Characteristics of the Elizabethan Literature

THE term “literature of the age of Elizabeth ” is not confined to the literature produced in the reign of Elizabeth, but is a general name for an era in literature, commencing about the middle of her reign, in 1580, reaching its maturity in the reign of James I., between 1603 and 1626, and perceptibly declining during the reign of his son. It is called by the name of Elizabeth, because it was produced in connection with influences which originated or culminated in her time, and which did not altogether cease to act after her death ; and these influences give to its great works, whether published in her reign or the reign of James, certain mental and moral characteristics in common. The most glorious of all the expressions of the English mind, it is, like every other outburst of national genius, essentially inexplicable in itself. It occurred, but why it occurred we can answer but loosely. We can state the influences which operated on Spenser, Shakespeare, Bacon, Hooker, Raleigh, but the genesis of their genius is beyond our criticism. There was abundant reason, in the circumstances around them, why they should exercise creative power ; but the possession of the power is an ultimate fact, and defies explanation. Still, the appearance of so many eminent minds in one period indicates something in the circumstances ot the period which aided and stimulated, if it did not cause, the marvel ; and a consideration ot these circumstances, though it may not enable us to penetrate the mystery of genius, may still shed some light on its character and direction.

The impulse given to the English mind in the age of Elizabeth was but one effect of that great movement of the European mind whose steps were marked by the revival of letters, the invention of printing, the study of the ancient classics, the rise of the middle class, the discovery of America, the: Reformation, the formation of national literatures, and the general clash and conflict of the old with the new, — the old existing in decaying institutions, the new in the ardent hopes and organizing genius by which institutions arc created. If the mind was not always emancipated from error during the stir and tumult of this movement, it was still stung into activity, and compelled to think; for if authority, whether secular or sacerdotal, is questioned, authority no less than innovation instinctively frames reasons for its existence. If power was thus driven to use the weapons of the brain, thought, in its attempt to become fact, was no less driven to use the weapons of force. Ideas and opinions were thus all the more directly perceived and tenaciously held, from the fact that they kindled strong passions, and frequently demanded, not merely the assent of the intellect, but the hazard of fortune and life.

At the time Elizabeth ascended the English throne, in 1558, tiie religious element of this movement had nearly spent its first force. There was a comparatively small band of intensely earnest Romanists, and perhaps a larger band of even more intensely earnest Puritans ; but the great majority of the people were probably willing to acquiesce in the form given to the Protestant church by the Protestant state. Elizabeth won the proud distinction of being the head of the Protestant interest in Europe ; but the very word interest indicates a distinction between Protestantism as a policy and Protestantism as a faith ; and she did not hesitate to put down with a strong hand those of her subjects whose Protestantism most nearly agreed with the Protestantism she aided in France and Holland. The Puritan Reformers, though they represented most thoroughly the doctrines and spirit of Luther and Calvin, were thus opposed by the English state, and were a minority of the English people. Had they succeeded in reforming the national Church, the national amusements, and the national taste, according to their ideas of reform, the history and the literature of the age of Elizabeth would have been essentially different; but they would have broken the continuity of the national life. English nature, with its basis of strong sense and strong sensuality, was hostile to their ascetic morality and their practical belief in the all-excluding importance of religious concerns. Had they triumphed then, their very earnestness might have made them greater,, though nobler, tyrants than the Tudors or the Stuarts ; for they would have used the arm of power to force evangelical faith and austere morality on a reluctant and resisting people. Sir Toby Ilelch would have had to fight hard for his cakes and ale ; and the nose of Bardolph would have been deprived of the fuel that fed its fire. The Puritans were great forces in politics, as they afterwards proved in the Parliaments of Charles and the Commonwealth ; but in the time of Elizabeth they were politically but a faction, and a faction having at one time for its head the greatest scoundrel in England, the Earl of Leicester. They were great forces in literature, as they afterwards proved by iMilton and Bunyan ; but their position towards what is properly called the literature of the age of Elizabeth was strictly antagonistical. The spirit cf that literature, in its poetry, its drama, its philosophy, its divinity, was a spirit which they disliked in some of its forms, and abhorred in others. Their energies, though mighty, are therefore to be deducted from the mass of energies by which that literature was produced.

