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

VII. The Restoration Drama

§ 20. Settle

Elkanah Settle and Thomas Shadwell were described by Dryden as

  • Two fools that crutch their feeble sense on verse;
  • Who, by my muse, to all succeeding times
  • Shall live, in spite of their own doggrel rhymes;
  • and, in Settle’s case, at all events, the prophecy has come true. Of the numerous publications which remain to show the fruits of his busy pen, scarce one is read to-day. He made a bid for success in almost every department of literature; but he is only remembered as Doeg, the victim of some of the most scathing lines in English satirical poetry.

    Settle began his career as a dramatist with the tragedy Cambyses, King of Persia, produced, according to Downes, by Betterton in 1666, when it met with considerable success. It was not printed till 1671, and was followed by The Empress of Morocco (1673). For a brief period, the latter play carried all before it; and the applause bestowed on it, together with the absurd comparisons of Settle to Dryden, to the detriment of the latter, which it evoked, seem to have more or less turned Settle’s head. As a matter of fact, The Empress of Morocco owed its success mainly to the good offices of Rochester, who patronised Settle to annoy Dryden. It displays considerable ingenuity and knowledge of stage effect, always Settle’s strong point. The success of the play, and the pompous manner of its publication, drew forth some abusive Notes and Observations, said, by Dennis, to have been the joint work of Crowne, Dryden and Shadwell, to which Settle replied; and, though Crowne claimed the lion’s share of the attack, a paper war arose between Settle and Dryden.

    The Empress of Morocco was succeeded by Love and Revenge (1675); and Ibrahim, the Illustrious Bassa (1677), founded on Madeleine de Scudéry’s romance, turned by her brother Georges into a play of the same name. From that time until 1718, Settle produced a large number of plays, mostly bombastic tragedies of the poorest sort, the very names of which are now unfamiliar. About 1680, he made the first of his several changes of political tenets and opened fire on the adherents of the court and catholic party, his earliest patrons. The disgraceful play, The Female Prelate, marks this stage in his career. In 1683, he was a tory once more, and involved himself in an acrimonious controversy concerning the popish plot. In 1691, he was appointed city poet, and, in that capacity, produced the annual pageant on lord mayor’s day, of which the official printed record for several years is extant. In the duties of this office, Settle must have found himself at home, for the fertility of his scenic invention is undoubted. It was not, however, sufficiently lucrative to keep him from want, nor did he turn his coat cleverly enough to profit greatly by these successive changes. He sank lower and lower, and, at last, was obliged to write drolls for Bartholomew fair, and even, according to a tradition maliciously repeated by Pope, to act in them himself. In 1718, the forlorn hack found a haven in the Charterhouse, where he died early in 1724.