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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

§ 8. Advance on his earlier work

But, whether the postitive changes made by Webster in his unknown authority be large or small, the advance of The White Divel on any or all of his previous work is incalculable. To the ’prentice, seeing through the eyes and speaking with the voice of his master, has succeeded the skilled craftsman, with an almost perfect command of his material and instruments, with the keenest eye for the hidden possibilities of his task and the utmost originality in handling it. During the half dozen years or so which followed, Webster was by far the most striking figure, Shakespeare excepted, in the long roll of contemporary dramatists. With the men of his own day, he had not the vogue of Beaumont and Fletcher or the personal authority of Jonson. But modern criticism, with one voice, has pronounced his genius to be of a higher and rarer kind. And, though we can still trace a certain awkwardness in his management of the plot—a defect from which he never shook himself entirely free—his work, in other respects, is singularly self-contained, as well as absolutely original. There is, perhaps, no poet on record who leaped so suddenly into the full possession of his powers. It is, of course, true that the influence of other writers can be traced very plainly in this, as in his other, tragedy. His debt to Shakespeare, has often been pointed out. It appears in many turns of thought and phrase; in the portrait of the boy, Giovanni; in the haunting beauty of Cornelia’s dirge; in the consummate art, bold yet unostentatious, with which the figure of the heroine is painted: above all, in that union of imaginative reflection, pure poetry and dramatic genius which brings him nearer than any of his fellow dramatists to the author of Hamlet. In his fusion of the two former of these qualities, again, we cannot fail to recognise his relationship, perhaps his indebtedness, to the greatest lyric poet of the period, Donne.

These, however, are matters which concern the individual genius of the dramatist. Still more significant is his place in the general development of the Elizabethan drama; and, in particular, his debt to the dramatists of revenge. Here, he falls into line with that long succession of writers, beginning with Kyd, who took up the tale of Seneca’s Thyestes and Agamemnon and, during more than twenty years, rang the changes upon and theme of vengeance through every key and with every variety of accompaniment. To explain his position, a slight sketch of the history of this theme, as handled by Elizabethan dramatists, may be attempted.

In the older versions of the theme there are three essential features, all of which, in the last resort, are inherited from Seneca. These are, that a murder has been committed; that revenge is a duty from which the next of kin cannot escape; and that this duty is enforced by the ghost of the murdered man, which appears at intervals to drive home the demand for blood. So it is with The Spanish Tragedie; so with Antonios Revenge; so, allowing for certain modifications, with The Revenge of Bussy d’ Ambois (published 1613) and The Second Maiden’s Tragedy (licensed 1611); so, unless all indications are misleading, with the lost Hamlet (in or before 1596), which has been attributed, on probable, but not conclusive, grounds, to Kyd; so, finally, with the Hamlet of Shakespeare. The first change in the outward framework of the story—in spirit, it need hardly be said that Shakespeare’s masterpiece stands poles asunder from the crudities of Kyd, Martson and the rest—seems to have been made by Chettle, whose Tragedy of Hoffman belongs to the same year as Antonios Revenge. The change is twofold. The ghost disappears; and, what is far more significant, the avenger of blood is no longer the hero, but the villain, of the piece. Both innovations are repeated, with important modifications, in the next play of Marston, The Malcontent (1604, or earlier), to which, indeed, it is quite possible that the credit of them may belong rather than to Hoffman. The modifications are as follows. The murderer of the original version is replaced by a usurper who drives the rightful prince into exile. This, necessarily, involves the disappearance of the ghost. And revenge, though retained, is retained in a form so softened that the avenger contents himself with melting one of his enemies to repentance and dismissing the other with magnanimous contempt.

It was at this point that Tourneur took up the tale. Reverting to murder as the starting-point of his action, he entirely dispenses with the ghost and, in the very moment of victory, the cup of triumph is dashed from the lips of his “revenger”. It is clear that he felt the theme of vengeance to be an outworn convention. It is equally clear that he surrendered it with extreme reluctance. The whole fabric of the piece is based on the assumption that revenge is a binding duty. And, when the tables are turned, when the performance of the duty is visited at the last moment with condign punishment, it is inevitable that the reader should feel himself defrauded. Never had a play so lame and impotent a conclusion as this. And, for that reason, if for no other, it is a relief to turn from The Revengers Tragoedie to The Atheist’s Tragedie. Here, at any rate, the central thought is consistently maintained from beginning to end. Here, at any rate, the dramatist flies without faltering to his mark. The innovation, which he had been blindly feeling after in The Revengers Tragoedie, is here boldly carried out. Vengeance is thrust down from the rank of duties; forgiveness is exalted in its stead. If the ghost of the murdered man is restored to something of his former rights, it is to cry not for revenge, but for mercy; to reiterate, with a fervour more moral than dramatic, that “vengeance is the Lord’s.” The dramatic weakness of the change is obvious enough. But it is significant as marking the final stage of the tragedies of revenge.