And this brings us to the first and most marked characteristic of this literature, namely, that it is intensely human. Human nature in its appetites, passions, imperfections, vices, virtues, in its thoughts, aspirations, imaginations, in all the forms of concrete character in which it finds expression, in all the heights of ecstasy to which it soars, in all the depths of depravity to which it sinks, — this is what it represents or idealizes ; and the total effect of this exhibition of human life and exposition of human capacities, whether it be in the romance of Sidney, the poetry of Spenser, the drama of Shakespeare, the philosophy of Bacon, or the divinity of Hooker, is the wholesome and inspiring effect of beauty and cheer. This belief in human nature, and tacit assumption of its right to expression, could only have risen in an age which stimulated human energies by affording fresh fields for their development, and in an age whose activity was impelled by a romantic and heroic, rather than a theological spirit. And the peculiar position of Elizabeth compelled her, absolute as was her temper, to act in harmony with her people, and to allow individual enterprise its largest scope. Her revenue was altogether inadequate to carry on a war with Spain and a war with Ireland, to assist the Protestants of France and Holland, to inaugurate great schemes of American colonization, to fit out expeditions to harass the colonics and plunder the commerce of Spain, —inadequate, in short, to make England a power of the first class. But the patriotism of her people, coinciding with their interests and love of adventure, urged them to undertake public objects as commercial speculations. They made war on her enemies for the spoils to be obtained from her enemies. Perhaps the most comprehensive type of the period, representing most vividly the stimulants it presented to ambition and avarice, to chivalrous sentiment and greed of gain, to action and to thought, was Sir Walter Raleigh. Poet, historian, courtier, statesman, military commander, naval commander, colonizer, filibuster, be had no talent and no accomplishment, no virtue and no vice, which the time did not tempt into exercise. He participated in the widely varying ambitions of Spenser and Jonson, of Essex and Leicester, of Burleigh, Walsingham, and Sir Nicholas Bacon, of Norris and Howard of Effingham, of Drake, Hawkins, and Cumberland ; and in all these he was thoroughly human.

The next characteristic of the higher literature of the period is its breadth and preponderance of thought, — a quality which seemed native to the time, and which was shared by the men of affairs. Indeed, no one could serve Elizabeth well whose loyalty of heart was unaccompanied by largeness of brain. She was so surrounded by foreign enemies and domestic factions, that the sagacity which makes the fewest mistakes was her only safety from dethronement or assassination. Her statesmen, however fixed might be their convictions and energetic their wills, were, by the necessities of their position, compelled to be wary, vigilant, politic, crafty, comprehensive in their views, compromising in their measures. The time required minds that could observe, analyze, infer, combine, foresee,— vigorous in the grasp of principles, exact in the scrutiny of facts. Such were the complications of political affairs, that the difficulty, in all but the most capacious intellects, was to decide at all ; and even they sometimes found it wise to follow the drift of events which it was almost impossible to shape or to guide. It might be supposed, that if, in any person of the period, impetuosity ot purpose or caprice of will would overbear all the restraints of prudence, that person was Elizabeth herself; but she really was as indecisive in conduct as she was furious in passion. Proud, fierce, vain, haughty, vindictive; a virago and a coquette ; ready enough to box the ears of one of her courtiers, and threaten with an oath to unfrock one of her bishops ; despotic in her relations with all over whom she had complete control; cursed, indeed, with every internal impulse which leads to reckless action,—-she was still a thinker ; and thought revealed insecurities in her position, in considering which even her imperious will was puzzled into irresolution, and shrank from the plain road of force to feel its way through the crooked paths of hypocrisy and craft.

This comprehensiveness of thought did not, in the men of letters, interfere with loftiness of thought, but it connected thought with life, gave it body and form, and made it fertile in those weighty maxims which, while they bear directly on practical conduct, and harmonize with the ex-perience of men, are also characterized by that easy elevation of view and of tone which distinguishes philosophic wisdom from prudential moralizing. The Elizabethan thinkers instinctively recognized the truth that real thinking implies the action of the whole nature, and not of a single isolated faculty. They were men ot large understandings ; but their understandings rarely acted apart from observation, —the sight of what appears,—from imagination, — the sight of what is, — from sentiment, passion, and character. They not only reasoned, but they had reason. They looked at things, and round things, and into things, and through things. Though they were masters of the processes of logic, their eminent merit was their bread grasp of the premises of logic, — their ready anticipation of the results of logic. They could argue ; but they preferred to flash the conclusions of argument rather than to recite its details, and their minds darted to results to which slower intelligences creep. From the fact that they had reason in abundance, they were somewhat chary of reasons. Their thinking, indeed, gives us the solid, nutritious, enriching substance of thought. While it comprehends the outward facts of life, it connects them with those great mental facts beheld by the inner eye of the mind.

