Home  »  Volume VI: English THE DRAMA TO 1642 Part Two  »  § 4. Sharpham’s two Plays; The single Plays of Barry, Cooke and Tailor

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

§ 4. Sharpham’s two Plays; The single Plays of Barry, Cooke and Tailor

Middleton’s influence on comedy is apparent in the two surviving plays of the lawyer Edward Sharpham—The Fleire, acted probably early in 1606, and Cupid’s Whirligig, produced about a year later. Both plays were frequently reprinted, from 1607 onwards. They owed their popularity to their wit and rapidity of action, but can hardly claim to be more than farces; there is in them the shadow of Middleton’s art, and more than the substance of his grossness. Much better than these is Lodowick Barry’s single play Ram-Alley or Merrie-Trickes, acted perhaps as early as 1609 and extant in several quartos. Ram alley was a particularly disreputable lane, leading from Fleet street to the Temple and of the coarseness promised by the title of the play we find, as it proceeds, a full supply. But this realistic indecency is relieved by some breath of life and character. Many echoes from Shakespeare’s plays are introduced, both by way of parody and of imitation. There is much of the London of the period—both of the place and its manners—in this comedy; and it not only shows force in its presentation of life and character, but is also marked by a vigour in its blank verse, which, in one or two places almost reaches distinction. The prologue says that, if the play succeeds, the writer will attempt something more serious, which even puritans will accept as satisfactory. Barry, no doubt, overrated the complaisance of puritans; but he was right in feeling that he had in him the power to produce work of a higher rank altogether than his Ram alley obscenities. It is disappointing that this one play and his name are all that we know of him.

Two other single plays, Greene’s Tu Quoque and The Hog hath lost his Pearl, we may mention at this point, because they belong rather to the early comedy of Haughton than the later Jonsonian comedy. They are less touched by Middleton’s influence that Ram-Alley. The clever acting of Thomas Greene made Greene’s Tu Quoque or The Cittie Gallant very popular about 1611. It was printed in 1614 as “written by Jo. Cooke, Gent.,” and Thomas Heywood contributes a preface stating that both the author and the actor Greene are dead. It is one of the pleasantest and liveliest among the productions of the lesser dramatists. The blank verse is not so good as Barry’s; but Cooke’s art and his capacity for working out a comic idea are above the ordinary, and his prose is excellent. The master, Staines, changes places with his man, Bubble, and coaches him to take his place in the fashionable world. There is an excellent scene in which the affectations of the Italianate Englishman are taken off, probably aimed at Coryate. The women in the play remind us of the girls of Porter and Haughton; they are, perhaps, more refined—the sisters of university students rather than of tradesmen—but they are very naturally and pleasantly drawn. A scene in which Joyce, anxious to hide the state of her heart, confounds and bewilders her lover, first by her silence and then by her speech, recalls the vigorous domestic comedy of Porter. It is curious that we should know nothing whatever of “Jo. Cooke,” and that, like Barry, he should have just one play to his credit. The Hog hath lost his Pearl is, again, the single play of a writer whose name—Robert Tailor—is all that is known about him. Tailor’s literary capacity is below that of either Barry or Cooke. To a play of low comedy, he tacks on a romantic plot of a painful character which only a master of dramatic art could make endurable. Tailor manages the prose of his comedy much better than the verse of his moral romance; the main interest of the play, however, is not in its style or story but in the circumstances of its production. Sir Henry Wotton, in a letter dated 1612, tells us that “some sixteen apprentices,” having secretly learnt their parts, “took up the White Fryers for their theatre,” and invited their friends to see them perform The Hog hath lost his Pearl. The sheriffs intervened before the end of the performance and carried off six or seven of the apprentices to prison. He adds that it was supposed that Sir John Swinnerton was meant by the hog, and the late lord treasurer by the pearl. The prologue of the printed play alludes to this incident, but says that

  • our swine,
  • Is not as divers critics did define,
  • Grunting at state affairs or invecting
  • Much at our city vices;
  • if the play pleases, “we ’ll say ’t is fortunate, like Pericles.” Like the two plays mentioned before it, Tailor’s is full of interest for the student of Jacobean London.