Home  »  Volume VI: English THE DRAMA TO 1642 Part Two  »  § 7. Field’s debt to Jonson; his romantic tendency and collaboration with Massinger

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

§ 7. Field’s debt to Jonson; his romantic tendency and collaboration with Massinger

In this play, which is full both of matter and of varied promise of dramatic ability, Ben Jonson is obviously the master most consciously copied. The “humours” are in Jonson’s manner, as are the complicated plottings. The compression of the action into exactly one day is in accordance with Ben’s teaching. It might be contended that a certain intensity in the serious scenes copies the splendid passion of Volpone, which is the high-water mark of Jonson’s art. This, however, would be a mistake. The serious scenes of the play are essentially romantic and idealistic, suggesting Romeo and Juliet rather than The Alchemist. But Romeo has been brought up as a player and has appeared upon the public stage from his childhood, and Ben Jonson has been his schoolmaster. He has, therefore, lost all exterior softness and sentiment, and, at first reading, a certain hardness and bravado in his manner deceive the student. Field’s second play, Amends for Ladies, followed hard upon the first, and was intended to atone for the many hard things said against women in the first play. There are three heroines, the lady Honour, the lady Perfect and the lady Bright, who, as maid, wife and widow, vindicate respectively, the claims of their sex to constancy and virtue. It will be seen, therefore, that, again, the scheme of the play is too full of incident; there are three plays in one. The second play, on the whole, is a more hasty piece of work than the first; it has the drawbacks of an after-thought; but there is a distinct maturity and strengthening to be noted in its style. Field’s natural bent is, more obviously than before, to draw ideal heroes, headstrong and indomitable. He does not yet show much power of characterisation; his heroes and heroines are all repetitions of one type. We remember that one of his great parts was Bussy D’Ambois, and that Chapman addresses some lines “to his loved son Nat Field.” The comic scenes of the second play are less original and less amusing than those of the first. There is something perfunctory about “the merry prankes of Moll Cut-purse, Or, the humour of roaring.” And, again, all that part of the play which uses the plot of “The Curious Impertinent” in Don Quixote, in which a husband, in order to prove his wife’s virtue, eggs on his friend to tempt her, is intolerable to modern feeling. Field’s audacity and directness of treatment make him, when his subject is unpleasant, unusually outrageous, even for the Jacobean stage. Yet he cherishes an ideal of incorruptible and unassailable virtue which was rare in the drama of the period.

Besides writing these two comedies, Field collaborated both with Fletcher and Massinger. Of these collaborations, we need mention only The Fatall Dowry, produced about 1619, shortly before Field retired from the stage. It has been common to refer to Field the lighter parts of plays in which he collaborated; but what we have noted in his work will make it highly probable that Field, quite as much as Massinger, was responsible for the romantic side of the play and especially for the uncompromising honesty of Romont. In this respect, Chapman was his master; and, from Chapman and Jonson equally, he learnt to remind his reader that “a play is not so idle a thing as thou art, but a mirror of men’s lives and actions.” And yet this profession irked him; “thou know’st where to hear of me for a year or two and no more,” he says, in the address to the reader which we have quoted. He married about 1619 and became a publisher, dying in 1633. In 1616, he addressed a letter to Sutton, the preacher at St. Mary Overy, who, like Field’s own father, was a great denouncer of the stage. Field very loyally defends his profession; but his letter is very remarkable for its religious earnestness, which, in itself, is enough to explain his retirement.