It thus combines the most massive good sense with a Platonic elevation of spiritual perception, and especially avoids the thinness and juicelessness which are apt to characterize the greatest efforts of the understanding, when understanding is divorced from human nature.

This equipoise and interpenetration of the faculties of the mind and the feelings of the heart, which give to these writers their largeness, dignity, sweetness, and power, are to be referred in a great degree to the imaginative element ot their natures. They lived, indeed, in an imaginative age,—an age in which thought, feeling, aspiration, character, whether low or exalted, aimed to embody themselves in appropriate external forms, and be made visible to the eye. In the great poets and philosophers this imagination existed both as ecstatic insight of spiritual facts and as shaping power, — both as the “ vision and the faculty divine ” ; but all over the Elizabethan society, in dress, in manners, in speech, in the badges of professions, in amusements, in pageants and spectacles, character, class, and condition, in all their varieties, were directly imaged. Lamb calls all tins a visible poetry ; and much which we now read as poetry was simply the transference into language of the common facts of the time.

This imaginative tendency of the national mind appeared in a still higher form in that chivalrous cast of feeling and of thought which we observe in all the nobler men of the time. “ Higherected thoughts seated in a heart of courtesy,” is Sir Philip Sidney’s definition of the gentleman ; and this was the standard to which many aspired, if few reached. This chivalry was a poetic reflection of the feudal age, which was departing in its rougher and baser realities, but lingering in its beautiful ideas and ideals, especially in the knightly love of adventure and the knightly reverence for woman. It gave an air of romance to acts, enterprises, and amusements which sometimes had their vulgar side. Raleigh tilted in silver armor before the Oueen, though the silver from which the armor was made had been stolen from Spanish merchantmen. Sidney was eager to fight in single combat with the anonymous defamer of his uncle Leicester, though his uncle richly deserved the gibbet. Cumberland was a knight-errant of the seas, strangely blending the love of glory with the love of gold, the spirit of wild adventure with the spirit of commercial thrift. Something imaginative, something which partook of the sentiment of the old time, was mingled with the bustling practicalities of the present. If wc look at a man like Sir Francis Drake from the mere understanding, we find it difficult to decide whether his enterprises were private or national, whether the patriot predominated over the pirate, or the pirate over the patriot; but if we look at him from the Elizabethan point of view, it is not difficult to discern an enthusiastic, chivalric, loyal, Protestant spirit as the presiding element of his being and the source of his pecuniary success. He did many things which, if done now, would very properly send a sailor to the gallows ; yet, as a man, he was very much superior to many a modern statesman and judge who would conscientiously order his execution. Vitally right, but formally wrong, be in the Elizabethan age was immensely honored.

This slight reference to a few of these eminent men of action shows that literature was but one out of many expressions of the roused energies of the national heart and brain, and that those who performed actions which poetry celebrates were as numerous as the poets. As the external inducements to adopt literature as a profession were not so great as in our day, as there was no reading public in our sense of the term, we are at first surprised that so much genius was diverted into this path. But Elizabeth and James were both learned sovereigns. Both were writers; anti in the courts of both, literature and learning were in the fashion, and often the avenues to distinction in Church and State. It was found that literary ability was but one phase of general ability. Buckhurst was an eminent statesman. Sidney and Spenser were men of affairs. Raleigh could do anything. Bacon was a lawyer and jurist. Hooker, Hall, Giles and Phineas Fletcher, and Donne were in the Church, The patronage of educated ana accomplished nobles was extended to numerous writers like Daniel and Drayton, who could not have subsisted by the sale of their works. None of these can be styled authors by profession: that sad distinction was confined to the dramatists. In the time of Elizabeth and James the theatre was almost the only medium of communication between writers and the people, and attracted to it all those who aimed to gain a livelihood out of the products of thenhearts and imaginations. Its literature was the popular literature of the age. It was newspaper, magazine, novel, all in one. It was the Elizabethan “Times,” the Elizabethan “ Blackwood,” the Elizabethan “ Temple Bar ” : it tempted into its arena equally the Elizabethan Thackerays and the Elizabethan Braddons ; but the remuneration it afforded to the most distinguished of the swarm of playwrights who depended on it for bread was small. All experienced the full bitterness of poverty, if we except Shakespeare, Jonson, and Fletcher. Shakespeare was an excellent man oi business, a part-proprietor of a theatre, and made his fortune. Jonson was patronized by James, and was as much a court poet as a popular poet. Fletcher, though the most fertile ot the three in the number of his plays, and the greatest master of theatrical effect, did not, it is supposed, altogether depend on the stage for his support. But Chapman, Dekker, Field, Rowley, Massinger, and all the other professional playwrights, were wretchedly poor. And it must be said, that, though we are in the custom of affirming that the circumstances of the age of Elizabeth were pre-eminently favorable to literature, most of the writers, including such names as Spenser and Jonson, were in the habit of moaning or grumbling at its degeneracy. and wishing that they had been born in happier times.

