Recent Literature on the Elizabethan Drama

THE appearance of the New Variorum edition of Richard III1 has been awaited by students of Shakespeare with much interest and perhaps some anxiety. For it had been announced that this play had been entrusted by Dr. Furness to his son, Mr. H. H. Furness, Jr., who had already revised one of the earlier volumes of the edition, but of whose capacity as an independent editor scholars had had little opportunity of judging. The volume now in our hands, then, is important as indicating what we are to expect of the man whom the veteran Shakespearean has trained to assist him in the completion of his great task. That a colleague should have to be provided at all is a matter for regret; but when we consider that it is well over a quarter of a century since the first volume appeared, and that there are still more than twenty to come, we must be thankful that the later volumes are to fall into such satisfactory hands.

For the promise of this first volume is indeed satisfactory. We find here not only, as we expect, the same plan and the same method which have proved so helpful and adequate in the past, but, so far as we can judge, the same laborious conscientiousness, shirking no toil which can make for completeness, the same skill in selection and condensation, the same unremitting zeal for accuracy. Differences, of course, there are. In the notes, the contributions by the editor himself are more succinct, more impersonal, than those of his father have been in the more recent volumes; and one misses the flashes of humor that have often afforded relief when the fatuity of earlier commentators put the reader most in need of it. The Preface, too, is less provocative than we have found those of some recent volumes, and, if less entertaining, it attends to business perhaps somewhat more strictly. The handling of the question of text, peculiarly difficult in this play, shows to some small extent a lack of experience, and implies a view of textual criticism that is not entirely sound; but the plan of the edition, with its exhaustive record of all authoritative readings, makes this of little or no importance. Taking the volume as a whole, we are delighted to be able to offer congratulations to all concerned : to Dr. Furness on a colleague so well-chosen and so well-trained; to the new editor on a highly auspicious beginning; and to the public on the prospect of a more rapid completion of an indispensable undertaking.

Of all Shakespeare’s works, Hamlet continues to be the most provocative of comment and controversy. Three books on this tragedy are now before me; but two of these are not really new. The Heart of Hamlet’s Mystery2 is a translation of lectures first delivered in Berlin by Karl Werder in 1859-60, and published in 1875. A Review of Hamlet3 is merely a reprint of Miles’s essay, originally issued in 1870. Both were notable criticisms in their day, and Werder’s theory has remained one of the stock interpretations. But both are extremely diffuse; and there are few purposes that could not be adequately served by such a summary as one finds in the second volume of Dr. Furness’s new variorum Hamlet.

The main point of Werder’s position is that Hamlet’s difficulties are purely external: because his aim was not mere revenge, by killing the king, but divine justice, which was only to be accomplished by bringing the murderer to open confession. It has often been remarked in reply that if Shakespeare meant Hamlet’s quest to be this larger justice, and not blood for blood, it is strange that he should have left the distinction so obscure. Werder’s own statements of this view are often wildly paradoxical. “ Because Hamlet ought to do what no one can do, and what he must still desire to do — that is the tragic destiny to which the poet has assigned him.” But he does not explain on what theory of moral responsibility a man ought to achieve the impossible. This contradiction vitiates the whole of Werder’s view of the tragic action. Nevertheless, his lectures have had a wholesome influence on the course of Hamlet criticism, for they have sent students back to the text to test the grounds for such theories as those of Goethe and Coleridge, who find the whole ground for delay in defects in the character of the hero.

From the mass of florid rhetoric in Miles’s book, exalting Shakespeare and Hamlet with a complete absence of critical judgment, one point emerges: the view that the attack of the pirates upon Hamlet’s ship was prearranged by him. This notion has been dealt with by some modern critics with more gentleness than it deserves. It was not Shakespeare’s practice to leave obscure the happenings in his plays. Whatever subtleties he may have elaborated in the characters, he was enough of the practical playwright to make clear to the whole audience all he wished them to know of the external activities in a drama. He certainly did not make clear to his audience, as he easily might have done, that Hamlet plotted his own capture; it is therefore only justice to him to infer that he did not wish to indicate it. The republication of this essay, then, would seem to have been unnecessary; and it lacks even the partial justification which the translation of Werder finds in the calm and reasonable summing up of the state of the case which Dr. Rolfe has written as an introduction to the lectures of the German scholar.

