Home  »  Volume VIII: English THE AGE OF DRYDEN  »  § 15. The Indebtedness of Beaumont and Fletcher, and of other Dramatists, before and after the Restoration, to Spanish Novels, and to Spanish Plays, Examined and Summarised

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume VIII. The Age of Dryden.

V. The Restoration Drama

§ 15. The Indebtedness of Beaumont and Fletcher, and of other Dramatists, before and after the Restoration, to Spanish Novels, and to Spanish Plays, Examined and Summarised

Towards the end of the reign of king James I, Spanish literature became better known in England, and we naturally look for the effect of this on English drama. But this relation was still general and established largely through French and Italian translation; and it is easy to make too much of it. The plays of Beaumont and Fletcher have been alleged to disclose more especially that contact between the dramas of the two nations which some scholars have striven anxiously to establish; and this, notwithstanding the accurate statement of Dryden as to dramatic plots that “Beaumont and Fletcher had most of theirs from Spanish novels.” Some seventeen of the fifty-two plays commonly attributed to Beaumont and Fletcher have been traced, in a greater or less measure of indebtedness, to Spanish literature. Eighteen others remain unidentified as to source, and some of these disclose a content and a manner not unlike the ruling traits of the drama of Spain. If, then, we consider the almost incredible mass of the writings of Lope de Vega (to mention him only), unread by English and even by Spanish scholars, and further keep in mind that those conversant with Spanish drama are not always conversant with English and vice versa, it would be rash to affirm that the last word has been said on a topic as yet not seriously opened. Our present information, however, may be set forth as follows, although, with regard to the plays on Spanish subjects attributed to Beaumont and Fletcher, it should be premised that most of them were composed at a date precluding the possibility that Beaumont had a hand in them. Cervantes was Fletcher’s favourite Spanish author; and he seems to have been acquainted solely with his prose. From the Novelas Exemplares, the English poet drew the major plots of The Chances, The Queene of Corinth, The Faire Maide of the Inne and Loves Pilgrimage with the underplot of Rule a Wife And have a Wife as well. The Custome of the Countrey is derived from the romance of Persiles y Sigismunda, the last work to come from the great Spaniard’s hand. As to Don Quixote, apart from possible suggestions for certain episodes of Beaumont’s Knight of the Burning Pestle, the plot of The Coxcombe, an episode of The Double Marriage and a personage of The Prophetesse have been traced by various critics to the same immortal romance. Besides Cervantes, Fletcher drew on Lope de Vega for his Pilgrim, on Juan de Flores for Women pleas’d and on Gonzalo de Cespedes for The Spanish Curate and The Maid in the Mill; and not one of these originals is a play, nor need Fletcher have read a word of Spanish to have become acquainted with them; for all had been translated into French or English and were readily accessible to his hand. About two only of the Fletcherian plays has any question on these points arisen. Loves Cure, first printed in the folio of 1647, but commonly dated back to the early years of king James, has been referred to a comedy by Guillen de Castro, written at so late a date as to make it quite impossible that Fletcher could have seen it. Again, Fletcher’s Island Princesse has been referred to a source in the writings of the younger Argensola, not translated out of Spanish at such a date that Fletcher could have seen it. But these matters are still under discussion, and, on this particular subject, we may take refuge in the judgment of Fitzmaurice-Kelly who writes: “Suffice it to say that, at the present stage, the balance of probabilities is against the view that Fletcher knew Spanish.”

If we turn to other dramatists, we find an occasional contemporary of Fletcher following in his footsteps. The Spanish Gipsie, a tragi-comedy by Middleton and William Rowley, is made up of an effective combination of two stories of Cervantes, La Fuerza de la Sangre and La Gitanilla. Rowley collaborated, too, with Fletcher in The Maid in the Mill, a comedy based on a story of Gonzalo de Cespedes, translated by Leonard Digges and called Gerardo, the Unfortunate Spaniard. Rowley’s own powerful tragedy All Lost by Lust, draws on Spanish story, though his precise source remains problematic. Once more, A Very Woman, by Massinger, is derived from a story of the Novelas Exemplares. The same dramatist’s Renegado is said to be based on Cervantes’s Los Baños de Argel, and similarities have been traced between the same two authors in The Fatall Dowry and the interlude, El Viejo celoso. Moreover, it is said that neither of these Spanish pieces was translated in Massinger’s lifetime, although this is not to be considered certain. We may not feel sure that a Spanish play has actually influenced an English play by direct borrowing, until we reach Shirley, who, on credible authority, is reported to have utilised El Castigo del Pensèque of Tirso de Molina in The Opportunitie and Lope de Vega’s Don Lope de Cardona in The Young Admirall. Fitzmaurice-Kelly sceptically observes, even as to these examples: “a minute demonstration of the extent of Shirley’s borrowings would be still more satisfactory.”