There were, then, three centres for the literature of the period, — the Court, the Church, and the Theatre. Let us consider the drama first, as it was nearer the popular heart, was the medium through which the grandest as well as meanest minds found expression, and was thoroughly national, or at least thoroughly nationalized.

England had a drama as early as the twelfth century, — a drama used by the priests as a mode of amusing the people into a knowledge of religion. Its products were called Miracle Plays. They were written, and often acted, by ecclesiastics ; they represented the persons and events of the Scriptures, of the apocryphal Gospels, and of the legends of saints and martyrs, and were performed sometimes in the open air, on temporary stages and scaffolds, sometimes in churches and chapels. The earliest play of this sort of which we have any record was performed between the years i too and IIIO. The general characteristic of these plays, if we should speak after the ideas of our time, was blasphemy, and blasphemy of the worst kind ; for the irreverent utterance of sacred names is venial compared with the irreverent representation of sacred persons. The object of the writers was to bring Christianity within popular apprehension ; and in the process they burlesqued it. They belonged to a class of waiters and speakers, as common now as then, who vulgarize the highest subjects in the attempt to popularize them, — who degrade religion in the attempt to make it efficient. The writers of the Miracle Plays only appear worse than their Protestant successors, from the greater rudeness in the minds and manners to which they appealed. They did not aim to lift the people up, but to bring the Divinity clown ; and not being in any sense poets, they could not make what was sacred familiarly apprehended, and at the same time preserve that ideal remoteness from ordinary life which is the condition of its being reverently apprehended. Their religious dramas, accordingly, were mostly monstrous farces, full of buffoonery and indecency, though not without a certain coarse humor and power of characterization. Thus, in the play of the Deluge, Noah and his wife are close copies of contemporary character and manners, projected on ihe Bible narrative. Mrs. Noah is a shrew and a vixen ; refuses to leave her gossips and go into the ark ; scolds Noah, and is soundly whipped by him ; then wishes herself a widow, and thinks she but echoes the feeling of all the wives in the audience, in hoping for them the same good luck. Noah then takes occasion to inform all the husbands present that their proper course is to break in their wives after his fashion. By tills time the water is nearly up to his wife’s neck, and she is partly coaxed and partly forced into the ark by one of her sonsAgain, in a play on the Adoration of the Shepherds, the shepherds are three English boors, who meet with a variety of the most coarsely comical adventures in their journey to Bethlehem ; who, just before the star in the cast appears, get into a quarrel and fight, after having feasted on Lancashire jammocks and Halton ale ; and who, when they arrive at their destination, present three gifts to the infant Saviour, namely, a bird, a tennis-ball, and a bob of cherries.

