« PreviousContinue »
the reigns of the first James and his successor Charles. For this and other accidental causes, we commence, with him, a review which we intend to take of the works of these extraordinary men. Chapman, indeed, is not one whom we would have voluntarily presented first to the notice of the reader, unacquainted with the dramatic writings of these contemporaries of Shakspeare, for he is far from being the best of them, and to a superficial reader, on the whole, repulsive and often even incomprehensible. Inasmuch as we should esteem it a proud distinction, could we contribute to make these writers more generally known, we cannot but lament that the forbidding aspect of Chapman must first meet the eye of the uninitiated, which perhaps may, like the surly countenance of an ill-looking host standing at his gate, induce the literary traveller to pass on, in hopes of a warmer welcome and a less churlish entertainer on a different road, or at a farther stage of his journey. George Chapman, however, is made of stern stuff, wears well, and is better for knowing; and, such as he is, we venture to introduce him, in a new character, to our readers. For, as a translator, we have already endeavoured to convey an impression, though, we fear, but a faint one, of his eminent merits.
Of the biography of our author, few particulars remain. We learn, that he was born in the year 1557, and that he died at the age of seventy-seven, in 1634. He is called by Browne, in his pastorals, "the fair shepherd of Hitching-hill,” which place, in Hertfordshire, is hence concluded by some to have been his birth-place. He was warmly patronized by Sir Francis Walsingham, Henry Prince of Wales, and Carr, Earl of Somerset; and claims the much higher honour of having been the friend of Spenser, Shakspeare, Jonson, and other distinguished contemporaries. He was educated at one or both of the universities certainly: he spent some time at Oxford, and, it is supposed, completed his studies at Cambridge. During the course of his long life, he appears to have been, according to Wood, temperate and religious in his habits, and venerable in his aspect, and universally esteemed by his friends for the dignity and respectability of his character. His works are numerous, and display the scholar as clearly as the man of genius. Besides his translations of Homer, and parts of Hesiod, and the Erotopagnion of Musaus, and some original poems, he gave to the stage no less than twenty dramas; sixteen of which have come down to us. They consist both of tragedy and comedy, and bear the following titles:-The blind Beggar of Alexandria, a comedy, first printed in 1598. Humorous day's mirth, a comedy, 1599. All Fools, a comedy, 1605. Eastward Hoe, a comedy, 1605; in which he was assisted by Jonson and
Marston, who were imprisoned in the Fleet by James I., together with Chapman, for certain reflections which this play contained upon the Scotch nation. Gentleman Usher, a comedy, 1606. Monsieur D'Olive, a comedy, 1606. Bussy D'Ambois, a tragedy, 1607. Cesar and Pompey, a tragedy, 1607. The Conspiracy and Tragedy of Charles Duke of Byron, in two parts, tragedies, 1608. May Day, a comedy, 1611. Widow's Tears, a comedy, 1612. The Revenge of Bussy D'Ambois, a tragedy, 1613. Two Wise Men and all the rest Fools, a comedy, 1619. Alphonsus Emperor of Germany, and Revenge for Honour, both tragedies, printed after the author's death in 1654.
Thus, Chapman, like all his contemporaries before the literary division of labour had taken place, indifferently applied himself to the composition of both tragedy and comedy; but he differs from them in this respect, that he very seldom mixes them up in the same play-a peculiarity which will render the separate consideration of his comedies and tragedies much less difficult, and much more complete, than it could otherwise have been. The fact is, that so numerous are these productions, and so copious the extracts which must necessarily be made from them, that, in the present article, we intend to discuss alone the tragedies and tragic talents of Chapman, and shall defer our observations on all that relates to his comedies and his comic powers, and our examples of them, to our next number.
Chapman was an older man, and wrote at a somewhat earlier period than the dramatists, except Shakspeare, with whom he is usually classed. Thus, like Marlow, he fell into the vices of an unformed stage. The first step from the puerilities and stupid absurdities of the old mysteries and moralities, was an elevation of tone and sentiment, rather than a nearer approach to the representation of nature. The most obvious mode of avoiding the cold and dull was to become bold and impassioned; and, instead of childish simplicity, to substitute loud and thundering declamation. The spirited rants of a Tamburlaine were sure to meet with the warm approbation of men who compared them not with nature, but with the representations which such dramas exploded. What life, what fire, what lofty eloquence, would such a hero appear to be inspired with. What a change from lifeless stupidity to vigorous activity, supernatural daring, and a spirit which the gods themselves could not tame. How little would such an audience be inclined to look nicely into the justness of thought, or the propriety of imagery. If all sounded grand, if the hero looked and talked big, and strutted his hour upon the stage, unconquered and unconquerable, they would all retire from the Bull," or the " Bear," mightily well pleased, and with mighty
good reason. When plays were written to be acted, and not to be published as literary compositions, fustian would always be in great request. The actors would love it-they have ever done so for it gives them a good opportunity of spouting and ranting to their hearts' content, and affords a much better chance of pleasing the multitude, who are too commonly like Partridge in Tom Jones, and think the man who plays the king really acts, while they themselves could do as well as Garrick. In the rapidity of utterance, there is little time for criticism; and a pompous delivery, a round voice, and graceful action, can frequently conceal, in the representation, the most palpable absurdities of thought and imagery. Thus are spectators deceived, like Dryden, who says of one of the plays of this very author, he wondered, in the reading, what was become of those glaring colours which had amazed him upon the theatre, but when he had taken up what he supposed a fallen star, he found he had been cozened with a jelly. It was the historical play which brought the English drama down to the level of nature. Writers for the stage, when they no longer sought their subjects in the Bible, looked for the next authentic history. They versified the chronicles of English history, and grew natural in spite of themselves. From the affecting scenes which they copied from our annals, the step was a short one to the traditional histories of private life and humble pathos. When Chapman's taste was formed, the drama had not yet undergone this purification, or he took his ideas of dramatic excellence from some different model. The faults of his compositions are vital--they are dramas, and yet cannot be justly called dramatic-their language and thoughts are commonly turgid and inflated to the highest degree, and it is but very rare that the gross hyperboles with which they abound, sink into just and natural conceptions. When we have added, that from one end of his plays to the other, we do not recollect one touch of pathos, nor a single powerful appeal to any one natural passion, we think we have settled his claims to be considered a great tragedian. Nevertheless in all these plays does the genius of the man break forth in frequent instances of redeeming excellence; and, though we cannot be brought to esteem him a great dramatist, yet his talents were of no ordinary kind, and amply deserve such notice as we can give him.
