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The Novel and English Prose Style
Prose Flows in Two Currents
bethan novel. It was the child of Italy; it was from first to last clothed in peculiar and fantastic literary forms; yet it marks a definite stage in the evolution of English prose, and it is the foundation of the modern English novel. It is impossible to understand the age without a study of it. Grotesque as it often was in style and sentiment, it nevertheless refined both the language and the manners of the people. From first to last it was used as a vehicle for moral instruction: Lyly's first aim was to give wise and philosophic advice; Sidney, like Spenser, would seek “ to fashion a gentleman or noble person in vertuous and gentle discipline,” and even Nash, the jolly roisterer of the London inns, would show in vivid colors the evil side of life that the innocent might avoid it. The influence of the novel upon the language was certainly great. It was the school in which English prose received its earliest laws and its first shaping touch. For the first time it was realized that prose was as susceptible of artistic finish as poetry. It was but a step from the elaborate and highly ornate prose of Sidney to the polished and stately periods of Hooker and the perfect creations of the great prose masters.
The strong and homely old native prose all through the period kept on parallel with the new-fangled product. There seemed in the minds of writers to be a distinct line drawn between prose written to please and that written to instruct. From the same pen would come work that was stiff and florid, and work that was rude and simple, and to compare the two was like setting the ruffled and perfumed courtier beside the rude and simple peasant. It was an era of pamphlets. The Marprelate controversy was waged fiercely during a part of the time that the
The Marprelate Controversy
Spirited Prose Narratives
novel was evolving, and many of the writers, even Lyly and Nash, were connected with it. But the war of pamphlets added little to English literature. In those fierce tracts, hot with controversy, prose reverted largely to its native type—homely, unfinished, often obscure, yet at times exceedingly forcible and picturesque.
A few spirited records of travel there were (Hakluyt's Voyages, for instance, and Raleigh's Last Fight of the Revenge), a few notable translations, and several famous chronicles, but they throw no new light upon the development of the age, and they add little that is new toward an appreciation of the tendencies of English prose.
References. For a full consideration of the Marprelate controversy the student should consult Arber, The Martin Marprelate Controversy; the prose of the pamphlets is carefully considered in Saintsbury, Elizabethan Litera. ture. Raleigh's The Last Fight of the Revenge is among Arber's Reprints. Holinshed's Chronicles and North's Plutarch are so closely connected with Shakespeare's work that they can be easily studied, large parts of them being reproduced in Morley's edition of Shakespeare and Furness' Variorum. They may also be found in Hazlet, Shakespeare's Library.
THE TRANSITION TO SHAKESPEARE
Authorities. The same as on page 200 above; Gosson, School of Abuse, Ed. Arber; The Works of George Peele, Ed. Bullen, 2 vols. ; also Ed. Dyce; Marlowe, Doctor Faustus; Greene, History of Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay, Ed. Ward (Clarendon Press); Dramatic Works of Robert Greene, Ed. Dyce; Manly, Specimens of the Pre-Shakespearian Drama, Vol. ii. (Athenæum Press).
In 1579, at the opening of the creative era, English literature was flowing in two distinct channels. The Italian influence in its various phases had resulted in an artificial product that seems at first sight to dominate the whole period. The poems of Spenser, who was both “the morning and the evening" of the movement, the creations of Sidney and the lyrists, and the works of Lyly and the novelists are the most conspicuous productions of the pre-Shakespearian period, yet all of these authors wrote for an extremely limited audience. They touched only the fashionable and the cultured; the people knew nothing of their artistic creations. All out of sight there still flowed on the old popular literature,—the ballads and rude songs, the vigorous, homely prose of preacher and chronicler, and, above all, the crude but strong old native drama.
From the very first the stage had found a congenial home in England. The common people had greeted with enthusiasm every phase of the drama from its first religious beginnings down to its final secular form. All
Fondness of the People for the Native Drama The Popular Drama in 1579
through the Tudor century it had constantly grown in popularity until at length it became the chief diversion of all classes. The dramatic representation took the place of the old minstrelsy. The solitary singer, wandering from court to court or from hamlet to hamlet, was now represented by the strolling band of actors. Instead of the single reciter who, with voice and instrument, reproduced the stirring scene, there was now the group of reciters working in concert. Nor did their themes differ greatly from those of the old minstrels. There must be a moving story which the hearer must feel. If it be a tragedy, there must be a surfeit of slaughter; blood must flow as freely as in Beowulf. In some of the early tragedies the entire dramatis persona perish. Give me the man who will all others kill and last of all him. self!” cries one of Fletcher's characters. When there is comedy it must be broad and coarse: quarrels of fishwives; oaths and billingsgate; hard blows and torn hair. There is no attempt at dramatic art: the unities are undreamed of; kings and peasants jostle each other; comedy and tragedy are hopelessly mixed. There is no unity of plot, no unity of characterization. The play is a mere series of detached scenes in which the action is violent, and the spectator goes away surfeited with sensation. Such was the popular drama in 1579, ten years before the first work of Shakespeare.
The attempt to naturalize the classic drama founded upon Latin models and upon Aristotle we have already noted. The cultured class welcomed the innovation. Sidney as late as 1583 condemned the popular dramas
gross absurdities”; “ all their plays be neither tragedies nor right comedies, mingling kings with rigth
Failure of the Classic Forms
The Rise of the Theaters
clowns"; "faulty both in place and time, the two necessary companions of all corporal actions.” Scholars did their best to introduce the new form and to discourage the production of inartistic work. Between 1568 and 1580 fifty-two dramas were performed at court and, judging by their titles, which are all that remain of them, they were prevailingly of the classic type. But despite the efforts of the classicists the native romantic drama increased constantly in popularity.
The Rise of the Theaters. In 1576 the Corporation of London, believing that the popular stage was an enemy to morality, and also that the coming and going of wandering bands of players increased the danger of contagion in time of plague, ordered that no theatrical performances should be given within the city limits. The action marks an era in the history of the English drama; it turned the eyes of all London toward the popular stage, and it precipitated a movement that was of the highest importance. A spirited contest arose in which all the city was involved. Lodge wrote a Defense of Stage Plays; Gosson put forth his School of Abuse, "conteining a pleasaunt invective against Poets, Pipers, Plaiers, Jesters, and such like Caterpillers of a commonwealth”; and Sidney replied in his noble Defense of Poesy, in the course of which he defended the drama in its classic form. The players, profiting by the publicity thus thrust upon them, boldly continued their performances, avoiding the law by setting up regular playhouses just outside the city bounds. Thus began the permanent theater; thus ended the period of strolling players, of performances in the courtyards of inns, of private companies in the employ of noblemen. In 1576 and in the years immediately following no less than