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fact is, that in this respect, as in most others, Greene was much inferior to Marlowe, and of course still less can he bear comparison with Shakespeare. He doubtless began to write for the stage in rhyme, and his blank-verse preserves nearly all the defects of that early form: it reads heavily and monotonously, without variety of pause and inflection, and almost the only difference between it and rhyme is the absence of corresponding sounds at the ends of the lines.
The same defects, and in quite as striking a degree, belong to another of the dramatists who is entitled to be considered a predecessor of Shakespeare, and whose name has been before introduced—Thomas Lodge. Only one play in which he was unassisted has descended to us, and it bears the title of “The Wounds of Civil War, lively set forth in the True Tragedies of Marius and Sylla.” It was not printed until 1594, but the author began to write as early as 1580, and we may safely consider his tragedy anterior to the original works of Shakespeare: it was probably written about 1587 or 1588, as a not very successful experiment in blank-verse, in poor imitation of that style which Marlowe in his “Tamburlaine" had at once rendered popular.
As regards the dates when his pieces came from the press, John Lyly is entitled to earlier notice than Greene, Lodge, or even Marlowe; and it is possible, as he was ten years older than Shakespeare, that he was a writer before any of them : it does not seem, however, that his dramas were intended for the public stage, but for court-shows or private entertainments'. His “Alexander and Campaspe,” the best of his productions, was represented at Court, and it was twice printed, in 1584, and again in 1591: it is, like most of this author's productions, in prose; but his “Woman in the Moon ” (printed in 1597) is in blank-verse, and the “Maid's Metamorphosis,” 1600, (if indeed it be by him) is in rhyme. As none of these dramas, generally composed in a refined, affected, and artificial style, can be said to have had any material influence upon stage-entertainments before miscellaneous audiences, it is unnecessary for our present purpose to say more regarding them.
9 They were acted by the children of the chapel, or by the children of St. Paul's, and a few of them bear evidence on the title-pages that they were presented at a private theatre—none of them that they had been played upon public stages before popular audiences.
George Peele was about the same age as Lyly'; but his theatrical productions (with the exception of "The Arraignment of Paris," printed in 1584, and written for the court) are of a different description, having been intended for exhibition at the ordinary theatres. His “Edward the First” · he calls a “ famous chronicle," and most of the incidents are derived from history: it is, in fact, one of our earliest plays founded upon English annals. It was printed in 1593 and in 1599, but with so many imperfections, that we cannot accept it as any fair representation of the state in which it came from the author's pen. The most remarkable feature belonging to it is the unworthy manner in which Peele sacrificed the character of Queen Isabel to his desire to gratify the popular antipathy to the Spaniards : the opening of it is spirited, and affords evidence of the author's skill as a writer of blank-verse. His "Battle of Alcazar” may also be termed a historical drama, in which he allowed himself the most extravagant licence as to time, incidents, and characters : it perhaps preceded his “ Edward the First” in point of date, (though not printed until 1594) and the principal event it refers to occurred in 1578. “Sir Clyomon and Clamydes ' is merely a romance, in the old form of a rhyming play”;
He is supposed to have been born about the year 1553. He was probably son to Stephen Peele, who was a bookseller and a writer of ballads : Stephen Peele was the publisher of Bishop Bale's miracle-play of “God's Promises,” in 1577, and his name is subscribed, as author, to two ballads printed by the Percy Society in 1840. The connexion between Stephen and George Peele has never struck any of the biographers of the latter. Stephen Peele was most likely the author of a pageant on the mayoralty of Sir W. Draper, in 1566-7. The Rev. A. Dyce has superintended an edition of “George Peele's Works,” in 3 vols. 8vo, but here again we have to regret that he adhered to the old editions so closely, that he has preserved not a few of their blemishes. In the drama of “David and Bethsabe,” he prints a passage delivered by the hero in these words :
• Bright Bethsabe gives earth to my desires,
Verdure to earth.” It needs but little thought to discover that the old compositor made nonsense of the first line by erroneously catching the word “ earth” from the second line : we must inevitably read,
“ Bright Bethsabe gives birth to my desires,
Verdure to earth." Fidelity to the text of an old play is a great recommendation, when it is not obtained at the sacrifice of the true and clear meaning of the poet.
