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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

§ 5. The Pupils of Jonson: Nathaniel Field: his life and training

We come now to the main stream of Jacobean dramatic work, in which the influence of Jonson, both personal and by his art, is all-pervasive.

Among the extant plays of the reign of king James, two by Nathaniel Field are of such merit as to suggest that the writer, probably, would have risen above the ranks of the lesser dramatists, had he persevered in the prosecution of his art. He was born in 1587, a few months before his father’s death. That father was the famous preacher John Field, whose rousing discourse upon the collapse of a gallery in Paris garden in 1583 has come down to us. It contains interesting details about the catastrophe and a violent attack upon theatrical performances, with valuable information about London players and their theatres. Nat’s elder brother, Theophilus, was educated at Cambridge and rose to be bishop of Hereford; and it is singular, therefore, that Nat Field’s name should be found first among the six “principal comedians” of the band of lads called the children of the queen’s revels, who acted in Jonson’s Cynthia’s Revels in 1600. These boys were the “young eyases” discussed by Hamlet. For a time, as has been seen, they rivalled men players in public favour; and Field, as he grew older, maintained his position and may claim to have succeeded Burbage as the leading actor on the English stage. Jonson, no doubt, owed a debt to Field for his clever acting in Cynthia’s Revels and Poetaster, and the debt is repaid by the mention of Field, in 1614, in Bartholomew Fayre— “Which is your Burbadge now?.… Your best actor, your Field?” Field joined the King’s company before he finally retired from the stage, and, in the 1623 folio of Shakespeare’s plays, he is seventeenth in the list there given of twenty-six players. Jonson told Drummond that “Nat Field was his scholar.” An interesting proof of Jonson’s regard for Field is afforded by the insertion of an extra sheet of commendatory verses addressed by Field to Jonson in some copies of the 1607 quarto of Volpone. Field’s verses are amateurish—he speaks justly of his “weak flame”—but they show a great awe of Jonson, whom “to dare commend were damnable presumption.” The lines should be compared with the much more mature address “to his worthy and beloved friend Master Ben Jonson on his Catiline.” Field had been educated by Mulcaster at the Merchant Taylors’ school, but “taken” by N. Giles as one of the company of the children of the revels. Giles was accused of kidnapping boys against their parents’ wishes, and we may conjecture that Field would not have been annexed, had his strenuous father been alive to protect him.