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

VI. The Restoration Drama

§ 22. Shadwell

Whenever this or that battle of literature is engaged, the leaders are attended by a vast mob of camp-followers, who without natural talent or obvious ingenuity, hope to share the spoils of victory. Thus it was that the masters of comedy saw their works mimicked and the repute of their craft not enhanced by eager, industrious journeymen. The most of these preserve their names and no more in the annals of the stage. Now and again they emerge, for some quality of wit or good nature, from the rest and, with their half-forgotten works, prompt the curiosity of the historian. Thomas Shadwell, poet laureate, for instance, enjoyed a popularity in his own day which is not easily explicable in ours. Literary skill was not among the gifts of his mind. He had a trick of invention, and was determined to turn the best models to account. But when he had invented (or adapted) his puppets, he handled them so carelessly, that they long since lost their interest for us. The sense of style, the mastery of language, which might have tempered their extravagance, were lacking to him, and he resembled the facile playwrights of to-day in refusing to look upon the drama as a branch of literature. In his preface to The Sullen Lovers he proudly professed himself a pupil of Ben Jonson, whose variety of “humours” he attempted to reproduce, and whom, he thought, “all dramatic poets ought to imitate.” His debt to Ben Jonson was infinitely less than his debt to Molière. The Sullen Lovers is based upon Les Fâcheux; Bury Fair, his masterpiece, owes its fantastic characters to Les Précieuses Ridicules; and The Miser is no more than a perversion of L’Avare. Yet so good a conceit of himself had Shadwell, that he thought he did his masters no discredit. “’T is not barrenness of wit or invention that makes me borrow from the French,” he boasted, “but laziness.” To be lazy is a greater sin, in the realm of art, than to be barren. He patronised Shakespeare as amiably as he patronised Molière. When he had mangled Timon of Athens, “I can truly say,” he wrote, “that I have made it a play.” Yet with all his shortcomings he held the stage for a quarter of a century. His Epsom Wells was praised by St. Évremond. He had the wit to make Don Juan the hero of The Libertine, and with The Squire of Alsatia he scaled the topmost height of his popularity. This last play has many faults. Its story is incredible. The cant used by the rufflers of Whitefriars is handled with so little tact, that it seems an excrescence upon the dialogue rather than a part of it. Yet how much excellent material it contains was revealed by Sir Walter Scott, who made a free use of it in The Fortunes of Nigel. Briefly, the vices and virtues of hasty Shadwell have been well summed up by Rochester in four lines:

  • “Shadwell’s unfinished Works do yet impart
  • Great Proofs of force of Nature, none of Art,
  • With just bold Strokes he dashes here and there,
  • Showing great Mastery with little Care.”
  • It is this judgment which, together with Dryden’s satire, has preserved the name and fame of Shadwell from oblivion.