2 It may be doubted whether Peele wrote any part of this production: it was printed anonymously in 1599, and all the evidence of authorship is the existence of a copy with the name of Peele, in an old hand, upon the title-page. If he wrote it at all, it was doubtless a very early composition, and it belongs precisely to the class of romantic plays ridiculed by Stephen Gosson about 1580.
and “David and Bethsabe," a scriptural drama, and a great improvement upon older pieces of the same character : Peele here confined himself strictly to the incidents in Holy Writ, and it certainly contains the best specimens of his blank-verse composition. His “Old Wives' Tale,” in the shape in which it has reached us, seems hardly deserving of criticism, and it would have received little notice but for some remote, and perhaps accidental, resemblance between its story and that of Milton's "Comus 3.”
The “ Jeronimo” of Thomas Kyd is to be looked upon as a species of transition play: the date of its composition, on the testimony of Ben Jonson, may be stated to be prior to 1588", just after Marlowė had produced his “ Tamburlaine," and when Kyd hesitated to follow his bold step to the full extent of his progress.
“Jeromino" is therefore partly in blankverse, and partly in rhyme : the same observation will apply, though not in the same degree, to Kyd's "Spanish Tragedy:" it is in truth a second part of “ Jeronimo,” the story being continued from one play to the other, and managed with considerable dexterity : the interest in the latter is great, and generally well sustained, and some of the characters are drawn with no little art and force. The success of “ Jeronimo,” doubtless, induced Kyd to write the second part of it immediately; and we need not hesitate in concluding that “The Spanish Tragedy” had been acted before 1590.
Besides Marlowe, Greene, Lodge, Lyly, Peele, and Kyd, there were other dramatists, who may be looked upon as the immediate predecessors of Shakespeare, but few of whose printed works are of an earlier date, as regards composition, than some of those which came from the pen of our great poet. Among these, Thomas Nash was the most distinguished, whose contribution to “ Dido,” in conjunction with Marlowe, has been before noticed: the portions which came from the pen of Marlowe are, we think, easily to be distinguished from those written by Nash, whose genius does not seem to have been of an imaginative or dramatic, but of a satirical and objurgatory character. He produced alone a piece called “Summer's Last Will and Testament,” which was written in the autumn of 1592, but not printed until 1600: it bears internal evidence that it was exhibited as a private show, and it could never have been meant for public performance Henry Chettle, who was also senior to Shakespeare, has left behind him a tragedy called “Hoffman,” which was not printed until 1630 ; and he was engaged with Anthony Munday in producing “ The Death of Robert Earl of Huntington,” printed in 1601. From Henslowe's Diary we learn that both these pieces were written subsequent to the date when Shakespeare had acquired a high reputation. Munday had been a dramatist as early as 1584, when a rhyming translation by him, under the title of “The Two Italian Gentlemen," came from the presso; and in the interval between that year and 1602, he wrote the whole or parts of various plays which have been lost'. Robert Wilson ought not to be omitted : he seems to have been a prolific dramatist, but only one comedy by him has survived, under the title of “ The Cobbler's Prophecy,” and it was printed in 1594. According to the evidence of Henslowe, he aided Drayton and Munday in writing “The First Part
3 See “ Milton's Minor Poems,” by T. Warton, p. 135, edit. 1791. Of this resemblance, Warton, who first pointed it out, remarks, " That Milton had an eye on this ancient drama, which might have been a favourite in his early youth, perhaps may be affirmed with at least as much credibility, as that he conceived the Paradise Lost from seeing a mystery at Florence, written by Adreini, a Florentine, in 1617, entitled Adamo." The fact may have been, that Peele and Milton resorted to the same original, now lost : “ The Old Wives' Tale” reads exactly as if it were founded upon some popular story-book.