The Miracle Plays were very popular, and did not altogether die out before the reign of James. In some of them personified abstractions came to be blended with the persons of the drama ; and in the fifteenth century a new class of dramatic performances arose, called Moral Plays, in which these personified abstractions pushed persons out of the piece, and ethics supplanted theology. There is, in some of these Moral Plays, a great deal of ingenuity displayed in the impersonation of qualities, and in their allegorical representation. They took strong hold of the English mind. Pride, gluttony, sensuality, worklliness, meekness, temperance, faith, in their single and in their blended action, were often happily characterized : and, though they were eventually banished from the drama, they reappeared in the pageants of Elizabeth and in the poetry of Spenser. But their popularity was doubtless owing more to their fun than their ethics ; and the two characters of the Devil and Vice, the laughable monster and the laughable buffoon, were the darlings of the multitude. In Ben Jonson’s ‘■Staple of News,” Gossip Tattle exclaims : “ My husband, Timothy Tattle, God rest his soul! was wont to say that there was no play without a fool and a Devil in 1 : he was for the Devil still, God bless him ! The Devil for his money, he would say; I would fain see the Devil.”

Nearer to the modern: Play than either the Miracle or the Moral, was the Interlude, so called from its being acted in the intervals of a banquet. It was a farce in one act, and devoted to the humorous and satirical representation of contemporary manners and character, especially of professional character. John 1 ley wood, the jester of Henry VIII., was the best maker of these Interludes.

At the time that all of these three forms of the drama were more or less in esteem, Nicholas Udall, a classical scholar, produced, about the year 1540, the first English comedy, “ Ralph Roister Doister,” — very much superior, in incident and characterization, to “ Gammer Guidon’s Needle,” written twenty years afterwards, though neither rises above the mere prosaic delineation, the first of civic, the last of country life. The poetic clement, which was afterwards so conspicuous in the Elizabethan drama, did not even appear in the first English tragedy, Gorboduc,” though it was written by Thomas Sackville, the author of the Induction to the “ Mirror of Magistrates,” and the only great poet that rose between Chaucer and Spenser. “Gorboduc” was acted before 1 hicen Elizabeth, at Whitehall, by the Gentlemen of the Inner Temple, in January, 1562. It was received with great applause ; but it appears, as read now, singularly frigid and unimpassioned, with not even, as Campbell says, “the unities of space and time to circumscribe its dulncss.” It has all the author's justness, weight, and fertility of thought, but little of his imagination ; and. though celebrated as the first English play written in blank verse, the measure, in Sackville’s hands, is wearisomely monotonous, and conveys no notion of the elasticity and variety of which it was afterwards found capable, when used by Marlowe and Shakespeare. The tragedy is not deficient in terrible events, but even its murders make us yawn.

It is probable that the fifty-two plays performed at court between 1568 and 1580, and of which nothing is preserved but the names, contained little to make us regret their loss. Neither at the Royal Palace, nor the Inns of Court, nor the Universities, at all of which plays were performed, could a free and original national drama be built up. This required a public theatre, and an audience composed of all classes of the people. Accordingly, the most important incident in the history of the English stage was the patent granted by the crown, in 1574, to James Burbage and his associates, players under the protection of the Earl of Leicester, to perform in the City and Liberties of London, and in all other parts of the kingdom; “as well,” the phraseology runs, “for the recreation of our loving subjects, as for our own solace and pleasure, when we shall think fit to see them.”

But the Corporation of London, thorough Puritans, were determined, as far as their power extended, to prevent the Queen’s subjects from having any such “ recreation,” and her Majesty herself from enjoying any such “solace and pleasure.” “ Forasmuch as the playing of interludes, and the resort to the same, are very dangerous for the infection of the plague, v. hereby infinite burdens and losses to the city may increase ; and are very hurtful in corruption of youth with incontinence and lewdness ; and also great wasting both of the time and thrift of many poor people; and great provoking of the wrath of God, the ground of all plagues ; great withdrawing of the people from public prayer, and from the service ot God ; and daily cried out against by all preachers of the word of God ; — therefore,” the Corporation ordered, “all such interludes in public places, and the resort to the same, shall wholly be prohibited as ungodly, and humble suit made to the Lords, that like prohibitation be in places near the city.”

