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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.

VII. Tourneur and Webster

§ 5. West-Ward Hoe and North-Ward Hoe

We now pass to what have been called the citizen comedies, West-Ward Hoe and North-Ward Hoe, both written in partnership with Dekker. Both were printed in 1607; but the former was entered at Stationers’ hall as early as March, 1605; the latter not until August, 1607. The first three acts of West-Ward Hoe have been thought by some critics to belong to 1603, and their authorship assigned to Webster. But there is no valied reason for passing the hatchet between these acts and the last two. And, as the fourth act (sc. 2) contains an allusion to the fall of Ostend—an allusion which is probably, though not certainly, anticipated in the first act (sc. I)—and as Ostend did not surrender until the autumn of 1604, it is likely that the composition of the whole falls into the last quarter of 1604, and that it was first acted at the beginning of 1605. In no case can North-Ward Hoe be dated earlier than about the middle of 1605, seeing that it is plainly a reply to East-ward Hoe (by Jonson, Chapman and Marston), which was almost certainly written, as a retort to West-Ward Hoe, in the earlier part of that year. And if, as seems probable, it contains a borrowing from Marston’s Parasitaster, Or The Fawne, which appears to have been first acted, as well as registered, early in 1606, then the composition of Dekker and Webster’s second comedy must be placed in 1606–7. In any case, it is clear that, during the time of partnership, long or short, the intercourse between Webster and Dekker, begun (as we have seen) in 1602, must have been of the most intimate kind. And, once more, it was the younger and deeper poet who sat at the feet of the elder and more facile.

The plays in question bring us into the thick of one of those battles of the dramatists which give much liveliness to the history of the Elizabethan stage. It may be called an afterswell of the storm which had raged between Jonson, on the one hand, and Dekker and Marston, on the other, in 1601–2; the storm of which Cynthia’s Revels, Poetaster and Satiro-mastix are the abiding record. Times had changed since the first round of the contest. Marston was now the partner of his terrible enemy; and, on both sides, the game was now played with the best temper, a compliment which could certainly not be paid to Jonson’s share in the earlier encounter. The main plot of West-Ward Hoe is a tale of three merry wives who, putting their husbands on a false scent, jaunt off with three gallants to spend the night at Brentford, then a familiar trysting-place. They are pursued by their husbands and run to earth at the inn, but, thanks to a sudden freak of respectability, are able to prove their innocence; all ends in good temper and reconciliation. With this isingeniously interwoven the story of Mistress Justiniano, who is wooed by a rakish earl and yields to his entreaties, but, at the critical moment, is seized with scruples and joins with her husband to work a like repentance on her lover. Having thus set his own house in order, Justiniano acts as managing director to the comedy of the three citizens and their wives, which forms the staple of the drama. The reply of Jonson and his partners in Eastward Hoe is notably respectful. In the main, it is a piece of friendly emulation rather than of satire. And the picture of citizen life is among the most pleasing, as well as vivid, which have come down to us. The theme is plainly suggested by the citizen and prentice portraits in which Dekker was past master. The spirit of Simon Eyre and Candido is caught with such skill that, a few phrases and other touches apart, the play might easily have been taken for the work of Dekker himself. Yet, in the edifying conversion of Master Francis Quicksilver, the idle apprentice, and most engaging of scapegraces, there is, manifestly, a spice of burlesque; and it is hard not to believe that the shaft was aimed at such scenes as the sudden conversion of Bellafront (1604), or of Mistress Justiniano in West-Ward Hoe itself. The satire, however, is unexpectedly genial; not comparable to that which had been showered on Dekker and Marston in Poetaster, nor even to that which was aimed at king James and his countrymen in this very play, and which brought the authors within danger of the law. Equally good-humoured is the satire of the rejoinder. Jonson is let off without a scratch. The banter—for it is nothing more—falls entirely on Chapman. There can be no doubt that the “little hoary poet” of North-Ward Hoe is intended for the latter. His Caesar and Pompey, his liking for French themes, his “full and heightened style,” his professional vanity—all come in for gentle mockery. But the banter consists in nothing worse than placing the “reverend” and moral poet in impossible situations; in bringing him to the house of a courtesan who falls violently in love with him and in causing him to be seized, if only for a moment, as a fit subject for confinement in Bedlam. And, on the whole, the portrait of Bellamont is the most attractive thing in the whole piece; Chapman himself can hardly have taken it amiss. Apart from such quizzing, the plot of the comedy is uncommonly simple. Mistress Mayberry, the wife of a rich citizen, is persecuted by the attentions of two worthless gallants. After repeated rejections, one of them snatches the ring from her finger and shows it to her husband, as a proof of her infidelity. Guided by Bellamont, Mayberry is soon able to convince himself of her innocence, and bides his time for an appropriate revenge. He beguiles the two slanderers into a trip to Ware, in the course of which he brings conclusive proof that one of them has corrupted the wife of the other. The injured husband is overwhelmed with confusion, and Mayberry completes his vengeance by entrapping the other rogue into marriage with the lady who has already figured gaily in the satire on Chapman. It can hardly be said that either this comedy, or that which opened the series, is so vivid or so full of sparkle as that of Jonson and his associates. But the merit of Eastward Hoe is so extraordinary that a play may well fall short of it and yet be extremely good. And that will be the verdict of most readers both on West-Ward Hoe and North-Ward Hoe.