Home  »  Volume VI: English THE DRAMA TO 1642 Part Two  »  § 5. His Historic Tragedies; Bussy D’Ambois; The Revenge

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume VI. The Drama to 1642, Part Two.

II. Chapman, Marston, Dekker

§ 5. His Historic Tragedies; Bussy D’Ambois; The Revenge

His translations apart, Chapman’s fame rests upon his tragedies founded on French history, of which Bussy D’Ambois (printed 1607) and The Revenge of Bussy D’Ambois (printed 1613) have always and rightly received most attention. The subjects here chosen were singularly adapted to display the qualities of his genius, never impressive save on an elevated stage. Bussy D’Ambois was by far the most successful of his dramas, its popularity being due, in part, to its revival of recent history, in part to the character and career of the chief figure, formed by nature for an invincible hero of romance, and in part to the glowing rhetoric which certainly rises in places to pure and impassioned poetry. Some entries in Henslowe suggest that Bussy D’Ambois, and not Marlowe’s Massacre at Paris, as Collier thought, may have been the play for which payments were made in 1598; but, if we assign to it so early a date as this, we must allow a revision after the death of Elizabeth, who is spoken of as the “old Queene.” The sources of this drama have not been precisely determined—De Thou’s Historiae sui temporis and Rosset’s Histoires Tragiques, from which it was supposed that the author derived his incidents, were not published in 1607—and Chapman, therefore, must have had recourse to contemporary accounts. The part of Bussy was acted by Nathaniel Field. A revised version of the play by Thomas D’Urfey was produced on the stage of the Theatre Royal in 1691. For The Revenge of Bussy D’Ambois and the tragedies The Conspiracie, And Tragedie of Charles Duke of Byron (printed 1608), he drew directly from a translation of Serres’s Inventaire Général de l’Histoire de France by Edward Grimeston, published in 1607. Grimeston supplemented Serres, whose narrative ends in 1598, from Matthieu’s Histoire de France and other contemporary writers.

In his first tragedy, the court of Henry III is employed as a frame for the full length portrait of the brilliant adventurer, Bussy, whose love affair with Tamyra, countess of Montsorry, betrayal to her husband and last stand when encircled by his enemies, make an admirable drama of the heroic and melodramatic type. It is successful in a style thoroughly Elizabethan (the antithesis of the classic), in which violent scenes and extravagant rhetoric mingle with profound reflection and magnificent outbursts of poetry—a strange compound of the fantastic and forbidding with the noblest and most inspiring elements in art. Dryden, in his famous depreciation of this play, went too far:

  • I have sometimes wondered in the reading [he said] what has become of those glaring colours which amazed me in Bussy D’Ambois upon the theatre; but when I had taken up what I supposed a fallen star, I found I had been cozened with a jelly; nothing but a cold dull mass, which glittered no longer than it was shooting; a dwarfish thought, dressed up in gigantic words, repetition in abundance, looseness of expression, and gross hyperboles; the sense of one line expanded prodigiously into ten; and to sum up all, incorrect English, and a hideous mingle of false poetry and true nonsense; or, at best, a scantling of wit, which lay gasping for life, and groaning beneath a heap of rubbish. A famous modern poet used to sacrifice every year a Statius to Virgil’s manes; and I have indignation enough to burn a D’Ambois annually to the memory of Jonson.
  • We have here a typical example of Restoration feeling and criticism. Chapman exhibits in excess precisely those Elizabethan qualities which a later age found Gothic and barbaric. The faults of the romantic school are all present in an exaggerated degree. But Dryden overlooked the fiery energy, the imaginative splendours and rich suggestiveness of phrase and imagery which were its glory, and beside which the undeniable excellences of his own age of literature seem the cold and lifeless offspring of uninspired labour. The Revenge of Bussy D’Ambois (printed 1613), written after an interval during which Chapman had produced his Byron tragedies, though inferior as a drama for the stage, is stronger in its reflective passages and contains by far the most interesting and profound of Chapman’s character studies. This is Clermont d’Ambois, a brother of the dead Bussy invented by the dramatist who is incited by Bussy’s ghost, as Hamlet is by his father’s spirit, to undertake the mission of revenge. Clermont, the “senecal man,” who, like Hamlet, is of a speculative habit of mind and disinclined towards violence, only after delays accomplishes his task, and, in the end, dies by his own hand. The Revenge is suffused with memories of Shakespeare’s play, to which, undoubtedly, it owes its plan and many of its episodes, while Clermont’s philosophy is largely drawn from Epictetus. It is somewhat remarkable that this drama, the interest of which is centred in a true philosopher moving amid the intrigues and violences of a renascence court, makes him the faithful follower of the infamous duke of Guise, whose portrait, as given us here, is no less flattering than it is unhistorical—a piece of perversity certainly not calculated to commend the play to reformation England.