The players, thus expelled the city, withdrew to the nearest point outside the Lord Mayor's jurisdiction, and, in 1576, erected their theatre in Blackfrkirs, Two others, “The Curtain ” and “The Theatre,” were erected b}other companies in Shoreditch. Before the end of the century there were at least eleven. To these round wooden buildings, open to the sky, with only a thatched roof over the stage, the people flocked daily for mental excitement. There was no movable scenery; the female characters were played by boys ; and the lowest theatres of our day are richer in appointments than were the finest of the age of Elizabeth. “ Such,” says Malone, “ was the poverty of the old stage, that the same person played two or three parts ; and battles on which the fate of an empire was supposed to depend were decided by three combatants on a side.” It is difficult for us to conceive of the popularity of the stage in those days. One of the spies of Secretary Walsingham, writing to his employer in 1586, thus groans over the taste of the people : “ The daily abuse of stage plays is such an offence to the godly, and so great a hindrance to the Gospel, as the Papists do exceedingly rejoice at the blemish thereof, and not without cause ; for every day in the week the player’s bills are set up iii sundry places of the city; .... so that, when the bells toll to the lecturer, the trumpets sound to the stages. Whereat the wicked faction of Rome laugheth for joy, while the godly weep for sorrow.It is a woful sight to see two hundred proud players jet in their silks, while five hundred poor people starve In the streets.Woe is me ! the play-houses arc pestered when the churches are naked. At the one, it is not possible to get a place; at the oilier, void seats are plenty.” It may here be said, that the mutual hostility of the players and the Puritans continued until the suppression of theatres under the Commonwealth ; and for fifty or sixty years the Puritans were only mentioned by the dramatists to be mercilessly satirized. Even Shakespeare’s catholic mind was not broad enough io include them in the range of its sympathies.

That this opposition to the stage by the staid and sober citizens was net without cause, soon became manifest. The characteristic of the drama, before Shakespeare, was intellectual and moral lawlessness ; and most of the dramatists were men as destitute of eminent genius as of common principle. Stephen Gosson, a Puritan, in a tract published in 1581, attacks them on grounds equally ol taste and morals:; and five years afterwards Sir Philip Sidney speaks of the popular plays as against all “rules of honest civility and skilful poetry.” But Gosson indicates also the sources of their plots. Painter’s “ Palace of Pleasure,” a series of not over-modest tales from the Italian; “The Golden Ass” ; “The Ethiopian History” ; “ Amadis of France ” ; “ Tlie Round Table ” ; — all the; licentious comedies in Latin, French, Italian, and Spanish were thoroughly ransacked, he tells us, “ to furnish the play-houses of London.” The result, of course, was a chaos ; but a chaos whose materials were wide and various, indicating that the English mind was in contact with, and attempting roughly to reproduce, the genius of Greece and Rome, of France, Spain, and Italy, the chronicles and romances of the Middle Ages, and was hospitable to intellectual influences from all quarters. What was needed was the powerful personality and shaping imagination of genius, to fuse these seemingly heterogeneous materials into new and original forms. “ The Faerie Oueene ” ot Spenser, and the drama of Shakespeare, evince an assimilation of the same incongruous elements which Gosson derides and denounces, as they appeared in the shapeless works of mediocrity. There was not merely to be a new drama, but a new art, and new principles of criticism to legitimate its creative audacities. The materials were rich and various. The difficulty was, that to combine them into original forms required genius, and genius higher, broader, more energetic, more imaginative, and more humane than had ever before been directed to dramatic composition.

The immediate predecessors of Shakespeare — Greene, Lodge, Kyd, Peele, Marlowe — v. .'re all educated at the Universities, and were naturally prejudiced in favor of the classics. But they were, at the same time, wild Bohemian youths, thrown upon the world of London to turn their talents and accomplishments into the means of livelihood or the means of debauch. They depended principally on the popular theatres, and ot course addressed the popular mind. Why, indeed, should they write according to the rules of the classic drama? The classic drama was a growth from the life of tire times in which it appeared. Its rules were simply generalizations from tire practice of classic dramatists. A drama suited to the tastes and wants of the people of Greece or Rome was evidently not suited to the tastes and wants of the people of England. The whole framework of society, customs, manners, feelings, aspirations, traditions, superstitions, character, religion, had changed ; and, as the drama is a reflection of life, either as actually existing or ideally existing, it is evident that both the experience and the sentiments of tire English audiences demanded that it should be the reflection of a new life. These dramatists, however, in emancipating themselves from the literary jurisprudence of Greece and Rome, put little but individual caprice in its place. Released from formal rules, they did not rise into the artistic icglon of principles, but fell into the pit of anarchy and mere lawlessness. Lacking the higher imagination which conceives living ideas and organizes living works, their dramas evince no coherence, no subordination of parts, no grasp of the subject as a whole. Tliere is a German play in which Adam is represented as passing across the stage, " going to be created.” The drama of the age of Elizabeth, in the persons of Greene, Peele, Kyd, and others, indicates, in some such rude way, that it is “going to be created.”