4 In the Induction to his “ Cynthia's Revels," acted in 1600, where he is speaking of the revival of plays, and among others of “the old Jeronimo" which, he adds, had “ departed a dozen years since.” He however himself wrote “additions” to it in the very next year, when, perhaps, it was revived : see “Henslowe's Diary," printed by the Shakespeare Society in 1845, pp. 201. 223.
5 It can be shown to have been represented at Croydon, no doubt at Beddington, the residence of the Carews, under whose patronage Nash acknowledges himself to have been living: see the dedication to his “Terrors of the Night," 4to, 1594.
“Summer's Last Will” &c. forms part of Vol. ix. of the edit. of Dodsley's O. P. in 1825. The date of the death of Nash, who probably took a part in the representation, has been disputed,--whether it was before or after 1601; but the production of a cenotaph upon him, from Fitz-Geoffrey's Affaniæ, printed in 1601, must put an end to all doubt : see the Introduction to Nash's " Pierce Pennyless," 1592, as reprinted for the Shakespeare Society. For particulars relating to the birth, &c. of Nash in 1567, and for entries regarding his father, mother, brothers, and sisters, see Mr. P. Cunningham's communication in “The Shakespeare Society's Papers," Vol. iii. p. 178.
6 The only known copy of this comedy is without a title-page, but it was entered at Stationers' Hall for publication in 1584, and we may presume that it was printed about that date. Extracts from the Stationers' Registers, ii. 193.
? He had a share in the first part of the “ Life of Sir John Oldcastle," which was printed as Shakespeare's work in 1600, although some copies of the play exist without his name on the title-page. All that is known, and considerably more than has been printed, regarding Anthony Munday may be seen in the Introduction to his drama of “ John a Kent and John à Cumber,” published from his original MS. by the Shakespeare Society in 1851.
of the Life of Sir John Oldcastle,” printed in 1600 ; but he must at that date have been old, if he were the same Robert Wilson who was one of Lord Leicester's theatrical servants in 1574, and who became one of the leaders of the company called the Queen's Players in 1583. He seems to have been a low comedian, and his “Cobbler's Prophecy” is a piece, the drollery of which must have depended in a great degree upon the performers.
With regard to mechanical facilities for the representation of plays before, and indeed long after, the time of Shakespeare, it may be sufficient to state, that our old public theatres were merely wooden buildings, generally round, open to the sky in the audience part of the house, although the stage was covered by a hanging roof: the spectators stood on the ground in front or at the sides, or were accommodated in boxes round the inner circumference of the edifice, or in galleries at a greater elevation. Our ancient stage was not furnished with movable scenery; and tables, chairs, a few boards for a battlemented wall, or a rude structure for a tomb or an altar, seem to have been nearly all the properties it possessed. It was usually hung round with decayed tapestry; and as there was no other mode of conveying the necessary information, the author often provided that the player, on his entrance, should take occasion to mention the place of action. When the business of a piece required that the stage should represent two apartments, the effect was accomplished by a curtain, called a traverse, drawn across it; and a sort of balcony in the rear enabled the writer to represent his characters at a window, on the platform of a castle, or on a raised terrace.
To this simplicity, and to these deficiencies, we doubtless owe some of the finest passages in our early plays; for it was part of the business of the dramatist to supply the absence of coloured canvas by grandeur and luxuriance of description. The ear was thus made the substitute for the eye, and the poet's pen, aided by the auditor's imagination, more than supplied the place of the painter's brush. Movable scenery was unknown in our public theatres until after the Restoration; and, as has been observed elsewhere," the introduction of it gives the date to the commencement of the decline of our dramatic poetry *.
How far propriety of costume was regarded, we have no
· History of Engl. Dram. Poetry and the Stage,” Vol. iii. p. 366.