The last two volumes of Dodsley’s Old Plays contain several dramas of the restoration which are Spanish in scene. Of these, The Rebellion by Thomas Rawlins seems wholly fanciful with its hero disguised as a tailor and its crowded and improbable incident. The Marriage Night, printed in 1664, by Henry viscount Falkland is an abler drama, reproducing, however, in more than one forcible passage, personages and situations of the earlier Elizabethan drama. Both of these were written before the closing of the theatres, but it is doubtful if the latter was ever acted. Other pre-restoration dramas of Spanish plot are The Parson’s Wedding, which Killigrew had of Calderon’s Dama Duende, and Fanshawe’s translation of two comedies of Antonio de Mendoza. With Tuke’s Adventures of Five Hours (written in 1662) and Digby’s Elvira, or The Worst Not always True (printed in 1667), we reach unquestionable examples of the immediate adaptation of Spanish dramas to the English stage. This is not the place in which to dilate on the glories of the Spanish stage, the moral purpose of Alarcon, the brilliancy and wit of Tirso de Molina, the happy fertility of Lope de Vega, the clarity of thought and lofty sentiment of Calderon, greatest of the Spanish dramatists. Both the comedies just mentioned are favourable specimens of the popular comedias de capa y espada, invented by Lope de Vega. Two ladies, a gallant and his friend, their lovers, a jealous brother or a difficult father, with the attendant servants of all parties; mistake, accident, intrigue and involvement, honour touched and honour righted—such is the universal recipe of the comedy of cloak and sword. As to these adapters of the species to England, George Digby, earl of Bristol, had played no unimportant part as ambassador of king James I at Madrid, where he translated two other comedies of Calderon besides No Siempre lo Peor es Cierto, the original of Elvira. Sir Samuel Tuke had served at Marston moor and followed the prince into exile. He was much favoured by Charles, who is said to have suggested Los Empeñs de Seis Horas (now assigned to Antonio Coello and not, as formerly, to Calderon) as “an excellent design” for an English play. Elvira is little more than a translation, stiff, formal and, while by no means wanting in action, protracted if not chargeable with repetitions. It was not printed until 1667, and we have no record of the performance of it. Tuke’s Adventures of Five Hours is a better play and, as rewritten, was sufficiently adapted to the conditions of the English stage to gain a deserved success. Into the relations of Tuke’s play to the coming heroic drama of Dryden, we cannot here enter. Its importance, despite its Castilian gravity and some rimed couplets, seems, in this respect, likely to be exaggerated. So, too, although important as the earliest play of Spanish plot acted after the restoration, it is too much to claim for The Adventures the “reintroduction” of a type of the drama of intrigue “which, from that day to this, has never left the English stage.” Dryden attacked The Adventures, but Pepys declared: “when all is done, [it] is the best play that ever I read in my life.”

The coffers of Spanish drama, thus opened, continued to afford English playwrights their treasures. Dryden’s Rival-Ladies and An Evening’s Love or the Mock Astrologer have been referred to Spanish sources: the last is Calderon by way of Corneille. Dryden’s earliest dramatic effort, The Wild Gallant, has also been thought to be of Spanish origin. But this is an error, referable to a misreading of the prologue; the source is certainly English and, doubtless, Dryden’s own invention. With Sir Thomas St. Serfe’s Taruzo’s Wiles, or the Coffee House, founded on Moreto’s No puede ser, the earl of Orrery’s Guzman and Mrs. Behn’s Dutch Lover and The Rover, we complete the list of dramas in the earlier years of the restoration which have been alleged to be of Spanish plot. Crowne’s Sir Courtly Nice is a later comedy, said, likewise, to have been suggested by the taste of king Charles and derived from Moreto’s No puede ser, and “the most amusing scenes” of Wycherley’s comedy, The Gentleman Dancing-master, have been assigned to a source in Calderon’s El Maestro de Danzar. More commonly, however, Spanish influences filtered into England through the drama of France. It may be doubted whether any “Spanish plot” of Dryden exhibits more than an indirect origin of this nature. In later decades, this was almost invariably the case. Thus, Steele’s Lying Lover, The Perplexed Lover of Mrs. Centlivre and Colley Cibber’s She Would and She Would Not are derivative plays and only remotely Spanish.

We may summarise what has been said on a subject of considerable difficulty as follows. Spanish literary influences on the drama in Tudor times were slight and confined, almost entirely, to an occasional plot, derived, as a rule, through some foreign intermediary. In the reign of James I, Beaumont and Fletcher, Massinger and William Rowley, alone among dramatists of note, drew on Spanish sources for their plays; and, though the question cannot be regarded as definitely settled, it seems likely that their sources lay wholly in fiction, translated into other and, to them, more familiar languages of the continent or into English. It was in the reign of king Charles I, that Spanish drama for the first time came into a closer touch with the English stage. That touch was closest at the restoration, when the cavalier returned with his foreign luggage and the taste of the king conspired with the experiences of his courtiers to foster many experiments. But Spanish influence was soon eclipsed by that of France, aided by the strong national spirit that prolonged the influence of Jonson and his contemporaries for generations after their decease.