    If high intellectual interest and authentic eloquence sufficed to constitute a dramatic masterpiece, The Conspiracie, And Tragedie of Charles Duke of Byron, Marshall of France might give Chapman rank among great playwrights. But we have here rather “a small epic in ten books or acts” than a drama. The verse runs more smoothly, however, than in the Bussy plays, the poetry is less pestered with the cloudy turbulence of his “full and heightened style,” and nowhere does Chapman win more completely upon his reader. In his next tragedy, Caesar and Pompey (printed 1631), he turned from contemporary to classical history, and, standing on scholar’s ground, might have been expected to derive powerful inspiration from his theme, but the design is feebly handled, and he fails, as before, to communicate movement to the action or vitality to the dramatis personae. Only the oratorical passages, especially those placed in the mouth of Cato, can be read with much pleasure.

    The remaining plays of Chapman were not published during his lifetime. In Chabot Admirall of France (printed 1639), for which materials were drawn from Pasquier’s Les Recherches de la France, he had the assistance of Shirley, and it seems fruitless to attempt the task of partitioning their respective contributions. Revenge for Honour (printed 1654), an eastern tale of which the scene is laid in Arabia, may have been written by Chapman; but the play is by no means in his usual manner, and it is difficult to believe that, in his old age, he could have assimilated the style of the later dramatists. (A play printed for the same publisher and entitled The Paraside, a Revenge for Honour was entered in the register (1653) as by Henry Glapthorne.) Neither play possesses any great distinction, though some critics have found in the variety of incident and portraiture in the last named drama reason for assigning to it a high place among Chapman’s works. It is certainly superior to Alphonsus Emperour of Germany (printed 1654), also ascribed to Chapman on more slender grounds. The intimate knowledge of the German language and German life displayed by the author has been variously explained. Either Chapman spent some time in Germany, or he was assisted by some unknown writer intimately acquainted with the language and customs of that country. There remains the possibility that he had no hand in it. Zeal for Chapman’s reputation might easily be better expended than in the attempt to prove this play his. Sir Gyles Goosecappe (printed 1606), an anonymous play, has been ascribed to Chapman or a disciple by several critics, on internal evidence of method and manner. Two of his plays, never printed, were destroyed in manuscript by Warburton’s cook, The Yorkshire Gentlewoman and her Son, and, Fatal Love, a French tragedy. Jonson told Drummond that “next himself, only Fletcher and Chapman,” both of whom “he loved,” “could make a masque.” Only one such composition by Chapman is extant, The memorable Masque of the two honourable Houses or Innes of Court; the Middle Temple, and Lyncolnes Inne, performed at Whitehall in 1614. Probably he wrote others; the merits of this piece afford insufficient warrant for Jonson’s compliment. While it would be absurd to deny the presence of masculine force and fervid poetry in Chapman’s best tragedies, it would be mere irony to claim for him fine sensibility or delicate discrimination in the portrayal of character. He is not great either in invention or construction, and, though his work abounds in wise sayings, moral apophthegms and high pitched sentiments, and though the talent for observation is not absent, there is an invincible coarseness in his fibre. The comedies show all men either as deceivers or deceived; his tragic heroes are often little more than the embodiment of physical energy and tenacious will; pathos he never attains; and he seems to have been incapable or undesirous of painting the portrait of a lovable woman.