That this dramatic shapelessness was not inconsistent with single poetic conceptions of the greatest force and fineness, might be proved by abundant quotations. Lodge, for example, was a poor dramatist; but what living poet would not be proud to own this exquisite description, in his lyric of “Rosaline,” of the person and influence of beauty ?

“ Like to the clear in highest sphere,
Where all imperial glory shines,
Of selfsame color is her hair,
Whether unfolded or in twines.
“ Her eyes arc sapphires set in snow.
Refining heaven by every wink ;
The gads do fear wheuas they glow,
And 1 do tremble when I think.
“ Her cheeks are like the blushing cloud
That beautifies Aurora’s face ;
Or like the silver-crimson shroud.
That Phoebus’ smiling looks doth grace.
" Her lips are like two budded roses,
• Whom ranks of lilies neighbor nigh,
Within which bounds she balm encloses,
Apt to entice a deity.
“ Her neck like to a stately tower,
Where Love himself imprisoned lies.
To watch for glances every hour
From her divine arid sacred eyes.
“With orient pear!, with ruby red,
With marble white, with sapphire blue,
Her body everyway is fed,
Yet soft in touch, and sweet in view.
“ Nature herself her shape admires ;
d’he gods are wounded in her sight ;
And Love forsakes his heavenly fires,
And at Iter eyes his brand doth light.”

But a more potent spirit than any wc have mentioned, and the greatest ol Shakespeare’s predecessors, was Christopher Marlowe, a man of humble parentage, but with Norman blood in his brains, if not in his veins. He was, indeed, the proudest and fiercest of intellectual aristocrats. The son of a shoemaker, and born in i 564, his unmistakable genius seems to have gained him friends, who looked after his early education, and sent him, at the age of seventeen, to the University of Cambridge. He was intended for the Church, but the Church was evidently not intended for him. The study of theology appears to have resulted in making him an enemy of religion. There was, indeed, hardly a Christian element in his untamable nature ; and, though he was called a sceptic, infidelity in him was more likely to take the form of blasphemy than denial. He was made up of vehement passions, vivid imagination, and lawless self-will ; and what Hazlitt calls “ a hunger and thirst after unrighteousness ” took the place of conscience in his haughty and fiery spirit. Before the age of twentythree we find him in London, an actor and a writer for the stage, and the author ot the ‘‘great sensation work” of his time,— the tragedy of “Tamburlaine.” This portentous melodrama, a strange compound of inspiration and desperation, has the mark of power equally on its absurdities and its sublimities. The first play written in blank verse for the popular stage, its verse has an elasticity, freedom, and variety of movement which makes it as much the product of Marlowe’s mind as the thoughts and passions it conveys. It had no precedent in the verse of preceding writers, and is constructed, not on mechanical rules, but on vital principles. It is the eftort ot a glowing mind, disdaining to creep along paths previously made, and opening a new path for itself. This scornful intellectual daring, the source of Marlowe’s originality, is also the source of his defects. In the tragedy of “ Tamburlaine ” he selects for his hero a character through whom he can express his own extravagant impatience of physical obstacles and moral restraints. No regard is paid to reality, even in the dramatic sense of the word : a shaggy and savage force dominates over everything. The writer seems to say, with his truculent hero, “This is my mind, and I will have it so.” This self-asserting intellectual insolence is always accompanied by an unwearied energy, which half redeems the bombast into which it runs, or rather rushes ; and strange gleams of the purest splendors oi poetry are continually transfiguring the bully into the bard.

I bus, in the celebrated scene in which Tamburlaine is represented in a chariot drawn by captive kings, and berating them tor their slowness in words which so captivated Ancient Pistol, there is a glorious stroke of impassioned imagination, which makes us almost forgive the swaggering fustian which precedes and follows it: —■

“ Hallo £ ye pampered jades of Asia !
What, can ye draw but twenty miles a day ‘t
The horse that guide the golden eye of heaven.
And blow the morning front their nostrils.,
Making their fiery gait above the clouds,
Are not so honored in their governor
As you, ye slaves, in mighty Tamberlainc.”

