note that Lyly (supposing him to be their author) gives us a handful of beautiful lyrics, remarkable as belonging not to the true Elizabethan type, but, rather, to the later style of Herrick. Day’s best lyric work in The Parliament of Bees is, in the same way, post-Elizabethan. It must be compared with Browne’s Pastorals or Milton’s L’Allegro.

Day describes The Parliament of Bees as “an allegorical description of the actions of good and bad men in these our days.” But he composed it from scenes contributed to two plays which have reached us under the titles The Noble Souldier and The Wonder of A Kingdome. Dekker, in co-operation with Samuel Rowley, was mainly responsible for these plays. Between their style and Day’s, there could be no real accord, and only enough of Day is left to make it clear that The Parliament of Bees was not, as we might suppose, completely fresh work constituting a new departure in the art of the writer. Scenes contributed to more than one play were the groundwork upon which Day composed his dainty and graceful series of “Colloquies” or “Characters.” The fact throws a true light on Day’s dramatic work; but the drama was not his natural vein. What would be interesting to know is how he came to write The Parliament of Bees. In the excellent prose tract, Peregrinatio Scholastica, written, apparently, before The Parliament, he speaks of himself as “becalmed in a fog of necessity,” that is to say, he writes because he needs money, which he hopes to get not only from the printer, but, also, from the patron to whom he dedicates his book. He says, also, that he is lying at anchor “before the Islands, Meliora Speramus.” Fleay’s tempting suggestion is that Day means holy orders by this, and by the “shrine of Latria,” towards which, in the allegory, the “sometimes student of Gunvill and Caius Colledge in Cambridge” is travelling. If this were so, it would be necessary for the old playwright, until he was duly ordained, to make money by some more edifying form of literature than plays. He, therefore, wrote Peregrinatio and, after that, used certain scenes from old plays to make his unique Parliament of Bees. There is extant a manuscript copy of The Bees earlier than the quarto of 1641, and the changes are not all of them merely in style; the poem is made definitely graver in revision. The delightful first title disappears as too flippant—“An olde Manuscript conteyning the Parliament of Bees, found In a Hollow Tree In a garden at Hibla, in a strandge Languadge, And now faithfully Translated into Easie English Verse by John Daye, Cantabrig.” The poem, it should be noted, is not a masque in the ordinary and technical sense. It rather resembles a series of pastoral eclogues. The successive scenes have no continuity, except such as is supplied by the idea of making all the characters bees. Day conceives his poem as a series of satires; but he charges his bees to

  • Carry an humble wing
  • Buzz boldly what I bid, but do not sting
  • Any particular.
  • It is only the usuring bee whom we can identify:

  • Most of the timber that his state repairs
  • He hews out o’ the bones of foundred players:
  • They feed on poets’ brains, he eats their breath.
  • This can be none other than Philip Henslowe.

    We gather, from both Peregrinatio and The Parliament, that Day was not seeking orders from any unworthy motives. The prose of the tract is more fluent than that of the plays. The style of the poem, too, has, more fully than that of the plays, Day’s special gift—“a sense of delicate music in the fall and arrangement of quite common words.” In spite of the “fog of necessity” around him, the writer is at peace with himself and the world. A note of peevishness and bitterness which occasionally obtruded itself in his earlier work has disappeared, and the poet’s music in his last poem is serene, spontaneous and sweet. John Day died before the quarto of The Parliament was printed, probably in the autumn of 1640.

    A belated Elizabethan of considerable interest whose extant work was printed in the early years of king James was Robert Armin, reported to have been trained by Tarlton and called his “son.” He followed William Kemp as player of Dogberry about 1599, continued in Shakespeare’s company for some years and has a place in the list of players in the 1623 folio. His single play, printed 1609, is entitled The History of the two Maids of More-clacke; With the life and simple maner of John in the Hospitall. On the title-page, there is a cut of Armin in the character of John in the hospital. In his words to the “friendly peruser,” Armin calls the play “a Historical discourse,” and says that he would have “againe inacted” John, if he had been able. His age, presumably, prevented him, for he seems to have been born about 1564 and was dead by 1612. He adds, “you shall find verse, as well blancke, as crancke, yet in the prose let it pass for currant.” The blank verse of the play is in so disordered a state that it has been compared with the mutilated 1603 quarto of Hamlet. The phenomena suggest the solution that Armin was not responsible for the verse, but supplied the prose of the old-fashioned fool’s part of John, in which, earlier, he had made a hit. He was no more the author of the serious part of the play, than William Kemp was of the whole of A Knack to Know a Knave. But the play is interesting, in spite of its corrupt condition. There are in it indications that, in some form or other, it dates back to Elizabeth’s reign; but, also, echoes from Shakespeare’s tragedies—from Macbeth, for instance—which date, apparently from about 1608. Humil’s doubt of his mother’s honour reminds us of Hamlet, and the play is worth careful study for its bearing on the Hamlet problem. The plot is absurdly complicated and full of incident, and, in this respect, we are reminded of Chettle’s Tragedy of Hoffman. The play has genuine dramatic power, forcible eloquence and fine poetry, all of which we should be inclined to ascribe to Dekker or Chettle, if another author than Armin himself must be looked for. There are, however, some resemblances between Armin’s other works and our play. In 1605, he published Foole upon Foole, or, Sixe Sortes of Sottes, a prose tract, amplified, in 1608, into A nest of Ninnies, in the dedication of which “To the most true and rightly compleat in all good gifts and graces the generous Gentlemen of Oxenford, Cambridge, and the Innes of Court” he declares “I have seene the stars at midnight in your societies.” This, apparently, gave offence to some of the graver spirits among the old player’s hosts, and his next and last tract, dated 1609, contains a kind of apology for it. This tract, The Italian Taylor and his Boy, a verse translation from the Italian, is written with considerable dexterity, and raises our opinion of Armin’s gifts and scholarship. It is curious that we should have nothing from his pen earlier than 1605, although Nashe and Harvey, in 1593, speak of him as a common pamphleteer and “son” of Elderton.