We have said, that the plays of Chapman are undramatic, and they are so for this reason, that our author seems quite incapable of throwing himself into the character of another. He is quite unable to imagine to himself the state of feeling and course of thought, which, according to the different natures of men, they must necessarily undergo in any critical situation. In the whole of his tragedies, there is but one character which has
any claim to be considered as a distinct and developed form, and that was probably the character of Chapman himself. It is when he pourtrays a man who boasts himself above all circumstances, who feels so intensely his own powers and qualities, that he vainly, imagines himself indestructible; one who by his unbounded confidence in himself succeeds in attempts which no other man durst undertake, and which the impudence of the attempt itself mainly contributes to effect. This is the character of Bussy D'Ambois, of the Duke Byron, and indeed of all his leading persons, where they have a character at all. If this was the character of the poet himself, we may say, he is very good in Chapman, but he certainly fails in his endeavour to personate any other. In the glowing language, the passionate demeanour, the uncontrolable energies, of this hyperbolical person, he is so much at home, expresses himself with so much fluency and vigour, that we cannot help thinking that it was the only temperament he had ever actually experienced: This then is all the dramatic merit-such as it is-which Chapman is entitled to claim. When the characters have so little variety, and are so faintly marked, much interest could scarcely be expected in the scenes themselves, and, generally speaking, they possess but a very small portion. A deficiency certainly not compensated for by the artificial construction of the plot, which is commonly of the most naked and uninteresting description: unless, perhaps, we except the two plays, printed after the author's death, the Revenge for Honour, and Alphonsus Emperor of Germany, where there is considerable intricacy of plan, but entirely divested of the poetry with which the other plays are adorned. It seems as if these plays had been written in the old age of the author, when the fire of his imagination had cooled, and left him calm and collected for the arrangement of the business and incidents of the drama. What is it then which makes the tragedies of Chapman valuable? The author was a poet, had a vivid imagination, an impassioned and energetic style; and, in the midst of fustian and hyperbole, it is not uncommon for us to find the most spirited sketches of manners, the loftiest images of grandeur, and the boldest strokes of magnanimity. Yet for more than all this, the tragedies, or, at least, three or four of them, are precious for an elevated strain of didactic observation, very similar to the wise and noble speculations in which Shakspeare himself so constantly indulges. In no author have we richer contemplations upon the nature of man and the world, where the shrewdness of the remark is ennobled and enforced by the splendour of imagery and the earnestness of passion. But true as this is, we cannot conceal, that these veins of excellence are buried to so great a depth by the surrounding mass of worthless matter, that they often dis
appoint the explorer by suddenly ceasing, and as often are continued into, and amalgamated with, a base and spurious ore. Chapman seems always to have written with vehemence, and this is the chief characteristic of his style. Animated with this vehemence, which is rather that of temperament than of mind, he hurries forward without much care or selection. Satisfied with expressing force and power, he dashes out ideas without regarding their fitness; or should the idea be in itself mean or weak, or should even no idea at all come to his aid, he lavishes his passion on mere words, and fills the ear with sounds of the most appalling fierceness. The reader, however, soon becomes too well aware of their hollowness to be deceived by a fire of empty words, however hotly kept up; and would pass on, paying but little attention to so false a battery, did he not sometimes bring to bear a real and substantial artillery of thought and imagery.
The general notion, however, which we have here attempted to convey of the nature and merits of these plays, will be better understood by a particular consideration of the principal tragedies of this author: to this we now turn.
Bussy D'Ambois, the earliest tragedy on the list of Chapman's plays, has usually been considered the best, and, on the whole, perhaps deservedly so. It is an exhibition and a description of the exploits of the hero whose name it bears, weaved together with very little art, and, as a whole, with no great effect. The sudden rise, the extraordinary character, the bold bravadoings, the duel, the intrigue, and the death of this swaggering person, form the subject of the play; and though there is no general plot by which they are connected together, yet some of the scenes, taken separately, are the works of no vulgar hand. The passages which we shall extract will, we think, not only illustrate the observations already thrown out, respecting the general manner of Chapman, but, at the same time, gratify the reader by some vigorous specimens of our poet's muse. The play opens with the soliloquizings of D'Ambois himself, who, bearing about with him a pretty lively impression of his own merits, finds himself neglected by the court and plunged in poverty and distress. Wandering in a wood, "in mean apparel," near the court of France in the reign of Henry III., he thus finely expresses his discontent with the "state of things."
"D'Amb. Fortune, not reason, rules the state of things;