“Faustus,” “ The Jew of Malta,” “ Edward the Second,” “ The Massacre of Paris,” “ Dido, Queen of Cartilage,” are the names of Marlowe’s remaining plays. They all, more or less, exhibit the eager creativeness of his mind, and the furious arrogance of his disposition. “They abound,” says Hunt, “in wilful and self-worshipping speeches, and every one of them turns upon some kind ot ascendency at the expense of other people.” His “Edward the Second ” is the best historical play written belore Shakespeare’s, and exhibits more discrimination in delineating Character than any of Marlowe’s other eflorts. flis “Jew of Malta ” is a powerful conception spoilt in the process of embodiment. His “ Faustus,” perhaps best reflects his whole genius and experience. Tiie subject must have taken strong hold of his nature, for, like Faustus, he had doubtless held intimate business relations with the great enemy ot mankind himself, and was personally conscious of the struggle in the soul between the diabolical and the divine. Faustus and Mephistopheles are both conceived with great depth and strength of imagination ; and the last scene of the play, exhibiting the agony of supernatural terror in which Faustus awaits the coming of the fiend who has bought and paid for his soul, is not without touches of high sublimity. There is one line, especially, which is loaded with imaginative meaning and suggestiveness, — that in which, harboring for a moment the possibility of salvation amid the gathering horrors of his doom, he exclaims, ■—

“ Set where Christ’s blood streams in the firmament!"

Marlowe’s life, though short and reckless, was fertile in works. Besides the plays we have mentioned, he probably wrote many which have been lost ; and his translations from Ovid, and his incompleted poem of “ Hero and Leander,” would alone give him a position among the poets of his period. He was killed in a tavern brawl, in the year 1593, at the early age of twentynine.1 Though Marlowe’s poetical contemporaries and followers could say little or nothing in defence ol his lite, when it was mercilessly assailed by Puritan pamphleteers, there was no lack of testimonials to his genius. Ben Jonson celebrated “his mighty line ” ; Drayton described his raptures as “all fire and air,” and testified to his possession ol those “ brave, sublunary things that the first poets had” ; and Chapman, with a yet closer perception of his unwithholding self-committal to the Muse, said that

“ He stood Up to the chin in the Pierian flood.”

A still higher tribute to his eminence comes from Shakespeare himself, who, in his “ As You Like It,” quotes with approval a line from Marlowe’s little poem of “The Passionate Shepherd to his Love,” — the only case in which Shakespeare has recognized the genius of an Elizabethan writer.

But this stormy, irregular genius, compound of Alsatian ruffian and Arcadian singer, whose sudden death, in the height of his glory and his pride, seemed to threaten the early English drama with irreparable loss, was to be succeeded in his own walk by the greatest Englishman, by the greatest man, that ever made the theatre or literature his medium of communication with the world. To some thoughts on this man — need we say it is Shakespeare?—we shall invite the attention of the reader in a succeeding number.

  1. Beard, in his “Theatre of God’s Judgements” (1597), makes his death the occasion to point a ferocious moral. He speaks of him as “ by practice a play-maker and a poet of scurrilitie, who, by giuing too large a swing to his ownc wit. and suffering his lust to haue the full reines,” at last “ denied God and his sonne Christ, and not oncly in word blasphemed the Tmritie, but also (as it is credibly reported wrote bookes again-.t it, affirming our Sail:our to be but a deceiuer. and Moses to be but a conitirer and seducer of the people, and the Holy Bible to bee but vaine and idle stories, and all religion but a dcuice of policie. But see what a hooke the Lord put in the nostrils of this barking dogge ! So it fell out, that, as he purposed to stab one whom he ought a grudge vnto, with his dagger, the other party percciuing so auoyded the stroke, that withal] catching hold of his wrist, hee stabbed his ovvnc dagger into his ownc head, in such sort that, notwithstanding all the meaues of surgerie that could bee wrought, hee shortly after died thereof; the manner of his death being so terrible Tor he eueu cursed and blasphemed to his last gape, and together with his breath an oath flew out of his mouth;, that it was not only a manifesto signe of God’s judgement, bat also an horrible and fearefull terror to ail that beheld him. But herein did the justice of God most nateably appeare, in that hee compelled his ovvne hand, which had written these blasphemies, to bee the instrument to punish him, and that in his braine which had deuised the same.