A very different style and treatment meet us in Professor C. M. Lewis’s volume.4 Here we have no hazy metaphysics, no overwrought rhetoric piling up fanatical superlatives, no diffuseness, no exaggeration. The book is little more than half the size of Werder’s or Miles’s, yet it contains many times the matter. Nor is its condensation obtained at the cost of clearness. Few Shakespearean discussions are so lucid, leave so little doubt as to what the critic really means. Part of this superiority is due to Professor Lewis’s command of a restrained style, part to the kind of criticism which he employs. The book is an essay in the historical method, an attempt to explain the mystery of Hamlet by showing how the tragedy came to its present form. Hamlet defies consistent interpretation, he concludes, because it is not a consistent creation, but a growth which retains many bewildering features that would have found no place in the final result had Shakespeare been cutting out of whole cloth instead of making over an old garment. With this general belief he traces the successive forms of the story, beginning with Belleforest, reconstructing the hypothetical lost Hamlet, now usually ascribed to Kyd, and using these with the German Hamlet and the three Shakespearean versions to ascertain what elements in the play as we know it are merely inherited, what are made over, and what invented by Shakespeare.

The time was ripe for such a contribution as this. The work of Boas on Kyd, and of Thorndike on the tragedy of revenge, had suggested and made familiar to Shakespeare students the general point of view from which Professor Lewis elaborates his investigation; and whatever conclusions criticism may in the future reach, it may be safely affirmed that the factors here discussed can never again be wisely ignored. It is indeed conceivable that a finished play might contain even as great a mass of merely inherited episode as it is here shown to be probable that Shakespeare received from his predecessors, and yet that the dramatist might revolutionize the type of hero and the whole tone of the tragedy and leave none of these survivals unassimilated. But the feat would be wellnigh miraculous, and in the face of the difficulties which the play undeniably presents, it seems unlikely that it was here accomplished.

The discussion in the future, then, is likely to be concerned with the extent of these unassimilated survivals. It is natural that Professor Lewis should go far in his estimate of it; further, I am inclined to think, than most scholars will care to follow. One may accept his general attitude, and yet refuse to regard Hamlet’s immediate adoption of the pretense of madness as irreconcilable with his character in the finished play, or to regard Shakespeare’s treatment of Ophelia as merely a half-hearted working over of a part of the earlier play which he was hopeless of making convincing or really relevant. It would take more space than is here available to discuss profitably these and other tempting problems; but the suggestion of a difference of opinion should not obscure our belief that Professor Lewis has, in this rich and suggestive little volume, made an acute and solid contribution to one of the great problems of literature, a contribution that can be enjoyed by the ordinary educated reader as well as by the specialist.

But let us hope that the unsuspecting reader will not fall into the hands of the author of “a brief for the defendant” in the case of The Critics versus Shakspere.5 This author, presumably a lawyer, is an idolatrous admirer of Shakespeare, who, besides his favorite author, has read a considerable number of commentaries. He has not, however, gained any idea of their relative authority, or of the advance of scholarship which has in many cases made the opinions of earlier critics, however estimable in their day, worthless as evidence now. He has finally stumbled upon Professor Wendell’s William Shakspere and Professor Thorndike’s dissertation on the Influence of Beaumont and Fletcher on Shakspere, and lashes himself into fury over what he supposes to be the assaults of these writers upon the object of his worship. The crimes which he attacks are in fact just such historical studies as have prepared the way for Professor Lewis’s book on Hamlet, and it is hardly necessary here to explain the value of such investigation. Professor Wendell’s phrase, “ economy of invention,” expresses admirably a fact about Shakespeare that is recognized today by all competent scholars, and it is a pity that Mr. Smith should work himself up to the point of publication before he reflects that it is no insult to Shakespeare to try to understand his methods of work.

The trouble seems to be caused by Mr. Smith’s inability to read accurately, and so to quote fairly, the critics he opposes. When he says that Wendell and Thorndike state that Shakespeare’s “ comedies are but adaptations from Greene or Boccaccio,” that “ Cymbeline is but an imitation of Philaster,” he is guilty of misrepresentation; and the method is by the insertion of the “ but ” which I have italicized, and which, we are willing to believe, he was unconscious of inserting. Till a critic gets beyond slips like this, he can hardly hope to command attention.

On a very different scale from these treatments of special points is the massive work of Professor Schelling.6 Through his own publications on the Elizabethan lyric, on Gascoigne, Jonson, and others, and through the work of his students at the University of Pennsylvania, Professor Schelling had already earned an enviable reputation as an authority on this period, and the two volumes now before us are the crowning result of many years of absorption in the richest portion of English literature. The book purports to be an exhaustive history of the English drama from the accession of Elizabeth in 1558 to the closing of the theatres in 1642, with introductory chapters on the mediæval drama; and it is completed with a bibliographical essay, a list of plays, and an admirable index. These appendices, apart from the value of the text, make the book something for which all students of the drama will be grateful.

It is hard to overestimate the labor involved in such a work as this. The firsthand study of some eight hundred plays is but a part of the task; for the mass of criticism and controversy on these dramas is now beyond the power of man to measure. Of the thoroughness with which Professor Schelling has read the documents themselves, one has only to turn to his book itself to be convinced; this was a possibility, and it has been fulfilled with honesty and keen judgment. An exhaustive reading of the comment is neither possible nor profitable; on the whole, Professor Schelling has covered with success the part of it which is important. Here and there he seems to have failed to get the whole bearing of a critic’s argument; here and there opinions will differ as to his choice of sides, as when he follows Fleay and Penniman rather than Small and Malory, in the discussion of the war of the theatres, or when he stumbles upon inferior authorities in such a case as that of George Buchanan, thereby missing the political significance of the plays of the great Scottish humanist. Further, one remarks at times an unfortunate lack of explicitness in the footnotes. It is frequently not possible to infer whether the book mentioned in the note is cited as source or corroboration, or as a reference to an opinion contrary to that expressed in the text. This vagueness does injustice sometimes to Professor Schelling, sometimes to the author cited; though it is clear, from the generosity in acknowledgment shown throughout, that such a fault as the second is the last thing Professor Schelling would consciously commit.

Turning from these details to the body of the treatise, we are interested first of all in the novel method. Professor Schelling has sought “ to relate not only those facts concerning the drama of this period which are usually comprehended under the term history, but likewise to determine the development of species among dramatic compositions within the period; to ascertain, as nearly as possible, the character of each play considered, and refer it to its type; to establish its relations to what had preceded and to what was to follow; and definitely to learn when a given dramatic species appeared, how long it continued, and when it was superseded by other forms.”

If it is asked what the present volumes accomplish that is not already done, say, in Professor A. W. Ward’s History of English Dramatic Literature, the answer is here. Ward, like other previous historians of the period, follows a chronological and biographical method. The study of separate dramatic species receives only slight incidental attention from him, and has elsewhere been pursued only in one or two detached volumes such as Professor Schelling’s own volume on the Chronicle Play, and more recently in Professor Thorndike’s masterly treatment of Tragedy. Now Professor Schelling has attempted the mapping out of the whole field of Elizabethan dramatic production according to this method, and the result is interesting in the extreme. About the value of the method there can, I think, be no question. Only by such recognition and classifying of types can the essential nature and historical explanation of many a drama be made to stand out. It was really by the previous study of the tragedy of revenge that Professor Lewis’s contribution to the interpretation of Hamlet was made possible. Again, the influence of foreign literatures, as well as of contemporaries at home, is much more easily and more accurately perceived by this than by the biographical method. It is the characteristic weapon of the comparative study of literature, and comparative study is the method of the immediate future.

But the difficulties and the dangers of this study by types are undeniably great. Such terms as “ species ” call to mind biological classifications which raise expectations doomed to disappointment. For in the field of literature neither logical nor biological precision in classification can be achieved, since hybrids are almost the rule and pure specimens the exception. The value of the result is not to be found in any final pigeon-holing of all literary products; but in supplying a terminology for the various elements found in combination in most, in thus furthering intelligible analyses, in bringing out unsuspected relations, in suggesting new points of view, in defining types to which existing specimens are approximations. Not only the same author, but the same book, must necessarily appear again and again in different connections. As You Like It, for example, might be found under such various discussions as those on romantic comedy, pastoral drama, and Robin Hood plays; and each classification would be justified. The loss involved in such scattering need not be denied, but it should be remembered that a loss equally great is involved in the older biographical method, when the history, say of pastoral drama, must be searched for through a score of chapters on different authors. It is manifest, too, that no universal agreement as to this classification by types can be expected. There will always be difference of opinion about which of several characteristics in a given work is predominant, and, in the logical sense, “ specific.” The discussion of such questions only sharpens critical perception, and agreement is comparatively unimportant. The recognition and definition of the elements is the valuable thing, and that will become clearer and clearer. He is the best critic, said old Puttenham, who can discern most differences.

This general discussion of method has seemed necessary in order to bring out the fact that a difference of opinion about the wisdom of this or that bit of classification does not imply that, if another division is preferred by the critic, the one adopted by the author is valueless. Thus it must be confessed that a first reading of Professor Schelling’s Table of Contents is bewildering. We have twenty chapters with different titles, sixteen of which seem to indicate independent species without subordination. It seems as if, even at the risk of apparent pedantry, a more obvious scheme of division and subdivision would have been preferable for the sake of clearness. Again, many would have preferred a broader recognition of the distinction between comedy and tragedy, which tends to be obscured in such chapters as those on the “ New Romantic Drama.” Subject-matter is often not to be ignored in classification according to species; but criteria drawn from formal differences are to be preferred when they are available.

In such a division as “ Historical Drama on Foreign Themes ” it would seem as if a somewhat superficial difference in subject-matter had been magnified out of proportion in being made a specific characteristic. As the study of the Elizabethan drama proceeds, such questions will doubtless be threshed out, and it is easy to say that if Professor Schelling had waited longer, further special studies would have supplied material that would have benefited his work. But much is gained, even for such further studies, by this bold attempt to map out the entire field along new lines. The very vagueness and lack of definition which appear here and there are of value in drawing the attention of scholars to those parts of the field which especially invite research.

Meanwhile, it must be admitted that the work as we have it abundantly justifies itself. The originality of Professor Schelling’s volumes is not exhausted when we have discussed the novelty of its plan. The critical treatment of the individual plays as works of art is perhaps as distinguished a feature as the contributions to the scientific investigation of literary history and theory; it is conducted with sanity, acuteness, and much enthusiastic appreciation, and it is expressed in a style which often rises to beauty and which, throughout, resists with wonderful vitality the tendency to become jaded that so easily appears in literary histories on a large scale. The work as a whole is assuredly one to bring credit to American scholarship both at home and abroad.

The “ new Swinburne ” whom his publishers announce as revealed in his latest volume of criticism, is not easily discovered by any one familiar with the veteran poet’s previous utterances upon the Elizabethan drama. In the nine essays on Marlowe, Webster, Dekker, Marston, Middleton, Rowley, Heywood, Chapman, and Tourneur, which he has gathered into a volume under the title of The Age of Shakespeare,7 we find little more than a continuation of the streams of turgid eloquence which he poured forth in his earlier monographs on Shakespeare, Jonson,and Chapman. The virtues and the vices are those to which we have become accustomed in what we call Swinburne’s critical writings, more to distinguish them from his creative work than because they are in any ordinary sense critical. For his temper is too ebullient for the processes of patient discernment and impartial balancing with which criticism is supposed to be concerned; his mood is commonly too violently partisan.

The method which he here as elsewhere employs is simple enough. The Elizabethan dramatists seem to be conceived by him as a school divided into classes. The head boy in almost all subjects is admitted to be Shakespeare; and the bulk of the book consists of an attempt to create a series of classes in which the subjects of the several essays may in turn occupy the seat next to the head boy. Thus, Shakespeare excepted, Marlowe is first in the sublime, Webster in pure tragedy, and so forth. When a dramatist cannot be placed second, he is still rated in terms that recall the schoolroom. Tom Dekker is really a boy of much talent, if only he would take himself and his work seriously. John Marston can write as great things as any one, if only he would not spoil them the next moment.

This conception of criticism as a perpetual ranking in order of merit accounts for two of the most obtrusive elements of Mr. Swinburne’s style — the constant striving after unique superlatives, and the surplusage of adjectives. It is these characteristics that make his prose, sprinkled though it is with brilliant and wonderful things, so shrill and highpitched as to tire the ear, and so noisy that it is often hard to hear what he is saying. But one cannot at once describe and illustrate his way of writing better than he himself has unconsciously done in the following passage on Marston : —

“ A vehement and resolute desire to give weight to every line and emphasis to every phrase has too often misled him into such brakes and jungles of crabbed and convulsive bombast, of stiff and tortuous exuberance, that the reader in struggling through some of the scenes and speeches feels as though he were compelled to push his way through a cactus hedge: the hot and heavy blossoms of rhetoric blaze and glare out of a thickset fence of jagged barbarisms and exotic monstrosities of metaphor. The straining and sputtering declamation of narrative and outcry scarcely succeeds in expressing through a dozen quaint and farfetched words or phrases what two or three of the simplest would easily and amply have sufficed to convey. But when the poet is content to deliver his message like a man of the world, we discover with mingled satisfaction, astonishment, and irritation that he can write when he pleases in a style of the purest and noblest simplicity.”

Of the content of these critiques it is hard to give any summary account. Their value lies chiefly in a number of obiter dicta, often very keen and very illuminating; but these, while they might be extracted, could not be condensed. It is interesting to note his detection of hitherto unnoted influences of several of the dramatists on Milton; to compare his earlier praise of Byron’s “ sincerity and strength ” with his condemnation of him now in such phrases as “ blatant and flatulent ineptitude,” or “ a quack less impudent but not less transparent than the less inspired and more inflated ventriloquist of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage ; ” to read his recantation of what he now regards as the heresy that Marlowe lacks humor. These things sometimes interest and sometimes amuse, but they seldom convince, and they usually jar.

It is not a pleasant thing to see a man whom we would fain reverence for his achievement, still continuing to display in his old age the rancor and contempt that have so long disfigured his prose, still unable to differ without insult, or to talk of an opponent or a fallen idol without what he himself, with characteristic taste, calls “ emetic emotions.”

  1. The Tragedy of Richard the Third, in A New Variorum Edition of Shakespeare. Edited by H. H. FURNESS, Jr. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott Co. 1908.
  2. The Heart of Hamlet’s Mystery. Translated from the German of Karl Werder. By ELIZABETH WILDER, with Introduction by W. J. ROLFS. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons. 1907.
  3. A Review of Hamlet. By GEORGE HENRY MILES. New edition. New York : Longmans, Green & Co. 1907.
  4. The Genesis of Hamlet. By CHARLTON M. LEWIS, Emily Sanford Professor of English Literature in Yale University. New York : Henry Holt & Co. 1907.
  5. The Critics versus Shakspere : A Brief for the Defendant. By FRANCIS A. SMITH. New York: The Knickerbocker Press. 1907.
  6. Elizabethan Drama, 1558-1642. By FELIX E. SCHELLING, Professor in the University of Pennsylvania. 2 vols. Boston and New York : Houghton Mifflin Co. 1908.
  7. The Age of Shakespeare. By ALGERNON CHARLES SWINBURNE. New York and London: Harper & Bros. 1908.